26 Oct 2004

Speech to All Party Parliamentary Children’s Group on Tuesday 26 October 2004 on the Childrens' Bill by Nigel Williams, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here. I want to reflect on the Bill as it now is, and the impact on Northern Ireland, and deal with some of the points made in the committee.

First I must emphasise that the proposed Commissioner for Children in England will have a fundamentally different purpose to my own responsibilities in Northern Ireland.

England – the purpose is promoting awareness of the views and interests of children

Northern Ireland - the purpose of the Commissioner is to Safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people

There has been a major argument in the course of the Bill about children’s rights and whether this word should be included as part of the Commissioner’s core role.

Margaret Hodge, the Ministers view was – Committee on 12 October

“If we focused simply on rights it would limit the work that the Commissioner could do on behalf of children. That is why I genuinely believe that we are establishing a much better commissioner than elsewhere.”

I believe this is wrong because rights are not just individual rights they are the rights of children as a whole. The UNCRC sets out a broad standard of rights – when the UN committee comments on the UK it is not usually thinking of individual cases but of all children who are affected by UK law, policy & practice. My work on rights and making young people aware of their rights is general and not primarily focused on individual rights .The Government's second concern about rights seems to relate to the Commissioner being drawn into individual cases. In relation to my friend, Peter Clark, the Commissioner for Children in Wales, the Minister used the words that he was “bogged down” by complaints – my powers to intervene in individual cases are even greater so I suppose the Minister would feel I was not just “bogged down” but SINKING.

Now I accept the English Commissioner cannot have as detailed a role in relation to individual complaints as I have. The simple maths of the number of children in England compared with Northern Ireland determines that. – But I do not see how this issue of complaints affects the focus of the Commissioner on rights...

Let me illustrate how I intend to ensure that my office floats rather than sinks and protects the general rights and best interests of all children and young people in Northern Ireland

  • STAFFING STRUCTURE I have set up 3 separate divisions, only one of which is focused on individual complaints. The others are concerned with general inquiries, research and service review; and with communications with and participation of young people.
  • RESOURCES In my draft corporate plan for the next 3 years I have set out how we have allocated resources to each of our divisions, which will ensure that our work on general service review and participation will be properly funded and not suffer because of our work on complaints
  • CORPORATE PLAN As part of the plan I have set out how work on individual cases will inform my work on general issues
  • RESEARCH I commissioned Queen’s University Belfast to undertake a major research project to compare Northern Ireland against the international standard of the UNCRC – this research (which will be published shortly on my web site) came up with52 areas were rights of children in NI at risk or underserved. My staff team and I have now drawn up from that research 14 draft priorities in the corporate plan. These are the subject of a major public consultation campaign called SHOUT. (see www.niccy.org/shout)

In my new view the removal of RIGHTS from the English Commissioner’s role is wrong, is inconsistent with Commissioners elsewhere in the UK, and will lead to problems.

New Clauses 5,6,7 concerning the English Commissioner’s role in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

I am very concerned about division of roles between the regional Commissioners and the Commissioner in England. The England Commissioner has been given very direct role in NI. Of course, I and my colleagues in Scotland and Wales will seek to work this out with the Commissioner in England when she or he is appointed. We will seek to make the best of it and seek to act in best interests of all children in NI – But can we not do better at this stage while the Bill is going through Parliament?

Devolution settlement already confused – In Northern Ireland there are transferred, reserved and excepted matters. In relation to reserved matters, largely to do with Criminal Justice - I have already been given a clear role in my legislation which is almost identical to that for other issues. I believe that Wales and Scotland should have the same and Commissioners should act jointly in other matters which are the responsibility of Westminster for example, asylum or taxation policy.
Childrens’ lives are not split! They are not defined in terms of constitutional matters or the devolution settlement.

However, why should the Commissioner in England have to consult me in relation to promoting awareness of interests of children on excepted matters (Clause 7 (3)), but not consult me on the issue of conducting and inquiry (Clause7 (4-10)). This must surely be wrong. Inquiries are serious matters, and I cannot believe that if an inquiry was set up by the English Commissioner involving a Northern Ireland child that I would not already have been involved in that case in some other aspect. For example, although asylum is a Westminster matter, if an asylum seeker uses any service in Northern Ireland – housing, benefits, social services – I am automatically concerned with the case.

Finally, I regret action to remove the clause inserted in the Lords to allow the Commissioner to take legal action. I have that power in spades! I can begin proceedings in my own name, I can intervene and I can assist financially. Power is limited to raising a question of principle, there must be special circumstances, and there must be no one else who can help the case. I have gone further than the legislation by publishing draft criteria for taking legal action. I am sure that the English Commissioner could follow my example and ensure that legal action is limited to really important cases.

In summary, I believe the House of Lords greatly improved the Bill on the issue of rights and allowing legal action - that progress has been reversed by the Government in the Standing Committee. Furthermore although recent amendments in new Clauses 5, 6 & 7 attempt to clarify the role of the Commissioner in England and the 3 countries, we have a very messy solution. I would prefer to resolve this issue by statute and not just leave it to Memoranda of Understanding at a later stage.