10 June 1999


10 June 1999

Press Release



The structural elements for implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the United Kingdom were largely in place, but cultural and social obstacles remained, a representative of that country told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning.

With the election of a new Government in 1997, the United Kingdom had a clear vision for equality for women, the Director of the Cabinet Women's Unit, Fiona Reynolds, told the Committee. New policies focused on issues at the heart of the Convention, such as health and employment, and ranged from a national child care strategy to budgetary reforms. Institutions and structures had been created recently in Government while partnerships with other sectors of society were being forged.

The country's approach to women's issues was based on mainstreaming, she explained. Better representing women's needs and perspectives would benefit all social segments and society as a whole. Reflecting this approach, the Women's Unit was a catalyst and facilitator; it was not responsible for detailed programme development or implementation, which was the job of major departments of State.

Presentations were also made this morning by Louise Donnelly, Head of the Women's Issues Branch, Scottish Office; Francine O'Neill, Head of Gender Equality Team, Northern Ireland Office; and Sue Owen, Economic Counsellor.

The 23-member treaty monitoring body was taking up the United Kingdom's third and fourth reports on implementing the Convention, including addenda on the Falkland Islands, the Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. For the first time, the fourth report contains separate sections on Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in recognition of the devolution of power to their newly elected representative bodies.

In general comments after the presentations, several experts commended the United Kingdom for its modern vision of women and the seriousness with

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which it sought to actualize that vision. As it was too early to evaluate the many rapid and positive changes that had taken place in recent years, they called for future systematic analysis of the impact of the new policies. One expert said the addenda on the Territories should be more expansive; adequate resources must be provided.

The Government had taken a bold step by introducing the Human Rights Act, by which the European Convention on Human Rights would be incorporated into English Law, one expert said. Perhaps it could take a bolder one by doing the same with the Women's Convention, she suggested.

In comments regarding the administration of justice in the United Kingdom, she quoted from a court of appeal justice, who said judges in rape trials often failed to exercise control over tough barristers. Until it was easier for women to give evidence in such trials, rape would continue to be a prevalent offense with few convictions, she warned. Judges must be educated, on an ongoing basis, in human rights and in women's human rights.

With regard to ethnic minority women, an expert said there was a long history of minority domestic workers being abused in the United Kingdom. Were they now protected under existing laws? she asked. The report had acknowledged increased discrimination against minority women as opposed to white women. Were economically active women from minority groups covered by the minimum wage and other labour laws? she asked.

When the Committee meets again at 3 p.m. today to continue considering the situation of women in the United Kingdom, its members will pose questions on each of the Convention's articles.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin considering reports from the United Kingdom on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Government ratified the Convention in 1986, but it continues to place reservations on it (see below).

The Committee had before it more than 400 pages of statistical information, narrative and charts, contained in two reports and six addenda, covering the situation of women and the Convention's implementation, article by article, in Great Britain, with separate sections on Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Falkland Islands, the Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The United Kingdom's third periodic report (document CEDAW/C/UK/3) covers the period from 1991 through 1995. An addendum covers the period from 1993 to 1997 in the Falkland Islands (document CEDAW/C/UK/3/Add.1) and another, on the Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands (CEDAW/C/UK/3/Add.2) covers the period since 1991.

The country's fourth periodic report (document CEDAW/C/UK/4) describes the situation of women in Great Britain from July 1995 through March 1999, with particular emphasis on the period after 1997, when the new Labour Government was elected. The report focuses on each of the Convention's articles. For the first time, the document specifically outlines how those articles are or will be applied in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, reflecting the constitutional development since May 1997, by which power and responsibility for government was devolved to newly elected representative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Addenda describe efforts to implement the Convention in the Falkland Islands (document CEDAW/C/UK/4/Add.1); the Virgin Islands (document CEDAW/C/UK/4/Add.2); the Turks and Caicos Islands (document CEDAW/C/UK/4/Add.3); and the Isle of Man (CEDAW/C/UK/4/Add.4).

