12 Dec 2006

MADAM Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Aldermen, Councillors, and most importantly, Youth Councillors…

Thank you very much for inviting me here as the Commissioner’s representative. This for me is a tremendously exciting and encouraging sign of real progress in making sure that young people’s voice is heard. 

And for the office of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (or as we prefer to be called ‘NICCY) our job is to make sure children and young people’s voices and views are heard.

For all of you who are interested in politics, you may be interested in how NICCY was established; or maybe it’s just of interest to me! But I’ll tell you anyway. As far as we are aware the legislation that established the Commissioner’s Office was the only issue that ALL political parties agreed on! So that’s a real confidence vote for children and young people 

Our work in NICCY is guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention has a very specific part, called Article 12, which says that children and young people should be heard in the decisions that affect their lives.

And seeing as all the countries in the European Union, including the UK, have signed the Convention, you have a right to have your voices heard.

When I come to work in NICCY everyday as Head of Communications and Participation my job is to create ways to make sure young people’s voices are heard.

We have been working to develop a participation policy that we hope that all parts of Government will take part in, thereby helping young people take an active role in the decisions that affect your lives.

This means working in a number of ways, with a number of organisations to make sure your voice can be heard, and that you can participate in decisions. For example as shadow youth councillors you will be asked to respond to consultations, that is, when the Government wants views and opinions on decisions it has to take.

What young people have told us is that they should be involved as soon as possible about these consultations, and that it should be a real consultation, not just paying lip service to young people.

And, one of the most important points we have been emphasising to Government is that young people don’t have 9-5 lives. That little thing called school, means that when any public body wants young people involved, it has to fit around your school timetable. 

That is why I was so delighted to be asked to speak tonight – Newtownabbey Borough Council has taken such an important step in holding the elections, with the result that all of you are here tonight to stride forward and take on a leading role in the borough. 

And what a time to come into politics!

Not just because of the talks about talks at Stormont and the possible return of the Assembly.

But because the whole way that local government is run is changing. 

The Aldermen and Councillors in this room will be having a lot of conversations about the Review of Public Administration. It’s a set of proposals from Government about how local government should change. 

But, you as young people, will be the people most affected by these changes when they happen.

I see from your profiles on your website that Hollie, Kirsty, Colm and many, many more of you want facilities to be improved for young people.

Well, the Review of Public Administration means that there will be changes to who has a say in that, wherethose decisions are taken, and who holds the budget.

That is why we at NICCY have already been trying to make sure that young people’s voices are heard in these changes.

To help us in our work we have a Youth Panel of 42 12 to 18-year-olds. Members of that panel met the previous Children’s Minister, Lord Rooker to tell him about the issues that they think are important.

They also told him their views on how the Review of Public Administration should include young people, and encourage them to participate in the decision-making as the Review comes into place. And to be involved at all stages

And next week members of the Youth Panel will be sitting down with the current Children’s Minister, Maria Eagle, no doubt with a few things to say about key issues such as play and leisure facilities.

We also know there will be a bigger emphasis on what is called ‘Community Planning’ That is, how the different services that are found in the local community, such as youth services, transport, play facilities will help define your community and the role people will play within that community.

Good practice that allows young people to have their say, such as Shadow Youth Councils like your own, will have a tremendously important role to play in getting young people involved in shaping the communities for the future

I was startled, but not surprised to learn from your fact sheet that only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in Northern Ireland in the 2005 UK and local government elections.

That is why it is so encouraging that Newtownabbey has taken this initiative at this time. Over the next two years you, as shadow youth councillors, will be blazing a trail for the other youth councillors who hopefully will play a key role in the new structures.

Whatever the future structures are you, are safe in the knowledge that you were the first young people to step forward into Newtownabbey’s political life through a democratic process.

Democracy is, of course, what we are all here to celebrate tonight. And as you prepare for your roles I would remind you of what the great human rights role model Ghandi said on democracy:

“In true democracy every man and women is taught to think for himself or herself.”

When you step forward to consider consultations, participate in discussions, shadow the alderman and councillors, undertake projects, remember that as a young person you can offer a unique perspective on the issues, one that older people need to hear if they are to take the right decisions for and on behalf of young people. 

That is one of the reasons we at NICCY have been undertaking a programme called ‘Democra-School’

Research we commissioned told us that young people were not involved in decisions being taken in their school. 

We want to instil that spirit of contributing, participating, consulting and providing an opportunity for voices to be heard in schools throughout Northern Ireland, where young people spend most for their waking day.

Schools have told us they want to be involved. Pupils have told us they want a real say in schools, through well-run and well-supported school councils.

We will be launching our guidance for setting up school councils in February. I will make sure that you all receive copies of that guidance and you can tell me what you think of the guidance and how some of the ideas might be applied in schools and other areas of young people’s lives.

But really what it is all about is taking part. Taking part means a lot of things to a lot of people.

Those that elected you were taking part.

Sitting in this building you will be taking part

Making decisions and recommendations is taking part

Telling people your informed views and opinions is taking part

And as I said earlier, it’s your right to have those views and opinions listened to and taken seriously!

Good luck and I leave you with one thought on being involved in a democracy, a piece of advice the first ever Commissioner for Children and Young People Nigel Williams, who sadly passed away in March this year, offered to members of NICCY and young people alike:

There is no such thing as a stupid question

Thank you!