Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 05 November 2008

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 Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

The junior Minister (Office of the First and the deputy First Minister)(Mr Donaldson) 
The junior Minister (Office of the First and the deputy First Minister)(Mr G Kelly)

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

Good afternoon. I welcome the junior Ministers and their officials to today’s meeting, which will be recorded by Hansard. After the opening statement, time will be allowed for members to ask questions. We intend to cover four separate areas of discussion: the draft action plan for children and young people; the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child; the children and young people’s priorities, and other issues that members wish to discuss.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson):

Thank you, Chairperson and members of the Committee, for inviting us here today. Junior Minister Gerry Kelly and I welcome this opportunity to update the Committee on the work that we have taken forward and will be taking forward in relation to children and young people. There is a wide range of issues on the agenda, and in this opening statement I will cover items five and six from the original agenda. Junior Minister Gerry Kelly will cover item seven. We will endeavour to address the remaining matters together.

The Chairperson:

Would it be better to take the items as they come and allow members to ask questions on each individual item?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

We both have short opening presentations, which will not detain the Committee for very long. We prefer to deal with the issues as they arise, and we wish to leave as much time as possible for questions. If the Committee is content, it will not take us long to go through what we have to say. After that, we will deal with questions on an item-by-item basis, if that is OK.

Members indicated assent.

We have responsibility for the co-ordination of policy and the promotion of the rights and needs of children and young people, and we have been taking those forward in a number of ways. We are driving forward the 10-year strategy for children and young people, and, as members know, we are in the process of developing a three-year action plan. The Committee contributed to the review of the first action plan and has had an opportunity to make comments on the first draft of the three-year plan.

I stress that this is an early draft and is, by no means, the final version. We welcome the views that the Committee has provided to help us to strengthen the plan. The current draft was informed by the review of the first action plan, which included input from parents, practitioners, voluntary and community sector representatives and young people. The review identified several ways that the action plan could be strengthened, which included clear identification of new actions; clear identification of targets and outcomes, and a clear link to indicators and outcomes.

On 10 September 2008, we held the first meeting with the strategy planning and review group, whose role is to provide advice on, and to monitor the implementation of, the draft children and young people’s action plans. The group includes representatives from the voluntary sector, area children and young people’s committees, and the children’s champions from key Departments. The main focus of the first meeting was to discuss the draft action plan. Following that meeting, the group was given an additional four weeks to consult their member organisations and to feed in further views on the initial draft. Departments are now considering those comments alongside the Committee’s feedback and the report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, entitled ‘Concluding Observations and Recommendations’, which was issued on 3 October 2008. We recognise that there are a number of gaps, many of which have been highlighted in the views that we have received.

OFMDFM does not deliver direct services to children and young people. However, we encourage colleagues across the Departments to consider current gaps and the issues that have been raised by members of the review group and the Committee and to identify any further actions that can be taken during the next three years to tackle those gaps. Issues have been raised about suicide, self-harm, support for children from the Travelling community, safeguarding mental health and support for vulnerable groups, among others.

The draft action plan has been developed specifically for a period of three years in order to tie in with the Programme for Government and the Budget. Actions included in the draft plan are those for which Departments have secured funding in the budgetary process and that are departmental priorities in line with the Programme for Government. We are committed to respect and progress the rights of children and young people in Northern Ireland and will be guided and informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The action plans for the 10-year strategy for children and young people will be the key mechanism by which we will chart progress on that commitment.

As I have already said, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued its ‘Concluding Observations and Recommendations’ following the oral examination on 3 October 2008. Departments have been asked to identify any additional actions that they can take between now and March 2011 as a result of, and to address, the concluding observations.

Again, I stress that the draft three-year action plan is at an early stage of development. We recognise that there is additional work to be done to deal with current gaps. Officials are working closely with other Departments to revise the draft action plan, which will be re-issued to the strategy planning and review group in advance of the second meeting, which is scheduled to take place on 11 November. That extended meeting will consider the draft plan in detail. We hope to be in a position to achieve a final draft shortly thereafter.

Junior Minister Kelly will now provide an update on the work plan and the ministerial subcommittee.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly):

Good afternoon, Mr Chairman and Committee members. You will have seen our 12-month work plan, which, I believe, was sent to the Committee in July 2008. We continue to move forward with the key pieces of work outlined in the plan. Integral to the work plan is continued engagement with children and young people. We are keen to ensure that we reach the widest possible range of children and young people and provide an opportunity for them to talk to us and to help to inform our work.

As you are also aware, one of the key supporting themes of the 10-year strategy is to develop the culture of involving children and young people in decisions that affect their lives. As part of our commitment to hearing the voices of young people, we hosted a youth debate in the Assembly Chamber on 23 October 2008, the purpose of which was to encourage a wide range of young people to engage with the democratic legislative and governmental administrative process.

