Hearing on "Eradicating extreme child poverty in Europe: an international obligation and a moral duty

Strasbourg 17 June 2021
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Dear friends,

I am grateful for the invitation to address this committee;

And for the work of the members, observers and experts here today, and who share a determination to turn extreme child poverty from current reality to historical fact.

This is not an easy thing to do.

It requires political will and many hard choices.

But it is possible.

There are parts of Europe today where few children live in deprivation.

And while no two countries or regions of our continent are the same, there is plenty room for progress – and a pressing need to act.

We should be clear that every child who suffers in this way is one child too many, and is being deprived of his or her human rights.

Together, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter comprise the basis of those rights on our modern continent.

They apply to everyone – adults and children alike.

And Article 30 of the revised Social Charter is clear.

Every individual has the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion;

Parties should therefore promote access to employment, housing, training, education, culture and social and medical assistance.

These things are not luxuries.

They are basics for a life lived in dignity and they open up the choices and opportunities that should be there for everyone.

A child who is deprived of these things is likely to remain in poverty and, in turn, have children who are born into the same circumstances.

This vicious circle must be broken.

And yet there is failure to do so – spectacular failure.

Over recent decades, our continent has become richer, but the number of children in poverty has gone up.

The impact of the 2008 financial crisis made this worse;

And now the COVID-19 pandemic is doubling down on this problem. 

Worse still, the full effects are not yet known.

There is every chance that governments’ longer-term response to the ongoing public health crisis will be budget cuts that hit the poorest hardest.

And so this sorry situation would continue, or may even get worse.

So, how can it be stopped?

Every international organisation whose mandate includes countering poverty and promoting equality can help inform and guide its member states on the decisions they will go on to take.

And every national government can respond positively to that guidance and take national policy decisions that prevent and reduce child poverty.

Ultimately, this requires the will to act.

For the Council of Europe, there is an important role to play.

Article 30 of the European Social Charter does not change with the economic weather.

Rather, it is for States Parties to adapt their national policies to end poverty and create equality even in the most difficult circumstances.

Perhaps especially in those circumstances.

The European Committee of Social Rights administers the reporting and collective complaints procedures that show where national authorities are doing well and where more must be done to make Social Rights a lived reality.

And the conclusions that it will publish early next year will look at compliance especially with Article 30.

This will be an important moment.

But we can expect that it will confirm a stubborn, ongoing gap between the commitments made by the Parties to the Charter and the reality out there for individuals in their everyday lives.

So, we want the system to become more effective than it has been to date.

That’s why the Secretary General has made recent, specific proposals on reinforcing the European Social Charter system.

These include a renewed political commitment by our member states to the social and economic rights enshrined in the Charter;

And shaping a better and more effective monitoring system at European level than the one we currently have.

This of course will cover the protection of everyone’s social rights, including their right to freedom from poverty.

With your support, we can push these reforms through. 

Our Steering Committee for the Rights of the Child includes tackling child poverty specifically as a key part of its equal opportunities work.

This features in the Council of Europe’s current Strategy for the Rights of the Child;

And it will certainly be followed up in the next Strategy.

This will begin next year and will be high on the agenda of the Steering Committee’s work programme for its upcoming mandate.

Other work in this area goes on across the Organisation.

By our Commissioner for Human Rights, our Conference for INGOs, and our Congress for Local and Regional Authorities, whose Human Rights Handbook from last year addresses what can be done to tackle child poverty at the local level.

Then of course there is you – the important work of this Committee and the Parliamentary Assembly as a whole.

Your constant attention and repeated efforts are most welcome and important.

On a number of occasions, you have been pivotal in pushing the Committee of Ministers and members states towards action against child poverty;

And I have no doubt that the new report on which you are beginning work today will also provide an impetus for action.

All of this is encouraging, all of it is important.

On an issue of this importance – this moral obligation – it is good that the whole Organisation, the entire Council of Europe, pulls in the same direction, each part contributing what it can.

But what more should we do?

Are we – the Council of Europe – missing opportunities?

And how can we better ensure that governments are proactive in their efforts to give every European a fair start in life?

Today is an opportunity for you to reflect on these broader questions, and share your thoughts.

Child poverty is a terrible fact of life for those that live through it – every day, every week, every month of year. It is a disgrace.

So, I wish you – I wish us – well in playing our parts in a collective effort to finally end it.

Thank you for your attention.