Joint Committee on Human Rights: Covid-19 Measures Report

22 Sep 2020 By Imogen Proud

Imogen Proud looks at the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ findings in relation to children’s rights in its report on Coronavirus measures.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has published a report which proposes that the Government must urgently address a number of issues, including the impact of Covid-19 measures on children’s rights, to ensure that its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic is human rights compliant.

In March, the Joint Committee on Human Rights announced that it would be scrutinising the Government’s Covid-19 response and issued a call for evidence. In particular, it was to look at legislation that the Government brought forward to contain and control the Covid-19 outbreak, how those measures are then implemented, and how the response could be differently affecting different groups of people.

The report, dated 21 September 2020, is now available.

Children’s rights including the right to education were a particular focus of the Committee, and are covered in section 7 of the Report. The Committee observed that:

  • School closures, as they potentially affect the right to education, must be “justified, done lawfully and transparently and only be done to the extent necessary”.
  • As well as affecting academic performance, children’s rights were otherwise impacted by school closures: the right to socialise was affected; schools can be an important source of nutrition; family finance and happiness were negatively impacted by Covid; schools’ ability to make referrals to children’s services decreased; examination uncertainty caused children stress.
  • Measures to repair these harms will need adequate Government resourcing.
  • School closures ought to have been brought about through the issuing of a direction under the Coronavirus Act 2020 rather than – as they were – by communications and press announcements encouraging schools not to allow most pupils to attend.
  • There was a “huge disparity” in the amount of education accessed during lockdown, with particular differences noted between those in deprived communities and those attending private schools. There were significant barriers to home learning for disadvantaged children including poor internet access, insufficient access to devices or study spaces and limited or no parental support.
  • As I have posted already on this blog (here, here, and here), the Government made the significant change to Education Health and Care Plans that local authorities would be deemed to have met the duty to secure the provision set out in those Plans if they used “reasonable endeavours” to secure it.
  • There were instances where there were “serious breaches of a child’s right to education” such as a school telling a child they could not attend school during the lockdown despite being in receipt of an EHC Plan (and thus classed as ‘vulnerable’ and able to attend).

The Committee concluded that:

  • “…the provision of education and the best interests of the child should be at the forefront of policy and decision making.”
  • “The unequal access to education for disadvantaged children is of real concern and the Government must ensure that it does not lead to wider inequality in society.”
  • “We urge the Government to look into the effect that school closures have had on young people with SEND and to address any barriers to them returning to schools and accessing education.”
  • “The Government must make it clear as to whether a new announcement, such as one purporting to “close schools” is made under legal powers to direct the closure of schools or is merely advisory—the rule of law is threatened if the Government obscures the legal status of its announcements.”
  • “Legal documents—including Notices and Directions—which may interfere with human rights should be easily accessible.”

The Committee has already published a report on Human Rights and the Government’s response to Covid-19: the detention of young people who are autistic and/or have learning disabilities, which may be of interest to readers of this blog, and is available here.