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In Whose Best Interests? – Opinion piece by Nushra Mansuri

The principle of the best interests of the child has been hailed by many as one of the most important provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Article 3(1) requires that ‘in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.  I qualified as a social worker in 1993 shortly after the ratification of the UNCRC and in the early stages of the Children Act 1989.  I was excited by both domestic and international legislation that enshrined the rights of the child, the ‘paramountcy’ principle and was clear that this was the framework in which I wanted to practice.  However, the rhetoric of course does not always match the reality and can quickly become submerged by so many other variables and competing demands.  As social workers, we often feel that we are up against it, swimming against the tide, desperately hanging on to our ethics and values in an environment of impurity.  I have just finished working with colleagues on BASW’s submission to the Education Select Committee on their second call for evidence for their Inquiry into the Child Protection System in England.  A very experienced member reflected that ‘there is a risk that decisions about children’s best interests are made on the basis of cost rather than what they actually need’.  Of course, this has long been the case for a service that has historically been so chronically under funded (sadly, it is not just a phenomen of these austere times!) but  this does not negate our responsibility as a profession to engage in the struggle to promote the best interests of children.

In terms of Government policy and legislation, decision makers must carefully consider the possible impacts (positive and negative) on children, and must give this impact primary consideration when weighing the different interests at stake.  I must say that I agree with CRAE (the Children’s Rights Alliance for England) of which BASW is a member as they recently published a report on the State of Children’s Rights in England 2011 and found scant evidence of impact assessments being carried out in eleven bills they looked at including the Health and Social Care Bill!  This is in spite of the Children’s Minister Sarah Teather announcing in December 2010 that the coalition Government would now be giving due consideration to the Convention when making new law and policy.  It makes pitiful reading and in truth, this Government’s record is no better than its predecessor who drafted immigration legislation that permitted children of failed asylum seekers to be taken into care if families refused to comply with the State and ended up in destitution as all welfare support to the families would be withdrawn.  This led me to pick up my banner and march alongside many others in 2005.  I think that it is essential that the voices of social workers are heard in these debates to further the best interests of children and in our case, some of the most vulnerable children in society.  On a positive note, this Government has taken the decision to make the Children’s Commissioner in England a rights based Commissioner (so at least we will be on a par with the rest of the UK) and also to give the office holder greater independence from Government.  One of the Commissioner’s new powers will be conduct assessments of the impact on children of proposed law and policy.

To conclude, in preparing for this blog, I read an excellent article on the relationship between article 3 (the best interests) and article 12 (respect for the views of the child) which basically argued that you cannot have one without the other.  I was poignantly reminded yesterday of how true that was; I had to do an interview for French television on the child protection system in England.  The journalist insisted that I read a letter from a 15 year old young woman who was in care and felt that no-one was listening to her – not her social worker, the Guardian, the independent reviewing officer, her carers or her solicitor.  It was a sad testimony and an indictment on how we still fail to listen to the voices of children; on one hand, professionals very likely took decisions in her best interests in terms of removing her from the care of her mother, but had the professionals involved spent sufficient time talking to her about this decision and why they had felt it to be necessary?  Sometimes, there will be a conflict between a child’s wishes and feelings and what those in authority consider to be in the child’s best interest, so all the more reason to major on doing both to the best of our ability.  I wondered if in this case, this young person had also been informed by the independent reviewing officer of her right to apply, with leave, for a discharge of her care order which came into force in April 2011?  (This was a young person who lived in foster care in close proximity to her birth family and consequently, was regularly visiting them although not necessarily with the permission of the local authority)  These are never easy or straightforward issues to grapple with but it is important that we engage with them in the name of anti-oppressive practice and emancipatory social work practice.  I attended a meeting in the Houses of Parliament not that long ago, where a dignatory from the United Nations was visiting to monitor the progress of the UK’s implementation of the UNCRC.  What shocked me more than anything was a comment made by a baroness who cautioned us in using the term children’s rights as this basically had negative connotations for some.  It was as much as I could do to hold back my anger but I did manage to get in a retort about the sanctity of human rights and the importance of those with the least voice having them.  If this could be said in the chambers of our most powerful institution in the land in the twenty first century I sadly feel that we still have a long way to go in the promulgation of children’s rights and securing their best interests.

Nushra Mansuri (@BASW_UK) is the Professional Officer for BASW (British Association of Social Workers).

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