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Children: Rights

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they have made towards meeting the 78 recommendations made in 2002 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding children’s rights in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in July 2007 the United Kingdom submitted a report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child setting out in detail progress against each of the recommendations made in 2002. The report highlights the good progress that the UK Government have made and reflects our commitment to improving the well-being of children and young people. It is available in the House Library.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s review of Article 22 in relation to children detained with families seeking asylum, but will they extend it to include Article 40, which is concerned with the well-being of the child in custody? When will the Government ratify the protocol on the sale and prostitution of children which they initialled in 2001? Indeed, why not sign up forthwith to the UN convention, put it into domestic law, and make it of practical worth for children in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. In underlining the fact that we will be reviewing our reservation against Article 22—an announcement made in early January—I can tell my noble friend that a ministerial statement will be made today launching a public consultation on that review. As for Article 40, we are currently exploring alternatives to custody for children and looking at more appropriate ways of dealing with low levels of offending. We want to improve education in custody and support young people when they leave custody. On the optional protocol that my noble friend mentioned, we have signed it, but he is right that we have not yet ratified it. We are checking the initiatives and the legislation which has come on to the statute book since we signed six years ago and will see if we are now eligible to ratify it.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the tripling of the number of women held in custody over the past 10 years, the increase in the number of children held in custody to 3,000—to twice the number of children held in custody in France and Germany combined—and the closure of local authority secure units tally with the right of the child to contact with its parents? Will she encourage her colleagues to accept not only the recommendations of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, that there should be a women’s justice commissioner to drive forward policy in this area, but that local custodial centres should replace prison for women so that children can have contact with their parents?

My Lords, as the noble Earl will know, we have a debate today on the very issue of women in custody—an issue on which my noble friend Lady Corston has done a great deal of work. On children in custody, as I said to my noble friend Lord Harrison, we are looking very carefully at everything that we can do to ensure that our duty of care to these children is the best that it can possibly be. We are simplifying sentence structure, looking at alternatives to custody and at education in custody, and particularly—I know the noble Earl will welcome this—supporting young offenders once they leave custody.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that at the same time as we emphasise the rights of these young children in custody and their rights when they are released from it, it is equally important that we ensure that those young children understand their responsibilities? With the rights of the child, there are concomitant responsibilities that need to be understood as part of the education programme that she was talking about.

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. The Children’s Plan, which was announced in December, looks very much at our vision for children holistically—not only at their education but also at the rights and responsibilities of all our children.

My Lords, will the Minister say what the Government are doing to educate our children, and indeed the general public, about what the convention means to them? At the very least, will the Government encourage local authorities to take up UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools programme—I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF—which teaches children what their rights are and what their responsibilities are to other children and adults?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right; it is very important that the public at large, and children in particular, are made very much aware of their rights under the UN convention—one of the most popular conventions that there has ever been. We have a number of programmes on raising awareness, as the noble Baroness will know. We are committed to operating a number of web-based portals, enabling children and adults to access information about the convention. For parents and young people, Directgov has a popular section on it. For children under 10, DirectgovKids has a section on it. We also have specific training on the convention for all those who work with children.

My Lords, will the Minister please tell us whether the restraint techniques that are still used on children in custody in this country are any nearer to being dispensed with, as they seem clearly to contravene the convention?

My Lords, I am told that there is at present a review of restraint. The restraint issue has arisen in the past year because of the clarification of restraint that was made some 12 months ago, but there is a review.