On June 23rd 2016 adults will decide on the future of the UK’s membership of the European Union.
While proposals to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds was defeated in the House of Lords in December 2015, it reignited debate over the substance and scope of children’s democratic participation and their capacity to make informed political decisions.
None of these discussions or, indeed, any of the wider debates surrounding the forthcoming referendum, have considered the impact that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might have on children’s rights and lives.
This is in spite of the fact that children make up one fifth of the EU population and nearly one quarter (approximately 15M) of the UK population and have the biggest stake in the outcome of the referendum. As current and future citizens, consumers, movers, workers, parents and carers, it is children who will bear the full brunt and, indeed, the benefits of any decision to either remain in or withdraw.
How the EU protects children rights and improve their well-being?
The EU is a considerable financial, legal and political power to advance children’s rights, and to engage children more meaningfully in its decision-making processes.
Part of the EU legislation has a direct, legally-enforceable entitlement on children in their own right, particularly in relation to internal market or cross-border activities such as free movement, immigration and asylum and cross-border family law. A range of legal obligations have also been enacted in the field of consumer protection such as toy safety, harmful media and paediatric drug development.
In more recent years, the reach of EU activity has progressed much further, extending to issues that would have previously been closely guarded by domestic competence, including criminal justice, support for victims, protection against sexual exploitation and even de-institutionalisation. Of course, children also benefit indirectly from EU protection in the field of employment equality, including parental leave, working time, maternity provision and health and safety provision for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Equally, children benefit from myriad EU initiatives such as research, data collection, capacity building, exchange of good practice, standard-setting, monitoring, evaluation and policy guidance on perennial issues such as child poverty, obesity, online safety, anti-discrimination and access to justice.
What would be the possible impacts of Brexit on children’s rights and wellbeing?
With this in mind, the UK’s exit from the EU could be catastrophic for children in terms of an inevitable and significant reduction in the economic, legal and procedural provision currently available to them.
EU child protection obligations provide a good illustration of this point. The EU Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, for instance, obliges the UK to adopt measures to ensure that professionals can report suspicions that a child is a victim of child sexual abuse or exploitation and to share information about convicted perpetrators cross-nationally to minimise opportunities for abusers to perpetrate crimes against children in other Member States. On a more mundane level, children in the UK benefit from EU laws that limit the extent to which they can be exposed to television advertising, violence or other inappropriate images.
Of course, it could be argued that such provision has already been or could be incorporated into UK law.
However, the likelihood of the UK implementing adequate, alternative provision for children to replace what the EU currently provides, let alone any form of children’s rights ‘plus’, is somewhat remote for two fundamental reasons:
First, many children’s rights issues addressed at EU level simply cannot be addressed by the UK acting alone. Secondly, one might doubt the willingness of the UK to deliver on its children’s rights obligations.
We only need point to the Government’s spectacular failure to deliver on even the most basic of children’s needs and interests since the global economic crisis took hold to question any faith we might have in their capacity and commitment to support children’s rights in the aftermath of EU withdrawal.
It is well documented that children have, without a doubt, borne the brunt of the most excessive and damaging cuts to public services in recent years. In the UK alone, the UK Children’s Commissioners have estimated that 3.7 million children are living in poverty (27%), an increase of 3% since 2008. This figure is expected to increase further to 4.7 million by 2020 fulfilling dismal predictions by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England that this will be the first decade since records began in which absolute child poverty has not fallen. Local authorities’ budget for child protection has been essentially frozen since 2006/7 in spite of a 9% increase in rates of referrals. The majority of local authorities in England have cut funding to youth services by up to 35% with even more dramatic cuts (up to 80% in some local authorities) to child and adolescent mental health budgets.
Impact for child migrants:
Legal developments in areas that are within the exclusive competence of the UK are following suit in terms of this downward trend in protection. One only needs to look to the new Immigration Bill 2015-16, due for approval imminently. This provides for the withdrawal of asylum support and housing from families whose claim for protection has been refused, and to deny unaccompanied asylum-seeking children access to vital care leavers’ support the moment they reach the age of 18. The Children’s Society has warned that such hostile measures are likely to plunge up to 120,000 irregular child migrants into immediate destitution.
It is high time that the Referendum debate confronted critical issues around their welfare and entitlement, not simply because children benefit so significantly from the protective safeguards and legal entitlement put in place at EU level, but because the future prosperity of the nation lies in their hands.
The EU plays a significant role in ensuring that optimum resources and opportunities are in place to enable children to develop to their fullest potential in this regard. It is naïve to think for one moment that those opportunities will be readily available to children if the UK goes it alone. In fact, there is every indication that investment in and support for children will diminish even further in the years to come.
Julie’s work on children rights as an MEP
Find out more here about Julie’s work since she’s been elected, notably on:
- Children’s participation in decision making
- Unaccompanied minors and children migrants and refugees
- Putting children’s rights at the heart of all relevant EU policies and legislation
Note: This post is based on a brilliant article by Helen Stalford from the University of Liverpool, Professor of Law and Director of the European Children's Rights Unit, on the consequences that Brexit would have on children's rights and safety. Read it here.