Patricia sends her best wishes to you. She cannot be with us because of family circumstances, but I know she is thinking of you all and the importance of today’s discussion.
Our discussion today is timely. You will have heard and read the news stories about the 13-year-old who is alleged to have fathered a child. While this has prompted much debate it reminds us of the reality. Sex is a part of some young people’s lives. We have to deal with that rather than ignore it.
From the outset I welcome the new sexual offences legislation. Children and young people now have better protection from sexual abuse and exploitation.
We can never underestimate the importance of protecting our young people. Since my office was established, child protection has been to the fore, and continues to be a priority area of work for my office.
The commissioner for children and young people has a legislative remit to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people. Under Articles 7 and 8 of NICCY’s legislation, the commissioner has a mandate to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law, practice and services relating to the rights and best interests of children and young people by relevant authorities. This means she can review a particular service, carry out research or conduct a formal investigation.
In 2004 NICCY completed a major review of vetting procedures in Northern Ireland; a follow up review was then carried out in 2005. This review made a series of recommendations to the Secretary of State to improve vetting arrangements and ensure the suitability of those working with children and young people. Vetting procedures are now radically changed with the introduction of the POCVA checks and the new Independent Safeguarding Authority.
The Commissioner believes the work of her office and many others have contributed to a steadily improving child protection picture.
We have also been working to safeguard children by assessing policies relating to their sexual health. Last year we launched a policy paper on sexual health services that highlighted some gaps in policy and practice and made recommendations to improve service provision.
The policy paper highlighted a number of services that are not fit for purpose and are not meeting the demand/need:
· Access to sexual health services is particularly difficult for young people; especially those trying to access Genito-Urinary Medicine clinics. We currently have four clinics however combined they are open for less than 40 hours per week, some which operate on an appointment system others on a drop in basis. How are young people, some of whom who are still in full time education, expected to access a clinic that is only open three hours per week during the day?
· The approach to delivering Relationship and Sexual Education is neither comprehensive nor consistent in schools across Northern Ireland. Research on this issue shows the quality of sexual education depends on the school the young person attends and indeed the approach taken by individual teachers.
· These are specific groups of young people who need both targeted and tailored services to meet their sexual health needs, such as Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered, Looked after young people and young people with a learning disability. Professionals need appropriate training to help them respond to the needs of these marginalised groups.
This paper called on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to develop and implement a comprehensive and fully resourced sexual health strategy; and expand the services provided at Genito Urinary Medicine clinics to meet the current demand on the service.
Lowering the age of consent to16 years will have a direct impact on the demand for sexual health services; with more young people in a position to access service; this will increase the demand for a service already under severe pressure to meet current need.
While we welcomed the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety Sexual health promotion strategy and action plan, there was no reference to the new sexual offences order, the lowering of the age of consent or the impact this will have on service provision and on the provision of information.
It is essential that the Department of Education radically look at the policy governing the delivery of Relationship and Sexual Education in our schools. Children and young people across Northern Ireland must be provided with accurate information to enable them to make sensible and informed choices relating to their sexual health. Lowering the age of consent means that young people will legally be allowed to engage in sexual activity at 16. That means they will be making choices about their sexual health at a younger age. We need to ensure that they are fully equipped to do so. The Department of Education needs to bring forward plans for the appropriate delivery of Relationship and Sexual Education in schools as part of the curriculum.
It’s time to take our heads out of the sand, the only way to deal with early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections is to deliver comprehensive and coordinated sexual health services and information to children and young people.
This can be done through the implementation of the sexual health promotion strategy. However, that strategy needs to have a stronger action plan that recognises the immediate need to respond to the lower age of consent and the possible increased demand for sexual health services.
In conclusion: the area of sexual health and sex education can even be cringe worthy for some. It can attract sensationalist media coverage. It can be assailed by critics and battered by lack of understanding.
But I say to you today. Northern Ireland’s record on providing the right information, at the right time, to the right young people has been poor.
We need to work together to make it better. The legislation being discussed today is a step in the right direction. Let us all take further steps together.