Children’s Commissioner

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 30th January 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance 5:15 pm, 30th January 2001

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Executive to appoint a children’s commissioner for Northern Ireland to highlight the interests of children in all aspects of Executive policy.

I said yesterday that my party and I were delighted to hear the ministerial statement that agreed in principle to the appointment of a children’s commissioner. I hope that this debate will be looked upon as part of the consultation process that was discussed and will provide information on the need for such an appointment. It is not superfluous to have this debate today. It is necessary.

The Alliance Party, and other parties, have campaigned for this appointment for some time now — as have nearly all the organisations which deal with various children’s issues. Alliance first brought the subject up in 1988. We approved a motion at our party conference last year that urged the Assembly to make such an appointment, and we have asked numerous questions in the House on the topic, as have other parties.

Last year, after an initial meeting with several organisations that deal with children’s issues, including Save the Children, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Children Need Fathers and the Parents Advice Centre, we became involved in the establishment of an all-party Committee on children’s issues.

That Committee’s first meeting was held in early January and was attended by various Assembly Members and representatives from relevant organisations. It was a useful meeting in which we agreed to draw up a plan to lobby on the many issues concerning children that have an impact on the 10 Northern Ireland Departments. We agreed that our eventual target must be a commissioner for children. We pledged to concentrate on a number of priority issues, such as funding and promoting children’s basic rights. It was hoped that there would be a programme of essential topics for consideration when the commissioner was appointed. My Colleagues in the Assembly and I are delighted that after only one meeting, there is a good prospect that the commissioner will become a reality.

Why is it imperative to focus on children’s rights? First, it is clear that we are failing our children, at all levels, on their quality of life.

During the years of the troubles, there were major efforts to protect children and help them a lead a violence-free life, but this was at times impossible. Nevertheless, a very effective network of children’s welfare organisations developed. We can now expect these organisations to continue that commitment to ensure fair treatment for all children.

We can see the aims of the new commissioner as being: to promote the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995; to ensure that children’s needs are prioritised in central, regional and local government, civil society, and to improve public attitudes to children; to influence law, policy and practice, both by responding to Governmental and other proposals and actively proposing change; to promote effective co-ordination of Government for children at all levels; to promote effective use of resources for children; to provide a channel for children and to encourage Government and the public to give proper respect to children’s views; to encourage the Government to collect adequate data on the situation of children and to publish this data. The way forward must be based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

It must be remembered that the United Kingdom has an abysmal record of compliance with UN Directives on children’s rights and has largely ignored the many European reports that have noted its shortcomings. Hence the need for an independent, non-political position. Legislation must include childproofing, and this must be done after child impact studies on all proposed legislation, so that priority is given to childhood needs by all Government Departments.

I am heartened by the Minister’s statement that Northern Ireland children deserve no less than those in other countries, including those in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. It has been recognised throughout the civilised world that the safeguarding and upholding of children’s rights is absolutely essential to the fabric and future of any community, and we cannot lag behind.

Legislation must be clear and transparent in this respect and should allow Government as a whole the flexibility to oversee individual Departments and their performance. The commissioner must be able to respond to individual complaints and be ready and able to deal with the many varied issues that will emerge from those consultations — child poverty, child abuse, children’s health, education, housing conditions, and so on.

The new regime must include the role of an ombudsman for dealing with complaints and comments from children and young people, as well as their parents. In short, any legislation drawn up must be effective, caring and comprehensive. Children must be prime players in informing the commissioner’s work and agenda, so that our aim of joined-up government can work in their favour.

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 represents significant legislative change, and is one of the most important pieces of children’s law in Northern Ireland. It brought together, for the first time, the law relating to the care, protection and raising of children and addressed a wide range of issues from protection from sexual and physical abuse to providing support to keep families together in particularly difficult times. The Order is primarily concerned with the welfare of children and the help that state intervention can bring. Any new legislation should be drafted to complement this Order.

Unfortunately, Westminster has been slow in taking action, but has made some lofty comments. It said that the Government agree that it is desirable to have mechanisms that will keep issues of children’s rights and safeguards clearly and firmly on the collective agenda, and that they will ensure that this important dimension continues to be emphasised in the policies of local authorities and all other agencies with responsibility for children, particularly when they are living away from home. In spite of those wonderful words, they went on to say that it would not be desirable to create a separate mechanism for children. Dare I say it again — Tony Blair and his Government are all mouth and trousers.

