Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence from Wales Council for Voluntary Action



  1.  Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) promotes the interests of voluntary organisations, community groups and volunteering in Wales. It has over 1,500 organisations in direct membership and is in contact with thousands more through national and regional voluntary sector networks. There are at least 30,000 voluntary organisations in Wales, with a combined income of over £1.02 billion, a workforce of 30,000 employees and over 1.27 million people volunteer either through voluntary organisations or informally.

  2.  WCVA has been actively engaged in debates around the role of the National Assembly for Wales and its relationship with the voluntary sector since 1998. Throughout the first term of the National Assembly we worked closely with the voluntary sector, the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government in developing the Voluntary Sector Scheme and facilitating the Voluntary Sector Partnership Council and bi-annual meetings between each Minister and relevant voluntary sector networks.

  3.  This close working relationship has continued into the National Assembly's second term. In addition to continuing in a facilitating role for Ministerial and Partnership Council meetings, WCVA engaged with the Independent Commission to review the Voluntary Sector Scheme. Following the publication of the Commission's report, WCVA is working in partnership with the Assembly and other voluntary sector organisations to implement the Report's recommendations.

  4.  Following publication of the White Paper, WCVA held a seminar with Cardiff Law School to inform the sector of the proposals and to gather feedback. A briefing paper was prepared which explained the White Paper's proposals, outlined the implications, opportunities and challenges that could face the voluntary sector, and invited responses. The briefing paper was published on WCVA's website and publicised through WCVA's ebriefing to members. It was also circulated to seminar attendees, Voluntary Sector Partnership Council members, voluntary organisations, including County Voluntary Councils, and the Assembly Liaison group, a network with over 30 voluntary organisations across Wales whose members work closely with the Assembly.

  5.  In preparing this response, WCVA has reflected the views gathered both during its post-White Paper activities, and during consultations previously undertaken in preparation for the Richard Commission. WCVA provided written and oral evidence to the Richard Commission regarding the scope of the Assembly's powers and in gathering its evidence, WCVA consulted with voluntary organisations including the Assembly Liaison Group and nearly 100 organisations across Wales at WCVA's regional policy events in January 2002. WCVA's evidence reflected the issues raised by voluntary organisations, which focused on the powers of the Assembly and its relationship with non-devolved government departments. WCVA did not receive any views about the electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales, and therefore did not comment on this aspect of the Commission's work.


Executive Authority

  6.  The Better Governance for Wales White Paper describes the way forward for a formal separation between the Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government to avoid confusion and improve effective scrutiny. WCVA supports the proposal for a legal separation between the executive and the legislature. WCVA believes this will provide clarity and increased understanding amongst the public and the voluntary sector of how Wales is governed.

  7.  Further clarity could result from the renaming of legislature and/or executive to clearly identify each body after separation. At present there are a variety of terms in common usage, including: "the National Assembly for Wales" "the Assembly", "the National Assembly", "Welsh Assembly Government", "Assembly officials" and "Assembly parliamentary service". Whilst all of these names can be accurately related to specific activities and employees of the corporate body, the similarities between them, and the lack of consistent application, can cause confusion and misunderstanding.

  8.  WCVA is content that a new post of Counsel General should be created to support the Assembly Government, and that the Civil Service will act exclusively in support of the Executive. More detail is needed however on the size and remit of the support for the legislature.

Ministerial Functions

  9.  The White Paper refers to, but does not identify "importance legislative functions" which will be retained by the Assembly legislature after separation. It also makes reference to "some important kinds of legislative orders", which will be made, or approved, by the Assembly. Without further clarification on the types of functions or orders this relates to, WCVA cannot express a view on the appropriateness of these proposals.

  10.  WCVA supports the proposal that final approval for major strategic plans, including the Wales Spatial Plan, will remain with the Assembly. WCVA believes it is vital that such important and influential strategies have cross-party support and endorsement. This requirement should be extended to other major schemes (Sustainable Development, Equality of Opportunity, the Welsh Language, Environmental, Economic development, and others).

  11.  One current statutory duty of the Assembly is the requirement to make a Scheme setting out how it proposes, in the exercise of its functions, to promote the interests of relevant voluntary organisations. This has led to the National Assembly for Wales Voluntary Sector Scheme ("the Scheme").

  12.  Through the Scheme, the Assembly maintains:

    —  a policy on working in partnership with the voluntary sector;

    —  arrangements for consulting the voluntary sector;

    —  a policy on volunteering;

    —  a policy on community development; and

    —  a Code of Practice for funding the voluntary sector which is published as a separate document.

  13.  The Scheme provides the following formal means of dialogue with the voluntary sector:

    —  The Voluntary Sector Partnership Council (VSPC), chaired by the Minister with responsibility for the voluntary sector, and whose membership comprises voluntary sector members whose appointment is facilitated by WCVA; and Assembly members, reflecting party balance, appointed by the Assembly; and

    —  six-monthly meetings between Ministers and relevant voluntary sector networks, reports of which should be provided to the appropriate Assembly subject committees.

