Belfast Telegraph

It's about engaging with young people and getting them heard: Patricia Lewsley-Mooney

After eight years as Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley-Mooney is stepping down. She talks to Rebecca Black about her work and her previous life as a politician

Q: What exactly have you been doing for the last eight years as Children's Commissioner?

A: Eight years is a long time. Looking back on what the organisation has done I suppose we started off around the speech and language therapy and the impact we had on those services. As a consequence of the work we did the minister then put a task force in place and we got the action plan. So today many young people are getting better services than they would have. Then the piece of work we did on Aspergers, right through to the report we did about five years ago looking at barriers to government delivering for children and young people - it takes about seven years for a strategy to be finished.

We are looking at trying to get the United Nations Convention of the rights of the child embedded into domestic law. That is a journey I started and hoping the new commissioner coming in will continue.

The big one for me is the issue of participation and the voice of young people. We have seen huge strides in the involvement in government around participation, first of all signing up to participation policy statement of intent, then going back a year later and saying you signed up to this, what have you done? Eleven out of the 12 departments have supported that.

We have now gone out to the arm's-length bodies - there are 29 of them - and I have recently been out and met all the chief executives of the new councils and they are very keen to raise the issue of the participation of young people early on in the lifetime of the new councils.

Q: Participation sounds like a woolly term, what does that actually mean?

A: As Commissioner my job is to be an advocate for children and young people, but I also believe there is a responsibility on me to capacity build for children, to be advocates for themselves. So what we are trying to do is work with children at one end to teach them how to campaign and lobby, but at the other end working with government officials and departments to ensure that they mainstream participation. For instance, if you look at the whole issue of shared education, when the minister announced he was going to bring together that group to look at shared education we said you need to ensure the voice of young people is in there. We went out and did a consultation exercise with 750 young people across 21 schools and those schools ranged from primary to post-primary, and the different sectors from Irish-medium to special, to grammars to secondary schools. We also put questions in the kids Life and Times survey, by the time we were finished we had over 5,000. The important thing is, this was about young people who were having a say about issues that affected them. When we were in Enniskillen we had young people saying to us, 'we have heard about a shared campus but no one has asked us what we think'.

There is still work to be done even though we have come some way.

Q: Have you tried to tackle some of the most visible problems such as the gangs of young people involved in anti-social behaviour - including knife fights - in the parks in east Belfast and on the interfaces?

A: That's the conversation that we are probably having with local government about how they need to engage with young people. So, for instance, Lisburn council was looking at how it was going to change the face of Wallace Park. We were saying it was very important that they engage with young people who use the park, because if you give them a sense of ownership and involvement in the process often the outcome is very different.

I think some of the issues you are raising also raises the question of very often young people from 16 on would say there is very little for us to do so we end up in crowds rather than maybe going to somewhere where we could meet up with our friends. Youth clubs are very regimented in the way that they deliver youth work, and there needs to be more flexibility and more help and support put into youth work.

It's about engaging with those young people in those communities to find out why they engage as they do and can you channel that in a more positive way.

Q: There is a perception that you have not been very visible for someone paid £75,000 a year by the taxpayer. How would you respond to that?

A: I would argue with that. We benchmark our media output and I would say that if you look at many of the local papers recently you will see I am quite visible right across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland because I have been going out visiting children and young people in schools or events. I am often in the regional and national papers and TV. But the important thing is that we are visible when we have something significant to say. It's not the case of just popping up everywhere but it is important that when we are visible and in the media we have something significant to say.

Q: One of the only press conferences I can remember covering at NICCY was your comments on children dressed up as terrorists in Ardoyne at an Easter Parade where shots were fired in 2013?

A: I think I have spoken out about many contentious things, not just the kids with the guns, because we have been on the media about the flags, around the issue of Ardoyne and the protests that were there. There are times when we talk about contentious issues, it's not all about the easy, soft options.

Q: So you aren't scared of the media?

A: No, definitely not.

Q: Northern Ireland has quite a few quangos costing a fair amount of money, do you think there are too many?

A: That's not up to me to decide. I am assuming each and every quango was set up for a purpose. This post was created 11 years ago because the sector felt children's rights were being breached. We have come some way but there is still a long way to go. We see the evidence of that in the number of cases that come through our team; this year alone we have had 480 cases. We find there are many issues that need to be addressed, none less than Alistair, the young boy who had a learning disability and hearing impairment and felt he had been denied his right to an education. When all his peers were leaving school with qualifications, he left with nothing. We supported the family for three years on that case. It came to fruition with a tribunal and Alistair had the opportunity to have his voice heard. That has changed the face of things not just for Alistair but for many other children as well.

Q: So you are good value for money?

A: Yes.

Q: What is next for the office? You are moving on in January, candidates were interviewed in August and still no word on a successor?

A: Well, my understanding is there will be an appointment made. I was speaking to the Deputy First Minister a couple of weeks ago, and they are in the throes of making a decision about who my successor will be.

I do have to say, whoever gets the job, it is the best job in the world and they are privileged to be able to meet children and young people. While the majority of children in Northern Ireland have a fairly decent quality of life, there is that huge group who are very vulnerable and that's where the importance of this office comes in.

Q: Is it true the First and Deputy First Ministers cannot agree on who it should be?

A: I am not aware of that. As I said I spoke to the Deputy First Minister last week, and he said it was on his agenda and he has spoken to the First Minister and it is now on his agenda and they were going to have further conversations last week.

Q: So what is next for Patricia Lewsley Mooney?

A: At the minute I have nothing concrete, just going to take a bit of time out and weigh up all my options.

I have been approached with a couple of things so I'm going to weigh up what I would like and decide which way to go.

Q: Would you return to politics?

A: At the minute I have no inclination.

Q: How did you first get involved in politics?

A: By accident! I was asked to stand in a seat that they just needed a third name for, there was no expectation I would get elected but I did, in 1993. That was to Belfast City Council.

Q: Has the council changed much since then?

A: Council for me has changed probably because faces have changed, but issues have also changed, they are more hardline there than they were before.

I do have to say that for me as Children's Commission they have taken on the role of children and young people very seriously.

They have a youth council and they also have children's champions for each of the political parties.

Q: Then you were an MLA for Lagan Valley?

A: Being elected to the Assembly in 1998 was something different.

I do see a difference in the first Assembly before suspension and how it was starting to deliver for people.

Q: This Assembly isn't delivering?

A: Probably not in the same, visible way. I think high politics shadows everything else. Everyone is engaging on whether the First and Deputy First Minister are arguing or disagreeing, so very often some of the work that is being done gets lost.

Q: Do they and Stormont take you seriously as Children's Commissioner?

A: I think that a lot of the departments take stuff on board. We would have regular meetings with ministers and of course have given evidence to committees. I suppose for me, that's where I saw the greatest change. Some of the work we do influences, it is my job to influence and to challenge.

Q: What is your early background?

A: I was originally from south Belfast but I lived in west Belfast. My background was more catering but I also worked as an advice worker on an Ace scheme in lower west Belfast and I suppose that's where I got my interest from. When I got involved in politics the bit I enjoyed most was the constituency work and making a difference.

Q: What sort of catering did you work in? Was it a restaurant?

A: No, I trained as a cook in Bostock House and then I went on to be manager at Stewarts on the Lisburn Road in the canteen. I worked on and off over the years at different things. When my kids were born (Patricia had five) I worked as a care assistant at night.

Q: Did the SDLP head-hunt you?

A: My ex-husband (former SDLP councillor Hugh Lewsley) was a councillor in Lisburn. The elections came up and he wanted me to run but I didn't feel it would be sensible. Then Joe asked me to stand in Upper Falls, and I said yes, but then I thought no, I can't do this job. He said, it's alright just put your name on the ballot paper, you won't get elected. But I did.

Q: Why didn't you think standing for election was sensible?

A: The first thing I noticed when I went into political life was that out of 51 members in the chamber (Belfast City Council), only five were women. It was a daunting place, but I sat back and watched everything that went on and learnt. I also learned very quickly that you could use your position to the advantage of those that are disadvantaged. My area of passion was around people with disabilities. I had done voluntary work when I was at school with Fleming Fulton and the Gateway Club. I saw the opportunity in council to change some of the ways they worked. I made the City Hall as accessible as possible. I was on the personnel sub-committee and I managed to get a young person with a learning disability in to do work, and as a result of that we put in place a policy to employ people with learning disabilities.

Q: You are passionate about women in politics?

A: Yes, just before the Assembly elections (1998), I was only six weeks after open-heart surgery, it was the women in the party who canvassed with me and said, take it easy and we'll knock the doors. They looked after me.

Q: What age were you then?

A: I was 39, it was a hole in the heart, a genetic defect that they hadn't caught on to.

Q: So you'd had a hole in your heart your whole life. Looking back did it affect you?

A: Well I was very breathless at times and couldn't do things, I just didn't realise that's what it was. I tried jogging and going to the gym and may have exacerbated it. I did a lot of Irish dancing when I was young. I danced from when I was five to 21. I was always active.

Q: How did they discover it?

A: I had chest pain for nine days, they did all the normal tests but it was only when they did the big scan that they found the hole.

Q: And this was all in the run-up to your first Assembly election?

A: Yes, the surgery was in May, the election was in June, and again I got elected to a seat we thought we wouldn't get. It was daunting but it gave me a focus. I was always a very practical person and I knew what my limitations were. It was down to the women helping me. But sometimes fate plays a strange hand - if it's meant for you, it won't go past you.

Q: You mentioned a long Irish dancing career?

A: I held a world title at one stage when I was 19 or 20, I danced in the Mansion House in Dublin in the world championships. I started when I was five , and did a lot of team dancing when I was older. It was at team dancing my partner was killed in the motorcycle accident. Before that we had won third in the world. Then I had my family and we were moving on. I taught with a friend for a while and adjudicated at festivals, I enjoyed that.

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