A Private Member’s Bill for a children’s rights commissioner has been introduced twice in Westminster, and I hope that that will be successful. The Scottish Parliament is considering a commissioner, and we are hopeful of that outcome, and similarly with the Welsh Assembly. In the Republic, the Dáil has drawn up a national strategy for children which calls for an independent commissioner and ombudsman.

Funding is important with any legislation. It is essential that the commissioner should have sufficient resources to carry out the many tasks within his or her remit. Up to now children’s services have been short-changed. Moneys were not ring-fenced and were used to fund other schemes.

The children’s fund has been mentioned, but it is hoped that specific funds will be allocated in line with the remit of the commissioner and the policies and actions that will have to be agreed. A comprehensive and relevant national agenda should be drawn up and the policies of that agenda should allow for the input of children. A formula for drawing up recommendations to the Executive should also form part of the commissioner’s responsibilities, and the development of policies and practices for children should be clearly outlined.

I appreciate the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s statement yesterday. It was significant, and it is hoped that the consultative process will be in line with proposals outlined in their statement and not take too long. It is also hoped that the consultative process will include the all-party Committee’s comments on children’s issues, as I detailed earlier. That would be a good way to start the consultative process.

We must ensure that children and young people form part of our vision for the future government and that their rights and needs are included in all Government Departments’ programmes. I am sure that the Assembly will press and influence, as the statement said, the direction that the Executive take on this issue, and today’s debate is the first part of that exercise.

The Alliance Party has always considered that children are citizens from the moment they are born. It is hoped that the Assembly and the Executive will also hold that belief and ensure that the legislation is enacted as soon as is practically possible.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 5:30 pm, 30th January 2001

Members are aware that there is an amendment in the name of Mrs Bell.

Amendment proposed: Delete all after "Assembly" and add

"welcomes the intention of the Executive to bring forward legislation and to establish an independent commissioner for children for Northern Ireland, and believes that the responsibilities of such a commissioner should include responding to individual complaints, the formulation of policy to promote the welfare of children and carrying out child impact studies on all proposed legislation." — [Mrs E Bell]

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short statement, and I am also grateful to my Colleague Patricia Lewsley for allowing me to speak in her turn.

It is not out of any disrespect to Mrs Bell or other Members who have a strong commitment to children’s issues that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is not represented in the Chamber. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are out of the country visiting three countries in Europe, and that is why they are not here.

My Colleague Dermot Nesbitt and myself were not informed that this debate would go ahead. We understood that the motion would be withdrawn, and that is why we filled our diaries. We were unable to alter our commitments, and unfortunately I am unable to stay for the debate. However, I assure my Colleague Eileen Bell and other Members who have contributions to make that I will read Hansard very carefully. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has put a great deal of work into devising a children’s strategy, and that work will continue. We are committed to it.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With regard to the last comments, it is unacceptable that there is no Minister present in the House to respond. There are four Ministers in that Department, and it is not good enough that none of them can give the time to respond to the issue. I ask the Business Committee to examine that.

Many debates cannot be heard in the Assembly because Ministers are not available. Ministers are accountable to the Assembly, and it should be their first port of call. All other commitments should be secondary to their work in the Assembly.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

I assure Mr Poots that the Alliance Party did not make any indication that it was going to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Does the Member agree that it is appalling that none of the four Ministers are present to respond to this debate? At least two are in the building and have not even deemed it worth their time to sit and listen to the contributions made. The hon Member for Mid Ulster, Mr Haughey, walked out as soon as he had made his point. He did not even stay to hear what you had to say.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC 5:45 pm, 30th January 2001

I would like the Member, and indeed the proposer of the motion, to know that the Business Committee did have this motion on the agenda for today. At no stage was anybody informed that it was withdrawn. The First and Deputy First Ministers, in their absence, could have asked the junior Ministers to stay for this debate. It was on the Order Paper and was not withdrawn.

