Children’s Rights in Wales: big changes ahead

Published 24/02/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

It’s now more than ten years since the Welsh Government made a clear commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) through its Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. While scrutiny continues about what difference this law makes to children and young people’s lives, we do know there are big changes ahead.

This year will see a new Welsh Government plan for children and young people, changes to the law on physical punishment, a second Welsh Youth Parliament and a new Children’s Commissioner. The common link between all of these is the UNCRC and its direct impact on law and public policy in Wales.

In this article we look at the changes ahead.

A national plan for children and young people

Article 4 of the UNCRC says that governments must do everything they can to make sure every child can enjoy their rights. This includes creating systems and passing laws that promote and protect those rights. The UN has encouraged the UK and devolved governments “to adopt comprehensive plans of action for the implementation of the Convention” which are based on a child rights approach.

On 1 March 2022 we expect the Welsh Government to publish a new Children and Young People's Plan for Wales. It’s likely to pull together a range of existing Welsh Government commitments, drawing on the Programme for Government and the Co-operation Agreement. The Welsh Government has already said that:

To bring coherence to all our policy activity for children across the Welsh Government, a Children and Young People’s Plan for Wales has been developed, building on our commitment to children’s rights and specifically to help deliver relevant commitments in our Programme for Government.

Stakeholders have been asking what was going to replace the 2015 Programme for Children and Young People. So the publication of a new plan is likely to be welcomed in principle by organisations working with and for children and young people in Wales. However the devil is in the detail and on the 1 March we should find out the extent to which this plan itself takes a child rights approach, including:

  • How children and young people have been involved in its development.
  • The extent to which this new national plan includes measurable ‘outcomes’ for children and young people by which Welsh Government can be held to account.
  • How it puts into practice the legal duty for all Welsh Ministers across the cabinet portfolios to give due regard to children’s rights in everything they do.

‘Historic moment’

From 21 March 2022 all physical punishment of children will be illegal in Wales. The Welsh Government is calling this “a historic moment for children and their rights in Wales”.

Article 19 of the UNCRC says governments must do all they can to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and bad treatment by their parents or anyone else who looks after them. On that basis, the UN has consistently called for “all corporal punishment in the family” to be prohibited as a matter of priority in the UK, “including through the repeal of all legal defences, such as ‘reasonable chastisement’”.

Whilst the text of the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 is short, the volume of evidence presented during its Senedd scrutiny was not. Whichever side of the debate you sit, it’s hard to disagree that this change in the law is a significant legal landmark in Wales. The Government’s information campaign is well underway. Campaigners against the new law are continuing to publicise their opposition. What remains to be seen is how the implementation of this change will play out across Wales in the weeks, months and years ahead.

The Second Welsh Youth Parliament sets its priorities

Article 12 of the UNCRC says that every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. In its 2016 verdict on children’s rights in Wales, the UN expressed concern that “children’s views are not systematically heard in policy-making on issues that affect them” and noted there was no youth parliament in Wales. It recommended that one should be established as a priority.

This was taken forward by the Senedd Commission with the first Welsh Youth Parliament focusing on life skills in the curriculum; littering and plastic waste; and emotional and mental health support. The second Welsh Youth Parliament held its first meeting on 19 February 2022. Youth Parliament Members agreed their ‘chosen issues’ for the two year term ahead, which are:

Orange slide with three priorities listed: mental health and wellbeing; the climate and the environment; education and the school curriculum.

There are now clear priorities across both the youth parliaments. What’s not known yet is the extent of real change which Welsh Government will now deliver in these priority policy areas and the therefore the degree to which the Article 12 rights of young people will be made a reality.

A new Children’s Commissioner for Wales

Looking ahead to April 2022, there is a big change in who holds the Welsh Government to account on children’s rights. Rocio Cifuentes will become the fourth Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

The principal aim of the Commissioner is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children. In exercising his or her functions the Commissioner must have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What the new Commissioner’s priorities will be and how children and young people will be involved in shaping them will no doubt become apparent in the next few months. The next few years will then reveal how the Welsh Government chooses to respond.

Children’s rights in the spotlight

Some of the changes outlined in this article are likely to get much more media attention than others. However all are likely to feature in Senedd scrutiny as further details emerge. You can watch the Deputy Minister’s statement about ‘The Children and Young People’s Plan’ on 1 March 2022 here on Senedd.TV.

Article by Sian Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament