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Opposition knocks rule barring children's advocate from Parenting Commission vote

Balford Henry

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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OPPOSITION senators have raised objections to the provisions of the National Parenting Support Commission (NPSC) Act which bar the children's advocate from voting on any decision to be taken by the commission.

According to Section 7(6) of the Act, "The Children's Advocate may, if he (she) considers fit or if invited to do so by the chairman (of the NPSC), make oral submissions on any matter before the commission, but shall not otherwise participate in any voting decision of the commission".

This angered the Leader of Government Business in the Upper House Senator Arthur Williams, after it was raised by fellow Opposition Senator Alexander Williams.

In raising the issue, Senator Alexander Williams said that the provision could be explained during the committee stage of the proceedings. However, minister for information, Senator Sandrea Falconer, who piloted the Bill, felt obliged to respond while closing the debate before the Senate resolved into a committee to review the Bill clause by clause.

She said that the children's advocate's role in the commission had been limited to avoid a conflict of interest with her statutory functions. But this did not satisfy Senator Arthur Williams, who sought clarification about what obtained during the committee stage.

"I am not entirely sure what those statutory duties are that could pose a potential conflict of interest," he said and questioned the need to have the children's advocate as a member of the commission, if her role is to be limited to making oral or written submissions.

Minister of justice, Senator Mark Golding, explained that the rationale was that the children's advocate has a "clear statutory mandate" to advocate children's rights, and it would be inappropriate to ask her to vote on issues which may, from time to time, put her office in conflict with the commission.

Senator Golding gave as an example the issue of the controversial Health and Family Lifestyle Education programme of the Ministry of Education, pointing out that there could be a difference between the parental position held by the commission, and what the child may need to know.

"The point really is, given the singular focus the children's advocate has on child rights, it was considered that it would be better... to let the children's advocate play the role that her statutory mandate requires, which is to advocate relentlessly for children's rights, whereas the focus of the Parental Commission is more to do with parental obligations," he explained.

But the Opposition was not satisfied with the explanation, and Senator Arthur Williams suggested that there should be an early review of the provision.

The commission will be comprised of between 16 and 21 members, including representatives of the Child Development Agency, the Early Childhood Commission, and the ministries of education, health and youth, but only the children's advocate will not be allowed to vote.

Leader of Government Business in the Senate, AJ Nicholson, suggested that the issue could be raised by the Opposition when the Bill goes back to the House of Representatives where it originated, this week Tuesday. However, the fact that the Bill would have been returned without any amendments has raised doubts about the Opposition's suggestions being entertained in the House this week. The House of Representatives passed the Bill late September.

The Ministry of Education, through the Early Childhood Commission, spearheaded the development of the National Parenting Support Policy, which addresses effective parenting from a Jamaican perspective, and sets out the Government's approach to supporting and strengthening positive parenting practices.

The policy is expected to facilitate an environment in schools and communities which improves parenting practices. The commission will, among other things, have responsibility for overseeing the implementation and operation of the National Support Policy.

The Office of Children's Advocate is a commission of Parliament established by the Child Care and Protection Act, 2004. The children's advocate is required, among her other duties, to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practices relating to the rights and best interests of children, as well as the services provided for children by relevant authorities.

In addition, the children's advocate also advises and makes recommendations to Parliament, ministers of government, and the relevant authorities on matters concerning the rights or best interests of children.

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