Annual Rhodri Morgan Memorial Lecture

In September 2018 Commissioner Bruce Adamson delivered the first annual Rhodri Morgan lecture at the Senedd, the National Assembly for Wales. The full text of his speech is below.

Annual Rhodri Morgan lecture


Thank you, Professor Sullivan, for that warm introduction and thank you to the Llywydd of the National Assembly Elin Jones for your kind welcome here at the Senedd, a place where the people of Wales are at the heart of decision-making.

To the Morgan Academy of Swansea University, I appreciate your generous invitation to address you all this evening.

It’s a great honour to be invited here to give the inaugural Rhodri Morgan Memorial Lecture. This lecture series will be an opportunity for people to gather, to appreciate Rhodri Morgan’s life and work and to do as he did all his days: address the important issues that matter, together, with passion and vigour.

As Professor Sullivan has said, Rhodri Morgan’s huge range of interests, political, social, cultural and sporting, gave vast scope for deciding on topics, so I am especially pleased that children’s rights was chosen for the inaugural lecture— reflecting his commitment to putting children’s rights at the heart of democracy and decision making.

I did not have the pleasure of meeting Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister of Wales, Leader of Welsh Labour and MP and Assembly Member for Cardiff West, but I have read and heard from others that he was such a force that he was almost always known by just his first name, as many great people are. I’d like to do the same within this speech and I hope that you’ll allow me this familiarity.

While I have the immense pleasure of being the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, I grew up in rural New Zealand— about as far from Cardiff Bay as you can get. As I look around this distinguished audience, in this place of power and decision making, I’m struck that it isn’t just geography that marks the distance between where I grew up and where I’m standing today.

We have a tradition within the indigenous Māori culture of New Zealand to use proverbs to set tone and context:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?

It is people! It is people! It is people!

I think that sums up Rhodri’s approach. When he was re-elected as First Minister in 2007 he stood in this Chamber and said:

…to all of you listening in the Chamber and outside that I feel very proud to be slipping the captain’s armband onto my shirt sleeve again today. That is why, in all humility, I ask for your assistance as we seek to do our duty here. I say to this Assembly and to the people that I am not the boss – they, the people, are the boss.

That theme of the people, and remembering that children are people too, they are not just the future, they are the present, they are the people is central to my contribution today.

Children don’t have the same political power as adults, they don’t have the same economic power to influence or lobby and our systems of redress are difficult for them to access. It is therefore incumbent upon all of those in power to make special efforts to ensure that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Our progress towards delivering on the children’s rights agenda will always need champions in the political world, and there is no doubt that Rhodri was an outstanding champion. While much has been achieved since devolution to embed rights-based approaches and culture in both Scotland and Wales, there is still much to be done.

A few weeks ago, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, gave his parting address to the UN where he focused on the leadership that the world needed on Human Rights. He cited Winston Churchill who famously claimed that of all human qualities, courage was the most esteemed, because it guaranteed all others. The former High Commissioner said that Churchill:

…was right. Courage – moral courage – is the companion of great leadership. No politician could ever be viewed as exceptional unless he or she had it in spades. And historically there would have been no social progress if not for the presence of specific humans dissenting and breaking from herd-inspired suspicion and fear. At best, courage is self-sacrificing, non-violent, modest and based on universal principles—and immensely powerful.

It is obvious to me that Rhodri had that courage, and a vision and determination to build a modern Welsh democracy, to grow and nurture a distinct society, one that promotes and protects children’s human rights. Rhodri’s lifetime work on furthering children’s human rights did not end with his tenure as First Minster; it continued in his role as Chancellor of Swansea University, and in his contribution to the work of the Observatory on Human Rights of Children. He was a true champion.

I want to note my huge pleasure at being able to meet Julie Morgan today, and to thank her for the important human rights leadership that she has provided and continues to provide, I note she has the highest number of votes cast for any Assembly Member— so maybe popularity and human rights leadership aren’t mutually exclusive. Although it isn’t something that I have mastered yet.

I would like to celebrate her leadership on calling for a ban to physical punishment where she defied the whip at Westminster and lead the way here in Wales in 2015. It is that type of leadership that we need in a world where human rights are under attack.

This evening I will set out some of the international framework of children’s human rights, examine our progress in our devolved nations, highlight some current struggles and threats – and issue a call to action for all of you to be human rights leaders.

Establishing a Children’s Commissioner

I’m the third Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, and I and the Commissioners before me owe a great deal to the vision and determination of Rhodri and those who worked with him here in Wales.

