It would be astonishing to hear any government make the argument that children’s rights should be abolished, yet that is exactly the position the Government is taking with its decision to take the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights out of British law after Brexit. Recently, the House of Lords voted to overturn the plan and shortly MPs will have to decide whether to back their decision. I hope they do.
Our membership of the EU is coming to an end and with it the EU’s mechanisms for protecting rights specific to children. Under Article 24 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, children have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. Their views must be taken into account on matters concerning them and their best interest must be a primary consideration in any action taken relating to them. These principles form the core of my work as Children’s Commissioner: that children are protected, cared for, heard and that their best interests should be the primary concern when decisions are made. As we leave the EU, it is important that these rights are retained and not tossed away.
Debates about children’s rights might seem like abstract and technical arguments between lawyers and politicians, but they matter. Children’s rights are the minimum standards we should expect for all children to live healthy, educated and safe lives. Enshrining children’s rights in law is a clear demonstration of the values we hold dear as a country and the respect we give to children in our national life. Removing the protection of rights from children covered by the fundamental charter of EU rights dilutes the protection we give children and sends a terrible signal. It also goes against the Government’s promise that Brexit should not lead to any erosion in rights.
Ministers claim that the removal of the Charter from domestic law will not affect people’s substantive rights, yet many legal experts have argued that the right for a child’s best interests to be a primary consideration in all actions taken by a public or private institution has no equivalent in UK law. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, Parliament’s joint committee on human rights and many other organisations have also argued forcefully that human rights, including those of children, will be weakened by losing the Charter.
I share their concerns. I believe there is a risk that losing these important children’s rights could have a detrimental effect on some children’s lives in the future. We know from the recent legal controversies surrounding the tragic life of Alfie Evans that the fundamental need for a child’s best interests to be a primary consideration is an important principle that can affect a child’s life. This must be protected.
Our country’s record on children’s rights is already patchy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), despite being the most universally accepted of all UN human rights and the UK ratifying it in 1991, is not incorporated into our domestic law. That makes it even more important that children do not lose the rights they are currently entitled to under the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
I want the UK to be a leading advocate of children’s rights, not a leading proponent of diluting them. The Government’s recent defeat in the Lords now gives Ministers the opportunity to stop, think, and ask themselves a very simple question: do we want to be remembered as a Government that took away rights from children? I hope Ministers will conclude that they do not.