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Y Pwyllgor Deisebau

Petitions Committee

23/01/2018

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

David J. Rowlands AM
Janet Finch-Saunders AM
Mike Hedges AM
Neil McEvoy AM
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Dr Sue Whitcombe Seicolegydd Siartredig
Chartered Psychologist
Paul Apreda Deisebydd
Petitioner

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Graeme Francis Clerc
Clerk
Kath Thomas Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Kayleigh Imperato Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Lisa Salkeld Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:18.

The meeting began at 09:18.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datganiadau o fuddiant
1. Introduction, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Good morning, all, bore da, and welcome to the Petitions Committee. We have no apologies or substitutions.

2. Deisebau newydd
2. New petitions

We will commence with the new petitions. The first petition is 'Lowering the Voting Age to Sixteen'. This petition was submitted by Sgiliau, having collected 87 signatures. The First Minister has confirmed that it is Welsh Government policy for the franchise to be extended to people aged 16. Do committee members have any comments they'd like to make on that?

I'd just say it's the direction in which we're moving. There's a general agreement now on reducing the voting age to 16 and this petition just adds to the pressure for it to happen. I think we need to wait until the publication of the public consultation on electoral reform and encourage the petition's other supporters to submit their views so that we build up an overwhelming case in favour of votes at 16.

Is there scope, also, to submit to that consultation what we have received as a petition?

And to advise the petitioner that we've done that and encourage them to engage further in that consultation as well.

Okay, fine. So, just to formalise it, the possible actions are: in light of the positive responses received from the Welsh Government and the Llywydd, the committee could await the publication of the public consultation on electoral reform and encourage the petitioners and other supporters to submit their views. And we will be submitting the views of this to that consultation process.

The second new petition is 'Causing Nuisance or Disturbance on NHS Premises'. The petition was submitted by Claire Thomas having collected 74 signatures. At this moment in time, as far as Wales is concerned, there is no specific offence that the police can use to deter people who are committing these offences on NHS premises. Yet, this contrasts with England, which has, under section 119 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, successfully been using this process in order to convict people who have committed these crimes. The initial response to the petition was received from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services on 11 December, and he has indicated that he is at the point, I think, of commencing to enact that section 119 coming to force in Wales. Do committee members have any comments on this?

09:20

I'm happy to wait, as the possible action recommends a further response from the Cabinet Secretary, but maybe setting a date in time—end of February or something, and if we haven't heard anything by then, we give them a prod. 

Yes. Are we all in agreement with that? Fine. Thank you. 

The next new petition is 'Calling on the Welsh Government to Ban The Use of Wild Animals in Circuses in Wales'. The petition was submitted by Linda Evelyn Joyce Jones and has collected in excess of 5,000 signatures—a combination of signatures online and on paper. And she has also submitted, I think, another petition online. Is that right? 

Yes. So, we've received signatures through the Assembly's petitions website and through change.org, as well as some paper signatures. The typical position, to make Members aware, is that the committee wouldn't normally consider two separate online petitions because of the risk of dual signing. The petitioner has been in contact with us and says that she wasn't aware of that when she started the change.org petition. So, we've given Members the information of all the different signatures involved on there. We have done a brief check of a sample of them to see what the level of duplication between the two online petitions is. We believe that's around 15 per cent of the signatures. Having calculated for that, it would leave the number of signatures just over 5,000 if the committee wanted to take both online petitions. But as I say, what we inform petitioners about when they contact us around this is that only one online petition can be taken into account.   

Okay. So, how many have we had to the Assembly petition? 

About 1,500. 

And 1,700 on paper, which we do accept—the paper petitions. That would take it over 3,000. 

Absolutely, yes. I can see this going to debate, actually. I know that we've been calling on the Welsh Labour Government for quite some time to bring in a ban. In 2015, Rebecca Evans, then the Deputy Minister, mentioned that the Welsh Government believes there is no place for the use of wild animals in circuses. The Welsh Government, to be fair, commissioned an independent report, taking evidence from over 600 experts, and the scientific evidence indicates that captive wild animals in travelling circuses do not achieve their optimal welfare requirements set out under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The RSPCA notes that travelling circus life is likely to have a harmful effect on animal welfare, and in November 2017 Ireland became the twentieth EU member and the forty-second country in the world to legislate against the use of wild animals in circuses. As of this month, Scotland became the first country in the UK to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses—and even countries such as Bolivia, Bosnia, Paraguay, Peru, Costa Rica and Croatia all have bans in place. The 2010 UK consultation found that 94 per cent of the public supported a ban on wild animal acts. So, I can see this being typical of this committee's power to be able to perhaps lead to a debate in the Assembly, because from the correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary talking about licensing, it's clear that some of these organisations have breached previous animal welfare conditions and I think it's fair to say there is a lot of support in this Assembly from across the party divide to bring in this ban.

