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Artillery Row

The offshoring of British social policy

Perhaps it is time we introduced bodies bankrolled by the UK taxpayer which support a commitment to democracy

The offshoring of British social policy, in the sense of allowing the strings to be pulled by external organisations unaccountable to anyone, is a common complaint made by the Left. Whenever a politician is seen living it up at a meeting of the IMF or the G8, it’s easy to accuse him or her of enjoying the opportunity to engage in some secret neoliberal conspiracy out of sight from any pesky voters who might object.

Oddly enough, however, these days it’s actually the liberal, cosmopolitan left that does a great deal of the offshoring. An episode last week arising from a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or EHRC for short, to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, an organisation set up under the UN Convention of the same name, known as the UNCRC, illustrates the point very nicely.

The UNCRC has a habit of interpreting the convention in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style

Unfamiliar? Not surprising: much of this designedly takes place under the radar. By way of context, in 1991 the Major government ratified the UNCRC. It had no great wish to, but the underlying political current made the matter a dead cert. Progressive opinion was in favour; few others had heard of the document anyway, so serious complaint was unlikely; most other countries had signed up, providing safety in numbers; and of course it let the government say it was doing its bit for the young. Who, after all, would want to be seen as being so heartless as to oppose a treaty entrenching children’s rights?

Actually, quite a lot of people would, if they read the UNCRC with proper care. True, it protects a child’s right to life, home, and health, safety from neglect, and so on. But it then, in the way of most instruments drafted by UN apparatchiks, insinuates distinctly less motherhood-and-apple-pie rights.

Children must be given freedom of expression and association on the same basis as adults, not to mention a right to privacy and a “right to benefit from social security”. It then goes further: every five years each member state has to report progress to the above-mentioned UN Committee – a body appointed from left-leaning academics and child rights activists in good standing with the UN – and receive recommendations from it.

This committee, whose activities should be better known, has a habit of interpreting the convention in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style, and importing all sorts of requirements never originally contemplated.

Last time it reported on the UK in 2016, for example, it said the government had to: abolish selective education; abolish the CCF in schools and stop the Army recruiting there; provide abortion effectively on demand for all ages; ban all marriage under 18; impose state-regulated LGBT-friendly sex education on everyone, cease all detention of child asylum-seekers; and immediately ban smacking in the home, with no exceptions allowed.

The Commission’s demands are either bad, tendentious, or both

The five-year cycle has come around again; the new report is due in 2021. The EHRC has just told the UN what it thinks should be asked of us next time. The new demands must, it says, include: a solemn undertaking to stay in the European Convention on Human Rights for ever; formal consultation with children on any change to the Human Rights Act; a promise to faithfully carry out future UN recommendations on children’s rights (most of the previous ones having been quietly ignored); a rethink of the decision not to nod through gender changes for under-18s; the end of the two-child limit and the benefit cap; free school meals extended throughout the holidays; vastly extended free childcare; very high hurdles for exclusion from school of any disruptive pupil; lessons for all on equality, human rights, colonial history, and a positive depiction of LGBT parenting; and (again) a total smacking ban. Others include immigration changes to allow children to sponsor adult relatives, provide that anyone claiming to be a child refugee is one unless an “independent expert” determines “objectively” that they are not; to abolish the immigration health surcharge; and (again) prohibit smacking.

The most obvious difficulty is that most of the Commission’s demands are either bad, tendentious, or both. One – no withdrawal from the Human Rights Convention, ever – amounts to an impertinent insistence that the UK government bind its hands in future even in the face of a democratic vote to ditch the institution.

The educational suggestions are a straightforward prescription for political indoctrination by government fiat; and relaxing restrictions on gender assignment for the young has the possibility of producing downright harmful results. And this is quite apart from the tendency of other proposals to create severe fiscal problems and drive a coach and horses through any sensible immigration policy.

That is gist of it. More to the point, and this is where the offshoring issue comes in, all these matters involve vital areas of social policy on which our own citizens are likely to feel strongly: so much so, that one might think they were entitled to have the last word by way of a democratic vote. If you want to make the National Curriculum more woke, or have a smacking ban, or whatever, it is the voters you should have to persuade (something not impossible: devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, who for all their faults are at least answerable to their citizens, have indeed introduced a smacking ban).

Yet in many ways the attitude of the EHCR seems to be that the more vital an area of social policy, the more important it is that the shots should be called not by the people affected, but by a group of well-meaning UN apparatchiks who can be trusted to maintain a cosmopolitan detachment from the demands of mere populists.

Of course, theoretically one can say that democracy is irrelevant here. As a matter of international law we are bound by the UNCRC as interpreted by its attendant committee of experts, whatever our voters say; from which (one could say) it follows that a government which continues to follow benighted public opinion contrary to the Convention is attacking the rule of law.

Perhaps it is time we introduced bodies bankrolled by the UK taxpayer which support a commitment to democracy

There is a point here, though not a particularly strong one. But in any case, there is a straightforward answer to it. If we so wish it, we can easily regain our legal integrity, and our democracy too. The Convention can be denounced; we merely have to give one year’s notice, and we are free of it. The left might complain, but then the government can gently remind it that the rule of law remains intact, and that it is free to campaign for the electorate to make up its own mind which – if any – of the precepts of the Convention are incorporated in British law.

There is a further conclusion to be drawn from this whole episode. Interestingly, it now seems acceptable for a public institution in this country quietly to turn its back on large parts of the democratic process and sign up to the delegation of policy to outside bodies. No-one would have worried had the EHRC’s billet-doux to the UN come from a private pressure group: it is rather more concerning that a body with official powers, supported by our taxes, should have produced it.

Perhaps it is time we introduced, in celebration of Brexit, a new principle of political virtue: bodies bankrolled by the UK taxpayer should be expected to support a commitment to democracy.

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