17 January 2013
The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the second periodic report of Malta on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Frans Borg, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Dialogue and the Family of Malta, said that Malta had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and since then was ensuring that domestic legislation, policies and practices were in compliance with the Convention and enforceable in domestic courts. The rights and interests of children in Malta were further protected with the setting up of the Office of the Commissioner for Children in 2003. As a result of the year 2000 policy for inclusive education, 99.7 per cent of students with disabilities attended mainstream schools and received adequate support. Unaccompanied minors arriving to Malta by boat were accorded necessary assistance and care. A Bill had been presented to the Parliament in 2011 to increase the age of criminal responsibility from nine to 14 years and to ensure that malicious intent was a prerequisite to the prosecution of minors.
Committee Experts expressed appreciation for the focus of the social welfare system in Malta on families, which continued also in the face of the economic crisis. Due to its geographical position in the middle of the Mediterranean, the pressure of illegal immigration was very high and it was important to discuss how the rights of each child arriving to Malta were guaranteed, especially in the case of unaccompanied children. The delegation was requested to explain the legal concept of reasonable corporal punishment, what kind of punishment was permissible under this concept, and to clarify measures to address the root causes of abuse and neglect of children and social attitudes condoning domestic violence. The Experts noted the widespread discriminatory attitudes in the society towards children with disabilities and migrant children and asked about the measures undertaken to prevent this from happening.
Peter Guran and Hiranthi Wijemanne, Committee Rapporteurs for the Report of Malta, in concluding remarks expressed appreciation for the achievements of Malta in the implementation of the Convention in law and practice and for the political will in this regard. Areas for further discussion remained and included immigration, corporal punishment, adolescent health and some aspects of the Criminal Code.
Also in concluding observations, Mr. Borg reiterated that the rights of the children in Malta were not a slogan but a commitment and a pledge.
Jean Zermatten, the Committee Chairperson, in closing remarks said that the most important task was now before Malta, which was translating the discussion and concluding observations into reality.
The delegation of Malta consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Dialogue and the Family, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health, the Elderly and Community Care, Ministry of Education and Employment, Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers of the Ministry for Home Affairs, Foundation for Social Welfare Services of the Ministry for Justice, Dialogue and the Family, and the Permanent Mission of Malta to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be on Friday, 18 January at 10 a.m. when it will begin its consideration of the second periodic report of Guinea under the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC/C/GIN/2).
The second periodic report of Malta can be read here: (CRC/C/MLT/2).
Presentation of the Report
FRANS BORG, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Dialogue and the Family of Malta, said that Malta had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and since then had been ensuring that domestic legislation, policies and practices were in compliance with the Convention and enforceable in domestic courts. The Government had declared its intention to incorporate the Convention into domestic law in the same manner as had been done with the European Convention on human rights and other international conventions. Although a comprehensive Children’s Act would not be enacted for the time being, the rights guaranteed by the Convention would become autonomously enforceable as Convention rights in domestic courts. The National Children’s Policy had been published in 2011 and it set to promote the well-being, rights and obligations, protection, participation, inclusion, creativity and leisure of children. Its priority objectives and measures also acted as early intervention and prevention strategies, and further strengthened the commitment to give the child a stronger voice and encourage active citizenship among children, thereby minimizing the gap between existing policies and practices. With the setting up of the Office of the Commissioner for Children in 2003, the rights and interests of children in Malta had been further protected. The Commissioner for Children ensured that legislation relating to the protection of children and investigation of alleged breaches of children’s rights was in place and promoted the rights of children through activities aimed as educating people, mostly children themselves, and through research on specific realities that impinged on the rights of children in Malta.
The Department for Social Welfare Standards was in charge of regulating social welfare services in Malta and part of its activities focused on Child Day Care Services.
