A leading European human rights organisation has criticised the low age of criminal responsibility in the UK as well as the use of pain-inducing restraint techniques in young offenders institutes. The Council of Europe’s annual review of the UK’s compliance with its social rights obligations has found the country to be in breach of rights related to children and young persons.
The report criticised the low age in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where a child can be held criminally responsible at the age of 10. In Scotland, the age is 12. According to the Council of Europe, the age of criminal responsibility should not be lower than 14.
The agent which children are regarded as responsible for their actions in law varies across Europe. The age at which children are regarded as responsible for their actions in law varies across Europe from 10 in England and Wales through to 14 in Germany, 15 in the Netherlands and 16 in Portugal.
Children and young people sentenced to custody in England and Wales can be sent to three types of establishment; young offenders institutions (YOIs) some of which are run by private companies, secure training centres (STCs) run by private companies, and local authority secure children’s homes. The Committee’s report questioned what measures the government have been taking to phase out YOIs and STCs and transfer children to local authority-run secure homes.
In February 2017, the Youth Custody Improvement Board published its findings after exploring the state of YOIs and STCs finding that these institutions were not fit for the purpose of rehabilitating children and young people.
The report also criticised the fact that pain-inducing restraint techniques are still allowed in YOIs and STCs. According to children’s rights charity, Article 39, the precise details of what the pain-inducing restraint techniques involve are not in the public domain. The names of the techniques, however, give some indication – ‘inverted twist’, ‘outward rotation’, ‘mandibular angle’ and ‘wrist flexion’. In February 2019, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said that these techniques were a form of child abuse which contributed to a culture of violence.
The effects of these restraint techniques on children was thrust to the public’s attention in 2004, when a 14-year-old, Adam Rickwood, hanged himself with his trainer laces after having been restrained with a ‘nose distraction’ technique, which involved a sharp blow to the nose. Adam’s nose bled for about an hour and staff refused to take him to hospital. The ‘nose distraction’ technique was eventually withdrawn from use but only after the ‘mandibular angle’ technique was put in its place.
The report, which looks at the period from January 2014 to December 2017, further criticised the UK for its ‘unfair’ apprenticeship wage levels for 16 to 17-year-olds, ‘inadequate’ statutory maternity pay after 6 weeks and its failure to grant an independent right to remain to family members of migrant workers after exercising their right to family reunion.
The European Committee of Social Rights examines reports by the member states in light of the European Social Charter, a Council of Europe treaty on fundamental social and economic rights. The Charter deals with a range of rights related to employment, housing, health, education and social welfare.
The Committee examined 37 national reports and criticised most member states for failing to conform. Only Iceland was found to be in conformity with its obligations under the Charter.