I think — and I assume that the Member feels the same way — that although there was an announcement by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister yesterday, it was a very limited debate. Undoubtedly, given that announcement, Members wanted to take the opportunity to put forward their views. It is extremely disappointing that the junior Minister is not here for the end of this debate. The Member might agree that that sustains the argument that we should have appointed a minister for children in the first place.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Members for their contributions. I think that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. I ask the Business Committee to look at this in general, because there is a problem with all Ministers not being available to respond to the different motions coming forward on various issues. The fact that there are four Ministers in this Department, yet not one of them is available, highlights that particular issue.

We all want to give our support to the proposal and the amendment on the basis that we are supporting the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The Programme for Government identified equality issues in relation to children and to older people. Children are certainly liable to be abused. They are the weakest, in the sense that many people will not listen to them. If a child makes an accusation against an adult, people tend to believe what the adult says before they believe what the child says.

I am not going to go into cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse. We hear it all on the television and read it all in the newspapers. What we hear and what we read is only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of abuse goes on that is not reported and that nobody is charged for. Those children suffer throughout their lives. Many children are being brought up in intolerable conditions. The more we move away from the family societies that we had in the past towards situations where many couples are cohabiting, there is different parentage for the children. Young children are being brought up in homes where the father is not their father; the man of the house is not their father. There are more and more cases of abuse as time goes on because of that.

I would like the children’s commissioner to have extensive powers. This debate gives Members an opportunity to set out what they believe the role of the children’s commissioner should be. Yesterday we had a discussion, and I believe that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister actually moved to pre-empt this debate because they knew that there was a general demand across the parties for a children’s commissioner. I believe that they moved to pre-empt it and that not much thought has been given to it.

What was put forward yesterday was that there would be a study of and a report on the appointment of a children’s commissioner, and that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would be looking at that situation with a view to appointing a children’s commissioner. There was no substance as to what they themselves actually want to see. They are in listening mode, and have not actually developed anything themselves.

Now is the opportunity for Members of the Assembly to indicate what they want: what resources they want, what role and what powers the commissioner might have. I suggest that the commissioner should have an advisory role to the Ministers. He would have a pre-consultation role, both on legislation and on policies that are being devised by the different Ministers.

Such issues could include adequate play facilities; youth provision; child road safety, including traffic-calming measures, which would fall into the remit of the Regional Development Minister; school transport and safety, which is the responsibility of the Environment and Education Ministers; the amount of baggage acceptable for schoolchildren to carry, as often their health is abused by carrying so much equipment; social services, including paedophile registers and policies on child protection, fostering, adoption and children’s homes.

We need to have a voice for children and to provide them with adequate resources. We need to give the office of children’s commissioner some teeth — some power. We need a commissioner who will not be taken lightly by the Ministers and whose advice they have a duty to act on. Obviously there are financial implications for the Government of Northern Ireland, but we must investigate how we can provide resources and implement the suggested policies. I commend this amendment and this motion to the Assembly.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the start of this debate the junior Minister — the Member for Mid Ulster, Mr Haughey — made a statement. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he had to nip out to deal with a message, and that he would return to listen to the rest of this debate. It is quite obvious that both he and Mr Nesbitt are within the precincts of this building but that neither of them has any intention of returning to the Chamber to listen to the other speeches that will be made on this very important issue. I see that as gross disrespect to Members of the House.

Do you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have any powers to compel the junior Ministers to come back into the Chamber and at least have the courtesy to listen to the points that are being made? I fully accept the point that they were not in a position to respond — they explained that — but at least they could come and listen, take notes and report back to the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I have no powers to compel any Member to attend the Chamber. However, all the comments made by Members are on the record, including their disappointment and dismay.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for Members to continue a witch-hunt against junior Minister Haughey, who explained that he thought that this motion was going to be withdrawn? As a result, no provision was made. He then said very clearly that he would listen and read very carefully everything that was said. Can they not accept that, and end this witch-hunt?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

He is not here.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order. The junior Minister explained why he was unable to be here. However, it is on the record and Members are entitled to express their dismay.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Did the junior Minister speak before his Colleague Patricia Lewsley as a junior Minister or as a member of the SDLP?

