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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Systematic failures to protect children

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Despite a decrease in child arrests, there remain major concerns about the human rights of children in contact with the justice system.

A new report published yesterday (12 March 2019) by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and Just for Kids Law reveals how national and local government is failing to protect children in England whilst policymakers focus on Brexit, leaving children traumatised, powerless and vulnerable to abuse in many areas of their lives. The State of Children’s Rights in 2018 report includes new data gathered using Freedom of Information requests showing that:

  • Local authorities are making use of a legal loophole to house families in B&B accommodation for longer than the legal limit. 1,641 families with children were housed in council-owned B&Bs and hotel-style accommodation in 2017, almost two thirds (1,056) for longer than 6 weeks, which is the maximum time councils are allowed to house families in private B&Bs.
  • Increasing numbers of children and young people are being housed in independent accommodation which can include B&Bs, hostels, and even tents and caravan parks, many of them for long periods. At least 1,173 children were housed in independent accommodation for longer than 6 months in 2017, including 19 children aged 15 and one aged 14.
  • Police use of Tasers against children is increasing, with 871 uses in 2017 and 839 in the first 9 months of 2018. Tasers were used on children as young as 12 and on 4 occasions children under 10. Tasers were used disproportionately against children from BAME backgrounds, with BAME children accounting for 51% of Taser use (68% by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS)).
  • The use of spit-hoods is increasing year-on-year as more police forces roll out their use. Spit-hoods were found to be used on children as young as 10, with at least 47 uses on children in 2017 and 114 incidents in the first nine months of 2018, although the true figure is likely to be much higher. Across the whole period requested for 2017 and 2018, BAME children accounted for 34% of spit-hood use nationally and 72% of MPS use.
The report finds little evidence of progress on children’s rights issues over the past year, suggesting that a focus on Brexit is reducing government’s ability to address issues such as rising exclusions from school, mental health problems and child poverty. This means children’s basic needs and development such as their right to feel safe and be protected from abuse, have a roof over their head and play are being side-lined.
The report takes the form of eight thematic stand-alone briefings and the rest of this blog posts summarises some of the key findings from the Policing and Criminal Jutice one.

The review features explicitly on children’s legal rights as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and charts both progress and areas of concern, summarised below.

Progress

There has been continued welcome progress in the reduction of child arrests. In 2017 there were 79,012 child arrests – one every seven minutes – compared with 87,525 in 2016. Arrests of children in England and Wales have reduced by more than two-thirds in the last seven years. 

Welcome initiatives to end the over-criminalisation of children in care have been introduced by some police forces and should be encouraged nationally. Overall, however, there is much work still to be done by police forces to ensure children are treated as children first rather than mini adult offenders.

There are also fewer children entering the youth justice system (YJS) for the first time— 14,400 first time entrants to the YJS in 2017-18 compared to 16,500 in 2016-17. The number of first time entrants has fallen by 86% since 2008 and by 14% in the last year. In 2017-18 26,700 children and young people were cautioned or sentenced – this is an 82% drop over the last 10 years, with a 6% fall in the last year. The fall in the most recent year is the smallest year-on-year fall in the last decade.

The Law Commission has published its draft sentencing code and accompanying report intended to consolidate all sentencing law into one piece of legislation. The report recommends that the government use the term ‘child’ for all those aged under 18. This is welcome and would bring the definition of the child in line with the definition in the CRC.

Concerns

The report highlights areas for concern including:

  • Our age of criminal responsibility remains just 10 years old and is out of step with all of Europe and most of the world.
  • The disproportionate use of stop and search, particularly on Black children and young people.
  • The likely racially discriminatory London Gangs Matrix which is also in breach of data protection laws.
  • The use of force on children – — tasers and spit-hoods are again disproportionately used against children from BAME backgrounds.
  • Concerns about the Offensive Weapons Bill which the report (and many other justice commentators) argue is likely to criminalise children without tackling the rise in knife crime.
  • The youth secure estate remains unsafe with rates of violence up compared to previous years and an increased use of restraint.

The report concludes with 13 recommendations to improve the treatment of children by the criminal justice system and the safeguarding of their human rights.

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