Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY)

  The Office of Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) was created in accordance with "The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order" (2003) with a mandate to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law, practice and services relating to the rights and best interests of children and young people by relevant authorities. Part of our statutory duty involves having due regard to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). In fulfilment of this duty we monitor the implementation of the UNCRC in Northern Ireland, reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child every five years.[429]

In 2008 NICCY completed a major review of the current state of children's rights in Northern Ireland Children's Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, A review of Children's Rights in Northern Ireland.[430] The evidence presented to this inquiry draws from our submission[431] to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and this review of children's rights which will be launched on 17 February 2009.

  NICCY commends the Joint Committee on Human Rights for undertaking this Inquiry into children's rights. We have presented our evidence under the particular issues outlined by the Joint Committee; we have also inserted some evidence on issues specific to Northern Ireland.

CHILDREN IN DETENTION

  Use of remand—Between January 2006 and October 2007, 48% of those in the juvenile justice centre were remanded under Police And Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1989, 45% were on remand under the Criminal Justice Children (NI) Order 1998 (pending trial or sentence) and only 7% actually on sentence.[432]

There needs to be appropriate alternatives to holding children on remand. Children who are held on remand should be accommodated separately from those who have been prosecuted as committing an offence. Currently children who have been held on remand and subsequently prosecuted do not have their time on remand recognised as part of their sentence. This should be changed to bring them in line with law that governs adults who are on remand.

  Custody—The use of custody in relation to children should only be used as a last resort reserved for only serious and repeat offenders.[433] There is a need to look at why certain groups of children and young people are over represented in custody, in particular looked after children.

  Custody care orders are designed to provide a secure solution to the accommodation needs of 10-13 year olds separate from the upper age range of young offenders. While this has been legislated for under the 2002 Criminal Justice Act, it has not yet been enacted therefore this age group still be sent to Juvenile Justice Centre.

  Accommodation—Children should not be accommodated with adults in prison or juvenile justice centres, female children in particular are not held separately from female adults in Hydebank Wood. In line with the removal of the State party's reservation to article 37(c) the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) needs to ensure that any child who is detained is not under any circumstances accommodated with adults.

  Restraint—The use of restraint with young people deprived of their liberty has been raised as a matter of concern for many years- recent inspections by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJINI) show a reduction in the use of restraint in Northern Ireland. The inspections that better staff training coupled with better recording and monitoring of the use of restraint has had a positive impact on its use.[434]

  Education—The national curriculum is not delivered to children in custody, as the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has responsibility for their education rather than the Department of Education (DE). Children in custody have no legal entitlement to be educated within the NI curriculum;[435] this is detrimental to these young people and in breach of article 28 of the UNCRC. The responsibility for the education of children in custody needs to be transferred from the NIO to DE. It is discriminatory to deny children in custody access to same education provision as their peers in mainstream education.

  Mental health—the mental health needs of children in custody are not being met, greater resources are needed to address the individual mental health needs of children in custody.

  CJINI's 2008 report observed that nursing shortages within the centre currently "constrain the centre's ability to provide therapeutic services and health promotion to children" (CJINI 2008:31). This is particularly concerning in light of the mental health needs of detainees recorded in this report: of the 30 children in residence on 30 November 2007, two thirds had a diagnosed mental health disorder, over half had a history of self harm and just under one third had at least one suicide attempt on record (CJINI 2008).

  Complaints procedures—CJINI inspection of complaints highlighted the difficulties children in custody faced in accessing complaints procedures, in particular their lack of confidence in the system. CJINI recommended that the complaints system needed to be reformed, in order to raise the awareness of complaints services; introduce age appropriate communication and materials; ensure access to complaints forms; greater confidentiality in complaints

  handling; and the implementation of thorough review and evaluation of the complaints procedures. These recommended reforms need to be implemented by the NIO.

CRIMINALISATION OF CHILDREN

  Age of Criminal Responsibility—The current age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland is 10, full criminal responsibility to children as young as ten is a breach of children's rights. The Final Report of the Bill of Rights Forum notes that Northern Ireland has a particularly low age of criminal responsibility, recommending that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised in line with international human rights standards and best practice. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in their concluding observations in 2002 and 2008[436] recommend that this be increased.

Children "at risk"—Many of the young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system in NI have experienced significant disadvantage or difficulty in their lives, however appropriate intervention programmes are not available to support them. Children who are deemed "at risk" are delivered intervention schemes alongside children who have offended; this may lead to the criminalisation of these children. Greater investment is needed in a range of universal and targeted services and support for children prior to their contact with the criminal justice system; this will avoid the criminalisation of children.

  Preventative services for children "at risk" of offending should be delivered separately from those services aimed at children already involved in offending behaviour.

