“We do too much second guessing about what we think children need and not enough listening to their experiences – especially the experiences of children with extra difficulties like mental illness and disability,” says children’s commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland.
Although Holland won’t be setting goals for her seven year term until she’s completed an extensive consultation with children and young people, tackling inequality will certainly be one of them.
The qualified social worker says the UK general election highlighted that we’re living in an ‘adult-orientated’ society – evidenced by the absence of children’s issues in party manifestos – and she wants to see this changed for the assembly elections in Wales next year.
“Wales has the highest child poverty rate in the UK and other marginalised groups like looked-after children and children suffering abuse and neglect will all need additional advocacy,” she says. “Putting children at the heart of conversation is in our legislation, but we need to make sure that’s more than just an intention, it needs to actually happen in society.”
One way to achieve this will be ensuring policy makers have an understanding of what it feels like to be a child in those circumstances. “That might mean doing their own participation work with children – whether they’re in government, charities or indeed my own office – or it might be about drawing on research that’s already out there.”
“Children’s rights are not just about children’s views – it’s about making sure that when we bring in different policy initiatives, we think about the potential impact on children.”
Some welcome progress has already been made, Holland points out. In 2011, the Welsh Assembly passed the ‘Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales)’ measure, which placed a duty on all Welsh ministers to consider the obligations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) when making policy.
Swansea and Pembrokeshire County Councils have since followed suit, with the UNCRC now being considered in decisions made by all council departments. “The impact of spending cuts on children and young people have been quite specifically thought out, for example, and the councils have shown their workings out on that,” says Holland.
“I think that’s a really good model that we should be asking other public providers to adopt, including the health service.”
One set of policies Holland will be monitoring are those set out by the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014. The landmark social care reforms come into force on 1 April 2016, bringing with them a raft of changes to legislation on looked-after children.
The changes include repealing of Part 3 of the Children Act 1989, which will affect children in need, looked-after children and leaving care provisions.
Holland is pleased to see the UNCRC ‘right on the face of the act’ and welcomes the principles behind it – “The person-centred approach, focus on prevention and measuring outcomes rather than outputs are the very principles I came into social work for.”
But like her predecessor, Keith Towler, she is concerned that children’s needs may be swamped by the new legislation, which takes an overarching approach to assessing and meeting the needs of children, adults and carers.
“The risk is that a focus on child specific needs could be lost in generic regulations and codes of practice around things like assessment, service provision and service user involvement,” she says. “But, it’s the way we’re going in Wales so we’re going to have to learn to go with it.”
And having a model that ‘works across the ages’ may have a potential advantage, she adds, by making the transition between children’s and adults services smoother.
“That transition can be really hard and very inconsistent at different ages for different services, so in theory this model should mean that the level of provision will be around needs, rather than the fact a person has arbitrarily passed an aged barrier,” she says.
“Again, that is the principle and theory behind the act but we really need to see how local authorities and health boards run with it and whether we can work together on all of this.”
The commissioner is reserving further judgement until the regulations on looked-after children are published (due imminently) but she’s hopeful children and families social workers will be able to get excited about the reforms.
“Wales has set itself a very demanding task and too much excitement when you’ve got a very busy caseload can be daunting – it’s not just about what they do having different names, it’s a whole different mind-set – so there’s lots to keep our eyes on.”
This is ultimately how Holland views her role. “This year is about setting my priorities but above all, I see myself as a conscience sitting on the shoulder of government, local authorities and other big providers of public services,” she says.
“Just the very fact that my office is here, asking the right questions and reminding people to focus on the experiences of children and young people, can in itself create change.”