Getting with the programme

May 27, 2010

For the past few years I’ve had emails at least twice a week inviting me to shell out £400+ for conferences with catchy titles like ‘Making it Happen For Everyone: The Valuing People Now Strategy One Year On’, or ‘Putting Families First: Delivering Effective Services Locally’. I wondered what would happen post-election to these companies that seemed to have found a nice little earner in the ‘Every Initiative Matters’ agenda.

All of a sudden, the conferences have austere titles such as ‘Road Asset Management’ and ‘Preventing Rent Arrears and Evictions’, with not a colon in sight. You have to admire this speedy adaptation to the zeitgeist.


A logically impossible position

May 26, 2010

Mark Easton has written a very good piece on the conviction of two young boys at the Old Bailey on Monday for the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl. See also Chris Mills’ excellent post on the subject

In any other European country this trial simply could not have happened because the age of criminal responsibility is set a great deal higher, and is usually in line with the age of consent. That seems pretty sensible. As we said repeatedly when the dreadful Sexual Offences Act 2003 was going through parliament, the current position in the UK is completely incoherent. We have an age of consent in order to protect children because we believe that they are not sufficiently mature to understand the nature of consent in sexual encounters. Simultaneously, we hold that somebody six years below that age of consent has sufficient understanding to be tried in an adult court and convicted of a sexual offence. How is that possible?

It is hard to believe that this show-trial has achieved anything positive for any of the children involved in it. The law requires lifetime registration for the two boys, and the little girl has almost certainly learned some pretty traumatic lessons from the entire experience.

I don’t go along with those who criticise the verdict on the basis that the girl kept changing her story – the fact that the judge did not throw the case out, and that the jury (people like the rest of us) found the boys guilty, implies that there was rather more to the evidence than her own word. It does, however, indicate that she was finding the proceedings difficult and stressful. This may or may not have been a situation where normal curiosity got out of hand, and only those who actually heard the whole trial are in any position to say.

What is obvious, though, is that none of these children should have been in a court in the first place. If the two boys involved are engaging in sexually harmful behaviour, then that needs to be addressed through welfare services in order to make sure they don’t grow up into the kind of people dangerous enough actually to belong on the Violent and Sexual Offenders’ Register.

Bloody database

May 26, 2010

You may have seen articles in the press about bloodspots taken from newborn babies being kept for years after the event.

Shortly after birth, the baby’s heel is pricked and the blood transferred to a ‘Guthrie card’ as a series of small spots. These are then used to test for diseases that need immediate action, such as Phenylketonuria and Cystic Fibrosis.

As we mentioned in our ‘Parents’ Privacy Guide’, after these tests are completed, the cards are kept at regional centres. A series of recent FOI requests by Genewatch has discovered that the length of time that they are stored is anything from 18-26+ years.

Mothers are asked for consent, but usually don’t realise that if they consent to the tests (and they would be unwise to refuse these) they are also consenting to long-term storage – and in any case, few women who have just given birth are compos mentis enough to think through the issues, so it’s hardly valid consent.

The position is worrying, not only because the police may get a warrant to search the stored bloodspots in order to match DNA – and, on occasion, have done so – but because there have been several noises from government in the past about sequencing a baby’s entire genome and linking it to their NHS record. The ethical and legal implications of doing this are too enormous to discuss here, and have yet to be debated.

In many European countries, the bloodspots are destroyed as soon as tests are complete. In Scotland, the cards are destroyed after one year, unless consent is sought at the end of that period for two years’ further use. We need far tighter regulation in the rest of the UK.

‘Months’ simply will not do

May 20, 2010

Our celebration at the news that children would no longer be incarcerated in asylum detention centres seems to have been premature.

Child detention ended at the notorious Dungavel centre yesterday. That’s the good news. Fantastic! But hold on, the bad news is that families from Dungavel now have to endure a 9-hour trip in a prison van to the Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire.

In March, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, said there were “troubling” concerns over the welfare of children at Yarl’s Wood, which holds about 300 people. It is also hundreds of miles away from the friends and lawyers of the families originally detained in Dungavel.

