Appointment of Children’s Commissioner: inaugural speech by Patricia Lewsley

Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Can I just say how delighted I am to be here this morning and how thrilled I am to have been appointed Commissioner for Children and Young People in NI. I appreciate how big a challenge this important post is at a time of substantial change in Northern Ireland and the onerous responsibility that has been placed on me by the Minister. I hope Maria as you say that I will step up to the challenge of safeguarding and promoting the rights of children in Northern Ireland.

Before saying a few words about my own vision and priorities, I wanted to pay warm tribute to the memory of our first Children’s Commissioner Nigel Williams, whose work has laid an important foundation for the months and years ahead and he is, and will be, sorely missed.

It is an honour to follow in his footsteps and one I undertake with a sober recognition of the hopes and expectations for better acknowledgement of, and action on, children’s issues.

It is also important to acknowledge that I am taking over from Barney McNeany who has made a vital contribution ‘double jobbing’ as acting Commissioner and Chief Executive in difficult circumstances to ensure that the Commissioners’ office has maintained a strong presence in the interim. Barney I can’t promise that you’ll have to work less hard but at least it will only be one job! Barney has had the great support from the staff for which I know he would want me to acknowledge. I will look forward to working with you individually and collectively in the months ahead.

My motivation in working on children’s issues over the years has come from the positive influence I see exerted by some of our young people but also from the stark realisation of the wasted potential across all of our community. Through my many experiences in my life I have witnessed first hand:

  • children living in poverty;
  • children enduring educational disadvantage;
  • children’s inequality in health outcomes, depending on their neighbourhood and social background;
  • safeguarding and child protection ‘not being everyone’s business’;
  • children in care facing a higher risk of educational under-achievement, drug or alcohol problems, and the likelihood of ending up on benefits;
  • young people suffering mental ill-health without the psychiatric and psychological support that should be the norm in a developed society; and
  • young people facing punitive measures of the justice system without the support they need to get back on track.

My priority will be to build on this foundations laid in recent months and years to create a culture of children’s rights, a society that truly cherishes our children and paves the way for them to develop their full potential. Where participation of children and young people is the norm and they are full citizens in their own right.

Some of the pieces are in place – the Children’s Strategy was a very welcome development and the product of much hard work; very recently we have seen the launch of the Anti-Poverty Strategy and a range of other important initiatives by government; I know that Maria and Jeff Rooker her predecessor as Children’s Minister have done much to join up policy making for children and young people across government. I hope that we are truly able to report progress on a range of initiatives with the UK government reports on NI to the UNCRC.

But much remains to be done.

I want to use my influence to support the development and implementation of such initiatives to advance the cause of children’s rights throughout government departments and agencies. To make NI as we emerge from decades of old ways to be a shining exemplar in these islands and Europe.

We can only deliver the best for our children if we work in partnership together and I want to expand and develop this partnership with Children’s Sector organisations, the Ombudsman and related statutory bodies. While the Commissioner brings an important independent voice to proceeding, it is through leadership, cooperation and added value that we can really make a difference to children’s lives in NI.

Moreover, I want to take this office out and about to listen to children and young people and to raise awareness of the role of the Commissioner and the service that I can offer.

While children are and will remain paramount, it is often their parents who are their strongest advocates; I want to listen to them too and ensure, once again, that parents are aware of what we can do together for children and young people.

In closing I would emphasise two points; firstly that I want to build on the significant achievements of recent years and second that I want to ensure that I am a listening ear as well as a vocal advocate for all of the children and young people in Northern Ireland.

In closing can I also pay tribute to the many people who have assisted and worked with me over the years in different roles and to the many friends I have throughout all parts of society in NI. I will look forward to working with you in my new role. Can I thank in particular my mum and dad and my children for their patience and support.

Thank you