Programme for Government progress report

ofmdfm junior ministers Child poverty levels have fallen as the economy has gradually improved but the childcare strategy has been delayed by almost a year.

The Programme for Government covers 2011-2015 but was only published in March 2012 and the Assembly’s term has now been extended to May 2016.

Responsibility for children’s policy rests with the OFMDFM junior ministers. Jonathan Bell and Martina Anderson were appointed in May 2011, and Anderson was succeeded by Jennifer McCann in 2012. They are formally held to account by the Assembly’s OFMDFM Committee and the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley.

The Executive pledged to fulfil its commitments under the Child Poverty Act in order to reduce child poverty. It would also “publish and implement” a childcare strategy with “key actions to provide integrated and affordable childcare”. An ongoing programme of child protection work was also planned.

The child poverty strategy had been published in March 2011. An estimated 90,000 children live in poverty, down from 120,000 at the height of the recession in 2009. Official progress reports cite the Executive’s broader economic development work, which would raise parental incomes, the regional rates freeze and continuing spending on benefits.

A consultation on a new child poverty strategy is now under way and will close on 21 February. The final version must be put in place in March.

OFMDFM was due to publish the childcare strategy by April 2013. The late consultation process, starting in December 2012, meant that the target was missed and the strategy is now expected later this year. In the meantime, the department has moved ahead with the funding by allocating £2 million from the £12 million funding package.

An OFMDFM spokeswoman declined to explain the delay but added that 15 “key first actions” were published last September. The department “aims to publish” the final strategy “before the end of 2014” and it will then run until 2020.

The regional sexual assault referral centre was opened, as scheduled, in September 2013 at Antrim Area Hospital. Child protection policies are under constant review by officials at the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The Executive failed to reach its main children’s targets in the 2008-2011 Programme for Government. The Safeguarding Board was due to be set up by 2009 but the relevant legislation was only enacted in February 2011.

The board finally started work in 2012.

Ministers had hoped to reduce the number of children in care and the number of children placed on the child protection register by 12 per cent. Both of these figures increased, although it is unclear whether was due to a higher incidence of abuse and neglect or better reporting.

A target to reduce the number of children at risk from parental alcohol and/or drug dependency (by 10 per cent) was also missed. The most ambitious target was to halve the level of child poverty by 2010. This was disrupted by the recession, which resulted in rising child poverty, although this factor was obviously outside the control of government.

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