Wales voted to leave the EU but young people voted to stay

Member Spotlight: Interview with Sean O’Neill, Policy Director, Children in Wales

Sean is the Policy Director at Children in Wales, a post he has held for 10 years. He has also been recently elected as member of the Eurochild Management Board. Sean shares his perspective on children’s rights at a sensitive moment as Wales, and the rest of the UK, prepares to leave the EU.

Tell us about Children in Wales – who do you represent and what do you do?

Children in Wales is 25 years old and has over 260 members. It is the national umbrella organisation for professionals in Wales working for children and young people, and our members include local authorities, charities, academics, health professionals, schools and other organisations working for children. We support the development of, and influence policies at Welsh and UK national level. We offer services to members which include a quarterly magazine, training on a range of subjects, including child participation and child safeguarding (protection). We also have professional networks exchanging good practices, informing policies, problem solving and advocating for improved outcomes for children with disabilities, in care, in low income families and other vulnerable groups.

We also manage a project working with young people across Wales called Young Wales. We help monitor and progress the implementation of the UNCRC through a multi-agency Monitoring Group and coordinate the End Child Poverty Network in Wales. 

What are the big challenges children face in Wales? 

There is a lot of uncertainty around Brexit…over how children will be considered and involved as part of the process. It’s complex in Wales because the negotiations are being led by UK Government. So, whilst our Welsh Government are putting positions forward and have set out their priorities, they have limited powers at this stage compared to the UK Government in terms of taking the agenda forward. 

Another challenge is the impact of austerity, with cuts to services across Wales that children rely on, particularly those services that aren’t protected through legislation. For example, we are seeing services either being reduced or cut, such as youth services, community services, youth clubs etc, – services that help children develop, learn and interact with each other in a non-formal environment. 

Poverty is higher in Wales compared to other parts of the UK. There is a great deal of deprivation in many urban and rural communities. There are a lot of barriers to participation for children in low-income families. These are challenges which are likely to get worse as independent projections are showing, that more cuts are likely to come and poverty levels are likely to rise further.  Mental health problems amongst children is also a big concern for us in Wales, and we are working with our members and Government to try and tackle this issue

Can you share any proud achievements? 

We were the first part of the UK to enshrine children’s rights in law. Now all government ministers have a due regard duty to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They must consider children’s rights when making new policies or reviewing existing ones. So, children’s rights are very much at the heart of government. There was a lot of work that we and others did to successfully get the legislation through. More recently, new laws have come into effect which place a similar duty on social services and health professionals as well. There is an exciting piece of work currently with the reform of the school curriculum. We are working with children and young people to make sure that their needs and concerns are being considered. 

What are you doing to engage children and young people in your work? 

We have a programme called Young Wales which works alongside children and young people who are already active in local youth fora and youth councils or with other local organisations, such as charities, local authorities and schools. These children and young people have helped organize conferences and events and are able to share their experiences and views with other children through this platform. They collectively lobby at local and then national level. They identify priorities they want to work on and we work with them; we also organize consultations with young people to influence Welsh Government policies and laws. 

We just held our second national conference where over 160 young people and professionals came together from across Wales. There were workshops held on a range of subjects which were determined by children. We had our children’s commissioner speak at the conference and our Cabinet Secretary address the conference through a pre-recorded film. 

What are the concerns of children and young people in relation to the Brexit negotiations?

It’s still early days yet, but some are concerned about rights and entitlements if they wish to study in another EU country. They are also concerned about the services that they rely on in this country. There are a lot of indirect concerns which affect children, in terms of the economy, employment law, work-life balance and so on. Some are concerned about environmental laws and changes to existing laws. Some of this might not prove to be a concern, but until we know what the outcome will be, there is currently a lot of uncertainty. Collectively, children and young people want to be part of the process and want to be heard; and that’s what we are conveying to our government to make sure decision makers are listening to them, and considering issues that are important to them.

We hear Wales is ahead of rest of Europe in the area of children’s budgeting. Is this true? 

Well, I wouldn’t say that we’re ahead of the rest of Europe, but the last Government did at least consider the recommendations from an inquiry held into children’s budgeting back in 2009, and we were hopeful back then that progress would be made.  Unfortunately, we still lack a transparent means by which it’s possible to accurately see how much the Government is spending on children, a concern which was reflected in the UN Concluding Observations to the UK last year.  A version of the Governments budget was previously produced for children which was very welcome, but a lot of the initial progress seems to have stalled. 

Wales receives significant EU funding for development. How are you engaging with the Brexit negotiations, if at all? 

There isn’t a great deal of detail at the moment around the Brexit negotiations, which makes it challenging for us to engage our members with. Wales voted to leave the EU but young people voted to stay. As a young people’s informed organisation, we would reflect what’s told to us not just by young people who voted, but also young people who couldn’t vote, for those who weren’t 18 years old when the vote happened, but will be affected in the future. 

In relation to the EU, Wales is a net beneficiary. Wales is receiving £1.8 billion over period of 2014-2020 for a whole range of programmes that support children, young people, adults and professionals. It’s uncertain what funding there will be, beyond 2020 to safeguard some of the current programmes. We benefit from EU resources which helps fund a whole host of programmes including childcare, apprenticeships and employment programmes. Some of these will be under threat if we don’t secure alternative sources of funding beyond 2020. 

We have recently heard some positive news from Europe on the Social Pillar. It’s always been challenging to promote the relevance of many of the social policies coming from Europe. It may prove even more difficult now because of Brexit and how our relationship will change with Europe in the future. We have completed a lot of work on promoting the Recommendation on Investing in Children, and the main components within, so we are able to demonstrate the value of EC policies for improving children’s outcomes if they are put into effect 

What are the main benefits of being a member of the Eurochild Network?  What would you change or improve?

I’ve been involved with Eurochild network for the past 8 years. The benefits are wide ranging, including the opportunities to share practice and information across different member states and to establish contacts and continue those contacts afterwards. It plays an important role in helping us to understand EU policies and mechanisms and how we can apply them in our own country. We have been able to tap into additional funding which we used to develop the UK alliance on implementing the recommendation on investing in children. We produced and delivered a number of films, events, reports with children and young people, and engagement work across the whole of the UK with our sister umbrella organisations. 

Like most of our organisations, the challenge for Eurochild is to constantly adapt to the fast changing environment, be it the refugee crisis, reduced funding opportunities or Brexit, which will have different implications for different member states. It will be interesting to see how we can frame the Brexit issue and make it relevant and of interest to other members in Europe, so that they can learn from our experiences given the impact it could have on other EU countries and the young people from their countries who are studying and living in the UK. We need to identify how to support other members, in a non-political way. Eurochild’s value is in continuing to reinforce the message of putting children rights at the heart of policymaking. It’s a challenging time for us in relation to Europe right now, but always an exciting time all the same.

Finally, we’d like to learn some Welsh! Tell us how to say ‘children’s rights’.

Children’s Rights in Welsh is Hawliau Plant; ‘Hawliau’ being the translation of ‘Rights’ and ‘Plant’ being children.

Discover Children in Wales in detail.