UN says both Scottish and UK governments need to improve children's human rights

A UN committee says Scottish ministers urgently need to speed up the introduction of a children’s human rights bill

The United Nations says both the UK and Scottish governments need to do “much more” to improve children’s human rights, in a verdict likely to reignite a row over devolution.

This comes as the SNP-Green Government has still not set a date to debate the introduction of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Holyrood.

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The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill was passed unanimously by MSPs in 2021.

The United Nations says both the Scottish and UK governments need to improve children's human rights. Image: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images.The United Nations says both the Scottish and UK governments need to improve children's human rights. Image: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images.
The United Nations says both the Scottish and UK governments need to improve children's human rights. Image: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images.

However, Scottish secretary Alistair Jack referred the Bill onto the UK Supreme Court, which ruled it was not competent as it impacted on matters reserved to Westminster.

At the time the Scottish Government vowed to amend the Bill so it could incorporate the UN treaty into Scots law. However, a date for this has still not been set.

Scottish Labour criticised the fall-out of this, accusing both Holyrood and Westminster of turning the issue into a constitutional debate.

Last month Holyrood’s equalities, human rights and civil justice committee told social justice secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville she urgently needed to set out a timetable for when this would happen. Now a new report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child says Scottish ministers urgently need to bring this legislation back to Holyrood.

The report also says the SNP-Green Government needs to take action on poverty and mental health provision by improving community services, and “noted with deep concern the number of children living in poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness”. It also said benefits need to be increased and the two-child benefits cap must be abolished.

And the body criticised the Scottish Government for continuing to allow those under the age of 18 to marry. However, it did praise Scotland’s ban on physically punishing children.

All in all, the UN committee made 200 separate recommendations. This comes after a group of youngsters went to a UN evidence session in Geneva.

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One of them was Daisy, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament. She said: “I felt the committee’s questions to the government truly echoed what we as children and young people had told them mattered to us.

“I implore the government to commit to addressing all the committee’s recommendations and providing a clear action plan which is accessible to children in order to be held to account.”

The committee’s report is also heavily critical of the UK government, saying its illegal migration bill in its existing form violates children’s rights under both the UN Rights of the Child Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

It says the UK government has an obligation “to ensure children’s right to nationality, to seek asylum and to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration, as well as to prevent their prolonged detention and removal”.

The committee’s report also touched on the issue of gender reform. In December last year, the Scottish Parliament passed a Bill to make it easier for a trans person to legally change their gender – legislation that was subsequently blocked by the UK government.

It now says the whole of the UK needs to “recognise the right to identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, and put in place measures to ensure that all adolescents enjoy their freedom of expression and respect for their physical and psychological integrity, gender identity and emerging autonomy”.

Nick Hobbs, acting Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, said the committee’s observations were a “powerful reminder” to both governments on how much more work they need to do.

He said: “It’s vital that they step up and keep the promises they have made to children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee quite rightly called out the unacceptable delay to incorporating this into Scots law.”

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He says the Scottish Government must now bring this Bill back to Parliament before the summer recess starts on June 30. Mr Hobbs added: “Enough time has been wasted.”

A Scottish Government said: “We thank the committee for their work on this review and will consider its recommendations carefully.

“We remain absolutely committed to Scotland being the first UK nation to incorporate the UNCRC into domestic law, ensuring we are a country that respects, protects and fulfils children’s rights. Work to achieve this is well underway, including engagement with UK government lawyers to try to reduce the risk of another referral to the Supreme Court on a revised Bill, which could cause further delays. Legal issues around the Bill are complex and consideration of these issues has taken longer than hoped. It is, however, important to get the Bill right for children now and for generations of children to come.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “The government’s Illegal Migration Bill sends a clear message that the exploitation of children, used by traffickers and ferried across the channel, cannot continue.

“We must not create incentives for people smuggling gangs to target unaccompanied children or for adults to pretend to be children – taking these measures will send a clear message that children cannot be targeted and cross the Channel in small boats for the purpose of starting a new life in the UK.”



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