Baroness Massey argues that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should become part of domestic UK legislation.
It is 20 years since the UK government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – has there been significant progress in ensuring children's rights are considered at all levels of decision-making?
Not at all levels of decision-making.
I believe there has been quite a bit of lip service, and there's certainly been reference through amendments to bills, by people who are quite keen on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but I have to say that it's been mainly coming up in amendments from people who have been working, say, for quite a while; people connected with children.
I'm speaking about the Lords now, of course, because I don't know about the Commons, but I suspect it might be the same over there as well. It's the keen people who are pushing it all the time and sometimes not getting the responses that we would have hoped for. It has benefited the voluntary sector in their being able to quote it, but I think as far as Parliament is concerned, it has really been a bit of an uphill struggle.
Why is it so important for the convention to become part of domestic law?
It would make life easier for all bills really, coming through Parliament, because we could then refer back to the Convention instead of having to go through all of the intricacies of all the different aspects of it when we come to a bill. So I think being able to refer directly back would actually be a lot easier.
Is the UK government lagging behind other countries on making children's rights part of domestic legislation?
Yes, I think it is. As far as I know, and I only know from speaking to various commissioners in other countries, it took us quite a while to get a Children's Commission in England, didn't it? We do seem to be having to push quite strongly on all aspects of the Convention when it comes to bills.
Why do you think the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have been more proactive than the government at Westminster on this issue?
Possibly because they're smaller. They had Children's Commissions before England, of course. I also think that there have been some quite clear-cut issues, particularly in Wales, which precipitated the appointment of the Judge Commissioner.
The child molestation stuff in South Wales; I know we've had the same in England, but I think that came before us. I also think that there are people in Scotland and Wales who, for a long time, have been very active in the area of children's rights. Because we are so much more of a complicated structure, it just takes a long time to get through.
In a democratic society, do you not think it is sufficient for the government to be morally accountable to children?
I certainly do. I think that one of the problems is that people get scared when they hear the word 'rights', because I think they think that that would be a free-for-all for children to behave irresponsibly, when in fact the UNICEF UK's Rights Respecting Schools Award scheme
has been brilliant on this, and makes it clear that this is about rights and democracy within the school, and I think that's how we should approach it.
But I do think that people get very twitchy about the word 'rights'.
Do you think further rights-based legislation might provoke objections by some members of both Houses who are already critical of the Human Rights Act?
I think it would, but I think that that doesn't stop us from keeping on trying to explain what we mean by the word 'rights', it's not a free-for-all. We have to keep going, but I think that the word 'rights' is a bit problematic sometimes.
The UK's children's commissioners are warning that child poverty could rise as the UK tackles its economic problems; do you think any rise in child poverty is directly in conflict with the UN Convention?
Yes I do, because I think that if you do have child poverty and a rise in child poverty, it does actually affect children's lives in a very significant way in relation to health and wellbeing, in relation to education and in relation to what rights they have. So I think that because poverty has such a dramatic impact on what I would consider to be children's rights, yes it would have an impact on them.
The coalition government last year gave a commitment to give due regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do you think this has been borne out in their actions?
No, I think that again it's two things – I think it's partly that people actually don't understand the concept of what Rights of the Child is, and they feel therefore quite scared of it. And I think that children get 'tagged on' sometimes as a last-minute thought. For example, the Health Bill, there's been really very little mention of children in that bill as a specific group. And I think that children need to be there as a specific group – so very often, they are not.
Do you think there is a lack of enthusiasm for children's rights among decision-makers and influencers, particularly at Westminster?
It depends who you mean as 'decision-makers'.
At the local level it varies a lot. I think that some people at a local government level are very keen on the Rights of the Child, and some aren't. And that varies from place to place. I think that in Westminster there is a lack of understanding, and the lack of knowledge about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; if you asked 25 MPs how many of them knew about it, I would guess that half of them would say they hadn't, and certainly more than half would not know any detail about it, and some would again be worried about the issue of rights.
So I think that there's a lot of work to do on getting the message across about what the Convention on the Rights of the Child means, and what it is, and how it's good for children, and adults, and society in general.