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MP calls for ombudsman of children's rights PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Timesofmalta   

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Labour MP Joe Brincat said yesterday that Malta needed an ombudsman of children's rights with properly defined functions and procedures, rather than the Commissioner for Children with vague responsibilities which the government was proposing to appoint.

Speaking during the debate on a bill for the appointment of the commissioner, Dr Brincat said the bill needed to be amended so that the commissioner would not end up having just a "philosophical" role without the means to respond and intervene immediately for children in difficulties.

Dr Brincat said the bill laid down that one of the guiding principles of the commissioner was to act "in the best interests of children and the family".

But there was no definition of "the family". The traditional model of the family was changing. Did the family which the bill spoke about include single-parent families?

He felt that the bill should speak of the family unit which a child was living in, independently of its actual composition.

Dr Brincat said there was ambivalence in the role of the commissioner. Would the commissioner be able to give redress or would he have a consultative role, investigating problems and submitting a report to the government?

Indeed, he disagreed with the term "commissioner". What was needed was an ombudsman of children's rights with clear functions and a procedure to follow. The current bill did not establish how the commissioner could intervene to help children who had problems.

Dr Brincat said he disagreed with the setting up of the Council for Children, which was also laid down in this bill.

The commissioner should be super partis and there should not be a council doing the same surveillance the commissioner himself should be doing.

The bill said that the commissioner should foster the development of alternative care. But in what areas? The way this was written did not mean anything.

The bill clearly needed to be thoroughly examined in committee stage, and there should be a focus on one need - a commissioner with clear duties.

Earlier in the debate, Labour MP Josè Herrera said it was ironic that while the House of Representatives was legislating to improve the rights of the child, the Second Hall, the court which ultimately decided such matters, had been without a sitting judge for almost a year.

Dr Herrera said the situation was such that two judges from other halls were tackling urgent cases which had a fixed term. Ordinary cases, such as those involving maintenance and applications from parents to have access to their children, were being shelved.

This was a matter which needed to be tackled urgently by the government.

Replying, Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, parliamentary secretary in the justice ministry, said Dr Herrera knew well enough that a new judge, Mr Justice Joe Azzopardi, had just been appointed. Once the judiciary decided on the assignment of judges, he was sure that the Second Hall would soon be functioning smoothly again.

Resuming his speech from Tuesday's sitting, Dr Herrera said he did not agree that the commissioner would not carry out investigations in family quarrels between children and their parents or guardians. At least he should be able to intervene in cases of separation to help the couple's children.

Like other MPs earlier in the debate, Dr Herrera called for legislation and updated regulations on child adoptions and fostering. While a good number of children in Church institutions were literally abandoned by their parents, adoptions were usually held up because of egoistic objections by one parent or the other, sometimes on grounds of social assistance.

Dr Herrera said the Commissioner for Children should be given a certain amount of control over such cases, with the power of investigating and reporting back to the court.

Fostering of children was on the increase, but there was still no serious legal framework. Foster parents did not really know what rights they had, if any. One of the commissioner's foremost functions should be to advise the government on such issues, even by keeping abreast of developments overseas.

Parliamentary Secretary Mifsud Bonnici said that the dictum that "children should be seen and not heard" had given rise to a certain prejudice against children. Society gave children very little legal consideration.

Since the advent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) more attention was being given to children's interests.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici pointed to recent legislation which had benefited children, such as protection for minors to testify in court through the use of video conferencing. Even the police had to follow certain rules while minors were kept under arrest.

It was still a fact, however, that minors were not yet accorded enough attention in separation cases between their parents.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici agreed that progress in the protection of children's interests was being achieved in fits and starts. The bill under debate was an important step towards redressing this state of affairs.

The commissioner would be appointed in order to examine all the legal aspects where children's interests were not fully protected. His "investigations" would not be akin to those by the commissioner of police, for example, but reporting to the government on policy considerations.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he had been perplexed by the latest statistics that people aged up to 19 years were more exposed to living at or below the poverty line. This was why the commissioner would have a greater role in bringing about better social justice in the country.

Even before starting an investigation the commissioner should have access to certain files from various departments, which together with NGOs should be duty-bound to help the commissioner in his task.

What, for example, were minors' rights and parents' duties in medical treatment, or children's duties towards the medication of their parents?

Labour MP Stefan Buontempo said children wanted to live in peace, in good environmental conditions, in adequate housing and, whenever possible, with their parents. When this was not possible, it was the government's duty to provide the required assistance.

One had to look at the bill in a holistic manner. Were young couples preparing themselves well for marriage? Many couples, he said, were separating, creating problems for their children.

Dr Buontempo said couples were living in houses which were not yet completed because of the high cost of renting. Some children lived with their parents or relatives in houses which were structurally dangerous.

He knew of a family with a disabled child that required bigger rooms and had spent five years requesting the relevant department to replace its house with another.

Nationalist MP Joseph Falzon said one had to ask how, in practice, children could make their complaints and problems known.

There were situations where complaints could be raised by the parents accordingly, but there were more difficult situations where the children were on their own, threatened by the parents and too afraid to communicate.

Given the positive aspects of this bill, one should find the best form which would lead children to communicate certain experiences to the commissioner's office.

Children had to be told about the existence of the office. He also proposed the setting up of a structure through which the people could inform the commissioner of cases they could know about.

Dr Gavin Gulia (MLP) said that at the very outset, the Commissioner for Children would have a hard job to flesh out and give meaning to vague terms in the bill. Although there was a better concept than ever of children's rights, these were not yet being spelled out.

Certain children's rights were already enunciated in a number of laws, but they needed to be brought together in a proper law, as the former Labour government had intended doing, and they needed to be enforced. Certain other situations involving children and their families still needed addressing.

Dr Gulia said the bill laid down that the House Social Affairs Committee would be consulted on the appointment of the commissioner. But it was then not given any other role.

A disturbing factor was the fact that the Council for Children, being set up to assist the commissioner, was to be made up largely of political appointees, to the exclusion of opposition appointees and civil society altogether. And there was the risk of overlapping between the roles of the council and the commissioner.

Many of the people which the bill considered as being children were actually youths, and one of the council members should be appointed by the ministry responsible for youth affairs once political appointees were to be nominated.

Dr Gulia said a case he had come to know of recently showed the paucity of certain aspects of social welfare in the country. A request for relief from a family with a one-armed baby had been turned down, on the grounds that for a person to be accorded relief it needed to have a double disability, meaning, in this case, both arms missing. The state should be ashamed of this long-standing state of affairs, and steps should be taken as soon as possible to redress it.

Dr Gulia also spoke on juvenile crime and called for the setting up of a sort of halfway house so that young prisoners would not be sent to the Corradino facility.

Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg said the bill reflected the values of Maltese society and its developing conscience on children's rights.

What were children's rights? The circumstances the commissioner could investigate included avoidable children's deaths. A function which was very similar to that of the ombudsman was that the commissioner could initiate his own investigations and not await a complaint.

The commissioner could not, however, get involved in matters which fell under the family court.

The minister said that although it was true that there were many people who would be appointed by ministers to sit on the Council for Children, one should be careful about calling them political appointments.

The members of the council would be nominated on the criteria of their work or profession. By the same argument made by the opposition, judges and magistrates were also political appointments.

Turning to juvenile crime, Dr Borg said prison regulations already said that inmates could be given leave for rehabilitation purposes. The period they would spend in the programme would be reduced from their sentence. He hoped that in committee stage proposals would be made to improve the bill in the interest of children's rights.


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