On Tuesday this week, I was privileged to attend the Girl Summit at Walworth Academy just off the Old Kent Road in my constituency in south London. This was a hugely impressive and powerful event with the key message that women and girls are not somebody else’s property to be physically interfered with, or to be given or sold to others against their own free will even before an age at which they can make their own decisions.
As well as our own Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Home Secretary and International Development Secretary there were women who had been made to enter into child or forced marriage or other forms of cultural practice. We were joined by the Head of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Prime Ministers, First Ladies and members of royal families from across the globe.
Malala Yousafzai spoke very powerfully and impressively about her recent visit to Nigeria and her attempt to persuade people in that country of conflict to treat girls and young women with a new form of respect whatever their faith or belief or family background.
This event set an agenda to take forward work in every country of the world to advance the rights of women, children and young people.
Last night in Glasgow, many of you will have seen the opening of the 20th Commonwealth Games by Her Majesty the Queen. The Commonwealth is made up of 71 countries and territories across the world, and the Friendly Games as they are affectionately known give opportunities for athletes from all of them to compete and show how their talent, training and discipline, can lead them to international success.
But in many Commonwealth countries even now the rights of children and young people are not upheld without discrimination. In some countries, there is prejudice and discrimination against women and girls. In some countries, holding a particular faith or belief can give you a very hard time. In some countries, your sexuality or a failure by you or your family to comply with cultural norms may lead to your exclusion or vilification or worse.
This may all seem, in some ways, slightly far away from our agenda today. But in others, it’s not far away at all. We too are here to talk about rights and justice for children and young people. And our special concern is family justice – and family justice in our countries of England and Wales.
I want to talk personally for a moment. My dad was married twice and his first marriage ended in divorce. My two older half-brothers Richard and David saw their parents’ marriage end before they were 12 years old. One of my half brothers then went through a divorce himself after his first wife left him- and left him with the care of three young children. I was not alive during the first of these events but very well remember the second, and my brother’s separation and divorce were difficult enough for the rest of the family, let alone for his three children. There are probably very few people in the room who do not have members of our immediate or extended families who have gone through divorce or separation or other form of family break up.
I was appointed to my job as Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties last December. This is my first chance to talk to the Voice of the Child conference, and so today I want to take the opportunity of making an important statement as to the direction in which I believe our family justice system must move if we are to fully uphold the rights of children and young people in our families, our justice system, our society and our countries in the years ahead.
The law is clear, both at home in the Children Act 1989 and internationally in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, about the importance of the child or young person’s wishes in any justice proceedings.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out the rights of every person under 18 and how those rights should be met. The government is committed to giving due consideration to the UNCRC when developing new policy and legislation. In Wales there is a new Children’s Rights Scheme which requires all ministers in Wales to have due regard to the Convention when carrying out any of their ministerial functions.
This is the area where you in the Family Justice Young People’s Board
have been doing much recent work. I pay tribute to you for all that you do. As you will report to this Conference later you have been working on a National Charter for Child Inclusive Family Justice. I know that this work is not yet finished and the proposed Charter is not yet in its final version, but I want to say now that the government agrees with, accepts and intends for some of the statements in your most recent short version of the Charter to be confirmed as government policy from now on.
Children and young people should be at the centre of all proceedings. We agree.
Children and young people should be informed of their rights. We agree.
And we in government agree with much which follows in the Charter which you are working on:
Children and young people should be given the opportunity to meet and communicate with the professionals involved with their case including workers from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), social workers, the judges and legal representatives; every child of sufficient age and ability should have the opportunity of meeting with the judge overseeing their case; every child should have the opportunity through Cafcass of submitting their views directly to the judge in writing; all children should be able to communicate their wishes and feelings to the judge; children and young people should be kept informed about the court proceedings in an age appropriate manner, kept informed of the stage their case has reached, and contacted prior to the first hearing, and have the opportunity of giving feedback through email, text, telephone or written form.
We agree with all these statements too.
Children and young people must by law have their views heard before decisions are made about their future, and where decisions are made that will impact them. At the moment, it is still too often that their views are not heard. Or that the law is interpreted to mean that others can make a assumption about the view of the child or young person – often for the best of intentions and acting in their interest, but nevertheless with the outcome that the child or young person does not feel that their own distinct voice was heard.
I therefore want to announce that it is the intention of the Ministry of Justice, and therefore the government, that we move as soon as is practical to apply in all our family justice proceedings in England and Wales where children and young people are concerned the policy that it will be the normal practice, the norm, that, from the age of 10, children and young people involved in public or private law family justice proceedings before the courts will have access to the judge, in an appropriate way which reflects their feelings and wishes to make clear their views as to what is the best resolution of the family dispute in their interest.
Children and young people of 10 and over will therefore be given the chance to make clear their views in person or if preferred in another way. We will also work with the mediation sector to arrive at a position where children and young people of 10 years old and over have appropriate access to mediators too in cases which affect them.