Scotland must do more to uphold children’s human rights, says UN Committee

Date: 9th June 2023
Category: Scotland-specific monitoring and reporting, Reporting to and monitoring the UNCRC

Photo of Palais Wilson in Geneva where the UN Committee conducted its review last month. The building is large and ornate with orange walls and cream pillars.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has issued almost 200 recommendations to the UK and Scottish Government following its review of their children’s rights records last month.

The report, known as the ‘Concluding Observations’, identified serious concerns around child poverty, non-discrimination, protection from abuse, the care system, mental health, asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children, and the child justice system.

While the UN Committee recognised areas of real progress since its last review in 2016, it was clear that far more needs to be done to address gaps in children’s rights protection.

Many of the recommendations were based on evidence presented by Together and our members, including in our written report and oral evidence. The UN Committee’s recommendations also drew strongly from evidence submitted by children and young people, including Arden and Omima – Members of Children’s Parliament, and Beau and Daisy – Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament. The group submitted their own report, drawing from the views of children and young people across Scotland, and met with the Committee in February and June to shape the questions the Committee would ask government officials. Together joined with Children’s Parliament, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland to form #TeamScotlandUN and influence the review. Two of the Commissioner's Young Advisors - Ally and Grace - acted as reporters, you can view their coverage here.

While the full recommendations are a ‘must read’ for anyone with an interest in children’s human rights, this article will attempt to provide an overview:

