The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has just published its fifth review of the UK and has highlighted a raft of “serious concerns” about our nations treatment of vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people. An article which refers to the report is available here. Some of the recommendations will be a challenge for organisations that care for large numbers of children and young people in society. This is because the focus on a number of the recommendations challenges the notion that the state, the school or other agencies knows best. The recommendation that “that the Government repeals legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious worship at school.” will challenge certain faith groups and some parents. However surely it is time to recognise that we need to change the way in which we make decisions on behalf of our children and young people, even where this creates challenges for our conventional ideas. It is much more effective to do things with the consent of our children than force them to ‘learn’ against their wishes.
A much more important recommendation arises from the comment that “Many children feel that they are not listened to by their social workers, reviewing officers, paid carers, judges, personnel working with children in conflict with the law, or other professionals, in matters affecting them, including in family proceedings.” The report then refers to “the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration and recommends that the Government Ensure that this right is appropriately integrated and consistently interpreted and applied in all legislative, administrative and judicial proceedings and decisions as well as in all policies, programmes and projects that are relevant to and have an impact on children” The idea that children should treat the state and its officers as if it knows best, is desperately out of date, and has the potential to lead to poor outcomes in the lives of these children.
The report also focuses on the need for the views of children to be taken into account when policies are formed and calls on the Government to “Establish structures for the active and meaningful participation of children and give due weight to their views in designing laws, policies, programmes and services at the local and national level, including in relation to discrimination, violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, harmful practices, alternative care, sexual and reproductive education, leisure and play. Particular attention should be paid to involving younger children and children in vulnerable situations, such as children with disabilities;” Working in a meaningful way with young people is not easy for agencies used to making decisions based on expediency and speed in mind. However the potential to waste our resources on services that do not achieve the chosen outcome is huge. Getting it right first time is almost always cheaper than getting it wrong and then getting it right.
There is also a piece on the issue of the age of suffrage, something that our Parliament debated on their own, entirely without the involvement of children. It is unfortunate that this report was not available at the time of the vote a few months ago “The Committee notes increasing demands from children for a right to vote from the age of 16 years and that in Scotland, voting age has been extended to 16 and 17 year olds for local and Scottish Parliament elections. The Committee encourages the Government and devolved administrations to conduct consultations with children on the voting age. Should the voting age be lowered, the Committee recommends that the State party ensure that it is supported by active citizenship and human rights education in order to ensure early awareness of children that rights are to be exercised as part of citizenship, with autonomy and responsibility, and that the measure does not lend itself to undue influence.”
I believe this report needs to be responded to in a positive way, if it stirs up a bit of a fuss amongst churches and other religious bodies, that is a small price to pay if we end up with a more effective national focus on the needs and views of our children and young people from public sector bodies.