Belfast Telegraph

My Bill will help our children

By Steven Agnew

As a father-of-two, I see enough children's TV to know how important teamwork is. Whether it is Thomas The Tank Engine and his friends or Octonauts, working as a team is always crucial to saving the day.

None of us are superheroes, which is why collective action is the more effective way to deal with societal problems.

That is why I am introducing the Children's Services Co-operation Bill (Children's Bill) to the Assembly.

In the draft Early Years (0-6) strategy, produced by the Department of Education, all the evidence shows that the most informative years of a child's life are from pre-natal to age six.

If you want to improve outcomes for children born into poverty, social disadvantage and exclusion, these are the years where it is best to support families. Put it off until their teenage years, when the problems of social disadvantage are already embedded, and it will cost much more to have the same impact.

So when, as a member of the All Party Group on Children & Young People, I asked the Department of Education what work had been taking place with the Department of Health, I was told that this was a Department of Education strategy. Effectively it was none of Health's business.

Bearing in mind that most children won't come into contact with education services until the age of three or four, effectively we had been presented with a 0-6 strategy that started at age three. The draft was widely criticised, and the strategy was scrapped.

My proposal includes a statutory duty on Government departments and agencies to co-operate in the planning, commissioning and delivery of children's services. It will also allow them to pool resources - both staff and finance - to encourage a more joined-up approach to this.

The children's sector has been campaigning for this for as long as I have been in full-time politics but that meeting on the draft Early Years strategy produced the evidence that I needed as to why such a duty was required.

We have an estimated one in four children living in poverty in Northern Ireland, and this is expected to rise. We cannot afford to continue to do what we have always done simply because it's what we have always done.

  • Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in NI

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