We wanted to listen to young people’s views and provide them with the opportunity to be active participants and have their opinions heard on an issue relevant to them. It was also an opportunity to provide young people with first-hand experience of how an Assembly debate works and involve them in the process that takes place at the centre of Government

The debate was attended by 140 young people aged from 11 to 17, which surprised us all. They were from a wide cross section of the community including youth groups; youth councils; the Travelling community; young people in care; young people in contact with the juvenile justice system, and disabled youth. The event was very successful, with effective participation by all of the young people in the workshops on the morning of the event. We have undertaken to feed the points raised back to the ministerial subcommittee subgroups, particularly the subgroup that is considering vulnerable young people. A Hansard report will be published shortly, and it will be sent with a DVD to each of the young people who took part.

We were pleased that several MLAs attended in support of the young people. It is hoped that those who did so enjoyed the event, which turned out to be very worthwhile. However, I was disappointed that only 40 of the 108 MLAs put their names forward. Yesterday, Participation Network led a lunchtime seminar in Parliament Buildings to encourage MLAs to engage with young people in their constituencies. We wanted to raise awareness among MLAs of the benefits of interacting with children and young people and of the importance of hearing directly from them, particularly on local issues. That seminar was also well attended. Even now, though, because we have put listening to young people at the centre of the initiative, the more MLAs who are involved in such events the better.

At yesterday’s event, we also launched a young people’s version of the 10-year strategy for children and young people. It takes the form of a mobile-phone document that has been developed with direct input from a range of young people. We intend to distribute the document to all children up to the age of 18 and those who are in post-primary education, including those in further education colleges. We are aware that a sizeable number of young people aged 16 to 18 do not attend school or college and efforts are underway with the voluntary sector to ensure that the documents reach that group.

Our work plan includes the launch of a staying safe policy statement, and we have developed a cross-departmental safeguarding policy statement that binds together and integrates current developments and existing measures related to the safeguarding of children. It will also consider what additional actions and policies are required. That document also seeks to place safeguarding arrangements in an east-west and a North/South context. It will contribute to the development of “the living in safety and with stability” outcome of the 10-year strategy for children and young people. That should assist those who are working directly with children and young people or those who are developing policies and services for them in any capacity. It will also help in the development of priorities for the subgroup on safeguarding established under the ministerial subcommittee. The document is currently with Ministers for clearance and we will send it to the Committee in the near future.

Another of the actions in our work plan was to consider the recommendations of the PSI working group on lone parents. Actions of a cross-cutting nature, such as those raised in the PSI lone parents report, will have implications for all Departments. In that context, recommendations will require Executive approval and agreement in respect of the most appropriate means to make progress, including setting targets and actions.

A Chathaoirligh, you have asked for an update on the work of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. As you are aware, the primary role of the subcommittee is to drive forward the implementation of the 10-year strategy for children and young people, with particular focus on achieving greater policy integration. Since the last update, the subcommittee has met three times and has established six key priorities. In brief, those priorities are: child poverty; early years; provision for vulnerable young people; safeguarding; provision for children with special educational needs, and provision of school buses and road safety.

Cross-departmental subgroups have been set up, each of which has been asked to identify a small number of cross-cutting actions for the next 12 months. Those actions will be additional to, and will support, actions already outlined in the draft children and young people’s action plan. Each Department has nominated a champion for children and young people to act as a key point of contact on children’s issues within Departments. Their first meeting took place on 5 August 2008, and the second meeting was yesterday.

The group’s chairperson provided an update at the September ministerial subcommittee meeting, which also included a discussion with the Commissioner for Children and Young People. We will provide further updates as the work on the key priorities progresses.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. The Committee intends to deal with the priorities in stages. Junior Minister Donaldson said that OFMDFM has no direct day-to-day role with regard to the children and young people’s draft action plan. Surely the Department has a role in overseeing the work of other Departments with respect to the plan and to ensure that that work is being done. How is that activity being policed by OFMDFM?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

As junior Minister Kelly indicated, our approach is to try and be co-operative and to encourage Departments to implement agreed actions, rather than our being a kind of police force in the Executive. Ministers have a large degree of autonomy on matters within their departmental remits. Nevertheless, OFMDFM has a co-ordinating role and, through the action plan, we have sought to identify priorities and work closely with the Departments. Our work in the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people has been very fruitful and has helped to focus minds. Those subcommittee meetings have been attended by Ministers and senior officials. Indeed, one of the reasons for appointing a children’s champion in each Department was to create links on a personal basis, so that there would be someone in each Department who could provide feedback from different sectors and groups, and with whom appropriate action could be discussed.

The infrastructure is now in place to enable OFMDFM to be more effective in policing — if you want to use that term — the implementation of agreed actions. The subcommittee and the subgroups are very important in that regard: they help us take forward all agreed actions and develop them further in order to ensure greater efficiency across Government. Where we feel that a Department is not living up to an expectation — and issues have been raised with us by the Children’s Commissioner, for example — then we will meet Ministers individually, as we have done, or senior officials to address those issues.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Given that the issue is so wide ranging, it is important to provide focus. At the last subcommittee and children’s champions meetings, we asked people to focus closely on the issues. The subgroups with responsibility for implementing the six priorities are departmental-led. A number of Departments are involved, and, as of necessity there is a lead Department. At those meetings, we have attempted to emphasise the need for focus to ensure that action is taken, and that a broad approach is not taken.

