Putting children's rights at the heart of social security | CPAG

Putting children's rights at the heart of social security

Published on: 
20 November 2019
Written by: 

Aoife Nolan
Professor of International Human Rights Law, School of Law, University of Nottingham
Member, Council of Europe European Committee of Social Rights

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The fact that more countries have volunteered to be bound by the Convention than any other international human rights treaty reflects the global endorsement of the status of children as right-holders. The UK signed up to the Convention in December 1991, but to what extent is it meeting its obligations?

The Convention sets out a wide-ranging set of rights that, if fully implemented by government, would transform the lives of children living in poverty in the UK. They include the right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s development, including food and housing (Article 27); the right to survival and development (Article 6); the right to benefit from social security (Article 26); and the rights of disabled children to a full and decent life (Article 23). The government is required to implement these rights as quickly and effectively as possible, and must use all the resources it has available to it in order to do so. The Convention states that, in all actions that concern them, the best interests of children should be a primary consideration (Article 3); while children who are capable of forming their own views have the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them (Article 12). Finally, children must not be discriminated against on the basis of their – or their parents’ or caregivers’ – disability, economic and social situation (i.e. poverty) or other status (Article 2).

The rights are not just aspirations. While we cannot rely on Convention rights directly as the basis for actions before UK courts, they impose binding duties on the state as a matter of international law. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child examines the UK’s record in implementing these rights every five years.

Most recently, in its 2016 concluding observations on the UK, the Committee flagged the high rate of child poverty – particularly in Wales and Northern Ireland – and its disproportionate effect on particularly vulnerable groups of children (e.g., BAME children and disabled children). It expressed concern about policy measures such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap that limit families’ entitlement to social security. It also flagged the increase in child homelessness, as well as amendments to the Child Poverty Act that removed the statutory target to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and the UK and devolved governments’ obligations to produce child poverty strategies. The Committee urged the UK to set up clear accountability mechanisms for the eradication of child poverty and to conduct ‘a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of the full range of social security and tax credit reforms introduced between 2010 and 2016 on children’. In particular, it said, the UK should revise the amendments to the Child Poverty Act in order to ‘fully respect the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration, taking into account the different impacts of the reform on different groups of children, particularly those in vulnerable situations’. The Committee made clear the glaring shortcomings of the UK’s social security system in child rights terms.

Crucially, the UNCRC establishes that children are not objects of charity but are important social actors to whom the state owes a range of duties when it comes to social security. While conversations about rights in the UK often centre on the role of the courts, the most important function of the rights under the UNCRC is as a framework for action by government outside of the courts: law and policy-making, budget decision-making, institutional design and service provision. These rights should serve as the assessment criteria for how our social security system is conceptualised, designed and delivered. Fully implementing the UNCRC – and reflecting its focus on the child’s dignity, equality and flourishing – would have direct and significant implications for UK children’s entitlement to, access to and experience of social security.

28 years after the UK became a party to the UNCRC, the time has come for a child rights-based approach to social security here. It’s clear that there is a strong desire to see this happen from civil society. CPAG’s Secure Futures project focuses on a rights-based social security system, as does Children England’s Childfair State Inquiry. The Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Equality and Human Rights Commission of Great Britain have all highlighted the implications of human rights, including child rights, for social security provision. At the political level, the Rights of Children and Young People (Wales) Measure 2011 requires that Welsh Ministers must, ‘when exercising any of their functions’ – including those related to social security that are not reserved to Westminster – have due regard to the requirements of the UNCRC. In Scotland, the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 states that ‘social security is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights’, while the Scottish Government today committed to directly incorporating the UNCRC into Scottish law – including those provisions related to social security.

The tax and welfare reforms introduced over the last decade have particularly affected children and their rights. While we are told that austerity is over, child poverty is set to rise. Children need action now. The UNCRC gives us the framework that we need to provide a socially just social security system that ensures a secure future for children and treats them with dignity. The UK must deliver for its children.


Secure Futures blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of CPAG.