Children’s Commissioner’s Annual Report 2015-16

09 November 2016

Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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CC LogoOn Tuesday 15 November 2016 in Plenary, Assembly Members will debate the Children Commissioner for Wales’ most recent Annual Report (2015-16). This gives AMs an opportunity to discuss the latest issues and challenges affecting children and young people in Wales and hear how the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant, responds to the report’s findings. The Welsh Government’s written response is due to be published following the debate. Last month, the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee heard directly from the Commissioner about the issues she raises in her report. You can see what was discussed on Senedd TV here.

The Commissioner and her role

Sally Holland is the third person to undertake the role of Children’s Commissioner, taking up her post in April 2015. The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising her functions is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children and to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in everything she and her team do. The Research Service blog Children’s rights in Wales: an update 2016 provides further detail on the UNCRC and the position in Wales.

The Commissioner can:

  • Review the effects of policies, proposed policies and the delivery of services to children;
  • Examine the case of a particular child or children if it involves an issue that has a more general application to the lives of children in Wales;
  • Require information from agencies or persons acting on their behalf, and require witnesses to give evidence on oath;
  • Provide advice and assistance to children and young people, and others;
  • Consider and make representations to the National Assembly for Wales about any matter affecting the rights and welfare of children in Wales.

The Commissioner’s remit covers all areas of the devolved powers of the National Assembly for Wales relevant to children’s rights and welfare. Her remit covers children and young people up to the age of 18 living in Wales, or who normally live in Wales. It also includes those up to the age of 25 if they have previously been ‘looked after’. Her office undertakes direct casework on behalf of children and young people.

Which does the latest Annual Report focus on?

The Annual Report identifies a wide range of issues facing children and young people in Wales and categorises them under the following headings:

  • Provision: Mental Health; Education (including ‘Additional Learning Needs’ and ‘elective home education’); Social Care (including advocacy, adoption, and short breaks for disabled children).
  • Poverty: The Commissioner says ‘Too many children in Wales are being denied a decent childhood due to the limiting effects of child poverty.[…] Welsh Government urgently needs to intensify its efforts to tackle child poverty.’ (The most recent statistics, published in June 2016, show that 29% of children in Wales are living in poverty, the same as England and higher than Northern Ireland (25%) and Scotland (22%).)
  • Protection: Child Sexual Exploitation and historic abuse; Equal protection; Travel to school; Privacy in youth courts.
  • Participation: The Commissioner saysWhilst I have no legislative remit to make recommendations to the National Assembly for Wales, I want to reaffirm my intention to press for a reinstated national democratic space for young people, in the form of a Youth Assembly.’ (See the Llywydd’s recent announcement here).

What are the Commissioner’s priorities?

Following her ‘Beth Nesa’/ ‘What Next’ consultation undertaken to inform her priorities, the Commissioner published her Plan for all Children and Young People 2016-19. Sally Holland says that ‘by 2019 I hope that Welsh Government and public services will have made significant progress towards delivering the following improvements for children:

  • Children and young people will have access to the mental health services they need in a timely manner. There will be stronger programmes for promoting emotional health and wellbeing in place in our health and social services, schools and youth services.
  • Children’s contemporary experiences of bullying will be better understood and more schools will prevent and tackle bullying effectively.
  • There will be better access to play, culture and leisure activities by children who are most likely to miss out on these, particularly those living in poverty and disabled children.
  • Care leavers will have better access to safe and secure housing options and an active offer of a job, education or training place.
  • All young people requiring continuing health and social support will have improved transitions to adult services.
  • Children will have the same legal protection as adults from physical assault.
  • Children and young people will be better involved in public services, including my own organisation.’

Setting out some of the work she herself intends to undertake, the Commissioner says:

  • ‘Under 7s asked me to prioritise play opportunities during the next three years. I will promote children’s rights to play and access leisure and cultural activities, whatever their circumstances.
  • Children from 7-18 have identified bullying as their top priority. I will work with children and others to identify and promote effective ways of tackling bullying. The issue of bullying is also connected to mental health and wellbeing – the overwhelming concerns of professionals and parents.
  • In 2016-17, I will launch a three year project to improve the transition from childhood to adulthood for those who need support and services – this includes care leavers and those with chronic health conditions and disabilities.
  • I will work with children and young people throughout Wales and through both English and Welsh languages. I will ensure that I listen to children and young people who may have most difficulty in accessing their rights, including disabled children, looked after children and those from ethnic, linguistic and sexual minorities. I will measure how I engage with different groups throughout Wales so that I can be held accountable for this by children and young people.’

The debate is scheduled for 4pm Tuesday 15 November and can be watched on Senedd TV here.

Children’s Rights in Wales: An Update

17 June 2016

Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

This is a picture of children holding hands

Image from the lonaginosuperman.wordpress.com. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Last week, the United Nations gave its verdict on what progress has been made to deliver on children’s rights in Wales. Following a UK-wide review, it made more than 150 recommendations.

