Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 26 June 2001 (continued)

Mr K Robinson:

I thank the Committee staff for the excellent way in which they helped us in this mammoth process. Congratulations are also to be extended to the Chairperson, who conducted the very weighty business in a fair and professional manner. I pay tribute to my Colleagues from all parties, because this undertaking is central to society.

The report represents a realistic and common-sense approach to what has unfortunately been a blight upon society up to now; the manner in which we have treated our children - the most vulnerable and valuable asset in society. The report also represents a firm signpost indicating that our community may now address the oversights, insensitivities and abuses of the past and provide a future that is bright, safe and positive for our children.

The Committee received 26 oral submissions and 24 written submissions. These came from a variety of statutory and voluntary organisations, which approached the situation in a positive and professional manner and agreed that there was a need for a children's commissioner.

Trond Waage, the Commissioner for Children in Norway, was one of the most impressive witnesses. Mr Waage not only spoke of the mechanics of the commission and how Norwegians have been edging towards their current situation since 1970; he also opened the Committee's eyes to the fact that adults sometimes fail to appreciate children's view points and approaches to life. My Colleague, Mr Beggs, said that Committee members listened in awe as Mr Waage explained how Norwegians involve their children. They use e-government and all the powers they have to allow children at every level; as individuals; in school councils; and in local areas, to voice their concerns and to share their hopes and aspirations for the future with adults. In Norway, adults listened.

The Committee is presenting the Assembly with a framework. We can do no more. It is for the Assembly and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to treat the framework - the signpost - with the respect that is its due. It is pointing us forward. Although some of my Colleagues have mentioned some shortcomings in the mechanics of the exercise, we all have a clear vision of the future.

The submission that impressed me most - apart from that of the Norwegian Commissioner - was from the young people in Londonderry. They said that there must be a complete change of attitude and in ways of thinking, because young people and adults almost speak different languages. That should make us pause. It is fundamental. We are trying to solve a problem from an adult perspective while young people are telling us that we cannot communicate with them at a basic linguistic level.

The Gulbenkian Foundation inquiry into effective government structures for children supported the need for a children's commissioner. Some colleagues have referred to the United Nation's Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Council of Europe, which, in its European Strategy for Children, proposes the appointment of a commissioner. We are all agreed on the appointment of a commissioner.

There have been some sad references along the way. When the Chairperson of the Health and Social Services Committee of the National Assembly for Wales gave evidence she spoke about the 'Lost in Care' report which was based on a series of child abuse allegations in Wales. This event caused that community to stop, take stock and look at ways in which the situation might be redressed. Their recommendation was that a commissioner should be appointed. The Welsh Assembly Member impressed us with her submission.

The Northern Ireland voluntary sector document, 'Putting Children First' represents a campaign for a commissioner which has been running for many years. It recommends that the commissioner should not be appointed in isolation but as part as an overall strategy, so that all Departments will look to the needs and vital issues affecting our children. It is important that the statutory and voluntary agencies know their roles and the areas of interface with other organisations to ensure that no child is allowed to slip through the net. The child should always be at the centre of our concerns.

Our commissioner is going to be all things to all people. However, he or she must be a champion for children, a watchdog for children, and if necessary a whistle-blower for children. We cannot allow the abuses and inactivity of the past to continue.

I am glad to say that the commissioner will report to the Assembly annually. That requirement does not impinge upon the independence of his post. It is a positive sign that he or she will be required to appear, at least once, before the Committee of the Centre. The commissioner will be there to be questioned; to report, and to let us review any of the issues raised in the Chamber so that they may be put right. I have no hesitation in commending the Committee's report to the House.

Mrs Courtney:

As a member of the Committee of the Centre I support the motion. I commend the organisations that gave freely of their time in providing evidence to the Committee.

The Chairperson detailed the processes involved in the Committee coming to its conclusions, and I do not intend to dwell on those. Our proposals have come about following wide consultation with all bodies dealing with children and young people. We received presentations from the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the Norwegian Children's Ombudsman, and the National Assembly for Wales, which has appointed a children's commissioner recently. All parties involved made clear presentations and answered questions from Committee members who sought clarification on certain issues.

