The Commissioner spoke at the launch of her reports 'By their side and on their side - Reviewing the evidence for guardianship for separated children in NI'. You can view both the main report and the children and young person's report here. You can also view the press release here.

Commissioner's keynote speech

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Good Afternoon.  I am delighted to see so many people here today to the launch of the research I commissioned at the beginning of 2013 to explore guardianship arrangements for separated children in Northern Ireland. 

I am pleased at the range of disciplines that are represented, which include health, justice, welfare, immigration, education and social care.  I think it highlights the complexity of this area with respect to the number of professionals that are often involved in the life of these children but also and very importantly it reflects the interest and recognition of the relevance of it for your work. 

I am also sure you will join me in offering a very warm welcome to Professor Ravi Kohli, who alongside Dr Helen Connolly and Dr Helen Beckett carried out the research that will be represented today. 

I should start by giving some background on the role of the Children’s Commissioner in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to separated children and young people.

The office I hold has a statutory remit, having been established under the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.  This outlines my primary aim which is to ‘Safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland.

This includes children and young people up to the age of 18, or up to 21 in respect of children who have experience of care, or have a disability.

Children’s rights and best interests are my paramount consideration in determining how to carry out my work, and the 2003 Order requires me to have regard to any relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNCRC.  I have a reporting role to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its periodic examination of the UK, and the devolved institutions’, compliance with the UNCRC. 

I have a range of statutory duties and powers, which includes the duty to keep under review, and provide advice in relation to, the adequacy and effectiveness of law, practice and services for children by relevant authorities.  I also have the power to provide assistance to a child in making a complaint to a relevant authority, and have investigatory powers, again with respect to relevant authorities. 

This refers to most public bodies in Northern Ireland.  Strictly speaking, this does not include the Home Office, and the English Children’s Commissioner holds the responsibility for scrutinising and advising the Home Office in relation to immigration across the UK.  However, in practice, the Home Office, previously the UK Border Agency also engages with the Children’s Commissioners in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in relation to their work in the devolved regions.  I meet with the Home Office on a regular basis to discuss developments in relation to separated children subject to immigration control, and to raise any concerns I may have, for example, developments in age assessment policies and practice. 

The four UK Children’s Commissioners regularly work together on this issue, because of the complex structures of agencies interacting with separated children subject to immigration control, as well as the extreme vulnerability of these children.  It is important to state that, without a doubt, these children are among the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland. 

I referred earlier to my reporting role to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its periodic examination of the UK compliance with the UNCRC.  You may be aware that the UK was due to submit its fourth State report in January 2014, but has been delayed, and I, along with the other three UK Children’s Commissioners, have provided feedback to the UK Government in relation to its comments on separated children subject to immigration control. 

There has, indeed, been progress over the past five years. 

In 2008 the UK Government lifted its reservation to Article 22 of the UNCRC.  This article requires the state to provide asylum seeking children with the appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of their rights.  This means that these children should enjoy all other rights under the UNCRC and all other rights in any international instruments to which the government is a party.  Moreover, it requires that, if the child is unaccompanied by parents or guardians, the child shall be accorded the same protection as any other child permanently or temporarily deprived of his or her family.  The lifting of this reservation was, therefore a very significant step forward.

This was followed, then, the following year, by legislation placing a duty on the UK Border Agency, now Home Office, to have arrangements in place to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in discharging its functions.  While the intention behind this has been very positive, in practice the best interests of children subject to immigration control continue to be, in some cases, superseded by immigration processes.

In 2010, we welcomed the UK government announcement that it was to end the detention of children subject to immigration control.  This was another significant and welcome step forward. 

In 2012, the resolution of the NI Assembly, to welcome the report from the ‘Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings’ (GRETA).  I will come back to the needs of trafficked children in a moment.

At an operational level, statutory agencies are making positive progress with the development of new guidance and review of protocols.  For example, the HSCB Corporate Parenting Report; the development the Service Framework for children in Special Circumstances and the commitment to including separated children within this; and the provision of regional data on separated children by the Home Office. 

However, our feedback to the UK Government, on its most recent draft State Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raises continuing concerns in relation to whether new family migration rules comply with the requirement to have regard to the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare.  We also questioned the government’s position on minimum income standards and the separation of children from their parents. 

We had also raised these issues earlier  this year, when I joined the other three UK Children’s Commissioners in giving evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee’s evidence session for their report into the ‘Human Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Young People in the UK’.

 As you would expect, the report from the members of that committee made significant reference to the importance of the UN Convention when supporting separated children and young people. 

It said: “The UNCRC must be a central consideration in those processes that deal with unaccompanied migrant children.  In principle, incorporating the UNCRC into domestic law could serve to bring children's rights into the mainstream in the same way as the Human Rights Act 1998 did for the European Convention on Human Rights.”

It also recognised the need to “develop a specific training programme to improve awareness and understanding of the UNCRC and its application to unaccompanied migrant children, particularly with respect to properly considering children's best interests.”

It is significant that the Committee chose to comment particularly on deficiencies in child rights implementation measures, outlining how these could result in more effective delivery on the rights and best interests of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. 

Although as I said, it is important to recognise the important progress that has been made in relation to separated children in Northern Ireland, I would not be doing my job, if I also did not raise my concerned that the debate regarding guardianship needs to be more fully explored and in order to facilitate this I commissioned the University of Bedfordshire early last year to undertake this research.  The authors have completed a considered study which examines international child rights standards and reviews legislative and policy contexts before outlining the perspectives of professionals who participated in the study on how current arrangements are operating. 

Importantly, the researchers also consulted with a small number of separated children to gain their valuable insights.  The report offers a number of recommendations that have been developed to support Northern Ireland ensuring that the needs of separated children are properly met.  I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the research as advisors to the project, as professionals and most importantly as young people. 

 I have monitored, advised and challenged government in relation to a wide number of critical issues affecting children and young people in Northern Ireland.  While these issues have been diverse, I have become increasingly aware of commonalities across these different issues, common barriers to the implementation of the rights of children and young people.  For this reason I am convinced that the time is right for a comprehensive piece of child rights legislation. 

I have outlined a number of positive steps forward over recent years in relation to separated children.  In addition, there has been much stronger recognition given to trafficking and the determination to provide support to these most vulnerable children.  However, problems with identifying trafficked children and young people means that they are often quite ‘invisible’ and so providing adequate support and protection can be challenging. 

It is important for trafficked children, and indeed all separated children, that the circumstances these children have come from – their experiences, their trauma, their journey to Northern Ireland and the risks they may face in their country of origin are not forgotten.

It is of particular significance that the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill currently going through the assembly includes the provision of a legal guardian for potential child victims to represent their best interests.  However as required by international child rights standards and advocated by the four UK Children’s Commissioners, government should ensure that all separated children subject to immigration control, of which separated children subject to trafficking will be one sub-group, have access to a guardian. 

We must listen to these children, we must give them a voice, and we must make sure they have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.  This is a right they are afforded in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children are particularly vulnerable and invisible in that it is difficult to even identify how many there are in Northern Ireland at any one time.  Although there has been positive steps made by the Health and Social Care system to develop data gathering systems with respect to separated children, I remain particularly concerned about those young people that remain below the radar of the current identification and reporting systems.  In Northern Ireland the pressure on our immigration and social care systems are further intensified with the porous land border with the South of Ireland. 

Separated children are among the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland.  The barriers to delivery for these children are even more problematic, given the diverse pathways they may have travelled to get here and the complex interactions between the asylum and trafficking processes to which these children may be subject. 

We have also been vocal regarding the need for a more joined-up approach between the UK Home Office and the Health and Social Care trusts at the operational level. 

While the official numbers of children subject to immigration control are relatively low, as is the prevalence of National Referral Mechanism referrals, this does not automatically paint a positive picture.  We have been very concerned that there could be potential for oversight in terms of ensuring an adequate response to these children.  For example, the fact that these numbers are low means it is more of a challenge to ensure that social workers and immigration officers have the expertise that comes through practical experience, in order to ensure the children’s needs are addressed. 

 Now to return to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s examination of the UK State report in 2008, in its Concluding Observations, the Committee recommended that the UK State Party should consider guardianship for SCSIC.  In their 2008 report to the Committee the UK Children’s Commissioners stated their view that separated children should have access to a legal guardian and reiterated this in the most recent 2011 Mid Term report.

The report, prepared for NICCY by researchers from the University of Bedfordshire, considers a child rights compliant approach to Guardianship for separated children, appropriate to the level of need and the legislative, policy and service provision framework in Northern Ireland.

Although Ravi will talk more about this in a few minutes, I would like to read out the definition of the Guardian as set out in General Comment 6, from the Committee of the Rights of the Child, as it is important to understand the unique role they can offer:

“(Separated  children) need someone who will always consider their best interests, who is informed and present in all planning and decision making processes, and who is equipped to deal with the child’s legal, physical, emotional and psychological needs.”

From this definition, it is clear why the Committee has argued for the introduction of a system of Guardianship across the UK.  Clearly the current very small numbers of separated children may make it difficult to establish a standalone guardianship service in Northern Ireland.  However, even if this is the case, it is essential that all the elements I have mentioned of the role of the Guardian, are nevertheless provided to separated children and young people in a consistent and integrated manner.

 It is clear that all our work together can bring to bear a powerful coalition on behalf of these children.  Together we all can bring our skills and expertise to advise and support the statutory authorities in providing support and protection to separated children.  I look forward to hearing your initial views on the findings later this afternoon.

Before Professor Kohli gives an overview of the research report, I would like to play a short video which was co funded by the European Commission and produced for the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children or ENOC as part of the ‘Children on the Move’ the theme for the annual conference in September last year. We thank ENOC for giving us access to this.  This video does not include the experiences of children coming into Northern Ireland, rather it shares the reality for separated children going to other European Countries and illustrates what they have gone through and the central role and contribution that a Guardian had in their lives. 

Commissioner's concluding comments

Firstly I would like to thank everyone for coming to our event today, in particular Professor Kohli who offered a very clear description of what Guardianship is with respect to separated children as well as offering an analysis of the evidence for it from within a Northern Ireland policy and practice context.

I believe the report provides a clear challenge on how the needs of this very small and vulnerable group of children in Northern Ireland are being met and to consider how arrangements should be strengthened in line with international child rights standards.

My Office will ensure that this report contributes to the UK Children’s Commissioner’s report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in the forthcoming examination of the UK state report and in other relevant joint work.

We will continue to work with the other UK Children’s Commissioners on asylum and immigration matters and play our part in supporting government, statutory agencies and others to progress consideration of the recommendations.

My staff and I have also had preliminary meetings with those statutory and NGO stakeholders that have been directly mentioned in the recommendations or in the options for a model of guardianship.

In moving forward the research have recommended that a better understanding of the support required by Separated Children subject to immigration control is developed, including through improving data and information gathering, evaluating current practice and providing effective training for professionals. Furthermore, there is a need for all options for guardianship to be assessed and progressed in a manner which best reflects international child rights standards, and meets the needs of separated children in Northern Ireland.

At this point I am not advocating that any one particular option for Guardianship should be pursued but request that government considers all options fully and implements that which is best placed to protect children’s rights and best interests and which can operate effectively in the Northern Ireland context.

As many of you may be aware, I am in the final year of my second term as Commissioner for Children and Young People. When I look back over the past seven years, my staff and I have met many thousands of children and young people, and worked on such a wide range of issues facing them. While they have experienced diverse problems and, I should point out, there has been a great deal of good work going on to address them, it has become increasingly clear to me how there are some key challenges to ensuring effective delivery for these children. In particular, one of the biggest problems is the administrative structures through which services are planned and delivered, and the challenges of ‘joining these up’ to address the needs of the ‘whole child’ in a timely and integrated way. The situation facing separated children in Northern Ireland is an example of this, albeit it made extreme by the absence of a parent to fight their corner, and accompany them on their journey.

One of the things I have been surprised at over these years is how many people seem to see children’s rights as being somehow in opposition to the role of parents. I should say that this has not come across from the parents who contact me, who are wanting to find out what rights their children have to the services and support they need. The message from these parents is not that their children have ‘too many rights’ but that they are often frustrated that these rights can’t be enforced.

The UNCRC recognises the absolutely central role that parents play in bringing up their children. Children’s rights are about the role the state must play in supporting this. The preamble to the Convention talks of ‘the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children’.

It also recognises ‘that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding’.

Rather than being seen as somehow undermining the role of parents, the UNCRC is a key tool in ensuring that parents are able to call on the government to step in and support them in meeting the needs of their children. And I should also say that it is my privilege, both before I was Commissioner, and certainly also in my time in this office, to have met so many parents who have sacrificed so much for their children and have fought so hard to make sure they can access the services their children need. They are the true child rights advocates.

But, we have been listening today about children who have come to Northern Ireland without parents to watch over them, and to fight their corner. Who have to find their way through systems which, while often providing high quality services, too often do not ‘join up’. While a Guardian is not seen as a replacement parent, they could at least play the role a parent would play in staying ‘By their side, and on their side.’

I hope that you have also found the research as interesting and informative as we have, and I know that it will prove a useful tool for further constructive conversations.  I am pleased to hear that the Law Centre is already making plans to convene the Working Group on Separated Children to consider the findings of this research.  I very much welcome this, and look forward to their feedback. I will also be seeking ongoing engagement with the statutory bodies with responsibility for separated children to discuss the report findings further.  

Once again, thank you for coming this afternoon and I wish you a safe journey home. Finally, I would ask you to take a minute to complete the short evaluation form that is included in your pack.