Report from the Children’s Commissioners of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

This report published in December 2020 aims to inform the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the UK and identify emerging trends and critical issues about children’s rights. The following article gathers the most significant findings of the Commissioners.


  • Incorporation of the UNCRC into domestic law and failure to ratify the third Optional Protocol

The commissioners report that the UK ratified the UNCRC in 1991 but has not been incorporated into domestic legislation and remains nonjusticiable in UK courts. In addition, the UK did not confirm the Optional Protocol to the UNCRC. In England and Northern Ireland, there is no legal requirement for government ministers to have due regard to the UNCRC, and no unusual movement has been made to introduce the UNCRC into domestic law. However, the commissioners welcome the Scottish initiative to incorporate the UNCRC into Scottish law.

  • Children’s rights and interests not prioritized in decision-making

The commissioners noted the lack of consideration for children’s rights or voices in policy or legislative processes in the UK. Specifically, the quality of the Child Rights Impact Assessments (CRIA) is concerning, often with no analysis of available options, no justification of selected options, no mitigation measures, and their impact on ministerial decisions is nuclear.

  • Inadequate resource allocation and no transparency in budgeting

Across the UK, there is a lack of transparency and clarity in budget processes, allocations, and expenditures concerning children, making it challenging to identify how much funding is allocated to children. The budget is also insufficient. For instance, Before the pandemic, children’s statutory services in England faced a £3 billion18 shortfall.19 Meeting the needs of all children in vulnerable situations would cost approximately £10 billion

  • Insufficient data collection, disaggregation, and análisis

There is a lack of coherent, consistent, transparent, and systematic, disaggregated data collection concerning children across all jurisdictions, making it difficult to monitor and measure children’s needs and assess the fulfillment of their rights.

  • Insufficient protection means children continue to experience discrimination.

In some areas of Scots law, a ‘child’ is defined as someone under 16, which means some child protection and mental health safeguards do not apply to 16- and 17-year-olds in some settings. For instance, in Northern Ireland, the Age Discrimination Bill would apply only to persons over 16. In England, Black Caribbean pupils are three times as likely to be permanently excluded than White British pupils and twice as likely to receive a fixed period exclusion than White British pupils.

  • Inadequate participation of children and young people in decision-making

Children’s right to be heard and involved in decision-making processes across all jurisdictions is denied without comprehensive implementation in law and practice. The voting age for UK general elections remains 18. It should be lowered to 16.

  • Violence against children

Across the UK, isolation, seclusion, and restraint58 are used in education, care, mental health, and detention settings, sometimes as a disciplinary measure for low-level incidents and sometimes resulting in injuries. In England, restraint in education settings and Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) is permitted to maintain good order and discipline. In Scotland, restraint is sometimes used as an inappropriate response to distressed children’s behavior. Local authority policies and practices are inconsistent, failing to recognize children’s rights. In addition, In England and Northern Ireland, the reasonable punishment defense for assaulting children still exists in law.

Regarding sexual abuse, In England, most children who experience sexual abuse are not identified or supported, and the investigative process, including significant delays in bringing cases to trial, is often traumatic. In Northern Ireland, the average of 986 days for sexual offenses cases involving child victims to reach completion is concerning.

Regarding children enrolled in armed forces, the UK continues to enlist children in the Armed Forces from 16 and actively recruits 16- and 17-year-olds despite the Committee’s recommendations. In Northern Ireland, paramilitary intimidation, shootings, and attacks continue to be perpetrated on children, causing casualties, injuries, and many to become homeless.

  • Family environment and alternative care

In England, total spending on children’s services decreased in real terms by approximately 11% from 2009/10-2017/18, with assistance, including youth services and children’s centers, experiencing a 60% decrease by 2019/20. In addition, A lack of appropriate services, including specialist residential provision, in or near the place of residence, means children from England and Wales are placed in unregulated placements or sent far from home.

  • Disability, essential health, and welfare

Across the UK, disabled children are disproportionately affected by inadequate resourcing, mainly because of austerity measures and Covid-19. Overall, disabled children do not always have the additional support required by law or equal Access to services. In England, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) services are under increasing pressure. In 2017/18, 81.3% of local authorities overspent their high-needs budget. In Northern Ireland, mental health services and support are fragmented and often unavailable, accessible, or quality to meet their needs.

  • Failure to realize the highest attainable standard of health

In 2018, 35% of all deaths aged 0-19 in the UK were considered avoidable. In England, too many children lack access to treatment. Only one-quarter of children with a diagnosable condition are referred for help, more than one-third of referrals are rejected, and children wait too long for treatment–an average of 53 days. Consequently, children too often reach the point of crisis requiring inpatient care rather than support in the community.

  • Inadequate action to tackle children’s food insecurity

There is no single nationwide government measure for hunger in the UK. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1.9 million children experienced food insecurity across the UK.

  • Child poverty and welfare reform

In the UK, there were 4.2 million children (30%) living in poverty in 2018/19–an increase of 600,000 from 2011/12. Poverty provides constant stress for children, 21% of whom list ‘not having enough money in their top three worries and 5% ‘not having enough food or clothes.’ Opportunities for children in poverty are also fewer: 37% of children who receive free school meals leave education without a Level 2 Qualification, compared to 18% overall.

  • Adequate housing

In Wales, in March 2020, roughly 69% of those in temporary housing were households with children, including in hostels and bed and breakfasts. In England, there is a family homelessness crisis. There were around 127,000 children in temporary accommodation pre-pandemic and approximately 90,000 families “sofa surfing” and likely to be in overcrowded accommodation.

  • Education, leisure, and cultural activities

Unequal Access to education is a concern in the UK. in Northern Ireland, many children, including care-experienced children, disabled children, Traveller children, those from ethnic minorities, disadvantaged backgrounds, and with additional needs, face significant impediments to high-quality education. In Scotland, disabled children, particularly those with autistic spectrum disorders and other disabilities, cannot access education on an equal basis.


  • Education on human rights and the UNCRC

Human and child rights education is not compulsory in schools in England and Scotland. In Northern Ireland, while the UNCRC and children’s rights are reflected with the school curriculum throughout Key Stages 1-4, these are not compulsory.

  • Insufficient measures to protect and support migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking children

Asylum-seeking and refugee children and families face barriers to appropriate healthcare and education, a lack of child-friendly interview facilities, the vulnerability of exhaustion of appeal rights, deprivation, and the negative consequences of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment policy.

  • Overuse of deprivation of liberty

Across the UK, there are increasing concerns about children being unlawfully deprived of their liberty in institutional settings. In England, children can spend up to nine months in custody without a sentence. In 2019, two-thirds of remanded children did not subsequently receive a prison sentence.

  • Impact of Brexit

The European Union (EU) Withdrawal Agreement Act removes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from UK law, weakening legal protections for children. It contains rights with no direct equivalent in UK law, including for a child’s best interests to be a primary consideration in all actions taken by a public or private institution, a freestanding right to non-discrimination, and the right to human dignity.

Pictures are taken from the report.

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