The results of those meetings form part of the recommendations presented to the House today. I draw particular attention to recommendation 7, which discusses the childproofing of legislation; and recommendation 32, which says that young people should be involved in the appointment of a commissioner, and that the Committee commends the process used by the Welsh Assembly.

The Committee sought the views of young people, and for that reason we held a separate meeting at Magee College in Derry where we heard directly from young people about their concerns. They were forthright in their views, and we learned a lot from them. They felt that a commissioner could make a difference, because they were at a loss at times to understand who was responsible for looking after them.

We heard the views of the Derry Children's Commission, which has been working with children and young people for the past couple of years and has gained valuable expertise in the subject. I fully support the appointment of a commissioner, and I support the Chairperson, Mr Poots, in his call for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take full account of the report's 35 recommendations.

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The report is the result of many weeks of intensive consultation and is one of the most important documents to be tabled in the House.

The initial proposal to appoint a children's commissioner has the support of all the parties represented here. These recommendations put the flesh on the bones of that proposal and will enable it to be implemented. That is why I am pleased to commend the report to the House. I also commend everyone involved, the Chairperson, my Committee Colleagues and the staff who worked tirelessly to get the report published in time.

Mr Shannon:

I rise to support the proposal and to thank the Chairperson for his leadership and the Committee members for their contributions.

There can be no doubt that there is a real need for a children's commissioner to be appointed here with a remit to look after the affairs of young people and children. For too long legislation has not been equal to the goals of preventing child abuse while maintaining parental authority. Parental authority is crucial to the maintenance of social integrity, but it is equally important that we, as public representatives, do our best to ensure that children remain free from bad parenting, abuse, maltreatment and exploitation.

Anyone who has read the report will know that all those who made a representation supported, in principle, the appointment of a children's commissioner. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by our Government, and the Council of Europe has called for the establishment of independent offices for children. That makes the call for such an appointment here irresistible. In other countries where a commissioner for children has been appointed there was as much evidence to support the appointment as there is in Northern Ireland.

The need for children to have their voices heard and acknowledged is crucial to the development of society. The report recommends working through schools, youth clubs, youth councils and involving IT to enable children to deliver their opinions and attitudes properly.

It is also essential that the appointment of any new commissioner, especially one to deal with children's issues, be an integral part of a wider political strategy. The appointment must encompass all aspects of life affecting children, whether in family centres, fostering or adoption services, domiciliary care, private and voluntary hospitals, day care or child-minding services.

There is a legitimate argument that we could go too far with children's rights. In these days of politically correct madness, there is every possibility that this could happen. To balance that, we must therefore ensure that no measure taken to put children first on our list of priorities undermines the authority of their parents. The minority who abuse their own and other people's children must not be allowed to weaken the fabric of society. The results can be positive if we strike the right balance.

The role and responsibility of a new commissioner must be founded on a commitment to represent every single child on any issue brought to his office - irrespective of race, religion, culture, social background or whether the child is in or out of the care system. The commissioner should act so as to give the impression to every child that he or she will receive treatment equal to that of any other. It is essential to the success of the commissioner that this office be backed by the proper authority and legislation to enable him or her to pursue all cases under investigation where in the past there has been stalemate. The commissioner must have the power to carry out effective investigations and to provide and disclose all relevant documentation, and we must ensure that child services are distributed across the country in proportion with population.

The commissioner should be able to pinpoint areas of improvement and the direction of any subsequent strategy, and he should be capable of allocating resources to best effect. He or she should be able to act as a watchdog for children, and to assess and analyse the implications of legislation brought before the Assembly and the House of Commons which will have an impact on the lives of children. This post should carry the power to submit papers and reports to relevant bodies indicating where there is improvement and where policy and strategy need to be enhanced.

One issue that is essential to the success of the role is the commissioner's ability to be directly involved in reserved matters. The remit should extend to matters involving the juvenile justice system with the right to scrutinise all reserved legislation at primary level and sufficient resources to complete this task successfully. It would be a terrible disappointment if the resources were not there to carry out the job correctly.

Another issue that must be emphasised is the independent nature of the commissioner. We all agree with the majority of those who submitted evidence to the Assembly. They said that it is essential for the long-term success of the commissioner for children that the office be completely independent of Departments and public bodies. The aims, goals and projects held and implemented by the commissioner must come from a base of complete and unadulterated objectivity and impartiality. A commissioner who operates to someone else's agenda will inevitably fail to increase the profile of children.

Gone are the days when the phrase "children should be seen and not heard" was given any credibility. Instead, the rights of children have been at the forefront of political discussion and debate. It is up to the Government to ensure that an environment is created in which children's rights are upheld, their safety secured and their needs met. Northern Ireland is desperately lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to the rights of children and young people. The children of Northern Ireland deserve better.

Unfortunately, today's society has too often overlooked the needs of children. This has led to children being exposed to dangers and volatile situations. Children should be allowed to act as children and should not be placed in situations that force them to grow up too quickly. It is up to the Government to ensure that children are protected from the darker elements of society.

The presence and prevalence of paedophiles in our society has never been greater. A paedophile register should include the names of people who have been convicted of paedophile activity in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. This would allow the authorities, both in Northern Ireland and south of the border, to monitor the movement of sex offenders. Although society will never be able to guarantee total protection of the most vulnerable children and young people from those intent on committing sexual or physical abuse, this new legislation will provide the children of Northern Ireland with a commissioner - a new symbol of hope for their future. It will send out a clear signal to those who abuse children that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated.

Mrs Carson:

I welcome the comprehensive report, and I congratulate the Committee for its consultation with many groups and bodies. I have concerns about some of the Committee's recommendations. They could be seen from a parent's, a grandparent's and a family point of view as authoritarian and interventionist if they were all fully implemented. It would be impossible to comprehend their impact on families, parents, teachers, social workers and even other children.

I note that there are no oral or written submissions from any church representatives. There was only one submission - from a parent's advice centre - to represent the voice of parents. Were these groups asked to attend, participate or give a written submission? I agree with the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) group that the primary object of a children's commissioner must be to protect children. It also stated:

"It would be tragic if the Commissioner's ability to protect children from abuse was compromised by demands that he should spend his time empowering children generally."

We have to think about those two objectives.

The criteria for the appointment of a children's commissioner will need extremely careful consideration to make sure that we have the right person in the post. The Committee's recommendation says:

"The candidates for the post of commissioner for children should be based on skills, competence and experience, with an emphasis on the ability to engage directly with children, rather than necessarily having a specific professional or academic qualification."

I am concerned about the difficulty in specifying the personal requirements, because the recommendation is rather vague. It makes no recommendation about what skills, competencies or experience the Committee has in mind. These should be clearly spelt out.

Interestingly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says that the person who fills the post should bring status and respect, and should be popular with children. The Western Young People's Steering Group said that he or she must be easily accessible, physically and mentally, so that young people's minds are relaxed. That is a bit confusing.

Those recommendations, plus the intellectual ability required for the children's commissioner to initiate legislation, will make for an interesting appointee. I hope that the report's recommendations will not confuse or cloud the appointment of a children's commissioner. The report has given us food for thought on how the Assembly should proceed, but I urge that care and consideration be given to all possibilities. We must consider the impact of these wide-ranging recommendations on the general family unit in Northern Ireland. I want us to create an office that will fulfil our primary objective: a commissioner to protect children in all situations. I support the motion.

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Haughey):

On behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I welcome the report and the debate. I have listened carefully to Members' contributions. They have been informative and interesting, and will be fully taken account of by my office as the proposals for a commissioner for children are developed. I will respond to as many of the specific points made by Members as I can, but if I do not have enough time I will send a written response to Members whose individual points have not been covered.

The appointment of a children's commissioner is one of the most significant and exciting things to occur since devolution. It is an important milestone on the road away from a society mired in conflict to a shared society where rights are the basis on which citizens are treated - and that includes children and young people.

Far from being on the sidelines of conflict, children have been deeply involved in and affected by the conflict here. Of the many people who were killed during the troubles, over 400 were children. They were denied the most basic right of all - the right to life. Countless thousands were denied the right to a normal, happy and peaceful childhood.

