We’re still learning on children’s rights

Suzy Davies says practical policy decisions have failed to consider children’s rights.

After leading the way on creating a Children’s Commissioner, Welsh Government’s solemn promise to consider children’s rights properly in all its activities was warmly welcomed by Assembly Members.

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.

The Assembly (with its Commission staff) has always encouraged and helped children and young people to meet Members, ask questions, offer ideas and visit the Assembly buildings.  It has a permanent Committee which challenges Welsh Government decisions and new law on matters which affect children and young people; that Committee also speaks directly to young people.

“The commitment to mainstreaming consideration of children’s rights in order to achieve positive outcomes for all children and young people across Wales is absolute,” said the previous Communities Minister, in his foreword to the refreshed Children’s Rights Scheme.

Perhaps it’s mean to pick on these particular words but they do highlight a particular point; children and young people don’t tend to speak Minister-ese.   Nearly 25 years ago, the world made a promise to children: that we would do everything in our power to protect and promote their rights to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential. Whatever rights a child has, it is still a big deal for a child or young person to challenge a Minister about whether those rights are being respected. The words Ministers use shouldn’t make it more off-putting.

It’s one thing to say “we will ensure children’s rights are further embedded within Welsh Government” and another to see what that means.

In the main, Welsh Government has done well and the Children’s Rights Scheme will help it do better.

It is also prepared to look again at rules which affect children, written long before the Assembly signed up to giving “due regard” to children’s rights.  For example, free school transport is not provided to children if their home is less than three miles from their nearest secondary school (two miles if a primary school) and the route they walk is safe.  Until this year, children had never been asked what they thought was “safe”.  Now they are – because Article 12 of the Convention says they should.  The Learner Travel Statutory Provision and Operational Guidance was redrafted because of this and because the old guidance did not make children’s welfare a primary consideration (Article 3).

There are times when Welsh Government may do what it is supposed to but the result is disappointing.

The Welsh Government says it wants more children and young people to understand, enjoy and take part in The Arts and Our Heritage – especially children and young people from poorer backgrounds.  The arguments for this are powerful; they are about cleverer ways of helping fight poverty.  Yet, every year, Welsh Government cuts the budget for these activities, even though it has worked out that the people most likely to lose out are children and young people.

Then there are times when Welsh Government doesn’t do what it is supposed to.  When it decides to introduce new laws, Welsh government is supposed to publish “Children’s Rights Impact Assessments” to see how those new laws might affect children. Sometimes these are thorough and helpful.  Sometimes they are weak on detail and not so helpful.  Unfortunately, sometimes they’re not published at all.

In particular, Welsh Government still hasn’t given children independent help to argue for their rights and many children who have mental health problems are let down.

The Children’s Commissioner, who helps children assert their rights, says that there is “progressive realisation” on understanding and acting on children’s rights.  In other words, Welsh Government is trying but it hasn’t got it right yet.

Local councils are responsible for a lot of the actual work which affects children and young people.  Unlike the Assembly, most councils haven’t agreed to put children’s rights at the heart of their decisions unless Welsh Government tells them to.

So, local councils may decide to stop free buses to a Welsh medium school, or a faith school, without referring the Convention on children’s rights.  Or they can stop giving money to playschemes or breakfast clubs, or close schools, leisure centres, theatres, libraries, sell off playing fields, give social workers too many families to help, ask families to live in places where it’s difficult to find work – without specifically considering the effect of that on children.

Even a council like Swansea, which has signed up to the Convention, doesn’t really understand what it’s supposed to be doing.

We already see many of the Convention Articles reflected in our laws (UK and Wales).  We think we are a civilised nation and think, perhaps, that we’re already pretty good at protecting children’s rights in terms of equalities, our health, education, care and military systems.  But do we really think “children first, children say” when we make decisions for others?  There’s no harm in admitting it: we’re still learning.

Suzy Davies is Assembly Member for South Wales West.

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