Agnew “The Children’s Bill demonstrates what politicians can achieve when they put aside their differences”

Green Party leader, Steven Agnew writes for us about his Childrens Bill currently before the Assembly

It wasn’t long ago that I was debating legislation in the Assembly until the early hours of the morning. But as Stormont recovers from yet another crisis, after weeks of absentee ministers, Bills falling and the Assembly rising early due to a lack of business, it feels like an age since MLAs have engaged in anything meaningful.

However, it isn’t all bad news. The state of paralysis that has gripped the Executive has not stopped those of us on the back benches from continuing to work.

John McAllister brought forward his Official Opposition Bill. Jim Allister tried to curb wasted expenditure on special advisors. I am delighted to report that the Children’s Services Cooperation Bill, my Private Member’s Bill to improve the delivery of children’s services, has reaches Final Stage on Tuesday 3 November.

The Children’s Bill will place a statutory duty on Northern Ireland Departments and agencies to cooperate in the planning, commissioning and delivery of children’s services. In short, it is about giving children the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

This Bill, for which the children’s sector has been campaigning for many years, now has cross-party support – a somewhat unusual circumstance in Stormont.

I have heard countless examples from children’s organisations, parents and children themselves of how Executive departments are failing to put children at the heart of decision making.

Currently, the main strategy for dealing with children’s issues in Northern Ireland is OFMDFM’s Ten Year Strategy for Children and Young People. Despite receiving much praise when it was published in 2006, the Executive has been widely criticised for failing to deliver.

One of the main barriers to the effective delivery of children’s services has been identified as the institutionalised ‘silo mentality’ of local departments. Unlike government departments in other regions of the UK, they are neither incentivised, nor legally required, to work together to improve children’s lives.

This has inevitably led to narrow departmental priorities being put ahead of the wellbeing of children, with officials seemingly ‘passing the buck’ when they can claim that certain spending is not their department’s responsibility. Consequently, organisations such as the Children’s Law Centre are inundated with cases of children being denied the services to which they are entitled.

For example, a child with cerebral palsy in mainstream education was denied physiotherapy due to a lack of cooperation between health and education. In addition, there were resource implications for the Education and Library board when conceding that physiotherapy was an educational need in this case, as well as a failure by the Health and Social Care Trust to provide for the child. She was expected to remain seated for eight hours per day, causing great distress and discomfort leading to a considerable drop in grades.

It took a two year legal battle to sort out. However I would argue that the situation should not have developed in the first place.

Indeed the Children’s Law Centre has said that “In the majority of education cases where there is an interface between health and education, equality of access to education is adversely affected when health trusts and education boards choose not to cooperate in meeting the child’s needs. The lack of a statutory duty to cooperate is at the heart of many of the disputes which parents and children bring to the CLC for consideration.”

There are three key aspects to the bill. The first is a high-level duty legally requiring all government departments to cooperate in improving children’s well-being.

The second is requirement for the production of an outcomes based children’s strategy with a duty to consult with children and parents as part of its formation.

The third aspect is an enabling power allowing departments and agencies to pool budgets were required, ensuring the most effective use of limited resources and recognising the fact, made obvious by the case study above, that spending by one body has the potential to impact the goals of another.

The Children’s Bill has the potential to shift focus away from financial inputs and budgets towards outcomes. It will bring down the main barriers that have thus far prevented children from being put at the centre of decisions that significantly affect their lives.

Green politics is about looking towards future generations and therefore I am delighted to have been able to bring forward the Children’s Bill which will ensure the Executive starts delivering for children in Northern Ireland.

That the Children’s Bill has received cross-party support amidst difficult political circumstances is in keeping with the spirit of collaboration that is the heart of the Bill.

The Children’s Bill demonstrates what politicians can achieve when they put aside their differences. I hope my colleagues in the Assembly don’t waste this opportunity to make a real, positive, impact on children’s lives.

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