I thank the committee for the invitation to speak on the occasion of the World Children's Day and the 30th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC. To make this important occasion the Ombudsman for Children's office is currently hosting an event called Child Talks. At this event, young people between the ages of 12 and 17 years are giving talks about a range of issues, includingmental health services for children and young people; the significance of family and having a home; disability services and public transport; climate change; and the importance of young people raising their voices and being heard.
While the issues young people are highlighting at Child Talks are diverse, they also share certain characteristics. All of the young people taking part are speaking about issues that are important to them. In doing so, all of those young people are exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to be heard. All of the issues they are addressing connect to children’s rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC.
Each of those young people speaking at Child Talks this morning needed to think carefully about what issues they wanted their talk to focus on. Similarly, I have thought about what my opening statement to the committee might usefully focus on within the time available to me to make it. As Ombudsman for Children, I lead a national institution that has a statutory remit under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to promote the rights and welfare of children up to the age of 18. With my role and the Ombudsman for Children’s Office's core statutory functions in mind, I will offer some brief observations, having regard to the UNCRC and to the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued in early 2016 following its examination of the State’s progress towards fulfilling its obligations to children.
As the UN committee’s concluding observations illustrate, there are different ways in which we can think about children’s rights. We can approach them in terms of different dimensions to children’s lives such as family, health, housing, education, protection, justice, and so on. We can also consider children’s rights from the vantage point of different groups of children such as children in care, children with disabilities, and children belonging to ethnic minorities. Equally, we can approach children’s rights having regard to the State’s status as the primary duty-bearer when it comes to ensuring that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled, and in terms of measures that the State needs to take to make children’s rights real for children in what Eleanor Roosevelt famously identified as the places that give rights meaning, the “small places, close to home”.
In 2003, a year after Ireland ratified the UNCRC, the UN committee published its fifth general comment. Such comments focus on providing guidance to states, including Ireland, on general measures to implement children’s rights under the UNCRC. This general comment remains an important reference point because it sets out cross-cutting actions that the State needs to pursue for the purposes of realising all children’s rights in all children’s lives. Among these actions are legislating, developing and implementing national strategies, co-ordinating, monitoring, providing access to remedies and redress, collecting and analysing data, budgeting, training, and raising awareness.
I suggest that thinking about children’s rights under the UNCRC in terms of the general measures required to implement children’s rights is a particularly useful approach for all of us who have roles and responsibilities in respect of one or more of these general measures. Among other things, this approach enables us to identify what types of action we are well placed to pursue to progress the implementation of children’s rights with, and for, children living in Ireland.
Section 3 of the 2016 concluding observations sets out the UN committee’s key concerns and recommendations as regards Ireland’s mobilisation of general measures to implement the UNCRC. I will comment briefly on two of these measures. The first relates to legislating. Legislating for children’s rights is a vital task. As we all know, legislation can drive behaviour. As a catalyst for change, legislation can require people to do things that they might not otherwise be minded to do, and it can enable people to do things that they might not otherwise be permitted to do. Since the UN committee issued its recommendations in 2016, we have seen some progress in legislating for children and their rights, including in a number of areas referenced by the UN committee. Examples in the area of education in this regard are the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 and the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, which is currently making its way through the Oireachtas. However, the task of fully incorporating the UNCRC into domestic law, which the UN committee has urged the State to implement “as a matter of priority”, is an unfinished project. Many gaps and deficits remain in Irish law, including in areas with which the Ombudsman for Children's Office is engaging such as mental health, housing and online safety.
As Members of the Oireachtas, the Chair and each of his colleagues have a unique role that enables them to introduce, repeal and amend legislation. Therefore, they are especially well placed to mobilise a key general measure to progress the realisation of children’s rights. When conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation and when examining and proposing amendments to Bills, for example, the Chair and his colleagues have a crucial role to play in making sure that legislation that will impact on children and their rights is child-centred and rights-based. As such, they are in a position to influence positive changes for children and children’s rights in a manner that no one else can.
