Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


Memorandum submitted by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

"Young People should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society's margins, all of us will be impoverished"

(Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations)

INTRODUCTION

  The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland ("the Commission") is an independent public body established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Commission is responsible for implementing the legislation on fair employment, sex discrimination and equal pay, race relations, age, sexual orientation and disability. Our remit also includes overseeing the statutory duties on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and good relations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the disability duties in the Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

The Commission's general duties include:

    — working towards the elimination of discrimination;

    — promoting equality of opportunity and encouraging good practice;

    — promoting positive/affirmative action;

    — promoting good relations between people of different racial groups;

    — overseeing the implementation and effectiveness of the statutory duties on relevant public authorities; and

    — keeping the legislation under review.

  Children and young people are protected by the full range of anti-discrimination legislation as cited above, with particular protection afforded under the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. Further, children and young people are included in the provisions of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act which statutorily requires public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and good relations in their public policies and functions.

  The Commission welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry. Given our particular remit, the focus for our contribution to this inquiry will be in relation to discrimination and inequalities experienced by children and young people in Northern Ireland. The Commission is currently prioritising addressing inequalities in relation to children and education. As such, the Commission requests that the attached document "Every Child an Equal Child" is accepted by the committee as a core element of our evidence to this inquiry.

POVERTY, EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME

  Children in Northern Ireland make up 25% of the population. More than one third of children (122,000) live in poverty, with an estimated 44,000 living in extreme poverty. Child poverty is more prevalent in NI than GB with an estimated 38% of children in Northern Ireland living without basic necessities compared to 20% in Britain. Families of disabled children are more likely to live in poverty.

Given the nexus between inequality and poverty, the Commission has paid particular attention to inequalities that present a risk of poverty within the context of current provisions on the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations which currently covers employment only and on wider public policy issues which are impacted upon by Section 75 requirements.

  The Commission has been consistent in our position on employment matters relating to children young people, in particular on the National Minimum Wage (NMW)

  With the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW), the Commission had argued for the inclusion of people under the age of 18 within its scope. The Commission has consistently opposed the "banding" system within the NMW with lower rates for 16-17 and 17-18 year olds. Unfortunately there has not been a great deal of research carried out in Northern Ireland on the NMW's age banding and any consequent problems, however information from the Citizens Advice Bureau which runs the advice line for the NMW here indicates that the majority of complaints being received are coming from the 18 to 21 age group.

  There is no evidence that the NMW has impacted significantly on the Gender Pay Gap for younger people as a clear differential in wage levels has been showing up from age 18 to 20 (Figure 1).[200]


  The concentration of young women in "training posts" and the gender segregation of these posts which are exempt from NMW coverage may account for the differential showing up at age 18. However there is a shortage of reliable information indicating causality in this area that needs to be addressed. Additionally, the shortage of information on the operation of the NMW in the two lower pay bands is preventing a clear picture of the effects of this directly discriminatory practice from developing. As an additional concern, children from the age of 13 to 16 have no statutory minimum hourly rate for their work, and as has been pointed out by the Children's Law Centre, children and young people often are forced by circumstances to work to supplement low family incomes and facilitate access to 3rd level education. In relation to childhood poverty, research carried out in 2004[201] illustrated that there are higher levels of severe childhood poverty (across all three measures) in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK.

  The clearest counter argument in relation to the age banding of the NMW however lies in its lack of proportionality in terms of a "justification" under the Employment Directive. While it is aimed at promoting a legitimate labour market aim, ie promoting the labour market prospects of vulnerable young people, its application to all young people makes it inherently disproportionate.

POVERTY, INEQUALITY AND EDUCATION

  As noted above the Commission is prioritising work in the area of education currently, recognising that educational achievement has a profound influence on improving life chances and the correlation between inequalities in education and child poverty, in particular persistent poverty cycles that exist here for many equality groups. There is clear evidence that children and young people, who are already at risk of being marginalised in society, including Traveller children, disabled children and working class boys (in particular in Northern Ireland, working class Protestant boys), often have lower levels of educational attainment.

As a somewhat stark illustration of the effect of poverty or deprivation on life chances, a child born in a deprived ward of Northern Ireland in 2001 was likely to live six years less than their more affluent contemporaries and, in 2006, this gap had only narrowly reduced to 5.8 years.[202] Infant mortality rates in deprived wards are a fifth higher than those for the general population[203] and while there have been extensive improvements in relation to cancer prevention and treatment, the incidence of cancer is up to 74% higher in deprived areas than more affluent ones.[204]

  In relation to education and inequalities generally, as cited earlier, the Commission attaches our recent publication "Every child an equal child" which we submit as evidence to this inquiry.

PROPOSED EXTENSION OF CURRENT ANTI-DISCRIMINATION PROVISIONS

  The commission welcomes the recent proposal from the European Commission to make provision for the extension of legislation prohibiting legislation on the grounds of age to goods, facilities and services. This will provide additional protection for children and young people in vital areas such as education, health and housing.

The Commission responded to consultation on the discrimination law review in GB and proposals for Single Equality Act (GB) in September 2007, calling for the removal of a blanket exclusion of children (ie people under 18) from the scope of any protection.

