Dr Rhian Croke, Children’s Rights Strategic Litigation, Information and Policy Advocacy Lead Children’s Legal Centre Wales and Member of the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group
Background to the UNCRC Reporting Process 6th / 7th Cycle of Reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
The UK Government and devolved administrations must report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (the Committee) approximately every five years to explain how well they are protecting children’s rights. The Committee then makes what are referred to as ‘concluding observations’ which essentially lay out any children’s rights issues of concern and recommendations for the UK Government and devolved administrations and overseas territories to implement.
The new UK Concluding Observations were published by the Committee on the Rights of the Child on 2nd June 2023. These included almost 200 recommendations for the UK Government and devolved administrations to better comply with children’s rights obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The last time that the Committee reported on the UK’s record against the UNCRC was in 2016.
The Committee produced the Concluding Observations following a detailed reporting process, which includes receiving written and oral evidence from the UK Government and devolved administrations and the overseas territories. In September 2022, the Welsh Government published their own report focusing on what is happening in Wales in relation to children’s rights. A young people’s version of this report was also published.
Alternative evidence was also presented via written and oral evidence by the Children’s Commissioners, National Independent Human Rights Institutions, 4 UK Children’s Rights Alliances, UNICEF, child-led organisations and other NGOs.
In Wales, evidence was also gathered from across civil society by the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group and presented in a report to the Committee. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales also gave written evidence in a report with the Children’s and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland and Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland. Young people gave evidence via a report written by Young Wales.
These organisations are invited to present an alternative analysis of children’s experiences, as well as relevant and reliable information on areas which may be covered inaccurately or inadequately by government. The process is intended to support a constructive dialogue and to encourage governments to reflect on their areas of progress, but also to reflect on their shortcomings and present targets for future action to address children’s rights violations.
From the Committee’s evaluation of all of this evidence, they produce the Concluding Observations.
Areas of progress
In this reporting round, the Committee did report on some areas of progress, for example: action to outlaw child marriage in England and Wales; the ending of corporal punishment in Wales; and, the reduction of the voting age to 16 years in Wales. Throughout the observations, they do note some other areas of progress – usually in relation to regulations – but often note that they have not been effectively implemented.
Areas of concern
As indicated by the breadth of the 200 recommendations, the scale of non-compliance with children’s rights obligations across the UK State Party and devolved administrations must not be ignored – and must be taken seriously.
I have been involved in some shape or form in the last three reporting cycles. What is highly concerning is where the same concerns continue to be raised, and recommendations continue to be made, but nothing changes – or where there has even been regression on some issues. Equally worrying is where new violations or children’s rights issues of concern – that have never previously been reported on – have emerged in this reporting cycle, adding to a growing list of children’s rights issues.
The Committee identified serious concerns regarding persistent discrimination, levels of protection from abuse, the care system, child mental health, child poverty, asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children and the child justice system. Some of these children’s rights issues are in the control of the UK Government – but others are solely the responsibility of the Welsh Government. It is important to acknowledge that the recommendations are relevant to Wales; the Committee – in a review of all of the evidence – has identified issues of concern across the four nations. However, to learn more about the detail behind each observation, and how the particular issue in question has manifested itself in the Welsh context, I encourage you to read the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group report.
In an Annex (see below) to this blog, I have summarised the areas of concern and recommendations that have been included in the Concluding Observations. In bold print, you can see the thematic cluster and sub-issues of concern. In blue, I have referenced the number of the relevant Concluding Observation; this takes you to the relevant section of the Committee’s document.
The Concluding Observations may, to many, seem to be overwhelming and unachievable if read as a whole. However, in Wales, civil society is strong, and there are organisations that specialise in different elements of the Observations according to their policy thematic or children’s rights area of concern. I advise you to familiarise yourself with the ones that are relevant to your organisation and to use them in your evidence and advocacy to key decision-makers.
UK Government response
The UK Government has communicated that they ‘welcome the constructive challenge that was made by the Committee in Geneva and will take into consideration the Concluding Observations, including considering a Children’s Rights Action Plan’.
Welsh Government obligation to respond to the UK Concluding Observations 2023
The Welsh Government, under the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011, is obligated to respond to the Concluding Observations (see section 2 (4)).[i] They have also communicated that they will respond to the Concluding Observations in the 2023 Children’s Scheme Compliance Report, under the principle of ‘Accountability’, and have already done so recently in correspondence to the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group.
The Concluding Observations present a helpful and authoritative framework for action on children’s rights. Everyone: please use them to promote change for children. We are a nation that has expressed our commitment to children’s rights; it’s everybody’s responsibility to be advocating for the end of children’s rights violations – and for children’s rights to be respected, protected and fulfilled.
UK Concluding Observations 2023: a summary
- General Measures of Implementation (arts. 4, 42 and 44 (6)
Recommendations were made, once again, to fully incorporate the UNCRC (8f), to develop mandatory children’s rights impact assessments for legislation and policies (8e), to adopt comprehensive action plans for the implementation of the UNCRC that are sufficiently resourced (9a-b), the establishment of a Ministerial lead for children (10), and a child rights-based approach to budgeting (11a-e). They also recommended the strengthening of data collection with indicators to encompass all areas of the UNCRC (12a-e).
The Committee was also concerned that the roles of Children’s Commissioners (including the Children’s Commissioner for Wales) are still not fully independent of Government and compliant with the Paris Principles (13a-b). They noted, with concern, the low levels of knowledge of the UNCRC and recommended that there is systematic training for all professionals working with children (14 -b). Their recommendations did not only concern the State but were also targeted at ensuring accountability to children’s rights among the business sector (16a-b). They also rightly emphasised, yet again, the importance of child-friendly and independent complaints mechanisms across all sectors, legal representation and support for all children, and training for those who work in the child justice system on children’s rights and child-friendly procedures (17a-c).
- Definition of a Child (art.1)
The Committee was anxious to ensure that children – including those who are 16 and 17 years of age – are defined as children in law and receive protection; the Committee recommended a review of age-based legislation (18a-b)
- General Principles (arts. 2, 3, 6 and 12)
The Committee was deeply concerned about persistent discrimination, such as: through racism and bullying; against children in disadvantaged situations, including children who belong to minority groups and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children; insufficient progress in ensuring the protection of all children under 18 years of age against discrimination on the grounds of their age; and, the overrepresentation of children of Asian and African descent and Muslim, Roma, Gypsy and Traveller children in the criminal justice system as well as the large proportion of these groups of children who are living in poverty. They made a series of related recommendations (20a-f).
They were also concerned that the principle of the best interests of the child is not systematically applied in all matters affecting children and made a series of related recommendations (21a-c). They continued to express concerns relating to right to life, survival and development in relation to infant mortality rates, unexpected deaths in institutions and concerns about self-harm and suicide (22a-d). They expressed concern that children’s views are still not systematically taken into account in decisions affecting them and in national and local decision-making (23a -d).
- Civil rights and freedoms (arts. 7, 8 and 13 –17)
The Committee was deeply concerned that children and their families are deprived of their nationality without notice under the UK Nationality and Borders Act of 2022, adversely affecting the best interests of children and their right to a nationality (24a-b). They also reinforced the importance of the right to identity and that any decisions regarding systems of gender recognition for children need to be taken in close consultation with transgender children and in line with children’s rights (25). The Committee also urged the UK State party to guarantee the right of all children to freedom of expression and to practise their religion freely; they were concerned about the chilling effect of counter-terrorism charges (26a-e). They were also concerned at the introduction of the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Bill that have resulted in the restriction of a child’s right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly (27a-c); they asked that measures within the legislation be repealed.
The Committee communicated that they are still concerned about the use of unnecessary stop and search checks on children and that the majority of them are conducted on children belonging to ethic groups, breaching a child’s right to privacy; they made a number of related recommendations (28a-c). With regard to children accessing their right to appropriate information, the Committee noted, with appreciation, the efforts that have been made regarding digital inclusion during the pandemic – but also noted that the UK Online Safety Bill must be adopted to ensure that all law and policies in the digital environment protect children from harmful content and other online risks (29a–c).
- Violence against children (arts. 19, 24 (3), 28 (2), 34, 37 (a) and 39)
With regard to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Committee communicated that legislative measures must be taken to explicitly prohibit, without exception, the use of: (i) harmful devices, including spit hoods, plastic bullets and taser guns, attenuating energy projectiles and other electrical discharge weapons, against children; (ii) strip searches on children; and (iii) solitary confinement, isolation, seclusion and restraint as disciplinary measures in schools and alternative care and healthcare settings. They were also deeply concerned regarding the restraint of children and asked that it is used only as a measure of last resort, highlighting that there should be appropriate sanctions against perpetrators in alternative care and healthcare settings if children (particularly children with disabilities) are ill-treated or abused (30a-c).
With regard to corporal punishment, the Committee recommended monitoring the implementation of the impact of the 2022 legislation that prohibited it in Wales – as well as the strengthening of awareness-raising campaigns for parents, teachers and other professionals to promote non-violent and participatory forms of child-rearing (31b-c).
There were continued concerns regarding the prevalence of sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, gender-based violence and other forms of violence against children as well as about the currently insufficient measures to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice. They also emphasised the need to identify and support children who are at risk of violence at home as well as tackling the issue of inadequate resources being allocated to services for child victims. They made many related recommendations (33a-k).
There was also emphasis on the importance of preventing combat and gang-related violence and knife crime; a series of recommendations were presented to address this issue. (34a i-iv). Concerns were also expressed at the continuation of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, honour violence, conversion therapies and non-urgent and non-essential medical or surgical treatment of intersex children (35a-d).
- Family and alternative care (arts. 5, 9–11, 18 (1) and (2), 20, 21, 25 and 27 (4))
The Committee commended the UK State Party for its various childcare services – but continued to recommend that measures were strengthened to enable working parents and caregivers to balance their professional and family responsibilities. They also recommended that the eligibility criteria for the Flying Start initiative is expanded so as to ensure that all children in socio-economically disadvantaged situations have access to free childcare. They also referred to the importance of professionals being trained to identify and support young carers and to raise awareness of the national identification card system in Wales (36a-c).
With regard to children in the care system, the Committee was deeply concerned about the large number of children still in care, including in unregulated accommodation such as hotels. They were also concerned at the frequent transfers and the changes in social workers assigned to children. They were also concerned at the placement of children in situations of vulnerability, in secure and residential care homes, sometimes amounting to depriving children of their liberty. They commented on the insufficient services for children living in or leaving care. They made many recommendations (38a-h) in relation to these issues and concerns.
With regard to children whose parents are in prison, they recommended that the best interests of children are the primary consideration in all decisions and that children should be able to maintain personal relationships with their parents and have access to adequate services (39a-b).
- Children with disabilities (art 23).
Continued concerns were expressed regarding children with disabilities not having appropriate access to services or being discriminated against. The Committee made recommendations in terms of reviewing the specific impacts of welfare reform on families with disabled children, reducing the diagnostic waiting times, strengthening support for social integration, and children’s participation in decision making (40a-d).
- Basic health and welfare (arts. 6, 18 (3), 24, 26, 27 (1)–(3) and 33)
The Committee referred to General Comment No. 15 on child health, and requested that measures be strengthened to ensure the quality of child sensitive, and age appropriate paediatric and specialist health care services and children’s views are included in their development and implementation. They communicated the need for strategies to address health inequalities. They referred to the long waiting times faced by transgender and gender questioning children. They asked that measures be strengthened to address child malnutrition, food insecurity, growing trends in obesity. They requested that efforts are continued to promote breastfeeding (41a-f).