  • UNCRC in law: the UN Committee welcomed the passage of the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. It noted the delays following the UK Supreme Court ruling and urged Scottish Government to “expeditiously bring forward the amendments necessary” so that the Bill could become law.
  • Human Rights Act: the UN Committee called on the UK Government to reconsider its decision to replace the Human Rights Act with a new ‘Bill of Rights’. It said any changes must ensure children’s rights are upheld, ensure effective remedies and be informed by children’s participation.
  • Action plans: The UN Committee called for the development of comprehensive national action plans on progressing children’s human rights. These should include a focus on children whose rights are at risk – such as young carers, disabled children, LBGTI children, children in poverty, asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children. 
  • Budgets: governments need to take a children’s rights-based approach to their budgeting processes. This should include tracking systems, strengthened data collection and monitoring processes. The UN Committee was clear that in times of limited resources, there should be no regressive measures without children being consulted.
  • Data: The UN Committee was concerned by numerous gaps in data collection and analysis. Examples included data on the use of restraint, the experiences of disabled children, children with a parent in prison, asylum-seeking children. The UN Committee pushed for strengthened indicators and disaggregated data to better allow for patterns and trends to be identified.
  • Access to justice: The UN Committee emphasised the need for confidential, child-friendly and independent complaints mechanisms across all settings, including schools, care settings, mental health settings and in detention. It emphasised the importance of children having access to legal support to help them claim their rights.
  • Age of the child: all under-18s must be protected as such. The UN Committee was concerned that many 16- and 17-year-olds are defined in law as adults. It called for a review of all age-based legislation to ensure that all under-18s have their rights upheld.
  • Marriage age: the UN Committee was clear that Scottish Government should raise the age of marriage to 18 without exception.
  • Discrimination: the UN Committee was "deeply concerned" by persistent discrimination, racism and bullying. It called for targeted policies and programmes to eliminate discrimination including against Gypsy/Traveller children, disabled children, LGBTI children, children in poverty, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. It said governments should do more to encourage the reporting of hate crimes and that they should use media campaigns to change social attitudes that contribute to discrimination.
  • Transgender children: the UN Committee noted the UK Government’s block of the Gender Recognition (Reform) (Scotland) Bill. It called for action to ensure LGBTI children can enjoy freedom of expression, respect for physical and psychological integrity, gender identity and emerging autonomy. It said any decisions here must be made in close consultation with transgender children, be in line with children’s rights and with appropriate safeguards.
  • Religious observance in schools: the UN Committee called for the repeal of laws on compulsory religious worship and said children should be given a right to withdraw.
  • Freedom of assembly and association: the UN Committee called for strengthened measures to prevent the use of mosquito devices. It also made several recommendations relating to children’s right to protest – including calling for the repeal of provisions in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and that children must not be threatened for their engagement in climate activism.
  • Restraint, seclusion and harmful devices: the UN Committee expressed deep concerns at the number of children experiencing pain inducing techniques and seclusion, noting their disproportionate use on disabled children and minority ethnic groups. It called for a ban, without exception on the use of (i) tasers and other harmful devices; (ii) strip searches on children; and (iii) solitary confinement, isolation, seclusion and restraint as disciplinary measures in schools, alternative care and health settings. The UN Committee called for statutory guidance and monitoring on the use of restraint to ensure it is used only as a measure of last resort and exclusively to prevent harm to the child or others – never as a disciplinary measure.
  • Physical punishment: Scotland was praised for its ban on physical punishment by parents/carers. The UN Committee called for strong monitoring of the law’s implementation and impact in order to inform measures aimed at promoting attitudinal changes. It also called for strengthened awareness raising for parents, teachers and professionals on positive parenting methods.
  • Child victims: the UN Committee was concerned by the high prevalence of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. It said child victims must have prompt access to child-sensitive, multisectoral interventions and support such as the Barnahus model. The UN Committee noted Scotland’s Bairns’ Hoose Standards and said support must be available for and meet the needs of all victims of violence.
  • Childcare: the UN Committee called for sufficient resources to be allocated to childcare and for eligibility to be expanded. It identified the need for specific actions regarding children in poverty, living in rural areas and for families with irregular work patterns.
  • Young carers: teachers and other professionals should get training to help them identify young carers and provide the support they need. The UN Committee also made recommendations around mental health support for young carers and addressing educational inequalities that they face.
  • Care Experienced children: the UN Committee made extensive recommendations including: increased family support at the edges of care; establishing an ‘opt out’ independent and child-friendly advocacy service for all children in care; ensuring access to specialised mental health support; new laws to make sure children are only moved far away from their home town as a last resort; children’s views must be heard in decisions affecting them; professionals must have the skills to support children’s views to be heard and respected; support for maintaining contact with family; increased placement stability; support for care leavers.
  • Children with a parent in prison: the UN Committee said the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in decisions, including sentencing, and that alternatives to prison should be considered. It also called for action to support family contact, including financial support for visits and remote contact.
  • Disabled children: the recommendations make numerous calls in relation to disabled children. Examples include: a call on governments to review the specific impacts of welfare reform on families with disabled children; reduce diagnostic waiting times; strengthen support for social integration; strengthen support for disabled children’s participation in decision making.
  • Child poverty: child poverty is a clear theme throughout the recommendations. The UN Committee noted "with deep concern the large number of children living in poverty, food insecurity and homelessness". Specific calls included: abolish the two-child limit and benefit cap; increase affordable housing; phase out use of temporary accommodation; strengthen measures to address food insecurity – including through the expansion of free school meals; strengthen monitoring and accountability systems.
  • Mental health: deep concern was expressed at the state of children’s mental health. Calls were made around strengthening infant mental health, access to community-based services, reducing waiting times, ending the use of adult psychiatric wards for children, and placing an increased focus on prevention.
  • Climate change: the UN Committee urged governments to reduce emissions, pass and implement laws on air quality, involve children in decision making and to promote climate change awareness and preparedness in schools.
  • Education: a range of calls to action were made around addressing educational inequalities experienced by children in poverty, migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking children, young carers, disabled children and other children whose rights are most at risk. Specific calls included the need to ensure inclusive education within mainstream schools, limiting the use of exclusions so they are only ever used as a last resort and prohibited in primary schools; action to address bullying; action to ensure education is anti-racist; making children's rights education a mandatory part of the curriculum.
  • Right to play, rest, leisure, cultural and artistic life: the UN Committee called on governments to develop a strategy on upholding children’s rights under Article 31 UNCRC and that this must be backed up by resources. It also called for play to be integrated into the curriculum; for equal access to play space; and for action to ensure children are involved in decisions about urban planning, including public transport and the development of play spaces.
  • Migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking children: the UN Committee raised grave concerns around the treatment of asylum-seeking refugee and migrant children. It was heavily critical of the UK’s #RefugeeBanBill and Nationality and Borders Act, questioning their compatibility with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Recommendations included amending these laws to bring them in line with children’s rights; ensuring child-friendly information about asylum processes and available support; action to ensure children’s best interests upheld as a primary consideration in the asylum process; action to ensure children’s views are taken into account; ending the use of unreliable and invasive age assessment practices; age-disputed children should not be removed to third countries; prompt access to services and benefits; unaccompanied children should be granted the same family reunion rights as currently held by adults.
  • Child-justice system: the UN Committee noted the “draconian and punitive” nature of child justice systems within the UK. It called on Scotland to raise its age of criminal responsibility to “at least 14”. It also expressed concerns around the unfair treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds and said that the child justice system should be applied to anyone who was below 18 at the time of the alleged offence. Other recommendations included access to legal aid, ending the use of overnight police custody, and ending the use of solitary confinement in detention settings.
  • Armed forces recruitment; the UN Committee called on the UK Government to consider raising the minimum age of enlistment to 18. It also called for a prohibition on marketing that targets children and for strengthened enlistment safeguards.

Together is pleased to see so many issues highlighted by children, young people and our members being included in the recommendations. We know from experience how powerful these recommendations can be in driving forward change - for example, a recommendation from the UN Committee in 2016 helped drive forward progress on granting children equal protection from assault. We do note, however, that some issues have unfortunately not been included – for example the specific challenges faced by children with a parent or sibling in the armed forces. We would like to reassure our members that we will continue to advocate on these issues nationally and internationally so that they are recognised and addressed. 

We look forward to working alongside children, young people and our members to drive forward implementation of the UN Committee’s recommendations. By using the UN's recommendations as a roadmap, Together commits to work with government, children and young people and wider civil society to ensure that children and young people are the priority for Scotland, and that they are at the heart of every decision we make.