Thank you for inviting me to speak on what is an important day for every child and young person in Northern Ireland.
This is a day when we recognise that the United Nations – and we hope the Government - acknowledges that play is not just a word.
Today is a day when play is established, once more as a right and not just as a word describing something that children can do, after all the important things in their daily life are completed. But who would ever be accused of thinking like that, I hear you say!!
When the Assembly and Parliament created the job of Commissioner for Children and Young People, they were very clear on what that job was:
“To safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people.”
Part of that job is to listen to children and young people. Shortly after I became Commissioner I asked them what was among the most important things in their lives. Their answer was resounding: play and leisure!
So – the United Nations says play is important, children and young people say play is important. The United Kingdom Government, when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also agreed that play is important.
So where do we go from here in making this a reality?
If we look at another key part of my role as Commissioner, it is to advise Government on how their laws, practices and services measure up to what is needed to meet children’s rights.
Part of that is reminding all parts of Government that under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child they are: “Duty Bearers”.
That means that it is their duty to make sure that all of a child’s rights – including the right to play are fulfilled. No exceptions, no get out clause, and no attempts to escape their duty: The state, in the shape of the Government, must make sure children enjoy their right to play.
Before I go any further, I’d like to take a moment to remind us of what the UN Convention, Article 31 says about play:
1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.
I’d like you all to consider two words from the second part of the article. Those words are ‘respect’ and ‘promote’.
Too often you will have read about the trivialisation of play; reduced to the latest must have toy for Christmas, or a newspaper commentator calling for children to get out into the fresh air.
I’d also like to draw one phrase from the General Comment on Play to your attention. It says that play will:
“…contribute to all aspects of learning”
We must also remember that it is not about adults dictating what play means.
Another key article of the Convention; Article 12 – the right to have a say in decisions that affect their lives.
How many times has Government really asked children and young people to have a say in what sort of play and leisure they want?
How many times have councils really asked children and young people to have a say in what sort of play and leisure they want?
And, I’m not talking about consultation – I’m talking about participation.
Recently members of my youth panel and I awarded government departments and public sector organisations for their work, involving children and young people.
Each organisation that received a Participation Award paid testimony to how their organisation benefitted – and equally if not more important, how children and young people themselves, benefitted from participation. To that end almost all Government Departments have now signed a Participation Statement of Intent. This is a commitment to involve children and young people in the decisions that affect their lives.
If Government now is beginning the journey towards meaningful participation, what is the role of our Government, our Executive and our Assembly in terms of rest, play and leisure?
The General Comment is quite specific about this. It is clear that Government must adopt legislation to make sure there is sufficient provision; that there must be a dedicated policy on play and a plan to make sure that this policy is implemented.
In my role as Commissioner – and in all our roles as champions for children’s rights – we must challenge our leaders to make these aspirations a reality
We must also support children – as rights bearers – in claiming their rights, thereby supporting the duty bearers in power to meet their obligations.
So, what can I as Commissioner do now that the General Comment has been passed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child?
Following today, I will write to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as part of my duty to advise them on laws, practices and services, asking them when they will ensure there is sufficient play provision, when they will adequately fund play and ask for their commitment within the lifetime of this current Assembly.
I will also, under these same duties, write to the Minister for the Environment, asking him to remind all district councils of their obligations, and to make sure that in the reform of local government play is not forgotten.
I have supported the development of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s Child Rights Indicators. They can now further develop these Child Rights Indicators by including the requirements of the General Comment.
Part of my job – and a very specific part of it - is to promote children’s rights. Through the work of my office – we are day and daily promoting those rights; promoting them to key stakeholders in Government, to MLAs, to children themselves, to teachers and to parents.
While parents may not be actual rights bearers themselves they have an essential role in claiming those rights on behalf of their children.
Before concluding I’d like to refer to the parts of Article 31 that is often over-looked. The right to rest, cultural life and arts.
Our children need the time to rest – as a mother and grandmother I can say that parents need their rest too! But, we should remember that no matter how many times we may wish our own children had an ‘off’ switch, they too need their rest from the hurly burly of modern life.
Culture is a word too often used in the tribal politics of Northern Ireland.
We all should remember that culture comes in more than just the two shades, often espoused.
It comes from a child’s interests, whether that is music, computer games, or any hobby that helps them to establish an identity for themselves.
As to arts – that doesn’t mean just the high brow paintings, or the Ulster Orchestra’s performances. It is about the art that inspires them – art that is relevant to them, and it must be art that they have a say in deciding whether they like it or not: remember Article 12, a child has the right to have a say.
As we consider all these rights I want to remind you of my job: to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people. All parts of my work focus on this job.
I know that all of you here today join me in these aims.
I know that you all will join me in welcoming the General Comment on Article 31.
But most of all I know that we can all join together to make it right for children and young people, and I leave you with a quote from NICCY’s Children’s Rights Review – Chapter 7
“Young people get blamed for anti-social behaviour, but it’s actually just boredom and lack of things to do.”