Good morning ladies, gentlemen and guests, it’s a privilege to be back in Derry today and speak at your AGM.

Supporting the development of children in early years is essential to give them the best start in life, building a solid foundation for their future learning and life experiences. The approach taken by Lifestart- doing this at a community level and involving parents is not only improving the lives of children but that of their families and wider community also.

As a parent I know just how challenging raising young children can be; (perhaps you should give a few lines on your own experience)

Role of commissioner / How NICCY improves the quality of life for Children and Young People

My job as Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People is described simply as:

Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people to help them challenge and change the world in which they live. But most importantly- to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.

And that’s all children and young people up to 18 in Northern Ireland. No exceptions. No exclusions.

I can also work on behalf of young people up to 21 in two special cases – disabled children and young people who have been in the care system.

My office has been established since 2003, we have been working on a set of 15 priorities to try and improve the lives of children and young people across Northern Ireland.

As an ombudsman for children and young people, I have received approximately 1500 enquiries and complaints from children young people their carers and parents; we are able to support them in their complaints and help them to access the service they require.

I also advise the Assembly on policy and legislation, encouraging them to assess the impact that their policies will have to ensure the best possible outcomes for children and young people.

And finally, I have a team of dedicated participation workers who raise awareness of rights to children and young people.

All my work is assisted by the NICCY youth panel who have a real say in advising me not only in my work but in how my office works for young people including accompanying me on events and meeting with ministers of the Assembly. They are involved at all levels in the office, working along side the research team as trained peer researchers on all research projects and sitting on steering groups to manage our projects. Members of the youth panel take part on interview panels to recruit my staff.

All the work of my office is informed by the needs and opinions of children and young people. My plan of work for the next three years is currently being developed. Over the past four months NICCY staff have travelled all over the North, to schools and youth clubs asking over 2000 children and young people about their lives and what they wanted me to prioritise over the next three years. The priorities decided upon as a result of this research will be taken out around different schools and youth clubs, to consult children and young people ensuring we are working on the issues important to their lives.

Child Development and Parenting:

Since the establishment of a children’s commissioner, we regularly listened to a range of concerns from children and their parents about the absence of provision to support parents at stressful times in caring for their children, particularly for parents of children with special or complex needs.

We have been vociferous in expressing our criticisms about the lack of a strategic approach at policy and resource level which has resulted in inconsistent and inadequate approaches being taken by the statutory bodies charged with offering support to families and children.

As the new commissioner I want to influence both strategic direction and funding for services from Government. The community and voluntary sector provide excellent programs across Northern Ireland but quite often are they are not supported by the Government and they are forced to rely on a cocktail of funding to ensure their existence. Family support programs such as this should have ongoing recognition and secure support from the Departments of health and education.

Assistance to parents can best be achieved as part of comprehensive policies for early childhood, including provision for health, care and education during the early years. The Assembly should ensure that parents are given appropriate support to enable them to involve young children fully in such programmes, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

NICCY believes in some fundamental principles relating to parenting these include:

  • Principle of positive parenting; We strongly advocate a ban on physical punishment of children, therefore support all steps to promote positive parenting initiatives and increase awareness amongst parents about non-violent methods of discipline.
  • Principle that children where possible should be brought up within their own families and parents will be offered a range of support to ensure this happens;
  • Principle of co-ordinated government approach to supporting families.

Support for families and parents is an overarching theme of the 10 year strategy for children and young people. But support for families is not co-ordinated by Government; support programs are not available in every community and are not evenly distributed across the North. Their policy commitment in this area must be matched with increased resource allocation and appropriate development in service delivery, structures and practices.

Conclusion:

I strongly believe in developing early intervention programs such as those provided by Lifestart, speaking as parent as well as the commissioner; I applaud the excellent work that you are doing in communities across Ireland and further a field.

I congratulate you on the work that you have carried out in so many homes and I want to wish you the best of the luck for the year ahead. May you continue to provide invaluable support to parents and children; improving their lives and preparing them for their future lives.

Thank you