UK Family Law Reform

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Law creates underclass of child criminals

Rosemary Bennett 9th June 2008

Britain has been condemned as a bleak place for children, where thousands are needlessly criminalised for misdemeanours and where the gap between the education and health of the rich and poor is growing.

The four Children’s Commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have issued a report for the United Nations condemning the punitive youth justice system and the vilification of teenagers as yobs.

The commissioners say that Britain is breaching the Children’s Rights Convention in several areas.

The number of crimes committed by children fell between 2002 and 2006, but, according to research cited by the report, convictions rose by 26 per cent, leading to fears that a young criminal underclass is building. In the past misdemeanours were dealt with by cautions; the trend now is for police to bring charges.

Britain detains more children than any other country in Western Europe, with 2,900 under18s locked up in the past year. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990, yet there has never been a public inquiry into conditions in youth detention centres.

The report for the UN was written jointly by Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Keith Towler, for Wales, Kathleen Marshall, for Scotland, and Patricia Lewsley, for Northern Ireland. The four were appointed by Labour as the guardians of children’s interests.

The UN is assessing whether the Government has fulfilled its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Britain is assessed on its performance every five years.

In 2003 the UN criticised the UK for being one of the few developed countries to allow children to be smacked – a punishment that breaches the convention. The Government says that it has no intention of changing the law.

The commissioners’ report cautions that antisocial behaviour legislation has resulted in more children being drawn into the criminal justice system.

Children who receive ASBOs can have their names and photographs published – a breach of their right to privacy under the UN convention, the authors said. They also attacked the use of the legislation to break up groups of law-abiding young people who are simply “hanging around”.

The report was bleak about children’s health and education services. One in ten children aged between 5 and 16 has a clinically recognisable mental disorder, it said.

Improvements to the health of poorer children have been minimal, while richer youngsters are fitter and better fed than ever before. There is increasing evidence that poorer children are not getting access to proper health care, particularly dental care. More than 1.3 million children live with parents with drink problems. Teenage girls who live in deprived areas are still four times more likely to become pregnant than those in affluent areas.

The report also questioned whether enough was being done to end child poverty. Poor families pay out a bigger proportion of their income in tax than richer families and punitive prepay tariffs often mean that they pay much higher prices for gas and electricity.

The report accuses the media of consistently portraying young people as thugs or yobs. Research found that in 2005 71 per cent of all media stories about young people were negative and that one third of articles mentioning young people were about crime.

“The Government must urgently address the widely held intolerance of children in public spaces,” the report says.

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