The COVID emergency has demonstrated how easily children are left with no voice, even as governments struggle to deliver policy aimed to benefit them, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said today.
The Commissioner, Bruce Adamson said that crucially, policy has been created that excludes the voices of those who are most affected.
There has been no direct input from children and young people into decisions around the cancellation of exams, for example, or the change to a new method of assessment. There is also no representation of children or young people on the Scottish Government’s Education Recovery Group.
As Scotland moves into the next phases of its response and starts to plan ahead, The Commissioner urged the Scottish Government to observe its commitment to include children and young people in decision making. He said:
“The pandemic has revealed that we’ve not made as much progress on children’s rights as we would like to think in Scotland.
“Under pressure, too many of our systems and structures reverted to treating children as passive recipients of charity and welfare rather than active agents in their own lives and valued members of our communities.”
Mr Adamson also pointed out that the impact of emergency legislation – created at speed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic – on vulnerable groups of children, was impossible to properly assess due to serious gaps in data collection.
“The Scottish and UK Governments responded to the pandemic by enacting emergency legislation intended to protect public health; this also impacted significantly on a wide range of children’s human rights,” he said.
“Some of these measures temporarily overturned and/or bypassed human rights protections for children that had been long established in Scots law.
“What the pandemic has revealed is that across central and local government we have had inconsistent definitions of ‘vulnerable’no collective data on the total numbers of children who are living in poverty, suffering food insecurity, been digitally excluded, deprived of their liberty in various settings, receiving mental health support services or needing additional support for learning.
“Without this data it is hard to see how children’s needs are being met, no matter how well-intentioned the legislation is.
“While the need for emergency measures is easing, there are still important decisions to be made and by using rights as a foundation, those decisions will be fairer, more relevant and more effective for children.”
Numerous reports and research have revealed the widespread impact of the pandemic and of the lockdown on the mental health of children and young people. There is a now an urgent need to rethink mental health support based on the calls consistently made by children themselves via groups like the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Task Force, to make support available more quickly and directly.
International law requires that any interference with human rights be lawful, necessary and proportionate; this requires the Scottish Government to ensure its decisions are grounded in a rights-based approach.
However, during the pandemic the Scottish Government has not routinely assessed the impact of law and policy responses to Covid-19 on children.
The Commissioner said that at the heart of future decision-making should be a commitment by Scottish Government to carry out a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) on all legislation affecting children and young people.
“In the absence of a comprehensive approach to ensuring human rights compliance by the Scottish Government, my office commissioned an independent assessment of what the legal and policy response to the coronavirus pandemic means for children’s human rights in Scotland.
“This is the biggest children’s rights impact assessment on COVID-19 conducted anywhere in the world and it assembles an extraordinary amount of evidence and expert analysis from the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland.”
The report which has already garnered significant international interest covers nine themes including mental health, education, poverty and children in detention.
The Commissioner’s recommendations include Incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as soon as possible in this parliamentary term; monitoring and scrutiny of the powers and emergency legislation and the rigorous collection and evaluation of data.
He said: “Incorporation of the UNCRC is the most important legislative action we can take to protect the rights of children in Scotland.
“When the Scottish Government agreed to bring forward the legislation in November 2019, it said that every devolved body, every health board, every council and the Scottish Government itself would be legally obliged to make sure they respect children’s rights.
“Incorporation will provide a vital touchstone, including legal redress, to protect the rights of children and young people in Scotland especially when we’re faced with future emergencies.”
The Commissioner also wants to see an increase in the ability of MSPs and MPs to hold governments to account against their human rights obligations. This should include strengthening the use of impact assessments, regular human rights training for MSPs MPs, and parliamentary staff and consideration of how children and young people can directly contribute to scrutiny.
Abigail McGill, 15, a member of the Commissioner’s Young Advisors Group which has been working extensively on COVID issues said:
“Life-changing decisions being made during coronavirus like exams being cancelled has felt like playing a game and every time it should be our turn, someone skips over us and we end up left behind and forgotten. Feeling out of control with no say has made young people’s mental health worse. We need to be involved in key decisions about our lives and it is even more important when life still feels scary and unclear for us all.”
Kay Tisdall, Professor of Childhood Policy at the University of Edinburgh on behalf of the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland said:
“The independent CRIA presents a searching analysis of COVID-19 emergency measures. The measures were made to protect the rights to survival, development and health, with some positive impacts for children and their families. But the analysis shows too frequently a lack of attention to children’s best interests let alone ensuring recognition and support for children’s rights to privacy, information and participation. We need to commit the resources – and take the time now in preparation for the next lockdown or the next crisis – to know about the diversity of children and particularly those children who are at most risk of human rights violations. We need to plan ahead to ensure that all children under 18 have their rights respected.”