Deborah Orr: Britain's treatment of its children is a disgrace. Yet we are making their plight even worse

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The Independent Online

One of the most frustrating things about the widespread failures of the Labour government is the perception that those failures have been linked to its obsession with defending rights. In fact, the Government has had great success in appearing to defend rights while it actually erodes them. Nowhere has that tendency been more marked and more damaging than in the treatment of British children, who are more tested, more punished, more imprisoned, more unhappy, and more generally disliked, distrusted, feared and demonised than they are pretty much anywhere else in the developed world.

When the Conservative Party signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, it did so with cross-party support. Such broad consensus was not surprising. The Convention contains little that could be considered as anything other than a wise and humane guideline, useful in framing legislation that is designed to protect the most vulnerable.

Yet, nearly 18 years – an entire childhood – on, it is hard to identify a single one of the 57 articles of the Convention that has not been breached in this country – in letter, in spirit or in reality. No wonder Britain has resisted calls to incorporate the Convention into British law, or even to put in place a system of scrutiny charged with ensuring that the Convention is respected. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a document that Labour prefers to ignore whenever it wishes to.

A report this week from the Children's Rights Alliance for England (Crae) confirms the trend has by no means lessened in the last few years. On the contrary, it identifies 30 new breaches that have passed into law since the last analysis of UK implementation, in 2002. The situation is now so parlous that the report offers no fewer than 152 recommendations that would immediately enhance the well-being of British children, a hundred of which are considered urgent. In 2002 the figure was just 78.

Why does the Government continue to reject the UN's rights-based approach to child-welfare? It certainly is not because its own, more draconian, methods are getting results.

In its widely-reported analysis of childhood in the world's 21 most wealthy countries, Unicef last year found that Britain was fourth bottom for child poverty (with figures released by the Government yesterday suggesting that this may even have worsened); fifth bottom for educational well-being (with last week's threatened closure of hundreds of failing secondary schools confirming that standards are not, in fact, rising like angels); bottom for relationships (unsurprising since we have Europe's largest proportion of fractured families); and bottom for children's happiness (how could it be otherwise, bearing in mind the three previous findings?).

The Government is good at looking as if it is deeply concerned about children and their rights, but even better at ignoring or brushing aside evidence that suggests the contrary. Such was its attitude to this landmark report, one that is much quoted by the Conservative Party under David Cameron and little mentioned by the Labour Party under Gordon Brown.

Some of the recommendations in the Crae report simply concern themselves with extending the rights that are unquestioningly enjoyed by adults to children. Many people argue, for example, that a ban on all corporal punishment of children would be an incursion of the nanny state into family life, involving "more legislation". It would be nothing of the sort. It would simply ensure that children have the same protection from assault and domestic violence as every other Briton.

The need for us to get real about the level of violence against children that is quietly sanctioned in our society, though, is encapsulated in a single sentence: "Tear gas must not be used on children in custody." Unsurprisingly, the report also recommends that there should be a public inquiry into the treatment of children in custody more generally. It points out that 30 children have died in custody since 1990, though there has never been a public inquiry into a single one of those deaths.

Likewise, the report suggests that children should be treated equally with adults with regard to the compilation of the British Crime Survey. While as a nation we are transfixed by fear of children as the perpetrators of crime, we are less concerned with their status as victims of crime. The report recommends that under-16s should be included in the survey.

Other recommendations, by contrast, emphasise that there are many cases in which the sanctity of childhood should be protected. There are a host of circumstances under which it seems self-evident that children should not be treated as adults.

The report, in the week when two 19-year-olds died in Afghan-istan, recommends that Britain should take a leaf out of the book of every other EU state and stop recruiting children into the army at the age of 16. It makes an explicit link between this stalwartly-defended practice and the fact that 18 British soldiers under the age of 18 were "inadvertently" deployed in war zones between 2003-2005 – 15 of them to Iraq. It also suggests that it is wrong for children who break military law to be detained alongside adults at a former prisoner of war camp in Colchester, just as it is for other children to be treated differently in custodial settings to adults.

The report also highlights our confused approach to what a child, or a childhood, actually is, anyway. It is a stain on this Government's claim to socially democratic ambitions that one of its early acts was to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to 10. It is suggested that this should be amended "to reflect the requirement of international human rights standards for a completely distinct approach to dealing with all juvenile crime".

It should also be amended to reflect our general ideas about childhood, and how long it lasts. It is quite ridiculous to suggest that a child can have developed a sense of criminal responsibility at 10, yet has not, at 21, earned the maturity to qualify for the full minimum wage. This latter is especially absurd as all working 16-year-olds have to pay for prescriptions, dental treatment and eye-tests, as well as the full fare on public transport.

Are these people earning proper wages, or getting some pocket money? If it is the latter, then why do they qualify neither for the benefits that children have a right to, nor the protections that adults do?

The UN Convention's first article guarantees that all people under 18 are party to the rights enshrined within it. This is just the first of many articles that are only observed when it is convenient. Why sign up to such documents when they are not to be taken seriously? Why pay lip-service to them, when it is not sincere? Perhaps this Government is not persuaded that rights-based approaches work. It is a great shame that it carries on pretending that it is, inviting the electorate to believe that it is rights-based laws that have let them down.

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