26 January 2010

‘Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland: Where to from here?’

Good morning everyone. Could I begin my offering my thanks to Child Care in Practice for the kind invitation to speak at this important and timely conference. We are all here to celebrate and learn from the vital work carried out by researchers, practitioners and professionals who are contributing to developing and achieving quality children’s services; particularly for the most vulnerable groups of children in our society.

In whichever of these capacities you work, the responsibility to ‘respect, protect and promote’ children’s rights should be both the foundation and the objective of how you operate.

My own role as Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland gives me what I hope will be a unique perspective to contribute to today’s discussions.

As many of you may be aware, the reason for the creation of independent children’s commissioners across each of the UK jurisdictions was the recognition that not all children and young people are able to enjoy their rights as they enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Often – and quite rightly so – there is much focus on the rights violations of children living in countries wracked by poverty, conflict and underdevelopment. But the issues experienced by those children are also experienced by children in Northern Ireland. Many of you will know that my Office – or NICCY, as we call ourselves – recently conducted a review of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. This showed that, while some children have had a positive experience of childhood here; for many others, childhood has been marked by exploitation; abuse; poverty; neglect; isolation; discrimination; and violence.

NICCY’s perspective on policy and service provision

With the support of my office, it is my responsibility to monitor, safeguard and promote the fulfilment of children’s rights in Northern Ireland – I try to hold government departments and public bodies to account in terms of taking on board children’s needs and best interests. And I am required by law to base all of my work on the UNCRC.

Today I am here to share with you some thoughts on the perspective that this has given me. While my Office has a wide remit, and my staff work across a range of mediums, including legal and casework and participation and communication functions; today I am focusing in particular on my experience of scrutinizing service provision and policy issues concerning children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

As Children’s Commissioner, I have a number of statutory duties. They include a duty to ‘keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice relating to the rights and welfare’ of children and young people in Northern Ireland. They also include a duty to ‘keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness ofservices’ provided for children and young people by relevant authorities.’

These responsibilities are complemented by a legal requirement to step in and advise the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Assembly on matters concerning children’s rights or best interests.

I also have a number of statutory powers which assist me in carrying out these duties. They include the power to:

·       Conduct and commission research

·       Issue guidance on best practice in relation to any matter concerning children’s rights or best interests

·       Conduct formal investigations

·       Compile information and provide advice

·       Publish any matter concerning children’s rights or best interests

NICCY has used many of these powers to investigate and report on what is going on in the lives of children across Northern Ireland. The research and scrutiny of policy undertaken by my office provides me with compelling evidence to point out where the deficits exist in children’s lives. It gives me the confidence to challenge Government on the areas where it is not meeting children’s rights or best interests. I am there to advise Government on where it needs to go to. But I am also independent of Government and I am strong on where and when I need to act in situations in which children’s rights are not being taken seriously.

I will not be afraid to enforce my powers, and I am not afraid to bring publicity to serious child rights deficits. When I need to, I will bring matters beyond local Government and beyond Westminster to the international setting.

As many of you will be aware, around every five years State parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are monitored at the international level by a UN Committee. This Committee produces a set of ‘Concluding Observations’ on the country’s compliance with the UNCRC at the end of each monitoring round. These COs constitute binding recommendations on Westminster and the devolved Governments in terms of what they must do to counteract the existing child rights deficits. As a part of this scrutiny, myself along with the other three children’s commissioners in each of the UK jurisdictions (and the NGO sector), are asked by the UN Committee to provide evidence to help it reach its conclusions. The Concluding Observations are a serious matter, and as Children’s Commissioner, I am here both to influence them and to hold Government to account in terms of how it actions them.

Unfortunately in today’s world it is often the international shame and embarrassment brought by the Concluding Observations which compel Governments to make the positive changes required, rather than goodwill to meet their responsibilities in the first place.

NICCY’s outputs and outcomes on policy and service provision

So what kinds of concrete outputs and outcomes do I, as Children’s Commissioner, bring to the table in terms of influencing policy and improvements in services for children in Northern Ireland?

Well NICCY came into being in 2003, and as those of you working as researchers, policy activists and practitioners will know – impact can often be difficult to measure! However, we are now in the year 2010 – the twentieth anniversary year of the UNCRC – and we must consider where we have got to in the last six or so years in order to know where to go to from here.

While still a relatively young body, I am pleased to report that NICCY can speak with confidence and independence on the issues that affect children and young people in Northern Ireland. To an extent we focused our early efforts on evidence-gathering.

Undoubtedly, NICCY’s greatest outputs to date in terms of its independent monitoring duties are our two large-scale reviews of children’s rights in Northern Ireland – the first published in 2004, and the second, just last year – the result of two years of hard work and research with around 2,000 children and young people.

