Government must put children’s rights at the heart of Covid recovery

Louise King
Wednesday, December 9, 2020

In 2020, we saw the fallout from Covid-19 have a devastating impact on children and young people, as the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing socioeconomic issues across the country.

A recent report to the United Nations (UN), led by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and endorsed by 90 children’s charities, assesses how well the UK government has respected children’s rights since 2016, including during the pandemic. Launched to coincide with Human Rights Day, the UN submission is the first step in the UK government’s examination under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Sadly, our findings conclude that children’s rights have regressed in many areas, and Covid-19 has only made the situation worse.

Increasing child poverty

The report finds that child poverty is increasing and likely to worsen in 2021 due to the significant economic downturns expected because of Covid-19 and Brexit. In total, 4.2 million children are already living in poverty in the UK and families are now living in deeper poverty than five years ago, despite rising employment before the pandemic. During the pandemic, there was only limited targeted financial support for families with children in poverty, including free school meal vouchers during lockdown and over the summer holidays, and some temporary funding to local authorities to help families in crisis. Given the expected increase in child poverty in the coming 12 months, it is extremely disappointing that there is still no child poverty strategy since the last one was abolished in 2016.

Race and exclusions

Our findings also show that black children and Gypsy and Roma Traveller (GRT) children have continued to suffer persistent discrimination across many aspects of their lives, including being disproportionately represented in school exclusions and across the criminal justice system. We have seen school exclusions rise year on year, with GRT and black Caribbean children excluded at between double to four times the national rate, and the educational attainment gap between these children and their peers has increased further as a result of Covid-19.

Although we have seen the criminalisation of children of all other ethnic groups decrease in the last decade, it has increased for black children.

Mental health outcomes

It is estimated that one in six children in England have a mental disorder, with recent studies showing that Covid-19 is worsening the mental health of children even further. Children from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds are facing some of the worst mental health challenges – care-experienced and GRT children are at greater risk of mental ill-health and self-harm. Children account for 20 per cent of the population, but only 10 per cent of total mental health spending, meaning that support for children’s mental health is significantly underfunded.

What needs to be done?

We have welcomed some positive developments to embed children’s rights across government, but children have still been worryingly low on the political agenda. We have seen funding for children’s and youth services decimated since 2016, while the numbers of children needing care or protection are rising, with the pandemic putting additional pressure on services. Although we have come across unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, the government must take urgent action to combat the UK’s increasing child poverty crisis, address systemic racism and discrimination in the education and criminal justice systems, and improve children’s mental health outcomes.

The government must re-establish cross-government, long-term child poverty targets and poverty reduction strategies, in line with the Child Poverty Act 2010, and ensure that all families can access and afford high-quality childcare to support children’s development and enable parents to work.  The recently established Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities must lead to urgent action in 2021 and not be another wasted opportunity to address persistent racial discrimination and structural inequalities that blight so many children’s lives. The government must also commit to increasing funding for mental health support for children to reach parity of esteem with funding for adult mental health services and ensure children’s mental health does not bear the brunt of the pandemic.

Covid-19 recovery plan

Our bleak findings are the result of children’s rights not being prioritised by successive governments coupled with the impact of Covid-19. However, as the UK looks to begin its recovery from Covid-19 in 2021, we will have a significant opportunity to begin to reverse some of the damage that’s been done with a child-centred recovery plan. It’s crucial that our government puts children’s rights at the heart of their recovery plans to ensure that Covid-19 doesn’t leave a lasting scar on our youngest generation.

Louise King is director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law

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