In a foreword to the fourth periodic report, the United Kingdom's Minister for Women states that great strides for women had been taken since the Labour Government was elected in May 1997. New machinery was in place to address women's needs, through a Minister for Women in the Cabinet, a new Women's Unit in the Cabinet Office and a Cabinet subcommittee responsible for ensuring that the Government overall takes into account women's needs and aspirations. Since the 1997 election, women were better represented in Parliament, and the Government was committed to 50/50 representation in public appointments. Of the appointments made in 1997 and 1998, 39 per cent were women. Currently, there are 22 women ministers.

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Despite these facts, and despite the fact that over half of the United Kingdom's population is women (29.9 million women compared to 28.8 million men) women are very much in the minority in public life, according to the report. Women make up 53 per cent of the labour force in Great Britain, in 1998, compared with 38 per cent in 1971. Between 1984 and 1998, the employment rate for white women increased by 10 per cent, compared with an increase of 4 per cent for ethnic minority women. The unemployment rate for the minority women is 18 per cent, while for white women, it is 8 per cent. Women only represent 32 per cent of managers and administrators, and 35 per cent of health professionals. In senior posts, the under-representation of women is more marked: 91 per cent of judges and 82 per cent of Members of Parliament are men. Women make up about 80 per cent of all part-time workers, and only 7 per cent are self-employed.

The proportion of women delaying childbearing into their 30s continues to rise. Current projections indicate that as many as 20 per cent of women born after 1960 will remain childless, the majority by choice. The United Kingdom's population is ageing and primarily urban. The ethnic minority population constituted 4.9 per cent of the population of Great Britain aged 16 and over, at 2.1 million persons. However, 33 per cent of the ethnic minority population was under 16, compared with 19 per cent of the white population. From 1988 to 1992, an average of 243,000 persons entered the country each year, a third more than in the same period during 10 years previously. An estimated 6.2 million adults have disabilities, of whom 3.6 million are women. That overrepresentation is due to the higher proportion of disabled women over age 75, the report states.

In 1991, 69 per cent of women aged 75 and over were living alone, the report states. The number of households are increasing, but that is partly due to the fact that households now contain fewer people. In 1993, more than a quarter of the households in Great Britain were one person households, almost double the proportion in 1961. Women over pensionable age comprise the largest group among single person households, numbering 2.4 million of a total of 5.6 million in 1993 in England and Wales. Family structure is changing. The number of divorces is rising, to a rate of 49 per every 100 marriages. Almost 30 per cent of women from 25 to 34 were cohabitating, with almost one in three births in 1993 occurring outside marriage. Still, the most common type of family unit -- 71 per cent of families -- is that of two parents with their own children.

The report states that 44 per cent of all violent crimes in 1995 were cases of domestic violence. The cost to London local authorities responding to domestic violence has been estimated at 278 million pounds per year.

A number of bodies are charged with promoting equality, according to the report. These include an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), set up in 1975 to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity between men

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and women, and to review the workings of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Equal Pay Act of 1970. It is also empowered to assist individual complainants in certain situations by giving legal advice or representation, among other means. The EOC is funded through the Government (5.792 million pounds for the 1998-1999 fiscal year) and has offices in Manchester, London, Glasgow and Cardiff.

The report contains extensive information regarding the situation of women's health in the United Kingdom. England has one of the highest rates of teenage conceptions in the developed world. There is wide variation across the country, with strong correlations between measures of social deprivation, educational attainment and educational prospects with the rate of teenage conceptions. The Government's Social Exclusion Unit is working with other departments, building on the work already undertaken by the Department of Health, to develop an integrated strategy to cut rates of teenage parenthood, and propose better solutions to combat the risk of social exclusion for vulnerable young people.

Smoking is related to one fifth of all deaths each year in the United Kingdom, according to the report. The rate of smoking among young women, aged 16 to 24, has increased from 28 per cent in 1994 to 33 per cent to 1996. In 1996, 28 per cent of all women in the country smoked. The Government spends approximately 6.5 million pounds on various campaigns to raise awareness of the health risks of smoking and provide support in quitting.

