The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which is the most ratified United Nations Convention was ratified by the UK on 16th December 1991 and it subsequently came into force in the UK on 15th January 1992 (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights;
http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc-ratify.htm), being the major Convention making provisions for the protection of children’s rights. In the twenty years duration since the coming to force of the convention, a lot remains to be done in the implementation of children’s rights in the UK, both legislatively and practically. (Davey 2008). This means that a lot still needs to be done to help children in the UK know their rights as provided for by law and understand the practicality of those rights, and more importantly, to be able to take action if and when their rights are violated. Article 4 of the UNCRC lays the responsibility to members stated to ‘undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights’ in the Convention. However, the UNCRC has little effect in the UK as it has not been domesticated. The implication of this lack of domestication is that the UNCRC, whereas it is undebatably the most accepted and the most thorough and the most widely accepted child rights instrument, cannot be applied by judicial officers in handling matters concerning children and can only be mentioned in passing.
Statistics reveal that as at as at November 2011, 3.8 million children were living in poverty in the UK, with 1.6 million languishing in extreme conditions of poverty. In a duration of one year, a total of 11,800 preventable deaths of children occurred and of those, 47 were caused by abuse and neglect, while children affected by incarceration of their parents each year stood at160,000. In England and Wales alone, 6,033 children were reported to have been victims of rape, with 35% of the girl children affected being below 16 years old and 70% of the boys affected being under the age of 16 (Davey 2011).
Article 12 of the UNCRC provides that all children have a right to have their views given due weight in all matters affecting them, in accordance with their age and maturity. This goes beyond asking children for their views to actually listening and considering their views. In a survey conducted among children and young people in the UK, 64% said that they were involved in making decisions affecting them whereas 13% said they were not involved, an encouraging but still yet to be fully achieved development in implementation of children’s rights. In decisions relating to the family, only 51% of children said that upon separation of parents they were given a chance to choose the parent they wanted to live with, with 47% saying they were not involved in the decision of which parent they wanted to live with. Further, 31% of children from separated or divorced parents said that they were not given the choice to decide whether they wanted to maintain access with the parent they no longer lived with (Anderson 2000). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed disenchantment in its 2002 concluding observation at the poor state of implementation of Article 12 (UN Committee 2002), but this condition has not changed at all (CRAE 2011). In 2008, the UN Committee expressed displeasure at the laxity in the implementation of Article 12 which has barely been preserved in law and policy (UN Committee 2008). This is in spite of the numerous recommendations by previous UN Committee reports on the state of implementation of children’s rights as enshrined in the UNCRC. According to an education survey by CRAE, only 30% of children felt that their views were listened to, regardless of the existent of school councils meant for the involvement of children in decision making (Davey 2011). It was however encouraging that more children on primary schools felt that they were involved in decision making than those in secondary schools, giving them a sense of involvement as they are the most likely to feel that their views are not taken seriously because of their age.
Article 42 of the UNCRC lays an obligation on the governments of member states to widely disseminate information about children and young people’s economic, social, cultural, civic and political rights, including children and young people, as enshrined in the UNCRC. In a survey conducted by CRAE to establish how much children knew about the UNCRC, and subsequently about their rights, it was revealed that 33% of children and young people had not heard of the UNCRC. Whereas 58% said they knew of the convention, most of them knew very little about it, with only 34% of them claiming to know much, mostly those aged 11 and below (CRAE, 2011). Out of the number of children who had heard of the UNCRC, 82% stated that they had not acquired this information from schools. This is in spite of the recommendation by the UNCRC Committee to the UK government in 1995 and 2002 to take measures for adequate dissemination of information regarding the UNCRC to children in the UK in order to raise their awareness of their rights. In 2008, the UN Committee once more stressed this recommendation, stating the need for the incorporation of the UNCRC and its principles into the curriculum (UN Committee 2008).
Article 14 of the UNCRC provides that every child has the right to their own belief, and religion. Article 2 lays the duty on member states to ensure that all children enjoy their rights without discrimination irrespective of their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status (UNCRC 1989). In 2002, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raised the alarm that a plan of action to defend the rights of vulnerable children in the UK had not been developed, stating further that unequal enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, still existed for children with disabilities, children from poor families, Irish and Roma travelers children, refugee and asylum seekers, children of minority groups, children in the care system, detained children and children aged between 16 to 18 (UN Committee 2002). In 2008 when the UK government was notified to take a more practical approach in raising the awareness about vulnerable children as well as prevention of their discrimination, the same concerns were brought up (UN Committee 2008). This was confirmed in a survey conducted by CRAE to explore the discernment of discrimination against children, where 69% said that some children were shown less respect than others because of who they are in terms of skin colour, their living conditions, disability, refugee status and other circumstances.
Article 13 of the UNCRC provides that children have the right to receive and share information. However, the implementation of this provision is yet to be anywhere near achieved. A report by CRAE established that most of the children and young people lack trouble-free access to procedures of lodging complaints and are not empowered to evaluate the services rendered to them, apart from a few schools and children’s homes which provided children with comment forms for them to voice their opinions. Even in places where there were complaint procedures, they are not always utilized. There is a tendency by children to be reluctant to make complaints out of fear that that whoever handles the complaint will take the side of the teacher or of the ‘good student’. The other concern regarding complaints procedure is lack of confidentiality in the process where children are afraid of being harassed when they were discovered to have reported incidences where their rights were being infringed on, because the consequences of ,making the complaints would be worse that the problem being complained about. The children interviewed also said that there was nothing that would change even after making complaints when their rights were violated (CRAE 2011). In the same report, a child from a minority ethnic group expressed the concern that reporting incidents of abuse of child rights was a difficult thing, giving the examples of abuse by a teacher and a policeman; for a teacher you complain to the headmaster whereas for a policeman you report to a policeman of a higher rank. Often, the people to whom complaints are made take the side of their colleague in order to safeguard their reputation, therefore demoralizing the children from making complaints when their rights are violated. Refugee children and children seeking asylum have an even greater problem in accessing complaint procedures due to lack of legal representation and are constantly worried that they might not be able to access basic needs, leave alone complain about the quality of those services.