12 Feb 2004

Speech by Nigel Williams. Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, on “Why is Participation of Young People important” to the Youth Service Conference, Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle

As many of you will know, I was selected as the first ever Commissioner for Children and Young People last year, following a process that had young people’s participation at its heart. A group of young people were involved in preparing the job description and person specification, in choosing the shortlisted candidates, and in the interview process. I suppose you will be not surprised to learn that having been successful through that process, I am a big fan of young people’s participation in decisions. But frankly that is not a good enough reason. It slightly smells of self interest.

So why is participation important? How can we convince reluctant public institutions that they should spend the time and effort in involving children and young people in decisions that affect them? Why should we put the effort into getting young people to set the agenda for our local youth club and decide on activities. Any of us experienced in this area know that it is more time consuming, more expensive and more hassle – so why should we do it? Would it not just be easier to engage in a little bit of token consultation, making sure we get some nice pictures of young people in the process for the quarterly magazine, and then go off and decide what is best?

I would like to talk to you tonight about what I believe are the three R’s of participation of young people – the fundamental reasons that mean participation is not only the best way, it really is the only way, especially if we are delivering services to young people.

My first R is RIGHTS . Young people have a right to have a say and be listened to. This is actually a written down right in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the international agreement between governments about what the rights of those under 18 are.

Article 2 says

“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”


But this not only a right that is enshrined in some international document. It is a right based on sheer logic. Think about any other area of life – everyone accepts that customers, users, patients, clients… in other words human beings, have a right to express their view in relation to the services or goods that are being delivered. Moreover, in the commercial word no company would ever see participation and consultation as anything other than a necessity.
Can you imagine going to the head of Coca Cola or Pepsi and saying “We want you to develop a new drink for young people, market it and launch it, on the one condition that you talk to no young people, and give them no involvement in saying what they would like.” The executives would think that you were completely off your rocker.

So participation is a right for young people, because our governments say so, because it is a fundamental human right, and because it really is a necessity to improve services for young people.

My second R is RESPECT . The trouble with our first R - “Rights” – is that it can be seen as quite a hard word – in some people’s minds it is associated with protest, with rebellion, with revolutionaries – indeed with people who are not prepared to take responsibility and just want things delivered to them on a plate. That is not my understanding of rights, although I am quite prepared to fight for things that I believe are important. I cannot stand it when people trample over other people for no good reason. That is why I have taken such a strong stand on issues like paramilitary beatings of young people, or the racist attacks in Belfast.

No, my understanding of rights actually depends on something deeper – RESPECT. I really need to be able to do an Ali G impersonation here to get across all that can be summed up in that word RESPECT. Where I have been living in recent years in Peckham in South London, people really do go round and say to each other “Respect , man”.

Respect is about recognising another person’s fundamental humanity. The fact that they like you came into the world naked with nothing other than their own body and hopefully a loud scream. The fact that they like you will go the way of all flesh and someday die. We are all human – too often we let the fundamental facts of where we came from and where we will go get obscured by the bits and pieces that happen to us in the middle section of life.

Children and young people deserve respect in the same way that adults do. Respect for their fundamental humanity and vulnerability. Respect because so many of the issues that they struggle with are really a result of their parent’s struggles, and the struggles of society at large. Now that does not mean that young people are perfect, and are ready to rule the world. I was in a primary school yesterday and the P5s, P6s and P7s all came together for a big assembly which I lead and I really encouraged questions. It was open season and I could see the teachers getting more and more uncomfortable! The questions went from “Why do the teachers get to sit on soft seats and we sit on hard seats?” to “Why can’t we get paid and tell the teachers what to do?” It nearly moved in to Lord of the Flies territory.

But when we talked on, what was obvious was that that group of young people were desperate just to be listened to and have their suggestions heard. I was told afterwards that one teacher had said after a particular question “That’s a stupid question”. In my book there are no stupid questions a child can ask – the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. As I left the school, I was besieged by children in the playground just wanting to ask more questions and pass on all their different ideas.

RESPECT – children are people too! That is what I sometimes feel like saying to other adults. And of course, respect is a two way thing. Children need to respect other children and need to respect adults too. But I am convinced that kind of respect does not come from trying to thump it into children, or have such a rigid system that they are “seen and not heard”. Rather, it is about taking them seriously, listening to and trying to answer their questions.
Although I have to say that it is possible to get stumped sometimes. The best question I have been asked since becoming Commissioner, was a little girl who put up her hand in an event like yesterday and said “Mister, why are there bad words”.

My third R is RESPONSIBILITY . I get so frustrated when people say “Children and Young People are the future of Northern Ireland”. While in one sense they are obviously right – they are the future employees, the future businessmen, the future home owners, even the future politicians and criminals – I always want to respond and say “Children and Young People are the present, and if you don’t give them some responsibility now, how do you expect them to exercise it in the future”.

In my view we have to invest now in our present generation not by thinking of what they will be in the future, but by considering what they are in the present and how we can give them more say and more responsibility. It is amazing to watch a young person grow in confidence and self esteem as they are able to play a more meaningful role in decisions. It affects not just the quality of the decision in which they are involved but also the quality of their own life.
One of the major issues that I have identified in the four and a half months I have been in this job is the low self esteem which many Northern Ireland young people suffer from. Most of that comes from the way adults have treated them. We need in our own work and contact with young people always to have in mind that by giving young people their rights, respect and by giving them responsibility we will be tackling that issue in a really effective way.

I want to finish by giving you a glimpse of what participation is going to mean in the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People. As you know every public authority in Northern Ireland is under the Section 75 equality duty which means that they are having to think about young people’s involvement in some way. But I am under an even more specific statutory duty

Article 7 of my Order says that I need to ensure that:

  • Children and young people (and their parents) know about what I do, where my office is, and how they can contact me;
  • Children and young people are encouraged to communicate with me;
  • Whatever I publish is written in appropriate language;
  • The views of children and young people are sought on the way I work;
  • The services of the Commissioner are made available as close as possible to where young people live.

I thought it might be helpful to ask young people what they thought would be the best way of my following through on this responsibility. I talked to a group of them and suggested four options for consultation and participation:

  1. Setting up a young people’s advisory committee;
  2. Working through existing school and youth councils;
  3. Undertaking market research and focus groups;
  4. Doing online polls, chats and bulletin boards


Guess what answer I got back as to the best option? “Do all of them!” And so that is what we are going to do. We are already involved with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum in developing a team of young people to form and advisory forum and also get involved in the next stage of our recruitment. We will be paying particular attention to encouraging School Councils and doing some work on establishing what the current position actually is regarding numbers and effectiveness of these important groups.

My office is also developing a scheme where three young people aged between 16 and 24 will come and work for us for a year, receive training and be involved in our participation work.

We will also have five staff based in the education and library board areas around Northern Ireland who will be focussed on working with people like you to encourage participation projects, to help school councils and to listen to children and young people’s views.

It is a sign of our commitment to this area that I asked my new head of Communications and Participation, Marlene Kinghan, who just joined me on Monday to come for the full two days of this conference.

So Participation is not optional, it is not the icing on the cake, it is the cake. So my final words, appropriately before we start dinner, are eat the cake and enjoy!

Nigel Williams
Commissioner for Children and Young People