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

The junior Minister spoke as a junior Minister. It was my choice that he should speak at that time.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am delighted that the Executive have demonstrated the high priority they place on the care and protection of young people in Northern Ireland with yesterday’s announcement about the children’s commissioner. Judging by the favourable public reaction, there is little doubt that this measure has been welcomed across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.

I am also heartened that this announcement has been welcomed by all the main non-governmental organisations specialising in child protection in Northern Ireland. Like many of the parties here, the SDLP has been calling for a commissioner for children for some years. Northern Ireland has a population of approximately 500,000 people under the age of 18. We need to have an independent body to look after their health, education and housing.

There is an unacceptably high level of child abuse here, and the number of young people affected by mental health problems is increasing. Children are entitled to the highest level of protection that society can offer, and the appointment of a commissioner would ensure that children’s rights are given the utmost priority, by acting as a watchdog and compiling statistics specifically on issues affecting children. It is essential not only to ensure the proper protection of our young people, but to protect their human rights and promote their right to equality. The commissioner must be independent of the Government and must have a broad mandate to protect children’s interests, thus making them more visible in Government policy structures.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Commissioners for children are common in many European countries. One is being established in the South as part of the Republic’s national children’s strategy. To establish a commissioner in Northern Ireland can only be seen as an investment in the future of our children and young people. We have the opportunity to promote cross-border co-operation on issues affecting children, such as the protection of children from paedophiles, and many of the issues surrounding child abuse. Confidence in the protection of children in —

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

In relation to the present discussion, does the Member agree that it would be an excellent idea for the paedophile register to include people who have been convicted of paedophile activity in the North and the South of Ireland?

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I certainly agree. I hope that a commissioner in the South and a commissioner in the North could work together to help in that matter.

Confidence in the protection of children in care has been severely undermined throughout Northern Ireland, following some of the horrific crimes that have taken place here. This new commissioner for children, with the enhanced role as laid out in the legislation, will have a pivotal role in renewing that confidence for future generations of our young people. I quote the First Minister. Yesterday he said:

"The children of Northern Ireland deserve no less."

Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the state is obliged to promote the development of, and to protect, the rights of children in the community and in the family. Because of the ratification of the convention by 191 states, the scene has been set for the prioritisation and implementation of a framework of standards for the treatment of children. Children’s rights have to be built into the system to develop a human rights culture for the future, and a commissioner for children will help to ensure this.

The commissioner should also act as an ombudsman for children and an advocate for children’s rights and concerns. Children and young people are vulnerable, and there is a need for an independent agency to monitor, protect and promote their rights proactively. The commissioner should be independent, should represent children’s rights, and should have clearly defined powers and duties. The commissioner would act as a watchdog. He or she would have responsibility to act as adviser to the Government — submitting recommendations and proposals on future legislation, collecting data and producing reports. The effect would be to encourage good practice and to improve the co-ordination of children’s services, putting emphasis on the user of a public service, rather than the provider.

In short, yesterday’s announcement that Northern Ireland will have a commissioner for children marks another step in the equality and human rights agendas. However, as the Deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon, pointed out, the establishment of a commissioner for children is not enough. More must be done to ensure that our Administration delivers for young people. That means looking at how the Government can best take into account issues affecting the young. The Administration is already equality-proofing all its policies to ensure that they promote equality for young people.

However, we must also look at the integral workings of the Executive and the Assembly to see how they can best deal with children’s issues. The forthcoming strategy for children must do this. We also need to examine how the views of children can best be obtained, and how we can commission research on children’s issues.

All these actions contribute to addressing the concerns that Government structures are failing children and to ensuring that the needs of children are met through these structures and permitting the active, responsible participation of children, giving them the opportunity to develop their full potential.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin 6:00 pm, 30th January 2001

On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is hard to hear the Member who is speaking when there is other speaking going on in the Chamber.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

The effect would be to integrate into the overall structure of Government child-friendly policies and cross-departmental co-ordination on issues affecting children.

Choice and involvement of children in decisions that affect them are important to promote social inclusion and also to show them that their opinions and beliefs are respected and will be taken into consideration at the planning stage of Government policy and legislation, thus giving them parity of esteem.

