13 Mar 2007

Young people, ladies and gentlemen

It gives me great pleasure to speak at your conference today as the Children’s Commissioner, to hear of the excellent work of the Lifematters project which has been piloted in Lisburn and to set out some of the implications as I see them of substance misuse for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

As a long time resident of the City, a parent and someone who spent a lot of my recent working life in ‘another place’ upstairs, I am delighted that Lisburn has been leading on best practice at a time when alcohol and substance misuse poses major threats to the heath and well being of many young people in Northern Ireland. I have some first hand knowledge of the problems and misery that drug and alcohol abuse can cause to young people and their families. 

You have had the benefit of already hearing from experts in the field and I don’t pretend to be one but some observations may be helpful. 

It is of no surprise that the Lifematters pilot in the EHSSB has been successful in decreasing alcohol and drug misuse. The project embraces what we know to be best practice in engaging young people in early intervention where participation is a core principle and a project that is based within the community with abottom-up approach. As we have heard, it enhances young people’s skills and through that brings about improved self esteem and long term improvements to their lives. Such services and indeed approaches are vital if we are help and divert young people from drug and alcohol abuse. They sit within a mixed portfolio of provision to educate, divert, support and treat young people who have varying problems with alcohol and drugs. I want to commend the work of the project and hope that such models and approaches are mainstreamed out throughout Northern Ireland.

The issue of drug and alcohol abuse is one that is very important to NICCY and children involved in risk taking behaviour is one of the priorities of my office. While we may have not yet experienced the extent of a hard drug problem in young people as seen in Dublin and Glasgow, there is evidence of increased recreational drug taking, which can have fatal consequences and Northern Ireland, regrettably, has one of the highest levels of teenage alcohol consumption in Europe.

It is concerning to note that most recent research by DHSSPS has shown that 38% of all P5-P7 children have tried alcohol and 13% report regularly using it. Given the complex nature of causative factors under-pining alcohol and drug abuse, programs like Lifematters are but one part of service provision and one part of the solution. 

We have considerable challenges to holistically tacking these complex causes which put young people at risk of substance misuse. These include:

  • Social exclusion;
  • Social deprivation;
  • Poverty;
  • A gender divide (boys are at a greater risk of drug abuse than girls); and
  • A lack of access to adequate leisure and play facilities.

We also face old familiar Northern Ireland problems and the role played by some paramilitary organisations in involving young people in substance abuse. Research undertaken by my Office in 2004 on children’s rights suggested that the peace process has facilitated certain groups to involve children and young people in the drugs trade often leading to drug abuse and criminal activity to sustain their habits. That is clearly, clearly unacceptable and I hope a priority for DPPs and the police in tackling. 

Under Article 33 of the UNCRC children have the right to be protected from involvement in production or distribution of illegal drugs as well as a right under various articles of the Convention to access to and suitable provision of a range of treatment services for alcohol and drug problems.

I know government in conjunction with such organisations such as the Health Promotion Agency and many others both statutory and voluntary have put much effort into a strategic interagency approach to reducing alcohol and drug misuse. Government launched its New Strategic Direction (NSD) for Alcohol and Drugs last year with a 5 pillar approach of prevention and early intervention, treatment and support, law and criminal justice, harm reduction and monitoring and evaluation. The Strategy has a particular focus on young people. That is to be welcomed; however I think we have some considerable work ahead. Firstly, in dealing with some of the mixed messages conveyed about, in particular, alcohol abuse. In this regard both the drinks industry have an important role to play as well as schools and the Department of Education where awareness of the dangers of alcohol and drug misuse should feature as part of Personal Education (PE) and citizenship in schools. We must take steps to deal with binge drinking in young people and that will take a considerable cultural shift to alcohol in our society.

Our new incoming Executive must address poverty, social exclusion and ensure that there are adequate leisure and play facilities for children and young people. Children and young people at risk should be facilitated with access to community based preventive programmes like Lifematters.

In addition as we are on the cusp of reforming our CAMHS service with the publication of the various strands of the Bamford Review, it is imperative that there is an adequate and responsive addiction and treatment services available for young people experiencing more serious drug and alcohol problems within the 4 tier model as outlined in the New Strategic Direction. This all needs to be in the context of a zero tolerance approach from prosecution agencies targeting, in particular, those who exploit children and young people.

As Commissioner I have an important role underpinned by legislation in reviewing the adequacy of service provision for young people at risk and experiencing substance misuse problems. I want to assure you that this is an issue that I take very seriously and I do intend to hold government to account where there is a lack of progress or serious service failings. If we are able to successfully deal with the factors that push young people in the direction of substance misuse, we will have a major impact on all our children’s lives through: increased participation, improved physical surroundings, better physical and mental health, reduced poverty and adequate provision for those who need help. 

I wish you all the very best in the important work that you do; I want to assure you of the full support from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and that I will continue to see this important matter gets the priority it deserves from government and the statutory sector.

Thank you.