I was struck by the irony behind three different news stories all reported on Monday July 20th 2015 and a common thread of children’s rights that implicitly linked them. Firstly, key messages to be delivered in Cameron’s ‘extremism speech’ at Ninestiles School in Birmingham on radicalism, values, ideologies and integration were of no surprise having been released the day before. On the same day, the Birmingham Commission for Children, which aims to identify strategies to improve Birmingham children’s lives and well-being over the next ten years, released their report ‘It takes a city to raise a child’ (The Children’s Society 2015). Thirdly, parliament passed, with little opposition, the next stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill which imposes further reductions on the benefits cap – despite the Supreme Court ruling in March 2015 that such legislation breaches the UK government’s children’s rights obligations.
In joining the dots of these three stories, and at the risk of espousing what Cameron calls ‘misguided liberalism’, certain narratives and contradictions continue to be promulgated in social policy implicating children’s rights and the value attributed to them.
Cameron’s ‘extremism speech’ identified rights within the narratives of ‘Ideas […] which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others’ and ‘equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith’. He was dismissive of any argument which attributes a lack of integration to poverty by asserting that ‘terrorists [….] have had the full advantages of prosperous families or Western university education’ (Cameron 2015). Such government rhetoric disregards the complex and multiple factors which influence young people in choices about identity and ideology and instead reinforces the need to develop a clearer understanding of the impact of government foreign and welfare policy on young people from minority groups from their perspective.
The second news story that interested me on 20th July was the release of the report ‘It takes a city to raise a child’ compiled jointly by the Children’s Society and the Birmingham Commission for Children. It cited that children in Birmingham ‘feel they are judged and excluded, and are told they have no hope for the future’ and that ‘it is time to start turning the narrative round’ (The Children’s Society 2015). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by the UK government in 1991, states that every child has the right to be treated fairly and to be heard, so it is interesting to note that the first recommendation from the Birmingham Commission’s report is for children and young people’s voices to be embedded into decision-making. The Commission has recognised the need to consult children and young people and take account of their views in decisions which affect them in relation to their health, children’s services and communities. Their intention is to put consultative structures in place across the ten districts in Birmingham.
However, there is no direct reference to rights, children’s rights or the UNCRC in the Birmingham report, despite recommendations being consistent with those in another report, that from the UK Children’s Commissioners on progress in the UK towards the UNCRC. Why are rights not mentioned in the Birmingham report? Is it an oversight, or indicative of the UNCRC not being considered relevant or significant?
Turning to the third story, the government’s justification for welfare cuts promulgates the narrative of blame, austerity, incentive and conditional support for those who do not work or ‘choose a life on benefits’. The purpose of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, passed by the House of Commons on 20th July 2015, is to further reduce the cap of benefits payments to £20K in Britain and to £23K in Greater London. After benefit caps were first rolled out as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, two individuals took the government to court on the grounds that such policy was unlawful. The verdict of the Supreme Court in March 2015 was that although the welfare cap was lawful, the welfare cuts breach the UK government’s children’s rights obligations. The government response from Iain Duncan-Smith was ‘I am delighted that the country’s highest court has agreed with this government and overwhelming public opinion that the benefit cap is right and fair’ (Butler 2015).
Such blatant disregard for children’s rights underlines the current the government’s view on human and children’s rights. A recent report from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) laments the lack of progress made in strengthening children’s rights and the absence of strategy in their implementation. The CRAE recommendation that the government terminates the benefit cap for households with dependent children (CRAE 2014) is unlikely to make any difference to policies which contribute to the erosion of welfare support for the most vulnerable.
Similarly, all four UK children’s commissioners voice their shared concern that ‘the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty’ (UK Children’s Commissioners 2015). The commissioners cite Articles 26 (social security) and Article 27 (adequate standard of living) of the UNCRC specifically as being at risk. Article 26 states that ‘governments must provide extra money for the children of families in need’ and Article 27 states that ‘every child has the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical, social and mental needs. Governments must help families who cannot afford to provide this’ (UNICEF 2011).
The invisible thread which joins the three stories is a stark reminder that anyone who works, directly or indirectly, with children should be pro-active in promoting children’s rights to all stakeholders – children, parents, carers, other professionals and decision-makers. A consultative approach on decisions which affect children requires a fundamental cultural shift from tokenism to embedded participation of children and young people. Such a shift would benefit everyone.
Butler, P. (2015) ‘UK benefits cap lawful but breaches UN children’s rights obligations’ The Guardian, 18 March.
Cameron, D. (2015) Extremism [Prime Minister Speech]. Ninestiles School, Birmingham. 20th July.
CRAE (2014) State of Children’s Rights in England. Available at www.crae.org.uk/media/75135/SOCR_2014_REPORT_WEB.pdf. Accessed July 2015.
The Children’s Society (2015) It takes a city to raise a child. Available at https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/helping-children/childrens-society-west-midlands/birmingham-commission-children Accessed July 2015.
UNCRC (2015) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at http://www.unicef.org.uk/UNICEFs-Work/UN-Convention/?sissr=1 Accessed July 2015.
UNICEF (2011) A better life for every child. A summary of the UNCRC. Available at www.unicef.org.uk Accessed July 2015.
UK Children’s Commissioners. (2015) Report of the UK Children’s Commissioners: UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Examination of the Fifth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Report to the UN Committee. Available at https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publications/report-un-committee Accessed July 2015