15 Apr 2014

15 April, 2014

Commissioner calls for review of past delivery to improve outcomes for children and young people in Northern Ireland in Children and Young People Now article.

I must admit my frustration over recent months, at how slowly things can move forward in terms of government action for children, and how things that seem to have moved forward, can appear to quietly slip back.

I have been Commissioner for Children and Young People for seven years now, and in my final months in this post, I find myself reflecting on the developments I have seen. When I came into post in January 2007, it seemed a time of promise, of potential progress for children and young people.A ten year Strategy for Children and Young People had recently been published and we were about to witness the restoration of devolution. We were hopeful that having locally elected politicians would result in more local accountability, in legislation and initiatives which would meet the needs of local people. 

Certainly, there is more political debate on important issues, and I am pleased that I have developed constructive working relationships with government Ministers, who meet with me regularly to discuss issues affecting children’s rights and best interests. However, I have concerns about the effectiveness of the Executive’s strategic delivery for children and young people.

 In 2010, we commissioned research which identified critical barriers to effective delivery. These included a lack of commitment to and awareness of, children’s rights.  Problems were also evident in joined up working between departments, significant time delays in delivery and limited participation of children and young people. We know that an effective, resourced ‘national action plan’ for children, rooted in the UNCRC is central to government delivery for children. This would integrate and drive government action to ensure improved outcomes for children. Unfortunately, as our research had shown, there is little evidence of this in the Ten Year Strategy for Children and Young People. 

We work closely with the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) on a number of issues, so in the Strategy’s final years, I had understood that we would be involved in a new engagement process to consider its delivery, and to work towards the development of a new longer - term plan.

So I was disappointed that instead, the Executive simply ‘tweaked’ the Ten Year Strategy and merged it with the Child Poverty Strategy. Doing so has resulted in a document which is neither an improvement on the Children’s Strategy nor meets the requirements of the Child Poverty Act. This was done without engagement with my office, with civil society or with children, young people or their parents. 

Since the new proposed ‘Delivering Social Change for Children and Young People’ was released in January 2014, OFMDFM has undertaken a consultation process through stakeholder events, although the timescale had been limited.  My main concern is that the re-write appears to lack any meaningful review of the previous Strategy’s impact on children’s outcomes to determine what has, and what has not been effective.

There are considerable challenges ahead.  An OFMDFM commissioned Institute of Fiscal Studies report predicts that absolute child poverty in Northern Ireland will rise from 25% in 2011-12 to an unprecedented 38.5% in 2020-21.  That is more than 10 percentage points above the level predicted for the UK.  This is only one of the many challenges that must be addressed urgently for our most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland.

If devolved government is to make a difference what is needed is an honest review of how effectively it has been delivering for children and young people, whilst involving civil society, professionals, parents and – of course – children and young people themselves. This must be followed by concerted, coordinated action to ensure better outcomes for children, through the development, resourcing and delivery of a new, long- term Strategy for children and young people. Then, at last, we may see real progress.

Notes to Editor: