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This report was not approved formally by the Committee prior to the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002, but is published by order of the Speaker.

Committee of the Centre

Wednesday 4 September 2002


Commissioner for Children
and Young People Bill:
Committee Stage

(NIA 20/01)

Members present:

Mr Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Dr Birnie
Ms Lewsley
Mr McElduff
Dr O’Hagan


Ms P Leeson ) Childcare Northern Ireland
Mrs P Jaffa ) Parents’ Advice Centre
Mr M Leeson ) Barnardo’s

The Deputy Chairperson: I welcome Ms Pauline Leeson from Childcare Northern Ireland, Mrs Pip Jaffa from the Parents’ Advice Centre and Mr Maurice Leeson from Barnardo’s.

Ms Leeson: I am the director of Childcare Northern Ireland, which is the main umbrella organisation representing the voluntary childcare sector in Northern Ireland. I thank the Committee for giving us the opportunity to make submissions on the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill.

I congratulate the Committee on the interest that it has shown in the Bill and for the work that it has undertaken, particularly the extensive inquiry last year into the proposal to create a commissioner for children. That high level of commitment and cross-party support was evident in the number of Committee members who spoke in favour of the Bill during its Second Stage on 2 July 2002 and clearly demonstrates the Committee’s commitment to ensuring the best possible future for all our children and young people.

Childcare Northern Ireland has a broad and diverse membership of approximately 80 organisations working directly and indirectly for the benefit and welfare of children. That includes faith-based groups such as the Church of Ireland Board for Social Responsibility, the Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland and the Presbyterian Orphan and Children’s Society. It includes groups that work with children with disabilities, such as Mencap and the National Deaf Children’s Society, and minority ethnic organisations such as the Chinese Welfare Association and traveller groups, as well as the larger voluntary organisations that work with children, young people and their families, such as Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Save the Children.

Collectively our membership works alongside, and impacts on the lives of, many thousands of children, young people and families in Northern Ireland from a variety of diverse backgrounds and situations. That breadth and depth of experience is why Childcare Northern Ireland chairs the non-governmental organisation forum that was set up to advise the Government on children’s issues and is also the vice-chair of the all-party group on children at the Assembly. We have also been a key member of the Putting Children First campaign, which has played a key role in the development of the thinking on the commissioner for children and young people.

In my capacity as chairperson of the Putting Children First campaign, which has also consulted widely on the draft legislation, I would like to introduce the first part of several joint submissions from our voluntary childcare sector. The Committee will hear submissions from Mrs Pip Jaffa, who is chief executive of the Parents’ Advice Centre, and Mr Maurice Leeson, who is assistant director of children’s services for Barnardo’s Northern Ireland. The submissions will address issues relating to the age range covered by the commissioner and the interplay between children’s rights and parents’ rights. I stress that the Putting Children First campaign and Childcare Northern Ireland have an agreed collective position on those issues.

Next week, the Committee will hear further submissions from Include Youth, the Children’s Law Centre and Save the Children. Those submissions will be legal and technical and will focus on issues relating to juvenile justice, the definition of "relevant authority" and the commissioner’s powers of investigation. I would be grateful if the Commission could direct questions on those issues to those organisations.

Mrs Jaffa: I am the chief executive of the Parents’ Advice Centre, but today I am representing the views of Childcare Northern Ireland and Putting Children First. The Parents’ Advice Centre has provided support and guidance to parents in Northern Ireland on a diverse range of family issues for 23 years. We operate a daily service that is run by over 100 trained volunteers. The 26 staff include project workers. The projects include parenting education, the men’s project and the parenting forum. In an earlier session this afternoon, Dr Birnie referred to a parents’ forum in the Assembly. I assure Dr Birnie and other Members that the Parents’ Advice Centre has run a parenting forum in Northern Ireland since 1998.

Our membership is drawn from groups in the voluntary, statutory and community sectors and, most importantly, includes over 200 individuals. The parenting forum provides a wealth of information about what is happening to parents across Northern Ireland.

The Parents’ Advice Centre’s ethos is to improve the health and well-being of children through their parents. The parents who contact its helpline, come in for appointments or participate on parenting courses — thousands of which are held annually — are eager to consider ways of improving their parenting skills. They are self-motivated to seek help, and fully aware of their influence on their child’s development.

Parents make us aware that the limits and shortcomings of services and systems often inhibit their ability to deliver the best environment for their children. As part of our contact is with parents, we work with them for the benefit of the child. The Parents’ Advice Centre focuses on enabling the parents to manage their personal difficulties so that they can cope more appropriately with the demands of parenthood. To make any sustained improvement to a child’s life, those with the responsibility for his or her nurture are considered as part of the dynamic.