  Youth Courts—some children aged 16-18 are still prosecuted in adult courtsrather than in the Youth Courts, this is an issue raised by the CRC in the 2008[437] concluding observations. There is a need to ensure that children are not, underany circumstances, prosecuted through adult courts or tried as an adult, withoutthe added protections afforded them in the juvenile justice system.

  Anti-Social-Behaviour-Orders—The low behavioural threshold applied to issuing an ASBO is cause for concern. Breach of this civil order can lead to the criminalisation of children as, rather than diverting them away from the criminal justice system, an ASBO can lead children into it.[438]

DISCRIMINATION ON GROUNDS OF AGE

  Physical punishment—the current law does not afford children the same protection from assault as adults. The law needs to be reformed to ban the use of physical punishment and remove all forms of defence.

Demonisation of children[439]—in a review of children's rights by NICCY,[440] children expressed their concerns about the negative portrayal and demonisation of children. Those children highlighted the injustice of judging all children as "bad" or "anti social", and the impact that this has on their ability to freely socialise, such as being moved from areas by the police because they are standing in a group of young people. ASBO also has a negative impact on the child's right to freedom of assembly.

  Other research on young consumers by NICCY highlighted the unfair and discriminatory restrictions that are placed on young people when entering shops, such as limiting the numbers of young people that can enter and making them leave their bags at the doors.

  A strategy is needed to combat the negative perceptions of children and young people.

DISCRIMINATION ON GROUNDS OF DISABILITY

  Participation in decision making—Children who have disabilities do not have access to an independent advocacy service to assist their participation in decision making. Research commissioned by NICCY highlighted the disparities that exist across Northern Ireland for disabled children attempting to access advocacy services.[441] The research recommended that Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) develop and resource a comprehensive advocacy strategy, detailing policy and standards. It also recommended that the new Regional Health Board commission the independent advocacy services. This report was presented by NICCY to DHSSPS in 2008 however to date they have not responded to the recommendations of the Commissioner.

Speech and language therapy—children in need of speech of language therapy are subject to a postcode lottery of service provision; where they live determines the length of time they will wait for both assessment and therapy. In response to concerns from the Commissioner for Children and Young People DHSSPS established a taskforce on speech and language therapy, that taskforce reported to the Minister in January 2007, to date DHSSPS have not implemented the recommendations from the taskforce.

  Play—children with disabilities do not have equal access to play and leisure facilities, they face barriers to access that children without disabilities do not face.[442]

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST CHILDREN IN EDUCATION

  Special Educational Needs (SEN) —Children with a SEN need to be assessed and given a statement of SEN in order to access the required support. In NICCY's review of children's rights,[443] parents and professionals identified problems with the statementing process, mainly the length of time the process takes. This has been reinforced by inspections from the Education and Training Inspectorate which found a lack of consistency in procedures/protocols for assessing need, differential thresholds for intervention and particular difficulties assessing and diagnosing pupils.

Traveller children and young people—In 2007, NICCY and the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland jointly launched research report into the adequacy and effectiveness of Traveller Education in Northern Ireland. The research shows the current education system is failing Traveller children. The report highlighted significant areas of both policy and practice where travellers are extremely disadvantaged and discriminated against in comparison with their peers. Examples included; a policy on traveller education which is currently 16 years out of date and pre dates the main pieces of equality legislation, policies and practices relating to travellers differ between Education and Library Boards, Travellers significantly underachieve in comparison to their peers, they experience high levels of bullying and they have poor levels of attendance and high drop out rates.

  The statutory response to these inequalities has been poor to date however the Minister for Education has established a task force on Traveller education, it is imperative that the report and recommendations of this task force are implemented and adequately resourced without delay.

  Migrant children—Figures[444] from the Department of Education, show that the number of children with English as an additional language has increased by 374% in the past five years. In 2004 DE carried out a review of EAL and 2006 they conducted a consultation with parents and teachers, this resulted in the development draft policy on EAL which was published for consultation in 2007. To date there is little information on the current status of this policy.

  Funding for EAL is allocated to schools on a per head basis, calculated using figures from the previous year. However this money is not ring fenced and schools can therefore use it on other resources beyond EAL provision. Money allocated for EAL children must be ring fenced and spent only for that purpose, it should also be allocated on the basis of the numbers of EAL children in the current academic year.

  Segregated education—the CRC have in their last two period reports highlighted the need for to take action to increase the numbers of children who are educated in integrated schools. Statistics from the Department of Education illustrate that there has been a slight increase in the number of children who are enrolling in Integrated Schools; an increase from 16,494 in 2003-04 to 18,867 in 2007-08.

  However despite recommendations from the CRC[445] to date the Government have yet to develop or implement a strategic policy to increase the number of pupils attending integrated schools. Extra resources are needed for integrated education coupled with appropriate measures and incentives to facilitate the establishment of integrated schools.

