Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
MONDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2002
MP AND MS
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
(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 rightsI do not want to go into deep philosophical
issuesI 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
(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
Chairman: Thank you very much. Can we move on
to issues in relation to the best interests of the child.
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.
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 cautiousit
is going to sound an odd thing to sayI 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. Alsosorry
this is a long answerthrough 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
(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 parliamentthis is
in respect of your own role, Ministersaid "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
(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
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
(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 importantand
I will take this position as an issue of principlethat
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.