Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 22 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr Gerry Campbell ) 
Ms Patricia Lewsley ) Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The first evidence session was due to have involved the Children’s Law Centre but has been cancelled because of illness. The Committee will give the centre another date on which to attend.

The next session involves someone who is clearly very well — the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Patricia Lewsley, whom I welcome. She is accompanied today by Gerry Campbell. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and for coming to the meeting earlier than was scheduled. I invite the witnesses to make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions from members.

Ms Patricia Lewsley (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People):

I thank the Committee for inviting us to give evidence. I want to make a few general points and then touch on the three specific questions from the Committee.

In my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People, my core remit is with the Northern Ireland Assembly, hence that is my priority. Aside from that, there are commissioners in the three other jurisdictions and an ombudsman in the South of Ireland. Together, we comprise the British and Irish Network of Ombudsmen and Children’s Commissioners (BINOCC).

Although my priority is Northern Ireland, it is important that we consider the impact of Westminster legislation. Lately, therefore, the BINOCC group has given evidence to the all-party working group on children on the concluding observations that came from Geneva last year, and some weeks ago it gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

An extension of that aspect of our work is the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC). That group shares information and strategies and looks at collective approaches to ensuring that children’s rights are fulfilled.

In the past, we have also produced position papers on issues such as disability, juvenile justice, separated children seeking asylum, and violence against children. Currently, ENOC is chaired by Emily Logan, who is the ombudsman from the South. That position is rotated on an annual basis and goes to France in September of this year. We have recently set up a secretariat in Strasbourg to support ENOC’s work in Europe.

I will now turn to the three questions that the Committee asked. The Committee may know of some of the things that we will mention, some may already be in place, and some may simply be suggestions that we want to make.

The Committee’s first point of contact is the three MEPs. Recently, we have contacted them to establish how we can work with them, in their role as MEPs, and with the three European bodies — that is, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. We are aware of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and it may be that, in the future, it will have an enhanced role in monitoring policies that emerge from the EU. There is also a European unit in OFMDFM that could probably have a much stronger role in scrutinising EU policy, which would help the Committee to examine many of those policies.

For me, the Committee’s scrutiny role is vital, particularly in relation to EU directives. The Assembly has seen the effect of EU directives in the past, particularly when it comes to the issue of sanctions being incurred. That scrutiny role provides the Committee with an opportunity to shape EU directives as early as possible and ensure that they are implemented.

For example, the European Commission is currently drafting an EU directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment, which is intended to extend the law beyond the workplace to cover areas such as goods, facilities, education, and health care. That directive considers certain categories, and the one that we are concerned with is age. Often, children and young people are not thought about in relation to that category, but that is where they fit in.

For us, some of the relevant issues are the minimum wage and minimum benefits that are given to 16- and 17-year-olds in particular. Therefore, it is important that there is an opportunity to have an input at the drafting stage. That is particularly important because of the ripple effect that that piece of legislation could have on the proposed single equality Bill here in Northern Ireland.

In relation to the Committee’s second question, although we do not have any specific comment or contribution to make on the issue of the economy at this stage, we believe that the economy has a ripple effect on children, particularly in relation to poverty. We welcome yesterday’s debate on childcare that was held in the Chamber, and we know that the Executive make policies in relation to such issues. We are also aware of the EU strategy entitled ‘Building a Europe for and with children — 2009-2011 strategy’.

This Committee has many complex threads across all of the policies regarding children and young people. However, it is important to note that although you may not have control of, or input into, a lot of those policies, the reality is that one of them could impact on some of the policies on which the Committee is working. The Committee must keep a watching brief on many of the policies that could impact on its work. A good template in that respect is the Committee’s report on its inquiry into child poverty in Northern Ireland.

Item three of our submission deals with the issue of children and young people, which certainly falls within the remit of this Committee. We know that there are areas of European policy that have either a direct or indirect effect on children. For example, I mentioned the Council of Europe’s strategy entitled ‘Building a Europe for and with children — 2009-2011 strategy’.

