EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child

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Annette Brooke: I belatedly take the opportunity to say that, although we meet in many other forums, Mrs. Humble, this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and it is indeed a pleasure.
I praise the Commission for seeking to put children’s rights at the heart of the EU’s policy development, and I believe that the principles are right. I see the problems with some of the processes that have been mentioned, but I would like us all to be a little more enthusiastic because the principles are very important. There are a few issues regarding the principles on which I disagree with the Minister, but, on the whole, I have been heartened by his words.
I am particularly encouraged that the strategy uses the UN convention on the rights of the child because it has achieved near universal ratification. With only two countries yet to sign up, it is the most widely ratified of all human rights treaties. Children within the EU and beyond would certainly benefit from an EU strategy based on the UNCRC’s four foundation principles: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child.
The strategy seeks to mainstream the issue of children’s rights within the EU’s existing competencies. The communication states that any proposed positive action
“needs to respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and must not encroach on the competence of the Member States.”
I understand that the Minister and his civil servants will watch that aspect carefully, and concur that that is important.
The DFES explanatory memorandum states:
“There are no specific subsidiarity issues attached to this document as the proposed action mostly affects internal Commission activity.”
It also says that most of the 13 objectives and their related activities are matters for the Commission to implement. There may therefore be little that affects domestic policy.
Children’s rights are not a new issue for the European Union. Article 24 of the EU charter of fundamental rights specifically addresses children’s rights and asserts the primacy of the child’s best interests. That reflects the priorities of our domestic legislation and of “Every Child Matters”, and it is one of the key principles of the UNCRC.
I, too, would like to mention the European Scrutiny Committee’s 38th report, from the previous Session. The report says that neither the Commission nor the European Union is, or can be, a party to the convention on the rights of the child. However, the near-universal ratification of the convention means that its principles are transnational, and I understand that the Council of Europe refers to it in its case law, despite not being a party to the treaty.
The European Scrutiny Committee was astonished that there was no prior consultation on the strategy. That is probably not a good start, because if people have not heard of things, they start getting a bit prickly about them. As I said, however, I was pleased by the Minister’s more positive views, and I want him to confirm yet again that the Government will take an active part in developing the strategy. That is important because although things might not have gone quite as we would have liked to start with, we can, I hope, be positive about the process.
A growing number of EU activities in trade, health, consumer protection, criminal justice, social inclusion and international development affect children directly and indirectly. It would be rather encouraging, therefore, to have an assurance that United Kingdom taxpayers’ money is not being used contrary to children’s rights.
The strategy will tie together existing EU policies that have worked to protect children rights. It will also enable EU institutions and member states to benefit from that co-ordination and shared experience. Indeed, in our questions, we raised a number of issues about that shared experience.
I mentioned the European forum for the rights of the child, which could be an excellent innovation. It would allow for discussion of the best practice models that would shape the UK’s policies, while allowing the UK to share much of the good practice that has been implemented during my time in Parliament.
Unlike the Minister, I am not entirely happy with the way in which we have implemented the UN convention on the rights of the child. Indeed, in its report, the UN demonstrates that we are not fully implementing the convention. It has a lot to say about that in its most recent observations, and there will be more comments in 2007 and 2008. The current proposals give us an opportunity to assess the issues on which we should go a bit further.
I want to pursue the point about the emphasis on participation, which is important. Given the low turnout at European elections, particularly among young people, we surely need to do more to engage young people in public decision making. As the Government recognise, children’s participation is shown to produce effective policy making, such as provisions for greater safeguards against the violent treatment of children. Paulo Pinheiro, the independent expert appointed to lead the UN study on violence against children, said recently:
“If there is one factor that has contributed to our failure to protect children from violence throughout history, it has been our failure to listen to children...The process of emancipation experienced by workers and women has only relatively recently begun to be experienced by children.”
Indeed, I was at a conference the other day where it was pointed out that we have seen a great deal in terms of women’s rights and that it is perhaps time to look much more seriously at children’s rights.
We must recognise throughout that there is great potential for cutting duplication and promoting good practice. I was a little surprised that the Minister had so many concerns about the impact on something like Childline. I understand that the system can work by having each number start with 116, as proposed, and the regulatory authority in each member state—Ofcom in our case—linking particular child helplines to that number. If the Minister said that that needs a little more teasing out, I would be prepared to accept that, but we know from experience how important Childline is. When we think about the international issues, which is where the EU really comes into its own in terms of children’s rights, that international line is important. So many risks to children transcend national boundaries and we must co-operate.
I am on the Home Secretary’s taskforce for child safety on the internet and it is obvious that we must go outside the many different stakeholders who come to those meetings to ensure that we have an international dimension as well. We are also concerned about child trafficking, and sex offenders crossing borders. We are already making progress on some transnational issues.
As I have said in other debates, I am extremely disappointed that the Government have yet to withdraw their reservation about the CRC on immigration and nationality. That is of great concern to me, but I shall continue to be positive by saying that I welcome what the Minister said about children in detention.
Yet another reason to support the EU strategy on the rights of the child is the Union’s geopolitical influence. The document states:
“The EU has the necessary weight to push children’s rights to the forefront of international agendas and can use its global presence and influence to effectively promote universal children’s rights at national level worldwide”.
