Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley at the RCN Sexual Health Seminar

Good morning ladies and gentlemen

I am delighted to be asked to open today’s conference.

It is my hope that while today we can share what collective knowledge we have gained that the policy makers, the legislators and those whose hands rest upon the purse strings have the wisdom to listen to the messages which will emerge today.

I also hope that as a result of today there will be a drive for all of us to display the wisdom to listen to young people. We must never be in a position that we make recommendations, help establish policy without showing the wisdom to listen to what young people can tell us.

And I must say that the sexual health of young people is an issue that has been ignored by policy makers.

It’s great to see the prominence given to this issue on today’s agenda.

Role of Commissioner

As Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job is to:

Promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people so that they can challenge and change the world in which they live

To do that one of my most important jobs – and most enjoyable – is to help give children and young people a voice.

Explicit in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is that children must have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

Look it up – it’s Article 12. When you’re looking at the Convention you’ll also find specific articles that say children and young people should have the best possible health and access to information.

The Convention is a list of promises that Government has made to all our children and young people, and I hope that they will make those promises real by introducing the Convention into law.

I have been making sure children and young people have a real say in what my office does and how we do it – a commitment that has been real since the first Commissioner took up post in 2003.

When NICCY carried out its first consultation on its work in 2004 children and young people were clear they wanted an extra priority added to those we consulted on. It was a priority about risk-taking behaviour.

Despite what the media would have us believe most young people are worried about drinking, drugs and…they want more information on sexual health.

Last year my team carried out research with 2,000 children, young people, their families and those who work with children to help us form our priorities for the next three years. We then consulted with a similar number on exactly how we should tackle those priorities.

In coming weeks I’ll be publishing my business and corporate plans which show that young people are still as concerned by issues surrounding their health. Later in the year I’ll be publishing a review on children’s rights.

While that, I hope, will help inform decision makers and policy makers who have, the wisdom in the future to listen, I am being proactive in helping tell Government now what should be done, what needs to be done and what must be done to realize those rights.

Over the past weeks I have published policy papers on child poverty and road safety.

Launch of NICCY Sexual Health Policy

Today I am launching the NICCY policy paper on sexual health.

This paper highlights gaps in policy, practice and legislation and makes recommendations to policy makers to address these. I will be presenting this paper to both the Ministers for Health and Education to advise them on the recommendations applicable, some of which I will highlight to you today.

Sexual Health 

When the UK last reported to the UN committee on the rights of the child, the committee expressed concern about and made recommendations on the sexual health of our young people.

The committee recommended that measures needed to be taken to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy, including making sex education part of the school curricula, making contraception available to all children, and improving access to confidential and adolescent-sensitive advice and information and other appropriate support.

Five years later and the Government has still not produced a sexual health strategy, rates of sexually transmitted infections have continued to increase and our young people still face barriers when attempting to access sexual health information and services.

Research in Northern Ireland suggests that young people are engaging in sexual activities in their early teens.

For example in the most recent Young Life and Times survey 23% of young people aged 16 said that they have had sex at least once. It is therefore essential that they can access both information and services to help them make informed choices about their sexual health.

To not do seems both stupid and irresponsible.

Access to sexual services is particularly difficult for young people; especially those trying to access GUM clinics. We currently have only four clinics

However, combined they are open for less than 40 hours per week; some operate on an appointment system others on a drop in basis.

How are young people, many of whom are still in full time education, expected to access a clinic that is only open three hours per week during the day?

For example take a young person living in rural Fermanagh, their nearest GUM clinic is about 60 miles away in Derry.

How can a young person who relies on public transport be expected to access this clinic?

Surely it makes more sense to have clinics open on a full time basis and during evenings and weekends when young people are free to attend?

Changes like these would not require a lot of investment – just small changes to current practices that could be implemented in a short space of time.

One of the biggest challenges to improving the sexual health of our young people is the delivery of relationships and sexuality in schools.

The approach to delivering RSE 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.

The Department of Education needs to develop a comprehensive framework for RSE, with training and guidance for teachers to ensure that all schools are covering sexual health issues as outlined in the curriculum.

The provision of information on sexual health is an area that young people have highlighted as inappropriate and not meeting their needs. Indeed increases in Sexually Transmitted Infections illustrate the fact that young people do have access to appropriate information and advice to help them avoid sexual ill health.

The NICCY policy paper highlights groups of young people who face particular barriers when accessing information on their sexual health. These include Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered, disabled and looked after young people.

For LGBT young people there is a lack of information and specific sexual health services within Northern Ireland. The majority of sexual health information and education is tailored towards heterosexual people. LGBT struggle to find sources of accurate information that enables them to make informed choices about their sexual health.

Young people with disabilities have a limited understanding and experience of sex and sexual health. Among professionals and front line staff there is a need for clearer guidance and training to help advise and support young people with disabilities and their carers on sexual health matters.

The sexual health of Looked after Children is very complex and requires a multi agency, multi disciplinary approach to adequately deal with the complex interwoven consequences of both the experiences that led to the person coming into care and the consequences that life in care entails. Staff working with young people in care need to have appropriate training and guidance to help them support young people when they are making decisions that affect their sexual health.

These are specific groups of young people who need both targeted and tailored services to meet their needed. Professionals need appropriate training to help them respond to the needs of these marginalised groups.

In general confidentiality is extremely important to young people accessing sexual health services. In Northern Ireland we are in the unique position that professionals by law are required to report sexual activity between young people aged 14 regardless of whether the activity is consensual.

While I in no way condone or encourage this type of activity, young people engaging in consensual sexual acts as part of their natural development should be free to access advice and support without being referred for child protection assessment. We at NICCY are calling for the law to be changed so that medical professionals have the freedom to make an informed risk assessment based on the individual circumstances of each young person. Of course, where children are at risk, and are being abused, I fully support – and indeed demand in the strongest possible terms – referral to health and social services, and the police.

Overall the biggest barrier to the delivery of sexual health services is the absence of a coordinated and comprehensive strategy.

While I know that the Department of Health has been working on a strategy for a quite some time; this now needs to be finalised and implemented as a matter of urgency. I am calling on the Department to give full consideration to the recommendations of the NICCY policy paper and ensure that they are addressed in any new strategy.


Its 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. Services need to be developed and tailored to meet the specific needs of young people.

And we must remember too that sexual health is also about self-esteem. It is about how young people develop an understanding of themselves and how that affects their relationships.

Thank you all for listening.

I’ve left copies of my policy document for you and further copies are available on my website.

I hope you enjoy today’s conference and take away good practice ideas to implement within your field of practice.

And I hope that when we have spoken of our knowledge there are the people with the wisdom to listen.