15 Asks for the Executive - Support the Bill to create a Statutory Duty to Cooperate on Children's Services

In 15 Asks for the Executive we focus on a range of issues the current Executive can either complete or significantly progress before the June 2016 Assembly elections.

In this series of articles we take each 'ask' and explore them in greater details.

This week we are focusing on number six "support the Bill to create a statutory duty to co-operate on children's services"

Ellen Finlay, Policy Officer, Children in Northern Ireland

Government must introduce THE CHILDREN’S BILL – A mechanism to achieve better outcomes for all children and young people

One of the foundations of our daily work at Children in Northern Ireland is working in partnership to achieve our vision which is to make Northern Ireland a society where all children are valued, treated fairly and are able to flourish. Translation of this in to policy can be a challenge particularly for government.

Experience has shown us that Government Departments approach their work with specific mandates, separate budgets and defined areas of responsibility, because of this there are limitations to how Departments are working in collaboration.

The needs of children and young people do not simply begin and end along the lines of departmental portfolios.  It is only through genuine, collaborative, co-operative and joined up working that the true opportunity to maximise scarce resources in the best interests of children and young people can be achieved.

Our organisation has, for many years, been a strong advocate for better collaboration and co-operation among Government Departments to improve the manner in which they interact in the lives of children and young people.  We are all keen to see this greater commitment from the Executive to deliver a more cohesive and coherent response to policies affecting the lives of all our children and young people.

We fully support the Children’s Bill and we know the journey ahead to see its implementation will be challenging but we know it is the right thing to do. We only have to look at our neighbours in Scotland to witness the importance they put on a statutory duty to co-operate – with the recent strengthening of their duty.

At a time of economic austerity, the benefits to investing early in a child’s life are well-documented.  However, the converse is also true: tremendous opportunities are lost when sufficient resources are not made available to meet the needs of children and young people.  The timeline of a child’s life means that occasions for intervention are short and the consequences of absent, unclear or inadequate policies can be significant.  Little else has the power to stall the pace of this progress on policy development as the mantra of draft budgets and the equivalent of the Chancellor’s little red box!  As the Stormont House talks aimed at sorting out these budgets dominated the political agenda before the New Year, it’s probably fair to say there are tough economic times ahead for everyone.  It is therefore imperative that we must press ahead with effective mechanisms for the development of legislation that meets the specific and individual needs and rights of children and young people.  There is less money on the table, it is important therefore that we take this opportunity to look beyond departmental ways of working.  We have all seen the draft budgets; it is our view that most of them fail to grasp what can truly be achieved in the cross cutting issues and links to other Department budgets and strategies by working in co-operation.

The Early Intervention Transformation Programme is an excellent example of working in co-operation and pooling of budgets. The Department of Health has led the way with this initiative by working in co-operation with other departments to identify early intervention initiatives to tackle systemic deprivation.  We can no longer leave this type of working to chance or the goodwill of civil servants, it is essential that this work is recognised as a model of good practice but even more important that it is placed on a statutory footing.

So what is it like for parents when government departments fail to co-operate?  A Mother with three sons all with special needs comments:

"I knew that the statementing process existed, and was difficult to access, but nothing could have prepared me for the colossal battle I have had to endure to get the right support for my sons' special needs. Parents are the ones coping daily with the special needs of our children. Why should we have to also strategically manage the coordinated sharing of information between all the professionals involved with our child? Many parents that I know in similar circumstances gave up their battle simply because they felt they were in a no win situation from the beginning, and couldn't find the emotional stamina required to get through the system. Indeed, if I had not had the support, advice and expertise of the Children’s Law Centre, I too would have given up the fight, and my child who is gifted, would have been sitting at home wasting his life.”

Another parent, talks about the strain placed upon her daughter and the family when education and health did not co-operate, stating:

It took two years and eight months, a Tribunal, threat of Judicial Review, suffering on my daughter and unbelievable strain placed on us as a family, before she was provided with Physiotherapy in school, which she now receives twice a week.  I believe this Bill could have a huge impact in cases like my daughter’s.  Sadly it is too late for her; she is now in sixth form.  Hopefully it will benefit others and her experience of Government departments not working together in the best interests of the child will become a thing of the past.”

There is a reason to be optimistic, hindsight is a wonderful thing.  We must learn from both the positive and negative experiences and develop more effective and efficient mechanisms to address the needs of all children and young people in the face of budget cuts by implementing the Children’s Bill.  We all must rise to the challenge of ensuring all Government departments work in co-operation and collaboration for our children.  We strongly advocate for you all to support the Children’s Bill by signing our petition here:  https://www.change.org/p/support-the-children-s-bill

Ellen Finlay, Policy Officer at Children in Northern Ireland

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