Another concern pertains to domestic violence, according to the report. Domestic violence is underreported and therefore not accurately reflected in statistics, but some 44 per cent of all violent crime against women is known to be committed by a partner or former partner, or a relative or household member. A number of campaigns throughout the country are being implemented to counter domestic violence, including one launched by the Home Office in January. The main objectives are to raise public awareness and inform victims of help available to them. Re-education on gender and violence issues is the underlying philosophy for court-ordered treatment programmes for men found guilty of violence against women. The report notes that stereotypical attitudes of gender roles and power balances contribute to male violence against women.

Regarding stereotypes in the media, the report states that traditional gender images appear widely, but the trend in recent years is towards greater experimentation with alternative images and increased use of irony and humour when such stereotypes are used. All television advertising must comply with the Independent Television Commission's Code of Advertising Standards and Practice, which prohibits advertisement from offending against good taste and decency.

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Introduction of Country Report

FIONA REYNOLDS, Director, Women's Unit, Cabinet Office, introducing her delegation and her country's third and fourth periodic reports, said the United Kingdom had a clear vision for equality for women. New policies focused on issues at the heart of the Convention, such as health and employment. A range of new institutions and structures had been established recently in the Government. The United Kingdom's delegation to the Committee was large and representative of all Government sectors, demonstrating commitment to implement the Convention throughout Government.

The aim was to achieve goals by mainstreaming, as reflected in the slogan of the Women's Unit: "Better for women, better for all", she said. The Women's Unit was a catalyst and facilitator; it was not responsible for detailed programme development or implementation, which was the job of major departments of State. As an integral part of their responsibilities, those departments worked with the Women's Unit to promote the women's agenda.

The EOC operated independently of Government, with a budget of roughly 600 million pounds per annum, she said. The Women's National Commission (WNC) was another key partner, funded by Government to draw together the views of women's organizations and communicate them to Government. The emphasis on partnership with the EOC and the WNC reflected the reality that partnership was needed between all social sectors if real progress was to be made for women.

She then described some key policy developments, which included a national child care strategy, budgetary reforms and the introduction of a national minimum wage which disproportionately benefited women. Pensions were being reformed, and many new deals for employment focused on the realities of women's lives. The United Kingdom was committed to promoting family-friendly employment in the public and the private sectors. She drew attention to her country's long-standing commitment to universal health care and education. Both sectors were receiving substantial injections of new funds.

Regarding new machinery, there was now the highest ever representation of women in Parliament -- 18 per cent in the Westminster Parliament -- and of the 22 Cabinet members, five were women, she said. A number of new units in the Cabinet Office had a "joined-up" mission, including the Social Exclusion Unit -- which was about to publish a major report on teenage pregnancy -- and a new Performance and Innovation Unit, addressing the older members of society. There were now two Ministers for Women, including one in the Cabinet; a Cabinet subcommittee for women; and an official level women's policy group.

The Cabinet Women's Unit was working in three modes, she said. It was adopting an innovative approach to communication and listening to women,

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combining quantitative and qualitative research. The approach was new, based on interactions in an informal format, with "ordinary" women and government representatives, and members of non-governmental organizations participating. Project work was focusing on identifying and examining issues that cut across the work of individual government departments, including violence against women, family-friendly employment and teenage girls. The third mode involved mainstreaming women's issues and injecting the women's perspective into the work of other departments.

The emphasis on mainstreaming women's issues resulted in a low profile for the Women's Unit, she said, since other departments sought to take credit for achievements. Thus, there were issues to be considered regarding relative weight. Women still lacked information and knowledge about what the Government was doing to help them, she noted. Traditional forms of communication, such as daily media, were less likely to reach women than men. That issue was being explored, through a "Listening to Women" programme, and with dialogue with some of the forms of media that women used and relied upon.

