Good afternoon distinguished guests, ladies, gentlemen children and Young People it is honor to attend this conference and speak to you all today. I would like to start by congratulating Richard Moore and his staff at children in crossfire on celebrating their 10th anniversary. The work that you have undertaken has a made a real difference in the lives of children across the world- it is a wonderful achievement and something the organisation should be very proud of.
Northern Ireland, like many parts of the world has been shaped and defined by a long history of conflict, our people, including our children, have suffered the negative effects and consequences in many ways. While the impact of the conflict on Northern Ireland’s children has not yet been fully identified and acknowledged, it is nonetheless widely recognised that more than a generation of our young people have been directly and indirectly exposed to abuse, sectarianism, violence, conflict and hostility.
The optimistic and widely held assumption that the children of Northern Ireland have shown resilience over the years has been brought into very sharp focus by the high number of suicides of young people in areas badly affected by the conflict such as here in Derry; where a recent spate of youth suicide has both shocked and saddened the local community and in other parts of the North such as Lurgan and North Belfast. Across Northern Ireland a generation of children and young people are currently growing up in communities scourged by violence and terror.
Children and young people living in conflict and interface areas have raised issues with NICCY, issues that they want to see changed and stopped; such as rioting, punishment attacks, paramilitary control, joy riding, availability of drink and drugs and the lack of safe social spaces. Our young people have grown up in a deeply divided society; that has spilled over into our segregated education system. These are characteristics of our society that our children and young people want to change- this is a challenge for me as Commissioner for Children and Young People, and for our society as a whole.
Role of Commissioner for Children and Young People
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 500,000 children and young people up to 18 . 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 promises made by governments from almost all countries in the world to children and young people including the right to education, equal treatment and the right to an opinion.
Part of my work is to see that the Northern Ireland Assembly includes the Convention in practice, policy and the law. – In other words that the Government here, honours its commitment to uphold and protect the rights of children and young people. Let’s challenge the new Executive to incorporate the UNCRC into a Bill of Rights for N.I.
My office has three functions:
I am required to advise and also challenge Government on the adequacy and effectiveness of law, policy and practice as it relates to children and young people. This is a daunting but hugely important challenge, given the significant policy vacuum over the past 30 years, while the government appears to have “forgotten” about children in our society. But as you well know, this is a period of hope, as the Devolved administration is now restored, and I am determined to put children’s issues firmly at the centre of political life here. My office has uncovered over the last three years breaches of children’s rights, both on an individual case basis, and on a systems basis, where large numbers of children have been denied access to services to enable them to lead healthy lives. One of the first pieces of work undertaken by my office, which you will know well here in Derry, 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. We are currently waiting on the taskforce report.
Our legal and complaints team have dealt with 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 absence of access to services..
One of the most recent cases supported by our office was that of young people being put into an adult learning disability facility. Some of the young people had been forced to live in Muckamore Abbey for over eight years because there was, and continues to be no where else for them to access the care that they need. The Government is failing these young people and contravening their rights. I have visited these young people and I am currently working with our Minister for Health to ensure a positive outcome in this situation.
Raising awareness of Children’s Rights
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 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. In fact over the last 2yrs our participation team has worked directly with over 10,000 c&yp The participation officers work with a range of key stakeholders to develop partnerships promoting best practice and feeding into the work of NICCY.
The NICCY youth panel made up of 42 Young people from across N.I have a real say in advising 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 to sitting on interview panels to recruit my staff. Some of the youth panel members are attending the conference today with Vyishnu and Vishal taking part. In NICCY we actively promote meaningful participation of our youth panel in all projects undertaken in the office.
Main Issues for CYP in Northern Ireland
Since my appointment in January of this year I have met and talked to just over 1700 children and young people- I have had the opportunity to hear personal accounts of the difficulties that they are facing.
Like the child of 5 in need of speech and language therapy who cannot wait two years for resources, measures, task forces, meetings and budget rounds. Each week without therapy is a week’s development lost.
Or the teenage boy in desperation and depressed cannot wait for procedures, policies and investment – he needs help now; he needs support from a mental health service that can provide him with immediate care and intervention that actually meets his needs.
These are real children and young people facing real difficulties.
I recently launched a report into expenditure on children’s services here in Northern Ireland- the results were appalling. While money is spent on children it is clearly not meeting their needs. I told our politicians and remind them again today that Northern Ireland must aim to spend sufficient public money to ensure that the overall well-being of children is maximized subject to competing priorities. If we are to help the young people I have mentioned and others, then we must make the investment to provide first class services based on meeting needs.
Like many children and young people across the world, we have high levels of poverty and deprivation; more so than in any other part of the United Kingdom. The three worst electoral wards for child poverty in Northern Ireland are here in this city.
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. If we do not tackle this issue now- then another generation will grow up trapped in the poverty cycle with no way out.
Finally there are many statistics about child poverty which are fine 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.
Child poverty is a common problem in many countries across the world- so let’s together make ‘A Promise for the Future’ today to strive for a common solution. Let’s work together; to find ways of tackling poverty, to bring an end to the hardship faced by so many of our children and young people. Lets together ensure that today’s children are not tomorrows parents still living in poverty.