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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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8.2.2 Inclusive politics through a vibrant civil society

There is broad agreement among scholars of Welsh politics that devolution has created new opportunities for civil society actors to interact with government structures in Wales, and to influence policy decisions made by the National Assembly. The legal framework of the newly devolved administration required the National Assembly to place the principle of equality of opportunity for all of Wales’s citizens at the heart of its political agenda. The Government responded to this duty by implementing a range of initiatives in order to establish new relationships with marginalised and minority groups in Wales. The ‘equality’ networks that have been set up, for example, comprise voluntary organisations that represent the interests of marginalised groups. These include Disability Wales and Stonewall Cymru. These organisations have been given funding by the Government to pay for new staff to support and expand their activities, expand their membership, and feed into discussions on different policies being developed by the Government. The Equality Diversity and Inclusion Division is responsible for giving advice and support to the Government in the development of policies, for maintaining dialogue with minority communities and with disseminating best practice.

The creation of a new sphere of political decision making in Wales has also prompted some civil society groups to develop new organisational structures and strategies in order to maximise their political influence. Oxfam, for example, has re-branded itself as ‘Oxfam Cymru’ and has dedicated new staffing and financial resources to lobbying the Government (Royles, 2007, pp. 109–10). In addition, civil society groups and individuals have tried to make the most of the opportunities to interact with AMs and civil servants. One group that has been highly effective in influencing policy making in the Wales has been Friends of the Earth Cymru; the various ways in which this has been achieved are summarised in Case Study 8.2. Other groups have been just as active in trying to influence policy making in post-devolution Wales:

Women’s and disabled people’s groups have submitted written responses to key policy initiatives covering the breadth of the Welsh Government’s work. They have presented papers to Assembly committees that have formed the basis of discussions between the group’s representatives, AMs, committee advisors and officials [and] have been invited to join task groups to develop policies and implement strategies.

(Betts et al., 2001, p. 70)

The evidence considered so far suggests that devolution has indeed succeeded in creating a new form of inclusive politics in Wales. Equality issues are more central to policy making in Wales, and there is more active involvement by minority groups and other civil society actors in the political process.

However, studies of civil society in post-devolution Wales also reveal less positive developments. Some civil society organisations enjoy closer and more exclusive relations with the Welsh Government than others. This is due, in part, to the differences between civil society organisations themselves. While some groups, such as Oxfam Cymru and Friends of the Earth Cymru, are well resourced, others are not and therefore find it considerably more difficult to engage with the Welsh Government. As far as the relationship between the Welsh Government and groups representing women and minority ethnic groups are concerned, these have been dominated by a narrow elite of middle-class professionals. Most of the members of these organisations are for the large part ignorant of the concerns and activities of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government (Betts and Chaney, 2004; Williams, 2004). Faith groups outside the Christian mainstream have also found it difficult to get a fair hearing from those in the Assembly and the Welsh Government (Day, 2006, p. 650). All of these examples point to major inequalities in power and influence between civil society organisations. Smaller, less experienced and more marginal groups find themselves excluded from interactions between civil society and the Assembly and Government.

Friends of the Earth Cymru

Friends of the Earth is a large international organisation that works to mobilise people to resist socially and environmentally damaging projects and policies. It is composed of a network of organisations that are active in different national and regional contexts. In the UK, Friends of the Earth is a very visible and influential environmental campaign group.

Friends of the Earth Cymru was set up in 1984 to campaign on environmental issues in Wales. The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 provided a new focus for the organisation’s activities, especially because this new body would be responsible for developing Wales-specific policies in key areas of interest to Friends of the Earth (such as the environment, economic development, agriculture and transport). Since 1999, the organisation has been highly efficient in feeding into, and influencing, devolved policy making in Wales in several ways:

  • preparing policy papers on various issues (such as renewable energy and climate change)
  • submitting reports and evidence to the different policy committees within the National Assembly (for example, on carbon reduction in transport)
  • presenting draft policies to the National Assembly for discussion (for example, a policy restricting the planting of genetically modified [GM] crops in Wales passed in 2000 was based on an original proposal submitted by Friends of the Earth)
  • writing directly to, and meeting with, relevant government ministers in order to put their case forward
  • mobilising broad coalitions in public support of different campaigns (such as an open letter signed by a wide range of prominent individuals and AMs from all parties in support of a no-GM policy for Wales)
  • commissioning highly visible publicity campaigns to mobilise support for particular issues (see Figure 20).
Friends of the Earth Cymru
Figure 20 Friends of the Earth Cymru poster outside the Senedd.

It could also be argued that the National Assembly and the Welsh Government have made existing inequalities worse by developing more exclusive relations with some organisations and not others. For example, some people deemed Cymdeithas yr Iaith – a pressure group for the Welsh language – to be too controversial, and therefore unacceptable, as a partner in policy discussions; as a result, the group only had very limited access to key decision makers within the Welsh Government (Royles, 2007, p. 95, p. 149).

There is also evidence of stronger ties between the Welsh Government and civil society organisations that receive Government funding; these organisations have been shown to have stronger contacts with Government ministers and civil servants (Royles, 2007). Such relationships have been described as neo-corporatist by Royles. Neo-corporatism [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is not good for democracy, for several reasons. First, a group with privileged contacts with politicians may not be representative of wider civil society. Second, the exclusivity of the neo-corporatist relationship can lead to the further marginalisation and exclusion of other civil society groups. This has been experienced by minority ethnic groups, as is shown in the statement from AWEMA in Extract 16 below. Third, the fact that privileged organisations do not want to endanger their relationship with those in power means they will hold back from scrutinising, and being critical of, the actions of the government and elected representatives. This may be especially true for organisations or networks that are funded by the Welsh Government, and who do not want to risk losing out financially. This scrutiny function is a core requirement for a well-functioning democracy.