The Department would also be empowered by the draft legislation to grant, suspend and revoke licences for the provision of child care, adoption and fostering services. In recent years, the Government had actively undertaken measures to enhance child care facilities in the country, including through consolidating childcare facilities and increasing accessibility to affordable quality child care. In 2007, there had been 30 child care centres in the country, catering to 599 children, and in 2011 the number of centres grew to 53, with a total of 1,502 children attending. State kindergarten education for children aged zero to three was provided free of charge and was accessible to all. An after-school hours’ service for school-age children between three and 16 years was offered by the Foundation for Educational Service within the Ministry of Education and Employment. Measures had been taken to facilitate adolescents’ access to confidential reproductive health care and assistance, and to introduce sexual and reproductive health education for adolescents, particularly in response to teenage pregnancies. As a result of the policy for inclusive education of 2000, 99.7 per cent of students with disabilities attended mainstream schools, where they were supported by learning support assistants and benefitted from individual educational plans focused on cognitive behaviour, self-help skills, communication, relationships and physical development, which were reviewed annually. Malta was located half way along the route taken by thousands of migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Unaccompanied minors arriving to Malta by boat were accorded the necessary assistance and care. A Bill had been presented to the Parliament in 2011 to increase the age of criminal responsibility from nine to 14 years and to ensure that malicious intent was a prerequisite to prosecute minors.
Questions by Experts
PETER GURAN, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, said that even before joining the European Union, Malta had developed a long-term perspective in the social welfare system, focusing on support to families, and the Committee appreciated the continuing support to families despite the economic crisis. Due to its geographical position in the middle of the Mediterranean, the pressure of illegal immigration was very high and it was important to discuss how the rights of each child arriving to Malta were guaranteed, especially in the case of unaccompanied children. What measures did Malta take to fully implement the provisions of the Convention and harmonize domestic legislation, and what were the reasons behind the delayed adoption of the comprehensive Children’s Act? Could the delegation shed more light on the new draft of the National Children Policy and what issues it addressed? As stated by the delegation, the Department for Social Welfare Standards was in charge of coordinating the implementation of the provisions of the Convention, but it seemed that its mandate was mainly focused on social welfare issues, which opened the question on its power and authority to indeed coordinate all issues related to children’s rights. Turning to the Office of the Commissioner for Children, the Committee wondered how its independence was assured considering that it had to comply with the Paris Principles, and also asked about complaint mechanisms available to children. What was the role of the Council of Children and were the children really involved in active participation and in dialogue with the local government?
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, asked about the implementation of the National Policy for Children and how it was provided with resources and implemented at the local level. How were budgets allocated for children’s needs at the local and national levels? How were children and young people involved in dissemination and awareness raising on the Convention? Could the delegation speak about the system of birth registration in the country especially for children born to non-Maltese fathers and for migrant children born in Malta?
Another Expert took up the economic situation in Malta, which was heavily based on tourism, and asked what agreements were in place with the tourism industry to protect children from labour, sexual exploitation and prostitution. What laws or voluntary and obligatory codes and regulations were in place to that effect?
The delegation was asked about what procedures were in place to avoid statelessness, especially for children born to stateless parents; the plans in place to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; alignment of the definition of children in the Maltese legislation with the provisions of the Convention, considering that many laws and regulations mentioned the age of 16; measures to address the root causes of abuse and neglect of children; and social attitudes condoning domestic violence. Concerning corporal punishment, the delegation was requested to explain the legal concept of reasonable punishment which in Malta was allowed, and what kind of punishment was permissible under this concept.
Turning to the issue of non-discrimination, a Committee Expert noted the widespread discriminatory attitudes in the society towards children with disabilities and migrant children and asked the delegation to explain the measures undertaken to prevent this from happening.
Response by Delegation
In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation said that in the past, Malta had intended to adopt the approach of a Children’s Act, which had been drafted and discussed; the decision however, was finally made to keep the sectoral approach and complement it with the children’s policy. Malta declared its intention to incorporate the Convention on the Right of the Child in domestic legislation, so that courts would have proper guidance to legislate and give guidance on children’s issues. The children’s policy was in a draft form and the consultation on this policy had been very wide and included public consultations with children too. The Government was now in the process of evaluating the feedback received during the consultation process, and incorporate it in the new draft policy.