I am immensely proud of this most recent Children’s Rights Review and I am encouraged by the positive feedback that it receives, and pleased that it is being taken forward beyond NICCY as a lobbying tool to Government.

The Children’s Rights Review is of course a very broad piece of work, and we have gathered evidence and lobbied on a range of specific areas over the years, including issues affecting our most vulnerable children. Examples of our work include):

·       Research around the adequacy and effectiveness of educational provision for Traveller children and young people

·       Research on the use of physical punishment against children

·       Research into School transport safety issues and

·       Research around discrimination issues of young consumers

We have also undertaken a series of Reviews 

o      Of Speech and Language Therapy provision in Northern Ireland

o      Advocacy arrangements for disabled children with complex needs

o      Of the needs and services for children with Asperger’s syndrome in Northern Ireland

o      The Handling of Complaints in the Criminal Justice System and

o      Of children’s participation in care-planning processes

Other activities include;

·       An analysis public expenditure on children in Northern Ireland

·       The production of policy papers on a range of systemic issues including poverty and sexual health,

·       Exploring the experiences of children in the development of school bullying policies and

·       Initiating a campaign around suicide and self-harm in Northern Ireland.

As you can see, this is a very long list!

It also demonstrates the breadth of issues affecting the rights and best interests of children in Northern Ireland. These pieces of work are not undertaken lightly. NICCY will take an issue on board for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, this will be where we see the potential to influence policy or service provision. In other cases, it may due to the significant scale of a problem, which we can identify for example, by the large volume of complaints received on a specific issue by NICCY’s Legal and Casework team. Sometimes our work is dictated by children and young people themselves. On other occasions, and particularly in areas of systemic disadvantage, NICCY often has no option but to act.

So what outcomes have emerged from our work?

Well to cite some individual, concrete examples –

·       With our two Reviews of Speech and Language Therapy in 2005 and 2006, we brought publicity to our findings of significant gaps in service provision. This led to the establishment of a regional government taskforce which reported to the Minister for Health in 2008….. However, with policy change being a slow process, we still await what is coming next.

·       In addition to this, our Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2008, together with the other three Children’s Commissioners across the UK, influenced the Committee’s final Concluding Observations. More than 100 recommendations were made by the Committee regarding actions that need to be taken to deliver on children’s rights. A few months ago the UK Government and devolved administrations produced their response to the Committee’s Concluding Observations. While what was expected from Government was a transparent, resourced, action plan to deliver the changes required by the UN – thus far it has just outlined priorities for action, rather than an action plan itself.  We will continue to closely monitor government developments in this area.

·       Following our response to a consultation on the Police and Criminal Evidence Order, the NIO agreed to change the definition of an arrested juvenile under the order from anyone under the age of 17 to anyone under the age of 18. In effect, this means that 17 year olds arrested and detained by the police in Northern Ireland will be afforded the protection and safeguards currently afforded to 16s and under.

It is important that we do chart our outputs and outcomes; because – ultimately – our purpose is to ensure that things change for children. Of course this kind of work takes time. It is often difficult to identify where we have influenced or effected positive change for children – this requires persistent follow-up actions on different issues year after year. And often we are just one voice amongst many – such as in the case of the Police and Criminal Evidence Order. But I believe my office plays an important role in holding government to account.

As an independent children’s rights champion for all children, the benefit that I provide is often the ‘weight’ or the ‘force’ that I can bring to an issue or to a group experiencing social exclusion. This is my strength.  While I must act independently, the broad remit of the Children’s Commissioner means that I also need to work in partnership with experts on specific issues that affect children most – many of these experts will be in this room.

This incoming year I will be asking for your help with where we go to next on children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

Priorities for action

NICCY has a very busy year ahead. We have put a lot of energy into evidence-gathering, going out and speaking to and working with children and young people and finding out what are the most pressing human rights issues for them. Our 2008-published Children’s Rights Review has clearly dictated our current core priorities for action. These are built upon the 2008 Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Review report is some 400 pages long – covering each of the UNCRC reporting areas – things like the implementation of the Convention, civil rights, family life, health and welfare.

For us, the Review’s starkest finding – and that of the 2008 Concluding Observations – has been the recognition of huge inequalities experienced by certain groups of children and young people in Northern Ireland.

In this year, the twentieth anniversary year of the UNCRC, I am attempting to tackle this deficit. My Office as a whole is taking forward a UNCRC campaign where during each month of the year of 2010 we will focus on an issue which we know is associated with systemic disadvantage for children and young people.  We are working closely with children and young people to campaign with us on each of these issues.

