Rights of children overlooked during coronavirus emergency

An image of a playing piece in a game jumping over another playing piece, beside a quote from Abigail (15) that reads: "Life-changing decisions being made during coronavirus have felt like playing a game. Every time it should be our turn, someone skips over us and we end up left behind and forgotten."

The coronavirus emergency has demonstrated how easily children are left with no voice, even as governments struggle to deliver policy aimed to benefit them, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said today.

The Commissioner, Bruce Adamson said that crucially, policy has been created that excludes the voices of those who are most affected.

There has been no direct input from children and young people into decisions around the cancellation of exams, for example, or the change to a new method of assessment. There is also no representation of children or young people on the Scottish Government’s Education Recovery Group.

As Scotland moves into the next phases of its response and starts to plan ahead, The Commissioner urged the Scottish Government to observe its commitment to include children and young people in decision making.

He said:

“The pandemic has revealed that we’ve not made as much progress on children’s rights as we would like to think in Scotland.

“Under pressure, too many of our systems and structures reverted to treating children as passive recipients of charity and welfare rather than active agents in their own lives and valued members of our communities.”

The Scottish Government hasn’t routinely assessed how law and policy around COVID-19 has affected children’s rights

International law requires that any interference with human rights be lawful, necessary and proportionate; this requires the Scottish Government to ensure its decisions are grounded in a rights-based approach.

However, during the pandemic the Scottish Government has not routinely assessed the impact of law and policy responses to Covid-19 on children.

The Commissioner said that at the heart of future decision-making should be a commitment by Scottish Government to carry out a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) on all legislation affecting children and young people.

“In the absence of a comprehensive approach to ensuring human rights compliance by the Scottish Government, my office commissioned an independent assessment of what the legal and policy response to the coronavirus pandemic means for children’s human rights in Scotland.

“This is the biggest children’s rights impact assessment on COVID-19 conducted anywhere in the world and it assembles an extraordinary amount of evidence and expert analysis from the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland.”

The report, which has already garnered significant international interest, covers nine themes including mental health, education, poverty and children in detention.

The Commissioner’s recommendations include:

  • monitoring and scrutiny of emergency powers and legislation, and
  • the rigorous collection and evaluation of data.

UNCRC Incorporation will protect children and young people in future emergencies

Stylised image of a shield with the Scottish flag on it alongside the text "Incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law is the best way to protect children in a future crisis."

The Commissioner said:

“Incorporation of the UNCRC is the most important legislative action we can take to protect the rights of children in Scotland.

“When the Scottish Government agreed to bring forward the legislation in November 2019, it said that every devolved body, every health board, every council and the Scottish Government itself would be legally obliged to make sure they respect children’s rights.

“Incorporation will provide a vital touchstone, including legal redress, to protect the rights of children and young people in Scotland especially when we’re faced with future emergencies.”

A lack of data means rights impacts can’t be assessed

Stylised image of question marks with viruses for dots, with the caption "It's not possible to know how emergency laws have hurt children at risk, because Government hasn't collected the data we need."

Mr Adamson also pointed out that the impact of emergency legislation – created at speed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic – on vulnerable groups of children, was impossible to properly assess due to serious gaps in data collection.

“The Scottish and UK Governments responded to the pandemic by enacting emergency legislation intended to protect public health; this also impacted significantly on a wide range of children’s human rights,” he said.

“Some of these measures temporarily overturned and/or bypassed human rights protections for children that had been long established in Scots law.

“What the pandemic has revealed is that across central and local government we have had inconsistent definitions of ‘vulnerable’; no collective data on the total numbers of children who are living in poverty, suffering food insecurity, been digitally excluded, deprived of their liberty in various settings, receiving mental health support services or needing additional support for learning.

“Without this data it is hard to see how children’s needs are being met, no matter how well-intentioned the legislation is.

Parliaments should be supported to hold governments to account

Stylised image of a weighing scale with the virus on one side and children on the other, with the caption "The UK and Scottish Parliaments must be allowed to weigh up if emergency laws are still worth it."

The Commissioner also wants to see an increase in the ability of MSPs and MPs to hold governments to account against their human rights obligations.

This should include:

  • strengthening the use of impact assessments,
  • regular human rights training for MSPs and MPs, and parliamentary staff, and
  • consideration of how children and young people can directly contribute to scrutiny.

Abigail McGill, 15, a member of the Commissioner’s Young Advisors Group which has been working extensively on COVID issues said:

“Life-changing decisions being made during coronavirus like exams being cancelled has felt like playing a game and every time it should be our turn, someone skips over us and we end up left behind and forgotten.”

“Feeling out of control with no say has made young people’s mental health worse. We need to be involved in key decisions about our lives and it is even more important when life still feels scary and unclear for us all.” 

Kay Tisdall, Professor of Childhood Policy at the University of Edinburgh  on behalf of the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland said:

“The independent CRIA presents a searching analysis of COVID-19 emergency measures. The measures were made to protect the rights to survival, development and health, with some positive impacts for children and their families. But the analysis shows too frequently a lack of attention to children’s best interests let alone ensuring recognition and support for children’s rights to privacy, information and participation.”

“We need to commit the resources – and take the time now in preparation for the next lockdown or the next crisis – to know about the diversity of children and particularly those children who are at most risk of human rights violations. We need to plan ahead to ensure that all children under 18 have their rights respected.”

Back to top