UK `failing to honour' treaty on child rights on rights of children

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The Government has badly failed to honour its treaty commitment made four years ago to protect the rights of children, the United Nations said yesterday.

The criticisms come in a report from the UN's committee on the rights of the child, following a session in Geneva this week where civil servants from six departments were questioned.

Britain is accused of seriously breaching the spirit of the UN Convention on Children's Rights, which says that laws should be framed in the "best interests of children".

But members of a committee set up to monitor Britain's ratification of the convention in 1991 say this appears not to be the case in health, education and social security.

Their report also criticises the high number of children living in poverty. Concerns are raised over the number of teenage pregnancies, the soaring divorce rate, cuts in state benefits and the number of children who are sleeping and begging on the streets.

"The changed regulations regarding benefit entitlement to young people may have contributed to the increase in the number of young homeless people," the report said.

Committee members say they are "unclear about the extent to which an effective co-ordinating mechanism exists for the implementation of the convention". It is concerned that the British do not seem to have given sufficient consideration to setting up an independent mechanism to monitor how the rights of the child would be affected by new laws, and suggests Britain should put a monitor in place.

The report says that "insufficient expenditure is allocated to the social sector", and it questions the adequacy of benefit allowances.

The committee is worried that the health of poor children and children from ethnic minorities is inferior to that of better off children.

Committee members say they are "disturbed" about domestic laws allowing the physical punishment of children in their own homes and in privately funded or managed schools.

The committee says it is particularly worried about the access gypsy and traveller children are allowed to basic services and caravan sites.

The report warns that government proposals to build secure training centres for young juvenile delinquents are likely to be in breach of UN laws. Thomas Hammarberg, Swedish vice-chairman of the committee, told a Howard League conference in London yesterday that bullying was inevitable and suicides were likely.

He said the secure centres appeared to lay emphasis on imprisonment and punishment, rather than reforming the offenders, and the age of criminal consent - 10 in England and Wales, and eight in Scotland -was too low.

Responding to the report, Michael Taylor, director of the charity Save the Children, said yesterday: "It's clear from the report we still have a long way to go in this country. All our children have the right to an adequate standard of living under article 27 of the convention."