Authentic voices that are agents for change

Rebecca Evans explores the value that cross party groups are bringing to politics in Wales

There are currently 41 lobbying cross party groups registered with the Table Office at the National Assembly on issues as diverse as the Welsh Rugby Union, Latin America, funerals and bereavement, beer and the pub, and the horse. Such groups can be powerful agents for change, acting as a conduit for information and experience between people facing real issues and challenges on the ground and the decision makers in the Welsh Government and the National Assembly.

In many ways cross party groups are becoming victims of their own success. Their number is steadily increasing as their value in terms of driving the political agenda, bringing together politicians and accessing expertise is more widely understood. Any Secretary to a group will testify to the logistical nightmare of finding a room available at the Assembly to hold a meeting at lunchtime on a plenary day. And even if a room is secured it can be guaranteed that there are at least three or four other events on at the same time, all vying for AM’s attentions, some of which will be meetings of other cross party groups.

There is no requirement for cross party groups to register with the National Assembly, and there are no rules governing their operation beyond the single requirement that they have Assembly Members of at least three political parties as members.

Although they have no formal role in policy development, cross party groups can play a key role in driving forward the political agenda in their role as an authentic voice for people affected by the various issues. An example is the cross Party Autism Group, one of the most active and influential in the Assembly, which is celebrating seven years of promoting the interests of people with autistic spectrum disorders and their families and carers.

The agenda and the work programme of the Cross Party Autism Group is set by people who attend meetings of the group or who stay in touch with the group via email, and the issues that the group explores and raises with the government are the issues that people who are linked to the group say are important to them.

For example, in May 2009, the Group published a research report entitled A snapshot of specialist autism education provision in Wales. The research was inspired by concerns raised at meetings regarding the provision of secondary and post-16 education for young people with autism. A survey of schools and Further Education providers was undertaken by the group’s Secretariat to ascertain their views and to further inform the report’s recommendations.

The purpose of the report was to stimulate discussion and action by those who influence policy and spending, and it has certainly been successful in that. It recommended that the Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee undertake an inquiry to further investigate the barriers to appropriate support in Further Education for young people with autism. The Committee agreed, and undertook that inquiry in February this year. Amongst others, it took evidence from three mothers of young people with autism who are members of the Cross Party Autism Group.

The Committee recently published its report, making 19 recommendations to improve the provision of specialist education for young people with autism. The Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills is currently considering his response, and there will be a debate in the Assembly Chamber in due course.

Cross party groups find strength in their membership and leadership. Whilst some groups find that closed meetings and a small membership of representatives from the voluntary sector and Assembly Members works best. On the other hand, the Autism Group has opted for an open membership. Hundreds of people are engaged with the group, and meetings are always well attended by people with autism, their parents and carers, as well as professionals from a wide range of backgrounds including local government, education, social care, medicine and the voluntary sector. At each meeting there is a wealth of professional expertise and personal experience coming together to inform the work of AMs.

The Group has been given strong leadership Janet Ryder AM who has an understanding of autism and a genuine ambition to help people with autism realize their potential and to remove barriers to services and support. The importance of commitment at this level cannot be underestimated.

The networks which grow around Cross Party Groups can, and should, be used by the Welsh Government and AMs as touchstones to offer a ‘reality check’ on whether and how policy is being translated into practice.

One of the challenges facing Cross Party Groups is ensuring that they are relevant across Wales, not just in Cardiff Bay. The Autism Group has addressed this by holding annual meetings in north Wales over the last three years, and so far is the only cross party group to meet outside Cardiff.

Almost half of the registered groups are health and social care related. These include groups on cancer, epilepsy, coeliac disease, hospices, eating disorders, nursing/midwifery, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, neurosciences, and older people and ageing. This means that AMs with a particular interest in health and social care will find regular conflicts in their diaries. This can be frustrating for AMs who have genuine commitments to driving forward particular issues.

However, the large number of groups does offer scope for joint-working on issues where there is common ground. For example, the Autism group recently met with colleagues in Deaf Issues group to explore how they can best work together to ensure that new schools are built with good acoustics in order to create the best possible learning environments for both children with hearing impairments and children with autism.

The political importance of cross party groups at the National Assembly for Wales should not be underestimated. They can provide access to expertise and voices from the frontline. AMs are increasingly realising the value of fully engaging with them.

Rebecca Evans is Policy and Public Affairs Officer for the National Autistic Society Cymru, and Secretary to the Cross Party Autism Group - email [email protected]

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