The UN’s recommendations refer to a wide range of issues that have featured prominently in previous Assemblies. Its recommendations cover subjects such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS); the attainment gap in education; looked after children; children with special educational needs; children’s play; and childhood obesity.

Referring specifically to Wales, the UN:

  • Is concerned about ‘high’ child poverty rates in the UK, which it says is affecting children in Wales and Northern Ireland the most. [Wales has the highest child poverty rate of all the UK nations at 31%, equivalent to around 172,000 children];
  • Expresses concern that ‘children’s views are not systematically heard in policy-making on issues that affect them’ and notes there is no youth parliament in Wales. It recommends that one should be established as a priority, so that children can effectively engage with the legislative process on issues that affect them.

[This week, the Campaign for a Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales launched a consultation for children and young people on its ideas about which model a new youth assembly for Wales could look like];

Some of the UN’s views on UK wide issues include that:

  • It is ‘seriously concerned at the effects of the recent fiscal policies and allocations of resources’ on children’s rights and that they disproportionately affect children in disadvantaged situations;
  • There is a need to ‘prohibit as a matter of priority all corporal punishment in the family, including the repeal of all legal defences, such as ‘reasonable chastisement’, often referred to as a ‘smacking ban’. [In May 2016, the First Minister committed to taking forward, on a cross-party basis, legislation that will remove the defence of reasonable chastisement in Wales];
  • There should be a consultation on allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. [If the Wales Bill 2016 currently before Parliament is passed, the Assembly would have powers to change the age at which people can vote in Assembly Elections]
  • Infant and child mortality is linked to social and economic deprivation. [Children aged 0-17 living in the most deprived parts of Wales are almost twice as likely to die as those in the least deprived parts].

See our recent blog: Prioritising children and young people for further statistics on children in Wales.

Why is the UN having its say?

This will be the fifth time the UN has looked at the progress made in delivering the rights of children and young people since the UK Government signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989. The UNCRC gives children and young people up to the age of 18 a wide range of rights, including rights to protection, health, family, education, culture and leisure. See a summary of its articles (PDF 19.62MB).

In 2011, the Welsh Government went one step further, receiving international recognition when it became the only country in the UK to incorporate the UNCRC into domestic law through its Rights of the Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure. This has inevitably resulted in questions about what this relatively new law means in practice and what difference it is making to the day to day lives of children and young people living in Wales.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is a panel of international experts on children and young people whose role is to scrutinise governments progress in implementing the UNCRC.

On what evidence does the UN make its judgement?

Its verdict is based on written evidence from the UK and devolved governments; all four UK Children’s Commissioners; national reports from Non-Governmental Organisations as well as evidence provided by children and young people. Representatives of the United Nations visited the UK and Wales to meet with stakeholders and children and young people. Subsequently Welsh and UK representatives went to Geneva to give further evidence and answer questions about what more the Westminster and Welsh Governments need to do to fully implement the UNCRC.

Of interest to Assembly Members and other stakeholders may be the range of written evidence about Wales which was submitted to the UN. This includes:

What next in Wales?

The UN last gave its verdict on children’s rights in Wales back in 2008. In response to its recommendations, the then Welsh Government published Getting it Right – a 5 year action plan. We are yet to hear how this new Welsh Government, and the new Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant, will respond to what the UN has said in this most recent report.

It’s notable that the cabinet for this new Welsh Government includes a Cabinet Secretary whose title specifically includes children. Announcing this in Plenary on 24 May 2016, the First Minister confirmed that ‘we’re identifying the interests of children as a distinct ministerial responsibility’. Given successive Welsh Governments’ stated commitments to children’s rights, the UN’s most recent findings are likely to provide the basis for further scrutiny during this Fifth Assembly.

Commissioners and the ombudsman

03 June 2016

Article by Stephen Boyce, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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There has been much debate about differences in the powers and governance arrangements of commissioners and the ombudsman in Wales – is it time for an overhaul?

With the office of the Future Generations Commissioner fully operational since April 2016, Wales now has four statutory commissioners and a public services ombudsman. But are their roles sufficiently clear and are they truly independent? The arrangements for appointing and holding them to account are inconsistent, and there is a view, shared by some of the commissioners themselves, that change is needed.

Commissioners and the ombudsman in Wales

Since the creation in 2001 of the first commissioner in Wales – for children and young people – commissioners have become an established part of public life. They are responsible for safeguarding and protecting the rights of Welsh citizens and improving public services within their areas of responsibility.

There are now commissioners for children, older people, future generations and the Welsh language, as well as an Assembly standards commissioner and a public services ombudsman (PSOW). Wales has been something of a leader in this area – some commissioner offices were the first of their kind, and creating a single public services ombudsman from the merger of three former bodies is acknowledged as an example of good practice.

Varying governance arrangements

The commissioners for older people, Welsh language, future generations and children are all appointed and funded by the Welsh Government, although they are independent.

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (PSOW) is appointed by the Monarch on the recommendation of the Assembly, and funded by the Welsh Consolidated Fund.