09:25

That's right, and I think that there's a certain amount of cross-pollination with another petition that we've had, which is the one about exotic animals and the keeping of exotic animals and also—

But this is wild animals in circuses travelling around and—

—primates, as well, at home. So, there's great movement against this—

Yes, but this is completely—in terms of a ban, this is completely about animals that should not be on the back of lorries and things like that. There are certain requirements they need and we would be breaching the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to allow it to continue.

There is some difficulty in that there are exhibitors of things like—those who exhibit predators such as eagles and owls, et cetera. If we put a blanket ban on it, that would stop those people exhibiting as well. So, I think there is that consideration, which will come out in debate, obviously.

Yes, because this is more about—. It's specific, it says travelling circuses, doesn't it?

It is about—. This particular one is about circuses, but it's going to come out—

Yes, so it's this one—it's the merit of this petition that—

But it's under—it's what they call exhibitors of wild animals, which would cover things like exhibiting the birds of prey, et cetera, at shows. So, it does go further than that. But anyway—

It's mobile animal exhibition exhibitors, that's what it comes under—

Yes, but this particular petition is just on travelling animals in circuses.

I can imagine that there would be a perceived threat to those showing birds of prey, but that would be discussed in the course of legislation.

That's exactly the point I'm making, actually, Rhun, that it would come out in debate. So, the possible actions open to the committee at the moment are that the committee could consider whether to seek time for a debate in Plenary, either immediately or at a later date, or the committee could write to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs to share the petitioner's comments and ask for an update on the Welsh Government's chosen course of action once responses to the public consultation carried out in the autumn of 2017 have been analysed, and/or the committee could request further information from the Cabinet Secretary as to the content of outcomes of recent discussions between Welsh Government officials, DEFRA and other devolved administrations over the possibility of a joint ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.

Given the fairly recent letter from the Cabinet Secretary in terms of erring more towards the licensing, I propose that, as a committee, we go straight for a Plenary debate.

Yes, let's have a Plenary debate. That'll give the Cabinet Secretary an opportunity to clarify her position.

Can we, at the same time, just tighten up the information that's given to petitioners or the prominence of the relevant information given to petitioners that we can't accept two online petitions? Because it just raises an unnecessary question about this. If people knew that there's one written, one online and that's it, it would just be easier.

Fine. Are we agreed on that, that there can only be one online petition? Given that, for the next petition that we have, they've managed to actually accumulate 5,700 signatures through the Government online petition system, I think we're justified in doing that. So, we're happy to also make that instruction as well, to go forward. So, with regard to this, we want to take it to debate at the earliest possible time or later—

09:30

Okay. Fine. The next new petition is 'Ensure access to the cystic fibrosis medicine, Orkambi, as a matter of urgency'. The petition was submitted by Rhian Barrance, having collected 5,717 signatures. An initial response to the petition was received from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services on 11 December, basically saying that they're willing to stick by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence strategies with regard to this, and especially as NICE had come up with reissuing this guidance as a 'do not do', which is emphasising it should not be made routinely available. 

I think we need more information, really. It's a shocking illness, cystic fibrosis, and it does affect a number of people of Wales. A stalemate isn't a good situation, so I think this is typical of a petition where we need to actually get more information, more evidence and seek to support this petitioner in any way we can. 

Do the other Members have any comments with regard to this?

I think the petition is very careful in saying that what it's calling for is a solution and for debate between the NHS, the pharmaceutical company, the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group and so on. It's very carefully and sensibly seeking a way forward rather than demanding an overnight resolution, so I think we owe it to them to push Government as hard as we can to show us that that kind of discussion is taking place. 

So, are we talking about going immediately to debate? The other alternative is the committee could write back to the Minister for health and social services to share the views of the petitioner and ask whether the more recent long-term data referred to by the petitioner could form part of any further consideration by the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group, before considering the issue of a debate again.  

Can I suggest that, firstly, we write back to the Minister asking for their view? When we get that reply, if we're still not satisfied, then we try and get the petitioner and the Minister in, and possibly NICE, depending on—. If everybody's saying, 'NICE is saying this; NICE is saying that', let's get NICE in and ask them their view on it. But let's start off with the petitioner and the Minister if we're not satisfied with the Minister's response. 

Right. So, we'll go through a procedure of writing first to the Minister and then the possibility of an evidence session before going on to actually asking for a debate. Are we all in agreement with that?

