Wales Council for Voluntary Action

Feb 20 '13

Do charities care about the constitution?

As the deadline for submissions to a consultation on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales draws near, Michelle Matheron, WCVA’s Senior Public Affairs Officer, asks if the third sector has a role to play in shaping the future of the devolution settlement.

There is no getting away from the fact that times are tough in the Welsh third sector. Budget cuts and increased demand for services mean that organisations are cutting back, assessing their priorities and trying to do more with less.  Against this backdrop it is increasing difficult for organisations to devote time and resources to policy and influencing work or indeed to consider the context in which that influencing takes place. 

The Commission on Devolution in Wales (the Silk Commission) is currently consulting on some important questions about the future of the devolution settlement.  The All Wales Convention undertook equally important work in the same arena back in 2009 and whilst some charities did respond to the Convention many chose not to do so.  The reasons for third sector organisations choosing not to engage with constitutional discussions can be many and varied - lack of capacity, lack of knowledge and skills, lack of awareness, or a simple decision taken at board or senior management level not to engage with these issues. But whatever the reason for the lack of engagement, the debate is weaker, narrower and less informed as a result of it.

Wales’ 33,000 third sector organisations come in all shapes and sizes - membership groups and service deliverers; national, local and regional organisations; some led by paid staff but most by volunteers; and operating in a vast range of policy areas touching on all aspects of Welsh life.  They may not have a well developed policy function but what they do have is evidence of the impact of policy decisions as they affect real people – this is all too often missing in the devolution debate.  Organisations that do have any capacity, even if it is limited, to engage with the Silk Commission agenda can offer useful insights into how law-making, the distribution of powers between Wales and Westminster and intergovernmental relations could be improved.

The Welsh Government published its own response to the Silk Commission this week.  It recommends the devolution of powers in a number of new areas including policing and justice; water; vulnerable adults and children; road safety; alcohol licensing and more. They also recommend that Charities and Charity law should not be devolved and should remain the responsibility of Westminster. Organisations across the sector will have important views on the Welsh Government’s recommendations and should do whatever they can to make those know.

Organisations operating partly or solely in Scotland will be forced to consider constitutional issues as the country heads towards a referendum on independence in 2014.  This publication by the Scottish Refugee Council is a great example of such consideration.  But we should not leave it to the few to engage in these debates, nor should we leave it until the question is simply one of ‘in or out of the UK?’ Now is the time to help shape Wales in a way that works for our sector.

The implications of changes to Wales’ constitutional structure are of great importance to those we work with and work for.  Far too few people in Wales understand our political structures and those of us who have a real opportunity to have a say in how Wales works owe it to those who do not, to get involved.

WCVA’s draft response to the Silk Commission sets out the following very simple recommendations.  These are:

  • WCVA believes that the ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution should be adopted in Wales. (This means that we would have the power to legislate in all areas except for those specifically reserved to Westminster, as opposed to the current situation where we can only legislate on the areas that are specifically listed as devolved to Wales – the reserved powers model is in operation in Scotland)
  • WCVA believes that the principles of transparency, clarity and accessibility should underpin the devolution settlement.
  • WCVA believes that regardless of the specifics of the devolution settlement intergovernmental relations are in need of serious improvement, and that individuals and communities should not suffer as a result of poor communication between governments.

We are asking organisations to endorse these recommendations and, if they wish to, to give us their views on our response or use our response to inform their own submissions.

You can read our draft response here and send your comments or endorsement to us by emailing me (mmatheron@wcva.org.uk) by Monday 25 February.  The deadline for submissions to the Commission is 1 March.

We are also hosting an event in April to help organisations to engage with this important debate, find out more about that here.

We would urge third sector organisations to engage with this debate in any way they can.  It may seem complex, academic and remote - but ultimately it’s just about where decisions should be made about the issues that matter to the people we work with. And surely that’s something we should all care about?

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