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  • Kirsten

Protecting Children's Rights

In the next session at Westminster, the Conservative government will have serious questions to answer over their attitude to children’s rights.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights children should enjoy. The convention was adopted by the UN in 1989 and ratified by the UK in 1991. It has been ratified by all UN member states except for the USA, making it the most widely ratified human rights treaty.

Scotland has a long record of promoting and protecting children’s rights, including the unique children’s hearings system, which started in 1971, and creating the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People in 2003. Under the SNP, the Scottish Government continues to make respect for children’s rights a priority. The commitment to eradicate child poverty has been put in law; the first delivery plan and annual progress report were published in June 2019.

Before breaking up for the election, the Scottish Parliament agreed – unanimously - to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots Law. The parliament’s intention is to move children’s rights from being just statements in an international document to rights built into the fabric of decision-making, and that can be enforced in the courts.

I asked the House of Commons Library for their view on the practical difference between ‘ratification’ and ‘incorporation’. The response I received left no doubt about how to really implement international human rights treaties: “International law has to be applied by Parliament domestically for it to have any domestic effect.

“After ratification and the entry into force of a treaty … the international legal obligations from that treat apply to the UK on the international level – it is still bound by obligations it has accepted on the international level. But more needs to be done for these to be binding in domestic law, and enforceable by domestic courts.”

In its consultation before bringing forward its proposals, the Scottish Government asked if it should follow the ‘incorporation’ approach to UNCRC or continue making specific changes through different pieces of domestic legislation. The response was clear; children in Scotland should have the same rights as children all around the world and this is best achieved by incorporating the convention in law. This allows rights-holders to simply refer to the text of the convention to identify the rights they are seeking to enforce. This is the same approach as adopted in the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic UK law.

Alister Jack, the Tory Scottish Secretary, said the UK Government would challenge the Scottish Parliament’s decision in the Supreme Court. When asked about this by Ian Blackford, the Prime Minister’s sole defence was that the UK Government ratified the convention 30 years ago. He failed to address the question of why really protecting the rights of children, by making the convention rights enforceable, so threatens his Government that he will resort to legal action against the Scottish Parliament to stop this happening in Scotland.

The Prime Minister likes to talk up his government’s ‘world-leading’ initiatives. There is nothing world leading about signing up to international human rights treaties and then leaving the rights unenforceable in domestic law. Ahead of the 2019 Westminster General Election, the Children’s Commissioner for England called for the ‘full, direct and urgent’ incorporation of the UNCRC into domestic law in England.

Countries like Norway, Belgium and Finland, have shown the way on this issue by incorporating the UNCRC into domestic law. Scotland shares the ambition to transform the lives and life chances of our children and young people. The Prime Minister’s decision to turn protection of Scotland’s children into a constitutional football demonstrates all that is wrong with Westminster’s view of how the UK should work. My SNP colleagues and I will take a close interest in the actions of the UK Government as it tries to use the Supreme Court to hold Scotland back.


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