Thursday, 18 December 2008

Discrimination against children remains unchallenged

Age is one of the six equality strands to be brought together under a single Equality Bill announced in the Queen’s speech on Dec 3. While age discrimination against older people will be included, age discrimination against children will not.

Supporters of excluding children from age discrimination legislation argue that children are a special case. The Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government, Discrimination Law Review (2007) stated: “It is important that services for children are tailored in an age-appropriate way – a child of three is very different from a child of ten, or a teenager. The basic principle of age discrimination legislation, that people should not be treated differently on the basis of their age, is therefore rarely appropriate to the treatment of children….’

However, all other equality strands must deal with differences across groups. The Discrimination Law Review itself discusses how disability discrimination law handles diversity amongst disabled people, how special needs are allowed for under the Race Relations Act, for religion or belief and for men and women.

Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Equality, subsequently argued in Parliament that “it is right to treat under 18 year olds differently” when it comes to equality and protection from discrimination and there was “little evidence” of harmful age discrimination against children and young people.

Children do not agree: 43% of children and young people think they have been treated unfairly due to their age (Children’s Rights Alliance for England).

If the lens of age discrimination were applied to children’s experiences, we would have very different perspectives to a range of issues. It would highlight children’s exclusion from private and public spaces:
· the use of the sonic “Mosquito” to make young people so uncomfortable they do not want to use a particular store or space;
· store signs that write “no children allowed” or “no more than two children at a time”;
· dispersal orders derived from antisocial behavior legislation that are disproportionately applied to children and young people.
They would show unfair discrepancies in policy, from the lower minimum wage for 16 and 17 year olds (who somehow have to pay less to live than 18 year olds and over) to lack of privacy in schools. It would highlight the legal “chastisement” of children by their parents that would be constituted as assault, except for children’s age. Such discrimination might well be legally prohibited were it on the basis of any of the other five equality strands.

No doubt there would need to be careful drafting of any such age discrimination legislation but the arguments against including children under age discrimination legislation reveal more about the uncritical acceptance of traditional assumptions about childhood then they do about legal possibilities. These assumptions portray children as needy and in need of protection. Childhood studies has pointed out that children may need protection but they are also active contributors and solely taking a needs-based approach can subvert and deny their other rights. Age-discrimination legislation would not solve all issues for children nor ensure all their rights are met. But what a difference it could make if we did apply the lens of age-discrimination to their experiences.

Kay Tisdall, Co-Director, CRFR

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