It was in 2001 that Rhodri led Wales to pass the ground-breaking legislation to create the UK’s first Children’s Commissioner proclaiming that:

Wales can truly be said to have a champion who will safeguard and promote the interests of its children and young people…Wales is taking the lead in the UK in placing the rights and needs of our children and young people centre stage.

What Sally Holland and her team are doing really shows that is still true.

The Children’s Commissioner for (Wales) Act 2001 was human rights leadership in action, and the rest of the UK clamoured to join Wales. There was a domino effect with Scotland and Northern Ireland passing legislation for Children’s Commissioners in 2003 and England following the year after.

On the wall in my office I have a picture of one of the early meetings of the UK and Irish Children’s Commissioners, with Peter Clarke – your first Commissioner – smiling in the front row. If you look carefully in the background you will see a fresh-faced legal officer from Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner’s office— well, slightly fresher faced than the one before you today. It was a huge privilege to work with Peter in those early years, and a huge loss to the children’s rights movement when he passed away in 2007. At that time Rhodri praised Peter, who he said:

…always placed the highest importance on listening to the views of children and young people and making sure that their voices were heard, and responded to, particularly by government at all levels.

He said that Peter could be tough and demanding as a champion for children but fulfilled his duties with ‘passion, dedication and commitment’.

He blazed a trail for others to follow. He made an enormous contribution to the lives of children and young people in Wales in the past six years and many thousands have benefited, and will benefit in the future, from his work.

We really do stand on the shoulders of giants. Welsh leaders like Peter and Rhodri not only built the framework for the actions we take now, they were also honest about the challenges that we face. Importantly, contained in Rhodri’s tribute to Peter is a recognition that it is not always an easy relationship between politicians and Children’s Commissioners, and nor should it be.

The creation of a role whose specific purpose is to hold politicians to account against their promises to children internationally and domestically is a brave thing to do. It is an important safeguard against populism, to have Children’s Commissioners who can challenge without fear or favour, but it isn’t a popular thing to do.

On the same wall in my office hangs my warrant from the Queen, which refers to the Act of the Scottish Parliament that established my office, gives me my powers, and guarantees my independence, my protections from being removed from office or being subject to direction.

When people ask me about my mandate I direct them to the other wall of my office – which is a longer glass wall filled with messages and pictures from the children and young people I have worked with over the last 16 months, bright in colour, full of hope – that is where my real mandate comes from. I often say to children and young people – there are just over a million of you – and just one of me – that is a lot of bosses!

One of the first things I did when I came into Office was to travel across Scotland to meet with children and young people – to ask what them what they wanted from their Commissioner. Not just what issues I should focus on, but how I should spend my budget, how should I spend my time, how I should dress, how I should act.

What became very clear is that children and young people want their Commissioners to be compassionate, friendly, understanding, and accessible to them. They also want a fierce champion, who will stand up for their rights in the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament, and other places of power – wearing the suit, using big words, using the adult mechanisms of power on their behalf. In Shetland they told me to be savage in holding those in power to account.

I suspect from what I have heard about Rhodri he would approve of that.

The solidarity between our countries is alive and strong. I am pleased that Sally Holland, your current Commissioner is here. She epitomises what a Commissioner should be, and has been a great source of inspiration, support and advice to me. She would probably object to me calling her savage, but she is wonderful.

She always inspires me to do better. During a recent Skype meeting, she interrupted my somewhat smug announcement that my office had produced a copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Scots Gaelic, to say that she had to leave for her weekly Welsh lesson. We both have a strong commitment to cultural rights.

I have had the huge pleasure of meeting some of the young people from Wales who work with Sally; at summer camps for care experienced young people, at European events where Commissioners are accompanied by our young advisers, and at a recent virtual meeting connecting this Parliament to the one in Edinburgh to discuss the upcoming UN Day of General Discussion. I am always struck by the passion and energy of young people from Wales, and how they have a strong sense of Sally being ‘their Commissioner’ – that is hugely important, as is this place being their Parliament, their Senedd – they are very clear that they are the boss. Sally’s job is easier– she only has 600,000 bosses, not a million.

For several years, Wales has led the way on children’s rights: the first Children’s Commissioner, school-based counselling in every school, a council made up of pupils in every school, the Rights of Children and Young Persons Measure, legislation in relation to play— an impressive snapshot.

