Living in poverty undermines children’s rights guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). For example, it has a negative impact on children’s right to life and survival, and to develop to their maximum potential (Article 6 UNCRC), to an adequate standard of living, e.g. to adequate food, clothing and housing (Article 27 UNCRC), to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health (Article 24 UNCRC), to education (Article 28 UNCRC), to participate in forums and spaces to influence decisions (Article 12), to play and enjoy recreational activities and culture (Article 31 UNCRC); and to access essential services without discrimination (Article 2 UNCRC).
Failure to tackle poverty is a breach of the obligation on the UK government and devolved governments to respect, protect and fulfil all rights guaranteed by the UNCRC, and is not compatible with what is in a child’s best interests (Article 3 UNCRC). In areas of social or economic policy under the control of the Welsh Government (e.g. housing, health and social care, education), Welsh Ministers are under an obligation to take concrete steps to implement children’s rights under the UNCRC making maximum use of available resources (as a consequence of Article 4 UNCRC).
As reported by the End Child Poverty Network, the child poverty rate has risen in Wales; rising to more than 1 in 3 children in Wales, with at least a quarter of children in every Welsh local authority living in poverty. Karen McFarlarne author of Children in Wales 6th Annual Child and Family Poverty survey (September 2022) comments:
‘34% of children and young people in Wales now live in poverty. The impacts of poverty can be far reaching and touch every aspect of children’s lives. Right now, as you are reading this many families in Wales are having to make the decision to either feed their children or use electricity.’
Alongside, these alarming statistics, the Education Policy Institute, published a report in July on children’s educational attainment. The findings confirm that pupils from poorer backgrounds are around two years behind their peers. As Ellie Harwood from Child Poverty Action Group explains:
Ultimately, strategies to ‘close the attainment gap’ will only succeed if they’re accompanied by strategies to end child poverty in wider society. And for that we need to improve family incomes through fair work, better social security, affordable housing and universal childcare.[i]
It is unacceptable that children living in poverty should experience poorer educational outcomes.
As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health makes clear, poverty exacerbates health inequalities (e.g. life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, access to health care, quality of housing). There are reported links between poverty and mental health, as demonstrated in research by Jen Daffin and Dr Sarah Brown who comment in their 2020 blog:
‘those from the lowest 20% of household income are three times more likely to have a common mental health problem.’
The links between poverty and poor mental health which persist for children in Wales today reflect concerns raised by Tess Ridge in 2009:
‘Poverty permeates every aspect of children’s lives from economic and material disadvantages, through social and relational constraints and exclusion, to personal and more hidden aspects of poverty, associated with shame, sadness and the fear of difference and stigma.’[ii]
It is a blight on Wales that children continue to experience these issues as a result of living in poverty.
UK Government Policies
It is shocking that in a rich country like the UK, we are hearing of children pretending to eat from an empty lunch box, to hide their shame of living in poverty and families with children wondering how they will survive the winter: Cherrie Bija from Faith in Families (Swansea based) comments (September 2022):
‘We have had such heart-breaking stories, this week children hungry & stealing food. Bedrooms empty, cold feet squashed and painful, what we are storing up for their futures is costly and utterly disgraceful, all need to scream about the rights of our children’.[iii]
However, the UK Government’s policies suggest a lack of attention to children’s rights. The UK Government has failed to acknowledge that the benefit cap is a violation of children’s rights. The benefit cap is a fixed limit on the total amount of state benefits which a household can receive, regardless of their family size or circumstances, it is not compatible with what is in the best interests of children under the UNCRC. Comments made by judges of the UK Supreme Court have been critical of the UK Government for breaching international law on children’s rights. However, the court decided not to overturn the policy, determining that the issue should be ‘settled in the political rather than the legal arena’. You can read about the UK Supreme Court’s decision on the benefit cap here.
Alison Garnham from Child Poverty Action Group stated in reaction to the UK Government’s Mini Budget (September 2022), ‘The benefit cap is leaving the poorest families with less and less while bankers look to be in line for more and more.’ And, Becca Lyons, Save the Children UK has said, ‘The Chancellor has prioritised bankers’ bonuses over helping vulnerable children through the cost-of-living crisis, whose hard-working parents face impossible choices.’
Government is about choices. Looking at UK Government policy it seems that the interests and rights of children are not being prioritised by the current UK Government.
In response to the Mini Budget, the children’s commissioners for Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland stated:
‘It is government’s responsibility to safeguard children’s human rights; changes they must make include increasing the Universal Credit rate to reflect the reality of the cost of living crisis; scrapping the benefits cap, and removing the two-child limit on receiving payments which continues to be a breach of children’s human rights, punishing those most in need.’
Addressing Child Poverty in Wales
As the Welsh Government make clear in their response to the UK Government’s Mini-Budget:
‘Here in Wales we have provided around £400 million to help people pay essential bills, including targeted support for those with lower incomes. But the majority of key levers for support lie in the hands of the UK government and we simply cannot afford more of the same. We cannot afford a UK government that does not understand or care about the severe challenges people are facing’.
The Welsh Government’s ability to tackle child poverty is limited by the UK Government’s control over the tax and welfare benefits. However, although these key policy areas for addressing child poverty remain the responsibility of the UK Government, there is much that can be done in Wales to tackle child poverty, as well as its consequences for children. It is a legal requirement under the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010, that the Welsh Government should publish a child poverty strategy and indeed for all public bodies to do so.[iv] Welsh Ministers are also under a duty to have due regard to all of the rights under the UNCRC when making policy in Wales – including the rights mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog. While Welsh Ministers have taken action in several policy areas to address child poverty (e.g., free school meals and various ‘all age’ strategies that impact on children), more needs to be done.
Given the negative impact of the Covid -19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, a first step would be for the Welsh Government to set out a refreshed child poverty strategy and action plan with clear rights-based targets for the elimination of child poverty in Wales, and to tackle the consequences of living in poverty for children. It is also essential that all public bodies in Wales either develop or refresh their anti-poverty strategies to include a focus on tackling the impact of child poverty (see Wales Public Policy Centre’s work on developing effective anti-poverty strategies).
Other steps that are urgently needed are devolution of welfare benefits, so that Wales can implement a rights-based benefits system (something promoted by many organisations, including the Bevan Foundation, see report). It is also time to introduce a Human Rights Act for Wales to protect and promote human rights for all, including children in Wales. [v] [vi]
[i] Harwood E., Twitter 18/7/2022 @elanorharwood
[ii] Ridge T (2009). Living with Poverty: A review of the literature on children and families’ experience of poverty, Research Number 594. London: Department of Work and Pensions.
[iii] Bija – FiF C., Twitter 24/10/2022 @Cherrie_Fif
[iv] Sec 4 (1) Children and Families Measure 2010 )The duty of a local authority to publish a strategy under section 2(1) is discharged on publication [F2of a local well-being plan under section 39 [F3, 44(5) or 47(6) or (11)] of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (anaw 2) by the public services board of which the authority is a member, but only if the authority’s strategy is an integral part of that plan]. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/mwa/2010/1/section/4
[v] Hoffman, S.; Nason, S.; Beacock, R.; Hicks, E. (with contribution by Croke, R.)(2021). Strengthening and advancing equality and human rights in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government, GSR report number 54/2021
Available at: https://gov.wales/strengthening-and-advancing-equality-and-human- rights-wales
[vi] See the Welsh Government’s Response to the Strengthening Equalities and Human Rights Report:
Author: Dr Rhian Croke, Strategic Litigation, Information and Policy Advocacy Lead for the Children’s Legal Centre Wales.