The declining rights of children in the UK

Updated Wednesday, 23rd September 2009
Richard Skellington asks whether our society has become one where we fear our children, and treat them like criminals

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When asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied: ‘I think it would be an excellent idea’. The wisdom of his words came to me the other week when I read that in 2008 the Metropolitan Police had used new anti-terror laws to stop and search 58 children aged 9 or under – 10 girls and 48 boys. How can this be justified, even under the guise of fighting terrorism?

A child standing as if about to be frisked
A child waits to be frisked [Posed by a model]

These police officers had obviously not heard of other contributions on the theme of what constitutes a ‘civilised society’. Louis Pasteur once said that whenever he approached a child he was always inspired by two sentiments: tenderness for what the child is, and respect for what the child may become.

What could have provoked 58 separate suspicions that a child under 10 years of age could be a terror threat? If we do not stand up for children in our society, what does it say about the society in which we live? To what depths we have sunk when we resort to apprehending in London alone so many children under the age of criminal responsibility in a single year. None of the children were subsequently found to be linked to terror offences.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives police wide powers to stop and search without the need for officers to have reasonable suspicion. Further examination of the data reveals that in 2008 a massive 2,331 children aged 15 and under were apprehended under the Act, suggesting perhaps that the Metropolitan Police have been using these powers as an instrument of general policing rather than for the special purposes for which they were devised.

It can hardly foster community relations when any police force abuses its powers through stop and search measures. In 2008 alone the Metropolitan Police carried out 170,000 stop and searches using Section 44. Alas, I could not find any national data for 2008 under Section 44 of the Act, but Hansard of 10th March 2008 proved more fruitful: interestingly, in the first 6 years since the Act was introduced, only six arrests resulted from over 168,000 stop and searches. The more recent data suggests that since 2005-6 the use of Section 44 powers have escalated hugely.

Information on stop and searches and resultant arrests under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 from 2001-02 to 2005-06 (latest available)
Time period Total searches Resultant arrests Percentage of arrests
2001-2002 10,200 189 2
2002-2003 32,100 380 1
2003-2004  33,800 491 1
2004-2005 37,000 468 1
2005-2006  50,000 563 1

New Scotland Yard argue that the searches of children aged 9 or under is justified. Indeed many people would argue that this is the price we have to pay for combating terrorism, and that children who were apprehended are more likely to have been accompanying an adult who may have aroused police suspicions. However, no child under 10 has so far been associated with terrorist activity, and none of the children apprehended -or even their relatives - have so far been charged under the Act.

This trend mirrors several practices our so-called ‘civilised society’ imposes on the rights and welfare of children. A related issue of concern is the increasing number of asylum-seeking children now detained. Again in August disturbing figures were published which revealed that in the first 6 months of 2009, 470 children were detained indefinitely without charge. Their only crime appears to have been to try and escape war, torture, violence and persecution.

In August it was revealed that over one third of these children were locked up for over one month (The Guardian, 31 August 2009). It came as a shock to discover that the United Kingdom now boasts one of the worst records in Europe for the detention of children. So, in a real way, I am no longer surprised to discover that the Metropolitan Police are using whatever legislation they can to stop and search children under the age of criminal responsibility.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who in his Inaugural Presidential Address in 1933 asserted his firm belief that his people had ‘nothing to fear except fear itself’. Fear is a cancer that slowly eats away at civilisation. These disturbing figures on the way we are treating children in the UK should shame us all. Sadly our society seems to be losing its capacity for compassion. We seem to be drifting remorselessly towards more brutal and racist solutions to problems that deserve a ‘civilised’ response. Looking around the political scene in the UK several months prior to the formation of a new Government it is disturbing to find that few politicians seem to either be aware of the problem or care much for the implications. Children are the best resource we have. We must stop abusing them.




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