The Parents’ Advice Centre is pleased that legislation will soon enable the appointment of an independent children’s commissioner. That is a welcome initiative that we believe will make a significant difference to the lives of those most precious beings — our children. Let us be in no doubt that the welfare of children is inextricably linked to the parenting and care that they receive.

For too long the position of children was sidestepped and ignored, with adults taking decisions on their behalf without due regard for children’s rights, best interests and well-being. Lately there has been growing recognition that the balance needs to be redressed to enable children to have status commensurate with their needs. Given that the commissioner will be a watchdog for all children living in Northern Ireland, the disadvantages that children have suffered due to lack of effective and efficient policies or practice should, I hope, be addressed.

Some may hesitate to give their full support to the commissioner, feeling uneasy that such an additional measure implemented specifically for the good of our children might diminish the role of the parent. Although I recognise that view, I do not share that concern and believe those fears to be completely unfounded. Furthermore, I envisage that, with the introduction of a children’s commissioner, we will be better placed to identify the diverse support needs of parents and respond to them — thus providing a healthier environment for our children.

There are provisions to ensure that the commissioner cannot usurp the proper role of parents in safeguarding the rights and best interests of the child. Clause 2(3) of the Bill states:

"In determining whether and, if so, how to exercise his functions under this Act, the Commissioner shall have regard to … the importance of the role of parents in the upbringing and development of their children".

That explicit underpinning principle will shape the thinking and function of the commissioner and spells out the approach that will be adopted when considering children’s issues. To strengthen that clause, I suggest that the phrase "or primary carer" should be inserted. That would reflect the diverse parenting arrangements that exist in society to support and protect children and young people.

Furthermore, at clause 2(3)(b) the Bill states that the commissioner must have regard to

"any relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child".

As we know, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) directs and guides the policy and practice of children’s services delivered by statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Articles 5, 9, 12 and 18 of the UNCRC recognise the important role of parents or other primary carers in the lives of their children.

Article 5 says that the state must respect the rights and responsibility of parents and the extended family to provide guidance for the child that is appropriate to his or her evolving capacity. That article gives full acknowledgement to the fact that it is the parents who have the right and the responsibility, first and foremost, to nurture the child.

Article 9 says that the child has the right to live with his or her parents unless it is incompatible with his or her best interest, and that the child has the right to maintain contact with both parents if separated from one or both. That article has specific relevance, given the number of family breakdowns.

Article 12 states that the child has the right to express his or her opinion freely. The important caveat is that the child’s opinion will be taken into account on any matter of procedure affecting him or her. That does not mean that parents’ opinions will be disregarded. Everyday practice tells us that, in matters concerning children, a balance must be struck between protecting children’s rights and protecting parents’ rights and responsibilities.

Article 18 states that the state has an obligation to recognise and promote the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. It also states that the state shall support parents in this task through the provision of appropriate assistance. As the Bill specifically mentions the need to have regard to any relevant provisions in the UNCRC by referencing articles 5, 9,12 and 18, there is an unequivocal understanding that parents’ rights and responsibilities will be given their due place.

With the appointment of the children’s commissioner, and as his or her function develops, situations that reveal deficiencies in practice or provision will be addressed. Any gaps in the provision of family support services will be highlighted. Effective and efficient widely available family support services, such as parenting programmes, will empower parents to enhance their parenting, thus improving opportunities for children to develop in all aspects of their lives.

It must be acknowledged that the role and function of the children’s commissioner will continually change and develop as part of an ongoing process whereby gaps will be filled and new challenges will arise. There is full acknowledgement and well-researched evidence across all disciplines that children’s well-being is directly related to their environment. From that flows the necessity to take a holistic approach when determining their welfare, particularly in respect of self-esteem. Central to this is the influence of the family and the other significant adults in children’s lives. I am confident that the commissioner will take full account of the roles and responsibilities of parents, while keeping the child’s best interests as the primary concern, when voicing opinions or making decisions about a child.

In an earlier meeting, Mr Poots said that, in most cases, mums and dads are children’s champions. I totally concur with that view.

Mr Leeson: As part of the Childcare Northern Ireland delegation, Barnardo’s Northern Ireland welcomes the opportunity to address the Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill. Like Mrs Jaffa, I recognise the work that the Committee has undertaken in the development of this important Bill.

Each year in Northern Ireland, Barnardo’s works with 7,000 children and their families through a network of more than 30 services. Our work is grouped around the six building blocks that we believe represent what every child needs to have a happy and healthy childhood. These are: a family that can cope; opportunities to learn; emotional, physical and mental health; protection from harm; a sense of belonging in the community; and a stake in society. The vision of Barnardo’s is that the lives of all children and young people should be free from poverty, abuse and discrimination. In Northern Ireland, we are working towards a society in which children and young people are free to grow and develop their potential without fear of violence, abuse or exploitation. In such a society, children and young people would be valued and their right to protection and physical integrity would be fully respected.