Since coming into post 3 years ago, Sally has been pivotal in pressing Government to change even more; her work on advocacy, additional learning needs and equal protection are good examples of that. Further positive steps are also underway in Wales, including the work on establishing a Youth Parliament and votes at 16 in local and National Assembly elections.

Wales and Scotland vying to be the first over the line to pass progressive laws to improve children’s lives is a theme that continues to run on. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to galvanise governments to do the right thing and we should always capitalise on that.

I have already mentioned physical punishment and Julie Morgan’s leadership on it. Our Scottish Government is now, albeit coming late to the party, supporting Green MSP John Finnie’s members bill to protect children in Scotland from assault for the purpose of punishment in Scots law in the coming months.

I have been very vocal on this point, as has the international community. Violence against children for the purpose of punishment should never be legal. It is a great shame that each time children or their parents have fought for change to this law they have had to go the European Court of Human Rights, and our governments have only ever changed the law to the minimum necessary. That said, it is exciting that we have Scotland and Wales moving towards passing legislation to prohibit the assault of a child for the purposes of punishment.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on violence against children, a great hero of mine and a fierce champion of children’s rights. She was pleased that we are joining nearly every other country in Europe in taking this step— finally.

But be in no doubt the international community is watching.

There has been a standing bet between myself and Sally as to who will achieve this important protection first— I hope to be receiving £10 from Sally, of her own money, soon.

But this belies a very important point. It is hugely concerning that in countries which see themselves as progressive, democratic, and human rights respecting, we are taking so long to protect children from harm, that we have such low ages of criminal responsibility, and that we still have not fully incorporated the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It comes as little surprise that the issues here are the same as those in Scotland. Like ours, your government cannot rest on its laurels or be complacent about its trail-blazing status. It must attend urgently to its duties in relation to children’s rights. Sally’s priorities are to focus on the persistent child poverty figures, the need for a whole-system approach to mental health and wellbeing and the need to make sure the Children’s Rights Measure is meaningful and delivers the change desired; that it is an instrument which enables children to become truly active citizens in Wales, the UK and the world, as Rhodri desired.

I share these priorities!

Part 1 – International Context

On a third wall in my office I have a poster of the UN Charter. I start nearly every discussion I have about the human rights of children by reference to it. It is important to remember that following the horrors of the early 20th Century, we came together to put in place the foundation for what would become the international human rights framework.

The Preamble to the UN Charter states:


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and
  • to commit to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples

The UN Charter made clear, as Rhodri said when he once again put on that captain’s armband in 2007, that it is the people who give us this privilege of working in service to them— for the purposes of making the world a better place.

In 1948 people from across the world came together again to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration celebrates its 70 th birthday on the 10th December; now is a good time to reflect on how far we have progressed, and the extent to which the human rights framework impacts on children and young people.

We need to confront and to respond to the wave of racism, populism and violent language we see in politics, the media and society; we need to think about how all of this is affecting our children and young people. We need to reject the anti-human rights ideas which have entered mainstream political discourse and reaffirm our faith in the universality and indivisibility of all human rights as the foundation of international peace, sustainable development and human dignity. That is how we ensure that children’s human rights are respected.

A few weeks ago, at a conference in Edinburgh, Anne Roosevelt, the granddaughter of Eleanor, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration and fierce champion of children’s rights reaffirmed one of her grandmother’s famous quotes:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home: so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood; the school; the factory, farm, or office. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

This links strongly with Rhodri’s own passionate view. In a 2003 speech he said:

We live in an interdependent world. What each one of us does in our own lives directly affects the lives of others. What each of us does in our communities affects other communities too. This idea is etched deep in the Welsh political psyche.

Over the last 70 years we the people – through our elected representatives, created the legal treaties at International and European level. There is a broad array of them— all are important, and all equally apply to children as they do to adults.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is special. It is the first legally binding international instrument to fully incorporate civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, as well as aspects of humanitarian law. It starts with the premise that children should grow up in a family environment of happiness,love and understanding. An international legal document signed by every country in the world apart from one that talks about happiness, love and understanding.

That’s our starting point.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. It changed the way children are viewed and treated in international legal terms. It proclaims children’s status as human beings with a distinct set of rights, not just as passive objects of care and charity.

The rights contained in the articles of the Convention are universal, interdependent and interrelated. The articles cover all aspects of a child’s life and explain how those in power must work together to make sure all children and young people can enjoy all their rights.

The international legal framework is as necessary now as it has ever been. The UN General Assembly is meeting as we speak. I was very proud to see the Prime Minister of my home country New Zealand, Jacinda Adren, standing up to the bullying tactics of the United States in its war on drugs.

I was perhaps even more delighted to see that the UN had issued a diplomatic pass for Neve, the Prime Minister’s daughter who’s just a few months old. IIt says: ‘Diplomatic pass for the UN, status: VIP, Title: New Zealand First Baby’. I laughed at a message from Neve’s father, an old school friend of mine and now First Gentleman of New Zealand. He wrote about changing Neve’s nappy in a UN meeting room, only to have the Japanese delegation who had booked the room come in and of them being in a state of disarray. I like the fact that’s happening. I like that children are at the heart of the UN.

Just a few hours ago, the UN General Assembly in New York launched the UN Youth Strategy which describes a partnership with the world’s 1.8 billion young people. The UN Secretary General noted that:

…globalisation, new technologies, displacement, shrinking civic space, changing labour markets and climate impacts were putting huge pressure on youth everywhere, adding that more than one-fifth of young people are not in employment, education or training; a quarter are affected by violence or armed conflict; and young people remain excluded from development programmes, ignored in peace negotiations and denied a voice in most international decision-making.

At the same time, he pointed out that young people were:

a vast source of innovation, ideas and solutions, who push for the needed changes in technology, climate action, inclusivity and societal justice, empowering young people, supporting them, and making sure they can fulfill their potential are important ends in themselves,” he stressed. “We want this for all people, everywhere.

Moreover, to fulfil the  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for a more peaceful, sustainable and prosperous world, we need young people to lead.

When launching ‘Youth 2030: The United Nations Youth Strategy’, he called it ‘the UN’s strategy to engage with, but especially to empower young people’.

Describing how the UN has for decades worked for youth, he expressed hope that the new strategy would make the UN “a leader” in working with them, “in understanding their needs, in helping to put their ideas into action, in ensuring their views inform our processes.”

I know that this mirrors the vision you have set out for the Senedd, to make this a place where young people feel they have a voice. To make this a place where the government can be held to account for its promises to young people.

International challenges facing human rights

I have had the privilege of seeing the power that the international human rights framework has to make a difference for children and young people in many countries, especially the newer democracies of the Western Balkans; post-conflict countries eager to rebuild and engage the European community. I have also worked in Ukraine, both before and during the current conflict, and in Turkey where we were able to make incredible progress, only for it to fall apart as politics changed.

Over recent years we have seen an increase in retrogressive attacks on human rights – on our doorstep in Turkey’s repression of free speech, Hungary’s undermining of constitutional rights, Poland’s attack on sexual and reproductive rights, youth justice in Denmark – right wing populism on the rise across Europe.

Across the Atlantic we have an American President who is openly hostile to human rights, including those of children separated from their parents and inhumanly treated. A President who has attacked the global structures that protect human rights.

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose name graces the Law School at Swansea University and who is a friend of both Wales and the human rights of children has said of her country:

Americans are divided, and less trusting of democratic institutions. But instead of bringing people together, we have leaders who stoke our divisions, try to distract us with controversy after controversy, and undermine free speech and the press. It is nearly impossible for the children’s voices to rise above the cacophony.

What is missing in both our countries at the moment it seems to me, what we need more than anything else, is empathy. It should not only be at the center of our individual lives, families and communities; but at the center of our politics, and public life.

As Secretary Clinton points out, we are not immune to leaders who stoke our divisions. In my work at the Council of Europe I have seen the UK lead the attacks on the very pillars of our European Human Rights system such as the European Court of Human Rights.

Regardless of the differing views that people have on the European Union, we must acknowledge the challenges posed to children’s rights by Brexit. Like it or not, the reality is that children’s human rights have been increasingly embedded into EU legislation with over 80 legal instruments that confer direct entitlement for children covering issues such as migration, asylum, child protection, health and safety, paediatric medicine, access to social and economic rights and cross-border family breakdown.

I want to suggest some solutions to this bleak picture, but to do that I want you to cast your minds back to the earliest days of devolution where everything seemed possible.

Part 2 – Devolved Context

One of the reasons I came to Scotland was the excitement of devolution – most of you here were active participants and leaders of the process here in Wales.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few years working in new democracies on behalf of international bodies. Democracy on these islands isn’t new— but it seems to me that devolution gave it a new energy. It felt, to me, much like the energy I saw in the countries I worked in that had undergone human rights revolutions.