  Historically, the Commission has not supported blanket exclusion under any of the anti-discrimination statutes and the ongoing development of European anti-discrimination law is based on the widest scope of protection to all citizens with limited exemptions that fall outside the general principle of the promotion of equality. The Commission does not therefore support the blanket exclusion of people under the age of 18 from statutory protection against discriminatory acts on the grounds of age in the provision of goods, facilities and services, etc. The Commission assumes that the Government will take into account views on the extent to which such an exception is considered compatible with human rights legislation and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

  The Commission would stress that there is no equivalent blanket exemption under the Age (Employment) Regulations 2006, which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of age, and the introduction of an age bar on non-employment related provisions would create a "disconnect" with the Employment Regulations.

  The Commission also notes that age discrimination as regards the provision of goods, facilities and services and other non-employment related areas is protected under Ireland's Equal Status Act 2000. Although there is a blanket exclusion as regards people under 18, this exemption has resulted in considerable difficulties and its repeal has been repeatedly recommended by Ireland's Equality Authority.

  Given the importance of provision of goods, facilities and services to children and young people, the Commission urges the committee to support its view on including children and young people within the scope of legislation within GB and NI.

SECTION 75 AND CHILDREN'S PARTICIPATION IN DECISION MAKING

  Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires a public authority,[205] designated for the purpose of the Act, in carrying out its functions relating to Northern Ireland to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity:

    (a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;

    (b) between men and women generally;

    (c) between persons with a disability and persons without; and

    (d) between persons with dependants and persons without.

  Section 75(2) requires that, without prejudice to its obligations under subsection (1), a public authority shall in carrying out its functions in Northern Ireland have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group.

  Under Schedule 9 (1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Equality Commission has a duty to:

    (a) keep under review the effectiveness of the duties imposed by Section 75; and

    (b) offer advice and guidance to public authorities and others in connection with these duties.

  Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires that public authorities in carrying out their functions relating to Northern Ireland to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in respect to nine categories, one of which is age. Children and young people comprise one end of the age spectrum and like individuals belonging to all other section 75 categories have multiple identities, for example, as girls or boys, as black and minority ethnic children, as disabled children, or as gay and lesbian young people.

  A central plank of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act is consultation with individuals and groups affected by a public policy. Public authorities must consult with children and young people on policies that impact on their lives. To support designated public authorities to undertake effective consultation with children and young people, the Commission has published guidance "Let's talk, Let's Listen" which offers advice and good practice examples on including children and young people in public policy decision making. A copy of this Guidance is attached for additional information.

  The involvement of children and young people in decision making about their future development is essential in giving them a sense of ownership and encouraging participation. Research by the National Childrens Bureau and the Young Life and Times Survey have indicated that the involvement of children and young people in the development of strategies to deal with issues such as bullying, is at the core of effective measures to address the problem. The development of the curriculum is centrally driven increasingly with reference to macro economic factors, rather than with a view to developing an individual child to their full capacity and in spheres where they have an interest. As with other services, education is something that is "done" to children and young people rather than something that they play a part in shaping.

  (Article 12 UNCRC) The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says children have a right to be heard on issues and decisions that affect their lives. Young people are very often excluded from consultation processes and more importantly decision making processes. This is particularly relevant to issues around access to information and services around sexual health, community safety issues, crime and law and order, education and mental health services. Research by Youth Action[206] has shown that young people increasingly feel isolated from civic society and are disengaging from political and decision making processes.

  The Commission has recently completed the first strategic review of effectiveness of section 75 (final report attached) and whilst much has been achieved through this groundbreaking approach to mainstreaming equality in public policy and decision making, many challenges were highlighted during the review. In responding, the Commission is working with government and other key partners to better realise the full potential of this creative legislation, enhancing the public policy process to focus more on positive impacts and outcomes for those experiencing inequalities, essentially ensuring that Section 75 can improve the quality of people's lives in Northern Ireland, as the legislation intended.

  The Commission would welcome the opportunity to discuss in more detail with the committee, the impact which section 75 can have on achieving better equality for children and young people, better relations in Northern Ireland through work with children and young people. We also wish to discuss how children and young people can have their rights recognised through participating more effectively in public policy decision making.

CONCLUSION

  The Commission welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry, recognising its timelines for our work in respect of refining the implementation of Section 75 and in terms of proposals to extend anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of age to goods, facilities and services. The Commission is ambitious for greater equality and better relations for children and young people here; we continue to use our powers and duties to increase their participation as active members of a society attempting to rebuild a sense of community after many years of conflict. Children and young people are central to the process and the Commission is keen to contribute to shaping and achieving the necessary changes. We look forward to an opportunity to discuss the contribution we make with the Joint Committee.

February 2009






200   Youth Barometer 2005 Youth Council for Northern Ireland. Back

201   The Bottom Line: Severe Child Poverty in Northern Ireland (Monteith and McLaughlin, 2004). Back

202   Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety Northern Ireland 2007, Inequalities monitoring update 2. Back

203   Ibid. Back

204   Ibid. Back

205   Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 defines a public authority as follows:     "(a)  any department, corporation or body listed in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (departments, corporations and bodies subject to investigation) and designated for the purposes of this section by order made by the Secretary of State;

     (b)  any body (other than the Equality Commission) listed in Schedule 2 to the Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (bodies subject to investigation);

     (c)  any department or other authority listed in Schedule 2 to the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (departments and other authorities subject to investigation);

     (d)  any other person designated for the purposes of this section by order made by the Secretary of State".
 
Back

206   "Its always in the back of your mind", Youth Action research report, 2006. Back


 
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