Speech by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley, at the European Studies International Planning Conference, Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, Co Down.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you for inviting me along to speak to you today and can I add my welcome to those of you who are visiting Northern Ireland for the first time. You are very welcome.
I am very pleased to be able to tell you something about my own role as Commissioner for Children and Young People in this lovely and historic setting in the foot of the Mournes.
I don’t need to tell you we are increasingly living in a very small world where geographical and physical boundaries do not mean the same as before. It is an increasingly unfamiliar place to many of our own childhoods I guess with both new opportunities and challenges. It’s a world of global communication that for many young people it is sitting in front of a computer screen. The internet is a large part of many children’s lives; a world of Myspace, BEBO, instant messaging, and Youtube. These wonderful opportunities are tempered by risks of those who might harm children, a more sedentary lifestyle, unsuitable material and new forms of bullying.
Children in both NI other parts of the UK and across Europe also face other common more traditional challenges such as poverty, social exclusion , bullying, peer pressure, accessing services, and having a say in decisions that affect them. Sometimes they need someone to speak up for them or to champion their issues and that’s often where my office comes in.
The Office of Commissioner for Children and Young People in NI NICCY for short was established in 2003 and the late Nigel Williams was the first appointment to the role. The post was the second in the UK, we now have Commissioner for Children in each jurisdiction and the Republic of Ireland. We are also part of a network of 21 Commissioners and Ombudsman across Europe.
Interestingly, because of the work established in the then NI Government, the powers and responsibilities of the NI Commissioner are the strongest in the UK. The creation of the post was also a recognition of the need to improve children’s lives in a society that had been dominated for years by intercommunal violence and where in particular children had been at times never seen, nor heard.
As Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job 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 them 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.
In doing that work I must have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNCRC.
The UNCRC as you will know is a list of 42 promises made by governments from almost all countries in the world to children and young people including the right to education, equal treatment and the right to an opinion.
All governments who have signed the convention are supposed to work to make it part of their law. We at NICCY are working to see that our Government here in Northern Ireland include the convention in practice policy and the law.
But what does NICCY actually do to achieve its mission to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland?
All our work is based on our legislation – that is the law that gives us powers to act on behalf of children and young people. And they are quite strong powers including:
Strong powers of access and investigation;
Right to initiate reviews;
Right to take legal action; and
Right to issue guidance on best practice in relation to any matter concerning rights or best interests of young people.
Our work is divided into three main areas. These are: Legal and Complaints; Research, Policy & Service Review; and Communications and Participation.
The Legal and complaints part of the office receives individual complaints from, or on behalf of, a child or young person. We can either directly support them in furthering their complaint, or can direct them where they can receive other types of support. In addition, in certain cases we can take legal action on behalf of a child.
Within NICCY our Research, Policy and Service Review staff carry out dedicated research either at request of ministers or on my own account. It can be an informal investigation or a fully-fledged public inquiry, with all the powers (and costs) that go with that. We are currently involved in a Judicial Review of the government’s decision not to afford children equal treatment in the law in relation to physical punishment here. We have not yet joined the vast numbers of countries in Europe who have outlawed the physical punishment of children.
The team also responds to government consultation and helps develop and promote children’s policy in a wide range of areas with a host of partners.
Our Communication & Participation team has the responsibility to communicate NICCY’s role and children’s rights to young people (as well as respect for the rights of others) and amongst all those involved with children.
One of the key ways we do this is by encouraging participation in decisions that affect them. We have four staff working across Northern Ireland, reaching out to schools and organizations helping children and young people understand the role of NICCY and the UNCRC.
You can find out more about our work and our priorities here on our website
Participation is something we at NICCY hold dear – hence why I readily agreed to speak at this event which focuses on how pupils can participate in civic life on a pan-European basis.
Within NICCY we have a Youth Panel of 42 committed 12-18-year-olds who work with us and support us in our work.
They are advisers, and participate in our day-to-day work. This has included being peer researchers on such projects as bullying and school transport research. In addition when we appoint staff – young people sit on the interview panel. We hope to lead and develop a culture of children and young people’s participation as well as promote best practice Last year at a major NICCY conference on democracy in schools for example we heard from a school in England about how members of the school council interview prospective candidates for teacher posts!
Our youth panel has also been directly expressing themselves, from presenting at conferences through to filming a DVD explaining the work of NICCY to other young people. In fact earlier this week I was sat in front of a youth panel operated camera, and was interrogated, sorry interviewed by a member of the youth panel about my work. They assure me that not only will the DVD be available soon, but will be on Youtube and BEBO sites…
That is just one of the many ways that NICCY reaches out to children and young people.
We also invite schools and groups to our offices, involve them in helping us set our priorities and meet groups with special interests such as those with disabilities, Traveller children or groups campaigning on their behalf.
When I took up post as Commissioner at the start of January one of my key priorities was to get out and about Northern Ireland – meeting children and young people, hearing from them directly about their experiences and listening to their views.
Already, since taking post on January 8th, I have visited several schools and youth groups ranging from north Belfast to Newry, and no doubt my office is lining up many other meetings. It is part of my promise to children and young people that I will not just be a Belfast commissioner, but I will reach out to all parts of Northern Ireland. It is also one of the reasons why we have outreach officers in the west of the province, Newry and Ballymena.
And when it comes to reaching out, I hope that through your programme of European Studies you can capture pupils’ views on the many facets of life within modern Europe and exchange information on best practice. I would encourage you all to make sure that pupils can experience real participation in their lives.
Finally, good luck with your conference and the rest of your time in Newcastle. I hope that your stay in NI will be memorable and that you will take the work of NICCY and your experiences during this weekend back to your own work across Europe .