What a way to treat a child: Is our government wilfully disregarding the needs of children? Peter Newell examines an abysmal record

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The Independent Online
WE KNOW that many voters feel disappointed by the Tory governments of the past 15 years. But what about those who have no vote and no political clout: the nation's 13 million children?

There has been no citizen's charter for them. Yet, four years ago, at the World Summit for Children attended by 71 heads of government, Margaret Thatcher made 'a solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children'. A year later, in 1991, the British Government became the 105th country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, setting detailed standards for treatment of the world's children.

Britain is shortly to deliver its first progress report to the UN: a draft circulated for token consultation just before Christmas reveals complacency. What should it say? How have our children fared under Tory governments, measured against the UN standards ratified by the Government?

The Convention says that all children must have 'a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development'. In Britain, there has been a devastating increase in child poverty since 1979. According to the latest official statistics, nearly one in three of our children lives in poverty, against one in ten in 1979. The definition of poverty is that accepted across Europe: families living on less than 50 per cent of average income, after housing costs are discounted. And a York University study of families living on benefit in the North-east of England in 1988 found that their lives 'and perhaps most seriously the lives of the children in them, are marked by the unrelieved struggle to manage with dreary diets and drab clothing . . .'

The Convention says that all children have a right to enjoyment of 'the highest attainable standard of health'. The Government trumpets its success in reducing the infant mortality rate. But the UK rate is much higher than in many European countries. Further, social class differences appear to have widened since 1979: in 1990, a baby from an unskilled manual worker's home was twice as likely to die during its first year as a baby with professional parents. NHS 'reforms' have affected children as much as adults. A survey in 1991- 92 by the British Paediatric Association found that every children's intensive care unit in the country was forced, on some occasions, to turn away critically ill patients.

The Tories abolished price controls and nutritional guidelines for school meals many years ago. Numbers of children in England taking school meals dropped from 4.9 million to 2.8 million between 1979 and 1988, when the government stopped collecting comparable statistics. A study of diets of London 11- and 12-year-olds in 1991 suggested malnutrition at a level which reduced resistance to infection and could affect behaviour and ability to learn.

Housing conditions also affect children's health. The number of homeless families containing children or pregnant women increased from 87,000 to 121,000 between 1986 and 1990. A study of more than 500 families with children in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, reported in the British Medical Journal, found that a third of dwellings were damp, and almost half contained mould.

In December, the Government persuaded the European Union to slow down the clean-up of dirty beaches and adopt less stringent rules for tap water. It is predominantly children's health, and in some cases children's lives, which are threatened by such environmental hazards. Children's health is also affected by air pollution from cars which, as the Independent on Sunday reported last October, is twice as high as rigged government studies suggest. The occurrence of asthma has increased sharply and now affects one in seven children. There is strong evidence that air pollution is responsible.

The Convention requires the Government to encourage 'the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity'. Yet children's mobility is restricted as never before, in particular by transport and planning policies which pay no attention to their best interests. Furthermore, a survey in 1990 found that only 9 per cent of seven- and eight-year-olds were allowed to go to school on their own, compared with 80 per cent in 1971. The report concluded: 'Over the past two decades British children have suffered a dramatic reduction in their freedom and choice to get about and do things on their own.' A recent report from the National Playing Fields Association estimates that the Department of National Heritage spends 3p on the needs of children for every pounds 100 spent on adult leisure.

The Convention states that the Government should give assistance to parents for their child- rearing responsibilities. Limited Government encouragement for an expansion in daycare has been designed to get women, particularly lone mothers, into the labour market, rather than to improve the lot of children. Ministers have gone out of their way to obstruct babies' rights to consistent parental care: there is still no statutory provision for paternity leave, and the Government, acting alone, blocked the European Commission Directive on Parental Leave, which aimed at a minimum entitlement to paid or unpaid leave to deal with child-rearing emergencies.

The Convention sets minimum standards for the right to education, and emphasises equal opportunity. But our schools are characterised by increasingly dilapidated and undecorated buildings, shortages of teachers, empty libraries and diminished opportunities for such activities as music, drama and swimming - except where parents are willing to subsidise them. The Prime Minister himself acknowledges that the large majority of our children are not doing as well at school as those in other industrialised countries.

A central principle of the Convention is that children must be free to express views and have them taken seriously, and must be heard in all administrative and judicial proceedings affecting them. When attempts were made in Parliament to include in education law some reflection of this principle, Eric Forth, a junior minister, said that he would refrain from calling the idea of consulting pupils 'dotty', but he would 'condemn it as politically correct'.

As a society, we have barely begun to come to terms with the implication that children are no longer to be 'seen and not heard' but that they are to be listened to and formally involved in proceedings that directly affect them. The 1989 Children Act implements the principle for children in care and some others in England and Wales, but its scope is grossly over-stated by the Government. Beyond the Act, it has done nothing to advance the principle.

The UN Convention insists that 'detention or imprisonment shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time'. Yet the Criminal Justice Bill, now before Parliament, envisages locking up more children and younger children for longer periods. The aim cannot be to protect the public. There are already ample powers to detain children of any age who pose a real threat to others or to themselves. Research suggests that detention leads to more crime and more violent responses later in life. But in fact this new Bill aims to lock up about 200 12- to 14-year-olds in new secure training centres; extends custodial sentences available for 10- to 14-year-olds; and doubles the maximum sentence for 15- to 17-year-olds.

And look at the conditions in which we lock up young people. At Feltham remand centre for young offenders, where four young people committed suicide in an eight- month period in 1992-93, an inspection team last year found 'filthy and foul-smelling' toilets, reports of inadequate food, and a 'lack of work training opportunities'. It discovered 'an obviously distressed juvenile in a cell, where he had been for many hours, with only cardboard furniture' and 'no pictures, books or other distractions from his plight'. So much for rehabilitation.

The UN Convention demands action to protect children from 'all forms of physical or mental violence'. In its draft progress report, the Government goes out of its way to defend parents' rights to use 'reasonable chastisement', and, over the past few years, UK courts have found the use of belts, sticks and electric flexes to beat children as young as five to be eminently reasonable. A north Avon court last year acquitted a man who had admitted belting his five- and eight-year-old sons.

The resolution Mrs Thatcher signed promised 'political action at the highest level'. There is no sign of such action in the UK. Other countries - Norway, Australia, New Zealand, for example - have set up children's ombudsmen or independent commissioners to represent children's needs and interests at government level: they hold inquiries, for example, and assess the impact of new policies or legislation on children. The British Government has rejected a detailed proposal for a statutory children's rights commissioner, even though it is supported by the NSPCC, Save the Children, in fact all the major children's organisations, including four royal colleges of health.

Such an innovation need not be expensive and there is an obvious source of funds within existing spending plans. The proposals for new secure training centres, included in the Criminal Justice Bill, will cost at least pounds 30m a year. If the Government is serious about its commitment to children, it could delay full implementation of this section of the Bill, and push through legislation to provide a Children's Rights Commissioner. To set up a substantial and effective organisation would cost no more than pounds 7m (the Commission for Racial Equality, with a staff of around 200, costs pounds 15m). So there would still be plenty of change from pounds 30m to lock up quite a few 12-year-olds, for as long as ministers see that as a morally and politically acceptable option.

Peter Newell is chair of the Council of the Children's Rights Development Unit.

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