The Children’s Commissioner’s Annual Report: A change at the helm

Published 14/10/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

This year’s Children’s Commissioner’s Annual Report introduces the new Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Rocio Cifuentes, while also outlining the work and achievements of her predecessor Sally Holland and her team during the period 1 April 2021 – 31 March 2022.

Members of the Senedd will be debating the report and its recommendations on 18th October. This article looks at the broader context of this debate, especially in relation to a new report 'Reframing Childhood', launched in Wales last week by the British Academy (BA) on how children's rights and voices can inform public policy.

Children as more than 'future adults'

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) underpins policies and legislation in Wales. UNCRC is made up of 54 articles which set out a wide range of rights for children and young people up to 18 years of age, including rights to protection, health, family, education, culture and leisure. The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 means the Welsh Ministers need to give ‘due regard’ to the UNCRC in everything they do. As a result, children’s rights have been the subject of much Senedd scrutiny including the Children’s rights in Wales report published in 2020, along with a Child friendly version.

According to the 'Reframing Childhood', research indicates that the key to instilling children’s rights into policy and practice lies, in part, between balancing adults’ responsibility to children, and recognising their own agency. 'Reframing Childhood', says that, having a balanced approach between understanding children as ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, can be useful in navigating this tension. According to the BA this distinction between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, is about recognising children as more than future adults, and seeing them as people with agency and needs in the ‘here and now’. For example, if we look at changes to the curriculum, it is important not only to look at how those changes might affect children’s futures and their careers, but also about understanding how they might affect children in the present, such as their impact on mental health. 

The Commissioner’s report describes its own 'The-Right-Way' approach as a principled and practical framework for working with children, grounded in the UNCRC. It is aimed at supporting public bodies with meeting their duty to place ‘children’s rights at the heart of all planning decisions and service delivery.’ The British Academy cites the previous Commissioners’ 'The-Right-Way' as a good example of “a more balanced policy approach that addresses matters of being a child as well as future outcomes in adulthood.”

The Commissioner’s report notes that the last year has seen the evaluation of the impact of 'The-Right-Way', and cites some of the positive responses including how it helps ‘transform values into actions.’ It is also noted that, one of the outcomes from the review was how it provided an opportunity to collaborate with children and young people.

Collaborating with, and advocating for, young people

Key to meeting the Commissioner’s responsibilities is the role to ‘speak up’ for children, as well as ‘influencing’ government. In the report it is clearly laid out how progress or otherwise has been made in ‘children’s matters’ in the ‘Report Card’ such as:

  • Protection from Exploitation and Violence: including from sexual abuse and young people in the youth justice system.
  • Family Environment and alternative care: including support for children in, and leaving care, and accommodation for children with complex needs
  • Adequate Standard of Living: including access to health, child poverty rates, and access to transport.
  • Education, Citizenship and Cultural Activities: including the impact of the new curriculum and the recent Additional Learning Needs legislation; young people education at home or in independent schools; the whole school approach to mental health; examinations and assessments post-covid; Learner Travel; and exclusions.

Addressing child poverty has been a key priority for both the previous and current Commissioners. Rocio Cifuentes has called for the Welsh Government to set ambitious child poverty reduction targets. The Welsh Government is aiming to refresh its child poverty strategy by the end of this year, and the Commissioner also wants to see an action plan and spending plans alongside this.

The Commissioner’s office reports that it has influenced in this area by raising issues with the UK Government relating to “the harmful impact of the two-child limit on child tax credit and universal credit”, and by seeking to influence the Welsh Government’s income maximisation group so that it addresses child poverty.

The Commissioner’s report recommends that the Welsh Government maintains a clear and ongoing focus on the root causes of child poverty, stating that “work this year particularly needs to be addressed at families on the edge of care, where children are at risk of harm or neglect and entry into the care system.”

Both the correspondence with the DWP and the Commissioner’ s recommendations to the Welsh Government could be seen as speaking up for children. They might also be seen as a request to consider the needs of children in the ‘here and now’, or as the BA puts it children as ‘being.’ According to 'Reframing Childhood', working with young people on subjects which are typically thought of as children’s matters, such as education, and childcare is a key part of developing child centred policy. Yet, 'Reframing Childhood', says that research also highlights the importance of engaging with young people on matters normally considered separate to children. Welsh examples of this include the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Welsh Youth Parliament. Perhaps future work might move towards showing how the Commissioner brings the concerns of young people into conversation with all aspects of government policy.

Challenges ahead

Balancing the consideration of children as ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, doesn’t sit aside from the other challenges facing young people. As the new Commissioner says, “We may be emerging from the Covid pandemic, but we are almost certainly entering another crisis - the Cost of Living Crisis, which is creating huge pressures on families and children who were already struggling.”

As NHS confederation research on the Covid 19 shows, crises do not affect us all equally, but exaggerate pre-existing inequalities and pressures, often affecting the marginalised in society most. The increasing pressures on the ‘cost of living’ are starkly different for some families compared to others. As more children become at risk of living in poverty, representing the experiences, ideas, and needs, of young people in all their diversity will likely be all the more challenging for the commissioner, and communication with children in all their diversity will be all the more important.  

Future energy price rises and the cost-of-living challenges in the months ahead has already been the focus of much debate early in the Senedd’s Autumn term. This latest report from the Commissioner will provide an opportunity to consider what it means for the lives of Wales’s children in the here and now.  Watch on Senedd TV  here.

Article by Joseph Thurgate, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament