Children’s commissioner for Wales Rocio Cifuentes OBE on how she hopes her unique experiences can help to improve young lives.
My approach to my career has been a bit of a contrast to what my peers at the University of Cambridge have gone on to do,’ says Rocio Cifuentes, children’s commissioner for Wales. ‘But I was really keen not to go from university into a management job without having had a broad experience of working directly with people using those services and learning about their lives first-hand.’
As a 13-month-old, Rocio and her activist parents found refuge in Wales after fleeing Chile, then ruled by dictator Augusto Pinochet. After attending state school in Swansea, she studied social and political sciences at Cambridge. Since then, she has worked for a sexual health charity, been a learning assistant in a school for children with disabilities, taught in a further education college and, for the past 17 years, helped set up and run the charity Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team.
Rocio was appointed as children’s commissioner for Wales in April 2022. As someone who intimately understands the experiences of vulnerable children but who can also speak with stakeholders to bring about change, few people are better qualified.
‘Being children’s commissioner has been quite a whirlwind so far, but it’s also been a really interesting and unique combination of directly meeting children and young people across Wales, and a lot of meetings with different stakeholders and Welsh Government officials and ministers,’ says Rocio. ‘So I am able to meet a group of young people, hear what they’re telling me and later the same day take those messages direct to the top decision-makers. That’s a really privileged position to be in.’
Rocio is already making positive steps in the role. ‘I have called for the Welsh Government to publish specific child poverty targets and produce an updated action plan. I’ve also called for practical measures, such as making bus travel free for children and young people in Wales. That would make an immediate difference to their quality of life and ability to progress,’ she says.
‘My overarching concern is the increasing poverty that children are experiencing in Wales. The latest evidence shows that 34% of children in Wales are living in poverty, up by 3% since before the pandemic. That was already very high and it is now, by some margin, the worst in the UK. That has huge ramifications for children’s physical and mental health, education, happiness and wellbeing,’ Rocio explains. ‘Unfortunately, rising food and fuel costs mean it’s set to get worse in the coming months. I’m hoping I can influence the Welsh Government to bring in practical measures that can directly alleviate child poverty.”
Understanding what is failing and what needs to be done is one thing. As Rocio well knows, enacting practical steps to bring about change is quite another. She says: ‘Not all the levers are with the Welsh Government. For example, the UK Government is responsible for social security issues in Wales. Reform there is something that I and my predecessor have been calling for for some time – particularly measures such as the two-child limit on Universal Credit, the bedroom tax, and the recent decision not to reinstate the £20 Universal Credit uplift. There is significant evidence that those decisions directly increase child poverty, so I would like to see them changed.’
She continues: ‘There is also the challenge of bureaucracy and the slow nature of policy change. You have to gather evidence and then make policy recommendations. Then government has to make time to respond to them. Then there has to be a consultation period, even after they’ve been accepted in principle. And then implementation can take even longer – possibly years, even if everybody wants something to happen’.
However, as Rocio points out, ‘things did work differently and more quickly during the pandemic, so I’m hoping we can retain some of that sense of urgency and more of that flexible approach’.
‘We have the legislation, but are we ensuring it makes a meaningful difference to people?’
Community practitioners are key to realising many of these goals. ‘These people are crucial because they’re at the frontline,’ says Rocio. ‘They are part of that incredible workforce who make children’s rights real, who make a tangible difference to the lives of children and young people.
‘Without school nurses and health visitors, it would be impossible for children to experience their rights to health or education. HVs play a fundamental role, and it is crucial that they’re supported. Health and social care, as well as education, are sectors under stress and duress. But HVs and school nurses are more important now than they’ve ever been.’
Despite the stark issues children in Wales face, there are reasons for hope. ‘We have a very progressive legislative and policy framework,’ Rocio explains. ‘We have the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011, and the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. But when it comes to children’s rights, there are significant concerns about the degree to which those policies are being implemented. I suppose it partly needs people like me to speak out and hold politicians, government and other public bodies to account.’
What does Rocio think is the answer? ‘There needs to be a cultural shift in how providers understand and implement legislation. We have the legislation, but are we ensuring it makes a meaningful difference to people? While I believe the ambition is there, there isn’t yet a clear road map towards it.’
What is your biggest motivation?
I want to try to make the world a more equal place.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Stay true to yourself and realise the value and power of lived experience. Also, help other people along the way.
What would people be surprised to learn?
I’m a terrible cook and not a very good dancer!
Why did you become interested in children and young people’s services?
I’ve seen the types of inequalities they face but also the difference good frontline workers can make, and how important it is that those services are valued.
What’s your proudest achievement?
The Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team charity. It has not only been successful and grown to a team of 70, but has retained its values, purpose and spirit.
Image credit | Rasa Mombeini | Patrick Olner