They were deeply concerned about the long waiting times for children seeking access to mental health services as well as the large number of children with mental health issues, learning disabilities and autism placed in detention and adult psychiatric wards under the Mental Health Act 1983. They made a number of strong recommendations (43a-g).
With regards to adolescent health, they made recommendations in relation to comprehensive age appropriate and evidence-based education, on sexual and reproductive health in school curricula being made mandatory, to strengthen measures to provide adolescents with information to prevent substance misuse, and to ensure the availability of accessible community-based drug dependence services (44a-d)
With regards to environmental health, they welcomed the commitment to bring all greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050 but were concerned about the large number of children living in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution, they also noted insufficient measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and made a number of recommendations (45a-f).
With regards to Standard of living they were deeply concerned at the large number of children living in poverty, of food insecurity and homelessness. They recommended that policies needed to be strengthened with clear targets, and measurable indicators and robust monitoring and accountability systems (46a-d).
- Education, leisure and cultural activities (arts. 28–31)
The Committee expressed continued concern regarding inequalities in educational attainment and outcomes for children in disadvantaged situations and said that measures must be strengthened to support these children. They referred to ensuring there is inclusive education in mainstream school for all children with disabilities. They said that efforts must be continued to ensure all children have access to adequate and affordable early childhood education. They are concerned that the use of exclusions is monitored and prohibited in primary school and only used in secondary schools as a measure of last resort. They also stated that children should be ensured the right to appeal their exclusion and be offered legal advice and representation.
They also communicated that the state party must increase their efforts to eliminate discrimination and bullying. They referred to developing guidance for the inclusion of trans and gender questioning children in schools. They also referred to removing discriminatory language from all textbooks and curricula and that children’s rights must be mandatory to school curricula. They communicated that the use of restraint and seclusion must be prohibited in all educational settings (47a-k).
With regards to rest, play and leisure they were concerned that measures were taken to ensure all children have access to safe public outdoor play spaces and children are involved in decisions regarding urban planning processes, including public transportation and in the development of spaces for children to play (48a- d).
- Special protection measures (arts. 22, 30, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37 (b)–(d) and 38–40)
Asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children
The Committee communicated strongly their concerns regarding the UK Nationality and Borders Act 2022, in relation to the rights of asylum and family reunification, the criminalisation on arrival without prior permission and the introduction of a two-tiered system for identifying refugee children and asked that it is amended.
They were also deeply concerned regarding the impact on children of the Illegal Migration Bill. They said the UK Government must urgently amend the Illegal Migration Bill that would have the effect of violating children’s rights under the UNCRC and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and to bring it in line with international human rights law to ensure children’s rights to nationality, to seek asylum and to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration and to prevent their prolonged detention and removal.
They were also concerned at the persistent use of unreliable methods for determining a child’s age, the large number of children whose age has been disputed and the lack of data on the number of asylum-seekers claiming to be children who have been assessed and sometimes detained as adults by immigration officials. Continued concerns regarding young asylum seekers, regarding access to their rights and services and failure to implement a guardianship scheme for vulnerable young asylum seekers. They made a number of strong recommendations (49-50).
Administration of Child Justice
The Committee were deeply concerned regarding the ‘draconian and punitive’ nature of the child justice system in the UK and the limited progress in implementing the Committee’s previous recommendations to bring the child justice system in line with the UNCRC. They were concerned at the continued low minimum age of criminal responsibility, children not treated as children, children on remand kept in custody overnight, the continued use of solitary confinement, overrepresentation of children of ethnic minority groups in detention, the cases of violence committed by staff in the child justice system. They made strong recommendations (54a-f).[ii]
[i] The Welsh Ministers must, within six months of the Committee making any suggestion or general recommendation under article 45(d) based on a UK report, consider whether to revise or remake the scheme in the light of that suggestion or recommendation.
[ii] This is just intended to be a helpful summary; for further detail, please read the Committee’s observations in relation to the Optional Protocols and the entirety of the Observations relating to all children’s rights issues.