Barnardo’s welcomes the appointment of a commissioner for children and young people. The role of the new commissioner will complement and reinforce the efforts of organisations such as Barnardo’s to provide practical help and support to children and young people. We agree strongly with Minister Haughey’s description of the Bill as

"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." — [Official Report, Vol 17, No 6, p250].

I will take this opportunity to develop further the reasons why Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, as an organisation that works with children, their families and communities, welcomes and supports this legislation. As part of the Childcare Northern Ireland delegation, Barnardo’s particularly wishes to address the issues of children’s and parents’ rights and of the age range that the commissioner should be responsible for.

The matter of the age range was raised in the Assembly during the Second Stage of the Bill. In our initial response to the consultation document, we argued that the commissioner’s remit should cover all children up to the age of 18. However, we advocate that the commissioner continue to be available to disabled children or those who have been in care until they are 25. Our experience is that children who have left the care system face considerable hurdles in establishing an independent life. To include them under the commissioner’s remit until the age of 25 would be consistent with the purpose of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. Children on the disability register should also continue to have access to the commissioner until they are 25.

Article 1 of the UNCRC states that

"For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier."

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 defines a child as a person under the age of 18, except in the case of a young person who is in the care of a public authority, where the relevant age is 21.

With the exception of disabled children and care-leavers, it is entirely appropriate for the age range to be covered by the commissioner to be defined in a way that is consistent with the 1995 Order and article 1 of the UNCRC.

During the Second Stage of the Bill, concerns were raised that the commissioner might not be sensitive to the rights of parents and might undermine the role of the family. I agree with Mrs Jaffa that those concerns are unfounded. As an organisation that works extensively with families in Northern Ireland and that has consistently campaigned for the provision of properly resourced family support services, we would not support legislation that undermined families.

As I said earlier, Barnardo’s recognises family life as one of the essential building blocks that children require in order to experience a happy and healthy childhood. In our current development plan, for example, we state that all of our services and structures should be child-centred. Outcomes to the direct benefit of children are our primary consideration, based on real knowledge and understanding. Children’s wishes, feelings, ideas and participation are central to all of our considerations. All services and structures should be family-supportive. All interventions should start from the intention of empowering and supporting families and communities to care for and protect their children.

As an organisation, we approach all of our work from a children’s rights perspective. That approach has not led us into widespread conflict with parents: in fact, quite the reverse. In our experience, the vast majority of parents with whom we have contact are even more committed than us or any other organisation to ensuring that their children’s rights and best interests are upheld. That is the fundamental basis on which we build partnerships with parents in our work.

It is our practical experience of working with children and families — often in very stressful and difficult circumstances — rather than any ideology that has led us to see no automatic conflict between a strong belief in the rights of the child and a commitment to supporting families. It is for that reason that we have argued for strengthening the commissioner’s powers, rather than reducing or qualifying them.

In practice, conflict between the rights of parents and the rights of children can, and often does, arise in situations of child abuse, where parents are unwilling or unable to meet their children’s needs. In such circumstances, can there really be any argument that the rights of the child must be paramount and that we must intervene to protect the child regardless of the view of parents? Therefore we believe that the fear that the commissioner might act in ways that undermine families by exercising the powers of the office as described and upholding children’s rights is unfounded.

Like Mrs Jaffa, we believe that the qualification in clause 2(3) of the Bill is a very important check. It is worth repeating that

"in determining whether and, if so, how to exercise his functions under this Act, the Commissioner shall have regard to … the importance of the role of parents in the upbringing and development of their children; and … any relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child."

The UNCRC, as I said earlier, is supportive of the role of families. Article 5 has this to say about the role of the family:

"States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognised in the present Convention."

The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for your splendid presentations.

Dr Birnie: A fundamental issue is the perception of possible conflict between the rights of the child and the rights, roles or responsibilities of the parents. You said that clause 2(3) was an adequate protection for the position of parents, particularly the mention of the importance of the role of parents. However, it does not mention the rights of parents. What is the role of parents? Is it defined by the commissioner? If so, I can think of cases in which the commissioner might take a view of that role that would be in conflict with a widespread view in the community as to what it should be. Why do you think that that wording is adequate?

Mr Leeson: The legislation, for example the 1995 Order, is very clear in its support of families. It sets out a legal background that is very supportive. Social policy has also been supportive. Voluntary organisations in this field always take the view that the family is the supportive institution and very important to children. If the commissioner were to take a perverse view, he would be going against a whole raft of legislation and policy.

As a voluntary organisation working with families and children in difficult situations, we have never found that a strong belief in the rights of the child has undermined our relationships with parents; quite the reverse. We often find that parents are pleased when dealing with difficult bureaucratic situations to have other people alongside, helping them to get what is in the best interests of their children.

To sum up, it has not been our experience that it is difficult, and the 1995 Order and the UNCRC make it difficult for a commissioner to take a contrary view.

Dr Birnie: I understand that in the ongoing debate about corporal punishment by parents, a number of childcare organisations take the view that that is not a proper part of their role and that the law should be changed. However, there is evidence that the majority of parents in Northern Ireland think the opposite — that within certain limits it is a legitimate part of their role. I am not convinced that the wording is adequate.

Mrs Jaffa: We are in danger of trying to attach specific examples to something that is giving a power to a commissioner that in some ways is quite general, though specifically applied. At the end of the day, a lot of common sense should be applied. We could extract particular examples. I do not think that that will be a difficulty, for the reasons that Mr Leeson spelled out. Many of the organisations deal with complex family issues. There is sufficient skill and experience to be able to mould those and keep the best interests of the child at the centre, yet try to empower and enable those parents to fulfil their role in keeping with the legislation and all the other requirements on them to do that within the family. I would be surprised if we got into difficulty on that.

Mr McElduff: What is the difference between the "welfare" and the "best interests" of the child?

Mr Leeson: That is one of the issues that we raised in our submission, and I understand that a number of other organisations have also raised those. I am unable to answer that question; it is one of the issues that we wanted to raise. The terms are used in different combinations in different parts of the bill. The term "welfare" is used in the 1995 Order.

Dr O’Hagan: Ms Leeson said that her organisation was the main umbrella organisation for the childcare sector. What are the feelings of those organisations about this legislation? Do people in the sector feel that the legislation goes far enough? I am thinking specifically about the commissioner’s powers of investigation, and the debate about "best interests" versus "welfare", which Mr McElduff raised.

Ms Leeson: We are pleased that we have got so far with the legislation. We have specific concerns about the definition of "relevant authority" and the way in which terms such as "best interests", "rights" and "welfare" are used in a confusing way throughout the legislation. We are also concerned about some of the limits on powers of investigation. However, I would be grateful if the Committee could revisit some of those issues next Wednesday, when we will have two other submissions that will go into those matters in some depth.

You are correct: while the sector as a whole welcomes the legislation and hopes that a commissioner will be appointed within the next six months, we have specific concerns about the powers that the commissioner will be able to use.

Ms Lewsley: It seems that the commissioner will be seen as a type of facilitator or arbitrator between children and parents, determining who has rights and who does not. I am afraid that some of what it is intended that the commissioner do will be lost in that. Do you think that the commissioner should be involved in individual cases, or should he be involved in areas where he is able to set a precedent, taking on an information and education role, and taking on issues such as child poverty and child abuse?

Mrs Jaffa: The commissioner will be much more involved in the latter area, and he or she will be presented with the principal issues at stake. As we said earlier, it is often parents who say that issues are not being addressed, and that, for example, children have a right to be protected in schools, because we are still hearing about serious instances of bullying. They want to know what is being done in the education sector.

To use another example, are children being protected sufficiently by those looking after them in youth organisations, and are those people being vetted? The commissioner will not be the buffer between parents and children, but will be working for the good of the children, alongside parents who will bring those issues to the commissioner’s attention. Individual cases may well be highlighted, but they will be dealt with on a point of principle.

Mr Leeson: I strongly agree with that. I do not anticipate that the commissioner will be involved in arbitration between parents and children.

Mr Beggs: You seemed to suggest that most people are content that the Bill has got the balance right between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child. If that is correct, I would welcome your comments on that.

Secondly, I hear that the Parent’s Advice Centre has a parenting forum. Your organisation has a detailed remit in this area. Has that forum met and discussed the Bill? If we are being honest, the examination of legislation is new to Northern Ireland, and I fear that not enough parents will look at it in detail and provide input.

Mrs Jaffa: Yes. The parenting forum and the Parent’s Advice Centre made a point of providing submissions on the Bill, because it is important. It is not easy to translate the implications of the legislation into layman’s language.

Mr Beggs: Did you make a submission during the drafting of the Bill, and have you examined the final outcome?

Mrs Jaffa: Yes, we have looked at the final outcome. It is an ongoing process. The parenting forum, which met today, discussed the subject and is keeping up to date with progress.

The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for coming today and for giving your time and expertise. It is much appreciated.

20 June 2002 / Menu / 4 September 2002 (ii)