‘All new rights,’ said Gordon Brown in one of his more memorable utterances, ‘will be matched by new responsibilities.’ It would come across as a more honourable principle if the government were prepared to apply it in reverse. Yet as far as the parents of wayward children are concerned it seems that new responsibilities are to be accompanied by a diminution in rights.
Last week, the Prime Minister unveiled his ‘Respect’ agenda, within which is the proposal to make parents more culpable for the misbehaviour of young children. In spite of our misgivings over Asbos, which it seems are now to be given to children as young as ten, we sympathise with the assertion that parents bear responsibility for the conduct of their young offspring. Of course they do. Equally clearly, it seems to us, parents have a right to know if their children are involved in any way with agencies and authorities of the state. Yet on Monday the high court judged otherwise. Sue Axon, a divorced single mother of five, lost her case challenging the Department of Health’s policy of offering abortion advice to teenagers without their parents’ consent. The policy, argued Ms Axon, is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to a family life. Not so, decided the court: while children should be encouraged to reach decisions on contraception or abortion with their parents, they must be given the freedom to arrange abortions and to ask for condoms without their parents’ knowledge.
In other words, the ‘family life’ referred to in the European Convention on Human Rights appears now to refer not to the nuclear family but to an extended family of doctors, teachers and social workers.