Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 26 June 2001 (continued)

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He highlighted recent concerns there about infections resulting from body-piercing, which is not regulated in Norway. Another example was the campaign to ban cosmetic surgery for 16- to 18-year-olds. The Ombudsman illustrated the type of issues he tackles with private companies:

"In Norway we do not have school uniforms as you have here. This means that we have one of the most expensive school uniforms in the world. You have to wear the right jacket, have the Nokia 3310, and wear the right shoes. Companies identify the most popular children in the school yard, who then receive free clothes for a few months. Advertising is not allowed in schools, but the children are used as indirect commercials."

As a result of that investigation the Ombudsman is about to publish a report on the commercial pressure on children. Censure by the Ombudsman is taken very seriously in Norway and can achieve very positive results.

The Ombudsman also examined the age of consent. Adults in Norway had been considering lowering it, but young people did not want that, and the Ombudsman drove forward their point of view.

Having listened to all the detailed arguments, the Committee strongly and unanimously supports the proposals for a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland. It also supports the development of a comprehensive strategy for Northern Ireland and sees the appointment of a children's commissioner as a core element of that. The Committee considered the role of the children's commissioner in significant detail and made 35 recommendations in its inquiry report. I do not intend to go into those in detail, but a few of them are central to the appointment of the children's commissioner.

The Committee heard many calls for the children's commissioner to be independent, and the possibility of the post's being part of an existing organisation was explored. We concluded, however, that the commissioner must be totally separate from all Government, departmental and public bodies. That would ensure a distinct identity and that any challenge or oversight function could be carried out independently of such bodies.

The Committee also concluded that the commissioner must have a broad remit for all children so that he can study all aspects of children's lives and be a champion for them. That was described as "having a helicopter view" and "being able to see the big picture". By having that overview, the commissioner could draw attention to areas where there are gaps or a lack of proper co-ordination.

That role, however, must not extend to include interference in family life. The primary responsibility for children must remain with the parents. Government agencies or the commissioner should step in only when the well-being of children is threatened by the failure of parents to meet their responsibilities.

There was unanimous agreement among witnesses and Committee members that the commissioner's role must include reserved matters. The commissioner must be able to ensure that children in the juvenile justice system receive their full rights. Some of the statistics mentioned earlier highlight the difficulties faced by children in this area and the enormity of the task to be tackled by the children's commissioner.

The Committee also decided that the commissioner must have full powers of investigation, including the power to investigate complaints and initiate enquiries. As part of that, the commissioner should be able to compel the production of evidence, including the disclosure of documents, the power to enter premises and to subpoena witnesses. Similarly, the commissioner must be able to support children in court cases or to initiate cases on their behalf. However, the Committee was equally clear that those powers should be used strategically, only when all other avenues had been exhausted.

The most important people in the debate are children and young people. We must never lose sight of the fact that they are the reason for appointing a children's commissioner. I have already mentioned the need for meaningful consultation with young people in drawing up the commissioner's remit. When it comes to the appointment process, children and young people must be at the forefront of everyone's mind. They must remain our primary focus. The primary criterion for the post of commissioner must be the ability to relate directly to children. That is more important than a qualification in law or social work.

In Norway, the first ombudsman was a psychologist, and the next was a children's television personality - an entertainer. Several times in the evidence sessions we heard calls for the commissioner to be someone who is as much at ease when talking to nursery-school children as when addressing politicians.

How can we ensure that someone with that special quality is appointed? The Committee believes that the best way to do that is to have young people directly involved in the appointment process. When appointed, the commissioner must identify with children and listen to the issues that concern them.

We heard much during the evidence sessions about children's rights. I am sure that most children do not understand a great deal about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, as someone said during the inquiry, children have a keen sense of what is fair and unfair. That is the language of rights that they understand; it is important to them that things are fair. Therefore when the commissioner is appointed, children must be able to feel that they know and can trust that person. They must feel that the commissioner is on their side and is someone who will ensure that they get a fair deal.

Although the commissioner must have teeth to act when necessary, he or she must also be able to promote the positive achievements and vision of children. As the Norwegian Ombudsman put it:

"People grow tired of you if you act as a watchdog that bites every day. If you are going to be a spokesperson for children, you must also represent the vision of children for the future".

I submit the report to the Assembly and invite Members to give it their full endorsement.

Mr Speaker:

Given that this is a time-limited debate - with a limit of two hours - and that we must leave the usual amount of time for the Minister to respond, I am forced to ask Members to restrict their comments to not more than seven minutes. Even with that we may not get through all the Members who wish to speak. Therefore I appeal to those who can be more concise than seven minutes to oblige the House by doing so. I ask all Members who are speaking, including the Chairperson in his winding-up speech, to keep it to not more than seven minutes.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Gibson):

All Committee members were struck by the enthusiasm, genuineness and sincerity of the presentations. Without doubt, they proved the need for a commissioner for children and demonstrated that there is a failing in the present system. There is no means of dovetailing and co-ordinating the work of the various statutory and other agencies that try as best they can to deal with the small percentage of people whom one person described as being "destined to fail". The appointment of a children's commissioner is seen as a means of breaking that cycle.

Not only was the case proven, but it was also made clear that the scope of a commissioner's role should cover every child from day one to age 18. In cases where the person may have been in care or need additional help, the commissioner's involvement should be extended for at least five years after that person becomes 18.

It was interesting to hear the different views. The present Ombudsman made the point that there should perhaps be a sharper focus on the role of a commissioner. However, the majority and strength of the evidence showed that the commissioner's remit should be broadband and cover all aspects of children's lives. Those recommendations are embodied in the report.

Childproofing legislation was also looked at, and the Committee made eight recommendations on the children's commissioner's remit for that area. The Committee debated whether that remit should extend to reserved matters. It recommends that the commissioner for children should have the ability to intervene in the juvenile court system and be able to advocate and raise areas of concern.

There was much discussion about how young people could be given a voice. It is generally felt that we all sometimes take the view that adults know best. However, the view that we should give children a voice came across very forcibly. Therefore we made a further eight recommendations on how a commissioner should develop a role for children.

We discussed how far a commissioner should be able to intervene in the legal system. We recommended that a children's commissioner should have the power to intervene in legal cases so that the rights of the child could be fully considered. We also considered to whom the commissioner should be accountable. We felt very strongly that the commissioner should be independent. However, in a democracy we must decide where the commissioner should report. We decided that the commissioner should submit an annual report to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and report to the appropriate Assembly Committee. That seemed to be the only secure way to address the issue. We studied the independence of all bodies and organisations.

We also studied the criteria for making the appointment, and we made suggestions on that matter. If a children's commissioner is appointed, the Assembly and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should turn their attention to the final important recommendation in paragraph 4.7.11.

"the commissioner for children should be given adequate resources to carry out the full remit. In setting the initial budget for the commissioner the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should take account of funding for Commissioners in other European countries bearing in mind any differences in size or population."

The amount of funding certainly varied from one country to the next, but there were suggestive indications in the evidence.

The appointment of a children's commissioner is seen as a core element of a wider strategy that sets out a vision for the future of the children of Northern Ireland. I commend our report to the Assembly. I thank those who gave evidence, and our staff, who were very supportive and courteous. The report is worth sincere consideration by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron):

I congratulate Mr Poots and his Committee on this excellent report. Last December, in its report to the Assembly on residential and secure accommodation for children in Northern Ireland, the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee called for the appointment of a commissioner for children. Therefore the Committee welcomes the report from the Committee of the Centre. We now need to move speedily to introduce the necessary legislation.

One of the roles recommended for the commissioner in the report involves assessing legislation and submitting proposals and recommendations for change. That is laudable, but I would like the commissioner to have the power to ensure that the present legislation is fully implemented.