Standing in this place I am reminded of attending the opening of the Scottish Parliament Building, listening to a poem by Edwin Morgan— who was Scottish Makar, our national poet. He said:

What do the people want of the place?

They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.

A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.

A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

And perhaps above all

The droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is what they do not want.

That word ‘fearties’ has become a rallying point for children’s rights in Scotland, with our Children’s Parliament signing up thousands of people to be ‘unfearties’ and stand up for children’s human rights – those in power recognising their role as duty bearers, or human rights guarantors – and others signing up to be human rights defenders to promote and protect children’s rights.

While it is the UK, not Scotland or Wales, which is state party to international treaties, we have human rights built into the DNA of our devolved democracies and we had, and have, the ability to lead the way.

How have we done?

We can look to the UN Reports, from Treaty Bodies and the Human Rights Council. There are real concerns and they are well documented. Your Children’s Commissioner speaks about them and I speak about them; concerns about poverty, mental health, criminal justice. But since we are in the legislature, I want to focus on how we have legislated to address these concerns.

In Scotland

In 2014 the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament requiring Scottish Ministers to:

…keep under consideration whether there are any steps which they could take which would or might secure better or further effect in Scotland of the UNCRC requirements, and if they consider it appropriate to do so, take any of the steps identified by that consideration.

The starting point in the Scottish Government’s consultation that prefaced the Act was that incorporation wasn’t possible. Following significant backlash and evidence to the contrary, the language in the Act was changed to the Scottish Government not being convinced that it was desirable to incorporate.

The Act requires public authorities to publish a report every three years of the steps it has taken to secure better or further effect within its areas of responsibility of the Convention requirements. There are so many qualifiers as to render these duties almost meaningless, but the Act was a first step.

There has been some innovative change at a local level, particularly in relation to care experienced young people with local authorities and public bodies taking on their corporate parenting duty. Despite this we have a long way to go, and a lot to learn from Wales.

Only three weeks ago on 4 September, there was great excitement from children’s rights campaigners in Scotland when the Programme for Government was announced. Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon told us:

Having now carefully considered this matter, I can announce today that we will incorporate the principles of the UN Convention into Scots law. We will work with partners and the Parliament to do that in the most effective way possible, but in this year of young people there can be few more powerful symbols of this Government’s commitment to our young people .

As ever, the devil is in the detail. Since the announcement there has been much speculation around her words. What model of incorporation? What is meant by ‘the principles’ – what is the timetable?

Unsurprisingly, it is our young human rights defenders that are best able to cut through the political rhetoric. I was at an event with our Minister for Children and Young People where I had quite a robust exchange with the Minister when I pressed her and her senior civil servants on the timing of legislation to incorporate. The answer seeming to be that it would only be preparatory work within this session— ‘these things take time’, ‘we need to bring people with us’. It seems this may be more of a manifesto commitment for the next parliamentary session than a current commitment of the Scottish Government.

A perceptive 11-year-old boy was at the event and after watching my exchange with the Minister put up his hand and asked the Minister: ‘Hang on— do you mean that you are holding my rights to ransom against people voting for you in the next election?’

In Wales

Wales has a strong history of protecting children’s human rights. The Welsh Measure is often held up as a model to aspire to. In Rhodri’s own words: ‘It is a law that reflects our capacity for innovation and democratic engagement in post-devolution Wales’.

In Wales you were quick off the mark with a Children’s Commissioner, in line with the Second General Comment of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Back in 2002, your National Assembly introduced its ‘seven core aims’ as the basis for service planning for children and young people with the Convention at its heart. In 2004, the Welsh Government formally adopted the Convention as a basis for policy making for children and young people. The Government of Wales Act (2006) gave you additional competencies and an opportunity to embed the Convention in policy and legislation decision making.

I understand that you considered legislation similar to the Human Rights Act 1998, however your Monitoring Group ruled this out as they wanted the focus to address a ‘persistent lack of attention’ to the Convention in policy making in Wales. I question that decision in terms of models of incorporation.

Despite my questioning the model of incorporation you have adopted you do have the ‘Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011’, which received cross-party support, and has now been in full effect for over four years, and as such we have much to learn from it.

