8.2.3 New opportunities for civil society participation post-2006?
Thus far in this section, most of the evidence for inclusivity in civil society - Welsh Government relations we’ve considered focuses on the early years of devolution. However, as you already know, dissatisfaction with the functioning of devolution led to a new Government of Wales Act in 2006; this saw the Assembly’s mode of operation being modified, and an extension of its powers to make laws in new policy areas (subject to the agreement of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster).
This Act created new opportunities for civil society organisations to interact with, and influence, politics in Wales in two important ways. First, the Act contained a provision for a new petitions procedure to be created. This gives members of the public the right to petition the National Assembly – either in writing or using an online e-petitions system – and ask for action to be taken in those areas of policy for which the Assembly is responsible. The first group to submit such a petition was the Kidney Wales Foundation; they asked the National Assembly to fund an organ-donor campaign and an inquiry into presumed consent for organ donation. This petition was successful in securing money for an organ-donation campaign, and prompted the Welsh Government to undertake a review of organ-transplantation procedures in Wales. This is a good example of how the new petitions system can enable a civil society group to draw attention to, and prompt political action on, specific issues.
Second, the fact that the National Assembly has the chance to make its own laws creates further opportunities for civil society actors to lobby elected representatives in order to legislate in different policy areas. For example, the National Assembly has considered requesting new powers to make laws in areas such as mental health and the rights of carers. These are clearly policy areas where there is scope for civil society groups to try and influence the nature and scope of the new powers requested. In order to make the most of these new decision-shaping opportunities, new initiatives have been established, such as the Voices for Change Wales project. Financed by a grant from the National Lottery and sponsored by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WVCA), Voices for Change Wales aims to help voluntary organisations understand how decision-making processes work in Wales, develop skills and confidence to influence policies and legislation, and share and learn about best practice in developing relationships with the Welsh Government.
And yet, there remain important limitations in meeting the goal of inclusivity. A 2009 survey of civil society organisations by Voices for Change Wales revealed that while there is a consensus that devolution has increased access to Welsh decision makers, the majority of those questioned still do not have a thorough knowledge of how to engage with the Welsh Government successfully or efficiently. For example, less than 50 per cent of organisations were aware of the petitions process, with a similar number unclear about how to submit evidence to the National Assembly when proposals for new legislative powers are being drafted (Bradbury and Matheron, 2009). So there is still a long way to go before there is a truly inclusive partnership between civil society and the Welsh Government.