Guest post: Is Ireland’s National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights a case of ‘suffer little children’?

The latest blog in the current series is by Pippa Woolnough, Advocacy Campaigns Officer at Barnardos, Ireland’s largest children’s charity. She attended Ireland’s hearing before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as part of the NGO delegation led by the Children’s Rights Alliance, and is studying for an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway. You can follow her on twitter @PipWool

On Thursday 14 January 2016, Ireland’s child rights record was under the spotlight in Geneva, being scrutinised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The State’s delegation faced a range of probing questions covering issues such as Traveller and Roma children, access to non-denominational education and our high child poverty rates. Ireland’s draft National Plan on Business and Human Rights did not escape oversight by the Committee, which was concerned to see children’s rights adequately covered in the State’s final version.

The Committee’s intervention is extremely timely as the current working outline of the Plan is extremely thin when it comes to children’s rights. In fact, such rights barely feature, save for reference to a couple of relevant ILO Conventions and domestic legislation relating to protecting employees under 18 and anti-trafficking. There is also a proposal to include a section outlining children’s rights in the toolkit that the Department of Foreign Affairs is developing on business and human rights for both public and private entities.

There is, regrettably, no explicit acknowledgement nor exploration of the impact business can have on the realisation of children’s rights and the necessary protections that consequently should be put in place. While the relationship between business and human rights is gaining increasing international attention, mention of children is too often limited to child labour issues.

Yet this is to miss the potentially wide-ranging impact and interrelation between the two. The Committee on the Rights of the Child issued its comprehensive General Comment 16 On State obligations regarding the impact of business on children’s rights in 2013. It recognises that the impact can go far wider than labour laws address, and outlines the need for business to recognise the core child rights principles of best interests, non-discrimination, the right to life and the right to be heard. Companies should also appreciate how children are affected by many other issues from advertising to childcare, and by the circumstances of their parents’ employment

A crucial and very real potential impact of business on children’s rights was highlighted by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) during the UNCRC Committee hearing last week. This relates to the fact the Irish State uses public procurement procedures for a variety of children’s services. For example, the State currently spends in excess of €50m payable to seventeen firms to deliver direct provision, in which more than 1,200 asylum seeking children reside. While there is of course no explicit issue with the State outsourcing services, it cannot outsource its duty of care. Among the problems with outsourcing is that accountability mechanisms are weakened – as can be seen clearly with direct provision, which is outside of the remit of the Health Information and Quality Authority and the Ombudsman for Children.

A similar recent concern arises in relation to homeless children, of which there are more than 1,600 according to the latest count. Many are being housed in emergency accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs – businesses unused to providing long-term accommodation for children, untrained in children’s rights, largely unaccountable and in which children are particularly vulnerable.

Among IHREC’s specific recommendations on this topic were the need to undertake a comprehensive audit of its public procurement practices, to place on a statutory footing a set of criteria based on the principles elaborated in General Comment 16, to place a statutory obligation on all service providers to meet this set of standards, to ensure all non-state actors are subject to independent inspections and to institute these reforms with due regard to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Other perhaps more unexpected business and children’s rights issues concern the high cost of childcare in Ireland. UNCRC General Comment 16 highlights the responsibility of businesses in relation to the provision of quality, affordable childcare and wages sufficient for an adequate standard of living. This is something which should be considered by the drafters of the National Plan on Business and Human Rights as childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD countries. Such issues are particularly pertinent in light of the Government’s current mantra, repeated a number of times by the head of the State delegation Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr James Reilly at the UNCRC hearing, that employment is the way out of poverty for families.

Sadly the Irish State’s response to the Committee’s questioning did not instil confidence. Instead of recognising there is a significant gap, they merely referred to the commitment in the working outline of the business and human rights plan to abide by all ILO conventions and existing national law relating to children.

As IHREC noted in their submission to the National Action Plan, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child frequently includes a section on children and the business sector in its Concluding Observations on State parties’ reports, so it will be interesting to see what comments they make in this regard when Ireland’s report is published on 4 February – and what action the State subsequently takes.

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