Persons and children with disabilities were fully integrated in the society and enjoyed all the rights of citizens; Malta did not focus on disabilities, but on abilities. The Commissioner for Children was fully independent and was not subject to direction or control of any other person and authority in the exercise of functions. Responding to the concern of the Committee about the independence of the Commissioner for Children, which was a part of the Ministry, the delegation said that every institution in Malta fell under a ministry but this did not imply that the Minister decided and regulated the institution.
There were no specific budget allocations for the implementation of the provisions of the Convention, but measures had been taken by ministries and other institutions working on children’s rights. There were budget allocations for the Department of Social Welfare Standards, the Office of the Commissioner for Children, and education and other activities and institutions working with children. Sex tourism, especially involving children, had never been raised as an issue in Malta. The religion taught in schools was Catholicism, but people were free to exempt themselves from religious instruction, without being asked to provide justification.
Birth registration and nationality were two distinct issues; newborn children born to migrant parents in Malta got the citizenship of the parents, while those whose parents were Maltese obtained Maltese nationality. The definition of a child in Maltese legislation was set at 18 years of age, which was also the age of consent for sexual activity.
Schooling was compulsory until the age of 16, while according to the latest figures, 87.3 per cent of youngsters continued with higher education. The Government was working to improve the school attendance beyond the age of 16, and some measures taken included the opening of the College for Arts and Science, and the provision of maintenance grants to those deciding to pursue education after the age of 16 and on to university. To improve the number of students continuing education after the age of 18, the Government had revised its matriculation system to help those who were falling behind to get proper certification and achieve more in life.
Questions by Experts
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, said that there was an increase in the number of children placed into foster care versus those placed in homes and asked about the quality of the institutional care and how those placements were reviewed? Abuse and neglect of children was a complicated issue for which it was difficult to obtain data, but the absence of data did not mean the non-existence of abuse. What was the extent and spread of inclusive education and how were teachers equipped and trained to handle inclusive education and special education where needed? The Committee Rapporteur further asked about a unit providing specialist psychological and psychiatric care to children and adolescents and about reproductive health measures for adolescents.
PETER GURAN, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, asked the delegation to confirm that sexual and reproductive health education was a part of the curriculum in primary and secondary school; and about the procedure for age assessment in Malta, especially in the case of unaccompanied migrant children, and the respect for the principle of the best interest of the child in those proceedings. Many immigrants originated from Sub-Saharan countries and many children could have been involved in armed conflict or could be former child soldiers; were there procedures in place to deal with those children and provide them with special support and consultations?
Other Experts asked the delegation about social and educational measures to limit dysfunction of the execution of parental responsibilities; preventative measures for child trafficking and child prostitution; and legal measures for the identification of children in need and investigations into the situation of children at risk. School drop out rates in Malta were rather high, noted an Expert and asked about measures undertaken in order to understand and correct this. How successful was Malta in ensuring inclusive education for children with sensory and mental disabilities and what was the practical experience in this regard? Criminal responsibility in Malta was nine years of age; were children aged 17 or older tried as adults?
The Committee had examined Malta on the implementation of the provisions of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in 2006 and asked about the awareness of children about the Optional Protocol, actions taken to ensure the dissemination of the Committee’s concluding observations among the professionals, and the general follow up to the concluding observations by the Government, particularly with regard to legislative measures.
Malta had extended its obligatory maternity leave to 18 weeks in line with the European regulations. The Expert asked about day care services for babies and very young children and whether they were affordable for working parents. How was the right to be heard of children in custody procedures ensured and what support was provided to children of incarcerated parents? Breastfeeding rates in Malta were rather low, noted another Expert and asked about measures by the Government to support breastfeeding mothers.
What measures were in place to immediately identify children involved in armed conflict entering Malta and what training programmes were provided to border control officers to recognize and identify those children? Could the delegation provide statistics for the past three years, including the number and origin of these children? What was the status of criminal responsibility?
Response by Delegation
On questions related to regulating and monitoring the Convention, the delegation said that Malta did not have one central body in charge, but empowered and resourced specific institutions to ensure that the provisions of the Convention and children’s services were in place. The Commissioner for Children received complaints, by telephone, in writing or in person, and had dedicated personnel to follow up on the complaints and undertake necessary investigations and actions. A lot had been done to address domestic violence: there was zero-tolerance to domestic violence, a wide definition of domestic violence was provided in the relevant act, while the police was obliged by law to take perpetrators of domestic violence to court.
