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Breakfast Friday, 4 October, 2002, 05:19 GMT 06:19 UK
Do we mistreat our children?
Britain is not doing enough to protect children from violence, exploitation, and poverty.

That's according to a UN report out later today which says we're failing to live up to the obligations of the international convention on the rights of the child.

Singled out for criticism is Britain's failure to outlaw corporal punishment of children.

But the UN also criticises the high rate of child poverty in this country - and our attitude towards criminal justice for young offenders.

At around 7.10am this morning (Friday) we'll be debating the issue of smacking, with Mary Marsh of the NSPCC and agony Aunt Anne Atkins.

Past UN concerns
Corporal punishment
Sexual abuse within families
Child poverty
Youngsters sleeping rough
High teenage pregnancy rate
Low age of criminal responsibility
The authors of the UN report, a committee of international child welfare experts, are following up their last UK study in 1995.

It expressed serious concerns on issues ranging from high levels of violence against children to the teenage pregnancy rate.

According to the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and child protection charity the NSPCC, the latest verdict is that many recommendations have still not been implemented.

But the report is also expected to applaud a fall in the level of child poverty, which Tony Blair has pledged to eradicate by 2020.

Criminal responsibility

However, with nearly one out of every three children living in relative poverty, the level remains well above the European Community average.

Another major area of concern is Britain's low age of criminal responsibility.

The child rights convention says youngsters should be put in custody only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period.

But since it was ratified by the UK in 1991, the number of children locked up in young offenders' institutions has almost doubled.

Child abuse

Many other European countries do not treat law-breaking children as criminals until they are aged 13.

In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is eight. In England and Wales it is 10.

British children are routinely locked up in young offenders' institutions condemned by inspectors as "institutionalised child abuse" and "unacceptable in a civilised society".

Asylum seekers' children are also detained.


The government is proud of its record of achievement for UK children

John Denham
Minister for young people
And 14 children have killed themselves in prison accommodation since 1995.

The report is authored by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

It is expected to be especially critical of policy on smacking children in England and Wales.

The convention says children must be protected from "all forms of physical or mental violence".

Corporal punishment

But the government has decided not to change an ancient law allowing parents to use "reasonable chastisement", and the Scottish Executive has dropped plans to ban corporal punishment before the age of three.

NSPCC ambassador Lady Walmsley believes a change in the law would have sent a message that hitting children does not work.

"It is a lesson in bad behaviour, ineffective as a means of discipline," she told BBC News.

Every one of the very large number of child deaths caused by violence and neglect in the UK starts with a smack, according to Lady Walmsley.

Cherie Booth QC
Cherie Booth has criticised UK policy on children

She said the 10 countries where it was illegal to hit children had seen a considerable reduction in child abuse.

The government has also been criticised for not introducing a Children's Rights Commissioner for England, a post already active in Wales and on its way for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Cherie Booth QC - wife of the prime minister and president of children's charity Barnardo's - last month called on the government to appoint a children's commissioner for the whole of the UK.

Speaking in advance of the report's publication, John Denham, minister for young people, said the government was "proud" of its record of achievement for UK children.

He said there were 1.4m fewer children living in poverty now than in 1996/ 97, teenage pregnancy was down and there were more teenage mothers in education and training or work.

"We expect the UN to criticise our policy on smacking but we believe our policy reflects common sense views of the vast majority of people," he said.

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 ON THIS STORY
Is smacking child abuse?
Agony Aunt Anne Atkins debates with Mary Marsh of the NSPCC
UN Children's report
James Westhead reporting
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10 Jun 02 | Politics
07 Mar 02 | N Ireland
28 Nov 01 | Europe
08 Dec 01 | England
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