Monday, 23 November 2015


A sneaky amendment to the Immigration Bill 2015 passed its second reading in the House of Commons last week, and means desperate families whose appeal rights have been exhausted, and whose circumstances are not deemed “exceptional” enough to be supported by the Home Office, will no longer receive a children-in-need assessment. The Bill reaches its report stage and third reading on 1 December. Children In Need assessments take place under Section 17 of The Children Act 1989, and have been used by social workers to champion the cause of families seeking asylum, offering the chance to keep families together.

Jonathan Price, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, said this change could reduce support and create an inconsistent system for vulnerable children. “By taking the support for many families with no recourse to public funds outside of the Children Act framework and replacing it with immigration legislation, it takes the focus away from safeguarding issues. The assessments of need are likely therefore to be more limited in scope. “A breadth of safeguarding issues at play with vulnerable children and families—exploitation, domestic violence, neglect—could go unnoticed under the new assessment framework.”

Families with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status are restricted from accessing mainstream benefits including welfare and housing. Price added there were questions around what level and type of support would be provided to meet the needs of children since the raft of case law discussing what will be provided for this group, under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, would no longer apply.

The intention of The Immigration Bill is clearly to reduce the numbers of families receiving vital support thereby acting as a deterrent to asylum seekers. Assessments could be undertaken by non-social work staff in Local Authorities without the skills or compassionate values needed to determine what support is needed.

Provisions under immigration legislation, unlike under the Children Act 1989, define need by basic measures such as the amount of money in your bank account and could miss complex areas of need like exploitation and neglect. Campaigners have said that these new measures would not ensure vulnerable children were safeguarded.

 Councillor David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said:  “There is a question of whether these changes are realistic. Are MPs genuinely intending to vote through Parliament a bill that says certain children,  because of their immigration status, will be uniquely disadvantaged? “It is highly unlikely Parliament really wants to do this. We are extremely clear we have an unambiguous duty of care under UK law and it is likely children would have to be supported anyway under other areas of legislation.”

The Children Act 1989 (Section 17)- lays a duty on local authorities to safeguard, promote the welfare and provide services for children in need. The definition of ‘in need’ has three elements:

  • The child is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for the child of services by a local authority or;
  • The child’s health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without provision for the child of such services or;
  • The child is disabled.

Children traumatised by war, terror, homelessness, the death of a parent and fleeing persecution with their families are clearly eligible for support under the Children Act 1989. This is why the Tory government wants to exclude them from its provisions. Asylum seeking children are clearly at risk of developing social, emotional and psychological problems as a result of their recent experiences. They probably require the most intensive levels of support of any group of children in Britain.

The UK was one of the last countries to sign up to the UN Convention on the of Rights of the Child 1989 and has a poor record of supporting families compared to other developed countries. A recent Unicef survey ranked Britain 16th out of 29 developed countries for the welfare of children, behind Portugal, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.  he report warned that spending cuts to youth and children’s services could lead to a reversal of the gains in recent years. Britain has the second-worst mortality rate for children in western Europe and the highest levels of mental illness in under-25s. Poor children are twice as likely to die as the more affluent. 

The UN Convention indicates on a human rights basis what rights children ought to enjoy and what the obligations of signatory states are. Three principles underpin the Convention:

  • All the rights under the convention must be available to all children without discrimination of any kind
  • The child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning them
  • The child’s views must be considered and taken into account in all matters affecting them

The Convention goes beyond the principles contained in the Children Act 1989 and is likely to be used by social workers determined to ensure children in asylum-seeking families are not neglected. First the Children Act established that courts have to regard the child’s welfare as the paramount consideration. But under Article 3 of the Convention the child’s welfare is a primary consideration across a wider range of settings where decisions about the child’s welfare are made. So decisions about school exclusion or asylum hearings could be appealed under this article. Three other main principles enshrined in the UN Convention reinforce the philosophy of safeguarding children and young people:

  • Children have unique needs which set them apart from adults
  • The best environment for a child is within a protective and nurturing family
  • Governments and adults in general should be committed to acting in the best interest of the child

These rights are categorised into general rights to life, expression, information and privacy. More specifically the child should have protective rights against being exploited or abused. Civil rights are highlighted including the right to nationality and personal identity, along with the right to stay with the family. Alongside these is the acknowledgment that children should be in an environment which encourages development and offers a foundation for welfare. Special circumstance rights include children in war zones or other challenging situations were needs for safety have to be considered. The Children Act 1989 confirmed many of these ideas into British law and the Children Act 2004 continues the defence of children’s rights including the right of protection from harm and to education, growth, health and well being.


Thursday, 5 February 2015



UK politicians have just announced plans to improve mental health services for children and young people. But it's a case of too little too late as well as a pre-election gimmick to garner good headlines. The problem of child and adolescent mental health has been known about for the past 20 years, yet it has been ignored or treated in a tokenistic way by all major political parties in or out of government. Suicide is now the second-most common cause of death in young men and women in Britain, yet stigma and shame continue to blight those trying to cope. Three young people commit suicide every day while tens of thousands self-harm or suffer serious depression and anxiety preventing them studying or in some cases even attending school. Working class children feature disproportionately in the numbers affected. School teachers and Parents are crying out for the resources to tackle the problem.

Official statistics show the volume and complexity of child and adolescent mental health problems has increased rapidly during the past five years of austerity. Public health enquiries and other research has highlighted the need for a response to meet the overwhelming demand which has stretched existing provision beyond its capacity to cope adequately. Government policy directives encourage multi-disciplinary and more interprofessional working methods as part of the strategic response yet they do not provide any more finance to increase service provision. Demand has outstripped supply meaning that in nearly every part of the country waiting times for assessment are in excess of 8 weeks, while it can take 6 months for treatment to begin. That is a long time to leave a child and family suffering.

The traditional model of service delivery in community child and adolescent mental health care (CAMHS) in Britain began formally over fifty years ago, when the first child guidance clinic opened in East London in 1948 after earlier limited developments to help children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.  This was the result after pressure from Education and Health officials since the beginning of the twentieth century, who were concerned about the abilities and behavioural problems of children brought into the new state compulsory education system. It comprised of an interprofessional team composed of various professionals with Health, Education and Social Work backgrounds who all brought their separate training, theoretical understandings, and working practices under one clinical umbrella.

Their aims were to intervene with children and families referred for help in a variety of ways where there were concerns about a child’s mental health, behaviour, or emotional development Each team member had distinctive skills and worked with the child, parents, or whole family. In the next twenty five years child guidance clinics grew in number and became accessible to more and more children and families. However, their success in offering support to parents resulted in increasing demand, creation of long waiting lists, delays in treatment, and pressure to prioritise the most urgent and worrying cases. These would invariably include children with severe and longstanding mental health problems, aggressive disturbed behaviour, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, depression, acute anxiety, and suicidal behaviour.

 One of the difficulties highlighted in a seminal piece of research 20 years ago was the gap which had been steadily growing for decades between the primary care sector and the specialist child guidance service. A four-tier structure was designed to streamline the referral process for children who could be helped with minor emotional and behavioural problems at Tier 1 by GP’s, teachers, social workers and health visitors. This progressed through to Tier 4 where very disturbed young people who were at risk of harming themselves or others could be supported by highly specialist staff in forensic work or eating disorders for example. The idea was based around the simple idea that early intervention could prevent problems getting worse and thus harder to resolve. But constant changes to Primary Care, NHS re-organisation and the introduction of Private providers has destabilised the system, demoralised staff, and undermined good practice.

Child Guidance clinics were incorporated in changes brought in towards the end of the last Century and now known as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). They were health-led bodies often designed as out- patient clinics in office buildings. When children and young people were consulted they said they found these services lacked accessibility and were not designed around their needs. They were perceived as unhelpful, stigmatising and unfriendly. The milieu of young people's mental health does not stick to 9-5 office hours and it is often wrapped up with substance mis-use, drugs, alcohol and family breakdown. Poverty, Unemployment and Poor Housing are also implicated in developing mental health problems. What young people required were accessible services open at week-ends and evenings where they could drop-in, with staff who were qualified to work in a variety of therapeutic ways and who were trained in ways that enabled them to empathise and understand young people.

The last national report from the NHS, in 2008, demanded increased training for all staff working with young people, more specialist resources and extra investment in early intervention services to prevent problems arising in the first place. Seven years later the situation is worse. Staff vacancies are high, moral is rock bottom, budgets are slashed and demand for help and support is increasing. Early intervention services have been cut back in a classic example of a false economy. The United Kingdom has the unhappiest children in the European Union according to the World Health Organisation and the Children's Society charity research. If Economic austerity is set to continue after the General Election in May then the current announcements by major politicians will be seen to be just more empty rhetoric with young people set to pay a heavy price.


Steven Walker

CAMHS Expert and UNICEF Children's Champion

Monday, 5 January 2015


Universal Children’s Day is a calendar date to highlight the many campaigns to improve the situation for those directly affected and harmed by the continuing ravages of neoliberal capitalism and the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008. Children in Need here in Britain is another regular feature, ostensibly a fun night of charitable fundraising, it seems at times to resemble a celeb-fest, massaging individual egos and plugging their commercial interests. Amongst the Conservative right it is a disagreeable and unnecessary intrusion into the public discourse around children's needs.

