Let's be ready to answer for our children's rights record

Maggie Atkinson
Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Children's commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson looks ahead as the UNCRC marks its Silver Jubilee.

We are just a few weeks away from the 25th anniversary of the UN General Assembly ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). We have been a ratified state party to this binding treaty since the UK government took it through parliament in 1991. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will next call us to Geneva to be held to account against it, as a nation, less than two years from now, in summer 2016.

Now the world's most-signed human rights treaty, the UNCRC lies at the heart of my work as children's commissioner for England, that of any other commissioner or ombudsman for children. Its promises are made to every child, not just the lucky few.

The UN challenges every nation to step in and use the convention to act on behalf of children who are on the margins, living with the most complex and challenging of vulnerabilities, and unlikely to have their voices heard unless somebody speaks for them.

So let's be ready, at the very least, to answer questions about these children and let us hope that 25 years from now, we are not sitting in the same spaces, worrying about the same things that concern us now.

What should we be saying to the UN about children who are poor? How is their dignity defended and their future assured, and how does the state step in as the convention requires when their family is hungry and much of even their basic dignity is gone?

How have we improved (and how do we intend to improve) the lot of those who arrive in the UK after fleeing untold horrors and making harrowing journeys, alone or accompanied, to claim asylum? What happens to them as we judge their ages, take them into care, see their asylum claims fail? How do they fare as they turn 18, and are left to live, as one of them told me again only last week, "in limbo, not able to work, not able to claim, seeing myself as a waste of space"?

Achievements in communities

What is happening in the lives of young people who, in conflict with the law, end up incarcerated? We can be pleased that we deal so much better with their issues in our communities than we once did. For those who remain behind bars, what dignity is afforded? How are they educated, rehabilitated, worked with so that they do not reoffend?

What happens to our learning and physically disabled children, safeguarded by the convention, central to the new Children and Families Act, but in too many cases still waiting for us to fulfil the promises we make?

What about those for whom the state is the parent? They are supposedly the concern of everybody in society, but they make up one in four of the incarcerated young prisoners and eight out of 10 of those in secure mental health settings. Those who are at their wits' end contact me to talk about their umpteenth placement move, the lack of support to fulfil their ambitions and the continued sense of being outside the charmed circles of success.

In 2039, when the Convention turns 50, will we be telling the UN the same old story about the places where the committee has told us more than once we have questions to answer? As somebody very wise told me very recently, the children whose rights we reflect on this November will be adults by then. If they know about rights, they may make a better job of ensuring them for the vulnerable and voiceless than we do. For all our sakes, I hope so.

Maggie Atkinson is the children's commissioner for England

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