Devolution fog

Michelle Matheron describes a project to help engagement with devolution in Wales:

Sir Emyr Jones Parry, Chair of the All Wales Convention, has already described the current devolution settlement as a “fog.” Last week the Convention held the last of its public events, which have been taking place across Wales, as they work to assess our attitudes towards the powers that Wales currently has and our appetite for more. We will have to wait until November, when the convention publishes its report, to see if Sir Emyr and his colleagues recommend that the best way out of the fog is a referendum on further law making powers or whether we should hold tight and hope that the mists clear.

The WCVA Voices for Change Cymru project has been up and running for just over a year. Sticking with Sir Emyr’s analogy we aim to act as beacon in the fog by guiding voluntary sector organisations of all sizes through the devolution settlement. The project aims to connect Wales’ diverse third sector with local and national decision making. With training courses ranging from the basics of Welsh Politics to detailed courses about Legislative Competence Orders and Assembly Measures as well as events, information sheets and a comprehensive website our lottery funded project aims to help the third sector engage in policy and legislation making. We have found that there is a huge desire to know more about how to engage and influence even in small voluntary groups who have no staff member to do that work. The will is there and the evidence base is certainly there – what may not be there is a map, compass and torchlight to get through the fog! So that’s what we hope to provide.

Since the metaphorical change in the weather in 2007 the Presiding Officer has asked organisations to come forward with ideas for legislation and petitions. Sir Emyr and his team have also been keen to ask people what they would do with more powers and what laws they would want to see made. And the voluntary sector has responded with petitions and ideas and numerous contributions to consultations on LCOs and Measures. We have adapted to this new way of working, of looking for legislative solutions to problems and speaking the language of the latest phase of devolution that likes us to answers questions about “whether it is appropriate for Wales to have these powers” and “whether this is in the spirit of the devolution settlement.” Organisations have worked long and hard to campaign for the power to do something before they can get started on what it is they want to do. But it has not been plain sailing and the system is not working in as simple and transparent way as we would like it to. In a plenary debate this week about the Carers’ LCO Helen Mary Jones referred to the amount of effort required for voluntary organisations to use the current legislative process:

“We must bear in mind the pressure on voluntary organisations as a result of this process. To achieve the change that they want for carers, they have to lobby here, at the assembly’s legislative competence committee, and then at Westminster’s Welsh Affairs Committee; after that, when Measures are proposed, they need to lobby again. That is an awful lot of effort.”

This echoes WCVA’s response to the All Wales Convention and while we would not suggest that it is a wasted effort it poses big capacity and resource issues for even the largest of charities let alone smaller community groups who may have valuable contributions to make to the process. Add to this LCOs being held up or rejected at Westminster and committees being told that the Government could not support them bringing forward legislation because it would “divert resources away from the Assembly’s legislative programme” (as happened with Sustrans’ LCO proposal) and organisations who are trying to engage are finding it far from simple. All of these things are disincentives to engagement that make it hard for us to encourage people to step outside and take a walk through the fog.

Michelle Matheron is a Senior Policy Officer working on WCVA’s Voices for Change Cymru project.

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