The UN’s latest report on the UK government’s record on children’s rights includes some stringent conclusions about the abandonment of play policy. If play advocates can seize the moment, suggests Adrian Voce, it also provides the basis for a persuasive influencing campaign to restore children’s right to play as a national priority.
The concluding observations of last week’s report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the UK’s recent record on children’s rights, has been welcomed by Theresa Casey, the President of the International Play Association (IPA) as ‘the strongest I’ve seen’ on children’s right to play.
This is perhaps no cause for celebration among play advocates. The CRC’s ‘concern about the withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK, merely confirms what we know about the woefully inadequate, not to say destructive response of the UK government since 2010, to a human right for children that the CRC says ‘is fundamental to the quality of childhood, to children’s entitlement to optimum development, to the promotion of resilience and to the realisation of other rights’.
The Children’s Rights Alliance for England went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 …’
The dismissive approach of the Coalition and Conservative governments of David Cameron, to article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits states parties to support and provide for the fulfilment of the right to play, was highlighted by the independent NGO, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) last year. Its civil society report to the CRC on the UK government’s record on children’s rights pulled no punches when it came to play, saying: ‘Rest, leisure and play have been a casualty of the austerity drive. In the absence of a national play policy, many councils have disproportionately targeted play services for cuts with many long-standing services and projects closed and the land redeveloped’.
The CRAE report went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 by: abandoning a ten-year national play strategy for England with eight years still to run; cancelling all national play contracts … (and) withdrawing recognition of playwork in out-of-school care…’
Many observers of the work of the CRC over the years have been disappointed at its lack of rigour in holding governments to account for article 31, but the committee’s publication in 2013, of a general comment on the ‘right to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts’ appears to have raised the bar, further vindicating the work of Theresa and her colleagues at IPA in lobbying the UN to produce the document.
UN expects national governments to honour its obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play
The General Comment (GC17) on article 31 expands on government responsibilities for children’s play under the 1989 convention, urging them ‘to elaborate measures to ensure’ its full implementation. GC17 makes it clear that, in the face of increasing barriers, the UN expects national governments to honour their obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play by taking serious and concerted action on a range of fronts including, in particular, ‘legislation, planning and funding’. Last week’s report simply highlights what we already know: that the UK government, having been among the world leaders in national play policy before 2010, has since been in abject dereliction of this duty.
While we take no pleasure in this confirmation of the steep decline in the status and priority afforded to children’s play within national policy, we should, nevertheless, see the UNCRC’s report as both an opportunity and a reminder. The opportunity is to fashion an influencing campaign, aligned to the wider advocacy movement for children’s rights in the UK, to persuade future governments to recommit to children’s play. Unsurprisingly, the CRC is critical of the UK record on children’s rights in other areas than play. Its main recommendation is that a broad national children’s rights strategy, abandoned by the coalition government in 2010, should be ‘revised … to cover all areas of the convention and ensure its full implementation’. In England, this plan included a 10-year national play strategy. The play movement should be building links with other children’s rights advocates – who will now use the CRC’s report to put pressure on policymakers – to ensure that the right to play is properly considered in any such revision.
There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy
The reminder delivered by the CRC report is that children’s play is a serious, crosscutting policy issue, requiring a strategic response and high-level leadership. There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy. The Children’s Play Policy Forum, for example, has seemed to level its proposals at an agenda that disregards play for its own sake, relegating it to the level of an activity with only instrumental value to such existing policy areas as improving children’s health, reducing neighbourhood conflict or encouraging volunteering.
Good public play provision and playable public space can contribute to all these things of course, but the UN reminded us last week that our government has a duty to legislate, plan and budget for children’s play, first and foremost because it is their human right. Such an approach will most likely fall on deaf ears, as does so much else with this government, committed as it is to relentlessly scaling back public services and privatising the public realm. Our duty in this case is to point out its failure, and to cultivate support from policymakers outside the government.
An All Party Parliamentary Group, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Leader of the Opposition and now the United Nations have all recently called for a higher priority to be afforded to children’s play by our local and national governments – many of them urging the UK government to emulate that of Wales in adopting a play sufficiency duty on local authorities.
The Play England board earlier this year sanctioned an open, independent debate about its future role and purpose. Sadly, it seems to no longer have the resources even to manage its own consultations; but if it only does one thing between now and the next general election, this must surely be to cultivate and capitalise on such support in high places and coordinate a cohesive, sustained influencing campaign for play to be once again afforded the status it needs within government policy.
 A UN General Comment is defined as ‘the interpretation of the provisions of (its) respective human rights treaty’ by its treaty bodies. In other words, it is the UN ’s own interpretation of how nation states should meet their obligations under international law.