In 2012, the five-year average rates of suicide in Northern Ireland were 4 times higher than England and Wales for 15−19 year olds and 17 times more for 10−14 year olds. [source]
However, in 2013−14, only 7.8% of the total planned mental health expenditure was allocated to child and adolescent mental health services in Northern Ireland. Recent austerity measures are likely to affect the already inadequate financing and investment in all tiers of Northern Ireland CAMHS.
The report of the UK Children’s Commissioners to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is a sober read. [To give the figures some context, there were 6 registered deaths by suicide for young people across Northern Ireland in 2012.]
The Bamford Review estimated that Northern Ireland has “a 25% higher rate of overall mental illness prevalence than England, possibly due to the legacy of the conflict, and transgenerational trauma”.
In today’s joint report, the four commissioners representing children and young people in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales highlight that the UK’s “response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 UNCRC”.
The best interests of children were not central to the development of these policies and children’s views were not sought. Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families. In some parts of the UK there is insufficient affordable decent housing which has led to poorer children living in inadequate housing and in temporary accommodation. Austerity measures have reduced provision of a range of services that protect and fulfil children’s rights including health and child and adolescent mental health services; education; early years; preventive and early intervention services; and youth services.
Child poverty is rising, not falling. A first world problem?
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found in 2014 that … this was likely to be the first decade since records began in which absolute child poverty had not fallen.
With 3.7 million children living in relative poverty in the UK (27%) and “under current government policies, child poverty is projected to rise from 2012−13 with an expected 600,000 more children living in poverty by 2015/16”.If the trend continues towards 2020, projections predict 4.7 million children living in poverty.
Despite a 1999 commitment to eradicate child poverty across the UK and legally binding targets to reduce child poverty by 2020−21 being set in 2010, the statutory targets are unlikely to be met.
A majority (61%) of children growing up in poverty in the UK live in a family where at least one parent is working.
The joint report explains that “this reflects the UK’s low wage economy and insecure and part-time work including the rise in ‘zero hours contracts’”.
The UK [government] enacted legislation to remove employment exclusivity terms within zero-hour contracts. However, further regulation is needed to ensure these legislative provisions are implemented and applied.
A number of times the 50 page report refers to instances where the Northern Ireland Executive has either ignored or delayed acting on recommendations and requirements for many years.
The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) was established in 2012 in accordance with the Safeguarding Board Act (2011). Under article 3(5) of the Act, SBNI is required to establish processes to review child deaths in Northern Ireland. While all other parts of the UK have similar mechanisms in place, this function has still to be enacted 4 years after the legislation was passed. NICCY continues to raise concerns about the impact of this delay on ensuring there is proper learning from child deaths to effectively reduce preventable deaths of children.
What’s a few years of delay when a ten year hiatus is possible …
In 2005, plans to establish a ‘Network for Youth’ were announced. The purpose of the network was to strengthen the direct voice of children and young people in all relevant aspects of government provision. Although planning is ongoing, this is yet to be established.
In the meantime, “since 2011 efforts have been made to establish a Youth Assembly in NI [which] have faltered on several occasions and in January 2015 it was confirmed that the Assembly Commission would not be establishing a NI Youth Assembly in the immediate future”.
And despite two reviews of the Northern Ireland commissioner’s legislation in 2006 and 2013, both of which recommended that NICCY “should be independent of government and report to the Northern Ireland Assembly rather than a government department” … the NI Executive had not acted. Nor has it responded to the identification of “critical constraints in the NICCY legislation that impact on the ability of the Commissioner to fully exercise her legal powers”. Instead, the “NICCY’s budget was cut by 23% between 2007−8 and 2013−14 with further cuts announced for 15−16 onwards”.
Not to mention Northern Ireland’s disregard for the Child Poverty Act 2010 and – unlike the Scottish and Welsh governments – our lack of publishing a 2014−17 strategy and action plan to “outlining commitments to tackle child poverty”. Though the report reflects that across the devolved nations “there has generally been a lack of tangible measures and actions, or resources to deliver on the scale required”.
The four children’s commissioners’ report touches on many other issues.
- A 2011 survey in Northern Ireland found that 15.5% of pupils in Year 6 and 17% of pupils in Year 9 have experienced cyber bullying in the last two months.
- A survey of over 2,000 UK teenagers in 2013 found that 37% of children are experiencing cyber bullying on a highly frequent basis; cyber bullying had catastrophic effects upon the self-esteem and social lives of up to 70%; and 7 in 10 children are victims of cyber bullying.
- In Northern Ireland there has been a continuing increase in the detention of children either as a ‘place of safety’ or on remand and at any given time approximately 80% of children in custody are unsentenced.
- There have been “systematic reductions to legal advice, assistance and representation for children and their parents/carers in important areas such as prison law; immigration; private family law; and education” which mean that “children are denied access to remedies where their rights have been breached”.
- 16 and 17 year olds should be given the vote in all elections and referenda in the UK. [Westminster and the] devolved governments must seek to improve participation in schools and ensure that robust measures of democratic education are incorporated throughout the statutory education curriculum.
The joint report also commented on educational matters. There are some signs that the use of exclusions from school is decreasing (or at least not rising) in Scotland and Wales. However, the report details NICCY’s concern “at the use of ‘informal exclusions’ to manage children with a diagnosis of ASD or ADHD or with behavioural issues out of school”. These back door exclusions – which tend to ask the child’s parent or carer to take them home early from school and bring them back the next day “are not recorded on the child’s records as an exclusion and don’t follow the formal procedures around suspensions.
Noting UN Committee recommendations in 2008 “measures to address the segregation of education in Northern Ireland and to abolish academic selection”, today’s report recommends:
The NI Executive should actively support, promote and develop a fully integrated education system. The provision of shared education should be carefully monitored and evaluated to ensure that it is delivered appropriately and that it fulfils its objectives. Direct engagement with children should be an integral component of this evaluation.
In Northern Ireland it is clear that too many young people are not reaching acceptable levels of academic attainment and are being left behind in terms of reaching their potential.
Amongst the report’s 70 recommendations, 4 are specifically aimed at the Northern Ireland Executive … 4 more than are aimed at the Scottish or Welsh governments.
Will Northern Ireland parties use the Commissioners’ report to fuel their political warfare over welfare reform and austerity cuts?
Will the Executive – specifically OFMdFM and Departments of Health and Education – engage with the recommendations and upgrade Northern Ireland’s care of and provision for young people?
Or will this report go on the shelf along with numerous other reviews and reports that signal the need for improvement?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.