Here’s the experience of one mother and her 8-month-old baby who were transferred from Dungavel to Yarl’s Wood yesterday:

‘I told them please don’t send me and my baby in the van for nine hours, she is too young, I asked them to speak to my lawyer. But she just told me, “Look either you go in the van or we will take your baby in a separate van and you won’t see her until you get to Yarl’s Wood.”

According to Robina Qureshi, the Glasgow-based charity director who took the mother’s call, 25 year old Sehar Shebaz had been vomiting since the early hours and baby Wanya was distressed.

Qureshi says Sehar, from Pakistan, who has lived in the UK for three years, has never tried to abscond, and has reported fortnightly to Brand Street Reporting Centre, as required. Indeed, Sehar and Wanya were seized on Monday while reporting at Brand Street as usual, just days after the new government claimed: ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.’

Why were they ever locked up in the first place? She has not failed to report or given any sign that she is about to do a runner. The government has pledged to end the detention of children ‘within months’, claiming that the delay is because alternative arrangements need to be put in place for families. But why are these necessary for families who have been abiding by the conditions and reporting regularly?

If the UK Border Agency is going to carry on with business as usual, then continuing to hold families in detention for the next few ‘months’ is just not good enough. ‘Months’ is long enough for still more children to be traumatised.

If you go to the ‘End Child Detention’ site and look on the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see a model letter to send to your MP. Please, just do it.

ARCH on Twitter

May 18, 2010

Apologies for our silence over the last few days. We’ve been getting the hang of Twitter. If you would like to follow us there, you can find us at

When protection trumps civil rights

May 10, 2010

The Child Rights Information Network has an interesting piece on children’s rights to freedom of expression (Article 13 of the UNCRC)

This sentence particularly caught my eye:

‘…arguments couched in child-protecting language have frequently been used as grounds for child rights violations.’

It’s called ‘Mornington Cresecent Syndrome’: someone shouts ‘child protection’ and all sensible debate must immediately cease. It’s not only freedom of expresssion that is affected by this. It’s that entire corner of the UN Convention that deals with children’s civil rights including, of course, the Article 16 right to privacy.

Yes, protecting children from harm is important, but Convention rights have to be read as a whole. The UNCRC isn’t a salad bowl from which governments -or NGOs – can simply select what they believe to be important. And when protection rights obliterate other sections of the Convention, something has gone very wrong with the balance of proportionality.

Erasing David now online

May 6, 2010

If you missed ‘Erasing David’ on More4 earlier this week, it’s online at Channel 4 for 28 days here.

Brown brushes off the child detention issue

May 4, 2010

End Child Detention has been exchanging letters with Gordon Brown on the appalling and inhumane practice of placing asylum seeking families in detention centres – a practice that has drawn enormous criticism from the prisons inspectorate, the UN, judges, paediatricians, lawyers and NGOs. The correspondence doesn’t inspire optimism that anything will change when his facts aren’t even right. Take this exchange, for instance:

GB ‘in a limited number of cases, detention does prove necessary.’

ECD ‘We disagree that the 1,300 children held in detention centres during the 15 month period between July 2008 and September 2009 amount to ‘a limited number of cases’.’

Or this:

GB ‘the majority of families with children spend just a few days in detention’

ECD: ‘The average length of stay in Yarl’s Wood IRC has actually doubled from 8–16 days, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and Home Office Minister Meg Hillier. HMCIP found that at least a third of child inmates are detained for more than a month.In a recently published briefing note based on a response to a Parliamentary Question, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association found in each of the years 2004 to 2007 that a number of children had been detained in excess of 100 days.’

The whole exchange can be seen here. Recommended reading.

Contactpoint – little extras

May 1, 2010


Ministers spent tens of thousands of pounds on mugs and pens to promote a controversial new children’s database, it was revealed today.

Teachers’ leaders accused the government of squandering £61,000 on the materials for ContactPoint, a multimillion pound register holding personal details of millions of children across England.