Children didn’t get a say in the decision to leave the European Union – but their future will be most affected by it.
As the EU Withdrawal bill proceeds through parliament, we therefore have a special responsibility to protect their best interests – and the opportunity to put in place a cast-iron guarantee that their rights will be protected from the day of exit and into the future. That’s why I’ve tabled a set of amendments to the bill which enshrine children’s interests in British law and ensure their wellbeing is paramount in future legislation.
The current position relies on a mishmash of domestic legislation (including the 1989 Children Act), our international obligations as a result of our ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the first two optional protocols, and our obligations under EU law.
In particular, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights offers a number of important protections for children which reinforce our obligations under the UNCRC, including: the best interests of the child principle, children’s right to be heard, and the child’s right to live with and/or enjoy a relationship with his or her parents (Article 24 of the EU charter). Article 32 of the charter protects children against labour exploitation and hazardous working conditions.
These are useful and important protections, but government has already ruled out transposing the charter into British law, so children won’t be able to rely on them in future. Meanwhile, a number of cases have already shown that the fact the UNCRC isn’t directly incorporated into British law means in practice that ministers can take actions which fail to comply with it.
The EU Withdrawal bill makes that position worse, because the sweeping so-called “Henry VIII” powers it contains mean that even if some protections for children are brought across into British law, they could be removed or reduced without full parliamentary scrutiny in future.
Of course, I recognise that the government has said that it is committed to protecting the “fundamental rights or principles which exist irrespective of the charter” post-Brexit. But there is no information in the EU Withdrawal bill on what these rights are, could or should be.
My amendments would build in protections to ensure that all new British legislation is compatible with our obligations under the UNCRC and that public bodies act in accordance with these responsibilities.
I have also tabled an amendment which would, at minimum, ensure that any legislation made in consequence of the EU Withdrawal bill would have to be compatible with our obligations under the UNCRC and would minimise the risks associated with the use of the wide additional powers which the bill would otherwise confer on ministers.
This isn’t about “losing control” to international or EU institutions but about placing mechanisms into our domestic law to protect the rights of our youngest citizens, including the rights they currently enjoy as EU citizens.
Such an approach could also help with some of the trickier elements of the article 50 negotiations that the government is currently facing. It would help address questions about differing treatment of children’s rights on either side of the Irish border, helping to achieve the government’s objective of a “soft border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
It would avoid some of the devolution difficulties, ensuring children in England were in a similar position to children in Wales, where the government has adopted the UNCRC as the basis for policymaking for children and young people – a position which has also been adopted, to a lesser extent, in Scotland. And it would ensure clarity in the difficult areas of cross-border family justice, the protection of children from serious and complex cross-border crime, including child sexual exploitation and trafficking, and the status of EU child citizens post-Brexit.
Leaving the EU mustn’t mean we wash our hands of our children’s future. The debates on the committee stage of the bill that start next week are a watershed moment for children. I hope the government will recognise that my amendments offer an opportunity for Britain to demonstrate global leadership on children’s best interests and rights and to advance the Brexit negotiations in a positive spirit. I hope they will command support across parliament.
Kate Green is MP for Stretford and Urmston and a former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group.