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UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Volume 807: debated on Monday 16 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into legislation.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to protecting and promoting children’s rights. Our existing domestic legislation already protects children’s rights. We have acted to strengthen and enhance legislation, including through the Children Acts 1989 and 2004, secondary legislation and statutory guidance to promote children’s welfare. It is not usual practice in the UK for international treaties to be incorporated into domestic law, and we therefore do not have plans to incorporate the UNCRC into legislation.

My Lords, last year, Ministers stated that the promotion of children’s rights is essential and promised to redouble their commitments to strengthening protection for children. We have been consistently criticised by the Committee of Ministers for deficiencies in our implementation of the UNCRC. Wales has now committed to incorporate the convention into legislation; Scotland is working on this. What is England doing? Statements of intent are not enough.

My Lords, since the UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, successive Governments have not incorporated it directly into domestic law. However, breaches of that convention can form the basis of actions in the domestic courts, and we have taken seriously any criticisms from the UN in relation to protecting children’s rights here in the UK.

My Lords, in the Second Reading debate on the CHIS Bill, the Government made it quite clear that in order to catch criminals and terrorists, they will continue to permit the use of children in covert and, yes, even criminal activities. This is despite the acknowledged danger to their mental and physical well-being, even with the promised safeguards. Is the reason why the Government will not incorporate the convention and make the well-being of the child paramount that they would have to stop the use of children in those activities?

My Lords, I have outlined the usual practice, which is why this convention is not incorporated directly into domestic law. As the noble Lord outlined, there are safeguards in relation to juveniles in those circumstances. We are known throughout the world as having one of the best systems to protect the rights of children in law.

Last week, the Scottish Government put an end to the legal defence of justifiable assault, which could be used by those committing violence against children. Will the UK Government follow suit and put an end to the equivalent defence of reasonable chastisement, which is against the convention and confusing to parents, and which discriminates against some children?

My Lords, the Government of course do not condone any violence against children and have clear laws and policies to deal with it. We have one of the best children’s social care systems in the world. There are no plans to legislate to remove this defence in England.

My Lords, since 1995, when more than 800 children gathered in the UK for the first United Nations pilgrims’ conference on the environment, the United Nations’ willingness to listen to children’s voices has greatly declined. Will my noble friend encourage the UN and our COP 26 team to change this and listen to children’s voices at scale next year?

My Lords, the voices of children domestically and on international platforms are course important—we can look at the role models of Malala and Greta Thunberg in this regard. We are working closely with the Italian Government, our partners, on the pre-COP youth event in Milan, where we will bring together 400 youth delegates. The Cabinet Office has already set up a dedicated youth engagement team responsible for co-ordinating our strategy to ensure that youth voices are heard at COP 26 and in its legacy.

My Lords, while I continue to hope for a full and direct incorporation of the CRC into domestic law, will the Government now make statutory provision for school holiday meals and well-being activities for children in need? Given the forthcoming spending review, will the Government, as promised in 2018, commit the total income from the sugary drink tax to a healthy school food fund?

My Lords, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Government have spent more than £340 million on food vouchers for those who needed free school meals while schools were closed. There has also been the recent announcement of £170 million for the Covid winter grant scheme, and 80% of that fund is reserved for food and bills for the most disadvantaged families. The money is to be distributed by local councils, not schools.

My Lords, I have to say that the Conservatives’ commitment to children’s rights is very much open to question, not least since 2018, when the post of Minister for Children and Families was downgraded from Minister of State to Under-Secretary level. The Government have refused to introduce a statutory obligation to conduct children’s rights impact assessments on all new legislation, despite being called on to do so by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2016 and the Government-appointed Children’s Commissioner in 2019. This Friday is UNICEF’s World Children’s Day. Would that not be a suitable occasion for the Government to announce a change of heart?

My Lords, as I outlined, the UK Government take seriously the input from the United Nations. Children’s rights impact assessments have been devised in accordance with the recommendation in 2016 and are valuable in enabling civil servants—who have also undergone training—to consider children’s rights in policy and legislation. So the recommendation has been enacted, but it will not be put on a statutory basis. We have taken other measures that were advised, such as updating in 2018 the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children.

My Lords, the Civil Service training on children’s rights that was introduced in England in 2018, to which the Minister has just alluded, was a welcome step but was not mandatory. Can she say how many civil servants have now completed the training and whether it is available in all departments, and is the Department for Education actively monitoring the take-up of the training and its effectiveness?

My Lords, the training was one of the recommendations from 2016. I will have to write to the noble Baroness on her specific questions.

Regarding the voice of children and young people, if Article 12 had been in law, what might their input have been on their own situation in schools, universities and the like through the pandemic?

As I outlined with regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are protections in domestic law, and we have protected children’s right to education. Our schools, unlike those in many countries, were open to vulnerable children during the pandemic, and I am pleased to say that 83% of children who were in contact with a social worker were in school as of 5 November. Moreover, by the time delivery is complete, over 500,000 laptops will have been delivered to enable disadvantaged and other children to access education.

My Lords, at Second Reading of the CHIS Bill there was great unease and unhappiness at the seeming lack of protection for children who are used as CHIS agents. Will my noble friend explain, in view of these concerns, what special protections the Government envisage, as the Bill proceeds, for children in these circumstances?

My Lords, there are safeguards, as I have outlined, but I will have to write to my noble friend on the specific issue of protection. We have invested substantially in relation to children who are vulnerable to becoming victims of county lines crime, but I will have to come back to my noble friend on her specific question about covert human intelligence sources.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the 5Rights Foundation. During the passage of the Data Protection Act 2018 this House introduced an amendment to create a data protection regime for children which specifically bound the legislation to the UNCRC. This provided an impenetrable barrier from what was to become a co-ordinated attack of global tech companies trying to water down the protections. It was impenetrable because government regulators and officials were bound by the convention being part of the legislation. Does the Minister accept that spoken assurances from government would not in this case have protected children to the same degree, and therefore that that explains the reluctance of Her Majesty’s Government to incorporate the protections of the UNCRC as a norm?

My Lords, the Government’s position is that the protections afforded by the UN convention are already present in domestic law. Specifically on the Online Harms White Paper, there will be a response later this year, and we plan to legislate to introduce a new duty of care on companies which will be overseen by an independent regulator. Protecting children is at the heart of what we are seeking to do in that regard.