As Ombudsman for Children, I am firmly of the view that any law that concerns children must put children and their rights first. In a very real way, children are depending on members, as legislators, to make sure this happens. Therefore, I urge committee members and their Oireachtas colleagues to persist in their efforts to ensure that relevant legislation is child rights compliant so that it provides a robust foundation for the development and implementation of corresponding policies, procedures and practices that give meaning to children’s rights in children’s lives.
On co-ordination, while our system of government and public administration is organised along sectoral lines, children and their lives do not fit neatly into those sectoral silos. The challenges that this misalignment creates and the damaging impact that it can have on children is something that the Ombudsman for Children's Office sees all too often through our examination and investigation of complaints. One example is our investigation of Molly’s case, which I discussed with the committee in 2018. As members will recall, one of our core findings in this case was that the difficulties experienced by Molly and her foster family were largely attributable to a lack of co-ordination between Tusla and the HSE. Because neither agency saw Molly as a child in care and as a child with a disability, the services and supports provided by both organisations were insufficient. What Molly’s case highlights so clearly is why effective inter-agency co-ordination, co-operation and communication at all levels of Government and public administration are vital to implementing children’s rights. Accordingly, this case informed one of the recommendations that we made in our submission to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the context of its review of the Child Care Act 1991. We recommended that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs give serious consideration to placing a statutory duty on agencies with responsibilities for children and families to co-operate with Tusla in the exercise of its functions under the 1991 Act.
Recognition of the importance of effective co-ordination for implementing children’s rights is evident in the opening of the Barnahus, Onehouse project in Galway. The outcome of work in which I was involved with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the former special rapporteur on child protection, the Barnahus represents a multi-agency approach to dealing with victims of child sexual abuse. It sees State agencies, including the Garda, the HSE and Tusla, engaging openly with each other, with the best interests of children always taking priority. I hope that the Barnahus in Galway marks the beginning of a nationwide roll-out of such services to benefit children in all parts of the country.
The need for co-ordination also informs my continued engagement with relevant Departments to encourage implementation of the youth mental health pathfinder project. This project is one of three pathfinder projects included in the 2014 Civil Service renewal programme. While the need for a co-ordinated, whole-of-government approach to youth mental health and other issues affecting children is evident, the challenges that can be involved in joining the dots are striking. Administrative systems and structures should work for, rather than against, those seeking to progress the realisation of children’s rights to the highest attainable standard of health. I urge this committee to push the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs, Health, and Education and Skills to make sure this pathfinder project is in situ before the end of this Government’s term. If it is not, thousands of children who are in enormous mental turmoil will, at best, continue to languish on waiting lists without access to the best possible health care, which is their right. At worst, they may not see their lives as worth living.
As members of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, the members appreciate fully the importance of co-ordination and co-operation among Members of the Oireachtas to progress the implementation of children’s rights under the UNCRC. In this regard, I acknowledge the committee's report on the impact of homelessness on children, which was published on 14 November, as well as a complementary report on family and child homelessness published by the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the same day.
Viewed individually and together, these reports suggest that a political consensus is emerging about the changes in law, policy, procedure and practice needed to address child and family homelessness and to mitigate the injurious effects of homelessness on children. From my perspective as Ombudsman for Children, this consensus and the clarity it provides are encouraging. Agreement on what actions are needed is a key prerequisite to implementing short, medium and long-term measures to address child and family homelessness effectively.
Although divergence and robust debate are pivotal to the democratic process, these reports illustrate how important and constructive working together can be. Looking ahead, I encourage committee members and their Oireachtas colleagues to finalise a programme of work to address child homelessness and to work together to drive its implementation. As with so many issues affecting children and their rights, taking a co-ordinated, collaborative approach to progressing actions can mitigate against the corrosive impact that the ebb and flow of politics and electoral cycles can have on the best-laid plans.
The task of implementing children’s rights under the UNCRC is a marathon, not a sprint. While quick wins and fixes for children are possible in some instances, making children’s rights real in children’s lives requires consistent focus and concerted effort from us all. We all need to redouble our efforts so that Ireland can stand before the committee in 2021 and honestly say that, as a State, we have finally put our children first. I thank the committee for its time. I am happy to take questions.