That is so important, and respect for human rights is part of the culture of the European Union. We should expect standards from both applicant states and member states.
The EU has a significant role in the promotion of children’s rights in the wider world, being one of the biggest donors of aid in the world—the biggest if the donations of individual member states are included—and this would be an excellent opportunity to develop policies such as ethical trade initiatives with children’s rights at the centre.
I remain concerned that we have been unable to read anything about the rights of disabled children. I am also concerned about the immigration reservation, and the UK’s policy on physical chastisement. However, I hope that we can all agree that children in the UK and around the world have much to gain from the strategy. We should look at the positive aspects and I hope that the Government will support the main thrust of the strategy and think about our international obligations. Having said that, I can be quite sceptical when we are dragged along and suddenly find that we have signed up to something that we do not really want and I respect the caution along those lines, but we have a great opportunity here to signal that children’s rights are at the core of Europe’s values. We should not stand back from saying that very loudly.
5.38 pm
Angela Watkinson: I want to raise one brief point. Paragraph 3.2 of the EU document, on page 35 of the main document, states:
“It is interesting to explore the extent to which a political will is developing for further action, at global as well as European level”.
On a smaller scale there are two small charities in my constituency that do similar work: Christian Hope International and Kids Alive. They are very hands-on charities, dealing with exactly the sort of problems that are described in paragraph 3.1.4. They are probably more successful than Governments at getting aid to their intended recipients. If there is to be a debate on a global element to the strategy, they would be useful contacts.
5.41 pm
Bill Rammell: Like the hon. Member for Vale of York, I was at one time a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. Its role, and these debates, help in a meaningful way to open up the process of decision making in the European Union. That is to the good.
The hon. Lady asked about early discussion. There has been discussion at the ad hoc justice and home affairs working group. We pushed for that and I welcome it. There has not yet been discussion in the Council. We are talking to the German presidency about trying to secure that, because it is important that as the process continues, the consultation is as wide as possible.
To deal specifically with the question about the legal base, the Commission recognises in its document that there is no general competence in the area of children’s rights. However, article 6(2) of the treaty on the European Union states that the European Union must respect fundamental rights, including children’s rights. Many of the proposals that we have been discussing are not legislative.
As to the ministerial mandate, the matter does not fall under the message from the March 2006 European Council, which called for poverty reduction measures, but it is in The Hague action plan on justice and home affairs, which calls for the communication. That is the context in which the proposals are being presented, and I agree that there is a role for European Union co-operation in particular areas.
I was asked about data. The Government certainly collect an enormous amount of data on children and young people, to enable us to measure the effect of our policies on children. The issue being considered in the current context is what data are collected in the European Union and how compatible they are with UK data.
I recognise that looked-after children are particularly vulnerable. The Government will explore how to ensure that good practice in the UK can be shared throughout the European Union. The recent Green Paper has been widely welcomed and I think that we can make a significant contribution. We want to ensure that all looked-after children gain the best chances in life.
The Hampshire project—the child rights project in four schools—is an important initiative, which I welcome. It has shown positive early results and my officials are exploring how it can operate elsewhere. I certainly concur with the hon. Lady—because I think that she was concurring with me—that as long as the proposals conform with the principles of subsidiarity, and there is wide consultation and no encroachment on the competence of member states, we should all be in a position to support the proposal.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole praised action that the EU is taking. The process is to its credit, as long as the action is of the right kind and does not undermine action that member states are taking properly and rightly. That is the point that I have been trying to get across. The proposal must add value and should not duplicate or undermine the key, fundamental role of member states in pursuing those responsibilities. I can reassure her that our Government will be active in developing the proposals in the strategy.
The hon. Lady raised a continuing concern, similar to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, about our two reservations in respect of the UN convention. Article 22 of the current UN convention allows children who enter the country as refugees to have the same rights as children born in the UK. We have reserved the right to apply that article to preserve the integrity of the UK immigration laws, and we are right to do so. I understand where they are coming from, but it is important that we uphold that position.
As I said, I can put a more encouraging emphasis on what we are doing about article 37, which says that children should not be imprisoned with adults. Until now, lack of secure accommodation has led the UK to reserve the right to hold some young people in adult prisons. However, the Home Office can now remove that reservation, which it plans to do by the summer of 2007, and I hope and believe that it will be welcomed.
On children’s helplines, it is important to make it clear that helplines in the UK have been of significant benefit, which is why the Government supported them. As the process has developed, it has become clearer that the European Union proposal is not about undermining or doing away with national childlines—not that it would have the competence to do so. Each pan-European Union telephone number would have to be considered on its merits because the decision goes through the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council. We will have an opportunity to influence which numbers we want and to argue for further impact assessments.
The hon. Member for Upminster made an exceedingly important point—that a range of domestic and international charities are doing immense good work on children’s rights. We want their practical understanding and hands-on experience to inform the process and we shall pursue the involvement of some charities and non-governmental organisations.
I hope that hon. Members will support the proposition, which will allow the Government to consider each proposal from the communication on its merits. It will also allow us to put across our concerns about duplicating existing arrangements, to call for further discussion by member state representatives and to reiterate that any action proposed by the Commission must be within the scope of the treaties.
Question put and agreed to.
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.]
Committee rose at twelve minutes to Six o’clock.
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Prepared 19 December 2006