EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

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Angela Watkinson:: I do not claim to have read every word of the document, but I got to page 19 before I found any reference to the Council of Europe, and then it was only a source of data. It refers to mainstreaming children’s rights and I wonder whether that is a weasel word. It states:
“The process will take into account work carried out under the Council of Europe Programme ‘Building a Europe for and with Children (2006-2008)’ to effectively promote respect for children’s rights and protect children against all forms of violence.”
I am just a little suspicious about that process. Is the European Union trying to subsume the Council of Europe’s work on human rights? I wonder what their future relationship will be.
Bill Rammell: I am a strong, committed and constructive pro-European, but one challenge that we must always be concerned about is institutional mission creep within the European Union. That is why I welcome the fact that we are at the early stage of the process. We should take the opportunity to ensure that this is genuinely about adding value and not undercutting the competencies of member states, that it is taken forward in conformity with the principles of subsidiarity, and that the rationale and the effective work that those other international bodies may be, and often are, doing is not undercut.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I welcome the initiative, which is immensely important. We can all go on developing policies that get out of control, a bit like Topsy. To stand back and consider who is doing what, particularly in an EU context, is extremely valuable because there is a great deal of good practice throughout Europe that we could all learn from. We can provide that practice and we can also learn from others.
I want to go back to two points that were raised earlier. References to children with disabilities are very limited in the document. I have had an opportunity to read it all, and there are such references, but anything that we do or any response that we provide needs to identify that group of children, who have good rights in the United Kingdom, but are immensely disadvantaged in other parts of the EU.
The Chairman: Order. I remind all hon. Members that questions should be brief. There will be an opportunity to contribute to the debate shortly, but questions to the Minister should be brief.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I have noted that, Mrs. Humble. The Minister set out earlier a list of the activities that the Commission will undertake, but there was no specific reference to the establishment of an EU commissioner for children. I hope that the Minister will forgive my ignorance, but does such a commissioner exist, or, if not, does he think that the exercise is a route by which we may achieve that?
Bill Rammell: No, that is not the case. As to disability issues, the matter is one for the national competence of the member states. My hon. Friend will be aware of the actions that this country and the Government have taken under disability discrimination legislation. That is the way forward, but I and officials will reflect on the comments that have been made in Committee, and look at the overall proposals. As long as value is genuinely added to what the European Union is doing, I shall reflect on the comments and see whether that is appropriate, within one of the EU policy proposal strands.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister was in my view a little vague about the legal basis of the communication. The conclusion of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny was to agree with the Minister that there appeared to be no legal basis in the EU and the new treaties. My understanding is that normally matters would proceed on the basis of intergovernmental co-operation. Will the Minister confirm that? Will there be reciprocity of standards, rather than the imposition of standards between one member state and another?
Bill Rammell: I am not trying to be vague, but part of my difficulty in dealing with the package of proposals this afternoon is that there is not yet much substance. That is in a sense inevitable, because we are at an early stage of the process. It is helpful that the Commission does not claim general competence in the area of fundamental rights, including children’s rights, under the treaties or under the case law of the European Court of Justice. Many of the proposals will be about the sharing of best practice and about co-ordination. It is conceivable that there is not a competency with respect to children’s rights, but in other areas, some of which I referred to earlier, such as providing telephone numbers or tackling the use of credit cards to obtain sexual images of children, there may be a case for legislative action under other EU competencies.
We must press the Commission for more detail as the proposals are developed, but I reiterate my point that the proposals must be taken forward in conformity with respect for the rights of member states and the principles of subsidiarity. If we hold firm to that, we can address the issues, as they are taken forward, in detail.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Further to my earlier comments, I want to observe that there is little in the communication—just a sub-group of a few sentences—about children who are held in detention. I presume, given the Minister’s references to the UK’s stance, that we would want to flag the issue up as a major area of interest during this exercise.
Bill Rammell: I certainly think that across the board we need to look at the detail of the proposals to ensure that they genuinely help, across the European Union and beyond, to assert and to support the rights of children. The test of that will be, as the proposals come forward and we try to influence them, that they achieve a beneficial outcome and genuinely add value to what the European Union can do.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the Minister for that response, but it suggests that we shall carry out an assessment exercise on the competence of various institutions or structures in the EU to deal with particular matters, and that we may arrive at the conclusion that they do not provide any particular benefit, in which case, will we advise the EU that we do not have confidence in those structures and, therefore, argue for their removal from a process to which they do not seem to contribute?
Bill Rammell: This Government, through our participation in European forums, will urge the Commission not to go beyond its competence or its remit. First, it would be wrong in principle for the European Union to do so and, secondly, the prime responsibility for supporting and upholding children’s rights lies rightly with member states. If we create any sense in which the responsibility is considered not to be paramount on member states, in the long run we will undermine the importance of children’s rights throughout the European Union and beyond.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Is my hon. Friend saying that the UK would not support the establishment of an EU commissioner for children’s rights?
Bill Rammell: I am not convinced that the establishment of such a post would at this stage help to promote and enhance the rights of children, either throughout the European Union, or within member states.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I hope that this is my final question. Have there been developed the criteria that we would want satisfied before agreeing to the establishment of a commissioner for children in Europe?
Bill Rammell: I am not the Minister responsible for children’s rights, but I am happy to engage in correspondence and to provide my hon. Friend with the information that she seeks about whether such criteria have been assessed in the context of the overall criteria.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 12107/06 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication: Towards an EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child; supports the Government's view that any such strategy should stay within the Union's existing competences; asks the Government to ensure that any EU activity in the field of children's rights adds value to existing intergovernmental arrangements; and opposes any future legislation on children's rights that does not have a proper Treaty basis.—[Bill Rammell.]
