I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill (NIA 20/01) be agreed.
It is an understatement to say that I am pleased that the debate on this profoundly important Bill is taking place. It has taken a good deal longer to bring the Bill to the House than we had hoped, but it is important that the Assembly begin to examine it before the summer recess.
This is a significant initiative, so it was important to take the time to get it right. The credibility of this important public office would have been damaged if we had rushed through ill-prepared or inadequate legislation that would require amendments after a short period.
The Bill includes significant powers for the commissioner, so safeguards, checks and balances had to be introduced. It was difficult to obtain unanimous agreement on those provisions among the other Departments and the Northern Ireland Office. The Northern Ireland Office was concerned about the breadth and scope of the powers, especially the power of entry that we propose to give to the commissioner for children. We have managed, however, to ensure that an effective power of entry is included in the Bill and have secured the Northern Ireland Office’s agreement to that.
Other Departments, notably the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, had concerns about the Bill. Those Departments were concerned at the Bill’s wide scope of powers, which includes giving the commissioner discretion to investigate events from a child’s past. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister regarded it as essential that the commissioner should have that power because the abuse or neglect of children causes much emotional trauma, which takes time to resolve. A considerable time often passes before an individual makes his or her complaint to the appropriate authority. One cannot ignore the past, but the commissioner’s main focus will be on the present and the future.
The significance of the Bill is twofold. First, it is the most important piece of Northern Ireland legislation that affects children and young people since the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. It is a watershed in society’s attitude to children and young people. It marks the point at which we move away from the traditional, yet narrow, focus on children’s welfare to a broader and more rounded appreciation of the importance of children’s rights and their best interests.
Secondly, the Bill is a clear demonstration of the value and effectiveness of the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions that stem from it. It is not a parity measure copied or imported from Westminster. It is a unique Northern Ireland measure that reflects local priorities that have been determined by the Executive and the Assembly. It has overwhelming support across the political spectrum and across the population of Northern Ireland.
Above all, the Bill is a measure that reflects the value that is placed on children, not merely as adults-in- waiting or adults-in-preparation, but as important members of society in their own right who have a valuable and enriching contribution to make. The Bill will place Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, and it would have been a long time before anything like this was introduced under direct rule.
On 29 January 2001, the First Minister and the former Deputy First Minister announced their intention to appoint a commissioner for children and young people for Northern Ireland as part of a wider children’s strategy. In that statement, they made clear their commitment to establish an office of commissioner that would place Northern Ireland at the leading edge of international best practice in safeguarding and promoting the rights and interests of children and young people. That was and remains an ambitious target, but the Bill will fully achieve what OFMDFM set out to do. We took some time to develop the Bill to ensure that we got it right and that it met those requirements and targets.
The Bill is the result of a good deal of hard work. It is based on the outcome of comprehensive local and international research, as well as extensive deliberations with Departments, the Northern Ireland Office and a wide range of public bodies. I pay tribute to the small group of hard-working and hard-pressed officials in OFMDFM who carried the burden of this and worked themselves to a standstill to get the Bill to where it is today.
Other key factors helped to shape the Bill. The first of those was a comprehensive and innovative consultation process that brought together key stakeholders, including children and young people, to develop OFMDFM’s proposals in consensual partnership between the Administration and those who work with, are concerned with and are concerned for children. As a result of that process, OFMDFM issued more than 12,000 copies of the main consultation document and more than 250,000 summary leaflets in August 2001.
We received requests for the documents from all over the world. Responses to the consultation came from a wide cross-section of opinion. We received some interesting and artistic impressions from three-and four-year olds of what the commissioner should be like. We also received well-thought-out and reasoned arguments from older members of society.
Some children whom the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consulted opined that the commissioner should be like Santa Claus. That raised a smile, but it was a serious comment. Those children wanted the commissioner to be a benevolent, kindly figure to whom they could look with confidence in order to get something of benefit for themselves.
Another child opined that the commissioner should be able to dance. That raised some smiles, but it was a serious comment. The child was saying that the commissioner should be in tune with youth culture and should know the things that are important to young people and the things that they enjoy and value. Another child opined that the commissioner should have red hair — I am still trying to work that one out, but, no doubt, we will find that it was also a serious comment.
All that information helped to inform the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s thinking on the Bill. The consultation proposals received widespread support, and I thank everyone who responded.
One aspect of the consultation was an outstanding success: in April 2001, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister established a non-governmental organisation forum to give advice based on its expertise and experience of the issues affecting children and young people. The forum has proved an invaluable source of information and practical support, and I thank everyone who played a part in it. I also thank forum members for their support. I look forward to continuing the relationship during the pre-consultation exercise, which is already under way on the children’s strategy.
The other key input into developing the Bill was the work of the Committee of the Centre. I thank the Committee for its helpful and constructive contribution to our deliberations and, particularly, for its patience and understanding of the reasons for the delay in submitting the proposals. I also thank the Committee for its support for our work and objectives. The Committee invested time and effort on the subject, and it produced a comprehensive report that was instrumental in informing our proposals. Few, if any, of the Committee’s recommendations differ substantively from the proposals in the Bill. That is clear evidence of the value of the Committee’s role in policy development. I look forward to working in partnership with the Committee on the Bill and on other matters.
Our main aims in the Bill are to provide for the following: first, a society in which children’s views are respected and in which their fundamental human rights are promoted, protected and upheld; secondly, a co-ordinated and holistic approach to children’s rights across all Departments and public authorities; thirdly, the active participation of children and young people on matters affecting them and their rights; and, fourthly, more effective ways for children and young people to obtain help if their rights have been denied or if they have been neglected or abused.
There are five key features that must be reflected in the role and remit of the commissioner if we are to meet those aims. First, there must be a balance between independence and accountability. There must be independence, so that the commissioner can carry out his or her functions effectively, balanced by accountability for taxpayers’ money, which the commissioner will spend, and for the proper discharge of the important duties to be vested by the Administration in his or her office.
Secondly, the commissioner’s paramount consideration — and I stress the word "paramount" — must be the rights of children and young people. That will be the unique and defining character of the office of the commissioner, which the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister proposes to establish.
Thirdly, the commissioner must have a broad remit that covers all children in Northern Ireland and every public authority whose activities affect children. Fourthly, the commissioner must have a comprehensive list of functions, with the flexibility to enable him or her to tackle the key issues of the day for children. Fifthly, there must be strong powers to make those functions effective, balanced by the appropriate safeguards, checks and balances.
Our proposals aim to reach those requirements. The Bill provides for appointment by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with accountability to the Assembly through OFMDFM by way of annual reports and reports to the Comptroller and Auditor General. However, in day-to-day operation, the commissioner will be independent and free to determine his or her priorities with regard to his or her duties.
The Bill makes clear the main aim of the commissioner, which is to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people, and sets out several guiding principles. Chief among those is the requirement that the rights of the child must be the commissioner’s paramount consideration. However, there are other important principles, including a requirement for the commissioner to have regard to the role of parents when deciding how best to carry out his or her functions.
The Bill proposes a comprehensive remit for the commissioner; it will cover all children and young people up to the age of 18, as well as young people up to the age of 21 who are being looked after by, or are in the care of, a public authority. We have sought to ensure that the commissioner’s remit includes the full spectrum of public authorities. That includes authorities that are responsible for devolved and non-devolved matters, including juvenile justice. That was achieved following lengthy discussions with the Northern Ireland Office, principally on the safeguards to be included in the Bill. Those discussions resulted in an agreed position without any significant reduction in the range or application of the functions that we proposed to invest in the Bill.