The Committee Experts reiterated the concern about the elements preserved in the legal order of Malta, and asked whether a clear prohibition of any act of corporal punishment against a child existed in the law. Was there a clear definition of institutional and system abuse and did it apply to church-run organizations?
In response, the delegation said concerning corporal punishment and child abuse that any form of bodily harm was prohibited, but the Civil Code allowed corporal punishment in the family setting. The Government however did not agree with this and reiterated that any form of bodily harm was prohibited by the Criminal Code. The relevant Domestic Violence Act defined domestic violence as any act of violence perpetrated by one household member upon another family member.
The Committee remarked that the Government seemed well aware of the issues related to domestic violence and corporal punishment and asked why the punishment that did not exceed reasonable chastisement in schools was not forbidden. The delegation responded that such a suggestion would be made to the Government. Every church organization had its own social worker but the Government bodies also visited every child and got feedback about what was happening to them. The Government had introduced a co-management concept together with church organizations in order to identify and address any situation that might arise.
Another instance where a child had the right to express his or her views was adoption and the court provided that the adoption decree required the consent of a child older than 11 years of age, with the assistance of a child’s advocate. Medical consent was required, except in emergency cases, where a doctor had an obligation to act in the best interest of the child. The practice of the Family Court was to hear children in all cases and in addition, all children were supported by a child advocate who ensured that the child’s point of view was heard. Each student with a disability was provided with a personal statement of need to help them adjust the curriculum to their personal circumstances. All students with sensory disabilities were enrolled in mainstream education where they enjoyed the support of specialized teachers and sign interpreters for the hearing impaired.
The Sexual Health Strategy of 2011 was based on the National Health Policy of 2010 and was focused on information and education with a view to changing attitudes. The strategy spoke about providing outreach services, provision of contraceptives and counselling, and research on contraception and parenthood planning. There was a dedicated operational budget and an implementation group composed with representatives of various ministries. Contraception was free of charge, as were public health services, including counselling and advice.
Teen pregnancies were common in Malta, said the Committee Rapporteur and asked what happened once a pregnancy was detected and about the degree of confidentiality involved. The delegation said that if a doctor felt that the young girl in front of him or her understood advice, the required medical services were provided and the minor would be advised to involve her parents. The Government offered a number of services to help teenage mothers to take care of themselves and their babies without detriment to their own education, development and employment. For the past ten years the number of teen pregnancies had slightly decreased and there was a holistic approach to teen pregnancies and single mothers, which included health, education and social services. Malta was very open to new ways of living and was a society that took care of families and children.
Turning to mental health, the enactment of the new Mental Health Act of December 2012 offered a better patient approach and for the first time referred to children specifically. It also established an office of a Commissioner for Mental Health Disorders, including children. Children suffering from mental health disorders could access in-patient and outpatient facilities, where they could get specialized multidisciplinary support from psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and learning and education specialists. It was important to note that all health services were free of charge. There was a specific agency dealing with substance abuse set up in 1994; it applied a blanket approach to educate all youngsters on abuse of alcohol, tobacco and gambling. In addition, specialized programmes targeting young children were put in place to educate about substances and abuse. The agency also had programmes to support youth with individual prevention support and with treatment.
The health care system in Malta was rather well developed, noted an Expert and asked about the possibility of having it involved in age determination processes, and in identification of migrant children affected by armed conflict and providing them with the necessary psychosocial support.
The delegation said individuals claiming to be unaccompanied children were not subject to full entry procedure. According to the law, detention of a minor must not be longer than the time necessary to determine the age and children who were visibly minors were immediately taken to specialized open centres. The age assessment began by a team conducting a psychosocial interview with the migrant; this was a holistic tool in that it attained to capture a comprehensive profile of the minor. If this interview was inconclusive, other methods of identification would be used. Unaccompanied minors and migrant children had free access to the education system. There were no operations to specifically identify former child soldiers and no training was provided to border guards. Former child soldiers could contact non-governmental organizations which would provide them with adequate support services.