Having been part of, and deeply affected by, the conflict, children deserve to be part of the solution and the construction of a new society here. The Good Friday Agreement has enshrined the principles of inclusion, equality, human rights and citizenship in the system of government. The challenge now is to ensure that those principles are applied to children and young people. It is our intention that the office of the commissioner for children will translate those principles into protection for children on the ground.

Our aim is simple. It is to put Northern Ireland at the cutting edge of best practice in the protection of children's rights. Like the Committee of the Centre, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been involved in dialogue with key stakeholders to ensure that its policy proposals draw on the skill and experience of those in both the statutory and non-government sectors who work with children, or represent their views.

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In particular, we have striven to ensure that the views of children and young people are included at this formative stage in the process. However, I should point out that we will need professional, skilled help in doing that. It is not desirable that unskilled people like ourselves should confront children and demand to know what their views are. That is unlikely to lead to the best results. We must therefore work very hard to create a conducive environment in which children can feel comfortable and free to speak their minds.

Members made specific points, and I will try to cover as many of those as possible. I welcome the emphasis laid by the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, Mr Poots, on the involvement of children and young people in the process. Mr Gibson, Mrs Bell and several other Members also referred to it. It is true that adults too often take the view that the whole purpose of childhood is to prepare children for adulthood so that they become good citizens. The perspective brought to bear on this situation has derived from the involvement of children in other jurisdictions and has led us to a greater awareness of the fact that children are entitled to a happy, healthy, secure and safe childhood without regard to any other consideration. Our emphasis should be on children's happiness, safety and security now, rather than on what we need to do to make sure that they turn out to be good citizens.

I also welcome the Committee Chairman's emphasis on the importance of the family framework. Mrs Carson and others also raised the importance of the position of parents and the need not to neglect that position. I do not agree entirely with Mrs Carson's caution in respect of the right of the proposed commissioner to investigate abuses and complaints. I recognise that such a power would have to be used very sensitively to avoid undue invasion of the rights of parents and an invasive or authoritarian impact on family life. Unfortunately, however, a great deal of abuse, neglect and harm to children occurs within the family framework. It is therefore essential that the commissioner has adequate powers - where there is sufficient justification, and with defined and proper safeguards - to look at the situation of children in families where they may be at risk.

The third important point in Mr Poots's contribution was his emphasis on the independence of the commissioner. That is important from various points of view. Several Members asked to whom the commissioner would be accountable. The report produced by the Committee of the Centre suggests that the commissioner should be accountable to the Assembly but through the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I wonder whether that is the right way to go about it. Obviously, we will take full account of the arguments made by the Committee of the Centre, but to make the commissioner accountable to a Government Department rather than directly to the Assembly bears upon the quality of his or her independence. We must look very carefully at that. I am not saying that the arguments made by the Committee of the Centre will be dismissed, but there may be other perspectives. We will want to talk to the Committee of the Centre as we develop our proposals in this regard.

I liked and approved of the emphasis that the Committee Chairperson and others put on the necessity for the children's commissioner to have responsibilities and obligations to all children - not just those at risk, in care or in certain special circumstances. That was raised again by Mr Gibson, Mrs Bell and others. It is important, and we fully intend it to be the case.

A fifth issue that arose and was referred to by a number of Members, including the Committee Chairperson, was the power that the commissioner might have to take cases. The Committee's report appears to suggest that this power might be limited to strategic interventions - sometimes referred to as class actions. I am not sure that we would want to restrict or confine the commissioner's power to intervene in cases purely within those limits. In the longer term, after we have consulted, we may wish the commissioner to have more extensive powers of intervention.

There are three ways in which he or she might intervene: by supporting an action that is being taken by a child or on its behalf by its parents; by taking the case him- or herself; or by taking the role of an amicus curiae - a friend of the court who can be called to give expert evidence. We must look carefully at defining the commissioner's role in a way that ensures that he or she has sufficient power to take legal cases and make legal interventions where possible. However, we must also ensure that his role does not become a power that could be oppressive or abusive.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mr Gibson, referred to dovetailing, which means that policies relating to children should have an integrated impact on their situation. That mirrors the thinking of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and relates to the cliché of joined-up government, making sure that policies and practices mesh together without conflict or turmoil. I am aware of that and assure the Member that it is part of our thinking.

