Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley at the Big Deal Conference

Good Morning! And thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

And a big thanks to you Harry for such an inspiring presentation on participation.

I’d like, for a few more minutes, to further explore the meaning of participation by talking about the challenges of participation.

Challenges are, of course, about taking things on to overcome obstacles.

At the present time, there is an election race in America. One of the candidates, Hillary Clinton said this about challenges:

“The challenges of change are always hard. It is important that we begin to unpack those challenges that confront us and realize that we each have a role that requires us to change and become more responsible for shaping our own future.”

You’ll hear me talk a lot about challenges today – whether about challenges to government, challenges to public bodies, challenges to practitioners, challenges to all.

We need to challenge and change how we do things to make sure there is meaningful participation of our children and young people – ensuring young people have their say. This has been one of NICCY priorities for the past three years and will continue to be so over the next 3 years.

We recognise an increased commitment to participation through out society – but it is not consistent.

Of course we welcome and support initiatives like the Big Deal Standards – especially as they have been drafted by young people themselves. I know that young people from Youth Councils throughout NI have been working extremely hard and with much lively debate to get the draft standards ready and in the format you see today.

But we have to make sure that these standards go somewhere, that there is an end game – it isn’t just a project that runs on forever.

And it isn’t something that stands alone – it has to be used in conjunction with other initiatives and programmes – it can’t be used in isolation.

Challenge – how do we do this?

One way is NICCY’s proposal to develop a Participation Advisory Forum – to provide a platform for NGOs, statutory bodies to share knowledge and experience, promote participation and create awareness of what’s happening on the ground.

Working with the Big Deal today and seeing their passion for involving young people in developing standards – we in NICCY would welcome their input and the benefit of their experience to ensure we all work together, to get the maximum benefit for all C&YP in NI.

The move to increase participation in Northern Ireland may have been slow to start – but the timing could not have been better.

The ongoing development of the Review of Public Administration creates opportunities to ensure the voice of children and young people is heard in our society whatever new administrative structures we end up with.

One thing that we do know is that our MLAs are having a greater say in the shape of those administrative structures.

Our devolved government means our representatives are more accessible.

That means you can challenge them and they have to face the challenge.

There is movement to establish a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly, which we welcome. Last year on the United Nations Day of the Child more than 100 young people landed on the steps of Stormont. They received positive messages from Ministers and MLAs about having a say.

But the challenge for every one is to ensure that this body – in whatever form – is open to all; has meaning and has access to those decision makers.

It is up to all of us to make sure that whatever model is put in place is the right one.

Maybe the challenge on this one is not to rush in, but to make sure that the preparation is done properly; to make sure that every young person in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to get involved even if it’s on a local level and not a national level

There was debate at Stormont last week about the number of local councils. Whether its 7, 11 or 15, the challenge is:

‘How are young people to be heard?’

Each of the new Health Trusts have a Director of Children’s Services.

Each Council should have a similar champion for children and young people within its structure with part of their remit being ‘participation with children and young people’. And that means, as you heard earlier, standards.

The standards being discussed today are part of that participation process and they are very welcome.

To support these standards we need to identify and promote a statutory responsibility towards engaging with children and young people.

And to some extent we already have some responsibilities.

There is section 75.

There is forthcoming ECNI guidance on consulting with children and young people.

And, there is a 10-year-action plan where all government departments are being called to ‘consider the views of children and young people in the development of new policy that impact on their age group’

More importantly, the indicator of progress to the above action is to:

‘Evidence the involvement of children and young people in the development of policy across all governments departments…’

That means actually measuring the levels and impacts of participation of children and young people. What a challenge for the assembly and its government departments!

Before measuring begins, however, we have to know where we are right now. There are sporadic examples of good participation practice but it is not widespread enough.

We need you, the audience here today to push, shout, encourage, persuade people into being open, being willing and being brave enough to move this forward.

We have to benchmark where we are with participation so that we can tell how far we have moved forward after 5, 10, even 15 years.

This is another challenge to government, to the youth services and to each and every statutory body, including ourselves.

We welcome the development of the Participation Network and we particularly welcome the training and consultancy support they provide to the statutory agencies, local government and government departments within their remit.

We know this is a three-year programme. Therefore the challenge is in the long term. Who is going to support and train those that need it most in the future – those in the statuary sector?

NICCY has adapted – from the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People – a Children’s Right Impact Assessment framework which will be referenced in the aforementioned ECNI guidelines.

In Northern Ireland, there is currently no comprehensive or systematic means of assessing the impact of legislation or policy on children and young people’s rights nor is there any statutory or legal obligation to undertake children’s rights proofing of law and policy.

This is despite recommendations from the Committee and the requirements of Article 4 from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Child Rights Impact Assessments are a vital tool in providing a more robust, transparent and evidence-based approach to policy development and law making in Northern Ireland.

You can find out more about Child Rights Impact Assessments from our website.

In all this, we cannot forget about the young people who may not have the ready opportunity to get involved in shadow youth councils, school councils or any other youth forums or panels

Having your voice heard and having a say is not the privilege of the eloquent but a right for all young people – sometimes we just have to try harder and listen more to hear what is being said by those that face the most barriers in life.

Remember that children and young people are the product of our society; they are not there despite it.

We have the responsibility to give children and young people their rights.

While we look forward to the challenges and the responsibilities I’d like to leave you with two thoughts.

The first is from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. He said:

“A Journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

It is time to take that step.

And if we ever doubt it, remember what Walt Disney said when people laughed at his theme park plans.

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

We’ve dreamt that we can meet the challenges of participation, it is time to do it!

Thank you!