Fair Play For Children
Promoting the Child's Right to Play since 1973 in the UK and Worldwide according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child
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CHILDREN'S RIGHTS TO PLAY, ASSEMBLY, ASSOCIATION AND EXPRESSION

Fair Play for Children exists to promote and secure The Child's Right to Play, as defined in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This right confirms the child's right to play, rest, leisure and recreation, and that children should have equal and appropriate opportunities to access recreation, cultural, arts and similar activities.

Article 31 of the Convention states that:

"1.States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

2.States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity."

Article 15 expresses the child's right to peaceful assembly and to freedom of association whilst Article 12 stipulates the child's right to freedom of expression, to be heard and to be represented whilst Article 13 states the right of the child to freedom of expression. Fair Play for Children is basing its response to the following issues firmly within the context of these Articles, and believes local, judicial and police authorities are obliged by dint of our international obligations in law to do so.

However, these rights are not enshrined in our laws nor in our constitution (we do not have one) but they have been ratified by our Government.

THE PROBLEM OF HARASSMENT

In recent years, it has become clear that children have been unable, to an increasingly worrying degree, to go out to play "just outside the front door". Studies by the Policy Studies Institute have indicated a major reduction in children e.g. freely playing outside or making foot journeys to school unaccompanied. The tendency has been to blame the encroachment of the motorist into what was a safer play environment. This is a legitimate worry. There is the concern about "stranger danger" or abduction/assault.

However, Fair Play for Children is receiving an increasing number of calls from parents seeking advice when neighbours make their children's lives very difficult, miserable even, by unceasing complaint and harassment. Indeed, we suspect, though we have no statistical information, that such harassment is very widespread and has been for many years.

What forms does this take? At its most common, it consists of people persistently chasing children away from outside their property, and, from the testimony of children, it often is accompanied by abusive and disparaging remarks said to children but never repeated to adults. Often the adult concerned will complain about e.g. noise, "cheek", footballs kicked into garden, and will use bogus authority to secure their objective. Commonest keywords "peace and quiet", or, "Keep them in your own garden", or "estate was not meant for kids", or "They attract others" ("like rats you mean" as one mum once replied).

Quite commonly such people constantly call the police and Fair Play has direct experience of occasions where downright lies are fabricated by such people about children's alleged behaviour so they can achieve an objective to have children removed from where they wish them not to be. "I have a right to peace and quiet" is a common claim.

At its worst, this harassment can lead to racial abuse, chasing children across a public green in a car, taking their footballs and deliberately puncturing them with e.g. a screwdriver, foul and abusive language towards children, threats (to hit, beat) and sometimes assault. We have encountered this and Fair Play is concerned that the scale of the problem is not perceived. One common factor is the extent to which children are not listened to or consulted.

NOT ANGELS ... BUT ALSO

We are in an era when children are commonly either the focus for concern to keep them safe from abuse or they are seen as threatening and dangerous. The Children's Legal Centre has commented about the problems children and young people face when they meet in groups and are perceived, by some adults, to be a threat.

Of course, children are not angels and this Fact Sheet has no intention to suggest children are always innocent. They will cause mischief, they will misbehave (badly at times), and especially so at the funny bloke who raves and gibbers at them (as they see it). But there is the other, never-discussed aspect of quite unfair and wrongful harassment of children going about their lawful business (which as Montagne put it, is Play).

Common issues for complaint: noise from those living adjacent to play areas, as well as allegations of hanky panky and also serious crime on play areas after dark. Also, children playing in cul-de-sacs where there are no gardens. Or, ball games near to blocks of flats.

How may this disadvantage children? Because they have no voice, no vote and because play is marginalised at all times in our society, it is more likely than less that children are often removed from places where they have been quite legitimately playing. Parents have sometimes abetted this by wanting anything for that proverbial quiet life and thus removing their children. Intimidation by adults can quite quickly achieve an unfair result. If the Police are inclined to take the adult's part without making a fair balance, this too will add to injustice.