The Chairperson:

For quite a while the Committee has been concerned that there is a lot of carrot but little stick when it comes to OFMDFM exerting pressure and insisting that priorities from the Programme for Government are carried through by individual Departments.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I take your point, Mr Chairman. Obviously, we have to strike a balance between seeking co-operation from Departments to meet key priorities in the Programme for Government and bringing the heavy hand to bear when it is needed. When it has come to our attention that there is a deficit somewhere and when we have spoken to Ministers, they have followed through on those concerns, and there has not been the need to take any further action or sanction.

One of the purposes behind establishing the ministerial subcommittee was to improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of Departments working individually and on a collaborative basis on their remits. We wanted to be proactive rather than reactive. We sought to agree priorities, and agree strategies to address those priorities. Through the subcommittee, we have the means to hold Ministers and Departments to account when it is clear that they are not following through on things. We are satisfied that we have struck the right balance.

If members have concerns about areas where Departments are not delivering, we are more than happy to hear about then and meet with Ministers or officials to address the issues. We welcome the Committee’s input on that aspect.

Mr Shannon:

I thank the junior Ministers for their attendance. I am sorry that I had to duck out for a moment and miss some of the presentation. I have prepared my questions beforehand, as they say on ‘Blue Peter’.

A number of issues relating to children and young people have been mentioned: that is where my concerns lie. I would like to bring four issues to your attention. First, you mentioned the Youth Parliament, and I think that you deserve credit for that. It was significant. Unfortunately, I could not attend on that particular day, but those who did —

The Chairperson:

Would you please focus on your questions?

Mr Shannon:

Yes. My first question concerns educational underachievement. It has been brought to my attention, and I am sure that the Ministers are aware, that urban working-class Protestant children achieve less academically than their Roman Catholic counterparts. What are you doing to address that issue and ensure that the working-class Protestant children of that age group achieve more and realise their aspirations?

I understand that the play and learning policy has been delayed for four months. Please tell us why that is the case and what steps you are taking to ensure that it will be implemented sooner? I agree with the Chairperson’s concerns about poverty. What will happen with the recommendations on anti-poverty?

My final question concerns the departmental children’s champions. I am aware that Eddie Rooney is present, and I know that he is particularly interested in children’s issues. I am encouraged by his presence — but although he is the champion of champions, if I can put it that way, I want to ensure that the champions in other Departments will be equally energetic and enthusiastic.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I will answer the first and third questions: junior Minister Kelly will take the second and fourth. As regards educational underachievement in urban areas affecting children from a Protestant working-class background, the First Minister, in particular, is making that issue a key priority. That priority will be taken forward both through OFMDFM and in co-operation with other Departments.

The Department of Education has the main responsibility as regards educational underachievement. As there are a number of causes for educational underachievement, there is a wide range of ways in which we can tackle the problem. To be fair, the reason is not because of any one inadequacy in the education system. I am not saying that there is no deficiency, but simply altering transfer arrangements in schools will not address the problem; it goes much deeper than that. It is about poverty, and I will go into more detail on child poverty and social deprivation. It is about influences on children — family influences. It is about the kind of role models that young people in communities are looking to.

It is partly about improving community infrastructure and working with community groups who often have after-schools clubs in place. We may address that issue later in relation to funding.

Educational underachievement can be tackled partly by improving the provision of education and partly by examining the social environment in which young children live. The greatest thing that Members can do is ensure that devolution delivers for young people and that the political process continues to be stable so that better opportunities are available for them in the future.

Our role is to co-ordinate the Government’s response on the issue. Junior Minister Kelly listed some of the subcommittee’s key priorities. Those include child poverty, which is linked to educational underachievement; early years, because evidence suggests that the support that children receive then has a major impact on their educational development; and vulnerable young people, including those from socially-deprived backgrounds.

Three of the six priorities specifically focus on children who live in areas of social deprivation, who are vulnerable, or who face educational underachievement. Those are indicators that problems exist. We must address those problems in co-ordination with other Departments. The Department of Education is very much involved in the work of the subcommittee.

Clearly, child poverty is a problem. However, considerable progress has been made in seeking to eliminate child poverty. Measures have included the introduction of the national minimum wage, the reform of tax and benefits policies by the UK Government, the tax credit system, and so on. Reform is set to continue with the goal of supporting more people into employment.

At a local level, we can continue to influence factors such as social deprivation in urban areas, which you mentioned, by improving the quality of public services offered. The support that those services provide can help parents, in particular, to overcome the barriers to securing employment with a decent income.

The delivery of a range of departmental programmes and initiatives in other areas, such as SureStart, the expansion of the pre-school education programme, health services, locally delivered benefit uptake, and neighbourhood renewal in deprived areas, will also play an important part in tackling child poverty.

As I mentioned, through the workings of the ministerial subcommittee for children and young people, which junior Minister Kelly and I chair, a subgroup was recently established to ensure that there is a comprehensive and cohesive focus on the issue of child poverty in Northern Ireland. We have identified that as a key priority area. The ministerial subcommittee subgroup was established specifically to focus on that issue and to provide a comprehensive approach across all Departments. Senior officials from OFMDFM chair the subgroup, and they have already met representatives from the other Departments. We will welcome and consider closely the subgroup’s report on the outcome of that meeting. Child poverty is a priority for us. There is a clear link between child poverty and educational underachievement.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The play policy is now called the play and leisure policy. The benefits of play to a child’s development are now well documented, and we are committed to promoting those benefits through the development of cross-departmental play and leisure implementation plans. Ministers and members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have approved a play and leisure policy statement, which has been sent to the Executive for approval for publication. In answer to your question, the statement is being processed under urgent procedure.

Mr Shannon:

Is it going through despite the Executive not meeting?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Yes. Urgent procedure allows for policies such as that to be processed in that way. I will return to that issue in a moment. Moneys have been secured for the next two years for the development of the policy. After that, it is intended that the responsibility for delivery of actions will shift to Departments and other statutory partners, such as councils.

We recognise that vulnerable groups of children, such as those in poverty or with disabilities, may need additional support to gain maximum benefit from play. We will, therefore, ensure that the development of the implementation plan takes account of the needs of a range of vulnerable groups. For those reasons, we considered that urgent procedure was the best way to advance this.

Mr Shannon asked a question about children’s champions, and about how we can guarantee that all the Departments will be involved. My answer refers to junior Minister Donaldson’s explanation of why we have a ministerial subcommittee, a series of subgroups and children’s champions. It is specifically so that everyone knows that there are people in each Department who offer a sort of one-stop-shop for all those issues and who are accountable for them. Accountability was the problem previously.

We have accountability mechanisms: the champions meet and they must then report to the subgroup and the ministerial subcommittee. Those mechanisms will ensure that the Departments act in a co-ordinated manner.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

With respect to child poverty, the Committee made 47 recommendations in its June report. We are finalising a formal response to that report, which the Committee will receive very soon.

The Chairperson:

Will it be possible for you to use urgent procedure for that item?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

It is possible, subject to agreement. We will contact the Committee before proceeding. This is an important issue and, if there are key recommendations that must be implemented, the Department would not want to delay them.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

It needs to be said that urgent procedure is supposed to be used only in extraordinary circumstances. However, as my answer to Jim Shannon shows, the moneys are available and the matter is urgent. All those matters are decided on a case-by-case basis.

The Chairperson:

Having produced that report, we are anxious to receive the response as quickly as possible.

Ms Anderson:

Go raibh maith agat. Jeffrey, you said that the action plan is not finalised and that there are gaps in it. You undertook to ensure that additional work will be done on it. We are concerned that recommendations have been made by the Committee, but the equality impact assessment (EQIA) has not been done yet. OFMDFM’s equality scheme commits it — at least — to establish a steering group for the assessment of an equality impact assessment when dealing with an issue that requires close co-operation with other Departments. This is such a strategy. However, I do recognise that you have said that the Department intends to fill the gaps that have been identified.

Jeffrey also talked about effective Government and the effective use of public money. Children’s services planners — such as Ann Godfrey and others — have produced a regional service plan. Is OFMDFM working in co-operation with them? Much of their work is similar to that identified in the action plan.

At the end of October, OFMDFM released a statement on mortality rates. The highest mortality rates are found in the 20% most deprived areas. Jeffrey has said that there are gaps in the document. I expect that that statistic is reflected and addressed in the action plan.

The Chairperson:

I remind the member that there are other members who are waiting to ask questions.

Ms Anderson:

This is my last question. I am simply copying Jim.

The Chairperson:

I understand that all questions are important, but we need to be fair to other members who are waiting to ask questions.

Ms Anderson:

In relation to economic and environmental well-being — in the context of the Programme for Government commitment about new and innovative measures being needed to build prosperity and tackle disadvantage — I was surprised that there is no reference to the role of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in the investment strategy and how it could be used; particularly after the recommendations that we made during the child-poverty inquiry.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I appreciate those comments. If those issues remain unaddressed when the Committee receives the final report, we will be happy to receive the Committee’s views. An EQIA was carried out on the 10-year strategy for children and young people. Each specific policy area that flows from the action plan will also be subject to EQIAs at departmental level where they form part of the policies of the Departments.

We have not yet made a final decision about whether an EQIA is needed on the action plan, but there is a danger that we will over-egg the pudding by having EQIAs at every level, as it may delay the process. I am not indicating a final outcome, but we need to consider the extent to which that is necessary, given that an EQIA was performed on the 10-year strategy and we also have the potential for EQIAs on the policy areas that the action plan will cover. We will take a final decision on that basis. However, we have noted the comments that the member made.

A couple of weeks ago, officials from the Department met children’s services planners to discuss areas of common interest. We are mindful of the need to avoid duplication where possible.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

We will consider that suggestion. No decision has yet been made, and the member made a very strong argument for performing an EQIA.

Mrs D Kelly:

I welcome the junior Ministers to the Committee. How does the Department intend to deal with the 144 actions in the previous action plan that were not completed? Are you both satisfied with the fact that there is no money for year one of the play and leisure policy? That strategy has been stretched to age 18, but the cut-off is a much earlier age, so more money has to go a lot further.

Do you not think that the phrases “effective Government” and the use of “urgent procedure” is a contradiction? Surely meetings of the Executive would be an example of effective Government.

Given that there is a looming economic crisis — and it is likely that more families will be thrown into poverty — will the figures about meeting targets and lifting children out of poverty be revised? If so, how?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

The member raised a concern about the previous action plan and the 144 actions that were not completed. The new action plan will gather up and seek to make progress on some of those. We recognised the need to improve co-ordination across Government — one of the reasons why we established the ministerial subcommittee was to address the issues that affect children and young people. It will also make our approach on cross-cutting issues more cohesive, effective and efficient. We are beginning to see the outworkings of the initiative, but it will take time to work through.

We have tried to prioritise a number of areas in which we feel there is a need for urgent action. Child poverty is undoubtedly one of those and we are very mindful of that. With the current economic downturn, there is no doubt that more children and families will slip below the poverty net. We must consider how we can help those children and young people. Already, help is being provided in a range of areas. The child poverty subgroup, which works to the ministerial subcommittee, has identified several departmental initiatives that are in place to tackle child poverty.

Benefits-impact targeting, urban regeneration, neighbourhood renewal, housing affordability and tackling fuel poverty are initiatives that are run by the Department for Social Development (DSD). The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) runs the Pathways to Work strategy through its employment service. DEL also runs lone-parent initiatives; the Local Employment Intermediary Service; the Steps to Work initiative; initiatives on skills and training; and initiatives to create more leverage for lone parents. The Department of Education runs initiatives to prepare the learner for work, to enable learners to fulfil their potential, the ‘Every School a Good School’ initiative and the early-years strategy.

Mrs D Kelly:

Five projects that are run by the Department of Education are due to cease, not least the extended-schools programme, which will be subject to a budget cut of £640,000. How will that be resolved?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Undoubtedly, that issue is exercising us. As you know, the children’s fund moneys come to an end on 31 March 2009, and the funding of some projects may end earlier than that. We and our officials are involved in discussions with the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) — some of the projects are health-related and funded by that Department — to ascertain how funding can be continued for projects that are delivering.

We are mindful of that issue and are addressing it. We hope that, in the course of discussions with Departments, we will be able to get agreement on how we will continue to fund projects that are delivering, which are necessary to tackle child poverty and which, in particular, help children with their educational development.

I mentioned some of those areas in order to point out the fact that several initiatives on child poverty are in place at departmental level. OFMDFM seeks to ensure that those initiatives are focused and effective. We will continue to work as effectively as possible to achieve that.

We are mindful of the actions with which we need to catch up. Some of those will be caught by the new action plan, and others will be dealt with by the ministerial subcommittee subgroups that are already set up. We want to ensure that we deliver on any commitments that we make.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The Department of Education is waiting to receive additional moneys that have been allocated to it in the September monitoring round. We are aware that people need notice about several of the projects, and we are doing our best to ensure that the projects continue.

I mentioned that moneys have been secured for the next two years for the development of the play and leisure policy. After that, it is intended that responsibility for delivery of actions will shift to Departments and statutory partners, for instance, councils. Money is available, and we are committed to the play and leisure policy.

I would have been surprised if Mrs Kelly had not asked about the urgent procedures and about an Executive meeting. Urgent procedures are used for the reason that you referred to in your question. We want to make progress. Urgent procedures have been used on several occasions, but that is not the only way — and it is certainly not the best way — to develop the process. We are trying our best to get to the point at which urgent procedures will be used less because it is less necessary to use them.

Mrs Long:

I apologise for being delayed and missing the most of the presentation. I congratulate the junior Ministers and the staff on the successful debate that was held at the Youth Parliament. The parts of it that I witnessed went well, and it should be encouraged and expanded. The young people who were involved also found it to be a good experience, and that is positive.

I will focus on three issues. First, I understand that you are not in a position to talk about your response to the child poverty inquiry because that has not been signed off. However, when the Committee discussed the matter with officials, it was concerned that the learning aspect in the report did not appear to have been taken on board when the action plan was produced. The measures for child poverty are focused on benefit uptake and other issues that involve benefits. The Committee’s experience is that benefit uptake and benefits themselves are not the answer to tackling child poverty in any real sense. Issues such as employability, childcare, and so on must be tackled. I recognise that you referred to that in your earlier answer. However, it is important to see that reflected in the action plan under those target headlines so that it is clear that the nature of the work is joined up.

The issue of deliverability has been raised by several people. I understand why the Executive have chosen to move away from Special EU Programme funding, because it creates uncertainty in a one- or three-year cycle for groups funded under those measures. However, it has the advantage of ring-fenced funding. That money has been delivered and mainstreamed into Departments. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the child-centred targets for which it was previously spent are as high a priority in those host Departments as many of the other priorities would be.

At the same time as saying that there would not be a special fund, it may be wise to ring-fence funding for children and young people’s issues. The Committee’s recent research shows that even in Governments with a coherent philosophy, it was difficult to get individual Ministers to deliver within their own remit unless there were economic levers. There does not appear to be those economic levers. I would like that to be re-considered as an issue. I understand the difficulties, but it is important.

What specific and direct consultation will there be with children and young people on the action plan and the play and leisure strategy?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Junior Minister Kelly will deal with the funding issues. I accept what you say about the joined-up approach and child poverty. I agree that it is not just about improving the uptake of benefit — important though that is; it is about much more than that. That is why the ministerial subcommittee subgroup that we have established on child poverty is cross departmental. It is examining every possible initiative that we can take in Government to tackle the issue, be that improving employment prospects for people who live in socially deprived areas, considering educational underachievement, examining how we can improve education and skills provision in those areas, and so on.

The subgroup working on child poverty will lead to a more cohesive approach by Government across Departments to tackling the issue. That subgroup can be used to create greater accountability on that issue.

I agree absolutely that it is important for children and young people to be consulted on the action plan. Junior Minister Kelly and I meet regularly with children and young people and listen to their views. We met a group a couple of weeks ago, and some of their input was excellent. As teenagers, they have practical experience of the difficulties of accessing support. We are taking those points on board and feeding them into our action plan and the play and leisure policy, which includes children up to 18 years of age. There will be consultation with children and young people on the action plan and issues such as the play and leisure policy.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

As several members, including Mrs Long, have raised the issue of the youth debate, I take this opportunity to congratulate Caroline Evans and her team who did most of the work to put it together; although it was a great success, it was also a logistical nightmare. The standard of the debates were incredible. It was an excellent experience all round.

Although you raised several matters, I will begin by talking about ring-fenced funds. I presume that you know anyway; however, it is worth reiterating the fact that the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) proposed discontinuing central funding, and that proposal was endorsed by the Executive and the Assembly. It could be requested that that decision be reconsidered, and that would be a fair comment. However, the decision was taken for several reasons, including the fact that if individual projects requiring support are considered to be of significant value, their funding stream should be part of the relevant Department’s programme, and mainstreamed rather than managed from central funds.

The Budget process determined the amount of money available for each Minister to develop his or her key priorities, and it is therefore up to each Minister to determine how to allocate resources. Sympathy for your position was expressed in discussions, and the decision was difficult. Nevertheless, we are in the situation that I have described. I do not know whether your opinion is shared by the rest of the Committee; however, if it is, we must consider it.

It is difficult to argue that returning to central funding would resolve the matter, because the Departments would then be inclined to leave the responsibility for resources to central funding. I know that you understand that argument, and I am not attempting say otherwise; however, I note what you said, and I will consider it.

Ms Long:

I understand the difficulties with central funding. However, I am more concerned about ring-fencing money that has been allocated for work with children and young people within departmental budgets. Other Administrations manage to do that. For example, if DHSSPS money is involved, that Department retains the lead responsibility for matters concerning children and young people. However, the money is ring-fenced to ensure that it is not spent on other matters that, in the short term, might seem to be a higher priority, but which would prevent long-term goals being achieved. I am suggesting that you consider a halfway house arrangement, by which the money would be ring-fenced, but not in a central pool.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Your point is well made, and the ministerial subcommittee, which deals with such matters, will keep it under review.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

There is an ongoing discussion about the matter, so if other members of the Committee wish to comment, we would be keen to hear those opinions.

Mr McElduff:

I have one question only —

Mr Shannon:

That makes a change. [Laughter.]

Mr McElduff:

I knew that that would get a reaction. Can junior Minister Donaldson assure members that children and young people, or their representative groups, were consulted about developing the draft action plan?

In addition, I commend both junior Ministers for the youth debate. I sponsored one young person’s participation, and I witnessed part of the debate. Furthermore, I commend the junior Ministers for attending and their identification with the participation network seminar in the Long Gallery yesterday. That is why I am seeking reassurance that the theory of the draft action plan is being put into practice.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Full consultation was carried out on the 10-year strategy for children and young people, from which the draft action plan has been developed. That consultation included a young people’s advisory forum, focus groups and several events that were attended by a total of 1,255 children, which is impressive. In addition, 30 written responses were received from children.

As we said, the revised action plan is a draft, and we are consulting people from the sector through the strategy planning and review group. Moreover, we will ensure that that specifically includes consultation with children and young people.

Mr Molloy:

I thank the junior Ministers for their presentations. I also nominated someone for the youth debate. It was an important event, but I was not aware that MLAs were invited, so if Members were missing, it was perhaps because that was not made clear. Nevertheless, people who participated told me that it was an important debate. Hopefully, such debates will continue to be held and developed further, particularly in light of local democracy week.

What liaison has there been with the Planning Service about the play and leisure policy? At local government level, there is often frustration about the fact that the Planning Service has no input to, and places no restrictions on, the amount of new developments. Space is left for play areas in Housing Executive estates, because it is required even if there are play centres open. Developers are reluctant to give up any space for that purpose. It is important that the new policy outlines that space should be provided, and the Planning Service should play a key role in ensuring that developers leave that space. Housing associations should also be included in that.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

That is an interesting and pertinent point, because in the ongoing debate about regeneration and urban renewal, a common issue is the provision of amenities — in addition to road structures — when developments are built. For example, estates were built willy-nilly in my constituency, and the sewerage system was unable to cope. We can talk to the relevant Ministers to find a solution. I am sympathetic to the point that you made.

The Chairperson:

Is there not also an issue of insurance and future liabilities?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

As any MLA knows from his or her constituency, several complex issues are involved. We are determined to implement a play and leisure policy, and we must work our way through all the issues.

Mr Elliott:

I am pleased to hear that the play and leisure policy is being developed. Will a separate early-years strategy soon be developed? I ask that because the early years are the key to a child’s development.

I noticed that the issues of victims and a shared future are missing from the action plan. Has any progress been made on the inclusion of those issues? Are there terms of reference from the Executive on the children’s champions or do they come from the respective Departments? I ask that because each Department will have a different role for the children’s champions.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The Department of Education is developing an early-years strategy.

Mr Elliott:

Do you have a timescale for that?

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

I do not have those details at hand.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

One of the subgroups of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people is also focused on early years. Therefore, in addition to the work that the Department of Education is doing, we are examining how to take a comprehensive approach to early years.

As the Member knows, we have established the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, which is at an early stage in working through its work programme. We have published a strategy for victims and survivors, which seeks to increase the level of funding available to victims’ groups and will create a new victims’ service, which will be centred on victims and survivors and provide a one-stop-shop for groups and individuals who want to access funding, support and counselling.

Sadly, there are many young people in Northern Ireland who are victims and survivors, and I know that the victims’ commissioners are clearly focused on that and the need to examine specifically how to help children and young people who have been victims and have lost loved ones. The strategy for victims and survivors is out for consultation, and we welcome feedback and input from any member of the Committee about what more can be done to help such children and young people.

In the context of our action plan, we will seek to work closely with the victims’ commissioners on issues that affect children and young people and with the new victims’ service — if it is established — and other stakeholders.

We want to consider the representation of children and young people on the victims and survivors forum.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

The draft action plan is an early draft; the Department is open to feedback from the Committee and others.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I accept the member’s point about children’s champions. It is important to achieve as much cohesion as possible in Departments to avoid the situation whereby the definition of children’s champion varies across Departments. We have already met with the children’s champions to discuss cross-departmental issues and we will continue to seek to have a co-ordinated approach. We will also ensure that the role of the children’s champion is taken seriously by each Department, and that it will provide the point of contact for the junior Ministers. We do not want a league situation to develop in which some children’s champions are more effective than others.

Mr Elliott:

Is it each Department’s responsibility to establish a children’s champion and take forward the remit?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

Each Department appoints a children’s champion. As far as reporting and accountability are concerned, the children’s champions are very much involved with the work of the ministerial subcommittee and subgroups. Therefore, they are not left to their own devices. They will be integral to developing our strategy and implementing our action plan in all Departments.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Given that two members have raised the issue, it is worth mentioning that there is a central terms of reference for children’s champions regardless of the Departments they represent.

Mr Spratt:

I thank the Ministers for attending. Will the action plan be funded through individual departmental budgets, or will additional finance be available?

Other members have mentioned that there is a danger of more people falling into the poverty trap as a result of the credit crunch and the current economic climate in the Province and the wider world. Do the junior Ministers agree that it is imperative that all Ministers sit around the Executive table weekly or fortnightly to discuss such issues? Those matters cannot be addressed by urgent procedure.

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

The action plan has been developed specifically for a period of three years to tie in with the Programme for Government and the Budget. The 10-year strategy is not separate from the work of Departments; rather it is embedded in their business. All Departments are working to include high-level outcomes and indicators in the strategy in respect of children and young people, and individual strategies — such as early-years and Families Matter — feed off the outcomes framework.

Funding for such strategies and work being conducted to improve the lives of children and young people in line with the strategy’s aims was secured in the CSR process, and specific targets have been outlined in the Programme for Government and PSAs. It is difficult to determine the exact amount of funding available for children and young people across Government because Departments cannot always disaggregate their funding. The Committee will be aware of our difficulty in identifying the funding available for programmes that were supported by the children and young peoples’ funding package. That difficulty is accentuated when one tries to break down the full budgets of Departments by age. Departments will, mainly, fund programmes that fall within their departmental remits. However, I emphasise that funding for the strategies was secured as part of the CSR process, and OFMDFM wants to ensure that that funding is allocated to achieving the agreed actions that arise out of the action plan for each Department.

