EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

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Bill Rammell: It is important that one best practice is shared across the European Union. To be more specific, there are proposals to support the banking sector and credit card companies in combating the use of credit cards to purchase sexual images of children on the internet. There is, arguably, a case for action there, which we would look at favourably. Other suggestions, such as promoting a clustering of actions on child poverty within the European Union, might be helpful if they add value and help us to achieve the Lisbon goals. However, I reiterate that we are at an early stage. Some of my difficulty in responding to hon. Members’ detailed questions is that there is not yet a great deal of detail coming from the Commission about how the proposals are to be taken forward. It is therefore important that there is a genuine opportunity for member states to engage with the process to ensure that it adds value. We are arguing forcefully for that.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): On that point, I must say that I have read the document and find it quite confusing. I refer the Minister to paragraph 3, “What issue/problem is the Communication expected to tackle?”, on page 8. I presume that he will respond to the document and other relevant pieces of information that he might have. It is interesting to note that section 3 appears not only to address the position of children in the EU, but to take a global perspective of the problems facing children. That is exceptionally interesting, but for our purposes I would like there to be far more focus on the issues that affect our children here in the EU, and some discussion about the instruments that have been brought to bear to address those problems. Presumably, the Minister has read the document. Does he share my concern? If so, can he cast any light on individual sections of the document in relation to children within the EU?
Bill Rammell: I am certainly here to say how we are responding to the document, but I am not the originator of it. My hon. Friend highlights a particular challenge: while there is a role for the EU in sharing best practice, monitoring what is happening and adding value, particularly in terms of asserting and pushing children’s rights internationally, there is no EU competence in the field of children’s rights. That is right because it is the responsibility of individual nation states, which is why we are strongly pushing the “Every Child Matters” agenda. This debate and her question tempt us to move beyond that and impinge on what is rightly the competence of individual member states, and that would be wrong. The issue is about co-ordinating, adding value and forcefully upholding member states’ primary responsibility to assert and implement children’s rights.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister referred to the legal basis on which it would be right and proper for the Commission to undertake legislation, as it has in the past. Does he share my disappointment with the way in which the European directive on television without frontiers has been implemented? There is a remarkable number of differences in the impact that it has had on advertising and children. In this country, parents still feel that harmful advertising is being shown, particularly during the hours that children watch television.
Similarly, would not it be appropriate for the EU to legislate to establish a barrier to children accessing internet gambling? Do we need separate legislation for that? Is the Minister convinced that the internet does not respect international frontiers, and would it be appropriate to seek an EU directive?
Bill Rammell: I am not convinced at this stage that EU legislation to tackle that problem is the best way forward, although I do not rule it out. Our current engagement mechanism is probably the most effective way of tackling the problem, but I do not rule out legislation, and those issues are kept under review.
Mr. Gerrard: There are several references to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Does the Minister see anything in the document to suggest that the UK should reconsider the way in which we deal with the UN convention, particularly as we have a reservation on immigration policy?
Bill Rammell: I do not believe that we should move away from that reservation. In respect of our immigration policies, it is right that we can secure our borders. Children in adult detention centres is the second of our two reservations and, as I said, we shall shortly make progress on that. However, I do not agree that removing the reservation on immigration would be sensible or practical.
Angela Watkinson: Has the Minister considered how the strategy might be used to prevent the removal of young girls living in this and other European countries to countries outside the European Union, mainly in Africa and India, for the purposes of female genital mutilation and forced marriages? Has he considered how best practice can be garnered from other European countries to try to stop those practices?
Bill Rammell: Those issues are exceedingly important, and as the details of the directive develop, we should consider whether they give us a route forward. However, it is important not to overstate the potential impact of them. The proposals can be helpful and they are about sharing best practice, but they are the Commission’s broad proposals and do not encapsulate a silver-bullet solution.
Nevertheless, I must be honest with the Committee: I cannot be definitive. The broad formulations before us are not backed up by much detail. We are at the early stages of the process, and that is why it is crucial that member states are involved in the debate about the effectiveness of proposals.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: From what the Minister has said so far, I understand that the exercise is about bringing together all the Commission’s different children’s initiatives, and, I presume, carrying out a mapping exercise. What is not being undertaken is an agenda-seeking exercise by which member states are invited to contribute subjects that they would like the EU to consider as part of developing a strategy on protecting children’s rights. Is that a fair summation of what is going on?
Bill Rammell: It may help if I briefly run through the actions that are proposed. Some of them are based on consultation with stakeholders, such as setting up a web-based discussion and work platform on children’s rights throughout the EU, bringing together stakeholders in a European forum for the rights of the child, and involving children in the decision-making process. All those propositions would be broadly acceptable, although we need more detail.
The second tranche of initiatives is about joining up and mainstreaming policies. It includes setting up a Commission inter-service group and appointing a co-ordinator for the rights of the child, providing the necessary skills and tools to actors involved in mainstreaming children’s rights in Community policies, mainstreaming children’s rights when drafting EC legislative and non-legislative actions that may affect them, assessing the impact of the existing EU actions affecting children’s rights, and continuing and further enhancing the EU’s active role in international forums to promote the rights of the child. Again, that tranche of initiatives arguably has merit, but we need to see the detail.
There are also proposals for new actions which we need to consider in great detail, such as reserving a range of phone numbers for European Union services, including child helplines and hotlines for missing and sexually exploited children, supporting the banking sector and credit card companies in combating the use of credit cards for the purchase of sexual images of children on the internet, launching an action plan on development co-operation to address children’s priority needs in developing countries, promoting a clustering of actions on child poverty across the European Union, collecting comparable data on children’s rights, and issuing a consultation document to identify future actions—a Green Paper, which will be presented in 2008.
Annette Brooke: I have a slightly more detailed question on children’s and young people’s participation. Quite a lot is being done in that respect in the UK, and I want a reassurance that the Government at least welcome the European forum on the rights of the child. I think it is proposed that one quarter of the members will be children and young people. Does the Minister think that that is a useful way to involve children throughout Europe?
Bill Rammell: I do. I have a long history of commitment to the right of young people to represent their views. However, it is crucial to examine the proposals with care. There may be many environments in which it is right, helpful and proper for children and young people to be their own advocates and to be involved in decision making. Sometimes, particularly in some of the wider European Union forums, it will be as effective, if not more so, for representative bodies to be involved in the decision-making process on their behalf. However, as a general principle I welcome the attempt to engage children and young people in the development of the process.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister said that he thought it would be best to find local solutions, and I would add that it would be best if that happened on a voluntary basis. Is he aware of the excellent work that has been done in the past two years under Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council? The local education authority has undertaken a unique school improvement programme, which is being piloted and rolled out across the UK. Does the Minister not agree that that is the best way forward and that other parts of the country could learn from such an approach? As he said, local solutions are a better way forward than blanket EU control, although I would add that they should be implemented voluntarily.
Bill Rammell: I do not think that anybody is advocating blanket EU control. Incidentally, I am happy to pay tribute where it is due, and I am sure that some Conservative-controlled local education authorities do sensible things from time to time. However, I take the hon. Lady’s point that there needs to be local action. As I said at the beginning, it is crucial that the present process is developed in conformity with the principle of subsidiarity, which is about ensuring that local action is taken where it is the most effective alternative. However, as we move ahead on a case-by-case basis, there will be issues on which we need to take collective action across the EU, and that is one of the issues that the current proposals look at.
Bill Rammell: Absolutely. I will take that comment in the friendly spirit in which I am sure it was intended. It is probably helpful if I set out some of the ways in which we are seeking clarification of what will eventually emerge. Through the UK permanent representation to the EU, there will shortly be an informal meeting with the Commission. At working group and intergovernmental meetings where the communication has been presented, we are pushing for discussion. We are also seeking strong representation on the stakeholder forum. In addition, we are approaching the German presidency to ask for proper discussions of the eventual consultation document in the Council working group, and those will probably take place in the social affairs working group.
I reiterate that we are at an early stage of the process. As my hon. Friend made clear, it is a very long process, and it will take a further two years to get even to the Green Paper stage. If there are then to be legislative proposals, there will be further time scales, and member states will have further opportunities to influence the process. At the moment, we are ensuring through officials and Ministers that there is as much consultation and debate on these issues as possible.
Annette Brooke: Does the Minister not agree that the consultation that will take place as a consequence of the communication will be beneficial for policy making in the United Kingdom and enable us better to meet the requirements of the convention on the rights of the child?
Bill Rammell: Any debate about those issues is important, but I do not accept the thrust of the hon. Lady’s suggestion that we are being negligent in terms of signing up to the broad requirements of the convention on the rights of the child. We have a good track record across the board on children’s rights, particularly in respect of our proposals and strategies under “Every Child Matters”, and we are moving firmly forward on that agenda.
Mr. Gerrard: May I return to the issue of the consultation, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North? Can the Minister give us any idea who might be involved in the proposed stakeholder groups? We are dealing with an area that involves many NGOs. There is expertise both in this country and throughout Europe. One would expect the police perhaps to have some involvement in issues involving the banking sector and fraud, or trafficking. Who is likely to be involved in the stakeholder groups, and who will make the decision on who those people are?
Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend’s question goes to the heart of the matter. The stakeholder forum will consist of representatives from member states, as well as non-governmental organisations and children’s representatives. In that context, we shall certainly argue to ensure that the forum does not duplicate existing intergovernmental arrangements at EU level. I say that from an important perspective. If we end up with fragmentation and duplication, the job of work that needs to done will not be undertaken effectively, but if we can get it right, the stakeholder engagement process has the potential to be useful in looking at EU-level proposals. Again, I would certainly not want it to duplicate meetings, such as those of L’Europe de l’Enfance, which focuses on exchange of national policy best practice. If we get this right, it is about the best way of ensuring that the appropriate people are involved in the forum from the outset. Certainly there will be representatives from member states and NGOs, as well as children’s representatives. If my hon. Friend has detailed concerns about specific organisations that he wants to be involved in the process, perhaps he will communicate with me about that. I would be happy to consider that in our deliberations on the way in which we take this forward.
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