Even where parents have made a stand against unreasonable behaviour, we have seen a situation where the father has been warned to remove his children from a public green area, whilst the adult has not been challenged for racial abuse, damage to children's property, foul and abusive language, threats of violence - one wonders at the headlines had the children done this to the man!

WHAT IS THE LEGAL POSITION?

The Children's Legal Centre advises that in certain limited circumstances, the law creates certain types of criminal offence aimed at preventing the gathering together of large numbers of people in one place. These offences fall under the heading of The Public Order Act 1986 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and could apply to minors as well as adults. However they do advise that the circumstances in which such offence could be seen to arise are fairly limited and generally speaking should not affect young people and children who want to spend time outdoors without being harassed.

The onus on the police who respond to calls from adults alleging nuisance, is that they deal with the matter in a fair manner. If there is concern that they have acted unfairly or unjustly the parents, young people or children can make a formal complaint. For example, simply responding to a complaint by moving children on when there is no reasonable cause is perhaps a ground for complaint or representation. [In their more candid moments, police officers have been known to observe that such complaints form the largest proportion of waste-of-police-time calls.]

Whilst it is quite proper for the Police to adjudge a situation may cause a breach of the peace, it is not a straightforward conclusion that making children always give way is acceptable or justified. Children also have a right to go about their lawful and proper business. There is no absolute right to "peace and quiet".

CHILDREN NEED ADVOCATES

Children will often need an advocate in such disputes as can arise. At first parents will take up the cause of their own and other local children. Fair Play believes that in doing so, parents must act so as to show their children virtues of balance, reasonableness and a sense of justice. On the one hand, no one wants to tolerate spoilt and unruly brats. On the other hand, children should not be bullied by adults exercising power for unacceptable and unfair ends. A child who is chased way, not supported and not listened to, will feel a sense of injustice - and learn that such tactics gain ends.

Such disputes can lead to quite widespread neighbourhood antagonism. One party of adults may be encouraged to take one party's side, and the other party will do likewise. Local authorities will know very well about The Petition: ban ball games, remove a play area, pass a bye-law etc. The local authority official has a duty to not only be impartial but also fair. One example - a housing department, involved in a dispute about children playing on an estate green, surveys only the homes immediately abutting the green where they have housed mainly retired people, but also some families with children. Fair Play asks them to survey the hinterland, also served by the green as open space, and containing many more families with children. The results are quite different.

MEDIATION - WE NEED MORE SERVICES

There is a role for mediation - Fair Play has been involved in this process, but we feel there is a very real and proper role for the elected local authority councillor, be it at parish, district, unitary or county council level. They can listen to people involved, including children, they can discuss issues with the police, housing, recreation etc. They can bring parties together.

Involving children in solutions is better than imposing unfair conditions in an arbitrary and one-sided manner. For instance, if a local group of children in dispute with certain adults are asked what is acceptable behaviour they may well arrive at self-policing which recognises their own rights but respects others.

ZERO TOLERANCE FOR ADULT BULLIES TOO?

Fair Play also believes that where children are assaulted, threatened, racially abused, have their property with-held and deliberately damaged, the police should not dismiss the matter as "domestic, we don't intervene". If we are going to see the growth of "zero tolerance" for petty crime, Fair Play suggests the implementation should be even-handed.

If racial abuse occurs, the local community relations or racial equality council should be contacted, or a neighbourhood law centre. Children's stories of harassment should be noted, and we have seen useful employment of video by parents to prove abusive behaviour and harassment.

The foregoing looks at what may be done once a situation has arisen and there can be no guarantee of completely eliminating both pesky kids and miserable old farts. But the layout of housing areas, the siting and extent of play areas, the traffic arrangements, parking likewise - all these and other matters of planning can affect considerably the likelihood of conflict.

Even traffic calming can lead to conflict - if it leads to children being able to play in a street of cars parked longitudinally the whole length of the street rather than e.g. zoned parking areas, perhaps organised diagonally at one end.