The initiation by the Executive of a wide-ranging consultation process on a strategy for children is a positive way to promote the issue and develop public debate. Yesterday’s announcement will give children and organisations that represent them the opportunity to present their views and make their voices heard. We have the opportunity to break new ground and establish a precedent by putting the protection of children and young people and the upholding of their rights firmly at the forefront of the political process. It deserves to be welcomed by all.

Although society will never be able to guarantee the complete and total protection of the most vulnerable children and young people in society from being targets of those intent on committing sexual and physical abuse, this legislation now provides the children of Northern Ireland with a fresh start. It also sends a clear signal to those who prey on our children that their evil ways will not be tolerated. I support the motion.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I am disappointed that no one is here from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take part in the debate. I do not want to get into the issues because I do not think it is deliberate, but it is the message of empty promises that they are sending to our children and us. In registering my disappointment I point out that the motion has been on the Order Paper since last week, so I think it is an oversight.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am having difficulty in hearing you. Can you project your voice?

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I am concerned that whatever we are saying today, we are saying to nobody. What is the point in going through with the debate? There is no one from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to answer any questions or queries we may have. I am going to go ahead and ask questions, and I hope that, as Mr Haughey said, he will read Hansard and give us answers.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

The Member should recognise that the record could show that the Minister for Regional Development is listening attentively to every word. I am sure that the Minister will take back the core of the debate to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on our behalf.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Pigs might fly.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I do not think it is fair to put that pressure on the Minister. It is probably the first time Sinn Féin has defended a DUP Minister.

I thank Eileen Bell and David Ford for tabling this motion. Yesterday’s announcement by the Executive on the need to establish a children’s commissioner for the North could have ended the debate. What it did was to prompt the Alliance Party to table an amendment. My party and I fully support that amendment. I was going to say that I thanked them for ensuring that children’s rights are put centre stage, but as you can see there is no one here to answer that.

The need for a children’s commissioner has been endorsed and supported by all the parties in the Assembly. Ms Lewsley pointed out the need for it well. I am not going to go over all those arguments. I place on record my thanks and appreciation. I also congratulate those organisations which have been involved and which have lobbied strongly over the last few years to ensure that the rights of children are to the fore.

During yesterday’s debate a number of questions were raised which were relevant to the role and remit of the consultation process and the commissioner. As I pointed out earlier, there is nobody here to answer them, but I hope to get answers in the post over the next couple of days.

One of the questions was about whom the Executive will consult and how quickly we can have a list of those to be consulted. Who will be in the working group? Why will the community/voluntary sector not be included in this group? That concerns me. We should be using the knowledge and expertise that has been gained by workers in this sector over the years, especially in the complex field of children and young people. We should be using that experience instead of ignoring it.

Also mentioned was the importance of the commissioner’s powers to investigate and subpoena — unlike the Deputy Speaker, who cannot subpoena Members to come here. Sinn Féin, along with all the other parties, has endorsed the need for this. We endorsed the Putting Children First project, which campaigned on a number of key issues for children. One of these was the need for a commissioner; another was the need for a junior Minister. For the record, during the negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement we lobbied for a Minister dedicated to children alone.

In its first report, the Health Committee dealt with children and young people in care. We heard all sorts of stories and got statistics from everyone. There were many concerns. One of our last, and key, recommendations was for the appointment of a commissioner.

I also pointed out yesterday that there is a need to include the NIO in the remit of this working group, because juvenile justice is a reserved matter. We need to ensure that children in this system come under the remit of the children’s commissioner. We also need to point out that the children in the juvenile justice system are missing out on health services and education because they do not fall under the remit of either the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Department of Education.

Yesterday I asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about the Executive’s children’s fund. I asked when we would get information relating to this fund and was told that they still do not know because they are still finding out exactly what to implement and how to implement it. I note that we were also informed yesterday that the office of the commissioner would cost approximately £800,000 a year. Will this money come out of the fund? If not, where will it come from?

Finally, will the Executive ensure that until the children’s commissioner is appointed, all departmental policies are child-proofed? Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

We know the answers to some questions about provision for our children, but the Executive still cannot produce answers to others. Other Members have pointed out that unfortunately we are at the top of the ladder in relation to the number of children abused in the United Kingdom. That is a terrible indictment of Northern Ireland. What we do not know is the number of children who live in poverty in Northern Ireland. If we are able to keep data on the number of children who have been abused, we should extend the word "abuse" to include not just sexual abuse but financial abuse as well. We all know that the start you get in life determines the quality and dignity in which you will live thereafter. That, of course, is one of the things that the children’s commissioner could attend to.

