Thanks so much for meeting us to talk about children’s rights. As you were a teacher before becoming a politician, did having actually worked with children help shape your view on the Directive?
I suppose a bit, in terms of being well aware that when you’re talking about children, particularly here, we’re talking of under 18s of course. And when people think of children I think people quite often are thinking of really young children, where of course it’s not, it’s a whole range. I’m also well aware that not all of them are total angels and won’t be terribly frightened by the system. I taught in an all boys school for a while where a spell inside as a juvenile offender was quite a badge of honour for some. On the other hand, I’m also very well aware that those kind of kids are often putting on a façade – they do still need protections.
Do you have an opinion on the UK response to the proposals back in 2014 that it would cost the criminal justice system too much (£2.1m)?
I think the UK has this particular attitude, which has been growing for some time, about legal aid being too expensive – even with the last government. The question is often asked “why should you be giving criminals legal aid?” But given that the whole point is that it’s legal aid to test whether or not they are actually guilty, that question seems to me to be the wrong way around. And £2.1 million is a relatively small sum in terms of government funding.
So yes I think the UK has this view of looking at the costs rather than looking at whether or not it’s the right thing to do. And I think particularly when you’re looking at it in terms of people under 18s, that’s particularly nasty. Because these are not people who you expect to have independent means by definition. Therefore what’s it worth to protect the rights of vulnerable children”, you know?
Especially when there’s a disproportionate amount of children with communication/learning difficulties in the criminal justice system…
Yes and that point was made in the debate yesterday – that a number of them will be children who have not been successful at school people who may already feel isolated, and don’t have support networks. Therefore to quibble about really pretty marginal sums is quite reprehensible.
Gerard Batten (UKIP MEP) said last night that the UK has all the correct laws in place so the UK doesn’t need this Directive, but perhaps we can teach the rest of Europe. What’s your response to that?
Well, we come from very different political perspectives. But I think this is often the case; you can find certain areas where one country does better than another, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The UK has a rather different legal system to that of other EU member states and that doesn’t always fit well. But the idea that somehow you shouldn’t therefore be working to common standards and then take the view that we can teach the rest of Europe is a set of mixed messages.
The rapporteur on this Directive did a genuinely good job on this, and you’ll no doubt have heard her speak last night of her own experience of 20 years of the legal system in Sicily. This is somebody who does have the lived experience – she understands the difficulties and the nuances within the legal system. She really does know what she’s doing. So this idea that we have nothing to learn from anywhere else – well, I beg to differ, let’s put it politely. Why not be there teaching, if your system is so good, why not be a part of it?
It seems like it would be in the interests of UK citizens – if you’re going to get arrested abroad, to have the same standards…
Absolutely. Say you’ve got a son, and they’re on holiday, and get involved in some kind of trouble, or a fight – wouldn’t you want your 16 or 17 year old to actually have decent rights in other courts? The idea that somehow you’re only engaged with your own courts in the criminal justice system – given that people travel regularly…and often the way you act on holiday is not the way you act at home (I think many of us will have that experience in our lives!) you’d think that we’d all want the highest possible standards in other countries.
Perhaps it’s that attitude that sometimes comes through “well, you’ve done something wrong, so you lose your human rights…”
But it’s interesting if you look at some of the cases (that Gerard Batten, to give him his due has been engaged in) from Greece or Cyprus where it’s been young British men arrested on charges – serious accusations of violent crime – and what has been said about the state of the Greek courts, the total injustice, “these are rubbish standards” – then you think you’d actually be looking for a way to improve them, that people’s rights are defended wherever they are.
That plays into the whole Brexit debate too. As it’s such a hot topic at the moment we wondered what your thoughts were on Brexit?
I’m part of the ‘Stronger In’ brigade. One of the reasons that I think it’s important is exactly around the issue of human rights, not only within the Union itself but in terms of the strength of position that the EU currently has in the international rights debate. I chair the delegations for relations with six countries in South Asia, and issues around human rights are part of our ongoing discussion. As part of the EU we have human rights dialogues with many different countries: we should want to be a part of that. That’s not the only reason but for me it’s a strong one.
Environmentally speaking, the EU has been so important in providing cleaner air and cleaner water in most people’s lives. You can trust the drinking water that comes out of your tap here and in 28 other countries! It’s not insignificant. And if we’re looking at tackling international issues, genuine threats, like climate change, being a part of a bloc that’s willing to take a strong position on that is really positive. We work together to raise each other’s standards. It’s not just about what we get from the EU, it’s what we give.
One of the things the UK has contributed to the EU has been a respect for diversity. That’s been a very strong component of our membership.
It was International Women’s Day yesterday – as a successful woman in politics, do you have any tips for young aspiring women?
Well, politics is a job where the pay is equal. That’s not insignificant!
I suppose – depending on whether we stay in the European Union – I’ve found that the EU is much more open to women as equal and active partners than you hear about a number of national parliaments. I think also a good piece of advice is staying true to what you believe. There is a respect that goes with that, and if you try to play political games that’s not necessarily what gets you the ability to make change in the long term.
Do you think women have to be particularly tenacious?
Yes probably. But I also think the first past the post electoral system does no favours for women. People will tend to go with what the acceptable and the norm –what they’ve seen before, what works before – and quite often that’s a man. You sometimes get the feeling that it’s easier to be selected as a man whatever your racial background or sexual persuasion than it is as a woman. The first past the post system narrows choices, whereas a proportional system requires you to look out and be inclusive.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us