1st August 2016
2016 is turning out to be the most unpredictable and tumultuous year across the world. There are too many uncertainties to be able to “horizon scan.” Within all this upheaval however, children are still growing up, public services still need to be delivered and, as a society, we cannot delay making the decisions that need to be made to achieve better outcomes.
There has never been a better time to plan how we can achieve those better outcomes for the children and young people of Northern Ireland. Despite all of its uncertainties, 2016 has brought with it golden opportunities for children and young people, that we simply cannot afford to squander.
Firstly this year has seen the culmination of the examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child of the UK Government and its devolved administration’s compliance with its obligations under the UNCRC. Even before the formal examination at the end of May, the information gathered throughout the 2 year process has been invaluable in identifying clear areas for improvement. There have been a myriad of reports concerning Northern Ireland submitted to the UN Committee, and I would recommend them all as giving an overview of the state of children’s rights. A particularly interesting set of documents was the UK Government’s response to the UN Committee’s List of Issues and particularly Annex C. This Annex gives an outline of data that the Committee requested and it makes for interesting reading. Whilst it is not always appropriate to make comparisons between different jurisdictions, some of the tables contained in Annex C make for sobering reading. Below are parts of three of the tables which demonstrate some of the work that needs still needs to undertaken in Northern Ireland.
Alongside NGO’s, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission colleagues and a small group of very determined young people, we attended the examination of Government officials. Whilst at times it felt like a hectic process I was impressed by the way the Committee compared what they were being told by the “official” representatives, with what others, particularly young people, told them. This was evident in the Concluding Observations and Recommendations which were published in early June where the Committee gave clear advice as to how the UK generally and Northern Ireland specifically should improve on its delivery on the rights of the child.
Simultaneously, 2 other separate but related planning processes have been commenced, the Programme for Government and the Children and Young People’s Strategy. Starting with the latter first, the Strategy has a number of purposes; it is the overarching framework for achieving better outcomes for all children and young people in Northern Ireland, it is the delivery mechanism for the UNCRC (including the Concluding Observations) and the strategy is mandated by legislation, the Children Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 (CSCA).
Moving on to the Programme for Government (PfG) – I am delighted that an outcomes approach is being taken. It is crucial that the Northern Ireland Executive has a process whereby it can articulate the change it wants to see for the people of Northern Ireland, and introduces mechanisms to measure progress toward that change. For outcomes based planning and delivery to work, it must be a whole system approach. We cannot pick and choose which strategies or plans apply – they all do Another frustration coming out of the myriad of strategies and action plans, is their piecemeal implementation and the measurement of progress.
I have recommended to the Northern Ireland Executive in my advice on the PfG (which can be accessed here) that outcome 14 should be revised. I would like to see a specific outcome around this, with a clear commitment to work to bring about:
“... a society where all children thrive and fulfil their maximum potential”.
In the interests of achieving better outcomes for children, and more efficient and streamlined children’s services delivery, this must be coordinated and joined up through the Northern Ireland Strategy for Children and Young People. This is where we must find all the actions, indicators and measures on how this will be delivered. The Children and Young People’s Strategy must be the standalone delivery mechanism for the PfG, to do otherwise would dilute the commitment our Government has made to its children and young people.
This ‘perfect storm’ of opportunities for children and young people - the UN Committee’s Concluding Observations, the Children and Young People’s Strategy, the CSCA and the PfG - is a once in a decade opportunity to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is serious about making a real and tangible difference for children. I and my office will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that this opportunity is fully grasped and that better outcomes for children, which realise their rights, are achieved.