However, whether it is to raise awareness about climate change or the plight of refugees — among them the most vulnerable children on the planet — fleeing the killing fields of (western-backed) wars in the Middle East and north Africa, these special days offer a chance to focus our attention.
Politicians often mouth platitudes about children being the future and the need to equip them to cope in a modern technological world, while trumpeting the need for high-quality education and healthcare. But actions speak louder than words. And the actions of the ruling class and their capitalist friends in Britain and elsewhere are responsible for record levels of poverty, mental illness, physical and sexual abuse and homelessness among children.

A recent shocking report provided some insight into a specific problem. The privatisation of young offenders institutions in Britain has led to an increase in incidents involving riots, self-harm and suicide. Most inmates come from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. 
It is another example of where a former public service has been contracted out to big companies such as G4S and Serco, earning millions of pounds in profits while leading to a poorer service and more problems. 

The number of young people who have committed suicide in young offenders institutions over the past 10 years averages three per year. Last year, there were more than 3,000 incidents of violence in youth custody establishments and another 1,500 instances of self-harming — far more than before privatisation. In 2013 Unicef ranked Britain 16th out of 29 developed countries for the welfare of children, up from 20th in 2007.  However the report warned that spending cuts to youth and children’s services could lead to a reversal of the gains in the last years of the Labour government.
Britain has the second-worst mortality rate for children in western Europe and the highest levels of mental illness in under-25s. Poor children are twice as likely to die as the more affluent. 
Chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes are not properly addressed, while one in three young people is overweight.
Mental ill-health among children and adolescents is also in crisis, with austerity cuts damaging service provision and increasing waiting times for treatment, resulting in only a fraction of the need being met. Suicide levels among Britain’s 15-to-25-year-olds have started to rise in line with austerity cuts in public services. In May, a report declared that the number of teenagers who have self-harmed has tripled in the last decade in England. The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) report revealed that 20 per cent of the 15-year-olds questioned had hurt themselves in the previous year. 

The study, produced along with the World Health Organisation, spoke to 6,000 children in England aged 11, 13 and 15 and is considered an authoritative source. The LGBT support charity Metro asked 7,000 16 to 24-year-olds across Britain about their experiences. The results of their research suggested rates of self-harm were higher in young LGBT people and that they were more likely to need help with depression and anxiety than heterosexual people of the same age. Images of children working in dangerous cotton mills and being sent up chimneys were used to prompt the consciences of capitalists in industrialising Britain in the 19th century. Philanthropists, trades unions and radical politicians legislated to eventually protect children from having to work under the age of 16 and in dangerous occupations.
Such conditions however now prevail in many countries in the world and, like so much else, it seems as if the failures of capitalism are taking the world backwards in time. POVERTY is rightly the focus of much logistical aid provided by relief charities, NGOs and governments, but what is often overlooked in the desperate context of war, drought, hunger, lack of housing and poor medical facilities is the psychological impact on young people in developing nations. Many have witnessed terrifying acts of violence, murder, rape, torture and genocide. 

Children and young people who are suffering from psychological distress in developing countries ravaged by war, poverty and hunger cannot make the best use of even the limited education available. These children require psychological help to heal damaged minds before they are capable of using any learning experience. The World Health Organisation has declared mental illness to be the biggest threat to children in the 21st century. Huge challenges exist in many Latin American, African and Asian countries to improve the life chances of children harmed by ethnic cleansing, war, genocide and increasing human rights abuses.

Last year Unicef criticised the Millennium Development Goals for “ignoring the needs of the poorest and marginalised adolescents.” The UN general assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on  November 20 1989  — the 30th anniversary of its Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It came into force in 1990 after it was ratified by the required number of nations. 
Currently, 194 countries are party to it, including every member of the UN except Somalia, South Sudan and the US. Both Somalia and South Sudan have started their domestic process to become a party to the treaty but, to its shame, the US is yet to do so. The wealthiest nation on the planet puts profit before children, because fully signing up to the treaty would add costs to US business. 

The convention is the most ratified human rights treaty. It requires states to give primary consideration to the best interests of a child when making decisions which affect them, and includes children’s rights, such as rights to education, play and protection from economic and social exploitation. Nevertheless, despite the near universal ratification of the convention the abuse of children’s rights continues around the world. Children are forced to act as child soldiers in many ongoing armed conflicts, they are used as suicide bombers, subjected to female genital mutilation, trafficked and sold into sex slavery, employed as cheap child labour to enable westerners to wear designer T-shirts, and feature in child pornographic imagery to be circulated among paedophile groups on the internet. Yet there is precious little effort made to enable children’s voices to be heard. 
The United Nations general assembly has proven time and again to be of no use to children when it comes to real action to promote and enforce children’s rights. 

Three optional protocols have been adopted since 1989. They include measures to stop the use of children as soldiers, to prohibit the sale of children into prostitution or pornography, and to enable children to instigate legal complaints against their own or other states. But we are a long way from these protocols being implemented by all UN member states.
Steven Walker is a Unicef Children’s Champion.