5.17 pm
Miss McIntosh: I welcome the debate and the Minister’s introduction to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and I served for a number of years on the European Scrutiny Committee, so we have some knowledge of the way in which it works.
May I remind hon. Members why the Scrutiny Committee asked for the debate? It agreed that there appeared to be no legal basis in previous European Community and European Union treaties for an EU strategy on the rights of the child. In the Committee’s view, neither the Commission nor the European Union is or can be a party to the UN convention on the rights of the child. Further, in the Committee’s view, there appeared to be no remit from the European Council for the Commission to devise a strategy on children’s rights. The European Council’s March 2006 request was addressed to member states, and it was about the reduction of child poverty, not the general rights of the child.
We have discussed disability during parliamentary question time, and there is a big question about those children who go missing and those who are in care. I remember living in Brussels part-time as a Member of the European Parliament, where I saw pictures of children who came to a tragic end at airports, sea ports and railway stations. There is a role for Interpol and its European equivalent in general information-sharing. I did not see much reference to looked-after children in the document. Bearing in mind that children can go missing from this country and end up in other parts of the European Union, and vice versa, I hope that the Minister will suggest including such a reference in the 2008 Green Paper.
The Scrutiny Committee appeared to agree with the Minister when it said that the Commission’s proposal would usefully add to the existing arrangements, and particularly to the intergovernmental activities of L’Europe de l’Enfance. In English, I think it means Europe of the infant. I do not think that the French would be recognised even in the Scrutiny Committee.
The Scrutiny Committee stated:
“We find it astonishing that the Commission’s Communication does not invite the views of Member States on its proposals.”
As I have said, I share that view. Its report continued:
“Rather it states what the Commission will do and calls on Member States and others to fall into step. We hope that Member States will press the Finnish Presidency to arrange an early discussion of the document in the Council of Ministers.”
Will the Minister inform us whether the Finnish presidency has had a chance to arrange an early discussion of the document? If the consultation is to take place in 2007 with a view to the Green Paper’s publication in 2008, there should have been discussions in the Council of Ministers by now.
The Committee also stated:
“Because of the importance of children’s rights, the contentious nature of the Commission’s proposals and the Government opposition to them, we recommend the document for debate by a European Standing Committee.”
I should outline the document’s main proposals, which include the need to
“capitalise on existing activities while addressing urgent needs”.
Reference is also made to the European Union child helpline. I recognise the excellent work that the child hotline in this country does, and I hope that it can be used as a model and exemplar in other European Union countries. The banking sector is mentioned in respect of combating the purchasing of internet porn by credit card, and the document also mentions the need
“to promote ‘a clustering of actions’ on child poverty in the EU”.
In pushing for the content of the communication to be beefed up in the Green Paper, will the Minister be mindful that it might be more useful to focus on issues such as child poverty rather than some of those in the communication? It identifies the priorities for future European Union action, including a consultation document “to identify future action”, and the collecting of
“comparable data on children’s rights”.
That begs the question of whether such a database exists in this country. Is there a national database that we could use to compare children’s rights here and children’s rights in the rest of the EU?
The communication also states that there is a need to
“mainstream children’s rights in EU actions; establish efficient coordination and consultation mechanisms; enhance capacity and expertise on children’s rights; communicate more effectively on children’s rights; and promote the rights of the child in external relations.”
I was not entirely clear about what that last point meant. Does it refer to relations between the EU and the UN? Can the Minister give me any advice in that regard?
Why does the communication propose all this? Its intention is
“to establish a comprehensive EU strategy to...promote and safeguard the rights of the child in the European Union’s internal and external policies”.
The Commission argues that the situation of children globally compared with that of children in the European Union is generally better, but I would have said that the situation of children in the European Union is generally better than that in many developing countries. Have the Government formed a view on that? In the Commission’s view, European Union children face a greater likelihood of living in relative poverty than the population as a whole does. The Commission is also concerned about children having a greater likelihood of being subjected to racism, child trafficking and exploitation.
Let us consider the policy implications. When I pressed the Minister he did not disclose the legal basis. Is it intended that article 6(2) of the European Union treaty give the European Union an obligation to respect fundamental rights, including children’s rights, while respecting member states competences? When giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee, it appeared that the Minister saw the main issues as being a lack of confidence and the fact that it was not clear whether a discussion would take place in any European Union working party. Does he now feel that a discussion has taken place in a European Union working party that clarifies the matter further?
The Minister said that the UK Government think that the Commission is
“looking to extend competence into a new policy area”.
Conservative Members would oppose such a move for reasons similar to those rehearsed by the Minister. He also said that the
“UK Government proposes to oppose it on the grounds that there is no Treaty base or Ministerial remit for the work.”
He has also said that the UK Government already address relevant concerns within their policy. The Opposition believe that it is the role of the nation state to determine its education policy, and that that is not for the European Union to decide. Matters of child policy should proceed on the basis of mutual recognition and not European intervention. I remind the Committee that my noble Friend Baroness Bottomley, when she was a Health Minister, signed the UK up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, which broadly sets out the principles that have been followed in this country ever since.
I remind the Minister of the excellent work that is going on in schools in Hampshire, and hope that he will share that information with his colleagues. That pilot could be a role model and could be rolled out in other parts of the country.
I applaud the Government’s call for further consultation and ask the Minister to press for that at the earliest possible opportunity. We are on the eve of 2007 and there is no time to lose, especially given that the Scrutiny Committee expressed its dissatisfaction and disappointment that there has been no consultation with other member states to date. I also applaud the Minister’s assertion that solutions should be local. I add that they should be voluntary as well, where possible.
If the Minister is minded to stick with the provisos that he has given today, namely that any agreement should be on the basis of subsidiarity, against a background of wide consultation with all the member states, and that there should be no encroachment on the competence of member states, we will support the motion as it stands.
5.27 pm
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