Sixty Second Interview with Nigel Williams
By Maria Ahmed
Nigel Williams is the children’s commissioner for Northern Ireland.
You have recently launched a campaign to highlight the problem of suicide and self-harm among young people in Northern Ireland. What are your main concerns, and what action would you like to see?
First of all, I want children and young people to be heard in the debate. There is a woeful lack of provision in child and adolescent mental health services in Northern Ireland. At the same time there is a government task force which is tackling these issues. I want the minister Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Shaun Woodward MP, who launched a Task Force on Suicide earlier this year, and the task force to be able to understand the concerns of young people, and hear their suggestions and ideas on the issue. Full details on how young people can take part and send a Message to the Minister can be found at www.niccy.org.
In terms of action I want to see a coherent strategy that is properly funded and fully implemented to tackle young people’s mental health problems, including prevention and counselling, community services and acute services.
You have been in post for over two years now. How would you evaluate the impact of your post so far, and do you feel your powers are adequate to address the issues that are of greatest concern to children and young people?
I believe that my post has opened the way for children and young people’s voice to be heard more clearly on the decisions that affect their lives. My office has dealt with over 300 individual cases and in 89 per cent of them have resolved the issues either partly or completely. We have been able to point to a number of significant areas where government needs to change its approach from child protection to mental health, and I feel that we are helping create a culture of meaningful participation for young people in government and decision-making.
The powers set out in the legislation that created my post are quite wide ranging; and were supported by all political parties in Northern Ireland. However, it is not necessarily about the powers I have, rather how we exercise those powers. We should only do what is appropriate to the child and the situation. In most of the cases we have been involved in to date, we have been able to resolve issues informally, but I am fully aware that we will have to bring the legislative weight of my office to bear in a number of areas in coming months and years.
What are the most common issues that children and young people ask you to raise?
Last year, following a major piece of research, I asked children and young people to help me identify the problems and issues affecting their lives. As a result I have 15 priorities, on which we will be concentrating including bullying, special educational needs, implementing the UN Conventinon on the Rights of the Child, children, young people and the Troubles and youth justice.
You have said that there is a “danger” that Northern Ireland is falling behind initiatives elsewhere in the UK to put children at the centre of service development. Why is this happening?
I thing that it is historical rather than deliberate, and also to some extent as a result of our current lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly. It is extremely frustrating that we see some excellent initiatives underway in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly as part of the Every Child Matters agenda, at a time when there is an apparent reduction of services in Northern Ireland. I hope with the appointment of a Minister for Children in Northern Ireland that this is one of the areas where we will see progress.
You have called on churches to ensure they have good child protection procedures. What prompted you to do this, and what are the main issues that churches need to address?
For more than a year we conducted research into how adults are vetted to make sure they are suitable to work with children and young people, and this showed that all sectors, including the churches, had more to do to protect children.
I believe that churches need to be more open about the potential for abuse within their structures, and make sure they have robust policies that are understood and acted upon by everyone, from ministers through to youth leaders and leaders of uniformed organisations.
Are there any issues you feel that all the children’s commissioners – for Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales – should campaign jointly on?
The commissioners in England, Wales, Scotland the Republic of Ireland and myself are involved in a local sub-group of the European Network of Ombudsman for Children. The United Kingdom commissioners have discussed some areas of joint action and our initial priority for working together is on the issue of children of asylum seekers.