Monday, September 6, 2004

Children are ordinary citizens, too

UK: Under-18s are being treated as if they were criminals in the making.

For our children, it's been a long summer. It started with the government's refusal to allow a free vote on "reasonable chastisement," [corporal punishment], in the House of Lords.

A so-called compromise amendment was passed, allowing parents to carry on hitting babies and children. The proponent was one of the country's most eminent lawyers, [ruling class], Lord Lester of Herne Hill. (It is a sad reflection of children's low status that a human rights lawyer can make a day's job out of defending parental violence.)

Then came the announcement from Charles Clarke that school uniforms are to become compulsory in every state secondary school in order to enforce discipline. And if you think that is uncontroversial, imagine if the Department for Work and Pensions had published a five-year strategy for building the nation's workforce, and had decided that each workplace should introduce a compulsory uniform. Yet there was no objection to the school uniform proposal, except from children themselves.

And so the summer went on, with British children being treated again and again as political playthings, their civil rights being chipped away bit by bit, and no politician raising any serious objections. Following the announcement that Anti-Social Behaviour Orders experts are to be parachuted into local authorities to make them tougher on "yobs", things can only get worse.

The attack on children's civil rights will soon be tested in the courts. With support from Liberty, a 14-year-old London boy is claiming that his right to freedom of movement and assembly is being violated since the police introduced a blanket curfew on under-16s in the centre of Richmond.

The no-go area includes the local cinema. [War criminal], Jack Straw dreamed up curfews when he was home secretary. They were established in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and initially aimed at the under-10s. Not one local authority introduced a curfew. That's not surprising: legislation already existed to remove vulnerable children from the street (or anywhere else) and take them to a place of safety.

In 2001 the age range was extended to under-16s, to encourage local authorities to use them. Then the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 gave the police the power to disperse groups of two or more people. How quickly that caught on! Towns and cities up and down the country welcomed the summer by closing off public areas to children. The Metropolitan police has blocked off the whole of the West End to children not in the company of an adult after 9pm. I did a radio interview and was asked why the streets shouldn't be kept clear for ordinary people to get on with their lives. I replied that children are ordinary people.

To an unknowing public, it would seem that the Home Office is now in charge of children's policy. The systems set up to protect and promote children's welfare are kept in the closet while macho initiatives are paraded. Since June 2000, 82 children aged 12 and under have been given Asbos. Have we nothing more to offer these children?

Children subject to Asbos are, as a matter of course, "named and shamed"; social pillorying is part and parcel of the technique. This comes from the same political party that rejected the 11-plus examination because of the stigma and long-term harm it inflicted on growing children.

These kind of initiatives make the government's proposed database of all children very worrying. It argues that such a database would ensure every child gets access to universal services. But there has been little scrutiny of the database plans, and the public is largely ignorant of what lies ahead.

By contrast, David Blunkett's proposals for a national ID card have been scrutinised by the home affairs select committee, the human rights committee and by cabinet. There were two official consultation documents. The card scheme will get its own legislation, whereas the children's database gets one clause in the children bill. Peers strongly criticised the plans, and there have been some concessions, but the scheme is going ahead despite the civil rights implications for both children and parents.

Children are soft targets and easy political prey. A bit like prisoners, they are disenfranchised, nobody really takes them seriously, and rehabilitation is a long and hard journey. To be respected as real people, children have to shed their childhood skin and become adults.

Politicians will soon return from the summer break. Before they plunge back into their jobs, they might like to consider the extent to which our country is in breach of children's human rights. My organisation would happily give each and every one a copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN human rights treaty that spells out what countries must do under international law to respect children and their human rights.

Carolyne Willow is national coordinator of the Children's Rights Alliance for England

By Carolyne Willow posted 6 September 04

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