Children are people too— their rights should be in law

25 September 2018

Tonight, Commissioner Bruce Adamson’s giving the first ever Rhodri Morgan Memorial Lecture at the Senedd, the National Assembly for Wales.

Rhodri Morgan was the Welsh First Minister from 2000 to 2009, and a true champion of children’s human rights. In 2001, he led Wales to establish the first Children’s Commissioner in the UK.

In the chamber of the National Assembly for Wales, he once said that the people are his boss— he worked for them. We know that through the democratic process the people get the chance to say when they don’t want elected members to represent them anymore. But children and young people don’t get that chance, as they don’t have the democratic power adults do.

Redressing the balance

So in his speech Bruce will stress that children’s human rights can be about addressing that imbalance. Because children don’t get the same sort of say in society as adults do, it’s easy to forget that they are active members of it. A rights-based approach combats this by placing children and young people as rights-holders first, rather than as passive recipients of care.

And that’s important, because there are ways that children are being failed as people now.

Issues affecting children and young people today

Across the whole of the UK, 4.1 million children now live in poverty. That translates to 9 pupils in an average classroom of 30. It’s more than an outrage: it’s the single biggest human rights issue facing children in the UK today.

And although – as part of the Council of Europe – the UK will remain within the European Court of Human Rights when it leaves the European Union, many legal instruments that ensure children’s human rights are protected, respected and fulfilled will no longer apply.

In this context it’s vital to affirm that human rights aren’t compromised by excuses in times of austerity.

And it’s vital to make sure that these rights are incorporated into our country’s law— so they must be considered at all times and can be upheld in our courts if they ever aren’t.

Steps towards incorporation in Scotland and Wales

Since devolution, Scotland and Wales have taken some steps towards putting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into law.

Wales

In 2004, the Welsh government formally adopted the UNCRC as a basis for policy making for children and young people.

In 2011, it went further, when the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure was passed by the National Assembly for Wales.

This requires Welsh Ministers to have due regard to specific Convention provisions when they exercise their functions, and to do this with rigour and an open mind.

And they have to set out how to do this through what’s called a children’s scheme: a report created after public consultation, including with children and young people and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

The 2011 law – known as the Welsh Measure – is often held up as a devolved model on children’s human rights, in the UK and beyond. And there is much to be proud of in it. But it still doesn’t provide a way to take action when UNCRC rights are violated, or a system of reparation for when it does— so it’s not the same thing as incorporation.

Scotland

Wales is further along than we are, however.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act put some duties around the UNCRC into Scots law, but we don’t have anything to the level of the Welsh Measure, or anything approaching incorporation.

In Scotland’s Programme for Government earlier this month, the First Minister announced an intention to incorporate the principles of the UNCRC into Scots law, but it’s not clear what this actually means.

We don’t know what’s meant by “principles,” or the model of incorporation the Government has in mind.

And we don’t know if legislation will be passed before the next elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2021. It may be that incorporation becomes a manifesto commitment, to be enacted or dropped depending on how adults vote.

It’s not an approach that considers children as people first.

And it’s something we’ll be holding the Government to account on, so that the process of incorporation goes further before adults next go to the polls.