It is important to note that the UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. When the Assembly created the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People, the legislation stated that the holder of that post must have regard for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Therefore, it is important that the strategy from Europe will promote the implementation of that UN convention across all of its member states.

That particular document has three core points, which I call the “three Ps” — provision, protection and participation of young people. That is what the strategy aims to implement. The strategy will impact on policies, directives and decisions in the EU, and that will have a ripple effect on our 10-year strategy for children and young people. The Committee may need to keep an eye on that.

Something that may be of interest to the Committee is that there is an EU forum on the rights of children, on which the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children has a place. It may be worthwhile for Committee officials to keep a monitoring brief on the work of that forum in the future, as that may help the Committee in its work.

Finally, although responsibility for many policy areas falls across the remit of all Departments, the fact is that OFMDFM and this Committee have responsibility for children’s policy and the policy coming from Europe. There needs to be an opportunity for the Committee to work with the ministerial subgroup on children and with the children’s champions so that you can get an overview of what is happening in other Departments. Some of the relevant policies relate to issues such as child protection, safeguarding children, preventing trafficking of, and violence against, children, and poverty, which is the core issue that we just discussed.

It is important for us to recognise that children’s rights are reflected in the Assembly, the Executive and international agreements and ensure they are also on the agenda in Europe. We welcome all of that, and we look forward to working with the Committee on many of the issues that I have outlined.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much; that was very helpful. There is a question concerning the eradication of all forms of violence against children and the recent decision by NICCY to withdraw your legal challenge in relation to that — I do not know whether that is the elephant in the room, but it is certainly topical. Do you anticipate that you will return to that issue with a European approach when looking at future legislation?

Ms Lewsley:

That is something that has been on the European agenda for a long time, because quite a number of countries in Europe have banned physical punishment. Although we are not pursuing the legal challenge to physical punishment to the House of Lords, that does not mean that dealing with physical punishment does not remain a priority for NICCY. We will consider other ways in which we can try to influence the Government to change their minds regarding future legislation.

The Chairperson:

I know that this is a slightly separate point, but I want to pursue it because it is so topical. Dealing with that issue is clearly a strategic objective in Europe, so will you refresh us as to your reasons for not pursuing the challenge? The press release led me to understand that it was a matter of money. However, if it is a matter of protecting rights, surely that should take precedence over an issue of money?

Ms Lewsley:

That is something that I have to manage. When we decided to request the judicial review, the organisation was in a very different financial situation. In fact, the organisation had the opportunity to carry 5% — about £95,000 — of its moneys over in one year. That money had been earmarked for the physical punishment legal campaign. We cannot take that legal challenge any more because that money has been taken away from us.

As with all other organisations, we have had to make efficiency savings over last year, this year and next year, and that further cut our budget by £132,000. Weighing up our current financial situation compared with our situation when we started the campaign, I — as head of the organisation — had to decide whether it would be wise to take that challenge forward.

Very often, we cannot determine the timescale for any legal course of action that we take. Therefore, although I could have decided to find the money to cover the cost in this year’s budget, I had no guarantee that the case would not roll into the next financial year. That would have meant that I would have had to surrender the money in this year and then had to try to find it in next year’s budget. I felt that that was too big a risk for the organisation to take at this stage. There are other ways of influencing a change in legislation.

The Chairperson:

I do not wish to flog the issue to death — which is a highly inappropriate phrase — but was there a sense that there was little enthusiasm for the campaign, if not in your organisation then certainly in the Department that oversees your work?

Ms Lewsley:

No; certainly not. It is important to note the number of people who supported our stance and the legal action that we have taken to date. When I have been out and about, I have met children who have told me that physical punishment is wrong. Parents and organisations supported our action. At the end of the day, it is up to me — as head of the organisation — to decide where we take such matters and make the final decision.

