Speech by the Commissioner at QUB Women’s Graduates Event

Good morning, I am delighted to take part in today’s discussions.

But before I begin, may I commend the scholarship programme of Queen’s Women Graduate Association, which I note recently closed. As a Commissioner for Children and Young People I am acutely aware that too many families suffer poverty and by that I mean Poverty in the widest sense so for some there is the poverty of opportunity.

A scholarship that allows a woman to return or restart her education is one which sends a powerful message. That message is that poverty of opportunity can be overcome. And I believe that ‘opportunity’ in education is something which is essential to realising your rights. 

The fact that you have chosen to profile children’s rights in tandem with human rights is a positive step in both the promotion and the realisation of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. This is one example of how prominent the growing profile of young people’s rights in Northern Ireland is becoming.

The Role of NICCY

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 children and young people in Northern Ireland 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 my 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 articles or ‘rights’, in ratifying the UNCRC the UK Government and devolved administrations have committed to fulfilling these rights through policy, legislation and service provision. Part of my work is to see that the Northern Ireland Assembly complies with the minimum standards outlined in the convention.

In 1993 when my office was established a major piece of work was undertaken to determine the state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. A copy of which is available. This work is currently being updated and will be available in the New Year.

My office has three teams – research and service review, participation and communications and legal and complaints.

The work of my office is based on helping children and young people through research. I have the power to undertake general inquiries into issues where I believe children cannot access services and their rights are being violated and to review services for children and young people. This may be an informal inquiry or more formal, with the powers of the High Court to summons witnesses, obtain documents and enter premises. We can also respond to requests from the Assembly and Parliament to look at issues and advise policy makers from a children’s rights perspective. This work is undertaken by the team in research, policy and service review.

One of the first pieces of work undertaken by the team was a review of speech and language services for children and young people. The results of which showed unacceptable waiting times and lists for speech and language therapy, and a post code lottery of service provision. As a result of this review the Government has established a taskforce as recommended by NICCY to assess models of service delivery, set minimum waiting targets for children accessing speech therapy and recommend improvements to the overall provision of the service.

I am currently pressing Government to make good its promises and further improve this service.

Our legal and complaints team can deal with individual complaints from children and young people, or their parents/guardians about government services like education, health, adoption and fostering, youth justice, road safety – indeed any service that impacts on those under 18. Where appropriate we can start or take over legal proceedings on behalf of a child or young person if a general principle is at stake.

One of the most recent cases taken by my office is a judicial review on Article 2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order (2006), which is the legislation that governs physical punishment in the home. While this piece of legislation removed the defence of reasonable chastisement, it has retained it for the offence of common assault.

Other legal challenges that we have been involved in, include a judicial review in a case about school policies and the right of pupils to have a say in developing and changing them, a case relating to the disturbances at Holy Cross in 2001and the rights of children and young people. We have also challenged the introduction of anti social behaviour orders, and will continue to look at ways that the rights and best interests of children are maintained through appropriate legal action.

I also have a remit in raising the awareness of Children’s Rights, in doing this my participation team work with children and young people across a range of settings to raise awareness of their rights under the UNCRC and tell them about the role of NICCY.

Working in schools and youth organisations they use a variety of exercises and activities to empower young people to make decisions about their lives and challenge and change the world in which they live. The participation officers work with a range of key stakeholders to develop partnerships, promoting best practice and feeding into the work of NICCY.

I have a youth panel of 25 young people who advise me not only in my work but in how my office works for young people. They are involved at all levels in the office, working along side the research team as trained peer researchers and sitting on interview panels to recruit my staff.

In addition, members of the panel have been involved in work to counter the negative perception of young people in the media. They produced a video for Youtube and took part in major media interviews to mark International Youth Day in August. Visit the Youtube website and type in NICCY Youth Panel to see the video.

Members of the youth panel are here today. We actively promote meaningful participation of our youth panel in all projects undertaken in the office.

I also work with the other four Commissioners in England, Wales, Scotland and Southern Ireland in a group known as BINOCC; that is the British and Irish Network of Ombudsmen and Children’s Commissioners.

We work jointly together on issues common to all five jurisdictions – in particular the four UK Commissioners prepared a joint report to the UN on the status of children’s rights. We are also part of ENOC; the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children, which aims to influence and change European laws and directives that have an impact on children and young people. ENOC is planning to open an office in Strasbourg to coordinate our joint work and to support commissioners and ombudspersons when working on European issues.

Children’s Rights 

As I previously made reference to – I guide all the work of my office on the provisions of the UNCRC. Part of this work includes reporting every five years to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the current state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland. This year I not only visited the committee in Geneva to report but I also facilitated a visit to Northern Ireland of Professor Lucy Smith from the Committee on the Rights of the Child. On this visit l, along with other children’s sector organisations, showed her first hand where children’s rights are being violated.

The concluding observations from the Committee on the Rights of Child published just last week, outline the serious failures that need to be addressed by the Government. These include:-

· Teaching the UNCRC on the school curriculum

· Taking steps to address negative perception of young people in the media

· A ban on physical punishment

· Ending the use of ASBO’s and Taser stun guns,

· Publishing and implementing a sexual health strategy

· Improving mental health provision, and

· Ending both selection and segregation in education.

While the UNCRC clearly states the rights children are entitled to it has not been enshrined into domestic legislation here in Northern Ireland. Therefore a child, and indeed my office, cannot take legal action on the grounds that the rights under the UNCRC have been violated. We, therefore, rely on the European Convention on Human Rights which was incorporated into domestic legislation through the Human Rights Act.

I am also constricted in the legal challenges that I can take as the organisation is not given ‘victim status’ when challenging legislation on the grounds that it violates articles of the Human Rights Act; therefore we would need to find a specific child who has had that right violated and take legal action in their name. If we had victim status we could challenge the legislation on the grounds that it could possibly contravene the rights of a child.

These two issues – the UNCRC not being in domestic law, and not having victim status – are constraints. But, it is important to note, that when NICCY was set up by the Assembly it was given the strongest powers and widest scope of any children’s commissioner’s office on these islands.

Which shows you, that when the Executive actually meets and makes decisions they can actually make a difference to children and young peoples lives.

While I may be somewhat constrained in some legal activity the work of NICCY, amongst others, is I believe, starting to make an impact on the profile of the UNCRC.

The judiciary, for example, is becoming increasingly aware of the UNCRC and is beginning to make reference to it in their judgements and use it as a tool. For example, this year, in one of the cases I referred to earlier, the judge made specific reference to article 12 of the UNCRC.

In another judicial review relating to the decision of the Chief Constable of the PSNI to use Taser stun guns, the judge deferred his decision until the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child produced their concluding observations before he made his decision.

Hopes for the Future

My hope for the future is that the UNCRC will be incorporated into Domestic Law – this could be done through the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. This would ensure that children and young people have proper legal recourse when their rights are violated. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will make the necessary changes to legislation, policy and practice as recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, ensuring that all children including our most vulnerable have their rights realised to the maximum possible extent.

But I am conscious that the future is not the place you or I live in. We may help shape and create that future for coming generations of children; I believe we can. But we also need to be conscious that we have an obligation to act for today’s children and young people.

I will make no generalisations about today’s children and young people.

I will make no assumptions about today’s children and young people.

I will not even pretend to understand their tastes, their music, or their interests.

But I – as I believe all of us should – will pledge to make sure that they have every opportunity to enjoy their rights. Because for me Rights are – in one sense – about doing the right thing.

And, with children’s rights there is a momentum gathering.

Thank you for your time, and I will leave you with the words of Kofi Anan:

“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.”