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If the commissioner ensures that the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 is fully implemented, we will be going a long way towards resolving many problems facing the most underprivileged children in Northern Ireland.

I agree with most of the report. However, I would like to have some idea of the cost of implementing the 35 recommendations. In recommendation 19 the Committee suggests that the commissioner should have power to intervene in legal cases. As soon as I hear the word "legal" I get very nervous about costs.

There have been arguments for a minister for children. However, as has already been mentioned, such a person would be an integral part of Government, whereas an independent commissioner could provide children's causes with much needed profile, as well as advise the Executive of their responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

My Committee strongly believes that the treatment of children and young people in adult psychiatric wards should cease. I wonder what mental health services are to be developed for 16- to 18-year-olds. Mr Poots raised that issue also. The rights of the child are paramount, especially those of the most vulnerable children, such as those going into care, those already in care or those coming out of care. It is wrong that trusts can place children in homes already operating at full capacity and where there is a shortage of appropriately trained staff.

Before planned admission, the relevant agency should complete a placement and risk analysis. A care plan for each child should include a protective strategy, approved by the registration and inspection unit, setting out action to reduce risk and taking into account the needs of the child. All of this activity would be under the commissioner's remit.

I agree with the Committee's findings that the role of the commissioner for children should extend to reserved matters, including the juvenile justice system. Mr Poots mentioned the little boy who lost his life recently. I recall that little boy and the magistrate's comments. I pay tribute to resident magistrate, Mr Desmond Perry, who, with his colleagues, continually emphasises the need for collective responsibility for young people before the courts.

The report emphasises the need for communication with children in language that they understand, and we support that. The Chairperson of the Health and Social Services Committee of the National Assembly for Wales made the important point that the commissioner should have the opportunity to scrutinise how the police treat children and the policies that they employ towards children. Regardless of whether it is on the Falls Road or the Shankill Road, in Northern Ireland, England, Ireland or elsewhere, people who are in an unhappy environment - particularly vulnerable adolescents - have a habit of getting into trouble with the law. Therefore it is very important that a commissioner for children look into those matters. It is important also that a children's commissioner should have powers of investigation, discovery and subpoena.

Finally, we are aware of the number of suicides in Northern Ireland. That can be only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of young people in Northern Ireland who are unhappy and suffer from low self-esteem and depression and who are therefore very vulnerable. We look forward to the appointment of a children's commissioner as soon as possible.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the report; it is a very good report. It was largely compiled, agreed, drafted and redrafted in the middle of an election campaign, and that was no mean feat for the Committee of the Centre. I commend the staff who helped us. I would also like to place on record my appreciation of the many groups who gave evidence to us. By and large, they were very professional in their presentations and well informed on the issues.

The process of taking evidence and exchanging views with those organisations has given the Committee knowledge of the issue that will stand it in good stead when examining the legislative proposals when they come from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Some of the key recommendations or requirements for an effective children's commissioner kept jumping out at us from the evidence that was given. Most of them are reflected in the report, and I will list what I regard to be some of the most important. The children's commissioner should act as an independent watchdog for the rights of children. The commissioner should childproof existing and new legislation and policy for compliance with domestic and international human rights standards. The commissioner should be able to take cases in his or her own name or fund children to take cases where there has been a denial of children's rights. The commissioner should be empowered to enter and seize any documents, and he or she should receive adequate resources to fulfil those functions. The commissioner should be able to intervene, where appropriate, in legal proceedings that may have implications for children's rights. In response to Dr Hendron, costs should not be a factor here, as the protection of children's rights supersedes any cost issues that might arise.

The commissioner should actively engage, and consult directly with, children and young people, and have all the necessary powers to undertake effective investigations into any aspect of children's rights. He or she should encourage, resource and conduct research into children's rights and should consult regularly with children's rights organisations and monitor the delivery or denial of children's rights for compliance with domestic and international human rights standards. The commissioner should also have the remit for all matters pertaining to children, including those matters at present reserved. He or she should be able to act as an advocate for children's rights and a channel for children's voices.

The commissioner should promote understanding and education of children's rights. He or she should also have the necessary powers to compile information and statistics on children and produce an annual report on the state of children. The commissioner should promote a culture of children's rights. The key themes emerging from all the evidence that we heard are that the office or post of children's commissioner should have adequate powers and resources, and it should be totally independent, although accountable to the Assembly.

I commend this report to the Assembly. Most of the recommendations from the various groups are contained in the report. I have no doubt that the record of today's debate will be studied by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That Office now has an opportunity to set a standard for others in the remit, powers and resources that it will propose to give to the children's commissioner. I hope that it will make use of this report and that it will build upon it to ensure the creation of a children's commissioner's post that will effectively promote, protect and serve the interests of all our children. I recommend this report to the Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs E Bell:

I support the motion. The Chairman of the Committee of the Centre must be congratulated for his comprehensive address. I will keep my remarks general.

Today is another important stepping stone on the path to the appointment of a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland. It is also significant because of the consensus across the parties that was evident as we worked at the report on this necessary appointment. There may be differences regarding the role, responsibilities, duties and powers to be given, but there is general agreement that in the current climate it is important to appoint a designated commissioner or even a minister for children. That will ensure that the concerns, needs and opinions of children and young people affect the policies of all Departments, thereby improving their situation in a more meaningful and practical way.

The statistics read out by the Chairman of the Committee of the Centre leave one in no doubt that children are disadvantaged, abused and hurt in different ways, almost every day. This appointment is, therefore, long overdue. All the evidence and submissions that came to the Committee pointed out that this appointment should be open and transparent. They made it clear that the office should be independent, accessible and given adequate resources - financial and staffing - to carry out its duties without fear or favour.

It is also vital that children and young people from all backgrounds and situations are involved - although not necessarily in the actual appointment - in working with the commissioner in the implementation of the full range of duties and the development of the policies. That will ensure that childproofing takes place from the very beginning of a policy.

I refer to the recommendations on the roles and responsibilities - recommendations 9 and 14 - which Members can read for themselves. These outline the Committee's wish that the commissioner should work to improve the means of communication with children and young people.

The postholder must be accessible to all children, not just those with major problems, so that there is a vehicle of advice and support for every child. Organisations such as Childline, NSPCC and Barnardos will confirm that children, like adults, can benefit from having a contact who takes time to listen to their problems. Most children approaching the commissioner will probably do so through the courts - as a result of juvenile justice cases, social services referrals or divorce and custody cases - but the commissioner should be open to everyone who needs independent, objective advice and information.

The powers and duties laid out in the recommendations focus on children's rights, and they should prove to be a major step forward for children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in care, detention, or suffering from mental trauma or illness caused by tragedy. Children do not recognise the difference between reserved and transferred matters, but that must not be allowed to affect their rights or prevent improvements to their situation. It is essential that we offer effective and efficient support in all situations. We must always remember that children are, first and foremost, children, and the fact that they are young offenders or victims of abuse or violence is secondary.

The recommendations also highlight the need for competent interaction between all relevant agencies. The commissioner could act as a co-ordinator so that children's rights are paramount. For that reason, the commissioner for children should also be directly accountable to the Assembly, through the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in order to ensure that all cases receive the utmost propriety. Good work with children augurs well for everybody's future. The section on the appointment of the commissioner for children was considered carefully, in the light of all the concerns that were expressed. We hope that those concerns will be addressed. The Budget requirements of such an important post, with such a wide remit, must also be taken into account.

I thank my Colleagues on the Committee of the Centre and the Committee Clerks, who prepared the report, for all their hard work. I also wish to thank all the deputations who came to see us. They were most efficient and gave us much food for thought. It was a pleasure to work together on such an issue. I hope that the recommendations of the report will be considered and implemented.

Ms Morrice:

We welcome the publication of the report. It was a pleasure to see Committee members working together so constructively, and we congratulate the Committee on a valuable and timely document. We also applaud the Committee for taking evidence from key organisations, moving around the country and involving young people. That was a valuable process, and we hope that it will continue; it demonstrates what Members can do when they work together.

We agree that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should take account of the recommendations. The Women's Coalition put forward its own private Member's Bill on the issue. Many of the principles of our Bill are included in the report, so there is similar thinking. I look forward to the full implementation of the report's recommendations by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The role of the commissioner should be extended to cover children who are in receipt of post-care services, even if they are over 18. The commissioner should also be involved in the childproofing of legislation.

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This role is particularly important. The Executive should be required to have all Bills that are likely to be relevant to children passed as of right to the commissioner. The commissioner should also have the right to ask for legislation that has not been automatically passed to him or her.

The Committee report also provides for the commissioner to make an annual report. We support this; we also suggest that the commissioner should have the power to make other reports as he or she sees fit. Such reports may contain recommendations for action by others. In particular, the commissioner should be able to report recommendations for compliance with the provision of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as ratified by the Government.

It would be useful if the Executive were to produce a code that sets out how the commissioner will be consulted. We strongly support the recommendation that the commissioner should also deal with reserved matters of juvenile justice. We are pleased that the Committee envisages a commissioner with adequate powers to investigate complaints, including the power to require disclosure of documents. This is a valuable recommendation; in fact, it should be the minimum standard for such offices. We lobbied for this standard when the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was being set up.

Similarly, the proposal to enable the commissioner to make strategic interventions in legal proceedings is very wise. I must commend the statistics that the Chairperson gave this afternoon - they were horrifying and disturbing, but they represent a valuable resource for policy-making. The fact that the children's commissioner will be able to commission research on issues of concern, such as the number of children living below the poverty line, is very welcome. However, we should be careful that the children's commissioner does not spend the money that the Executive should be spending on research. There is no doubt that valuable statistics are essential to a good policy on children.

The Committee of the Centre envisages an ambitious remit for the commissioner. That is to be applauded and has our support. However, we must be given guarantees that when this remit is agreed, it will command adequate resources to carry out the tasks effectively for our children. Members have stressed the need for the commissioner to play the pivotal role in a strategy for children. If the commissioner is to be linked to a wider strategy for children, that must be taken into account. We strongly recommend the development of a strategy for children.

In conclusion, the fact that we need and want a children's commissioner is in no doubt. I am sure that the vote of the Assembly will prove that. As every Member has said today, this is long overdue. A commissioner must now be appointed as speedily as possible. We call on the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to advance its own legislation - or perhaps to seek to amend our Bill, as that would allow the process to dovetail - so that we can provide children and young people with this valuable watchdog as soon as possible.

Mr Beggs:

I support the motion. I found my participation in the Committee of the Centre on this report worthwhile and interesting. I thank all the voluntary organisations and everyone who provided evidence to the Committee. It was worthwhile and timely that in the early stages information from the organisations directly involved should become available and be brought together by the Committee. It is to be hoped that that information will have a major impact on the functions of our commissioner for children.

I will pick out a few issues that are particularly relevant and should be reinforced - issues to which I contributed in the Committee Stage. Recommendation 2 talks about extending the remit of the commissioner to cover all those under the age of 21. Several Committee Members have said that there is evidence of a need for continuing support for young people, particularly when leaving care. There is evidence of low educational attainment and high rates of pregnancy shortly after leaving care. A cycle may be developing, and attention should be given to that vulnerable group so that the community can continue to support it and help to break that cycle.

Recommendation 7 recommends giving the commissioner an ability to childproof legislation. It is very important that there should be interaction at an early stage, and the views of young people should be put before the Assembly or the relevant Committee. It is too easy to overlook the effect of legislation on young people, and giving someone this responsibility will assist in drawing the relevant facts to everyone's attention.

