Keith Towler (pictured right), the new children’s commissioner for Wales, is five days into the job and is obviously thrilled. Previously programme director for Save the Children in Wales and before that, director of crime reduction at charity Nacro, Towler is no stranger to children’s rights but he sees the commissioner position as having a special status.
“This is something else. You have powers and responsibilities and people will listen to you,” he says. “My friend said to me you have been given this power, now you have to make sure you use it well.”
Out of the 700,000 children and young people in Wales, one in four lives in poverty. During his time at Save the Children Towler did a lot of work on the issue and says it will remain a priority for him in his new role. The government’s target to halve child poverty by 2010 is widely thought to be on shaky ground and Towler says chancellor Alistair Darling will need to introduce new measures to meet both this and its 2020 goal.
“If we are going to get anywhere near the 2020 target [to eradicate child poverty] we have got a lot of catching up to do,” he says.
Two sides of poverty
Towler sees poverty as having two sides, the economic side and the poverty of experience and expectations. He praises the Welsh assembly government for taking a children’s rights-based approach to tackling this unlike their counterparts in England.
“The assembly’s policies and the structures they have put in place embed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There’s a lot of work that can really start to eradicate that poverty of experience but so far Westminster’s stance on the convention and child poverty seems to be working against the grain of that,” he says.
The UK government’s most stark rejection of the convention is the exemption for refugee and asylum-seeking children. Ministers have just announced they will look at the possibility of removing this. Towler says this is to be welcomed but what is important is whether they chose to do this.
“Whatever the practical issues and whether it’s temporary or permanent these are children who are resident in Wales and in my view those children’s rights should be the same as any others,” he says.
Towler’s work at Nacro included youth justice, but both this and asylum and immigration are non-devolved areas. This presents issues around how proactively he and the assembly can act in terms of asylum-seeking children and young offenders’ rights and there’s an “ongoing debate” about powers and responsibilities in relation to non-devolved matters.
Towler is Wales’ second children’s commissioner and was appointed after the first, Peter Clarke, died of cancer in January 2007. Towler says the legacy left behind by Clarke means there are a series of structures and procedures allowing children to have a direct say in his work.
As with Clarke’s appointment, and that of the other UK commissioners, candidates for the Welsh role were interviewed by children and young people. Towler says that this was the toughest part of the selection process as the young people were well prepared and hit him with “straight to the bone questions”.
Towler has received messages of support from all the other children’s commissioners and, given the unique nature of the role, he says this is key to helping commissioners do their jobs well.
“That’s important because otherwise the commissioner’s role could be quite an isolated one and a lonely place to be,” he says.
Towler feels Wales’ policy framework for children is a good one but that its effect is yet to be felt on the frontline. This is something he plans to try and change
“We have lots of policies and strategies in place in Wales as well as a commissioner and the Welsh assembly government taking a rights-based approach. But when you talk to young people, would they say their lives had improved? We have got to turn these policies to practice on the ground.”