Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley at the Participation Network Seminar

Good morning and thanks for the opportunity to speak to you today. Before introducing our special guest, it would be remiss of me and some here today might even say – definitely not like me – not to take an opportunity to get my spoke in to such a captive audience, as yourselves.

Today is all about young peoples’ participation in the decision making process. The move to increase participation in Northern Ireland may have been slow to start with – but the timing could not be better now.

As I have said before and will continue to say, 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 they can be challenged and they have to face that challenge.

There is movement to establish a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly, which we welcome because it is an initiative that was led by a young person. 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 and 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 the 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 in the past few weeks about the number of local councils.

Whether it ends up 7, 11 or 15, the challenge is: ‘How are young people to be heard?’ How are we going to ensure the voice of children and young people is going to be heard in the new processes?

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

My wish is that 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’.

To ensure young people can affect policy development and policy decision we need to identify and promote a statutory responsibility towards engaging with children and young people – and I know Harry will expand on this theme a little later.

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, and I quote, ‘consider the views of children and young people in the development of new policy that impacts on their age group’.

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

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

Think about this for a minute. What does this mean…..?

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

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 be willing and 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 the each and every statutory body, including ourselves.

We welcome the development of the Participation Network, established in 2007 with the support of OFMDFM, to support public decision makers in government departments, local government and statutory agencies fulfil their obligations to effectively engage children and young people in the development of policies and services, as outlined in Article 12 (UNCRC) and Section 75 (NI Act).

We support the development of standards of good practice in child and youth participation, in public decision making for statutory agencies, local government and government departments.

And we welcome the training and consultancy support they provide to the statutory agencies, local government and government departments that within their remit.

However – We know this is a three-year programme. The challenge is in the long term, after the three years.

Who is going to support and train those people that need it most in the future – those in the statuary sector?

The answer to this question is an indication of the seriousness of how our government values the participation of young people, in the decision making process.

And so you may be thinking – what is NICCY doing?

We will monitor the development of the 10 year action plan and we will ask for the evidence of the involvement of children and young people in the development of policy across all governments departments.

We are also developing a Participation Advisory Forum to provide a platform for NGOs, statutory bodies to share knowledge and experience to promote participation and create awareness of what’s happening on the ground.

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

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, 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.

Someone who has been giving young people that responsibility is Harry Shier.

Harry is a consultant, trainer and development worker with extensive knowledge in children and young people’s roles in participative planning and evaluation processes, play and creativity, cultural rights and equal opportunity.

Harry is from Northern Ireland, and has worked with children and young people in Northern Iraq, Nicaragua, USA, Jerusalem and across the UK. He is the founder of Playtrain (Birmingham), author of the well known “Pathways to Participation Model.

I had the pleasure of hearing Harry speak about two weeks ago, to an audience of participation practitioners and words like ‘enthused’ and ‘invigorated’ were used to describe how they were feeling after hearing Harry.

I hope you will be similarly enthused and invigorated today.

Now sit up straight and pay attention, I give you Harry Shier.

Thank you