Mr Gibson referred to childproofing legislation as a desirable function for the children's commissioner. Mrs Bell, Ms Morrice, Mr Beggs, Mrs Courtney and others also referred to it. I assure them that we are thinking carefully about how a commissioner might play such a role.

Mrs Lewsley made an interesting and important extension to that point. She said that the commissioner should not only have a role in childproofing legislation, but that he should also examine the practices of Departments and agencies to make sure that they are conducive to the welfare and good of children. Once again, we will look at that.

Mr Gibson referred to the need for children to have a voice and be able to communicate with the commissioner. However, should we not also think about giving children a voice that goes beyond the ability to communicate with the commissioner, a voice that would enable them to communicate generally and to communicate ideas? The new children's parliament in the South - the Dáil na nÓg - will meet for the first time shortly. We should look carefully at that to see what improvement it brings to children's situations and what improved awareness of children's views and attitudes it generates.

Mr Gibson mentioned accountability to the Assembly through the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. As I said earlier, that has merits, but we must be mindful of the independence of the commissioner, and we must look carefully at the right way to do this.

Mr Gibson also raised the issue of adequate resources, which was also mentioned by Mr Conor Murphy and Ms Gildernew. Resources are an important consideration. There is no point in establishing the post of children's commissioner if he or she does not have the resources to do the job. Mr Gibson's final point was that the proposal makes sense only as part of a wider strategy. Members should be aware that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is examining the role of a children's commissioner as part of a wider strategy.

Dr Hendron said that speedy progress was needed, and Ms Morrice, Ms Gildernew and others spoke about the timetable for carrying the process forward. We intend to have the consultation document on the proposal for a children's commissioner ready by August, and we are more or less on target. The consultation period could then run from August to October, allowing us to receive and consider responses.

Assuming that the process runs smoothly, we will devote November and December to preparing the legislation. We hope to introduce the legislation to the Assembly early in the new year. We hope to have developed a broad and cohesive approach to the matter by that stage. I suspect that there is a high level of consensus on the issue. The legislation would be on the statute book by spring next year. It is not possible to be any more accurate than that about the timetable. We hope to begin consultation on the broader strategy early in the new year, and we shall consider the whole range of changes that might affect children. We will do that while moving ahead with the proposal for a children's commissioner.

My Colleague, Dr Hendron, highlighted the potential role of the commissioner in assessing existing legislation. He made the interesting and important point that it would make a considerable difference to the situation of children if existing legislation such as the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 was properly and rigorously enforced. We must bear that in mind.

Dr Hendron also spoke about the treatment of children in adult psychiatric units and the placement of children in overcrowded facilities. The children's commissioner will want to consider such matters carefully and make recommendations to the Administration, but I do not think that one should pre-empt what he or she might say. Dr Hendron also referred to the commissioner's powers of investigation, including discovery of documents, entry to premises and the power to subpoena witnesses. We are examining those powers carefully, because it is important that the office of the commissioner should have the teeth necessary to investigate complaints and reports of abuse. The commissioner should not simply make statements deploring abuse; he or she should have the powers to discover documents, subpoena witnesses, and so on, as these are necessary for the investigation of abuse.

Mr Conor Murphy said that the commissioner should have the role of a watchdog for the rights of children. That is in line with the thinking of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Mr Murphy and other Members raised the issue of the investigation of cases and the associated powers of entry, discovery and seizure. I have referred to that.

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He did make one point that other Members, including Ms Morrice, referred to, and that was about the commissioner's role in research. Unfortunately, we do not have the necessary research findings, statistics and information upon which to base a children's policy. There may be a considerable role for the commissioner in research, and we must consider quite what that will be.

Ms Morrice said that there is no need for the commissioner to duplicate what other agencies do, or could do. It is my view that it does not matter who does it, as long as we have the information and statistics that we need.

Mr Conor Murphy also referred to the need for adequate resources and powers, and other Members made the same point. He suggested that we should set a standard for cutting-edge good practice in Northern Ireland, and that is our full intention.

Mr Beggs made reference to organisations on the ground. I take his point, and we have already considered it necessary to involve such organisations. That is why we decided to set up the NGO forum. It has met three or four times and has made a very valuable input into the development of children's policies.

Mr Beggs also referred to pre-school education. That is not something we can deal with - it is a matter for the Minister of Education. We need to consider what role the commissioner will play in such matters and make recommendations to Ministers and the Administration accordingly.

Mr Beggs also referred to the need for the commissioner to have a role in planning children's facilities such as playgrounds and playing facilities. That would obviously involve the Departments for Regional and Social Development as well as district councils, the Housing Executive, central Government, local government and various Government agencies, and that reminds us of the need for an integrated approach on the part of those organisations.

Mr Beggs made the interesting point that it would not be necessary for the Commissioner to do everything himself. Rather he should ensure that tasks are carried out by the relevant agencies and have the right to undertake to get them done if no agency is ready and willing to do them.

He also made a point about the involvement of children in the process. Given the practice that has been developed in countries such as Norway and Wales of involving children in the decision-making process, it is important that we do not do less than they are doing in this.

Ms Lewsley made the important point that devolution is making a difference. I can say without fear of contradiction that there is a good deal of enthusiasm for devolution among NGOs and the organisations that deal with children. Having our own Ministers has brought a considerable impetus to matters such as this, and these organisations are greatly enthused by the progress that we have made on children's policies during devolution.

Mr Ken Robinson also made an interesting point about children from Derry. He said that adults and children speak very different languages and that we need to have professional help to understand the language used by children so as to bring their perspective to bear upon our proposals.

I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. We will consider very carefully all that has been said to us. I look forward to receiving the response of the Committee of the Centre to the proposals when they are published in the consultation document.

Mr Poots:

I thank the Members who took part in the debate for their positive and constructive contributions. The number of Members who expressed a general welcome echoes the consensus in the Committee on the appointment of a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland and the recommendations on his role and remit. I want to pick up on a few of the points made.

Dr Hendron made reference to the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 being fully implemented. Recommendations 5, 8 and 9 all deal with that. Recommendation 5 says that the commissioner for children should act as an advocate for children's rights and monitor the delivery of these rights in Northern Ireland. Recommendation 8 says that the commissioner for children should have a role in assessing existing legislation and bringing forward proposals and recommendations for change, where appropriate. Recommendation 9 says that the commissioner for children should have a role in considering and commenting on the impact of policies and practices on children and young people. Those recommendations deal with what Dr Hendron talked about.

On the cost of implementation - and he made particular reference to legal cases - we can only go by the costs in other countries. In Wales, for example, £800,000 has been set aside. We have based our estimates on what has taken place in other countries, and the cost for Northern Ireland should be somewhere in that region.

Ms Morrice made reference to post-care services. We have recommended that children coming out of care should have help for a further three years, beyond the age of 18, after they come out of care - if help is required. In many cases it is fairly obvious that help is required. I quoted the statistics earlier.

With reference to research, recommendation 20 provides that the commissioner for children should have a responsibility to highlight to the relevant agencies areas where additional research and statistics are required and a duty to undertake or commission research, if deemed necessary, on issues of concern to children.

Mrs Carson made a number of points in relation to family life. She had some concerns about the appointment process. We believe that it is important that the commissioner can relate to children first. Academic qualifications come after that. There is little point in having someone who has academic qualifications the length of your arm, but who cannot relate to children and young people. We need someone who can actually relate and who is well qualified. The ability to relate comes first and foremost; the qualifications are secondary.

I would be wholly opposed to a children's commissioner interfering in any way in individual family life. I do not believe that a commissioner will have the time to interfere in individual family life. Ninety per cent of his time will be taken up by 5% to 10% of children and young people. The work of the commissioner is going to lie where the problems are. If the commissioner does not address those issues, and instead addresses issues in which he should not be interfering, his accountability would have to be called into question and addressed. I understand Mrs Carson's concerns, but I do not believe it will turn out to be a problem.

