My Lords, there has been much discussion in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere about the implications of Brexit for everything from aviation, to our universities, to employment rates, and a whole range of aspects of public policy and legislation, but there has been little discussion and little profile so far of the impacts of Brexit on children and children’s rights. I want to address that issue this afternoon.
There are more than 500,000 children of EU nationals living in the United Kingdom and many more UK nationals’ children who will have a parent or relative living elsewhere in the European Union either temporarily or permanently, and, of course, there are other children who are EU nationals living elsewhere in the EU who have some family connection to British citizens. All these children are currently protected by legislation and policies at the European Union level on everything from the safety of toys to internet safety, child trafficking, family reunification rights, and many other aspects of the law.
In all these areas there is a very real danger that if the great repeal Bill is not enacted properly, with due attention to the position of children, both UK and other EU nationals, the children who are most vulnerable will fall through the safety net. It is critical when looking at the great repeal Bill and other aspects of implementation of this Brexit process that the Government are very clear in a number of areas. First, they should enact at all times the principle of acting in the best interests of the child whenever any aspect of the law affecting children is being considered, whether that is to transfer an existing EU law into British law or whether to ensure that the appropriate procedures are in place to protect children when their family relationships, for example, cross what will now be a border between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union.
Secondly, it is critical that child safety is protected by having appropriate arrangements with Europol, Eurojust and the other European agencies to make sure that arrangements that are currently in place to protect children who are vulnerable across the European Union continue after Brexit. Thirdly, it is critical that we are aware of the impact on child poverty initiatives that might come from reductions in European funding in certain communities across the United Kingdom. Fourthly—I hope this suggestion might ring true with the Secretary of State for Education, who had a good record on engaging with young people when she was Secretary of State for International Development—it would be very good in all this process, particularly given the way in which young people appear at least to approach the issue of Brexit, to give them a say in this process and to have them involved in the implementation of any new arrangements.
It is also important that we involve properly in this process the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and, I hope soon again, Northern Ireland. Each of those Governments and the Parliaments that they work with have specific legislative responsibilities for children and children’s rights within the framework of UK law and within the framework of UK government. In each of those Administrations there will be specific concerns about the great repeal Bill and the impact of Brexit on children and child protection. In this area, as I am sure is the case in many other areas, it will be vital to have open and transparent engagement with the devolved Governments to make sure that they can protect the children who come under their responsibility just as much as the UK Government can protect those children in England who come under their responsibility.
More generally, that has to ring true for the devolved Governments. I welcome the fact that the second independence referendum is off the agenda, at least for the foreseeable future. I also make a plea to the UK Government: while the stand-off between them and the Scottish Government may be relevant in a pre-election period and in the context of a debate about a second independence referendum, it should be set aside for the conduct of negotiations over Brexit and proper arrangements be put in place to engage with the devolved Governments. It is their responsibility, as well as the UK Government’s, to step up to the plate here. Those arrangements should operate in the same transparent way as the negotiations clearly will at the European Union level. If that is the case, the whole history of claim and counterclaim about who said what to whom and who is trying to disadvantage whom, which has been the relationship between the Scottish and UK Governments over the last 10 years, could be set aside. We could then see what each is proposing, the hard work that is going on, the conclusions that are reached and who is actually acting in the interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.
In relation to children’s rights, to powers and to funding, an open, transparent engagement with the devolved Governments and Parliaments would benefit us all.