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Outgoing Children’s Commissioner calls for further devolution of benefits to Wales

Further devolution of welfare benefits could have a big impact on child poverty levels in Wales, according to the outgoing Children’s Commissioner, Professor Sally Holland, who leaves her post on 14 April.

In an online lecture broadcast from the Senedd on 4 April, the Children’s Commissioner will say that moving more powers over benefits from London to Cardiff Bay might also have a positive impact on children’s health and education.

Her wide-ranging talk will focus on what over 20 years of devolution have achieved for Welsh children.

Overall, she will say that Welsh children and young people have gained some important legal rights and entitlements that they would not have received, without devolution. They include rights to vote at the age of 16, the same legal protection as adults from physical punishment, exemption for care leavers from council tax, and positive curriculum reforms.

But, according to the Commissioner, there have been no significant gains so far in terms of measurable outcomes for children, in important areas like child poverty.

The Commissioner will also reflect on the need for high levels of investment in children’s public services following the pandemic.

Benefit frustrations

The Children’s Commissioner has been a long-term critic of the UK Government’s 2-child-limit on Universal Credit, which caps the amount of money families receive per child at two children. According to the Commissioner, it is one of the biggest breaches of children’s rights by any UK Government during her tenure.

She will also point to the long waits for first payments and the recent removal of the £20 uplift as evidence of a system that doesn’t meet families’ needs.

Child benefit, which most families in Wales qualify for, has increased by less than a pound per week since 2011, so has not kept up with the rise in the cost of living.

Recent analysis[1] suggests that Wales would be well placed to redistribute more income to families with children if the Welsh Government had the same powers over benefits as Scotland. Scotland has introduced additional child payments for low income families that is likely to further reduce child poverty.

Youth Justice

Youth justice is not currently devolved but the current strategy and protocol for reducing youth criminalisation in Wales is jointly authored by the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government.

Across the UK there has been a dramatic drop in the numbers of children in custody since 2010, with Wales’s rate falling at an even higher rate than in England. In 2010, 116 children were in custody in Wales, compared to just 11 in January 2022.

According to the Commissioner, youth justice should also be further devolved to Wales so that the Welsh Government and other relevant Welsh bodies can comprehensively build on their positive work over the past 20 years.

Effects of pandemic

Closing her lecture, the Commissioner will say that, whatever the situation in terms of devolved powers over the coming years, the ongoing impact of the pandemic means that we are still in a state of emergency for children, with the funding needed to match this emergency.