  14.  The current arrangements have a number of distinctive benefits that it is hoped can be maintained, namely:

    —  the ownership of the Scheme by the full Assembly—through its adoption, plenary debate on the Scheme's annual report, and review following each election;

    —  the membership of the VSPC—bringing together the Assembly Government, Assembly Members (all parties), and representatives of the voluntary sector;

    —  the respect for the sector's independence, and its right to determine the membership of the VSPC and representation at Ministerial meetings and other partnerships and joint working groups;

    —  the role of subject committees in receiving, and debating if they so wish, reports of the ministerial meetings;

    —  the commitment of the Assembly Government, and its willingness to act positively on issues raised by the VSPC (for example, to address sector's needs with regard to criminal records checks); and

    —  the role of the VSPC in scrutinising Assembly Government compliance with the Scheme.

  15.  The VSPC has strengthened its scrutiny role by the creation of the Funding and Compliance sub-committee. This reflects recommendations by the Independent Commission that reviewed the Scheme after the 2003 elections, which highlighted the need for more robust monitoring of the consistent application of the Scheme across all parts of the Assembly Government and its public bodies. The sub-committee has created a mechanism to monitor compliance with the Scheme by the Assembly Government, ASPBs or third party grant schemes, and to investigate cases of non-compliance. The involvement of both AMs and the sector's representatives demonstrates the committee's independence in undertaking its duties.

  16.  These benefits have contributed to the practical demonstration of an inclusive Assembly, and have demonstrated cross-party support for and interest in the work of the sector.

  17.  In order to maintain and build on these benefits, it is proposed that the changes to the Government of Wales Act include the following:

    —  Voluntary Sector Scheme

    The current duty of the Assembly to make and maintain the Voluntary Sector Scheme should become a duty of the Welsh Assembly Government. The responsible Minister should have a duty to consult the voluntary sector, including through the Voluntary Sector Partnership Council, before making, remaking or revising the Scheme; and to seek the advice of the Voluntary Sector Partnership Council on the development, implementation and review of the Scheme. The scope of the Scheme, arrangements for review and for an annual report for consideration by the legislature should remain as specified in section 114(4) of the Government of Wales Act, with the addition of the requirement for each minister to meet twice a year with the relevant voluntary sector networks.

    —  Voluntary Sector Partnership Council

    The Voluntary Sector Partnership Council (VSPC) should be explicitly identified. The VSPC should be established by the legislature. Its membership and arrangement for appointing members should reflect the current arrangements—ie it should be chaired by the responsible minister, the legislature should appoint Assembly Members reflecting party balance, and WCVA should facilitate the selection of voluntary sector members. The VSPC would provide a forum for discussion between the Assembly Government, the legislature and the voluntary sector; it would advise the Assembly Government on the development, implementation and review of the Voluntary Sector Scheme; and provide a mechanism for scrutinising compliance with the Voluntary Sector Scheme.

Scrutinising Ministers

  18.  Voluntary Sector organisations have specific expertise in their areas of activity. They have a unique perspective on what is working and what is not working at a local and grassroots level, and can often provide solid evidence of need amongst groups or communities. The Assembly's subject committees have played a welcome and important role in policy development and review, and this should continue under the new structures. Provision should be made for Assembly Committees, with advice from the VSPC, to co-opt or invite to meetings representatives of relevant voluntary organisations to advise and assist with their scrutiny and legislative functions.


Developing the current settlement

  19.  WCVA supports a change to the drafting of Parliamentary Bills that will enable the Assembly to exercise "wider and more permissive powers". Consistency in Parliament's approach to making provisions for Wales is vital if clarity is to be brought to the legislative process. This will help civil society to understand and engage in the consultative and lobbying processes.

Enhancing the current settlement

  20.  If the proposals for the Orders in Council approach to enhancing the Assembly's legislative powers are implemented, there will be scope for voluntary organisations to engage more actively in the legislative process. This will present opportunities for the sector to use its expertise and knowledge of need to inform and advise on the drafting of Orders in Council.

  21.  This opportunity brings with it a challenge for civil society and the voluntary sector to raise its game and develop the abilities and capacity to understand the implications and possibilities presented by the Orders in Council process. At present there is a lack of detailed knowledge amongst some organisations on the devolution settlement and legislative procedures. The sector will need to support and guidance as it develops its ability to research, propose and provide evidence to back-up proposals for Orders in Council, including presenting evidence to Parliament committees.

  22.  The development of skills and expertise amongst Assembly members and civil servants will be equally crucial for a successful transition, to meet the new challenges and opportunities the enhanced powers will bring.

  23.  Under the new proposals there will need to be structured opportunities to allow the voluntary sector and civil society to engage in the policy-making processes that will lead to the formulation of Orders in Council. The Assembly Government will need to provide an open, accessible mechanism for groups and individuals to present evidence and input into policy development. This will be especially crucial if the current Committee structure is lost, a scenario that reinforces the need for the existing provisions under the Voluntary Sector Scheme to remain.

19 September 2005

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Prepared 13 December 2005