16 November 2015
Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
On Tuesday in Plenary (17 November), Assembly Members will debate the most recent Annual Report of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. The debate will place the spotlight once again on whether children’s rights are being delivered in Wales.
Children and young people up to the age of 18 have a range of rights as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), including rights to protection, health, family, education, culture and leisure (see summary of articles (pdf 19.62MB)). The Welsh Government received international recognition when it incorporated the UNCRC into domestic law in Wales through the Rights of the Child and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. However this has inevitably resulted in questions about what this means in practice and whether the Welsh Government’s stated commitment to children’s rights is making a difference to the day to day lives of children and young people in Wales.
The Commissioner’s Annual Report identifies the eight ‘most pressing issues’ facing children and young people in Wales:
- Education and Additional Learning Needs;
- The provision of advocacy services;
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services;
- Child sexual exploitation;
- Support for looked after children and young people;
- The participation structures for children and young people;
- Poverty; and
- The delivery of social services.
Sally Holland took office as the new Children’s Commissioner from April 2015 and the report being debated covers the final year in the tenure of the previous Commissioner, Keith Towler. The new Commissioner has already told the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee that over 1,000 children and young people and more than 200 parents and professionals have been consulted as part of her ‘Beth Nesa’/ ‘What Next’ consultation to inform the priorities for the next seven years (link to Senedd TV).
What next for the office of the Children’s Commissioner?
This is also the year in which a report commissioned by the Welsh Government on the Independent Review of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner was published. Authored by Dr Mike Shooter, this report made recommendations for both the Welsh Government, the Children’s Commissioner and for the National Assembly for Wales and there are some clear differences of opinion about how at least one of these recommendations should be taken forward. This was discussed in the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee both on 14 October and 4 November (Senedd TV).
The Children’s Commissioner is appointed by the First Minister and funded by the Welsh Government. The Independent Review found that the Commissioner ‘is responsible to the very body he has a responsibility to hold to account’ and that ‘not only does this sound contradictory, but it runs ethically counter to all the principles laid down for National Human Rights Institutions’. Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, has made it clear that she rejects the recommendation that the appointment and funding of the Children’s Commissioner should be transferred to the National Assembly for Wales saying ‘I don’t see that the commissioner being appointed by the National Assembly for Wales would do anything to enhance that independence’. The current Commissioner on the other hand, and the majority of those who responded to the review, support the appointment being made by the Assembly. Sally Holland says ‘independence from the executive arm of government would greatly clarify my role’ and that ‘the fundamental conflict of interest is not something that can be ignored’. The United Nations has also recently asked the UK and devolved Governments to set out the steps they have taken to ensure that all four Children’s Commissioners in the devolved jurisdictions are independent. Further information on the UN is set out below.
The report also recommended that the legal background governing the Children’s Commissioner for Wales should be consolidated and simplified in one piece of Welsh legislation and that the remit of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales should be extended to cover all matters, whether devolved or not, that involve the welfare of children and young people who normally reside in Wales for example immigration and youth justice.
The United Nations’ view on children’s rights in Wales
In September 2015, representatives of the United Nations visited the UK and Wales as part of its work to see what more the Westminster and Welsh Governments need to do to fully implement the UNCRC. More recently in October, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child held confidential hearings in Geneva to prepare for its scrutiny of the UK and devolved governments’ progress in complying with the UNCRC. This gave an opportunity for the four UK Children’s Commissioners, representatives of Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs), and young people to talk about progress and say what more they think needs to be done.
Of interest to Assembly Members and other stakeholders may be the range of written evidence which has already been submitted to the UN. This includes:
- The Welsh Government’s contribution to the UK State Party report to the UN Committee (pdf 397KB) in October 2013 which was subsequently included in the UK Government’s written submission to the UN Committee in May 2014;
- A report (pdf 1.05MB) submitted by the four UK Children’s Commissioners;
- Evidence from the alliance of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the report of the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group (pdf 474KB);
- Two reports by children and young people, including the Little Voices shouting out report (pdf 4.69MB) and the FUNC + Report.
The UN Committee will now formally examine the UK and the devolved governments in May-June 2016 and issue their recommendations about what more needs to be done to deliver on children’s rights in Wales and the UK. Based on what it has heard so far, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has already published its list of issues and has requested additional information from the UK and Welsh Governments. Interestingly it has identified one Wales specific issue and has asked the Welsh Government from more information about the national participation mechanism for children and young people in Wales. This ties in with one of the concerns highlighted in the Children’s Commissioner’s Annual report that ‘the participation agenda is facing significant challenges and the support infrastructure has been reduced in Wales in recent years’.