Mr Shannon:

I wish to touch upon the issue raised by the chairperson. The amount of money that you have spent pursuing the issue of child smacking concerns a great many people. The intention of that campaign seems to be to prevent parents from guiding their children. You said that you have heard people saying one thing to you, but I have heard people saying something different, which is that that campaign is trying to criminalise parents who love their children. I love my children, and my dad and mum love me, but, yet and all, chastising took place through those parenting processes.

Given all the money from your budget that you have spent on that campaign, I am not quite sure what support you have had for it. That money could have been better spent on addressing the issues that have been highlighted today, such as children and solvent abuse, children and trafficking, children who are employed but who do not receive the wages that they should, children in poverty and children in education.

Why spend all that money pursuing that challenge when it seems to me, as an elected representative, and to the people to whom I have spoken that it does not have the support of the community? You said that you make the decisions; I hope that it is not a personal campaign.

Ms Lewsley:

The intention of taking the case was never to criminalise parents.

Mr Shannon:

That is a personal opinion.

Ms Lewsley:

The case was not about criminalising parents; it was about protecting children and supporting parents by showing them other ways of disciplining their children. I, too, love my children, but I did not feel the need to hit them to discipline them. There is a huge amount of support for the action that we have taken so far, and some people are disappointed that we have not taken it further, but that is the decision that I have made.

It is very important that I put that issue in the context of all the work that I do as the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. My budget is £1·8 million a year and, in a three-year period, we have spent — [Mobile phone interference] .

The Chairperson:

I think that there is someone selling ice cream.

Ms Lewsley:

Over a three-year period, we spent roughly £120,000 of the £1·8 million annual budget, which amounts to £40,000 a year.

It is also important to let the Committee know that we were working on other things, including those issues that were just touched on, at the same time that we were working on the legal challenge. Between April 2008 and the end of March 2009, we dealt with 700 individual cases concerning many of the issues that you mentioned, among others. The organisation works on behalf of children in relation to all those issues, while also looking at issues regarding the legislation that needs to be put in place to protect children. We did not spend three years working only on the issue of physical punishment. In the last number of years, the majority of our time and money was spent working on various issues across the board.

Mr Shannon:

I am glad that you are spending a lot of your time and effort on the issues that I outlined and that we agree on the importance of those. However, you must accept that a great many parents who love their children felt criminalised by the legal challenge. Do not, for one second, take away from the fact that a lot of parents were concerned about the campaign, which they felt was a personal attack on them.

Ms Lewsley:

I accept that; people have a right to their opinion. However, I wish to make it clear that it was never my intention to criminalise any parent.

Mr Shannon:

The money that was spent on the challenge would have been much better spent on dealing with the issues that we have outlined.

What contacts do you have in Europe? What European contacts would it be beneficial for us to have in addressing the issues that we touched on, such as child trafficking, children in employment and children in poverty? Different countries have different regulations, and I am keen to know how we can agree a campaign on which everyone can move forward together. Those are the issues that I want you to address and that I believe NICCY is also committed to. How can a European inquiry strengthen our work on those issues and help us to move forward?

Ms Lewsley:

The Committee needs to scrutinise the EU directives and have its voice heard at as early a stage as possible during the drafting of those directives. That could be done by working with Northern Ireland’s MEPs, through direct engagement with those involved in formulating the EU directives, or through help and support from the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland.

Mrs D Kelly:

I welcome Patricia and Gerry to the Committee. Given that the junior Ministers are the designated children’s champions, have they been in contact with you regarding the physical punishment legal challenge?

Ms Lewsley:

No.

Mrs D Kelly:

You informed us of the Stockholm strategy and urged the Committee to have a role in its implementation. What role do you have in influencing and tailoring strategies for the benefit of Northern Ireland? What submissions have you been able to make?

Ms Lewsley:

We have an input through our representative in the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children. For example, the secretariat that we now have circulated a questionnaire on the impact that divorce has on children.

It is not only the Stockholm strategy that will have an impact on that in Northern Ireland — the other big thing is the Lisbon Treaty. We feed our initial input through the ENOC group, but the office also engages with the three MEPs.

Mrs D Kelly:

Are you satisfied that that is having an impact and that you are able to influence policy?