The Executive’s purpose is to enable Government co-ordination, continually agree priorities and enable Departments and Ministers to reach agreement on strategies and actions.

The Executive have been able to agree some of those matters through the urgent procedure mechanism, which junior Minister Kelly explained earlier. However, there are other matters that remain to be addressed and agreed by the Executive. I am speaking on a personal basis and not as a Minister when I say that I would like to see the Executive meeting.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

All parties want the Executive to meet. People around this table know that fundamental issues need to be sorted out to achieve progress. I speak as a MLA when I say that it is the intention of all parties, including Sinn Féin, to advance.

The Chairperson:

In relation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, has progress been made on the Northern Ireland-specific recommendations?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

I referred to that in my opening remarks. That issue is ongoing. We have written to each of our ministerial subcommittee colleagues and outlined the key recommendations that have emerged from the UN report. We asked them to consider the implications that those recommendations will have for their Department and to respond to us. We have also written to each MLA to update them on the situation; it is a work in progress. We have not reached a definitive conclusion on the recommendations of the report.

The Chairperson:

Members have had the opportunity to ask questions on the range of topics that are before the Committee. Would anyone else like to ask a quick question?

Ms Anderson:

PSA 7 relates to child poverty and contains the particular objective of promoting social inclusion for lone parents. In the context of the procurement process and the social requirements that are to be built into that — and in light of the credit crunch — is there an opportunity to ensure that public money is being spent effectively towards skilling up individuals, where possible? Is that requirement being built into the Departments’ contracts? Such a measure would enable the long-term unemployed and those who require to be skilled up to achieve the employability target that was mentioned earlier. That is one way in which that problem could be addressed.

I do not think that the social requirements built into the procurement contracts have been given much weight. They have been passed by the Executive; we have heard about them, and they provide a lot of opportunity and potential, but it seems as though they float in the ether. Ministers have not informed us how they are being used proactively.

The junior Minister (Mr J Donaldson):

The member raises an important point. She is correct to suggest that at the moment, not only do we face the requirement to make efficiencies across all Departments under the CSR, but the economic downturn is having implications for Departments. Yesterday, Members saw a report in the media stating that, for example, capital receipts for a number of Departments will be reduced significantly in light of the downturn in the property market. That has implications for investment. It is essential that we ensure that the money available to us is put to the best and most effective use. That is a requirement across Government and in every Department.

The likelihood of Treasury looking sympathetically on any request for money from Northern Ireland, or any region of the UK, is small. Treasury will need to recoup all the money that it has had to invest in shoring up the banking sector recently; so we will not get much advance there.

Better use must be made of the mechanisms to which the Member referred to ensure value for money from all funding that is made available for projects and initiatives and for implementing policies on the ground whether for educational development or in other sectors. Although it is a cross-departmental requirement, it is primarily the responsibility of the Finance Minister and not OFMDFM, although we have a co-ordinating role at some level. I take the member’s point, but I do not want to stray into the Finance Minister’s territory.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

Unless it is really necessary —

The Chairperson:

You are not handing on the fiddle, of course.

Ms Long:

You stated that you will be bringing a report to the Assembly on the devolved issues relating to the concluding observations in the report on the rights of the child. One issue that is not a devolved matter has been raised in the Committee in recent days, and it concerns the detention of asylum seekers, particularly children. The Committee corresponded with the Department about the issue. Is any formal approach being taken through the BIC or other bodies to lobby for better provision of facilities for asylum-seeking children, and so forth, so that we also have a voice not only on devolved issues, but on reserved or excepted matters?

The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson):

We sought ministerial representation in Geneva during the hearings. We consistently raise the need for devolved regions to have input on what are, strictly speaking, reserved matters, with our ministerial colleagues in Westminster, because there is always a cross over. We will be following up on the member’s specific point by raising it with our colleagues in Whitehall, and we will seek to ensure that it is addressed.

It appears that the Committee has already written to us on the matter of young asylum seekers. If the Committee wishes to express its views on any other matter that is beyond the purview of the devolved Government, junior Minister Kelly and I will ensure that the First Minister and deputy First Minister raise it with colleagues at Whitehall. Indeed, if other matters arising from our consultation fit into that category, we will be happy to hear from the Committee and ensure that they are raised in the appropriate forum, be it in joint ministerial council meetings or the BIC.

The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly):

I was disappointed that we could not go to Geneva. Lucy Smith and the chairperson, Ms Lee, referred to those meetings when I met them during the year. We are concerned with the general treatment of young people, particularly asylum seekers and ethnic minorities. I have visited the juvenile centre at Hydebank Wood, and we plan to visit Woodlands juvenile justice centre. We, in conjunction with the Children’s Commissioner, are focused on ensuring that a close eye is kept on the matter. Regardless of whose responsibility it may be, it is ultimately our responsibility to do so at a local level.

The Chairperson:

That completes the session. Thank you for attending, and if any further issues arise, we will write to seek clarification.

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