Mr Haughey made reference to the legal implications and said that he thought we should give the commissioner more powers. The Committee felt that the commissioner should not get bogged down in legal cases, given the problems that can prevail there. The Committee's view is that the commissioner should step in where required, when others had failed. We have had cases in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the rest of the United Kingdom, where others have failed and there was no commissioner to step in.

However, the commissioner should not be involved when others are currently doing that task. I appreciate the Minister's positive response. Our focus was on speeding up the appointment process, and the report was intended to add emphasis to that process. The appointment is not a panacea, but it is hoped that it will address the worst aspects of child abuse in Northern Ireland - whether sexual, physical or mental - and improve children's lives.

I express my sincere gratitude to the staff who worked hard in drawing up the report and to those members of the Committee who came to almost every meeting and who had the greatest input. I want to make special reference to them. I commend the report.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee of the Centre on its inquiry into the proposal for a commissioner for children for Northern Ireland (2/00R) and calls on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to take full account of the recommendations.


Seed Potatoes (Crop Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001


The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

I beg to move

That the Seed Potatoes (Crop Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001 (SR 228/2001) be annulled.

When a rule subject to negative resolution has been formally laid before the Assembly, a Statutory Committee can only approve it or seek its annullment by the Assembly. At a meeting on 11 May 2001 the Committee discussed the proposed Regulations and agreed that it could not support them, given the difficulties faced by the potato sector and farming in general. I wrote to the Minister on 16 May on behalf of the Committee with that message.

The Minister's reply of 22 May said that full cost recovery is the basic financial objective for all charging. In an earlier letter dated 13 May, giving notice of the proposed Regulation, the Minister's private secretary referred to an Ulster Farmers' Union request for the fees to be waived in 2001. He said that it was not possible to agree to that request. In other words, the clear message from the Minister and the Department was that the increase would go ahead, regardless of the Committee or anyone else.

As a Committee we do not want to have to pray against that rule. I happen to believe in prayer, but I do not want to pray on that one. However, in this case the Committee's views were blatantly ignored by the Department. The Seed Potatoes (Crop Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001 left the Committee no option but to put the matter before the Assembly.

I bring the motion before the House today with the full support of the Committee, at a time when the farming industry, the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy, is on its knees. Farmers have had catastrophe after disaster piled on them in recent times through no fault of their own. However, there is no need for me to revisit the curtailment of activities and financial hardships brought on farmers and their families by BSE and foot-and- mouth disease.

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These matters have been aired on many occasions in the House and have been acknowledged as a crisis by everybody.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, in this very place, has accepted that farmers are in trouble. She has set up various initiatives to help them, which we welcome. On the other hand, her Department puts yet another financial burden on people who are already at their wits' end. These Regulations are a prime example. It does not make sense to Committee members to give with one hand and take away with the other. For example, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has seen fit to spend money setting up a rural support line for farmers who are feeling worried or stressed, so that they can speak to a trained counsellor. This clearly recognises that current policies are creating such serious problems that they must be urgently and professionally addressed. To introduce these Regulations would add to farmers' financial worries and create even more stress; that is incomprehensible at this time.

The Minister pointed out to the Committee that the fees increase for farmers this year would be minimal. In that case, the Department could easily absorb the extra costs and relieve a much-beleaguered community from this extra pressure. The Minister may like to tell the House what additional money would be involved for the year. She had a golden opportunity to send a message of support to farmers by agreeing to set aside any increase in fees this year. The appreciation of farmers would surely have far exceeded the additional fees collected. That opportunity has now been lost.

Members may know that the Department has commissioned a policy review of the potato sector. That review is not due to be completed until late summer or early autumn this year. Other considerations aside, surely in the light of this review and the Minister's acceptance that the seed-potato sector has been in decline for several years, it is not right to impose increases in fees this year, particularly in the face of objections from producers and their representatives. We can all reconsider the issue next year, informed by the findings of the review. The Committee wants to send a positive message to farmers - "We continue to recognise your plight". I call on Assembly Members to support this prayer of annulment.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I do not wish to limit this debate, but I am conscious that the Business Committee has allocated only another 15 minutes for it.


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