The Bill allows for a comprehensive, wide-ranging set of functions, more extensive than any exercised by any comparable body that we are aware of. Those include promoting the rights and best interests of children and young people; acting as a watchdog on public authorities; and ombudsman and advocacy functions. That set of functions will give the commissioner the flexibility needed to ensure that the rights and best interests of children are properly considered in situations ranging from individual cases to the development of policy and legislation. As a measure of the importance that we attach to these functions, many are proposed as statutory duties of the commissioner rather than merely optional functions.
The Bill sets out the powers at the commissioner’s disposal, and, once again, those are comprehensive. They range from general informal powers, whose use carries few restrictions, to more formal and robust powers that may only be used in a limited range of circumstances — that is with appropriate checks, balances and safeguards.
For example, the Bill allows for three types of investigation. First, there is a general informal investigation, which can cover any subject and has no set procedures. It does not involve formal powers to compel the production of evidence, and it has no specific remedy process. Secondly, there is an intermediate level of investigation, which may be used for certain commissioner functions. It requires set procedures to be followed and is remedied in the form of a notice and a naming-and-shaming procedure, but it does not have associated formal powers to compel the production of evidence. Thirdly, there is a full, formal investigation. That will involve the same procedures and remedy as for intermediate investigations, but in a formal investigation the commissioner will have similar powers to those of the High Court — to compel the production of evidence, legal power of entry and legal sanction against any obstruction.
The powers that have been proposed for the commissioner include more than simple investigative powers. Significant powers have been proposed in areas such as the investigation of complaints, the review of the arrangements for handling complaints, advocacy, inspection and whistle-blowing. That includes the handling of individual cases under such arrangements. Those powers will ensure that the commissioner can gain a comprehensive picture of how authorities deal with matters that affect children’s rights and interests.
The Bill also proposes to give the commissioner a key role in legal proceedings through providing assistance to children, bringing cases and intervening in cases, and also acting as an amicus curiae — a "friend of the court" or expert witness. In that respect, the proposals will give the commissioner significantly greater powers than the corresponding arrangements in the Republic of Ireland, Wales, Norway or any other international models that we considered.
Members might think, with some justification, that the provisions that set out the commissioner’s powers are somewhat complex. The Bill that establishes the powers and role of the commissioner in Norway has one and a half pages of legislative proposals. The Northern Ireland Bill is much longer than that. Although we acknowledge that the Bill is longer and more complex, we believe that it is important to give the commissioner the full range of tools necessary to do his or her job effectively, ranging from the equivalent of a small screwdriver to a power hammer. That is what we have attempted to do in the Bill.
Having emphasised the powers that would be available to the commissioner, it is also important to emphasise the safeguards, checks and balances that are built into the Bill. There are key provisions to ensure that the commissioner could not usurp the proper role of parents in safeguarding the rights and best interests of children; nor could he or she duplicate the role of existing statutory authorities. Other provisions would ensure that the commissioner could not act in both an ombudsman’s role and an advocacy role in the same case. That is necessary in order to maintain natural justice. It reflects the fact that an ombudsman’s functions must be exercised in a neutral fashion, whereas advocacy functions are not neutral, but are exercised on behalf of the child or young person. There are also provisions to ensure that the strongest powers — the power of entry and the power to compel the production of evidence — are used only when there are clear grounds for doing so.
Our proposals will establish an office of the commissioner for children and young people for Northern Ireland that will be second to none. It will make Northern Ireland the focus of international attention, which will bring it prestige and a reputation. By setting high standards with respect to how the state should protect and safeguard children, the establishment of the kind of office that is proposed will be a catalyst for progress and change in other jurisdictions. The Assembly owes it to children and young people to provide them with a commissioner who will help make a change for the better in their lives. The Bill is the tool with which to make that happen. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
I am pleased to give a broad welcome to the Bill. I hope — as I believe the junior Minister implied — that it can, and will, demonstrate the benefits and difference that devolution can make.
Since time is limited, I want to concentrate on two areas of concern that relate to the remit of the commissioner. My first concern is whether the commissioner will, in practice, be sufficiently sensitive to the role, authority and rights of parents. There is strong evidence to show that a stable family background is arguably one of the most important impacts on a child’s welfare throughout his or her life. That was shown by the 1994 ‘Exeter Family Study’ and many other pieces of social science research.
There are, of course, hundreds of thousands of families across Northern Ireland, but there will only be one commissioner. Therefore, it is vital that the commissioner does not cut across or undermine the good functioning of families or the relationships within them.
I am pleased that, according to clause 2(3)(a) of the Bill, in determining the functions of the commissioner there will be regard to
"the importance of the role of parents in the upbringing and development of their children".
However, I would have liked a more explicit balance between the rights of the child, on which the junior Minister spoke, and the rights and responsibilities of parents.
It is true that a tiny minority of parents abuse their children in some form or other, but we must also recognise that the vast majority of parents are good parents and want to be helped to be better. Therefore, I suggest a parents’ forum to match the provision for a children and young people’s forum.
I wonder why clause 2(1) talks of "the rights and best interests", yet clause 4(1) mentions "the rights or best interests". That may or may not be a significant difference. We want to be enlightened about that.
We must also consider the accountability mechanisms. Once the commissioner is in post, how will that person relate back to this House, and how can adequate democratic oversight of his or her functioning be ensured?
My second concern on the remit of the commissioner centres on the definition of "child". The preamble of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child speaks of
"safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before and after birth".
There is some recognition of that point in domestic law. For example, under section 25 of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 1945, it is an offence to intentionally destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive before it has an existence independent of the mother.
There is an abundance of evidence from health and scientific research that the mother’s diet during pregnancy has a crucial impact on the well-being of the child, both at birth and thereafter. Given that, I want the commissioner’s remit stretched to include provision of information to expectant parents, promotion of research on what encourages good fetal development, and general promotion of the health of expectant parents. Therefore, I urge that the commissioner’s remit include all children living in Northern Ireland, from before birth until the age of 18, or 21 where a young person has been looked after by the public authorities.
Subject to those qualifications, I support the Bill.
I welcome the Bill. We have been raising awareness of children’s issues in various debates in the past two days, and it would be remiss of me not to mention yesterday’s announcement by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the children’s fund, and the positive effect that that will have on children and their families.
I am especially pleased to see that a rights-based approach has been adopted, and that the Bill draws so much from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is a demonstration of the high priority given to the care and protection of young people in Northern Ireland. Judging by the favourable public reaction, there can be little doubt that the Bill has been widely welcomed across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland as a positive step.
The commissioner in Northern Ireland can be seen only as an investment in the future of our children and young people. Children’s rights have for too long been overlooked in our society, and the commissioner will have a vital role to play in promoting and highlighting their rights and their best interests. I am particularly pleased that instead of "welfare" the term "best interests" was used. That term is right, since the commissioner must always seek to promote the best interests of the child.
Furthermore, it is vital that the commissioner helps children to cut through red tape and to find their way through the bureaucracy of public authorities. For that reason, I am pleased that the commissioner has the power to assist children and to provide advice in making complaints. Beyond that, an effective commissioner must have strong powers of investigation, together with the ability to uphold children’s rights. I am delighted that the commissioner will be given such powers. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have made a commitment that the commissioner will be at the cutting edge of best practice.
This Bill confers unparalleled powers upon the commissioner to bring proceedings on behalf of children, which is essential in protecting their interests. The commissioner is also empowered to conduct investigations — not just toothless ones, but real investigations with the power to call persons and papers, to enter premises and to seize documents. All those powers are necessary to ensure that children receive the protection that they deserve, and all of them are found in the Bill.