Play facilities are almost completely overlooked in the planning process. There is little provision for green space for children, and little provision for quality play facilities, even in areas where hundreds of new houses are being developed. Developers are making large profits, and there should be a requirement, in the early stages, for space to be set aside for the young people who will live in those areas. I urge that when giving developers planning permissions, space should be set aside for play. It is of no benefit to deal with this later. It should be done at the beginning, so that people buying their houses know that a play facility will be built, and they cannot object later. Sometimes space is set aside and, subsequently, residents close to it decide that it is not in their best interests. It should be happening at the planning stage.

I am concerned about pre-school education. I have raised with the Minister my concern about the requirement for funding of pre-school groups that there should be at least eight children in the immediate pre-school year. The trouble with that is that smaller and rural communities will have no pre-school funding from the Department. I suggest that if we had a commissioner for children, that would not be allowed. Surely seven pre-school children can come together on a worthwhile basis and learn social skills. Six children, four children, what is the limit? It is not the number involved, it is the quality of the experience and education in that pre-school group that is important.

We talked about where the commissioner should highlight areas of research and where statistics are required. An important point is that the commissioner should not be doing everything himself. He needs to co-ordinate and give his views to all the other agencies to minimise duplication, so that everyone is working together, gathering the relevant information, and bringing benefit to everyone.

Initially I was shocked to find that, in Wales, young people were involved in the selection process. Most adults will find that strange, but after investigation I can see many benefits.

The main function of a commissioner is to reach out to vulnerable children. Unless a commissioner can communicate with those children and make them feel that he is acting in their interests, his level of professionalism or skills is irrelevant. What better way of establishing that communication than to involve young people? I will not stipulate exactly how they should be involved, but they should play a part in the selection process.

It is recommended that a commissioner's term run for four years. According to the evidence received by the Committee, a one-or two-year term is not long enough a period in which to establish the office and network within the system. There was concern that a longer term could be disadvantageous if the right person were not selected at the outset. However, if everyone were satisfied with the commissioner's performance, it would be sensible to extend the initial appointment. I hope that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will take this issue on board along with our many other recommendations.

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

Ms Lewsley:

As a member of the Committee of the Centre, I support this report. I hope that the Executive will take full account of the Committee's report and its work with regard to the commissioner for children. Our children need a strong advocate to act on their behalf. They are, as the Deputy First Minister pointed out, too often neither seen nor heard.

Despite the fact that there are 500,000 children aged 18 and under in the North, few Government structures have been put in place to promote their needs. Those needs are great, given the fact that 37% of children in the North live in families that earn less than half of the average national income. Many of our children's services are poorly funded. Our education system does not provide equality of opportunity, particularly for deprived children, as a result of which far too many leave school without any qualifications. Children are abused at home and neglected in care, and our young people are often kept in Victorian conditions under the criminal justice system.

It is because of these problems that the announcement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 29 January this year of their intention to establish a commissioner for children was so welcome. After years of campaigning and getting nowhere under direct rule, those who worked with our children at the coalface finally found, in the devolved Administration, Ministers who would listen and act.

This proves that our new Government institutions are working, and that devolution is making a difference. I hope that all Assembly parties will do everything possible to preserve these institutions. Otherwise, if we return to the neglect of direct rule, such important initiatives as the children's commissioner might be lost. All parties owe it to children to ensure that we do not face collapse in the coming weeks.

It is important that we get the details right when establishing a children's commissioner. The Committee of the Centre believes that it has done that. We believe that a commissioner for children, along the lines suggested, would clearly reflect best practice and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

We envisage several distinct roles for the commissioner. First, he would promote a culture of children's rights through fostering education and acting as a source of information and advice. Secondly, the commissioner should act as an advocate for children - that means taking cases to establish children's rights and checking that policies, practices and governmental procedures respect the rights of children. Thirdly, the commissioner should have full investigative powers.

A number of agencies are already engaged in the protection of children. It would make no sense for the children's commission to act as an appeal body for all of these, or to duplicate their functions.

