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The rights of youth

The Handbook of Children's Rights: Comparative Policy and Practice. Edited by Bob Franklin. Routledge #163;13.99. - 0 415 11060 2

As a nation, we seem deeply divided about children's rights. When the idea of the UN Convention on Children's Rights was first mooted in 1979, the British Government regarded the proposal as unnecessary. Once the convention was in place, the UK government ratified it reluctantly, and entered the maximum allowed number of reservations.

Yet the convention has had the intended effect of putting children's rights on the political agenda, and the Labour Party included a proposal for a minister for children in its 1992 manifesto.

This valuable book gives an overview of developments since the convention. Its scope is international, consistent with the convention itself, though some of the issues which we might think relevant mainly to poorer countries, such as child poverty, are real issues in contemporary Britain too.

But most readers will find particular interest in the charting of the uncertain progress which the idea of children's rights has had in various areas of our national policies. In education, one effect of the reforms of the past few years has been to centralise power, away from schools and local education authorities, and towards Whitehall and quangos.

In Tony Jeffs's hard-hitting paper, the rhetoric of power to parents and governors masks a reducing field to manoeuvre in, as budget reductions follow shrinking pupil numbers and the national curriculum transfers autonomy from schools.

Inevitably, the scope for children as pupils to contribute constructively to discussions about the running of the school is curtailed. Age restrictions have taken them off school councils or rendered these bodies powerless. Jeffs argues that pupils have no legitimate outlet for expressing dissatisfaction or seeking change and that the results are shown in discipline and referrals for special needs assessments. Schools cannot be both educational institutions and warehouses, and the role of compulsion in education must be reconsidered.

However, central government departments do not all think in the same way,and there is a striking contrast between education and the Department of Health. The 1989 Children Act replaced parental rights with parental responsibilities and required the views of children to be considered in court proceedings affecting them. This was largely the result of the famous case of Victoria Gillick, who did not want doctors to be able to give contraceptive advice to an under-age child without parental consent. This went all the way to the House of Lords, which ruled that parental power should decrease as children became able to take decisions for themselves.

Although this principle is enshrined in the Act, Christina Lyon and Nigel Parton point out that courts have sometimes evaded it, for example in regard to consent to psychiatric assessment. Nevertheless, the thrust of the Act has had a significant effect. Some local authorities have appointed children's rights officers, and Shane Ellis and Annie Franklin give some telling examples of their work. For example, it is common to advertise children who need families, but it is also becoming commoner to consult the children beforehand and obtain their consent. The issue is not whether the action is well intentioned and reasonable: no one doubts that it is, but it is becoming accepted practice that decisions should not be taken without consultation, including when those affected are children.

Perhaps the main obstacle to treating children's rights seriously is the demonising of children's criminal behaviour. No sensible person wants to minimise its seriousness, yet rational discussion of events such as the James Bulger case can become almost impossible.

Our criminal justice system wavers between a welfare and a justice approach (of course both are necessary) and the system itself is in constant change, according to whether the Home Office or the Department of Health is making the running. Barry Anderson argues that the system is complicated, fragmented and inconsistent and argues that children in trouble should be seen as young people first and offenders second.

There are many areas where the children's rights approach championed in this book can help focus thinking. The rights of disabled children and of children who care for dependent adult relatives receive attention. The fragmentation of provision for early years continues to frustrate. We continue to allow physical assaults on children that would be illegal on adults. Despite some omissions (for example children's employment) Bob Franklin has put together a policy agenda for the future.

Stephen Barber is controller of commissioning for Barnet Community Services.

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