Also, our children still have no advocate within Government structures. We heard yesterday, and again today, that other regions of the UK, and indeed the Republic of Ireland, have moved fast and effectively to do something about this. It is still unfortunately the case that young people are being admitted to adult psychiatric wards. Although the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety announced in response to a question I asked that there would be 10 extra beds for children and young people who suffer from mental health problems, she has still not decided where those beds will be.

There is a great deal of uncertainty with regard to the specialised staff necessary for these beds, and, as they are not currently in place, it is not good enough to make an announcement and leave it at that. If there were a commissioner with oversight responsibilities, that person would be driving that policy forward. That is an abuse of young people’s rights.

I have said before that there is a 15-year-old girl in prison in Northern Ireland. That is not a good message to send around the world — the fact that there are no juvenile detention centres for young girls here. Young girls in residential care who offend are admitted to a special unit in Maghaberry prison. They are held there, mostly on their own, since the numbers are low. It is time we provided proper juvenile justice centres for girls as well as boys. I have written to Adam Ingram about this matter, and he says that he intends to provide small, independent units for girls in Rathgael in the future, based on a Scottish model, although he has not set a timescale for this.

I agree with Sue Ramsey that we need to bring the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office and criminal and juvenile justice into any interdepartmental working group that is established. I add my voice to those concerns.

We have a devolved Administration. Before we came into this Assembly, we were asked if we would do things differently, and if we would enter into partnerships with outside groups. We were also asked whether, if task forces were established in the future, we would bring in the expertise of civic society, particularly community and children’s organisations such as the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, the Children’s Law Centre, Save the Children and the Guardians Ad Litem Agency. Who else but people in those organisations has the necessary depth of knowledge? However, we heard yesterday that they are not to be included in the interdepartmental working group. I suppose we must assume that this group will be made up of civil servants. I have no wish to disparage the expertise of civil servants, but on their own, they do not have an adequate knowledge of children in Northern Ireland. The interdepartmental working group should be expanded to include the voluntary organisations — known as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) — and community groups that work with children on the ground. Over 30 years of the troubles, they have built up a knowledge of children that is second to none.

I have said before that if it had not been for these people coming together across the sectarian divide to work on issues of commonality in relation to children, there would have been a Kosovo-like situation in Northern Ireland. They know more than most, as do the young people themselves, who should also be included on that committee. They could add a wonderful voice of difference to the decisions being taken forward. Authorship is ownership, and if they are not present from the beginning, there is no point in our asking them to implement policies on our behalf once the decision-making processes have been completed.

The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee tasked itself with an inquiry into residential and secure accommodation. I was a Member of that Committee, and we were so alarmed at what we heard that at times, we believed we were holding an inquiry into insecure accommodation and a lack of care. This is not a reflection on the staff but on the lack of resources and the levels of absconding children, who come in one door and go out the other. Indeed, staff were under such stress that they went out on strike to get their message heard. Representatives from NIPSA gave evidence to that effect, saying that they were concerned about how they would attract social workers in the future, as levels of stress and sickness were so high that people were walking away from the profession. This is the type of job that any commissioner could take forward.

Yesterday we put down a Private Member’s Bill on a children’s commissioner, because we were concerned that the statement made by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister might never be forthcoming. I warmly welcomed the statement, but it does need legislative teeth.

For the purposes of this debate, I would like to add my voice to those of Patricia Lewsley and Eileen Bell, who have outlined some of the powers of that commissioner. These powers should go further. However, I do not like to talk in terms of naming and shaming, but sometimes action is taken only after that takes place. When someone fails to comply with a recommendation, the commissioner should be required to respond to the Assembly and state which Department was the guilty party. The Assembly would then respond accordingly.

That commissioner should establish a register of compliance notices and have the power to require a person to whom a recommendation is directed to furnish any information needed to do the job more effectively.

