Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. It seems to me the duty to respect children's human rights can often be in conflict with other government political priorities. We have been told many times that there are no votes in children. How do you think the government should seek to reconcile those tensions?
  (Mr Denham) I hope there are votes in children for politicians of all persuasions because there are many, many people with the right to vote who have a deep interest in children. Certainly I would hope that whoever suggested that to you is wrong, I am sure it is not mine or your view, Chairman, on this. In terms of reconciling rights—I do not want to go into deep philosophical issues—I suppose you reconcile these issues pragmatically and on a case by case basis. It is the case, often, that we find rights themselves in conflict. If you take the example of the exclusion of disruptive children from school, you have not got one set of children's rights at play there because you have the rights of the child who is excluded to have an education and you have the rights of the children whose education is being disrupted to have an education. In practice government policy has to try and find a way of setting the balance between the two whilst doing as we are doing increasingly, making sure that the excluded child gets a proper education, as is their right. I do not think there is a simple way of saying how we resolve these conflicts other than to look at them issue by issue. I would say it is the job of democratic governments to be prepared to take decisions in those difficult areas.

  41. If I may move on now to the UN Committee itself. We did a homemade list of concerns that the Committee had raised and it numbered 84, although some were more serious than others. In view of the fact they raised these concerns about the lack of compliance with the Convention how do you reconcile that with the fact that recently you stated that the government does not believe that " . . . anything in UK legislation contradicts any of its provisions"?
  (Mr Denham) Certainly I believe that is the case. I am not sure that I accept that the comments of the Committee amount to non compliance. For example, their comment that we have not adequately analysed our spending on young people does not mean that we have not substantially increased our spending on young people and aimed that at the poorest young people. I would not regard that as non compliance. I think we would see quite a few of the things that were said by the Committee as raising issues of good practice or best practice with us rather than non compliance. In the legal sense I do not believe there is anything in UK legislation that contradicts the provisions of the UN Convention.

  42. Fine. Members may wish to raise other issues at a later stage.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  43. If I could ask in terms of the government's response, could you tell us who in government has a specific responsibility for considering the UN's observations and recommendations? Could you talk us through the procedure; what departments will it involve; will it involve an audit and will there be a publication at some stage?
  (Mr Denham) Right. Broadly speaking, I am responsible for considering the response to the UN Committee so far as reserved matters are concerned right across the United Kingdom and so far as matters in England are concerned, the matters with which I am the Children's Minister for England. The responsibility for taking these matters forward in the devolved administration is with those administrations. Organisationally officials from the Children and Young People's Unit are working with policy leads in government departments, whether it is UK, England or in the devolved assemblies as necessary. My current intention would be to bring a paper to Misc.9, which is the Cabinet Sub-Committee which deals with children's matters, some time in the New Year when we have received advice as ministers on the overall government response to this. We are not planning a specific response to the observations of the Committee at this stage . We are intending that when we publish the overarching strategy for children in the new year that people should be able to read from that generally how we believe we are implementing the UN rights of the child, I suppose it is a matter for my responsibility and others as to how much specifically we address particular issues raised by the UN Committee.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Can we move on to issues in relation to the best interests of the child.

Vera Baird

  44. Can I just interpose, Minister. Bearing in mind what you said, to what extent does the UNCRC function as a set of guiding principles at all then in the formulation of government responses?
  (Mr Denham) I think it is there as one of the key framework documents. It is not the only thing that we try to build policy upon, some of our own objectives such as poverty reduction I suspect come from the government's own priorities as much as from the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child, but certainly it is one of the documents that we would expect in developing the overarching strategy for us very much to have in mind and to see how well our strategy equips us to say that we are following the UN Convention.