Ms Lewsley:

Europe is huge and very bureaucratic, and sometimes it is very difficult. However, the important thing is that we keep trying to influence policy at as high a level as possible.

The Chairperson:

If the Enoch that I remember knew that his name was being so closely attached to European issues, he would be turning in his grave. [Laughter.]

Ms Anderson:

You mentioned a directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment. I do not know whether that is only being developed in Europe at the moment, because when you talked about early intervention you said that you are concerned that children will not be reflected in the directive on discrimination that is coming through Europe. Will it be through the ENOC group that you will try to ensure that the needs of children are reflected in that directive? Given that there is no single equality Bill here and that there is an array of legislation that has yet to be harmonised, what impact will the European directive have?

Ms Lewsley:

It will depend on the outcome of that piece of work. The European Commission is working through the directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment, which it is still in its early stages. Depending on what comes out of that, there will be an impact on what the Assembly will be able to put into the single equality Bill. It might change some of the issues that are dealt with in that Bill, and it may or may not strengthen it. At that stage, it is important to look at those policies that will impact on some of the policies and legislation that we are currently trying to put through the Assembly.

Mr Elliott:

Working on the assumption that the area of European issues in which you have most interest is that of legislation, will you tell me whether you have a mechanism in place that allows you to scrutinise any new legislation or directives at an early stage? Obviously, one of the areas that we are looking at is how we can best affect new legislation and regulations that are coming forward. You said it yourself, Patricia: you need to be in at an early stage to do that.

Ms Lewsley:

That is why we set up the secretariat in Strasbourg, which is close to the Parliament. That will look at all the legislation coming out of the three bodies that I mentioned at the beginning of the meeting. It will look at legislation or directives at an early stage and if we have the opportunity to provide input during the consultation period for those, the network will be collectively asked. That response will be fed in.

Mrs Long:

You are very welcome to the Committee. In your submission, you noted the cross-cutting nature of some of the policy work being done in Europe, the fact that more than one Department will be responsible for the scrutiny of that, and the difficulties involved in doing that. Clearly, you have the advantage among the people giving us evidence of having sat on this side of the table. Therefore, you understand something of how the Committee structures function in practice. Given that, is there anything specific that you think that the Assembly could do to improve its ability to scrutinise cross-cutting legislation and ensure that each Department is taking on its role and remit in monitoring that, particularly in relation to European issues, as that is one of the questions that we have been wrestling with?

Ms Lewsley:

You need to identify which Departments will be responsible for what and, as a Committee, you need to ask those Departments what they are doing and then try to collate that information. There is an opportunity to do that through the ministerial subgroup and through the children’s champions in each Department. We had hoped that the children’s champions would do that cross-cutting, cross-departmental work. There needs to be some sort of accountability at the end of the year to prove that they have been doing that, and that it is not a tick-box exercise.

The ministerial subgroup has set out six priorities. It is disappointing for us that the core priority is poverty, yet that subgroup has met just once in seven months. It is OK to say that we have policies for this and that, and it is true that we have the policies and the legislation; however, the important thing now is to implement those policies. We need more scrutiny and accountability in relation to that.

Mrs Long:

My second question is about the comments that you have made on access to justice and vulnerable young people. What specific role does the EU and associated bodies have with regard to protecting children from trafficking? How do you link with that work?

Ms Lewsley:

A couple of different forums have been set up in Northern Ireland. We facilitated a round-table discussion not so long ago on the issues facing Roma children. The first thing that we were able to identify was that there was no trafficking of children. The number of children that are being trafficked in Northern Ireland is minimal compared with other countries. We will be able to learn about those issues from the cross-body forum that has been established. We have also been to Scotland and other places to see what is happening in their detention centres. We are learning the process at the moment so that if it does happen, we will have some evidence and we will know where to go for help.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation and for the clarity of your answers. If you have any further information for our inquiry we will be happy to receive it. We may well seek further clarification on aspects that we are interested in. Thank you.

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