We also asked about investigative powers. There have been many debates about the powers of the Police Ombudsman. Often the question is asked "Are her powers sufficient to enable her to carry out a good investigation?" If we are to establish a children’s commissioner, that person should have no less powers. The power of investigation should extend beyond the production of relevant documents. It should enable the commissioner to subpoena individuals to give evidence and to prepare and publish a report on any investigation required to be carried out.

The Welsh experience tells us — indeed, the very title of the report ‘Lost in Care’ suggests it — that had a commissioner been in place, with such powers of investigation, the recommendations might not have been so damning of the system. Likewise the Republic of Ireland — and Members have already commented on the excellent national children’s strategy entitled ‘Our Children, Their Lives’ — has also published recommendations that require a formal investigation to be carried out by a director or a commissioner for children.

A further power should be a children’s impact statement, in line with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, about which we hear so much. When we audit or carry out an "MOT" on particular policies that we are asked to equality proof, too often we do not think about children. If a separate children’s impact statement were required, that would task minds to think in future "If I were to carry out this policy in future, what impact would it have on children in the community?" The Minister for Regional Development might give thought to what a children’s impact statement might look like in his own Department. Indeed, Mr Poots, from the same party, actually addressed that issue with regard to road safety and planning.

In many communities we did not think about the necessary infrastructure for children, such as play facilities. I attended a residents’ association meeting last night in Belvoir estate. Two primary schoolchildren and two children from Newtownbreda High were in attendance, and they added a wonderful voice of difference to the meeting. They pointed out to us — the adults— that they had no outdoor play provision in a large public housing estate of 2,500 families. The estate was not built with children and young people in mind. This has often been said about the housing estates in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. A children’s impact statement on any future planning proposals would be an extremely important proposal and power of the commissioner.

The commissioner should also have the power — and this has come to my attention as I have attended a number of court cases recently — to appoint someone to be the child’s representative in a legal context. We have the Guardian Ad Litem Agency, but unfortunately it does not have the legal power to represent children in their own right. Either we amend our civil and family law to allow legal children’s representatives to be the voice of the child in the court, or we give that power to the children’s commissioner. In the absence of that, our children are losing out. The legal context is very difficult for them to understand, and they do not have someone there speaking solely for them. The Guardian Ad Litem Agency would be the first to point out that that is not its responsibility, although it has a care and a duty to ensure that the children’s concerns are prioritised. The legal responsibility for a child’s representative is not empowered in Northern Ireland currently.

Finally, an extra power that also should be in place is that the commissioner should be able to make representations at inquiries being carried out by Ministers or public bodies.

The Norwegian ombudsman addressed Assembly Members in the Long Gallery. He told us that, from time to time, he is called to address the Norwegian Parliament on children’s issues, and to point out where legal responsibilities are falling down or where new policies need to be developed. I would be concerned if Mr Poots’s recommendation, that this commissioner should simply have advisory responsibilities, was to stop short of that; that "advisory" was simply to be regarded as a type of therapeutic or consultative role. If this commissioner is to take on board the serious responsibilities of being the voice of our children, he needs to have much more extensive powers than that.

I thank Mrs Bell for putting forward the motion and for amending it in light of yesterday’s announcement. I hope it will not be too long before legislation comes before the Assembly to put the commissioner into place.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 6:15 pm, 30th January 2001

Although the debate has not attracted the attention of many Members — especially those from the Ulster Unionist Party — it has been timely and worthwhile. As regards the way the debate has been structured, we certainly endeavoured, through our amendment, to address the gaps we perceived in yesterday’s statement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Mr Poots said that we were in the situation where Ministers were listening rather than giving a detailed format for the consultation. Those who have taken the opportunity to speak feel it is appropriate to put some flesh on the bones of that consultation.

First, I must refer to the issue of the lack of attendance by any Minister. Almost everybody who has spoken has commented on that, varying from the mildly expressed disappointment from Ms Ramsey to the slightly more active participation by Mr Poots and Mr Wells.

I want to put a very simple statement on the record of the House. At no time did Mrs Eileen Bell or I ever give any indication to any person that we proposed to withdraw the motion. Of course, there are more than four Ministers with responsibilities in this area, although it would be for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to co-ordinate any Minister’s response. However, at no time did any Minister — or any person representing any Minister — approach us about withdrawing the motion.