Moreover, I am pleased that the commissioner can name and shame public authorities that do not vindicate children and that do not place their rights and best interests to the fore. The commissioner’s powers, therefore, are greater than those of the Children’s Ombudsman in the South, of the Norwegian Commissioner and of any commissioner of whom I am aware. That clearly shows the emphasis that we in the North place on children’s rights.
Many of us were concerned at the delay in introducing the Bill to the Assembly. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have explained that the delay was caused, in large part, by negotiations with the Northern Ireland Office and with other Departments. What were the issues and how were they resolved? What consequences will the delay have for the Administration’s other work on the children’s commissioner?
The commissioner must work with children’s commissioners in other jurisdictions on child abuse and on protecting children from sex offenders. The children’s strategy was mentioned by the junior Minister and we look forward to its completion soon. It must be in parallel with the commissioner for children to provide a holistic approach and to reflect the willingness of the Executive to award priority to children’s issues.
The enhanced role of the new children’s commissioner, as set out in the Bill, will be pivotal in renewing confidence for future generations of our young people. It will integrate child-friendly policies and cross-departmental co-ordination into the structure of Government on issues that affect children. The all-party working group on children, of which I am a former Chairperson, carried out its own consultation in which 60 children from all backgrounds were brought together. The junior Minister mentioned size, height, colour of hair and how much a commissioner should be paid. Alongside those, many children wished that one young person be on the interview panel for the commissioner for children. Perhaps that could be taken on board.
I owe a debt of gratitude to all the children who were involved in the consultation and to all the organisations in the all-party group, including the Members, for their contribution to the consultation on the commissioner for children.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel is meeting, and I apologise that I shall be unable to stay for the remainder of the debate.
I support the Bill.
I too welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill.
Our young people are our greatest resource, and, as a mother of three and a grandmother of two, I am committed to do all that I can to protect them. I welcome the idea of a commissioner as a champion for children; it is long overdue. However, I also recognise that many of us, in households across the Province, are champions for children.
I do, however, have some concerns about the Bill. I fear that the definition of a child offered in clause 24(1)(a) is too narrow and ignores many children whose rights we must uphold. I am referring to unborn children — they too have rights:
"the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth."
That is not only my opinion; it is a quote from the preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The commissioner’s remit should include all children in Northern Ireland from before birth to the age of 18.
It is accepted universally that unborn children deserve protection at the mother’s workplace. If employees can be exposed to, for example, radiation, there is a legal duty on employers to provide information and training about health risks. Claims are taken against medical staff or third parties if a child injured in the womb is born with a disability. Cigarette packets carry warnings that smoking can damage the health of an unborn child. A mother’s diet during pregnancy can also affect a child’s health. Folic acid or iron deficiencies result in neural tube and brain defects. Lack of vitamins causes visual and skeletal abnormalities. A baby born at 40 weeks and weighing more than 2·5 kg is more likely to grow steadily and suffer less illness than others. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes might all be related to birth weight and to growth in the womb. Smoking is associated with smaller babies, miscarriages, infant death and illness and long-term learning difficulties. Toxic substances and chemicals affect unborn children. Examples include fumes from paint, insecticides and cleaning solvents. Caffeine and alcohol can also be dangerous. Foetal alcohol syndrome results in decreased growth and brain and facial abnormalities.
Those examples highlight areas in which a commissioner for children could prove effective in defending the rights of children, even before they are born.
In 2000, 93 children were stillborn in Northern Ireland, and 109 died in the first year of life. The cause given for almost half of the stillbirths was ill-defined conditions originating in the perinatal period. The commissioner should be able to take the lead in further investigation and research to prevent such deaths. He or she could advise parents when, for instance, a disability is detected during pregnancy. In that situation, information and support is invaluable from the moment of diagnosis. Members will recall the recent birth of conjoined twins across the water. Should a commissioner for children not be given input to assist in such trying circumstances?
It is to be hoped that those examples illustrate how important it is that a commissioner for children’s responsibilities extend to unborn children. It is important that we have a commissioner, and I do not want the Bill to fall. However, I believe strongly that the definition of a child must be broadened. I do not wish to amend the Bill now, but I encourage those involved to reconsider that issue before it is debated in the House again. I hope that changes can be made to reflect my concerns and those of many constituents. I shall monitor the Bill closely.
I welcome the Bill’s introduction; it is a complex piece of legislation. Minister Haughey acknowledged and explained the delay, and he was perhaps too kind to those quarters that resisted the Bill’s coming to the House both now and previously. I seek assurances that there will be no further delay in the establishment of the office, which will pay a pivotal role in protecting our children’s rights and best interests.
My party has consistently supported the establishment of the office of a commissioner for children that has all the necessary powers and resources to deliver fully all children’s rights, and to make a real difference to those children whose rights are denied. We welcomed the announcement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 29 January 2001 that they had the Executive’s full support to appoint an independent commissioner. That would place the North of Ireland at the cutting edge of world practice on all our children’s rights, and Minister Haughey repeated that standard today.
We are concerned to note that the Bill fails to fully realise the opportunity to meet the world-standard test in protecting children’s rights and best interests. The Bill fails to afford equal protection to all our children; they deserve to be cherished equally, and all demand protection.
However, perhaps we have a special duty to protect the rights and best interests of those children who are in the state’s care. They are often the most vulnerable children. The children’s commissioner no doubt has the potential to be a strong champion for all our children. Unfortunately, it appears that children in the care of the state will not equally enjoy the commissioner’s protection under the Bill. Children in the justice system are specifically afforded less protection, because the onus is on individual children to identify themselves so that they can be protected fully by the office. If children are being violated or bullied, if their rights are being abused while in the state’s care, it is then unimaginable that they will expose themselves further by identifying themselves to the commissioner through an individual complaint. Therefore, the question remains whether there is redress for the young person in the justice system.
I fear that the abuse of children’s rights will be allowed to continue and will perhaps be extended to other children in institutions, such as those in the justice system. That is all the more poignant given that children whom society has already failed, such as those with disabilities and with special educational needs, are often over-represented in state care and the justice system.
In January 2001, the First Minister also emphasised the intention to establish an independent children’s commissioner. I note that the legislation provides for the commissioner to be appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It is crucial that the appointment must be seen to follow an independent, transparent and accountable recruitment process that meaningfully involves children and young people to guarantee the independence of the commissioner’s office.
Moreover, if we are to live up to international standards of best practice, we must ensure that rights and best interests are paramount considerations. That phrase must apply consistently in the Bill to all children. Members may return to the many resourcing issues later, but, as a member of the Committee of the Centre, I look forward to working with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take the Bill to its conclusion. Ultimately, as Minister Haughey said, the commissioner will need the full range of tools to do the job, and it is crucial that the commissioner be truly accessible to all children, not sitting in splendid isolation.
I speak on behalf of Mrs Eileen Bell, who unfortunately cannot be present. I know that she and others have done much work behind the scenes on this vital issue. Like all Members, we became frustrated at the delay in bringing the legislation to the House.
I spoke to junior Minister Haughey at lunchtime, and he advised that protracted discussions with the Northern Ireland Office have contributed to the delay. The issue is of major importance to my party and me. When the structures for the Assembly were being created, we put forward, along with others, the idea of a junior Minister with responsibility for children. I am satisfied that the Bill goes a long way to deal with those issues. Junior Minister Haughey stated that the proposals are a unique Northern Ireland measure, and I welcome that. Once again it shows the importance of devolution to people in Northern Ireland.
At this time, 18 countries have children’s commissioners — many countries introduced them in order to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is difficult to make comparisons as they operate within different legal structures and have varying roles, so I appreciate the uniqueness of the proposals before us today. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 1991, and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 must be the basis on which children’s rights are implemented and safeguarded.
Children are citizens in their own right, and the support of the children’s commissioner grows out of a framework for children’s rights, rather than being an adult duty. Children are uniquely in need of special measures to safeguard their rights due to their lack of power and the fact that they do not have a vote.
What also pleased me is that the junior Minister referred to the commissioner as "he or she". The role of the commissioner is much more than a maternal one, and the commissioner’s support and powers to deal with day-to-day issues are vital.
I ask the Executive to consider seriously the establishment of a children and young people’s forum to relate to the work of the commissioner’s office. That forum could play an important partnership role.
Monitoring, which is referred to in the proposed legislation, is important. However, the issue must be developed to show that the legislation will be effective and also to reflect the changing needs of society. The legislation deals with an equality issue, and each Department must attach as much, if not more, importance to that as to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on what is, without doubt, an extremely important piece of legislation. It has been a long time coming, but, along with much of the legislation that is being rushed through on this, the penultimate day of the session, it is welcomed.
I do not need to remind Members that it was the Women’s Coalition that introduced the first, and so far, only, private Member’s Bill, recommending that Northern Ireland set up a children’s commissioner. I am glad to see that our initiative has helped to spur the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister into speedy action — that was the intention — although not as speedy as we would have liked.
This is a historic and symbolic event. We are sending a message out to kids, from our newly devolved Government, that we care. Parents too can look to the Assembly and know that a children’s commissioner will protect the rights of children.
It is a cliché to say that children are our future, but it is not a cliché to say that they are our present, which is something that we forget all too often. We have all watched the television campaigns, organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Barnardo’s, Fair Play for Children and Save the Children, that ask for help to prevent the abuse of society’s most vulnerable individuals. I take this opportunity to praise those organisations’ tremendous work.
We have attempted to raise our children in a society that has been torn apart by conflict. We have tried to raise them in such a way that their innocence, their enjoyment of life and their ability even to play are not taken away from them. It is the right of the child, as proclaimed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to live free from fear and to be able to have fun.
According to studies by Save the Children, poverty has never affected so many children. That is something that we must tackle. Moreover, we heard this week about reports on sectarianism from the University of Ulster that show that children as young as three-years old are affected by the hatred in our society. A champion for children has never been more essential.
The welfare of all children must be protected and promoted. That is why we need a children’s commissioner, and I welcome the Bill for that reason. I wish that I could say that the legislation is as extensive and potentially effective as that which inspired it. Unfortunately, I cannot. Phrases spring to mind such as "in name only" or "toothless tiger". Perhaps those words are too strong, but the legislation lacks some of the essential powers that we would like to see introduced.
I was interested to hear the junior Minister talk about the steps in the procedure, from informal investigations to naming and shaming and on to full, formal investigations. Although we are aware of the need to respect the role of the parents, I am slightly concerned that the children’s commissioner’s wings could be clipped. There may be so many checks and balances on the full, formal investigative powers that people will not come forward. It is good that the commissioner may have similar powers to those of the High Court, such as the ability to compel evidence to be presented. However, on what occasions can such powers be used? I am worried that the checks and balances do not ensure that the interests of the child are the priority that they should be.
While I was reading the Bill, I thought that there might be a page missing, because, without enforcement powers, the children’s commissioner will not have as much credibility or clout as he or she should have. That may be because, during the consultation process, which was very valuable and to be welcomed, enforcement powers were not really offered as an option. That is a shame, because an important opportunity to provide the children of Northern Ireland with a real champion who has real powers and real teeth is being lost. Instead, they are being offered someone who may not even have the proper authority to defend their rights.
The interests of children must be promoted, and we want to ensure that that is done. They cannot be replaced by good intentions that are diluted to produce legislation that sounds good but translates into little more than a title. We want to ensure that that is not the case. The Bill is inconsistent on what children are entitled to. The "rights and best interests" of children are mentioned in some parts of the Bill, but not in others.
In some instances, children’s welfare rather than their rights are referred to. Will the junior Minister clarify the difference between welfare and rights? I am concerned about the differential treatment of children in the criminal justice system whereby some do not enjoy the same rights as others. What are the junior Minister’s views on that?
The Bill provides for the commissioner for children and young people for Northern Ireland to be appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition hopes that that appointment will take place after a proper, independent and transparent consultation. We believe firmly that the views of children and young people should be taken into account in the process. During the event at Stormont at which children’s advice was sought, the proposal emerged that a young person should be on the interview panel.
Yesterday’s interview on ‘Stormont Live’ with Peter Clarke, the Welsh Children’s Commissioner, was interesting, because it showed that the position was created as a result of the Waterhouse Report on child abuse but was extended to incorporate other factors. Those include the opinions of children and young people on schools, taking tests, bullying and how adults treat them socially, all of which we should take into account. It reminded me that children do not feel respected by adults; they feel that their voices are not being heard. I remind the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that children must feel some ownership of the office of their commissioner. It is their commissioner, and they must feel that he or she will represent their views fairly and accurately. Children must have power to make people take account of their opinions and feelings.
A few concerns about the Bill were raised with the Women’s Coalition. One related to the need for joined-up government to ensure that, although the children’s commissioner and the children’s strategy are to be the dealt with by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the responsibility of other Departments will not be diluted or reduced. Each Department must retain huge responsibility for its aspect of work — it should not be handed over to others.
Concerns were raised about the costs to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of implementing the legislation. What sanctions will be placed on accredited childcare organisations if they fail to report or carry out suitability checking as required by the Bill? It is important to clarify the role of NGOs. We must remember that the Bill will help to protect children only in the context of improved practices and good multi-agency co-operation.
The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition will not withdraw its private Member’s Bill until it is convinced that the Executive’s proposals have been strengthened to take into account some of those factors.
I welcome the opportunity to have an input to the Bill, because the office of the children’s commissioner will have a significant impact on the lives of children. Clause 2 states that the principal aim of the commissioner will be to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young persons. Nobody could disagree with that noble aspiration.
It is well known that the nine months a child spends in the womb affect his or her well-being for life. That is recognised through the obligation on cigarette companies to attach Government health warnings to cigarette packets. However, the Bill does not recognise properly that children’s rights must be protected before birth.
It would be futile to safeguard children from physical harm after birth, if they have already have been seriously harmed in the womb. If the children’s commissioner is to fulfil the function of safeguarding and promoting the rights and best interests of children and young people, the rights of unborn children must come within his remit.
Children are among the most vulnerable people in society. Recent child abuse cases have been witnessed on a large scale that show how vulnerable they are. We must not overlook the fact that many children are carers themselves — minors looking after minors, or young people looking after an ill or disabled parent or grandparent. The Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill must reflect on these harsh realities and seek to lighten the load where it is heaviest.
I would also like the Bill and the commissioner’s role take into account the unique difficulties in Northern Ireland. For more than 30 years, children have been manipulated by paramilitaries and have been used to do their dirty work. Punishment beatings have mostly been carried out on children and young people. The children’s commissioner’s role must be to tackle some of these terrible, daily human rights abuses.
Services for children should be overseen and monitored by the commissioner. Children in care have often been viewed as easy targets, especially in their most vulnerable state. I hope that the Bill will rectify that.
I hope that the commissioner will safeguard those rights to education that are recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Powers should be available to combat bullying in schools and play areas and to promote the right to quality education.
We must not lose sight of our aim to protect. Seeking to empower children by making them more independent is no substitute for a loving, safe environment. Childhood is all about children developing into adults, and this growing stage must be protected. A healthy family environment is vital for the healthy development of children. The commissioner will only be one office, whereas family units exist across Northern Ireland. The family unit will continue to be the most important factor in the lives of young people and children.
Section 2(3) places an obligation on the commissioner to have regard for the importance of the role of parents. I welcome that provision, and I hope that it will be upheld in every decision taken by the commissioner. No attempt must be made by this or any other piece of legislation to undermine the vital role carried out by parents.
It is to every child’s benefit to be disciplined when deemed appropriate so he can be guided in the right way.
"Spare the rod, spoil the child."
However, the commissioner should be able to distinguish between parental discipline carried out in a loving way and physical violence that amounts to nothing less than abuse.
It is recognised that children thrive through the love and support of family life. I hope that the office of the children’s commissioner can complement the positive influence that a family unit has on bringing up children. The new commissioner’s office must demonstrate an understanding of all the needs of children — physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual.
In addition to that, the office should express a commitment to promoting the rights of the disabled, perhaps the most vulnerable of young people. Children must be allowed to be children as they learn to grow up to be adults.
I welcome warmly the Bill’s introduction, which will establish a children’s commissioner in Northern Ireland. The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety recommended the appointment of a children’s commissioner to act as a watchdog and promote and protect children’s interests in its inquiry into residential and secure accommodation for children in Northern Ireland. Some witnesses believed firmly that this would be the most important initiative to benefit children, especially those in care and leaving care.
I have listened carefully to the various contributions and I am grateful to Ministers Haughey and Leslie for introducing the Bill.
I agree with Mrs Iris Robinson about the protection of the child in utero — before birth. Billy Armstrong also referred to that. I will not go into a detailed analysis of that debate other than to say that after conception a baby is genetically complete. Nutrition is the only extra thing needed to aid development. Members know all the arguments about 22 weeks and 28 weeks.
I also agree with Iris Robinson about the commissioner for children. My Committee has put a lot of work into that, and the Bill can be amended later. However, I support that 100%, and many members of my Committee also do.
Minister Haughey made comments about respecting children’s views. The whole question of human rights, the rights of the child and the unborn child and the participation of young children in matters that concern them are paramount.
The Health Committee produced a report on children in care and in secure accommodation. Its main recommendation was the appointment of a commissioner for children. There are two key points in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill that are relevant to the children’s commissioner: the personal advisers and the care pathway. Personal advisers will be appointed by trusts for children or young people leaving care. Even if a young person goes to live in another part of Northern Ireland, or possibly elsewhere, his personal adviser will have direct responsibility for him. A personal adviser cannot take the place of parents, but that is the intent. The care pathway is a pathway for a young person who has been in care going through the education system.
The intelligence of a child starting school at the age of five is based on his or her genetic makeup, and there is nothing that can be done about that. However, the environment that a child grows up in also affects his intelligence. Members will agree that a child growing up in a large, poor family that cannot afford healthy eating, and in which some members of the family smoke, is at a gross disadvantage compared to a child of the same age from a healthier environment whose parents are better off. Those points must be taken on board.
The number of recent cases highlighting abuse of children by those entrusted with their safety and protection was instrumental in our Committee’s decision to conduct an inquiry into the state of child protection services in Northern Ireland. Those cases fully vindicate the strong investigative powers that it is proposed be vested in the commissioner.
I pay tribute to all the childcare organisations that lobbied so effectively for a campaign for children, to all who contributed to the extensive consultation process and to Ministers Haughey and Leslie for introducing the Bill.
I welcome this important and long-awaited Bill. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister announced it in the Assembly on 29 January 2001. Its intention is to appoint a commissioner for children in Northern Ireland. The announcement has been welcomed by Members from all sides of the House.
The proposals were welcomed as a step towards ensuring that children can grow up in a society in which they are safe from exploitation and abuse, in which their rights are protected and in which their needs are met and their responsibilities are known by themselves and their parents.
After the announcement, the Committee of the Centre undertook a comprehensive inquiry to examine the role of a children’s commissioner. In June 2001, the Committee produced a report setting out several detailed recommendations. In the course of the inquiry, the Committee listened to more than 13 hours of oral evidence and questioned 51 individuals representing 26 organisations. I pay tribute to all those organisations and individuals, because they made their points sincerely and were obviously people of commitment and dedication. Those organisations included many statutory and voluntary bodies. We also heard the views of young people, and we invited representatives from Wales and Norway to tell us of their experiences.
The Committee concluded that there was an overwhelming case for appointing a commissioner for children, and it supported calls from the organisations consulted that a commissioner should be appointed as soon as possible. The Committee’s report called for a strong, independent commissioner who could look into all aspects of children’s lives and be a champion for them. A commissioner should, as it was described to the Committee, have a "helicopter view" — he should be able to see the big picture. By having that overview, the commissioner would be able to draw attention to problems, gaps and lack of proper co-operation.
The Committee was also clear that the commissioner should have a wide range of powers to investigate complaints, initiate inquiries, subpoena witnesses and compel disclosure. The Committee concluded that the commissioner must be able to support children in court cases or initiate cases, if necessary, on their behalf. However, the Committee was equally clear that although a commissioner needs powers to initiate or to intervene in legal proceedings, such powers should only be used strategically when all other means have been exhausted.
The Committee felt strongly, and was supported by the witnesses, that the role of the commissioner must extend to reserved matters. The commissioner must be able to ensure that the rights of children in the juvenile justice system are protected and that they can call on him if necessary. The Committee was pleased to note that most of the recommendations in its report were reflected in the model for a commissioner that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consulted about last September.
More importantly, however, the Committee welcomes the inclusion of those recommendations in the Bill. The Committee acknowledges that the Department has faced a difficult and complex task in getting the Bill to this Stage; it recognises that many provisions of the Bill cut across the remits of several Departments. That necessitated negotiation and agreement with other Ministers. The Committee welcomes particularly the inclusion of provisions to ensure that the role of a commissioner will extend to reserved matters. The Committee recognised that this was a major hurdle for the Department, and it supported the Department in its negotiations with the NIO to achieve that goal.
In considering the details of the Bill, we must not lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. In the course of our inquiry, we heard many shocking and dramatic statistics about the plight of some of our most vulnerable children. Particularly, we heard about the children who at birth were described as being "destined to fail". The appointment of a children’s commissioner is a first and crucial step towards breaking that cycle.
We want to see a commissioner who will be universally recognised as a champion for all children, someone who will have a high profile, be easily recognisable and accessible to all children, wherever they live or whatever their circumstances. The Committee of the Centre will consider the provisions of the Bill in detail to ensure that it results in such a champion for children. It will seek and listen to the views expressed in the House and from interested organisations and individuals. Views expressed in the Chamber seem to fall under broad headings. There will be an examination of the role of the commissioner in relation to parents and the family. The rights, best interests and welfare of children will also be addressed, as will the rights and responsibilities of parents.
The commissioner’s accountability has not been mentioned today, but it must be critically examined. Who will the commissioner report to? Who will he be accountable to? Terms such as "relevant body", which is sometimes used loosely in legislation, must also be defined. It must be made clear who the specific relevant bodies are. The care of unborn children was also mentioned forcibly in the debate. Those areas will be scrutinised by the Committee of the Centre, and it will note its concerns before the final presentation.
The greatest gift to children is to show them how much they are loved and enable them to enjoy a good, stable, secure and loving home background.
The completion of the Bill involved wide consultation that included a substantial inquiry by the Committee of the Centre, of which I am a member. The report into the proposal to appoint a commissioner for children in Northern Ireland was comprehensive and thoughtfully considered. It took into account the expert advice and opinions of groupings as diverse as the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Voices of Young People in Care, the Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Society, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Derry Children’s Commission. There were also contributions from legislative bodies, social workers, charities, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and many children’s organisations and steering groups that already act as a voice for children in the voluntary sector.
Added to that extensive body of local knowledge was the voice of the Norwegian Children’s Ombudsman and the chairperson of the Health and Social Services Committee from the National Assembly for Wales. The Norwegian Government have had a Children’s Ombudsman since 1981, the first European country to have one. The lessons that they have learnt in those 21 years, and the pro-active approach that they have adopted because of their experience, were of immense value when drawing up the Bill. The National Assembly for Wales was the first Government in the United Kingdom to appoint a children’s commissioner.
Defining the terms of appointments, resources, roles and responsibilities and the duties and powers to be available to the commissioner has been crucial. Other key areas of the commissioner’s remit include independence, good practice, interfacing and accountability. The Bill is a welcome addition to the further protection of children and young people.
The commissioner will be appointed jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. He or she will act as a champion for children. It is not intended that the commissioner will usurp the role of parents or duplicate or take over the functions of other agencies.
Initially, the appointment will be for four years, with an option to renew. The maximum term will be eight years. The commissioner will keep under review the workings of the legislation and make reports to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who will in turn report to the Assembly.
The children’s commissioner will act as an advocate for children’s rights and monitor those rights in Northern Ireland. He will be the voice of young people and a champion for all young children.
The principal aim of the Bill is to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young persons. The commissioner will have a duty to create and promote new and innovative opportunities for young people to make their views heard. That could include working through schools, youth clubs and other forums, and involve the use of information technology.
Another key responsibility, which is crucial to the success of the role, is the proviso that the commissioner should work to improve the means of communication with children and young people through, for example, the promotion of language that young people understand, without jargon and formality. It is vital that children feel that they have somewhere to turn when they have an issue that they cannot discuss with parents or carers. It is also important that they receive clear answers and assurances that they are being heard. The western young people’s steering group made the point that the commissioner must be easily accessible, physically and mentally, so that young people’s minds are relaxed. The only way to do that is to communicate in a direct and equal manner that does not intimidate or confuse a child, especially one in an already vulnerable position. Therefore, it was necessary to ensure that the role of the commissioner was clear, unambiguous and transparent.
The Norwegian Children’s Ombudsman related to the Committee details of Powerline, which exists for children in his country. It is not a hotline or a helpline, rather it is a service whereby children can discuss injustice or things that they would like changed. The Commissioner told the Committee that proposals to change legislation arise and that the material comes into the office for analysis, and it is responded to through the Internet channel. Again, that may be a useful tool to employ here.
The Committee of the Centre proposed that the interview panel should include young people, as happened in Wales. The Committee recommended that the children’s commissioner should have adequate powers to investigate complaints or to initiate investigations or inquiries in respect of any aspect of children’s rights, where other avenues of redress have failed. As the Ombudsman for Northern Ireland pointed out, there would be a legal problem if the children’s commissioner determined complaints rather than investigating or supporting the complaint. However, the Ombudsman also highlights concerns regarding the potential for fragmentation, for example, in the commissioner’s office and other bodies such as the courts, should the commissioner have too many powers. Therefore the important part of the Ombudsman’s recommendation is that the powers be employed where other avenues of redress have failed.
The commissioner’s main job will not be to upset the legislative apple cart, but he will need to have some course of action available to him where the normal procedures and systems have failed a child and further action is required.
The Bill recommends that the role of the commissioner should be to monitor the co-ordination of services between organisations that have a role in ensuring children’s rights in all organisations, including public authorities. I agree that the definition of "a child" should also include those in utero. In other words, the child should be protected from before birth. The Bill recommends that the commissioner should be independent of all existing organisations and public bodies. That is in line with proposals put forward by virtually all the organisations that gave evidence to the Committee of the Centre. That has been assessed in line with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Committee of the Centre agreed that the commissioner should receive adequate resources to carry out the role. Many organisations that gave evidence to the Committee felt that if the necessary resources were not forthcoming, the limited resources allocated would be wasted and a vital opportunity missed. However, the financial cost has been estimated. It will be £1 million with ongoing annual costs projected to be in the region of £1·9 million. I welcome the introduction of the Bill.
I am a member of the Committee of the Centre, so I have a particular interest in the issue, and I have contributed to the work along with other members of the Committee. The evidence that children need a commissioner for their protection is not a requirement — it is a necessity. Someone needs to be officially on the side of children to give them the protection and the voice they need. The Bill seems to deliver that: it addresses some of the most important issues that parents fear, especially that someone unsuitable, with a past history of abusing children physically or sexually, would gain employment in schools, churches and youth organisations. The safeguards suggested in the Bill go some way to ensuring that that never happens.
However, as with everything, the safeguards must work. It instils fear into the heart of every parent, after the catalogue of priests, church officials, youth workers and even activists for child protection who have been discovered abusing children and carrying out their deviant agenda while working with children.
The Bill must ensure that those who wish to work with children are vetted. We must go further to ensure worldwide protection for children so that jurisdictions and departmental boundaries cannot be used as excuses to fail our children. In the case of Victoria Climbié that aspect proved fatal as doctors, social workers and police all felt that it was someone else’s responsibility to act on the evidence of abuse. Little Victoria died because of petty matters of jurisdiction. It is also a convenient way to evade prosecution. People protecting children must get their act together and decide definitively that there are no boundaries when it comes to protecting children; they must help one another.
It is too convenient that some priests and church officials can hightail it to a diocese in America when parents in Northern Ireland guess that something is amiss. Those men — if we can call them men — are protected by the Church and are given carte blanche to re-offend elsewhere, and that is despicable. The Bill must address that issue as strongly as possible. I welcome the new whistle-blowing procedures as a way forward in addressing that.
It is vital that those working with children are vetted and have references that will be held on a central register. The Pre-Employment Consultancy Service register must be on a statutory base, and it should have a list of people prohibited from working with children so that child-centred businesses can assure parents that their children are safe. Even those who run voluntary childcare services must be legally obliged to check their workers and register them. That will ensure that no matter where our children go we will know that they are with registered workers who are not convicted abusers.
It would be advantageous if convicted child abusers knew that they would be breaking the law when they applied for a job working with children and that they could be punished severely by the courts. The protection of our children must be the highest priority no matter where they are or what they are doing.
The rights of the unborn child should be addressed in the Bill, and so far they have not. My Colleague, Iris Robinson, spoke about that, as did Joe Hendron. The preamble of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child quotes the Declaration of the Rights of the Child defining child protection as:
"special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth".
That is what we should be aiming at. If the United Nations has safeguarded the rights of children before birth, the Northern Ireland Assembly should do likewise. To date, the rights of unborn children have not been safeguarded in Northern Ireland, as unborn twins could not be officially counted among the roll of those murdered by an IRA bomb in Omagh. Whoever causes the death of an unborn child cannot be prosecuted for murder, yet the crime is as real as the murder of you or me. The parents will mourn just as long, and possibly harder, for the child that they did not get to know or see grow up. That is just one tangible reason for protecting the rights of the unborn.
Protecting the child before birth would ensure that unborn children have a voice in medical issues. The commissioner could ensure the best medical care for children, even if they are unborn. It would mean that unborn children are protected from toxic substances that their mothers may work with, and employers would have to preserve the health and the job of the mother in the interests of the child.
As each child is unique and special, each child holds the same fundamental value, and it is priceless beyond our wildest imagination. We must protect children against all dangers, whether medical, terrorist or sexual.
Greater protection from all dangers needs to be legislated for and improved so that bureaucracy and inactivity cannot fail children any more. Every child needs to be protected, even those to whom we cannot speak as yet.
We are the adults. We can make a difference. Let us start by ensuring that the legislation is perfect and without loopholes that those with a subversive attitude could use to their advantage. I commend the Bill to the House.
I have listened with interest to the speeches and comments that have been made. I welcome the Bill. The Committee of the Centre will scrutinise it closely. The Committee may make amendments to the Bill once it has heard others’ opinions, and I guarantee that there will be full consultation. I assure those Members who have raised concerns that the Committee will take their views on board and will seek to incorporate them into the Bill through amendments.
I support the concept of a champion for children. However, I suggest that in most cases children’s champions are their mums and dads. I would like to think that that is the case in my own home. I believe that it is the case in most homes around the Province. Unfortunately, however, some children’s mums and dads are not their champions. Often, children are brought up by either their mum or their dad, with the other parent absent. In those cases, only one parent can be their champion.
Often, one or both parents are involved in activities that are not conducive to a stable family environment. Perhaps there are drink or drug problems in the home, or a parent has had to go jail because he or she has become involved in crime. Those are cases in which children’s parents do not act as champions.
There are also cases in which a child’s parents become separated, and a stepfather or stepmother comes on the scene who uses the vulnerability of the single parent to engage in paedophile activity. Once again, the child does not have a champion in the home.
I believe that in the vast majority of cases the champions of children will be their parents. However, a children’s commissioner is needed for those children who do not have a parent to be their champion, or whose parents have let them down. That is where the role and remit of the children’s commissioner must be concentrated. It must not be focused on prying into homes in which there is a good, stable family relationship where the child is loved and well cared for. The role of the commissioner must be to protect those children who are vulnerable and in need of protection.
Adults often think that they know about children’s issues, whereas children and young people have a completely different concept of what those issues are. When the Norwegian Commissioner was in Northern Ireland, one of the key issues for children was that of school uniforms. I am not referring to what Members might think of as school uniforms, but to Nike shoes, Nokia phones and Reebok T-shirts. That was an issue for children whose schools had done away with school uniforms, and whose backgrounds were such that they could not afford to wear the labelled T-shirts, trainers, jeans that the other children were wearing. Perhaps adults would not have identified that as an issue. However, young people did.
The Commissioner said that Norwegian politicians thought that it would be a good idea to reduce the age of consent. He asked young people what their views were. Those young people, particularly young girls, were opposed to it and the legislation was stopped. That was further evidence of adults thinking that they knew the issues affecting children and young people. Let us listen to what children and young people want — perhaps some things that adults impose upon them are not what they want.
Several Members spoke on many issues, including the rights of parents and the extension of the legislation to cover unborn children. At least five Members talked about the definition of "child" and how it needed to be extended. I assure those Members that the Committee of the Centre will fully consider and examine the possibility of having the legislation amended, which will require the co-operation of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
In a somewhat confused speech, Jane Morrice talked of the commissioner lacking powers. I am not sure whether it is appropriate for the same person to both investigate and decide the outcome of a case, which was a point that Ms Morrice made. She then expressed concern that non-governmental organisations might be fined if they did not meet the commissioner’s requirements. On the one hand she was seeking more powers for the commissioner, but on the other hand was concerned that the commissioner’s powers might damage some organisations.
Ms Morrice said that the legislation had only been introduced because of the pressure of the private Member’s Bill tabled by the Women’s Coalition. Without delving too much into that somewhat facile point, it should be made clear for the record that the current Bill was proceeding before that private Member’s Bill was brought forward. Mrs Eileen Bell and I had previously tabled a motion in the House to appoint a children’s commissioner, which the Executive had taken into account and, when the motion was debated, indicated their intention to initiate a Bill. The Women’s Coalition’s private Member’s Bill came along some time after that.
It is unfair to say that the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are enacting the legislation on the basis of that private Member’s Bill. However, we look forward to addressing all those issues and hope that the Bill will go part of the way to reducing the widespread problems and bad experiences that many children and young people face.
Although we cannot eradicate all the problems, we can do everything possible to ensure that the problems that children and young people face are as small as we can make them. Whether that is done through legislation or through a children’s commissioner, we want to give them as much protection as possible.
I thank Members for their thoughtful contributions. I listened carefully to them all. I also thank many Members from all sides of the House for their support for the proposals in the Bill. As my Colleague, Denis Haughey, said at the start of the debate, the Bill offers a marvellous opportunity to establish a commissioner’s office that would be a world leader in protecting the rights and best interests of children.
That is only the beginning. Appointing a commissioner does not absolve Government and society of their responsibilities towards children and young people. The next goal must be to promote a culture of respect for children’s rights that permeates every aspect of society and a system of governance in which consideration of the rights, interests and views of children and young people is second nature, not second choice. That requires more than appointing a commissioner. It will require us to respect the commissioner’s office and respond with diligence and imagination to the commissioner’s recommendations.
We have learnt a great deal in the process of developing our proposals. We have learnt the value of taking the necessary time to have a comprehensive and inclusive consultation process. Some have argued recently that there is too much consultation. We may need to change the way in which consultations are conducted. The emphasis could possibly be shifted away from written documents towards active dialogue with key shareholders. However, under no circumstances must we lose the immense value that those consultations have. We have sought to do that with this Bill, and our proposals are much the better for it.
We have also seen the value of an exclusive partnership approach. Once again, like my colleague Denis Haughey, I pay tribute to the work of the non-governmental organisations forum. The forum complemented the work of the various Departments, providing a synergy that greatly benefited the process. In particular, the expertise of forum members allowed us to involve children and young people of all ages in the development of proposals and in the subsequent consultation in a way that otherwise would not have been possible. Lessons on the value of close co-operation with social partners can be applied more widely across Government.
We appreciate greatly the Committee of the Centre’s commitment to the initiative, and we look forward to working closely with the Committee during the consideration of the Bill. Most of all, we have seen the value and potential of the Executive and the Assembly. We set ourselves the ambitious target of leading the way on children’s rights, and we now have the means to achieve that target. The Bill is clear evidence that we have a governmental system that delivers on key local issues, and that we have the political capacity and maturity to make the system work effectively.
I shall respond to as many as possible of the specific points made during the debate, and any points to which I am unable to respond will receive a written answer. I shall start at the end and thank Mr Poots for his thoughtful and measured contribution, in the course of which he answered several of the points that were raised in the debate. I am grateful to him for that. In particular, Dr Birnie, at the start of the debate, raised the issue of whether there might be a risk of the commissioner’s activities conflicting with the rights of the children. Mr Poots focused on what the commissioner’s emphasis should be, and an underlying point to remember when seeking a commissioner is that the person appointed must understand clearly that exceedingly important balance.
I assure the Assembly that our proposal aims to complement and not to oppose the rule of parents in protecting the rights and best interests of their children. I emphasise that it is not a zero-sum gain issue: recognising and upholding the rights of children does not detract from the rights of parents. There are two specific safeguards. First, as Dr Birnie noted, in deciding whether and how to exercise functions, the Bill specifically requires the commissioner to have due regard to the importance of the role of parents in the upbringing and development of children. Secondly, the commissioner is obliged to have regard to the relevant rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The role of parents is central to the Convention, as evidenced in article 5, which states that
"States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents".
I hope, therefore, that Members will agree that the proposed role and remit are not in any way inimical to the rights and responsibilities of parents or to the contribution made by family life.
Several Members raised issues that relate to the rights of the unborn child. Those Members, in particular Dr Birnie and, earlier in the debate, Mrs Robinson, made points about providing information to expectant mothers. At this stage, we do not propose to extend formally the commissioner’s remit to include the unborn child. Legislation exists on the matter and we do not intend to change that. It would have been inappropriate to legislate on that matter without full and careful consideration of the complex and sensitive issues involved. Because the issues are complex and sensitive, the amount of time taken might have held up the appointment process to an extent that would not have been sensible. The issues involved turn on both civil and criminal law.
Not only would it cut across several Departments, it would include reserved matters. European jurisprudence does not define the extent to which article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which addresses the right to life, applies to unborn children. The European Court of Human Rights gave member states a wide margin of discretion on that matter in order to reflect the wide variation in the laws of member states. However, clause 3(2) of the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill makes provision to review the adequacy and effectiveness of the law relating to the rights of children. The commissioner could decide to consider that matter and to make recommendations.
I agree with Iris Robinson’s points about information and research on factors that affect the health of unborn children. The commissioner may seek a role in those important matters, but the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is primarily responsible and exceedingly active in that area. That is not to say, however, that we should not seek further activity.
Dr Birnie asked about the accountability of the commissioner. Annual reports will be published, so the commissioner’s activities will be scrutinised in the Assembly, especially by the Committee of the Centre.
Dr Birnie referred to a parent’s forum. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister recognises the importance of ascertaining the views of parents, and the commissioner will decide how parent’s views should be elicited. The Parents Advice Centre and Homestart, which are non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work with parents, are members of the NGO forum and have ensured that, in drafting the Bill, we were cognisant of parents’ views.
Ms Lewsley asked whether the commissioner would work with his or her counterparts in other jurisdictions. In schedule 1, the Bill empowers the commissioner to co-operate with
"other bodies exercising functions relating to children and young persons (whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere)".
We thought that it was important that that power be included explicitly in the Bill.
Ms Lewsley also asked what implications the work of the children’s commissioner would have for the children’s strategy. We are committed to developing a comprehensive children’s strategy and, as with the proposals for the children’s commissioner, the consultation process will begin with the involvement of key stakeholders and other interested parties to develop the proposals for more formal consultation in spring 2003. Our focus hitherto was on bringing the Bill to the House. Having achieved that, we can move with more expedition to the children’s strategy.
We intend to involve children and young people in the appointment process. We are establishing a young people’s advisory forum, which will self-select 12 to 14 of its number to assist with our work. Those selected will receive special support and training to enable them to participate in the appointment process. They will help to draw up the job specification and the personal specification and will participate in the interview process. Young people were involved in the appointment process in Wales, and we will consult with Welsh officials to determine what useful lessons we can learn from that and then tailor the process to our circumstances.
Several Members referred to the time that it has taken to finalise the Bill and to the negotiations between Departments and with the Northern Ireland Office. We were attempting to legislate for a commissioner with a broad range of functions, covering a wide canvas, and, therefore, there were many interested parties.
The commissioner’s comprehensive set of functions and powers covers our aims. The Bill gives the commissioner a broad remit, including juvenile justice, a reserved matter that could not be included in the Bill without the Secretary of State’s consent. As a result, long and detailed discussions with the Northern Ireland Office on the scope of the Bill’s provisions and the necessary safeguards were required. I am pleased that those discussions culminated in an agreed position without watering down the proposals.
In response to Mr McElduff’s question, the timing of the commissioner’s appointment will depend on the Bill’s progress through the Assembly Stages, but we hope to fill the post by early next year. Preparatory work on the appointment procedure will begin very soon.
I agree with Mr Neeson that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is important. That is why the Bill specifically requires the commissioner to have regard to it.
With regard to consulting young people and the creation of a forum, clause 3 imposes a duty on the commissioner to seek the views of children and young people on the exercise of his or her functions. The commissioner will decide the precise mechanism for doing that.
Ms Morrice asked about the use of the terms "welfare" and "rights and best interests". The inclusion in the Bill of "best interests" reflects the terminology of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the term "welfare" must be used where the Bill refers to existing bodies of law that use that term. That is particularly applicable to clauses 10 and 11, because the term "welfare" is commonly used in legislation on related matters.
Ms Morrice also questioned why the children’s commissioner and the children’s strategy were the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister even though the issue cuts across other Departments’ responsibilities. She answered her own question: it is precisely because the issues cut across several Departments’ activities that it is appropriate that the centre Department should be responsible for them. The Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister will lead the Executive in setting the strategic direction and vision. However, that does not mean that other Departments are not involved — they clearly are, and we will work with them.
With regard to the commissioner’s powers, he or she will have the necessary tools for the job. The commissioner is not there to replace the police or the social services authorities and so does not need those agencies’ powers. He or she will have the power to take legal proceedings, but the primary purpose will be to change how public authorities interact with children. Where possible, that will be best done through collaboration and the dissemination of good practice. The commissioner will also have significant powers to investigate authorities and to recommend changes in policy, practice or law.
With regard to the concern about the commissioner and parents, I emphasise that the focus is on aspects of children’s lives in which parents play no part, and that is for sound reasons. It will be difficult for authorities to ignore any recommendations that the commissioner may make. Departments and the Assembly can deal with the matter if public authorities respond inadequately.
The safeguards in the Bill will not hamper formal investigations. The test to be met as a condition to exercising the stronger powers contained in the Bill will be whether there are reasonable grounds for carrying out an investigation. I am sure that Ms Morrice would not object to that as a criterion, because it is common in legislation.
I echo Mr Poots’s surprise that Ms Morrice did not tell us that, in view of the introduction of this Bill, the Women’s Coalition would be withdrawing its Bill. I ask Ms Morrice and her Colleague, Ms McWilliams, to reflect on a few matters, such as how much consultation went into the wording of their Bill, what their Bill says about the appointment and accountability arrangements of the commissioner and what special functions and powers are included? Given the cross-departmental interest, the Northern Ireland Office interest and the issue of reserved powers, is Ms Morrice confident that her Bill will achieve the degree of agreement that we have achieved with those bodies in our Bill? I trust that the Bill being read today will receive widespread support and that the Women’s Coalition will, on reflection, withdraw its Bill.
I welcome the comments of the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, Mr Gibson. In the Bill, we reflected the proposals that the Committee of the Centre produced as a result of its consultation, and we are grateful to the Committee for all the information it provided. The differences are slight and may be matters of degree or emphasis rather than fundamental policy.
The Bill makes it clear that the commissioner will be accountable to the Assembly through the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and to the Comptroller and Auditor General by means of annual reports.
Mr Shannon raised the need to ensure that child abusers could not gain access to children through employment. I agree with Mr Shannon on this key issue. However, that matter is not addressed in this Bill; it is addressed in the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill, which was introduced by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
That deals with matters raised by Members; if I have left any out, I will ensure that Members receive a written reply.
I will finish with the words of one of the many children and young people who responded to the consultation paper. One young man put it very simply, as young people often do:
"This commissioner had better be good or this is all a waste of time".
We can assure that young man that the commissioner will be good, and, judging by the provisions for commissioners elsewhere, ours will be the best children’s commissioner Bill on the statute books.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill (NIA Bill 20/01) be agreed.