Youth Affairs.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, for his attendance.

As Vice Chair of the youth and sport committee in the Council of Europe with special responsibility for youth, I am very interested in the whole issue of youth participation in politics and policies aimed at youth. This morning on the Order of Business I commended the Houses of the Oireachtas family day, when people were brought in and shown what this place is like so that they are not strangers to where all the decisions are taken. I also commend the Oireachtas education programme which is an outreach programme. I know that many politicians will say they were doing that anyway but seeing many of the programmes being delivered in the classrooms, I am confident that this work is very important.

Youth council elections are taken very seriously and those appointed take their roles very seriously. The annual report from Dáil na nÓg is presented in a youth-orientated manner and I intend to read it as I am very interested in it. However, I suggest the people involved in Dáil na nÓg should have an opportunity to present what they are doing. One idea I had was that the opportunity could be provided during the Oireachtas family day when people see what this House looks like. Representatives of Dáil na nÓg could be allowed to come in and make a presentation here in the Chamber on the subject of their reports and the subjects that are important to them.

On Monday I opened a seminar in Strasbourg on youth participation which was attended by people from all the 47 states of the Council of Europe. I was very moved by the fact that somebody asked about the links between national parliaments and the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. It made me think about my role as Vice Chair of the committee of youth and sport. I realised that probably nobody knows I opened the conference on youth affairs in Strasbourg on Monday last, yet they thought the issue of youth participation was very important. Nobody seems to know that we put through a very important report on teaching history in areas of recent conflict. These are issues that are pertinent to young people and to how policy is driven.

We have taken significant steps to involve our youth. We are still being told that there is a deficit between us and the youth in terms of an interest in voting and policy-making. I wonder if more initiatives could be taken. I suggest that a DVD be made of Dáil na nÓg in action so that we can be part of what happens there.

The youth councils of the Council of Europe have equal voices in decision-making so when a budget comes through — this could be a very dangerous concept — the Council of Europe sport and youth directorate has co-management of the funding. As it was explained last Monday, co-management of the funding means that decisions about how funds are spent are co-managed. This is the good news side, but there is also a bad news side. For instance, the decision to cut one's cloth to suit the measure is necessary. I do not advocate going that far but at present we are nowhere near the point where the youth believe that we hear what they say. They are now talking to each other but it is important that we move that on to being heard here. The 47 members of the Council of Europe must find a way to interact with each other, through websites or whatever, to ensure best practice in youth affairs.

I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this matter. I wish to explain the involvement of Dáil na nÓg and that of the Department.

Dáil na nÓg is the annual national parliament for young people aged 12 to 18 years. The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is responsible for funding and overseeing Dáil na nÓg. Since 2003, a consortium comprising the National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI, Foróige and Youth Work Ireland has organised Dáil na nÓg in cooperation with the office of the Minister. Successive independent evaluations note that Dáil na nÓg has gone from strength to strength, with more challenging and contentious debate each year. I take the Senator's point that there is little point in all that happening if there are no linkages back to these Houses. I recognise the point she made that speaking at an international forum in Europe and not being able to say specifically what is happening here in terms of that connection would be a loss. I concede that and it is important I take the Senator's advice on that.

By way of background, 200 teenage delegates attend annually and discuss the issues that have been selected for debate, finally agreeing on three recommendations they might follow through on, under two themes to be progressed over the course of the following year. The top recommendations voted in 2009 — I say this by way of showing the connect to the policies and the realities of this House — which it is important to develop further, are that the cervical cancer vaccine should be made available free of charge for all 12 to 18 year old girls — that is their top priority, and that a structured course should be implemented for senior cycle students incorporating positive mental health awareness and development of an on-line support service. I attended the recent launch by the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, and was pleased to note that for the second year in a row Dáil na nÓg selected the debate on mental health. That shows the relevance of what happens here and in Dáil na nÓg but also the irrelevance in that there is such little connection.

One representative from each Comhairle na nÓg is elected to the Dáil na nÓg council, which follows up on the recommendations from the Dáil and tries to make changes for young people in those areas. The council has a term of office of one year. The council meets once a month in the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and is supported in its work by the office.

The role of the Dáil na nÓg Council is to identify key areas of work from the top three recommendations agreed at Dáil na nÓg; conduct research into the issues identified; meet relevant Ministers, TDs, Government officials, policy makers and other stakeholders to seek their support in making changes for young people on the issues identified; feed back to their Comhairle na nÓg on the work of the council; and represent Dáil na nÓg at conferences and other events.

In the course of its work, the Dáil na nÓg Council engages with policy-makers who are in a position to provide advice or support. In 2008, examining the theme of mental health, the policy makers from the council met with the following: Deputy Barry Andrews, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs; Senator Mary White, Vice Chairman of the Oireachtas sub-committee on suicide; Mr. Geoff Day, Director, the National Office for Suicide Prevention; young social innovators; Headstrong, a mental health promotion non-governmental organisation; the Children's Rights Alliance; and the Mental Health Commission.

Dáil na nÓg representatives also made presentations on their work to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and at the year end a final round table meeting with Ministers and policy makers was held. As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health I attended that meeting. The purpose of the meeting was for Dáil na nÓg councillors to outline the work and research undertaken on their chosen issue and seek support from policy makers in responding to the recommendations. I was delighted to be in a position to work with the council on making progress on their recommendations and they have been central to the development of a new mental health promotion campaign which I hope to launch later this year. The 2009 council is currently actively engaged in researching its proposals emanating from this year’s Dáil na nÓg and I hope those Members present in the House will meet with them and support its work.

Most important, I would welcome Members' support in promoting and encouraging the ongoing development of the Comhairle na nÓg structures for youth participation at local authority level. Decisions made at this level have great significance in the every day lives of young people and it is vitally important that there is an openness and support for youth participation in local authorities. That will improve policy and services for all young people.

I would make the point to Senator Keaveney that regarding the Council of Europe sub-committee on youth affairs, the following is the position. Responsibility for youth affairs transferred from the Department of Education and Science to the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with effect from January 2009. This move is a clear signal from Government that a focus on young people and their needs is a particular priority for us. The integration of youth affairs opens up greater opportunities for a more integrated, cohesive and effective approach to addressing the needs of children and young people. The youth affairs unit of my Department will continue to have an active role at European level. In cooperation with youth work partners there will be a continued focus on youth work and youth activities both at EU and Council of Europe level. The European Commission's communication early this year on an EU strategy, Youth — Investing and Empowering, and the Council of Europe's youth policy, AGENDA 2020, will form the context and focus of future work and developments in this area. Interacting and working with our European partners and colleagues both in the context of the European Union and the Council of Europe is important in sharing experience and good practice in regard to youth work and other youth activities.

The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was represented at official level at the Eighth Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for youth that took place in October 2008 and we were happy to lend our support to the declaration on the future of the Council of Europe youth policy, Agenda 2020. The policy's focus on human rights and democracy, youth co-existence in various societies and young people's social inclusion is of particular relevance and importance to both Ireland and Europe. There have also been recent contacts between the office and the Council and it is hoped that these can form the basis for future cooperation. I am also happy to encourage discussion and debate in matters relating to youth in all relevant and appropriate fora. I thank Senator Keaveney for raising the issue and hope it will be followed through.

The clear message I am getting is that it is very unusual for politicians to appear at these Council of Europe meetings in terms of the administrative side. They are fascinated by the fact that we take time to engage with them. I raise this matter on the Adjournment to highlight the good work being done and we must find some mechanism nationally to not only link the youth with us but to link us with activity that is going on internationally. We are doing good work at every level but sometimes people do not know about it.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 July 2009.