The United Nations’ verdict on children’s rights in the UK: an agenda for the new Welsh Government

Last Thursday (9.6.16) saw the publication of a report giving the United Nations verdict on the state of children’s rights in the UK.  The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations following its periodic examination of the UK Government. This was the first time the Committee had examined the UK since 2008. The UK and devolved nations have seen much change since 2008, including the financial crisis, two general elections and a programme of austerity measures that has had a significant impact on public services for children. It was therefore interesting to see what the UN would have to say about the United Kingdom’s record.

There are many recommendations made by the Committee and anyone interested in a specific topic will probably find a commentary on it in the report. The headline concerns are the ones that I hear about constantly from children in Wales and those who care about them: mental health care and the emotional wellbeing of our young people; the prevalence of bullying; the disproportionate negative impact of benefits and tax reforms on families with children; the rising concerns about sexual abuse and exploitation; the treatment of children in the criminal justice system; the care of looked after children; and the continued condoning of the physical punishment of children through a defence in the law.

I, along with leading academics, charities and groups of children and young people, worked hard to ensure that the Committee heard specifically about the situation of children and young people in Wales. My office hosted a visit by a member of the UN Committee and made sure that she heard from children and young people from a wide range of communities about the things that matter to them. I kept the committee up to date with changing policies in Wales, following the General Election and Welsh Assembly elections. It was a privilege to travel to Geneva to give evidence directly about what children and young people in Wales have told me about their lives and priorities and I was proud that Wales contributed a report by the youngest group of children ever to report to the Committee through the Little Voices project.

As far as I am concerned the timing of this report is perfect. We have a new Welsh Government and, for the first time for a number of years, a Cabinet Member with responsibility for children. These Concluding Observations give Carl Sargeant a clear set of goals for improving children’s rights in Wales.

First the good news. The Committee noted the efforts of the Together for Children and Young People programme for improving mental health and urged these efforts to progress. The Committee noted efforts on co-ordinating a better response to child sexual exploitation in Wales, and praised how the right to play is promoted.

In terms of things that must improve, I would divide these into three categories:

Firstly, there are the things that are not devolved. These include youth justice, asylum seeking children and tax and benefits policies. These affect Welsh children of course, and it will be necessary for the Welsh Government to present the case to the UK government about improvements needed in these areas.

Secondly, there are things that can be achieved by Welsh Government and we will be able to say that they are completed. Here I include the changing of the law on physical punishment (smacking), supporting the establishment of a youth parliament by the National Assembly for Wales, making sure the new school curriculum has children’s rights at its core, and making sure that its Children’s Commissioner is answerable to the National Assembly for Wales rather than Government.

Thirdly there are areas that are huge challenges that will require long-term systemic change and may never be considered ‘done’ – but where we can make real changes. These include reducing child poverty, improving the mental and emotional health of our children, reducing numbers of children coming into care and improving protection of children from abuse. A long-term, ambitious programme for children and young people in Wales will be needed to make real changes in those areas.

I look forward to acting as a critical friend to Welsh Government and all public bodies so that the next time we come before the UN Committee we will be proud to say what we have achieved in Wales.