HOW TO ENSHRINE IN LAW THE GOVERNMENT TARGET TO ERADICATE POVERTY BY 2020

  It is essential that each of the devolved administrations are held to account for their role in ensuring that children are lifted out of poverty in keeping with the UK government commitment.

The Committee noted with concern the level of persistent child poverty in NI compared to GB (21% compared to 9%). This suggests child poverty is a more deep-seated problem in NI, and consequently, will be harder to tackle. The nequalities associated with poverty impact on areas of children's lives, ncluding their physical and mental health, and educational outcomes

  Young People aged 16-17 are severely disadvantaged in comparison to over 25's in terms of benefit rates and the minimum wage for this group of young people are significantly lower; they are also subject to restrictions in relation to the receipt of housing benefits. There can be no justification for these inequalities as there is no evidence that young people aged 16-17-years have lower living costs. If legislation is introduced to harmonise benefit rates and minimum wages would have a positive impact on the rates of child poverty.

  10-year strategy for children and young people "our children and young people- our pledge"—OFMDFM should develop a shared agenda and timetable on child poverty between the Children's Strategy and the Anti-Poverty Strategy. This should include clear measurable outcomes, which are tracked and monitored.

  To ensure that future policies and legislation do not further discriminate against poor families and do not push them deeper into poverty, all legislation and policies should be poverty proofed.

OTHER ISSUES

  Mental Health and learning disability—The Government- sponsored Bamford Review made a series of recommendations to improve the delivery of Child and Adolescent Mental Health services and Disability services. NICCY was concerned that the Government response to the Bamford Review did not address the issues highlighted in the report. Bamford requires a specific action plan, and as stated above dedicated actions to improve children and young people's outcomes would be a positive way of ensuring the focus on children and young people is maintained. We recommend that the Government revisit the recommendations from Bamford to develop an action plan which outlines the recommendation, what actions are needed to implement it, and who is responsible for implementing it.

Police technologies—the introduction of Taser[446]—The Human Rights Advisors to the Northern Ireland Policing Board advised that Taser should not be treated as a "less lethal" weapon but should be treated as "potentially lethal", they also highlighted that the full effects of Taser on children are not known.

  Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights places a positive obligation on police officers to protect the right to life enshrined therein; the absence of reliable independent medical evidence on the impact of the use of Taser on vulnerable groups such as children and young people means that it is not possible to conclude that the use of this type of force would meet the requirements of Article 2. The Human rights advisors were clear in their advice; the introduction of Taser has serious human rights implications that need to befully recognised and addressed before they deploy Taser, NICCY is concerned that this has not been done.

  Play and leisure—in the NICCY review of children's rights the top issue for children was play and leisure, children do have adequate access to safe, affordable, accessible and age appropriate play.

CONCLUSION

  NICCY welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry. Since the last State Party Examination in 2002 there have been positive developments in the realisation of children's rights in Northern Ireland, in particular the reintroduction of a devolved locally accountable Government to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

While the Local Assembly has introduced many strategies aimed at improving the lives of children such as the 10-year strategy for children and young people, action on implementing these strategies has been poor.

  The biggest problem facing the realisation of children's rights in Northern Ireland is the absence of domestic legislation fully incorporating children's rights in legislation. The development of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland presents an opportunity to have the full provisions of the UNCRC incorporated into law.

February 2009






429   Further information on the role and remit of NICCY can be accessed at www.niccy.org. All research from NICCY referred to in this submission can also be accessed from the website. Back

430   Copies of the report can be accessed from 17 February at www.niccy.org Back

431   http://www.niccy.org/uploaded_docs/UNCRC_REPORT_FINAL.pdf Back

432   Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (2008a) Inspection of Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre. Belfast: CJINI. Back

433   Para 78 (b) 2008 concluding observations. Back

434   Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (2008a) Inspection of Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre. Belfast: CJINI, and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (2004). Inspection of the Juvenile Justice Centre (Northern Ireland). Belfast: CJINI. Back

435   Para 78 (e) 2008 concluding observations. Back

436   Para 78 (a) 2008 concluding observations. Back

437   Para 78 (c) 2008 concluding observations. Back

438   Para 80 2008 concluding observations. Back

439   Para 25 2008 concluding observations. Back

440   Children's Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, A review of Children's Rights in Northern Ireland, which can be accessed at www.niccy.org from 17 February. Back

441   KPMG (2008) Who Speaks for Us? Review of Advocacy Arrangements for Disabled Children and Young People with Complex Needs. Belfast: Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. Back

442   Para 69 2008 concluding obseravtions. Back

443   Children's Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, A review of Children's Rights in Northern Ireland, which can be accessed at www.niccy.org from 17 February. Back

444   Department of Education (2008c) Pupils with English as an Additional Language 2001-02 to 2007-08. Available from: (www.deni.gov.uk/index/32-statisticsandresearch_pg.htm) Back

445   Para 67 2008 concluding observations. Back

446   Para 31 2008 concluding observations. Back


 
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