Baroness Whitaker

  45. You referred, Minister, to the right to be heard and improving outcomes and I think in the Children and Young People's Unit response to the Committee there were strenuous efforts to put the interests of children and young people at the heart of government.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  46. Perhaps you would give us some examples of the practical measures you would use to demonstrate publicly, particularly to children, what the strenuous efforts might be?
  (Mr Denham) Right. The efforts we are making, there are a number of different types. Obviously there is the establishment of the Children and Young Person's Unit with the Cabinet Sub-Committee chaired by the Chancellor, my own role. Then we have the type of work we have been doing over the last year to involve young people more effectively in policy making, now albeit sometimes relatively small numbers but nonetheless representative which if we took, for example, the work on young people and voting I think add a significant influence on the Electoral Commission's decision to go and look again at the pros and cons in the change in the voting age. These are things which do not just happen in the abstract, they seem to have a knock-on effect in the real world. Of course there are many government programmes from the many education programmes, excellence in cities and so on, through SureStart, the establishment of the Children's Fund itself. In terms of publicising these to children, I am slightly cautious—it is going to sound an odd thing to say—I would not want the government to sound as though it was running a party political broadcast for children by listing all the different ways that we are trying to invest money in children's services and to say how wonderful we are. I think where we need to concentrate is on those parts of the agenda which are about listening to children and young people and to highlight the fact that government wants to do this. One of the changes in the House of Commons as a result of the Modernisation Committee Report, for example, was the decision, subject to the Chairman of Ways and Means, to use Westminster Hall for occasional cross-cutting question times. That came directly as a suggestion for myself and ministers at health and education who deal with young people's affairs so we would have a young question time for Members of Parliament. It is a rare example of ministers volunteering to answer more questions from Members of Parliament perhaps. There are lots of ways like that where we are trying to change the procedures to say "We are taking youth affairs seriously in this House and as government". I hope that message will communicate itself to young people. Also—sorry this is a long answer—through the Children and Young People's Unit, we are working quite actively with people from the media who are interested in giving a higher profile to these issues to find ways essentially not so much of promoting what the government is doing but promoting youth issues in the media in a more effective way than we do at the moment.

  47. This may be a question more for Ms Efunsihle but one of the children who gave us evidence said where he would have liked to have seen the interests of the child given primary consideration was in things like planning for traffic, planning pavements, planning all sorts of things which affected safe working play areas.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  48. Now that is at a much lower level.
  (Mr Denham) It is.

  49. How does that come about?
  (Mr Denham) In part through promoting good practice through local authorities and the Local Government Association produced some guidance last year giving best practice to local authorities. As it happens next week we have a youth participation event with groups of young people who have been working on particular issues that they have identified as of concern to them, one of which is transport. They will be presenting the results of their work to John Spellar, the Transport Minister, and, as it were, demanding a response. There will be colleagues from health discussing proposals for young people about young people and alcohol and I will be doing a session about young people and street crime. Whilst some of these are perhaps symbolic at this stage, I think they are symbolic of trying to change the way in which Government works and to show we are prepared to sit down with young people and listen about the issues of concern to them. Part of this is working with local authorities. If you are looking for safe routes to school, for example, that is something local authorities have got to respond to with young people and we can only go so far in saying that is best practice.

  50. I should perhaps just add another youth remark which is a member of the youth parliament—this is in respect of your own role, Minister—said "Is it not the case that the minister for young people will be perpetually representing the interests of government to young people rather than vice versa, as it should be"?
  (Mr Denham) I hope I can say simply that by what I have done in practice over the last year, including the question times, the emphasis on youth participation and so on, I can show that is different and I am not trying simply to go to young people to say what a good job the government is doing.

  51. I am sure my colleagues will take up that issue. Could I return, finally, to the more strategic level and ask you whether there are any aspects of the fundamental principles in the Convention that you would think of incorporating even if we do not incorporate the Convention en bloc? For instance, they refer to child impact assessments on all new legislation, I think you talked about departmental budgets and mainstreaming, perhaps impact assessments might be a very good way of measuring that?
  (Mr Denham) Right. In terms of incorporation certainly we are not looking to incorporate the Convention or, indeed, individual elements of it. It is really framed, virtually all of it, in very aspirational language and not in the sort of language that seems easy to put into primary legislation although I think it is possible to point to areas where legislation we have enacted is helping to enact the spirit of the Convention, for example the statutory guidance on listening to young people in schools which is part of last year's Education Act, a number of examples of that sort. In terms of impact assessments, it is the sort of thing I think we look at from time to time. I have not yet been convinced, having seen quite a few impact assessments, that they amount to much more than either a rather bureaucratic exercise or sometimes exercises in creative writing. I think the problem is not so much to say in principle you can do them but to make sure they mean something and change something as a result. I have not an issue of principle about having child impact assessments but a bit of scepticism about whether they would add as much to the process as people would like.

  52. You do not think it might enable very busy officials to turn their mind to this matter?
  (Mr Denham) I think it is essential that we find ways of getting busy officials to turn their mind to it. Having been on the receiving end of some other types of impact assessments sometimes I think the busy officials may have an inclination to fill them in after the policy has been decided in the most persuasive way possible. You can create a huge infrastructure for doing this without any great impact on policy. I have not got a closed mind on it but we need to be convinced that it would have the effect that we both want.

