12 June 2004

Let's nurture our kids, not bash them

By Ian Sinclair

Often we hear or read that "kids today are getting away with murder", are "out of control", "know all their rights" and are therefore immune to discipline.

But this is a refrain throughout history. In 500 BC, Socrates felt the "youth today" have "bad manners, contempt for authority" and "disregard for older people." In 1843, Lord Ashley told the House of Commons "the morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly." A Chief Constable in 1904 complained, "our young people have no idea of discipline or subordination."

Children probably change little, then, but the real issue is how we nurture them and protect their rights. In 1991, the UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a comprehensive international treaty that took ten years to develop, which grants children in all parts of the world a comprehensive set of social, political and civil rights. It binds the UK under international law and we are obliged to comply with its principles and provisions. But does the UK really meet the spirit of the convention?

In its 2002 report the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded the UK's record on children's human rights in the youth justice system is worsening. England and Wales sentenced 7,600 under-18s to custody in 2001 up from 4,000 in 1992 - a 90% increase. During the same period the number of under-15s incarcerated rose by an amazing 800%. It is no surprise then the rate of custodial sentencing for under-18s in the UK is more than ten times that in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Spain.

The Committee was also "extremely concerned" at the conditions children experience in detention noting the "very poor staff-child ratio, high levels of violence, bullying, self harm and suicide, the inadequate rehabilitative opportunities" and "the solitary confinement in inappropriate conditions for a long time as a disciplinary measure."

This unwholesome culture pervades our homes too - the NSPCC recently found approximately one in six British parents reported hitting children with implements such as belts, slippers or wooden spoons. The current legislation on this issue dates back to 1860, with the judge who set the legal precedent deeming physical punishment acceptable "to correct the evil of the child." Twice the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended the UK ban all physical punishment, and in 1998 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that British law does not provide adequate protection for children from assault by parents.

Rather than encouraging the best in children in trouble, it seems our culture re-inforces the worst - violence and aggression. This is compounded by child poverty rates which have risen dramatically over the past 30 years, despite a fall in both average family size and the numbers of families with children.

3.6 million UK children are currently living in poverty. This is one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe, which has grown from 1 in 10 in 1979 to just under 1 in 3 today. In contrast, Finland, Denmark and Sweden have a child poverty rate of below 1 in 10. Poverty greatly affects a child's human rights and life chances. In 2001, the Treasury released a report that noted children growing up in low-income households are "more likely than others to have poor health, to do badly at school, become teenage mothers or come into early contact with the police, to be unemployed as adults or to earn lower wages."

It can be seen then, that contrary to popular opinion, the future for UK children, and their rights, is in a sorry state, lagging far behind our European neighbours. Growing up in Britain in 2004 is tough. The Children's Rights Alliance for England agrees, noting that progress on children's rights "is painfully slow".

From now on the refrain "kids today!" should be met with the fact that complaints about children have been a constant throughout recorded history; the assertion that we need to be tougher on crime needs to be countered with the fact that the British criminal justice system is already the most punitive in Europe; and the person who believes "things have gone too far" in favour of the child should be reminded that in many areas the UK's record on children's rights is actually getting worse.

Rather than pursuing policies that exclude children from the community, we should be working towards their inclusion and rehabilitation. In short, it is time to change the way we respond to children in trouble.