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Session 2006 - 07
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European Standing Committee Debates

EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Joan Humble
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Challen, Colin (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire (Crosby) (Lab)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
Gibson, Dr. Ian (Norwich, North) (Lab)
Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
McIntosh, Miss Anne (Vale of York) (Con)
Rammell, Bill (Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning)
Teather, Sarah (Brent, East) (LD)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Emily Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Monday 18 December 2006

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

4.30 pm
The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I am grateful to the Committee, which I am sure will fill up shortly, for providing an opportunity to debate the EU communication “Towards an EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child”. We have a chance to discuss the EU’s role in promoting and protecting children’s rights, and I think that all hon. Members will strongly support the idea of promoting better outcomes for children. That is why the Government are implementing “Every Child Matters”, which will ensure better outcomes for children and give local providers the means to work together on local solutions for the children for whom they are responsible. We are also keenly aware of this country’s obligations in the wider world, and we co-operate with other countries in the United Nations and the Council of Europe, as well as when implementing our development policies overseas, to help safeguard children’s rights globally.
We are debating what value the EU can add in that regard. It is good that the Union is encouraging member states to promote and protect children’s rights, but that is true only to the extent that the Commission’s proposals add real value and stay within the scope of the Union’s existing competences; otherwise, we run the risk of removing the power to take decisions about safeguarding children from those who are best placed to make those decisions, and the Government will certainly not allow that to happen. We also run the risk of detracting from intergovernmental arrangements that already work well.
That is the context, but where has the communication on the rights of children come from? There is a ministerial mandate for the communication. In June 2005, EU Heads of State and Government signed up to an action plan on implementing The Hague programme, which sets out priorities for freedom, justice and security in the EU up to 2010, and that action plan called for a communication on the protection of the rights of the child. There is also an obligation under the EU’s treaties to respect fundamental rights. In that context, let me be clear that we are at a very early stage in dealing with the communication, and that will inevitably influence some of the questions and debate.
What is the Government’s overall position on the communication and what do we plan to do? We would certainly welcome a more joined-up approach to the policy area, but we need to be able to put across our views on where EU action does and does not add value. We will ensure that we secure appropriate representation on the stakeholder forum, for example, so that we are involved in shaping the course of the strategy from the outset. We succeeded in getting the communication tabled at a working group, where there was support for our position, and I welcome that. We will also work with future presidency countries to ensure that member states properly debate the eventual consultation paper in a formal setting. If legislative proposals are forthcoming, we will have a chance to influence what is proposed during the legislative process in the usual way.
The communication notes that any positive action taken at EU level must respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and must not encroach on the competence of member states, and I strongly welcome that. There should be no doubt that officials and Ministers will examine each proposal on its merits to ensure that there is a clear treaty base. In that regard, the Government will support a proposal only if it brings a clear benefit in safeguarding children and is of practical benefit to implement. For example, the UK Government favour the proposal to speed up work on the creation of an additional single, six-digit telephone number to report missing children throughout the European Union. That would be a positive step, which we should welcome. However, existing national telephone numbers would be maintained, and we would not necessarily support other EU-wide telephone numbers, such as one for child helplines, without further impact assessment and advice from organisations that operate such helplines in the United Kingdom.
My officials have made those points at meetings where the communication has been presented, and I am glad to say that we have support from other member states. We have also scheduled an informal private meeting with the Commission to discuss how our expertise in the UK can be used to best effect. Co-operation to prevent risks to children which transcend national boundaries is essential and I am sure all hon. Members support that. However, we shall continue to make it clear that the European Union should not interfere with national policy when that does not provide added value. Ensuring that any action at EU level respects the principle of subsidiarity is always important, and for children’s rights it is crucial. I shall ask the Committee to support the motion because it will enable us to consider each proposal from the Commission on its merits as it comes forward. It will also help us to put across our concerns about duplication with existing arrangements, to call for further discussion by member state representatives and to reiterate the exceedingly important point that any action proposed by the Commission must be within the scope of the treaties.
The Chairman: We have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that they should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for everyone to ask several questions.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I invite the Minister to explain the relationship between the European Commission communication and the UN convention on the rights of the child.