Regarding devolution of power, she said that while economic and foreign policy were retained, many detailed decisions were to be devolved to the new administrations. That was not entirely new. There had long been three legal jurisdictions: one for England and Wales, another for Scotland and a third for Northern Ireland.

Reporting on the progress of women in Northern Ireland, FRANCINE O'NEILL, Head of Gender Equality Team, Northern Ireland Office, said that there was a very active women's movement in Northern Ireland. Women's groups had played an active part in the peace process there. The Northern Ireland Act of 1998 had established a system of devolution and set up a New Equality Commission. Northern Ireland had a separate legal jurisdiction with separate legislation on sex discrimination, which mirrored that of England. Among the matters that had been transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly were the various anti-discrimination codes, including those on sex discrimination. The powers of the existing anti-discrimination agencies would move to the new combined Equality Commission. The Government was committed to having in place, in the post-devolution period, a structure to ensure women's development and progress.

LOUISE DONNELLY, Head of Women's Issues Branch, Scottish Office, said that Scotland was standing on the threshold of exciting times with onset of the new Scottish Parliament. The commitment to promoting equal opportunities underpinned the devolution settlement. While legislative competence on equality issues was reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament had clear statutory remit to ensure equal opportunities. It had decided to establish an Equal Opportunities Committee, which demonstrated its commitment to put equal opportunities at the heart of its work. The Committee had wide powers,

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including initiating bills on matters within its jurisdiction and conducting equal opportunities impact assessment of all Government bills.

A new Equality Unit had been established in the Scottish Executive with a key role to promote and support mainstreaming of all policy and programme development, implementation and evaluation, she said. The Scottish Parliament, committed to equal representation of men and women, and equal opportunity for all, represented a new beginning. It was innovative in that it conducted its business within family-friendly working hours and observed official school holidays. Following the election of 6 May, 37 per cent of the legislature were women. That had been a substantial improvement compared to the number of Scottish women elected to the Westminster Parliament. Women also held various senior positions in the Government; out of 10 cabinet posts, three were held by women.

The new Parliament reflected the capacity-building that had been going on for the past few years, she said. The establishment of the Women in Consultative Forum, Women's Issues Research and the Database of Women's Organizations were among efforts to promote more effective consultation with and for women's interests. A number of policy developments, which paralleled those at the central Government level, had been shaped to respond to Scottish requirements and circumstances. While the post-devolution period will be an interesting and exciting one, she expected that close cooperation, dialogue and sharing of ideas with the central Government would continue.

Ms. REYNOLDS, commenting on the situation in Wales, said that women's representation in the Welsh Assembly was very high, with women representing 42 per cent of the total. Also, four out of the eight cabinet posts were held by women. The Assembly also conducted itself in a family-friendly working environment. The Government of Wales Act required the Assembly to have due regard to equal opportunities in the conduct of its business and to exercise its functions with that same regard.

SUE OWEN, from the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Her Majesty's Treasury, said that out of the five ministers in the Treasury, three were women. The traditional function of the Treasury had been to control spending, setting up total spending limits and not interfering with how other departments spent the money allocated to them. Spending limits were now prepared on three year totals. The other functions included the tax function and focusing more on the supply side of the economy.

Under the new Government, the Treasury was trying more to look at cross- cutting issues, such as poverty, she continued. It was also trying to increasingly use the idea of mainstreaming in its policies. Any new policy had to be looked at in terms of its impact on areas such as the environment and gender. There was now a wider process of consultation in the preparation of the budget. Also, once the budget package was ready, an assessment of how

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it, as a whole, would impact women was conducted. For women, this year's budget contained broad-ranging measures, addressing issues such as crime, violence, and social security reforms. Women also made up an increasing proportion of new small business owners.

The current year's budget, while focusing on poverty, had delivered a great deal of help to women, she said. Among its new provisions were: a tax cut, which halved the tax liability for over 1 million low-earning women; an extension of maternity pay to low paid women in part-time work; entitlement of the full rate of maternity allowance to self-employed women; and a new Children's Tax Credit. All of that would work together as a package to help women.

She said that in the last 10 years, the percentage of mothers in the labour market had increased, particularly in full-time work. However, lone mothers had a lower participation rate in the labour force than mothers with partners. There had been significant changes in the labour market in the United Kingdom and she believed the new provisions would serve to improve the situation. However, she wondered how far the pay gap could be closed further due to the cultural and institutional factors that represented barriers to women, such as their primary roles still being seen as in the home. While the position of women had changed, there was still cynicism among women about the Government and their position. There still existed significant barriers to men taking up part-time work and taking on more household responsibilities.

Ms. REYNOLDS said that the United Kingdom was not complacent; it recognized that there was much to be done. Structural elements for implementing the Convention were largely in place, but so too were cultural and social obstacles.

General Comments by Experts

An expert commended the United Kingdom for promoting a modern vision of women. However, as the report noted, adolescents and the elderly were both suffering from discrimination and violence. She expressed concern about early pregnancies, and poverty affecting the elderly, while recognizing that the Government was seeking solutions for those problems. Early pregnancy was a kind of violence.

The United Kingdom's positive plan for society could only have value if there was popular involvement, she continued. Men must be more involved. The keys to that were education and media, to raise consciousness.

Another expert welcomed recent successes in terms of women's presence in public life. The recent elections had inspired women worldwide. But more information was needed about the country's remaining reservations to the

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Convention, specifically those pertaining to special temporary measures, and their compatibility with the article on discrimination.

She then asked about the continued underrepresentation of women in higher education, noting that the situation worsened at higher levels of the academic hierarchy. Further, there was consistent underpayment of female university staff. She wondered what was planned to counter those facts, considering the Government's hesitant attitude regarding special measures. Women's participation in engineering and technical fields lagged, and that in turn contributed to stereotyping and unequal pay. What measures were being considered to address that? she asked.

An expert welcomed the fact that the United Kingdom's many and substantive reservations to the Women's Convention were reviewed systematically, in consultation with non-governmental organizations, and that its reasons for retaining reservations were clearly stated. She further commended the Government for its fundamental and positive changes, including in economic policy. It was her first experience of reading in a "shadow report" that the authors were pleasantly surprised by the honesty, sincerity and seriousness of the Government report. She welcomed the United Kingdom's interventions during the process of developing the Optional Protocol and expected that it would be among the first to ratify the Protocol.

It was too early to assess the impact of the many changes that had been set out in the fourth report, she said. The United Kingdom should ensure that the wide-reaching policies were rigorously analysed and evaluated to determine how effective they had been when the country submitted its next report.

Next she commented on the administration of justice, noting that women judges were only 9 per cent of the judiciary and there were none in senior ranks in Northern Ireland. While judges were not to represent groups or genders, they must reflect the communities they served. Therefore, the United Kingdom must increase the number of women judges in all parts of the country. She doubted whether the new system regarding application for judges would serve the purpose of increasing the number of women judges. Specific strategies must be developed to ensure that women were invited to apply.

She said she was aware that the process of bringing into effect the Human Rights Act -- which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into English Law -- might be delayed to ensure that education of judges was completed. But the Act should not be delayed; judicial education was an ongoing process that must be addressed systematically.

To understand the importance of women's human rights, the judiciary must be educated on gender, she continued. The Commonwealth Youth and Gender Affairs delivered effective education in that field, and could serve as a model. But it was an ongoing programme that would be required, she stressed.

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The Human Rights Commission of Northern Ireland must be adequately resourced, she said. Now that the United Kingdom had enacted the Human Rights Act, how would issues of women's human rights be given the same emphasis as those in the European Convention? she asked, wondering whether that Convention incorporated the breadth of rights expressed in the Women's Convention. At the very least, the Government should ensure that legislation reflected article 1 of the Women's Convention, regarding direct and indirect discrimination. The Government had taken a bold step by adopting and incorporating the convention on human rights; perhaps it could take a bolder one by doing the same with the Women's Convention.

Turning then to women in prison, she noted the increasing rates of incarceration and called for clearly targeted action. Increasing the number of prison facilities for women was not the only appropriate response. More positive steps could be taken. She expressed concern about the number of women convicted of minor offenses, which were often indicators of poverty. A strategy might be to decriminalize certain actions, such as "TV licence evasion".

It was unacceptable that young women were serving their sentences in adult prisons, and that prisons for young women lacked adequate educational provisions, she said. Regarding women charged for murder, she understood that the defense often called the "battered women's defense" was often not made widely available to juries. That was one area where education for judiciary would be of critical importance.

When -- not if -- would child prostitution be decriminalized? she asked. It was inappropriate to criminalize that activity, which children engaged in as the result of abuse. Regarding trafficking in women, she said the matter should not be disguised as concern over immigration. The issue was not about migration, it was about trafficking, and it was a serious and widespread problem.

On procedures for women giving evidence in charges of rape, she noted that legislation was intended to preclude questioning of prior sexual history. But until it was easier for women to come and give evidence in such trials, rape would continue to be a prevalent offense with few convictions. In that connection, she quoted a court of appeal justice who had said that in rape trials, judges failed to exercise control over tough barristers. That again demonstrated the value of education for judges and gender training for the judiciary.

With regard to women in decision-making positions and their participation in political life, an expert wondered why the United Kingdom -- one of the oldest democracies in the world -- had such a low representation of women in its Parliament. The evolution of its parliamentary system had not reflected the participation and contribution of women to the country's

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evolution. Both the Vienna Conference on Human Rights and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing had invoked the importance of a participatory democracy for the advancement of women. While political parties in the country had taken some temporary special measures, it had not until now produced the desired results. She wanted to know whether the Government envisaged any other measures, other than those already taken, to increase women's participation. Also, was the current electoral system conducive to women's participation?

One expert noted that the recommendations formulated by the Equal Opportunities Commission were important for introducing new reforms into the current legislation. An especially important issue was the difference in pay received by women and men. With the new policies there was mention of a differential minimum salary, which could contribute to the elimination of wage differences. Although there was a law on equal pay, the issue continued to affect British women.

Another serious problem for British women, she continued, was sexual harassment, which a significant number of female workers suffered from. She also expressed concern about women in ethnic minorities, who were in greater danger of unemployment than white women. They were also more discriminated against than the men in their groups. Measures had to continue to be taken to favour those women.

Another expert noted that the report had acknowledged increased discrimination among ethnic minority groups. She wanted to know whether those women from minority groups who were economically active were covered by the statutory minimum wage and other labour laws. She also wanted information on the situation regarding their education and health status. There had been a long history of abuse of minority domestic workers in the country, and she wondered whether those workers were protected under the United Kingdom's labour laws. Could they provide a plausible reason as to why there was such wide discrimination between ethnic and white women? she asked.

Further, referring to an article by a non-governmental organization, which stated that there were more refuges for animals than for women in the United Kingdom, she asked about refuges for ethnic minority women who were victims of abuse.

Concerned about the situation of women in the United Kingdom's overseas Territories, particularly in those in the Caribbean region, an expert was pleased to see that there was a women's unit to deal with that issue, and about the commitment to eliminate discrimination in the overseas Territories. At the same time, she wanted to know what mechanisms existed between the women's unit in the United Kingdom and those women's desks that existed in the Territories to ensure that parallel activities were carried out in those Territories. Also, what mechanisms existed to allow those offices to

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implement the United Kingdom's commitments under the Beijing Platform for Action in the Territories?

She was concerned about whether adequate provision of human and financial resources existed to carry out that work. She hoped that the reports out of those Territories would be expansive in the future and that adequate assistance from the United Kingdom would be provided to ensure that actions taken in the Territories was reflected in the reports.

A question was also raised regarding the impact of the 1986 Immigration Act, specifically the area referring to British citizenship, on women from former dependent or current Territories, and its impact on their children born in the United Kingdom.

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For information media. Not an official record.