Fundamentally, it does come down to how much space, in every sense, communities are prepared to make for their children. The fact is over the past three decades, they have had to retreat from their play environment - the abusive adult is known to practically every parent and yet so little has been said about them or their tactics, in contrast to the constant stream of stories about children's behaviour. Maybe we need to listen to our children a lot more?

ANECDOTES: TWO OF SO MANY ....

Anecdote I: a local mobile play project is asked by local housing association, parents, youth service to arrange sessions on an estate, which duly happens on an agreed site. Within two minutes of first session, neighbour comes over: "I don't know why you've come here, it's taken us ten years to chase the kids off this green. Why don't you go to the Park?" (across a busy main road). The housing association, responding to pressure from 4 households, says not to visit after first programme of sessions. Police are called - find no problem and go away refusing to move project on etc. Project stands its ground .... Sessions continue - or as we advised one parent "Go out with your children and their friends, show the troublesome neighbour you mean to remain and counter his improper demands and monitor any repetition of abuse, threats and violence."

Anecdote II: Parents living in a cul-de-sac find their children constantly harassed for playing outside. The estate built in the early 90's had no requirement by the local planning authority for the developer to provide an equipped play area, although the approved plan did show a toddlers play area within the public open space provision. The district leisure officer considered the site shown for the play area was inappropriate due to the fact that it was not directly overlooked by houses and would be open to abuse due to its location. The developer provided a sum of 500 to the council in lieu of this play area, to be used on an extension to a Park. The parents were told by the authority that they were now looking into ways of improving the existing play areas in the estate. The parents' comments were that the Park was beside a deep river where drownings have occurred and ten minutes walk from their homes. Here is a all-too-frequent example of storing up trouble for residents by skimping on provision at the outset. Children have been subjected to: having the police called; being asked if they're "deaf, dumb or simply stupid".

LETS TALK IT THROUGH

We do urge mediation, restraint, impressing on children not to respond by mischief, bad language, and other unacceptable behaviour, and recognition by all parties of the need to achieve genuine compromise. We also urge parents, authorities and neighbourhoods to stand firmly against the bullying and harassment of children, as unjust and unfair in itself and as a bad example of adult behaviour which we do not want replicated in the future.

Fair Play for Children is quite clear that there are no unqualified rights in such matters - but we are also convinced that an untold story needs to be brought into the open concerning misery inflicted over long periods on children going about their lawful business of playing.

HELP AVAILABLE

Fair Play for Children .... advice, support, representation on individual issues, although we have to stress that the main impetus must come from people involved.

Address: 35 Lyon Street, Bognor Regis PO21 1BW, Tel/Fax: 01243-869922, e-mail: fairplay@arunet.co.uk

Children's Legal Centre .... independent national charity concerned with law and policy affecting children and young people. There is an advice and information line open Monday to Fridays 10am-12noon and 2-5pm.

Address: University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex CO4 3SQ, Tel: 01206- 872466 Fax: 01206-874026, e-mail: clc@essex.ac.uk

Citizens Advice Bureau .... will advise on a whole range of legal and representational matters - see local phone book or ask at library, council offices

Community Relations or Racial Equality Council .... will look into allegations of racial harassment and abuse. Again consult phone book, library, local council offices.

Local Authority Councillors .... who should be balanced in their handling of disputes. The local council will provide details of ward councillors, committee chairs etc - also usually available at the library and CAB. [CAB, the council offices etc will also furnish information about complaints of unfairness amounting to maladministration by the local authority, which can be referred to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Mediation services .... alas few and far between - ask at CAB, Library, local authority etc - but not many exist.

Police handling of matters .... if there are concerns, then representation, via a Councillor if need be, or a legal representative, to the local force chief superintendent is an appropriate step - although more informal discussion with community liaison police officers might be a sensible prelude. The police will furnish details of contacting the Police Complaints Authority if such a matter arises.