Critical friends – driving change for children

Wales since devolution has been pursuing an agenda that seeks to respect and promote the human rights of children as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC or Convention). Why is this the case? Well, for one, the agenda has been set by committed politicians who believe in social justice and human rights. As the First Minister and his Special Adviser noted in the book ‘The UNCRC in Wales’, there is a strong commitment to children as rights holders and:

“Specifically, it has been given shape and substance by placing the UNCRC at the heart of its policy making, giving reasonable grounds for continuing optimism that future policy-making will continue to be shaped by an enduring recognition that ‘the inherent dignity and…. the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.” [i]

However, the commitment to children’s rights is also driven by a vibrant civil society that continues to push for the full realisation of children’s rights in Wales. In my view, based on many years of experience working in the field of children’s rights, critical and constructive debate is part of the environment of politics and policy-making in Wales. At many levels, Wales has embraced the UNCRC reporting process, that encourages civil society, including children, to contribute a range of opinions to a process in which progress on implementing children’s rights in the UK (including in Wales) is periodically reviewed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. This is an opportunity for civil society to acknowledge positive achievements in Wales but also to the deficit in Welsh Government policy and action.[ii] This helps to promote and drive forward positive change for children.

So, it is in the spirit of this constructive dialogue that I offer a critique on the Welsh Government’s new plan for children.


Why have a plan at all?

Some children and young people may ask why have a plan at all, why not just get on with the business of delivering rights-respecting programmes for children?

Well, in my view, if there wasn’t a published plan it would be more challenging for civil society to act as a ‘critical friend’ to hold Welsh Government to account for implementing children’s rights and to give due regard to children’s rights in everything they do. It is also an expectation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that governments will  ‘adopt comprehensive plans of action for the implementation of the Convention.’


The devil is in the detail

However, in my perspective, the new Welsh Government’s plan for children does not go far enough and does not adequately describe how it will effectively implement the Convention.

A Senedd research article published just before the plan’s publication suggested: ‘the devil will be in the detail’, and this is where we hit a problem! The plan reads more like an information ‘leaflet’ rather than as a comprehensive document establishing ‘measurable outcomes’ for children and young people, against which Welsh Government can be held to account. It presents a list of claims about what the Welsh Government says it is going to achieve in 2022-2023, but for the most part this is without setting clear targets, or any clear route map explain how it’s ambition will be put into practice (albeit there are some links to action plans dotted around the document!).

The Nine Milestones at the end of the report to be achieved by 2050, (drawn from the Programme for Government) are ‘all-age’ future milestones, and often focus on children as future adults rather than as human beings with rights in the present (in other words it tends to portray children as ‘human becoming’s’ rather than ‘human beings’ – an approach which prevents proper recognition of children’s rights.

For a children’s plan to be an effective tool to hold the Welsh Government to account for compliance with children’s Convention rights there need to be milestones to be achieved in the ‘here and now’, not just when children reach adulthood. And, as pointed out by opposition members in the March 1st Senedd debate on the plan, there are concerns regarding the lack of immediate targets such as CAMHS waiting times, targets for addressing fuel poverty and the housing crisis, and for addressing the needs of children post the pandemic.

Personally, I also have a concern about a lack of policy coherence (something which the Welsh Government pledged to achieve), as well as the fact that there is no mention of inquiries undertaken by the Senedd Children and Young People and Education Committee, or their recommendations. For example the National Inquiry on Children’s Rights and the National Inquiry on Covid-19, both of which made recommendations with far reaching implications for all children.


Lack of clear evidence regarding achieving legal rights or legislative targets

I am also concerned that the plan fails to make connections to key legislation and policy in Wales. Even though the UNCRC and the rights of children are referred to at the introduction of the plan, there is only a hyper link to the vitally important Welsh legislation, the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011(the 2011 Measure) or other important  legislation such as the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (WBA 2015), the New Curriculum and Assessment Act 2021, and there is no link or reference to the Children and Families Measure 2010, the Social Services and Well-Being (Wales) Act 2014, or the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018. There is no mention of how the Welsh Government will achieve the legal rights or the legislative targets as set out in these pieces of legislation.

And while in a written statement, the Deputy Minister states:

‘Each year Ministers will measure and report on how the actions in the plan are helping them reach the nine ambitious milestones, laid out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 they want Wales to achieve by 2050’.

There is no mention of how this evidence will be collated and shared so that there is transparency about progress (or lack of progress). And although the First Minister states in the written statement:

‘We are proud that Wales was the first UK nation to write children’s rights into its laws.’

There is a distinct lack of detail on how Ministers will meet their obligation to have due regard to the UNCRC (as required by the 2011 Measure). Instead, the reference is well-being objectives (under the WBA 2015) rather than children’s legal rights as set out in the UNCRC.


A lack of transparency about budgets

Of great concern is that there is no transparency regarding specific funding allocation, or budgeting, to support realisation of the Welsh Government’s ambitions in different policy areas. Although the Deputy Minister’s written statement (not in the plan) there is a reference to:

‘The final budget for 2022/2023 published today outlines more than £1.3bn investment specific to early years and education, in addition to close to £0.75bn provided to local authorities to deliver essential services such as schools.’

This is a very broad statement which does not meet the requirements of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to demonstrate how a budget will support the realisation of children’s rights. The statement also refers solely to early years and education, but what about all the other areas of concern for children? (e.g., transport, health, environment, housing etc.)

There is also no evidence of a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) undertaken on the plan contrary to the Welsh Government’s commitment set out in its own Children’s Scheme. This follows the recent criticism by the Senedd Children and Young People Education Committee that no CRIA was carried out on the Welsh Government draft budget.

And finally, reflecting concerns expressed by Dr Anne Crowley (an international expert on child participation) over a decade ago, the plan fails to refer to any sort of:

‘published record of how children’s views were considered and given ‘due weight’ and no understanding of what influence children’s views have had on the final policy product’.[iii]


Final reflections

So, to conclude, the Welsh Government should be congratulated for their ongoing commitment to children’s rights and for introducing some excellent initiatives for children. However, if civil society is to discharge the role of critical friend to inspire radical change for children, by effectively holding the Welsh Government to account for children’s rights, we need a far more comprehensive and detailed plan which clearly and transparently sets rights-based targets for achievement in a range of policy areas.

To address this shortcoming, the Children’s Legal Centre and the Observatory recommends that once the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child releases their new Concluding Observations, Welsh Government publishes a comprehensive plan regarding how they will deliver on them.


Author: Dr Rhian Croke

[i] Butler I & Drakeford M, Children’s rights as a policy framework in Wales, In, Williams J (eds) The UNCRC in Wales, (University of Wales Press Cardiff 2013), 18

[ii] Aspinwall T & Croke R, ‘Policy Advocacy Communities: the collective voice of children’s NGOs in Wales’, In, Williams J (eds) The UNCRC in Wales, (University of Wales Press Cardiff 2013)

[iii] Crowley A, ‘Children’s participation in Wales, In (eds) Williams J, In, The UNCRC in Wales, (University of Wales Press 2013), 217