The Standards Commissioner, who is concerned with standards in the Assembly, is appointed by the Assembly and remunerated from the Welsh Consolidated Fund.

Commissioners’ independence

Several committees in the Fourth Assembly scrutinised the processes for appointing and holding commissioners to account. They recommended increased stakeholder and cross-party involvement, or appointment by the Assembly rather than the Welsh Government.

Although there is no suggestion of any interference by the Welsh Government, both the former and current children’s commissioners have argued that the holder of the post should be accountable to, and appointed by, the Assembly. The Welsh Language Commissioner has similarly questioned whether it is appropriate that the Welsh Government funds her office.

The Older People’s Commissioner has attributed the lack of conflict with the Welsh Government to both parties’ determination to make the arrangement work. Given the need for commissioners to cast a critical eye over government, there is a question about whether the current arrangements will prove sufficiently robust in the long term.

In 2014, the previous Welsh Government commissioned Dr Mike Shooter to conduct an independent review of the role and functions of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. He made a number of recommendations about the appointment, remit, funding, accountability and governance of the commissioner. This included extending his or her remit to include non-devolved matters. The previous Welsh Government agreed, and accepted many of the recommendations that were within its powers to implement. However, other aspects of the report have generated intense disagreement.

The review recommended that the Assembly rather than the Welsh Government should appoint and fund the children’s commissioner in the future. The previous Welsh Government disagreed, much to the disappointment of the Fourth Assembly’s Children and Young People’s Committee. This Committee recommended that any successor committee in the Fifth Assembly should press strongly for the decision to be reviewed. The Shooter report also identified a need for more rigorous Assembly scrutiny of the commissioner.

A strategic approach

There are differences in powers as well as governance arrangements between commissioners; each has been established under separate legislation. Given what it termed the ‘proliferation’ of commissioners, the Shooter report suggested the Welsh Government should take stock of what is required of each and draft a single commissioners’ Act which could set out definitions, principles, roles and powers common to all. Issues specific to each commissioner could be set out in regulations.

Drafting legislation to cover all commissioners would not be a simple matter given their different remits, but a more coherent approach could improve their effectiveness and increase public understanding of their roles.

The previous Welsh Government stated that it was ‘not yet persuaded of the need for a single piece of legislation covering all commissioners’. However, it committed to undertaking some exploratory work on further legislation. In the meantime it produced secondary legislation to align the Older People’s Commissioner’s term of office to that of other commissioners and the PSOW.

As the Future Generations Commissioner begins work in earnest, the work of the commissioners’ offices touch on the lives of an increasing number of people. Given the high public profile of such post holders, the need for clarity about their roles and accountability will become more pressing.

Key sources

An important time for children’s rights in Wales

16 November 2015

Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image of child's drawing

Image from Flickr by LindaH. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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 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’.

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Failing to deliver on children’s rights?

17 November 2014

Article written by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

CC LogoThe Children’s Commissioner for Wales is concerned that ‘the Welsh Government seems too comfortable with its status as an international children’s rights trailblazer’. This is one of the key messages from Keith Towler in the final Annual Report of his tenure as Commissioner. In the recently published Annual Report 2013-14 he also says that ‘vital services aimed at protecting vulnerable children and young people are in danger of being lost, due to the lack of vision and leadership from the Welsh Government’.

Children’s Rights

The Welsh Government has previously received international recognition for introducing the Rights of the Child and Young Person (Wales) Measure 2011, which embeds the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law in Wales. The UNCRC is made up of 54 articles, a summary of which can be found here. These articles 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.

Next year, the United Nations will take evidence and examine what more the Westminster and Welsh Government need to do to fully implement the UNCRC. The UN will take evidence from the UK and Welsh Government, the four UK Children’s Commissioners, Non-Governmental Organisations. When the UN Committee last scrutinised progress in 2008, it took evidence from children and young people themselves, facilitated by Funky Dragon.

Review

The office of the Children’s Commissioner was established in 2000 in response to the findings of the Waterhouse tribunal inquiry report, Lost in Care, into alleged abuse of children in care in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

An independent review into the role and functions of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, previously called for by the current Commissioner, is due to submit final report and recommendations to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty in December 2014. In his latest Annual Report, the Commissioner says:

‘Experiences and developments since 2001 mean that there is now a need to strengthen the role of the Children`s Commissioner and to ensure governance arrangements reflect developments in our constitutional settlement. The complex patchwork of powers and regulations that currently define the role and remit of the commissioner need simplifying and clarifying, the remit of the Commissioner needs extending to avoid public confusion about non devolved areas, and the appointment, funding and reporting arrangements for the Commissioner need updating.’

Assembly scrutiny

The report will be discussed at the National Assembly for Wales’ Plenary session on the 18 November 2014.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee has already heard from the Commissioner on the work of his office and the findings of his report in a scrutiny session on 13 November 2013, a recording of which can be found on Senedd TV.

The Public Accounts Committee undertook scrutiny of Commissioners’ ‘Strategic Report and Accounts’ 2013-14 on 13 October 2014. A copy of the meeting transcript can be found here.