The safety and security of children haven’t had the attention they deserve and need in the Brexit debate thus far. Yet they’ll be profoundly affected if our departure leads to our ejection from the EU-wide infrastructure that protects and safeguards children’s wellbeing.
Our future participation in institutions and mechanisms such as Europol, Eurojust and the European Asset Warrant, in the Schengen Information System (SIS11), which provides alerts on children at risk of abduction or going missing, and the application of the Brussels 11 Regulation in relation to family law, look deeply uncertain.
Ministers have said they want to maintain cooperation with the EU in relation to security, criminal justice and policing – but we have no information about how they’ll achieve that.
This is so important for children because they’re increasingly at risk from complex cross-border crime, including trafficking, online abuse and child sexual exploitation. Mechanisms such as Europol and Eurojust have been designed and set up to support cross-national coordination and collaboration, and they play a key role in combatting crimes against children.
Between 2010 and 2016, the use of the European Arrest Warrant resulted in 110 arrests for child sexual offences in the UK. In the same period, 831 requests were made by EU countries to the UK in relation to child sexual offences, and from these requests, 108 arrests were made in the UK.
Hundreds of children would have been placed at risk without the cross-border measures that we have in place to ensure that information can be shared and perpetrators brought to justice.
The ability to carry out checks on those who may care for children is also important, including those who may be fostering or adopting children. Potential carers (many of whom are non-UK nationals) have to undergo rigorous criminal, medical and social services background checks in the UK, including checks from another country if the applicant has lived abroad. Record checks are also required as part of care proceedings where it may be possible to place a child in care outside the UK.
Ongoing access to the centralised criminal records information system (ECRIS) established by the EU is also important to ensure that potential employers and other public services can conduct rigorous criminal records checks prior to appointing someone to work with children.
Over a quarter of workers from other EU Member States work in the public administration, education and health sectors in this country. Specifically, almost 10% of NHS doctors and just over 7% of all nurses in England are from other EU Member States.
A substantial majority of these work directly with children. We need to be able to check they are safe to do so.
Cross-border cooperation is not just about enforcement and regulation, but also about prevention. But we stand to lose vital access to information that enables pre-emptive action. 60,000 children were recorded as missing in the UK in 2015/16, yet EU investment in the EU-wide missing children’s hotline, as well as core funding for missing children’s charities and rescue alerts, are in real danger of being discontinued.
Our participation in SISII enables information sharing where children are at risk, and the regulation is about to be strengthened to enable more proactive recording of alerts where a child is at risk of going missing, including as a result of parental abduction.
But the regulation is unlikely to take effect until after the UK’s planned March 2019 exit date – which means UK children may lose the benefit of this additional protection.
In family law, our participation in the Brussels II arrangements has ensured an EU-wide approach in cases of parental disputes about choice of law and enforcement of court orders in relation to a child’s residence, contact with a non-resident parent, and child maintenance.
We can’t continue in Brussels II if we’re not members of the EU, meaning that UK court orders in relation to UK children elsewhere in the EU couldn’t be enforced, creating uncertainty and stress for children.
There can be no advantage for children or families from such a situation, but our exit from the EU threatens to make it unavoidable.
Clearly, these threats to children’s safety and security are deeply concerning, and it is imperative that we find ways to maintain the EU-wide cooperation that has been essential to protect children’s best interests.
This isn’t about the EU dictating or making our laws. It is about ensuring that the protections and enforcement measures, and access to information and the sharing of information, determined by UK courts and required by UK authorities in respect of UK children (and EU children in the UK) continue to be effective if we leave the EU.
That’s why, during the committee stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, I proposed a number of amendments to ensure our continued participation in the necessary EU infrastructure to ensure children’s safety is protected, and I hope we will return to these matters as the bill continues its parliamentary passage.
After all, in our negotiations on our potential future relationship with the EU, surely safeguarding our children must be paramount.
By Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston.