10 Dec 2004

Comments by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, at the Human Rights Day Conference, at Belfast City Hall on Friday 10th December 2004.

I am delighted to be here at this celebration of Human Rights. I say celebration, as while there are many important human rights issues still to tackle here in Northern Ireland, we also have some important things to celebrate:

  • Unlike the United States we live in a country that is signed up to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Unlike Zimbabwe and many other countries we do enjoy comparative freedom of speech.
  • Unlike some countries we have genuine freedom of religious observance.
  • We also have amongst the most sophisticated equality rules in the world, which hopefully will be strengthened with the Single Equality Bill.

So we should celebrate!

However, I have never met a human rights activist who is completely content. We are a bit like farmers – however good some things may appear, we are never totally happy. We are always looking for the next challenge, the next issue to fight, and the next group that needs our protection.

My own position as Commissioner for Children and Young People came about because many people felt that we had inadequate protection for the rights of all those under 18. I would like to pay tribute to the excellent work of the Human Rights Commission for all that they did before my appointment in upholding children’s rights. As some children said to me “Children are humans too!” – and the NIHRC flew the flag effectively on their behalf.

But I think Brice and his colleagues would be the first to admit that there are some special issues affecting children that do benefit from a specific focus, which my office can bring. The important thing is that we co-operate effectively – along with other significant players in the rights arena like the Equality Commission, the Police Ombudsman and so on.

My legislative mandate is that I should “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”. I would note in passing that I regret that the Children Act 2004 which recently became law, and which established the office of the English Commissioner for Children, does not have the same emphasis on Rights. I have had – what I suppose political commentators call – some “robust” exchanges with Margaret Hodge the Minister for Children, about this lack of a rights emphasis. She argued that “rights” was a “narrowing concept” which would mean the Commissioner became engrossed in individual cases.

For me, however, rights does not narrow my remit, rather it gives it breadth and substance. My own legislation points to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as the guiding light for my interpretation of what children’s rights mean. I am fortunate that this is such an easily comprehensible overview, setting a minimum standard in all the areas of children’s lives.

When I took office in October 2003, my immediate concern was to find out what was the current state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. Where were there problems? What rights of children were being ignored, or underplayed? If you like to take my disgruntled farmer analogy, although much progress had been made, I wanted to know which fields were in bad shape, which animals were unhealthy, what did I need to focus on.

So after a competitive tendering process, I commissioned a team from Queen’s University Belfast to undertake an audit of Northern Ireland’s performance against the UNCRC and other relevant international human rights instruments. It was a huge task, a daunting piece of research – especially when I set a further constraint. I insisted that I needed a draft report by September of this year.

The reason for that timing constraint was simple. I was determined that this piece of research would not sit on some shelf gathering dust, but rather that it would inform the priorities of my office, our corporate plan, and annual business plans.

So although it put the team under great pressure, I do not think the quality suffered, and they have the satisfaction of knowing that there work has already led to some important decisions by my office.

The Queens’ report – which I strongly commend to you and is published on our website at www.niccy.org - highlighted some 52 individual issues concerning children’s rights. 52 instances where children are suffering breaches of their rights, and are being treated in ways contrary to the UNCRC.

You will not be surprised to learn that my staff team and I decided that we would have to prioritise within the 52 issues. So we went away for a few days in September and based on the research, and taking into account the complaints my office had already received, and the views of the NICCY youth panel, we came up with 14 draft priorities. These priorities are currently the subject of our SHOUT! Campaign consultation. Our consultation closes at the end of January so there is still plenty of time for you to respond on what you think is most important.

I don’t have time to go in to all those priorities this morning. But I would like to give you a few examples of the issues and how they impact on individual children.

  • Disability – we have highlighted the need for better provision of speech and language, occupational and physiotherapy for children. We have also highlighted the need for much better help for disabled young people after they leave school. Both these points came home to me last week when I visited Ceara Special School in Lurgan. I met the pupils, I met some parents, and I met the teachers.

    The head teacher’s top concern in this wonderful school was not about education per se but about the lack of therapies for his pupils. He had special dedicated facilities in the school for speech and language, OT and physiotherapy but they simply lay vacant for far too much of the time. One mother said her son who struggled to speak got 15 mins speech and language therapy once a fortnight.

    Another mother highlighted her concern about her 17 year old son with Down’s Syndrome. He had been at Ceara school since he was 5. This was his last year. She said she felt like he was going to walk off the edge of a cliff when the school year was over, as his future was so uncertain. The head told me about one girl the previous year for whom nothing had been offered after she left school, until he intervened and kicked up a fuss.

    Is this anyway to treat the most vulnerable in our society? Does this approach reflect a concern about human rights and individual dignity? I think not. My office is already taking steps to address both these issues – therapy provision and transition.
  • Mental Health – the provision in Northern Ireland for child and adolescent mental health is woefully inadequate. Even with the recent provision of extra beds in Antrim, we do not have the space we need and the qualified professionals we need to address the issues.

    Recently a member of my staff spent a few days trying to find somewhere safe for a 15 year old suicidal boy to go. He was a danger to himself and a danger to his family. It cannot be right that young people at such risk should be passed around like a parcel in the party game, just hoping the music will stop at the right moment.

    My office will be seeking to address the causes of this problem, and also looking at what new ideas and best practice can be brought to bear on the issue of youth self harm and suicide.
  • Having a Say! My final example is of listening to and giving credence to young people’s views. This was one of the top concerns coming out of the Queen’s research. Young people wanted to be listened to more at home, at school, in court, at the doctors and by politicians and government.

    The research highlighted that there were some flagship consultations where this kind of genuine participation and listening had happened – for example, work on the Commissioner for Children consultation; the children’s strategy, and also the good work that the NIHRC did on the Bill of Rights consultation.

    But while it is good that these big consultations involve young people – and I hope my own Shout! Campaign can be added to this list – my concern is about every consultation that affects children. My concern is what is happening in schools each day of the week – do the pupils have a genuine say in how the school is run? My concern is what happens in the family courts – are children really listened to effectively and their views taken on board. I wonder sometimes if we need a “Children for Justice” campaign, although I don’t think we would go round dressing up as spiderman or throwing purple flour.

These are just three examples of why there is still much work to be done. We have work to do at the level of the law – where it inadequately reflects rights. We have work to do on policy and guidelines. We have work to do on practice. I hope that my own office, alongside the other Human Rights bodies can make a real contribution to change.

For me the test is simple. When my term is up, will I be able to look in the eye the young people involved in my recruitment process and say to them “I defended your rights and I achieved changes on your behalf”. I hope I can. Thank you.