Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley at the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Conference, Torquay

Good morning ladies, gentlemen, and honoured guests. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today and for giving me the opportunity to tell you a little about my work, and the situation children and young people face in Northern Ireland.

Role as Commissioner

But before I get on to that – a little bit about my job! As some of you may know there are four UK children’s commissioners and one in the Republic of Ireland. That might seem a lot for these islands, but each jurisdiction has different laws and each commissioner has different powers.

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 importantly it is also to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.

And that’s all children and young people up to 18. 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.

My office has three functions:

  • To act as an Ombudsman for children and young people, through our legal and complaints work;
  • To carry out research and reviews into services to ensure the rights of children are met.
  • To communicate widely with children and young people and with the general public about the work of the office and about the rights that children in Northern Ireland are entitled to.

I am also required to advise and challenge Government on the adequacy and effectiveness of law, policy and practice as it relates to children and young people.

I am determined to put children’s issues firmly at the centre of political life in Northern Ireland. My office has uncovered, over the last three years, breaches of children’s rights, both on an individual case basis, and in system, where large numbers of children have been denied access to services to enable them to lead healthy lives.

Our legal and complaints team has dealt with many individual complaints from children and young people, their parents/guardians about statutory services, for example education, health, adoption and fostering, youth justice, road safety – in fact we have received to date 1329 individual complaints about the lack of access to services.

Our participation team is based locally in four regions across Northern Ireland. They work with children and young people across a range of settings to raise awareness of their rights under the UNCRC and tell them about my role. Working in schools and youth organisations they use a variety of exercises and activities to empower young people to make decisions about their lives.

The NICCY youth panel made up of 42 Young people from across N.I. and have a real say in advising me not only in my work but in how my office works for young people.

One of the biggest issues marring Northern Ireland currently is the high numbers of young people, most in their teens, who are taking their own lives

As in the rest of the United Kingdom, often our legislation fails to recognise that the needs of young people differ from those of adults. Child and adolescent mental health has therefore been neglected and under resourced by policy makers and legislators. Our mental health service is under resourced and needs radically over hauled if we are to meet the mental and emotional needs of our children and young people.

Children and young people living in poverty: Tackling the issues around child poverty and social exclusion is a significant priority for NICCY, particularly in terms of how it affects children and young people with disabilities, those in lone parent families and those from ethnic minority groups. Poverty can impact on children and young people throughout their lifetime by adversely affecting their educational and employment opportunities.

Statistics are all very well for quantifying relative poverty but I find that a more meaningful way of putting poverty in context is to look at the life experiences behind the numbers – for it’s here that you begin to get a glimpse of what living in poverty actually means to those children who are caught in the poverty trap.

What is it like to listen to school friends talk about play stations when you’ve nowhere to play; what is it like to live in a high rise flat, with sewage coming up through sinks and pigeon droppings on the landings; what is it like as a teenage mum to give birth to a child and not know where you are going to live after you leave hospital. These are realities for too many young people, and too often I have had to listen to these stories.

If we do not tackle this issue now then another generation will grow up trapped in the poverty cycle with no way out. We need a fully resourced and targeted anti poverty strategy- that is aimed at groups most at risk of poverty and areas of deprivation.

In conclusion I would like to issue a challenge to all of you practitioners here today.

Already you are involved in work that supports and enhances children and young people’s lives.

But what more can you do?

Can you say to Government:

“Give me the chance and I can make more of a difference; give me a chance and I can change the lives of children, young people and their families.”

Your professional skills – and creativity – can provide valuable insights to family life, insights that can lead to increasingly positive interventions by networked multi-disciplinary teams.

The French playwright and philosopher La Bruyere said in the 17th Century:

“If poverty is the mother of crime, stupidity is its father.”

I believe that there may be stupidity in how legislators and people in suits talk about tackling poverty, but in this 21st Century we in this room know that professionalism, vigour and creativity allied with the will and the means can help this nations families and young people out of the trap, and build a culture of aspiration, a culture of support and a culture where rights are respected and responsibilities honoured.

Thank you