Although I appreciate that some Members have felt the need to temper their remarks by defending Ministers, the reality is that if Ministers wanted to know what was going on, we have not been far from this Building in the last two days. It would appear that Ministers are incapable of consulting. I trust that they are slightly better at reading Hansard than they are at attending the Chamber. They seem to be learning some of the lessons of Westminster, where senior Ministers rarely attend the Chamber. I trust that our Ministers will not be importing that bad habit. It is something we have to deal with and I hope that Ministers will have a little more courtesy and will pay a little more attention to such matters in the future.

I am sure Members will not want me to rehash everything that was said. However, I want to refer briefly to some of the main themes as I saw them. We have been looking at a variety of the problems that children experience in their everyday lives. The issue of child protection tended to flow through almost everyone’s contribution.

Mr Poots gave us a useful contribution — although I noticed that the Minister for Regional Development did not take the opportunity to talk about traffic calming. Mr Poots’s contribution certainly outlined the fact that if we are looking for a commissioner for children, it would not just be for abused or deprived children. It is about having a commissioner who will look at the totality of children’s lives.

Juvenile justice has also been highlighted. There is a major issue as to how the Northern Ireland Office relates to that. Perhaps the Secretary of State should read Hansard as well. Perhaps the First Minister will give him a copy.

Ms McWilliams talked about things such as poverty and child psychiatry services, which we are drastically lacking compared with other parts of the UK.

Ms Lewsley talked about yesterday’s announcement demonstrating that we were making the needs of children the highest priority. She is right — if that statement, this debate and the consultation lead to early legislation. At the moment, I remain to be convinced that it is a high priority and not just an attempt to bring the matter into the debate yesterday because we had this motion down for today. That would be particularly ironic, because we did not push for a debate last week. It was delayed because Ministers were not present.

Several of the issues that have been highlighted go beyond the simple issue of the children’s commissioner. Those issues must be examined. Ms Sue Ramsey raised the issue of the role of non-governmental organisations in the consultation process. I think that it was Mr Poots who made the suggestion that the children themselves should be consulted. The appointment of a minister for children was suggested; that is a matter for the Executive. Perhaps we should have an Assembly committee for children. We should return to all those issues after the consultation period. Another issue highlighted was the role of the guardian ad litem, which already exists in the legal system.

Such matters need to be addressed seriously, but there was no evidence from yesterday’s statement that that was being considered. We need to examine the need for powers of investigation, subpoena and reporting — "naming and shaming", as Ms McWilliams put it. The amendment would address three points that have not been covered. Other Members have highlighted the issues that they feel have been missed.

We should examine the question of the complaints procedure. I detected a suggestion in yesterday’s statement that decisions on complaints procedures would draw on the Welsh experience and the Waterhouse Report, which was concerned with the abuse of children in care. We must be sure that any procedure for investigating individual complaints goes wider than just the justice or care system.

Advising and assisting Ministers in the formulation of policy should be an essential role for the commissioner, perhaps in a role similar to that of the Civic Forum. The commissioner’s independent role would make consultation with children and with children’s organisations much easier.

One or two Members referred specifically to child impact studies. We have grown used to the idea that equality and human rights are contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We have adopted ideas such as rural proofing, but unless we start to address the needs of our most vulnerable children in every aspect of legislation — not merely when someone remembers about them — we will not be able properly to address children’s needs.

A remark was made yesterday about not wanting to rush the process. That gave me some slight cause for concern. We do not want to rush the process, and we should make time available to get things right. However, the message from our debate must be that we want to get it right as quickly as possible. The fact that there was so little detail in yesterday’s statement, compared with today’s debate, justifies the tabling of the motion and the amendment and the contribution of every Member who spoke. I trust that the motion, as amended, will be supported unanimously.

Photo of Dr Ian Adamson Dr Ian Adamson UUP

Will the Member take a point of information?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

As the Member has sat down, it is too late.


Main question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly welcomes the intention of the Executive to bring forward legislation and to establish an independent commissioner for children for Northern Ireland, and believes that the responsibilities of such a commissioner should include responding to individual complaints, the formulation of policy to promote the welfare of children and carrying out child impact studies on all proposed legislation.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]