The Measure requires Welsh Ministers to have ‘due regard’ to specific provisions of the Convention when exercising any of their functions and to do so with rigour, and an open mind. It aims to promote deliberative, informed processes in policy development to achieve Convention implementation rather than providing redress for Convention violations. The Measure requires Welsh Ministers to set out how they will achieve due regard in a ‘Children’s’ Scheme’ which is subject to public consultation, that includes consultation with children and young people and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

I like this proactive approach to compliance, it gives stakeholders the opportunity to influence how children’s rights are embedded in legislation, and through policy making in Wales.

But it isn’t incorporation.

The accompanying measures of impact assessments and complains mechanisms are important.

But it isn’t incorporation.

In its report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2014, the UK Government claimed that Wales had incorporated the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is not incorporation , and the Committee was clear about that.

Rhodri summarised it best when he reflected:

The Children’s Rights Measure was halfway through its legislative stages when I finished my First Ministerial stint. The purpose behind the Measure was to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into all our laws and actions as a government. The officials had never liked it, because they feared that they would be making a rod for our own backs with queues of lawyers claiming that every move we made was in breach of the UN Convention. I had heard on the grapevine that as soon as I was out of the door, those same officials had come back and had another go at watering down the draft to restrict its application.

Sounds familiar? I’m not saying that there is not a lot to be proud of, just that now is the time to lead – in this uncertain world, where human rights are under attack – now is the time for Scotland and Wales to push forward.

Research on the Measure by Dr Simon Hoffman at Swansea University, soon to be published, notes some real positives:

  • It has achieved its objective of embedding the Convention on the Right of the Child in policy-making and establishing a new framework for policy development.
  • It has had a significant impact on the way policy is conducted by the Welsh Government, establishing the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a reference for policy decision-making.
  • It has provided new opportunities for policy advocacy for Assembly Members and others to argue that Ministers should take account of the Convention on the Rights of the Child during policy development.
  • It has reinforced accountability for children’s rights in policy in Wales, a new basis for judicial review of Ministerial action and the introduction of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as an audit framework for policy that affects children in Wales.

However, the research notes that Ministers are not always fully accountable for the decisions they take in policy development. The Measure has not had a significant impact as an accountability device in the legal domain; legal practitioners have not made use of the due regard to challenge Ministerial decisions in court by way of judicial review. Of course, it may be that all your decisions are perfect, but I doubt that.

It is also significant, that the complaints mechanism introduced as an alternative to judicial review is seemingly underused. Another factor limiting the impact of the Measure is inconsistent practice in the application of Children’s Rights Impact Assessment.

Despite these flaws, the Measure has been progressive. It’s helped to improve the institutional culture within Welsh Government, with children’s rights becoming more embedded in the way Ministers and their officials go about the conduct of governance in Wales. This is a cultural change that we in Scotland envy.

However, I’m not asking the Scottish Government to replicate it because it is not incorporation. When I look at Sally’s list of priorities and my own list of priorities there is still so much to do, and we need to be able to address the issues children and young people are facing in both our countries, – full incorporation will help us with that.

Struggles and Threats

As I said earlier when I became Commissioner last year, the first thing I did was to travel with my team across Scotland listening, talking and learning from children and young people. I sat cross-legged on the talking mat at nurseries, squeezed up elbow to elbow in circle time in primaries, laughed; and sang (badly); and danced (badly); slept under canvas having conversations into the wee hours, and spent far too much time being thrown in rivers.

Participation is a right; and it works; it is the most effective way in which we can make decisions better; and it is fun.

During my travels children and young people shared their real worries about their experiences of poverty, about their own mental health and the mental health of friends and family members, their negative experiences of accessing justice and times in which they had been treated unfairly or discriminated against.

We need to become better at ensuring that all children are included— Gypsy traveller children, disabled children, Black and Minority Ethnic children, LGBTI children, children of prisoners, care experienced children and young people, asylum seeking children and young people, neurodiverse children, young carers, and girls suffering sexual harassment. There are so many groups that aren’t heard enough in places like this, and we need to go to them.

What struck me most by what I heard was that they were the same stories, the same experiences as I had heard ten years ago when I worked for the first Children’s Commissioner in Scotland, Kathleen Marshall. In that decade, the nursery children I met would now be sitting exams, the teenagers now in higher education or working. The years have moved on, but has much changed?

Yes, there have been great strides in children’s human rights, attitudes have changed, legislation has been introduced. Yet for a child or young person whose family struggles to feed them before school, who feels not listened to, not included, who is kicked out of care at too young an age, well, on that score it felt like nothing much had changed.

In other ways though the world is a different place to what it was a decade ago. Technology has changed – digital – social media. We don’t yet know the full effects of this, but it will be a priority for the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children over the next year – to work with children and young people to harness their understanding of social media and digital rights.

Yet, what was new was also an added sense of uncertainty. This was in the days following the Manchester bombing, which affected so many young people, this anxiety intensified as the tragedy of the Grenfell tower disaster struck where so many families lost their lives. There was the added uncertainty of Brexit, what did that mean for children and young people’s lives.

What I heard and felt was this uncertainty, unease, and deep worry. Worry about a present and a future that no longer felt secure. A scary world. One where the adults around them didn’t always seem to know what to do or how to fix things.

Families choosing between heating and eating. I’ve heard first-hand about having to go to school in unclean clothes as there is no electricity, or indeed no washing powder. I’ve heard about the pain and embarrassment of not being able to join classmates on the school trip as the price is simply out of your family’s reach. I have met hungry children in Scotland. There are hungry children right now in Wales.

Poverty is the single biggest human rights issue facing children in the UK today. It impacts on every area of children’s lives, their rights to education, mental health, their rights to rest and leisure, to socialise and meet friends.

Budget considerations cannot be an excuse for human rights violations. Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child needs to be in the forefront of the minds of all decision makers. We must use the available resources to the maximum extent possible to deliver rights for children and young people. Human rights budgeting -children’s rights budgeting – is essential to make sure that resources are going to the right place. Children’s rights should come first, not last.

And be in no doubt the world is watching.

In a few weeks’ time, Phillip Alston the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty will be visiting Wales and Scotland.

As mentioned earlier, last week I had the enormous pleasure of meeting with Marta Santos Pais, one of the architects and greatest defenders of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and now the Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary General on Violence Against Children. She is paying very close attention to what is happening within our countries. She raised serious concerns with me that in Scotland we’ve taken so long with equal protection, but also around the age of criminal responsibility, and that we need to move towards full incorporation as soon as possible.

Part 3 – What now. Where next?

What are the solutions? Moving forward, what’s next?


We know from the studies that have been done – where there has been full incorporation (in Belgium, Norway), children are more likely to be perceived as rights holders, creating a culture of respect for children’s rights and demonstrating positive benefits beyond the legislative procedure itself.

You don’t see the feared rise of litigation. We have lots of examples internationally of courts being able to handle justiciability of children’s rights – particularly economic, social and cultural rights. What we do see is better and effective decision making.

That isn’t to say that litigation doesn’t have its place, and while strategic human rights litigation is relatively under-explored in Scotland and Wales – including in relation to the Welsh measure, I expect that if politicians drag their feet we will see a growing trend of strategic litigation to advance children’s human rights. Courts recognise that international norms move on and if our domestic law doesn’t keep pace, then action can be taken.

Indeed, interest in third party interventions in cases before the Scottish courts is increasing. Clan Childlaw recently intervened in two cases: The ‘Named Person’ case in the Court of Session and the Supreme Court and AB v Her Majesty’s Advocate in the Supreme Court. I myself applied last year for a public interest intervention in a Judicial Review at the Court of Session.

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Promises that we all signed up to 30 years ago. Now is the time for incorporation. I invite strong steps to be taken by my government and yours in that birthday year to fully incorporate the Convention.

Youth Participation

Votes at 16 is an important step, but more needs to be done. Last week in my home country New Zealand they celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage – suffrage is a fundamental civil and political right. I personally think we should go lower than 16, but even if we don’t, it’s not just about voting. It still leaves a democratic deficit—how do we ensure younger children are actively involved in decision making. It’s about how children and young people can directly have their voices and needs heard and considered. It means going outside of places like this. It means going to the communities and talking to children and young people directly because that’s what works and it’s fun.

I’m delighted that Wales is creating its own Youth Parliament. Our Scottish Youth Parliament is an influential and essential partner in promoting human rights in Scotland. Their reach into communities, their powerful advocacy, their ability to use social media in dynamic ways has been really exciting in Scotland.

In June this year I was delighted to witness children and young people from Wales and Scotland make history in our first ever live link up between the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.

I’m particularly impressed with your approach of giving formal status and a link to the Assembly. Our Youth Parliament which is as old as the Scottish Parliament (technically one day older – as they like to point out), has no such status, although the recent Commission of Parliamentary Reform led by our Presiding Officer has recommended recognising the Scottish Youth Parliament formally.

I am chairing a discussion on the role of Youth Parliaments at the United Nations on Friday. There is growing recognition internationally of the role of Parliaments as human rights guarantors and the need for all people to be involved – even those who can’t yet vote.

Human Rights Defenders

That discussion at the UN is part of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion, which this year is focused on children as human rights defenders – which is the last point I want to make. It isn’t just about those in power ensuring that children can participate meaningfully and effectively. It isn’t just about respecting, protecting and fulfilling their rights. In a healthy democracy we build people’s ability to challenge, to organise, to protest.

People often think of adults in faraway places when they hear the term ‘human rights defender’. But human rights defenders can be children and young people in our communities across our nations, making a difference by defending their rights and the rights of others. We must recognise, support and protect them – on this the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Being a young human rights defender is brave and courageous. Challenging adults in power is scary and the government has a duty to protect those young human rights defenders from any reprisals.

One of my favourite projects this year has been working with some of those young human rights defenders. They need to be protected, they need to be celebrated, they need to be given the tools to challenge authority. It’s not just about participative methodology, it’s not just about bringing children in, it’s not just about going to them. It’s about giving them the tools to protest— to stand up, to challenge, to agitate. Not only safe spaces, but in the spaces that they want to do things. That’s part of what being a human rights defender is.

I have had the great honour to meet some of your young human rights defenders— and I want to make special mention of the girls from the drama class at Mountain Ash school. They still make me smile, with their passion and dancing and engagement. They came with me and some of the young people I work with to Paris, and they impressed upon all our European colleagues that you can talk about important subjects using creative arts. I don’t think they stopped talking or singing the whole time. They were brilliant.

If you want to know what a human rights defender in Scotland looks like; last month I found myself sitting up in a large tree with one in the Beatrix Potter garden in Dunkeld. Ruby is a 9-year-old human rights defender: she wants girls and boys to be encouraged equally to be adventurous and is against all gender stereotyping. It all started when she was so incensed by a lack of choice and the stereotypical images used in a clothing catalogue she wrote to the clothing company to challenge them. She told them their advertising is all wrong, that girls want to adventure just as much as boys and that they need to have the right clothes to help them do that. Sparkles aren’t practical, and skirts get caught up in tree branches. She wants choice. Ruby certainly shares some of the not taking no for an answer determination that Rhodri so masterfully displayed. When the clothing company said they hadn’t received her letter, she simply picked up the phone and made them listen to her reading it out to them.

We all need to be more Ruby as well as being more Rhodri.

That type of determination which we see in all communities across Wales and Scotland is hugely powerful and gives us hope for the future. It’s incumbent upon those of us in power to make sure those young human rights defenders have human rights education, and skills, and support. That when they stand up and challenge power, they are protected from reprisals. It may not be the reprisals that we see in other countries where people are subject to torture or assassination but standing up to those in power in your school and in your community is a hard thing to do. Those of us in power have an obligation to protect young human rights defenders even when they’re saying things that challenge us – especially when they’re saying things that challenge us.

Concluding Remarks

I call upon all of us here now, sitting in this room to acknowledge that the job is not done. That despite good progress, children’s human rights are not fully realised in our devolved nations, and that the rhetoric must transform into action. It’s action that changes lives.

In the same way that Rhodri Morgan never shied away from standing up for what he believed in, in the way he never gave up with dogged determination when he knew what needed to be done— no matter how difficult or unpopular. In the way he championed the rights of children as a key part of the democracy he believed in, we too must act to change lives.

Our challenge is to create a culture of children’s human rights where children and young people are equals; an inclusive space where they are empowered to lead. We must not shy away from doing what needs to be done:

to eradicate child poverty,

to prevent violence against children

to improve mental health and wellbeing,

to implement child-friendly justice

to incorporate the UNCRC into our domestic laws.

Only then can we truly create societies where children’s human rights are real.

As the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Right at the UN recently said:

Only fearlessness is adequate to our task at this point in time. Not ducking for cover, or using excuses or resorting to euphemisms, but a fearlessness approaching that shown by human rights defenders around the world – for only by speaking out can we begin to combat the growing menace that stalks our future.

I appeal to you to do more, to speak louder and work harder for this common purpose of universal human rights, to better our chances for a global peace.

We don’t have Rhodri here wearing that Captain’s armband any more, but we do have the framework that he put in place, and the example he set – of being bold, being brave, being savage, being an ‘unfeartie’, of putting human rights of children at the heart of what we do.

And of always remembering that the most important thing in the world is:


Diolch yn fawr iawn

Back to top