Bill Rammell: The UN convention on the rights of the child sets out the broad principles that all signatory states are expected to sign up to. Clearly, any proposals coming from the European Commission would need to fit within that overall framework. We have enacted a range of legislative initiatives and other measures to ensure that we conform to the UN convention, and it is important that that work is seen to complement that.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Following on from that, what is the Minister’s understanding of progress throughout the EU in implementing the United Nations convention on the rights of the child?
Bill Rammell: Let me talk about our progress, because I hope that I am competent to do so. We have implemented the vast bulk of commitments under the UN convention, but there are two exceptions. One is young people being detained exclusively in young people’s penal institutions. As a result of capacity constraints, that has not been possible. My understanding is that the Home Office will shortly bring forward commitments that will move us firmly in the right direction. In all other respects we are in compliance with the convention.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I hope that the Minister will enlighten me because I am confused about the number of issues covered by the document. There may be 100 or 150 different rights. Does he have a priority list? For example, where do disabled children fit in, and do the rights of the unborn child come into the debate?
Bill Rammell: One problem with the process is that we are at a very early stage. I shall set the matter out in detail because it may provide some reassurance. This is not a legislative instrument. The Commission is stating what it may wish to do, so the opportunities for member states and the European Parliament to intervene at this stage are limited. Much of the proposed activity is for the Commission to do, and there are no specific legislative proposals at present. It probably would help if we were to go through the detail of the proposals at some stage and give an indication of our likely response. In many areas, we have a good track record—our commitments on “Every Child Matters” are seen throughout the European Union as exemplary, and they firmly push us in the right direction.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Council of Europe concentrates on democracy, the rule of law and human rights. For the short time that I served on it, much work was being done on the rights of children. Has it been consulted so as to avoid duplication of effort?
Bill Rammell: I do not believe that there has been any formal consultation with the Council of Europe. As I mentioned, it is important that where the European Union genuinely can add value to what member states, the UN convention or the Council of Europe are doing, it should be involved. It is crucial that we do not have duplication of effort or input and therefore vital, albeit at this early stage, to have communication between the different actors, so that we move forward in a way that allows the EU to add value without duplicating or frustrating efforts.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that specific child protection problems exist in some of the accession and candidate countries, particularly with regard to Roma children in parts of eastern Europe? An EU strategy could have important effects in those countries.
Bill Rammell: If we do not look at the specifics, there is a danger that we will have a wide-ranging debate that does not bear down on the detail. However, without going into the outline proposals, I can say that they could help to spread best practice throughout the European Union. I do not say this from a nationalistic perspective, but we have a good track record in instituting children’s rights. This debate and these proposals provide an opportunity to ensure that best practice is spread as widely as possible, and that might be helpful in respect of my hon. Friend’s concerns.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister referred to a consultation paper to be published in 2008. He will be aware of the European Scrutiny Committee’s conclusion that it was astonishing that the present communication does not invite the views of member states on its proposals. Have the Government made the argument that prior to the consultation document’s publication, the Commission should consult on the communication, so that we can all see that it is travelling in the right direction?
Bill Rammell: We have forcefully put forward the view that in advancing the debate and moving towards Green Paper status in 2008, it is crucial that member states are involved and can comment on what is being proposed. Such an approach will ensure that the process enables the European Union to add value in the area of children’s rights and does not contradict, duplicate or undermine existing initiatives, from wherever they may come.
Dr. Gibson: In the interests of the child, and to prevent this from becoming a talking shop and a series of Green and White Papers, may I ask the Minister something? Some aspects of children’s care are being addressed. I mentioned disability, but the Minister did not quite answer my question. We are trying to improve both disability treatment for young people in this country and how those people are looked after. What have we got to learn from the Europeans in that regard? How will the differences in attitude about unborn children be married? Are unborn children included in this communication or are they kept out of it by another provision?
Bill Rammell: I do not believe that any of the current proposals for action would specifically address my hon. Friend’s concerns about the rights of disabled children. However, I will consider that further and, perhaps, respond formally to him. Similarly, I do not think that the proposals address the rights of unborn children, but I will seek clarification on that.
Annette Brooke: The Minister mentioned the consultation on the strategy. What should be in the strategy to ensure that it focuses on change for children and meets the detailed requirements of the convention on the rights of the child?
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Prepared 19 December 2006