Children’s voices going unheard?

Eluned Parrott says that the measure to include children’s rights in all policy has become a tick box exercise.

When the National Assembly for Wales passed its Children’s Rights Measure in 2011, it promised to herald the way to a new era of inclusion and collaboration with children and young people.

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be looking at a new measure which means children’s rights must be considered in all decisions, by all Ministers in Wales.

Four Assembly Members will be discussing the impact that this duty has on their portfolio or shadow portfolio.

However since coming into force in May 2014, it has been hard to identify the positive impact. In my own portfolio, which covers the economy, transport and European issues, the rights of the child seem very rarely at the forefront of policy-makers minds.  True, there has been little in terms of legislation within this policy area in this Assembly Term and so it is difficult to judge whether the Child Impact Assessments for new laws, promised by the Measure, have been properly implemented. But in terms of policy and spending announcements, there have been some significant changes where the voices of young people have gone unheard.

Article 12 of the UNCRC states that children and young people should be able to influence the decisions that affect them, but there is little evidence that this has even begun to be the case here in the government of Wales. Indeed, it is perhaps a sign of the times that Wales’ foremost forum for the voices of children and young people, Funky Dragon, saw its funding cut by the Welsh Government earlier this year.  In doing so, the Welsh Government effectively silenced the voice of children and young people on the national stage.  Nor has there always been any recognition that some policy decisions affect children and young people disproportionately and that their voices should therefore be sought as part of the decision-making process.  This is particularly the case in terms of transport, where young people in particular seem to be a forgotten voice.

When a last-minute decision was taken to make cuts to the underpinning funding for bus services (the Bus Service Operator’s Grant) in January 2013 there was an outcry from rural communities who saw local routes slashed overnight. Rural bus services are critical to the health of our market towns and rural economies, but there is a group of people who rely on those services more than most. While children attending school are provided with school transport in most places, young people at college, in an apprenticeship or in work are not.

If you are not yet old enough, or can’t afford to learn, to drive, a bus service can be the difference between being able to build a life for yourself or not.  And it was these young people who suffered most when cuts to funding meant cuts to the services they relied on.

For this reason I was particularly proud that in my party’s budget agreement with the Welsh Government, we were able to secure funding for a Young Person’s Concessionary Fare scheme to give young people discounted bus fares to go to college or their apprenticeship placement. Not only does it lower the burden of cost for those young people, but it could also help to make those marginal rural routes more sustainable too. By offering a discount, you are encouraging young people to travel by bus, increasing the fare revenue for those routes and helping them to survive.  It is a win:win situation, and evidence from other parts of the UK shows it can make a real difference to protecting rural services.

I am also proud of this particular policy, though, because of the way it came into being. IR Cymru, the youth wing of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, identified the issue, did the background research, campaigned with youth groups, brought the motion to our party conference, and in a debate, convinced members to adopt it as official party policy.  This is youth democracy in action, empowering young people to make a difference and not just talk about their priorities, but see them enacted.

There are huge challenges facing the public purse at the moment as we all know, and cuts to careers guidance, further education and apprenticeship numbers in Wales will all have an obvious impact on our young people.  However the purpose of the UNCRC in terms of its challenge to governments is to ensure that the voice of children and young people is heard in decisions across all policy areas, and by failing to engage effectively with young people and their concerns across the full spectrum of government activities, we fail to appreciate the impact of the decisions we make however far away they appear to be from the fundamental rights of the child at first glance.  These consequences are only unanticipated by us because we have failed to ask the right people the right questions in the first place.

Passing that Measure did not mean that the job of engagement was done, it simply meant that a box has been added to a list of tick boxes. That is not enough.  We have to give children and young people a respected space in our democracy to be heard. The silenced voice must be allowed to speak.

Eluned Parrott is Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

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