We are releasing a policy briefing along with a campaign briefing (aimed at equipping children and young people and those working outside of policy), on each topic every month in 2010.  As each policy briefing is released, we will be making three calls to Government to respond to the issue. We will be asking children and young people and all of you to do the same. We will hold seminars with lobbyists and workshops with children. We want to give weight to the issues and mobilise against the huge inequalities for Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable groups.

Choosing the 11 topics was a real challenge. One of the overall findings of the Child Rights Review was that, while many – if not the majority – of children have a relative positive experience of growing up in Northern Ireland, certain groups of children can have quite a different story. They can experience discrimination, violence, abuse, and/or the quality of their lives can be deeply affected by the lack of services they need to enjoy their full range of rights to education, play, health etc.

As a result, the focus during many of the months are on these groups of children and the rights violations they experience, including:

·       Children experiencing poverty

·       Care experienced children and young people

·       Refugee and asylum seeking children

·       Disabled children

·       Children who have come into conflict with the law

Other months we have focussed on key issues that affect all children such as:

·       Education

·       Family support/family life

·       Emotional health and well-being

·       Community safety

·       Play and leisure

·       Having their say on issues affecting them

No doubt you will look at our list and be able to identify many other issues we could have covered. There were many passionate debates among NICCY staff over what we had excluded. But in the end we had to come down to 11 – allowing us a month to celebrate children and young people at the end.

In January we are focusing on child poverty, and our three calls to Government are:

1.  To raise the income levels of families experiencing poverty to ensure that children’s material needs are met.

2.  To ensure better provision of accessible, high quality childcare to facilitate parents to work.

3.  To tackle the particular disadvantages experienced by 16 and 17 year olds living independently, and/or not in education, employment or training.

Already we know that children and young people who have come on board with our campaign have been pressing Government to explain what it is doing in each of these three areas. And we would really urge you to join us. We have information on each of our campaign themes on our stand outside – and a member of my staff would be very happy to speak to you about our priorities for each month of 2010. I can tell you that next month we will be campaigning on ‘Supporting Families’, in March, the focus is on support for young people leaving care.  Later in the year we are looking at the specific needs of migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee children, issues affecting children and young people with special needs and community safety.

Another major focus of our work in 2010 is on educational provisions for children and young people.  My office is closely monitoring ongoing developments regarding the arrangements for transferring children from primary to post-primary schools.

We are consulting with parents, teachers and pupils with regard to the transfer process and we will also be commissioning a specific piece of research into P7 pupils’ experiences of the transfer process, later in the year.

We are also closely monitoring the current consultation on the government’s policy proposals concerning special educational needs and inclusion, examining the views of parents, educationalists and other relevant stakeholders as well as the responses made by government to their concerns and views. 

Other work for this year includes a review of the Mental Health and Capacity legislation, ongoing review of play facility provisions across NI council areas and ongoing monitoring of a range of policy areas relating to child protection.  We will also be further developing our ‘Democra School’ programme, which encourages schools to establish and support school councils, and our ‘Training the Trainers’ programme which provides training and support to student teachers to disseminate the UNCRC in schools.  Finally and most importantly, throughout all our work we will continue to consult with and to be informed by the views of children and young people.

You can see that we have our work cut out for us!

Conclusion

This is one of the most crucial times for children’s rights. In periods like this of lower economic activity and high unemployment, there is inevitably increased need for children’s services.

The consequences of financial pressures and budgets cuts can have a profound effect on the provision of services and support for children and young people in all kinds of contexts. This is the time where the most vulnerable children in our society risk becoming more and more invisible to Government and to the public. And this is the context in which we are all working. We need to be constantly calling on the UK government and devolved administrations to realise children’s rights in this time of uncertainty.

This is NICCY’s priority. We know that change in policy and practice is slow, and that agencies like us we need a long-term strategy to achieve the improvements required. We are already looking ahead to the next round of Concluding Observations.

But we also live in the here and the now. And I am conscious that I have spent much of my time speaking to you this morning about looking ahead to the future.

And sometimes, in my role, I worry that while we can have impact for children in the future, we also have to focus on how we can achieve positive outcomes for children in the present.

As the 20th anniversary year, 2010 represents an important landmark for the UNCRC. I believe it provides a valuable opportunity for us to acknowledge and celebrate what has already been achieved for children and young people.

And in this regard, I hope I have been able to share with you some of our achievements in Northern Ireland.   Reviewing the UNCRC in 2010 will also enable us to consider the areas where we need to particularly focus our efforts and to apply strong pressure on government to meet its obligations, to ensure that the rights of  ALL children and young people, and especially those who are regarded as vulnerable or disadvantaged, are fully respected and realized.

I look forward to leading that challenge in Northern Ireland through 2010 and in the coming years.

Thank you