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Chief executive’s policy address 2017

Long-awaited children’s rights body for Hong Kong may end up toothless

Carrie Lam is expected to announce long-awaited commission in policy address, but sources say it will be non-statutory and without real power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 3:03pm

Hong Kong’s leader is set to announce the establishment of a long-awaited children’s commission for the city in her maiden policy address on Wednesday, but it will not have the clout that advocates are seeking.

While Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will be delivering her election campaign promise to establish the commission, sources told the Post, it will not be a statutory body.

Lam is chairing a preparatory committee for establishing the commission, and a consultation will be launched to gather public feedback.

Even before the announcement, children’s rights activists and legal experts are concerned about the new body being modelled on the existing Commission on Poverty, as they fear a children’s commission without statutory power will be toothless.

They have been demanding for decades that such a body should have a clear mandate to consider and investigate individual complaints, in addition to ensuring children’s interests are reflected in government policies or legislation.

Carrie Lam’s pledge to protect child rights is welcome, but will the commission get teeth?

“For a children’s commission to be effective it must have its independent powers,” said solicitor Dennis Ho Chi-kuen, chairman of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee. “Otherwise it would be just another arm of government and that is also not what the United Nations has asked for.”

Ho was referring to calls by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child encouraging member states to establish an independent institution to protect children’s rights.

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The UN panel raised concerns back in 2013 over the failure of the city’s government to take concrete steps to tackle problems such as child neglect and abuse through a proper statutory body, despite constant lobbying.

The proposed commission should at least have an office with a full-time commissioner who would not be sidetracked by other responsibilities, Ho suggested.

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That was echoed by Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights. She said it was crucial for the new commission to have its own office which would allow staff to hold regular meetings with children on issues they might want to raise.

Her group hopes the commission will take a rights-based instead of welfare-based approach in reviewing children’s issues, she added.

“We are worried that it will adopt the welfare-based approach,” she said. “The commission should not just focus on certain issues, otherwise you will not be able to see if there are gaps at the policy or system level.”

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Wong also called for children to have a say in the selection of the commissioner, suggesting they should be given a chance to interview shortlisted candidates – an arrangement similar to that adopted by Australia.

Barrister Azan Marwah, an expert in family and child law, said he was pleased to hear Lam was following through with her promise to set up the body, but argued a children’s commission based on the poverty commission model would be “no commission at all”.

“It would be more similar to a working group or committee of senior government officials with a few observers,” Marwah said. “Only an independent commission will be able to ask the necessary questions that a particular department might not want to ask. If the children’s commission is like the poverty commission, the only questions that will be asked are those that the senior government officials are willing to ask of themselves.”

Marwah lamented there was currently no single department for handling complaints related to child abuse and neglect, and a structural solution was needed to prevent more tragedies.

He said all of the major stakeholders in Hong Hong – including the legal profession, major children’s charities, academia, the medical sector and lawmakers – had supported an independent children’s commission, accusing the government bureaucracy force that opposed it.

The Labour and Welfare Bureau is currently providing the secretariat to support the preparatory committee, whose members will be drawn from groups involved in education, food and health and home affairs, as well as academics and representatives from child welfare groups.

In an interview with the Post last month, Australian National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell and Reidar Hjermann, the ombudsman for children in Norway from 2004 to 2012, both emphasised the importance for the commission to be independent.

Such a status, empowering the commission to investigate and obtain information, would help expose problems and get to the heart of issues, they argued.