Robyn Evans provides a run-down of the National Assembly’s petitioning process.
Petitioning offers the public a platform to exercise political challenge via the National Assembly for Wales by raising awareness of issues and influencing the development of new legislation and Welsh Government policy. Recently, a petition calling for the suspension of a licence to dump marine sediments from Hinkley Point nuclear power station into waters off Cardiff Bay culminated in an Assembly debate, in which Plaid Cymru and Welsh Conservative AMs backed the suspension of the licence. The calls were rejected by the majority of the AMs, but the petition attracted significant media attention and considerable public debate on the contentious issue.
Elsewhere, a petition calling on the government to make pre-biopsy mpMRI scans available across Wales has already surpassed the 5,000 signature mark required for it to be considered for debate in the Assembly chamber. The petition has already captured significant public attention alongside a Prostate Cancer UK report which found that the detection of prostate cancer in Wales is lagging behind England, where there is greater provision of pre-biopsy mpMRI. With the petition’s deadline for collecting signatures at the end of November, we could be seeing a full Assembly debate very soon.
Submitting a Petition
Petitions can be submitted either electronically through the Assembly’s online petitions system or in paper format, and the Petitions Committee is also willing to accept petitions where signatures are collected on alternative websites. Guidance and advice are offered by the petitions team regarding the form and wording of petitions as this is the key in determining whether a petition is deemed admissible.
Petitions are required to collect at least 50 signatures and must pass their deadline for collecting signatures before they can be considered by the committee. Petitions which collect over 5,000 signatures will be automatically considered for a debate by the full Assembly. Petitioners will be given the chance to hand in their petition in person and informally speak to the committee chair and members about their reasons for submitting the petition.
The Petitions Committee
The Petitions Committee considers all admissible petitions submitted by the public. Petitions must be about issues that the Assembly has powers to act upon. Petitions on non-devolved matters or issues that are the operational responsibility of other legislatures cannot be considered by the committee but can instead be dealt with through the UK Parliament or local authorities.
UKIP AM David Rowlands chairs the committee, which meets once every two weeks when the Assembly is sitting. The committee is balanced by party, with Mike Hedges (Labour), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Janet Finch-Saunders (Conservative) and Neil McEvoy (Independent) making up its membership.
Consideration of Petitions
Prior to its first consideration of a petition, the Petitions Committee writes to relevant government ministers seeking their views on the issues raised. The Assembly’s Research Service also publishes a briefing paper setting out background information on the issue. The committee contacts the lead petitioner each time it considers their petition to assist the committee with further information.
After consideration in a public meeting, the Petitions Committee decides what action it should take. The committee is unable to take any direct action to implement a petitioner’s calls or overrule decisions made by the government and other public bodies. The committee often decides to seek further information from the government, other decision-makers or stakeholders, or even invites relevant witnesses to attend a committee hearing to face questions on the issues raised in the petition.
When considering the marine licensing petition, the Petitions Committee took all of the actions above, producing a report which summarised the evidence received which was then debated in the Assembly. Indeed, the committee may decide to seek time for a debate on the issue in the Assembly chamber, an option automatically considered for petitions with over 5,000 signatures. Other options include: undertaking external visits; conducting a short inquiry into the issues raised in the petition; asking another Assembly committee to look at the petition; or closing the petition.
The petitioning process usually takes several months, and there have been instances where consideration of a petition has taken place over several years. Meaningful engagement between the petitioner, the committee, and government ministers is key in achieving any progress on a petition. A petition is closed once the committee agrees that it has either achieved its aim or it is unable to progress the issue any further. Following this, the committee’s chair writes to the petitioner outlining the committee’s reason for closing the petition.
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