9 December 1999 Edition

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Support for children urged

Stormont's new executive was urged to create a Minister for Children last week as over a hundred representatives from the voluntary and statutory sector gathered at Belfast's Europa Hotel for the launch of the ``Putting Children First'' campaign.

The conference, which was organised by a coalition of youth and children's rights groups, heard Paddy Kelly of the Children's Law Centre call for a Commissioner of Children, to act as an independent watchdog for children. He also urged the establishment of a standing committee on children's issues at the Assembly.

``It is said that children are the most important reason for having a peace process,'' said Kelly. ``Let's show them they really are important by considering their needs at every level of government.''

Speaking at the conference, Pat Davies from Children in Wales, who successfully campaigned for a Minister for Children in Cardiff's new Assembly, said that in Wales ``we won the argument'', the pledge featuring in the manifestos of every political party during the Assembly elections.

Children and young people currently make up a third of the Six-County population. A recent study by the Children's Law Centre, in conjunction with Save the Children, concluded that despite ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, domestic legislation within the North ``remains in conflict with the spirit of the convention''.

The report criticises the retention of the11-plus, the existence of two tiers of second level education and the development of league tables, policies which polarise educational attainment. While many children leave with excellent results a large number leave without any qualification. Traveller children are discriminated against within education, Irish-medium schools are discriminated against in terms of funding and special needs in relation to choice.

Justice is not administered in a way consistent with the convention, the report cites the attitude of the RUC and the use of plastic bullets. The report highlights young people's vulnerability to homelessness and and says that they are not adequately protected within employment legislation. Provision for children in care is also considered as well as protection from domestic violence and bullying in school.

Endorsing the call for a Minister for Children, Sinn Féin's Sue Ramsey said that such a ministry would be an invaluable tool for ensuring the needs of our children and young people are met within the new framework. ``Sinn Féin lobbied hard for a separate minister for children,'' said Sue. ``Unfortunately, the other parties did not share this view. It is now a priority for us to try and get a junior ministry devoted to the needs of children established within the new framework.''

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