Written by Professor Morag Treanor with input from Juliet Harris of Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights)
Today is Universal Children’s Day and the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC is a charter comprising 42 articles that set out the human rights to which all children are entitled. It was ratified by every country in the world with the exception of the USA. Although ratified, the UNCRC in the UK was not incorporated into domestic law, which means that children’s rights in the UK have no legal power. The lack of incorporation of the UNCRC into UK or Scots law has meant that whilst courts have found some welfare policies to be in breach of children’s UNCRC rights there has been nothing that the court can do to provide remedy. For example, the ‘benefits cap’, introduced under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, was found to be in breach of the UNCRC in 2015 but the court had no power to provide any form of redress. In Scotland this may be about to change.
The First Minister of Scotland has recently committed to incorporating children’s rights, as set out in the UNCRC, into Scots law by the end of this Parliamentary session (2021). The incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law is a development of which the Scottish government should be proud. Now, it is time to think deeply on what incorporation will mean for children in Scotland; in particular, how will full incorporation affect children facing poverty and inequality in Scotland?
While child poverty has received a lot of focus it has rarely been considered within the framework of children’s rights. Similarly, children’s rights experts, who are usually experts in the law, have failed to engage with child poverty as a children’s rights issue (Nolan and Pells, 2019).
A children’s rights framework ought to be used by the Scottish government to shape their work towards achieving their targets as set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. For one, poverty is a cause and a consequence of child rights violation (Nolan and Pells, 2019). Secondly, children’s rights are a legal entitlement, which makes them ‘politically powerful, backed by law, and hold duty bearers (i.e. the Scottish government) accountable’ (Tisdall, 2015: 807). A further strength of approaching child poverty through a child rights lens is that the UNCRC involves, not just ensuring children’s rights, but also preventing and removing obstacles to ensuring those rights. Thus, the children’s rights framework would allow us to consider the barriers presented by policy areas that may not immediately seem relevant to child poverty, for example, housing, education, health, transport, employment, discrimination, disability and family life. Thus, approaching poverty from a child rights perspective would require the Scottish government to link and integrate policies that affect children in a consistent way, a factor vital to full incorporation of children’s rights in law (Nolan and Pells, 2019).
The UNCRC takes a holistic approach to ensure children have the right to live free from poverty. Several of its articles are pertinent: article 27 gives children the right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development; article 24, the right to the highest attainable standard of health; article 26, the right to benefit from social security; article 23, the right for disabled children to enjoy a full and decent life; and article 28, the right to education. There is also article 12, which states that the government ‘shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child’. This means that all children and, in particular, children living in poverty, should have a say in how we prevent and eradicate child poverty in Scotland. This reinforces the Poverty and Inequality Commission’s approach to having those with direct lived experience of poverty at the centre of our work.
While a fundamental and valuable framework, the UNCRC only provides a minimum standard – a floor beneath which no child should fall – and Scotland should be aiming higher. For example, children’s rights do not easily include important issues such as love and friendship and they have not been adequately quantified (Tisdall, 2015: 807). Children’s rights advocates have traditionally been concerned with the qualitative aspects of children’s lives, which is understandable; however, it is also important that we employ statistics, data and indicators ‘to track change and improvement in the implementation, realisation and enjoyment of rights for children’ (Treanor, 2017). The Poverty and Inequality Commission’s role is to advise on and monitor child poverty: to do so we need data that are easily accessible and which will allow us to track change and assess the efficacy of government action.
Finally, we turn to the voices of children themselves. Members of the Children’s Parliament (MCPs) were consulted on child poverty and they strongly believe governments have a responsibility to protect children’s rights and involve them in efforts to tackle poverty (Children’s Parliament, 2018). Children express disbelief and frustration that so many families experience poverty and inequality:
“I think you should move poverty up as a priority because it’s becoming more likely to happen.” (MCP) (age 12)
“They’re doing stuff, but there’s still people in poverty. That means what they’re doing is pointless because it mainly helps the rich.” MCP (age 12)
“My father cares for me 3 out of 4 days per week and if it wasn’t for my disability, he wouldn’t have had to give up his 2nd job… Often things happen that people can’t control, which can leave them worse off money wise.”
“If your parents are stressed about money and argue a lot, it’ll impact you and you feel like you can’t do anything about it” MCP (age 10)
These children clearly understand the effects poverty has on children and families and it is crucial that we include their voices. Children say that they want laws and systems to be put in place that will make a meaningful difference to people’s lives and reduce the number of children affected by poverty and inequality. Scotland has the opportunity to do this; the time is now.
CHILDREN’S PARLIAMENT 2018. “The Weight on Our Shoulders” – Consultation on the Child Poverty Bill and Delivery Plan. Edinburgh: Children’s Parliament.
NOLAN, A. & PELLS, K. 2019. Children’s Economic and Social Rights and Child Poverty: The State of Play. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 27.
TISDALL, E. K. M. 2015. Children’s Rights and Children’s Wellbeing: Equivalent Policy Concepts? Journal of Social Policy, 44, 807-823.
TREANOR, M. 2017. Measuring the progress of children’s rights in Scotland. Available from: https://togetherscotland.blog/2017/05/31/suii-seminar-4-measuring-the-progress-of-childrens-rights-in-scotland/ [Accessed 15 November 2019].