  53. My last question really, would it not be right to widen the Children Act to provide that any acts concerning children, the best interests of the child, are a primary consideration?
  (Mr Denham) I think the Children Act does not apply simply to social services. It provides already that when a court decides any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, the child's welfare must be the court's paramount consideration. I am not quite sure what sort of changes you think might be necessary to the Children Act. I have to say, because I do not have departmental responsibility for all these areas, it is not an area in which I have the most expertise.

  54. Other colleagues will probably take this up but there are children in prison, there are children who are asylum seekers, there are children in various areas of legislation, if I could put it like that, where their interests, I do not think, are the primary consideration.
  (Mr Denham) With regard to children in prison, certainly that is the subject of a legal action so I had better hold my fire on that particular case. There are other cases where government has said we believe the spirit of the Children's Act should be followed whether or not we think the Act applies. Certainly with regard to prisons where there is a legal action we had better wait for the outcome of that.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  55. Minister, I was heartened to hear you say that you regard the CRC in aspirational language as a guideline, a sounding board against which you look at policy. Nevertheless it seems important, does it not, that people who work with children, teachers and others who work with children, should be aware of it. Do you have any plans? Have you taken any measures to ensure they are aware of the aspirations in the Convention?
  (Mr Denham) I think this is an area where undoubtedly we need to do more than we have done so far. I think awareness will be growing in certain areas, not least for example in education through the introduction of citizenship education and the inclusion of the Convention in the admittedly not compulsory but illustrative work schemes which have been produced around citizenship education. I think certainly both teachers and young people, at least some of those teachers dealing with this area of the curriculum and the young people who receive it, will become more aware of their rights under the Convention. I think it is true that we have not promoted, as yet, knowledge of the Convention as widely as we might. One opportunity may be the overarching children strategy when we produce it next year to draw attention to it. It is an area where I think I have to say we could do more than we have done so far.

  56. I am sure you would agree creating a culture in general of human rights has to start with children.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  57. You have mentioned the statutory curriculum does not include it but the non statutory curriculum does. Surely that does mean not only that children should be given the opportunity to study their own rights and human rights in general but also the teachers who teach it need to be much more sophisticated about it than perhaps many of them have the opportunity to be so far. Do you have plans to create that knowledge and understanding amongst teachers?
  (Mr Denham) Certainly I think the DfES have been working hard with the teaching profession to make sure that citizenship education is introduced effectively. Certainly going around the country I have come across many good examples of rights issues, whether derived from the UN Convention or from the ECHR, being taught effectively and excitingly in schools and children actually thoroughly enjoy getting to grips with the concepts of rights and the sorts of issues of conflicting rights and so on that we were discussing earlier. I do think the DfES have worked very hard with teachers there. I think that possibly the area that we need to do more work on is if you like the more general audience, if we take teachers for example, who may not be dealing with citizenship education themselves in the classroom but where we would like them to have an awareness of the Convention.

  58. One of the children who came to give evidence to the Committee did say that he had only ever had one lesson on human rights and he thought that human rights was something other countries broke and he did not think he had any himself.
  (Mr Denham) The compulsory citizenship curriculum only started in September so let us hope the next term they will return to the UN Convention.

  Chairman: A supplementary from Lord Lester.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  59. Could I apologise, first of all, for coming late, Minister, I have been detained by the Queen's Court. I had to rush over. It may be my question has been asked already in which case I apologise twice. On this question about non incorporation of the Rights of the Child Convention and its effects, one of the effects of it is that this is the only Committee, this Committee which you are attending, which can give Parliament advice about whether a measure does or does not comply in our view with the Rights of the Child Convention. That is the only source of advice that Parliament gets. The courts, of course, treat it as a binding obligation themselves so that those two branches of government have to treat it as soft law. I just wonder whether you think it is satisfactory it should be left to this Committee to have to provide guidance on an unincorporated Treaty obligation rather than domesticating the provision properly so it forms part of the law of the land?
  (Mr Denham) I think that the role of this Committee is obviously very, very important in this respect. I think the problem with incorporation is that the aspirational language of the Convention does not lend itself easily for translation into primary legislation in the way Parliament normally addresses legislation. I would prefer committees, this Committee in particular, to give advice to government and to the Houses of Parliament about whether we are compliant with the Convention than to take legislation that because of the way it is worded we are not terribly comfortable with and then say to the courts "You sort out whether this is compliant or not". I think it is quite important—and I will take this position as an issue of principle—that there are jobs that fall to democratic governments and to democratic chambers in a House of Parliament to take decisions about these issues. Clearly the courts have an important legislative role in many aspects of our judicial system but I think we should tend to avoid giving the courts the job of really sorting out what such broadly based legislation would mean.

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