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Children: UN Convention

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK. I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they plan to incorporate the Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic legislation.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to incorporate the Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic legislation. UK law often goes further than the convention requires. The key articles and general principles are given full effect in the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. She no doubt accepts that the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the implementation of the convention, has deprecated the UK immigration reservation from its first consideration of the UK Government’s response in 1995 and that it described the reservation as being incompatible with the object and the purpose of the convention to protect all children. Does my noble friend agree that the Committee on the Rights of the Child is right to encourage the Government to withdraw their reservation, given that it is not necessary when UK law accords with Article 22 of the convention?

My Lords, although I acknowledge my noble friend’s commitment to this important issue, I am afraid that I shall disappoint her—there is a theme running through Question Time today—by saying that, following a government review, a decision was taken to maintain the reservation because it was seen as necessary to preserve the integrity of our immigration laws. The point is that we do not wish the immigration laws to be interpreted in the light of a convention that says that it requires the best interests of the child to be made a primary consideration but does not indicate what this might mean in practice. Does it mean, for instance, that unaccompanied children should have a right to be joined in this country by their parents and their siblings because that is more in their interest than not being joined?

My Lords, a basic right for a child is their right to privacy. Along with many influential voices, we have been critical of the Government’s determination to hold details, sometimes sensitive details, on every child in the country. We were told that the data would be safe in the Government’s hands but, in the light of yesterday’s announcement of the appalling loss of the child benefit details, how can parents and children have confidence in that? Is it not time for an urgent review of ContactPoint and would not the money be better spent on those children who are most in need?

My Lords, in the context of the Question that was asked of me on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the areas in which even critics say that we have not done badly at all as far as children are concerned is privacy and family life.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that full compliance with the convention could not create a new avenue of appeal under the immigration Acts, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, claimed during consideration of the UK Borders Bill, but would merely add a new argument to the existing arguments that are used on appeal? If it is so difficult for the Government to remove unwanted children from the United Kingdom, why not say that the convention should not apply to decisions to grant, refuse or vary leave to remain in the United Kingdom but should extend to all other functions of the Border and Immigration Agency?

My Lords, the Government are not seeking to be intransigent on this matter. As far as immigration is concerned, nothing in the reservation prevents the Government from having regard to the rights set out in the UNCRC, even where the circumstances are within the terms of the reservation. There have been many instances in which the Government have accepted that children were not complicit in the immigration abuse that led to their coming to the UK, and have declined to enforce a return to circumstances in which a child might be at risk.

My Lords, I refer to Article 37 of the convention, which enjoins everyone not to incarcerate children, save as a measure of last resort. Nevertheless, in 2005, England and Wales incarcerated 2,274 children—a greater total than that of France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway together. How many would we be incarcerating if we were not taking the principle of Article 37 very much to heart, as we were told yesterday?

My Lords, we take into account the principle of Article 37. The new joint youth justice unit, which has been created in the recent machinery of government changes, will take forward the Government’s work in this area. The Youth Justice Board has secured improvements in healthcare arrangements, including provision of 24-hour healthcare, physical and mental health screening and the transfer of responsibility for healthcare provisions from the Prison Service to primary care trusts. We take the matter of children in the penal system very seriously.

My Lords, when the Joint Committee on Human Rights was taking evidence on this concern, it was very perturbed to discover that frequently in the immigration process children were treated not primarily as children but as an extension of the immigration problem. Is it not essential that children be recognised as children whether they are British, migrant or whatever and that we live up not only to the legal detail but to the spirit of the convention, of which, after all, we were pioneers? Our reservations are very perplexing to the world as a whole.

My Lords, I hope that we step up to the plate when looking at the principles and the spirit of the convention. There is a long list—I will not go through it—of areas where we are working on the rights of the child, such as in the Children Act 2004 and Every Child Matters. Those rights very much engage with the articles of the convention.