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The commissioner should be able to help children when other people cannot, and should above all be able to investigate how other bodies and agencies handle complaints from children. In any case, if an agency has fallen down in its duty, the commissioner must be able to investigate that thoroughly and have all necessary powers to do so. Only if the commissioner has those powers will he or she be taken seriously.

Finally, it is critical that the commissioner is not limited to the devolved Administration. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are aware of the importance of ensuring that children in the criminal justice system are safeguarded, and they have invited the Northern Ireland Office onto the interdepartmental working group. It is vital that the Northern Ireland Office share in the devolved Administration's vision of a strong, independent and powerful children's commissioner.

The Committee of the Centre listens to Ministers, officials, statutory agencies and those working in the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to secure the rights of all children. As my other Committee Colleagues have done, I thank them for all their help. I am pleased to see that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is adopting the same inclusive approach and that, to this end, it has established an NGO forum.

It is important to listen before you act and not, as some have done, to rush into proposals that are not well thought through. I hope that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister listens to all that has been said here today, and I look forward to seeing it act for the sake of children and their future. I support the motion.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am delighted that we have finally reached this stage with regard to a children's commissioner. It is something we should have done long ago. I welcome the report by the Committee of the Centre and was glad to be able to contribute to it at Committee meetings.

I welcome the junior Minister to the debate and ask him if there is a timetable for this matter. The Committee has worked very hard in a short time, and that dynamic must continue until the commissioner has been appointed.

This appointment will mark a massive step forward for society and prove that we are serious about the needs and rights of children and not just paying lip service to them. To secure the best future for children, it is critical that we establish a children's commissioner from a children's rights' perspective, as opposed to a child welfare or protection perspective.

I welcome the Committee's recommendations that the children's commissioner should be independent and that he or she should have an input into reserved matters such as the juvenile justice system. This is a field where young people and the areas in which they live have been badly let down by successive British Ministers who have looked at the problem in a short-sighted way. They treated the matter as one for punishment, without putting thought or resources into reintegration and the problems that this causes.

Although I am very glad that we are finally about to have a children's commissioner, some matters still need to be addressed before we proceed. It is vital that we get this right so that the children's commissioner is approachable and accountable, not just to the Assembly but to the people whom he or she will be representing - children and young people.

Another crucial area concerns the powers that the commissioner will have. It would be a disgrace if we appointed a children's commissioner who was, in effect, a lame duck. We must ensure that he is properly resourced to carry out his duties and make a real difference to children's lives. Mr Hendron said earlier that the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 was a good piece of work. However, while it was a positive piece of legislation, it was not well resourced. The commissioner must be adequately resourced.

In that light, I am concerned that in paragraph 4.4.4 of the report the words "where other avenues of redress have failed" are included in the proposals under the heading "Duties and Powers". The denial of rights may demand immediate action by an independent body like the commissioner; in cases of abuse, for example. There may also be situations in which it is those involved in the investigating process who are denying children's rights. We should not have to wait for other avenues to be exhausted before the commissioner can act. The commissioner should have the power to carry out investigations as and when he or she thinks fit in the best interests of a child, or when approached by agencies, groups or individuals to get involved.

Paragraph 4.4.9 of the report states that the commissioner should have the power to intervene in legal cases. It is essential to clarify whether this means the power to undertake third-party interventions. This power, if it is to be of benefit to the commissioner, must include both sets of circumstances.

It has not been recommended that the commissioner be empowered to assist a child where there is a breach of the child's rights. I recognise the need for a strategic casework approach, but it is vital that the commissioner is in a position to assist - including financially - in individual cases where the rights of children have been denied.

The role of the children's commissioner is potentially of major benefit in the area of children's rights, if the Assembly can iron out the details. Getting it right at this stage will be one of the most important things that the Assembly has done to date, and it will be something that Members will have just cause to be proud of.

I thank the Committee staff for their hard work on the report. Addressing the report's recommendations will enable the children's commissioner to become a champion of children's rights, and it will empower our children - especially the most vulnerable in society. Go raibh míle maith agat.


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