The legal guardian was appointed once age determination was concluded and took place in the first week of admission to the centre housing unaccompanied minors. The legal guardian was concerned with assisting the minor in the asylum procedures; the guardian was usually a social worker who worked within the context of the reception centre and other professionals who sought to support unaccompanied minors to access the education system, employment for those older than 16, and health services. The medical examination for purposes of age determination for unaccompanied minors was a last resort and was used when psychosocial examination was inconclusive. The test used was Greulich and Pyle method, and was conducted by the Department of Health.
On child sex tourism and the mechanism to rescue victims of trafficking in persons, the delegation confirmed that sex tourism legislation was in place and all suspected cases of trafficking in persons and sex tourism were promptly investigated by the police.
Based on the EUROSTAT definition of early school leavers as people aged 18-24 who had only lower secondary education or less and were no longer in education or training, school drop out rates in Malta were 34.2 per cent, representing a significant improvement from the 2001 rate of 54.5 per cent. Concerted efforts had been put in place to lower this rate, including the extension of the matriculation to five years. The Government had documented a detailed study of early school leavers which would further assist the Government to lower the rates.
The Restorative Justice Act was a recent positive development in the field of correction in Malta and would help in the reintegration of all, especially young persons who had come in contact with the criminal justice system. To further reduce crime rates among juveniles, Malta would develop measures for the youth to develop their skills and contribute to the society.
Taking up the question of malicious intent required for the prosecution of a minor aged 14 to 16, Committee Experts asked what assistance was provided to those minors who were tried and the difference between malicious and mischievous intent. The whole juvenile justice system applied to children up to the age of 16; what happened with children older than 16?
The delegation said that the amendment was an improvement of the existing provisions of the Criminal Code which currently attributed criminal responsibility to children aged nine or more. The amendments would increase this age to 14 years and introduce the element of criminal intent. Children aged 16 to 18 were tried by magistrates and prosecuted like adults but received lesser sentences, by one or two degrees; juvenile courts heard cases for children aged 16 and younger.
There was no conscription in armed forces in Malta and recruitment was regulated by the Armed Forces Act, which stated that only persons aged 18 or older could be recruited. Corrective facilities had their own social and psychological workers to help children of incarcerated parents. The national breastfeeding policy had been launched in 2000 and as a result breastfeeding rates in 2011 increased to more than 50 per cent. Last November, a breastfeeding policy had been introduced in hospitals. Malta had regulations on marketing of infant formula and would be soon in line with the European Union directive on infant food. Maternity leave in Malta had been extended to 18 weeks as of 1 January 2013 and options open to mothers at the expiration of those 18 weeks, in addition to crèches and nurseries, included flexible hours, telecommuting, reduced hours, breastfeeding rooms at the workplace and others. Family friendly measures were also accessible to fathers.
Specific measures to implement the Lanzarote Convention in relation to sexual exploitation of children included a programme to educate children to recognize and identify grooming situations on the Internet, training of teachers on the issue, and the programme for perpetrators of domestic violence, court or self-referred, which would address reasons for violence and prevent backsliding.
PETER GURAN, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, thanked the delegation for the new information received today and expressed appreciation for the achievements of the provisions of the Convention in law and practice in Malta and for the political will in this regard. Some areas for further discussion were on the implementation of the Convention in immigration, corporal punishment, adolescent health and some aspects of the Criminal Code. Hopefully, the concluding observations would help the Government to better understand and implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
HIRANTHI WIJEMANNE, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Malta, agreed that Malta had achieved much progress in the implementation of the Convention and that there were outstanding areas for improvement.
FRANS BORG, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Dialogue and the Family of Malta, said that the rights of children in Malta were not a slogan but a commitment and a pledge.
JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, said that the most important task was now before Malta, which was translating the discussion and concluding observations into reality. Malta had signed the Third Optional Protocol on Communication procedures and the Chairperson thanked Malta for moving toward its ratification.
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