It's not a petition on a matter of principle, is it? It's a very practical thing that we can pursue in practical terms initially. 

3. Y wybodaeth ddiweddaraf am ddeisebau blaenorol
3. Updates to previous petitions

Right. We move on to updates to previous petitions. 'A Roundabout for the A477/ A4075 Junction': this petition was submitted by Pembroke Town Council and was first considered in January 2016 having collected 597 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 21 November and agreed to give the petitioners more time to prepare comments given the detailed nature of the information provided in the letter from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport. A response was received from the petitioner on 15 December. Do the Members have any comments with regard to this? 

09:35

The possible actions are that the committee could await a further update from the petitioners in relation to their correspondence with haulage firms before considering further action, or the committee could close the petition in light of conclusions of the road safety audit and the commitment from the Cabinet Secretary that the petitioners' views will be considered as part of the 36-month review of the changes to the road.

All I would say on this is I know that they've backtracked on another road scheme—that was a noise issue—so, I don't know, really. I think we need to keep a foot on the pedal.

Yes, I think there is an obvious way of keeping up the pressure on the Government, which is to wait to hear what the haulage firms tell them and pass that on to Government, and make sure that the Government responds to that.

Yes, fine. Are we agreed on that? Yes. Fine. So, we'll take the option that the committee could await a further update from the petitioners.

The next review of a petition is 'Protect Special Educational Needs'. The petition was submitted by Nicola Butterfield and was first considered by the committee in December 2016, having collected 553 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 11 July and agreed to write to the petitioner to ask her whether she would like to take up an offer from the chief executive of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council to meet with his officials. We should note that the clerking team has written to the petitioner on 7 August, 19 October and 10 January, but no response has been received. The possible actions are to close the petition in light of the previous offer of engagement from Neath Port Talbot county council, and because it is difficult to see how the committee can take the petition forward in the absence of contact from the petitioner. Does the committee have any comments with regard to that?

Once the petitioner stops corresponding with us, we've got no other option but to close it. 

Absolutely. So, we'll close that petition.

The next petition is 'Save the Future Generation of Wales'. This was submitted by Ken Ebihara and was first considered in December 2017, having collected 54 signatures. The committee first considered the petition on 5 December, and agreed to write to the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning. A response from the Minister was received on 9 January, and it appears, from comments made by the petitioner, that he feels the response was to his liking and to his agreement. So, our possible actions, unless any of the committee have a comment to make with regard to that—.

No. Petitions end in one of four ways, don't they? One, if the petitioner is happy, then who are we to say we want to carry on with it? And I think, if the petitioner's happy, who are we to do anything but close it and thank the petitioner for taking part? The more happy petitioners we have, the more this committee is achieving. 

That's right. Fine. Are we all agreed with that? Yes, so we'll close that petition.

The next petition is Forsythia youth centre, stop the closure, and was first considered in March 2017, having collected 74 signatures. We know that this closure was to be brought about because of the Welsh Government deciding that the Communities First programme would be ended. The committee last considered the petition on 7 November, and agreed to write to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and the 3Gs Development Trust. A response was received from Merthyr Tydfil council on 27 November. Does the committee have any comments with regard to this particular petition?

I'd like to keep up an engagement with them, if possible, to show that we're genuinely interested in pursuing this. I think the first of the actions proposed there strikes me as being a decent way forward.

09:40

Yes, because, in all fairness, in the response from Merthyr Tydfil council, although they said that, in the interim, they will be supporting this, there is no firm commitment to support the centre over a longer period of time. So, it might be worth while that we keep this matter open. I agree with you, Rhun. 

So, the committee could write to the petitioners to ask for an update on current provision at Forsythia Youth Centre and whether they're part of the discussions with the council about the future of the centre.

The next petition is 'Make a Vegan Option Compulsory In Public Canteens'. The petition was submitted by Rachel Turnbull and was first considered in July 2017, having collected 118 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 19 September. The clerking team wrote to the petitioner to seek a response on 3 August, 2 October and 10 January, but no response has been received.

The normal thing I'd say at this stage, if the petitioner isn't engaging with us, is that we can't take it any further and therefore we have to close it.

Yes, it is disappointing, but, in all fairness, if we can't get communication back from the petitioner, it leaves us with no option but to close the petition.

The next petition for scrutiny is 'Better Mental Health Services for Adults'. The petition was submitted by Megan Tudor and was first considered in June 2017, having collected 84 signatures.

She makes the particular point that, 

'Mental health should have the same level of care as physical health' 

in her submissions. The committee considered the petition for the first time on 27 June, and agreed to await the views of the petitioner on the response of the Cabinet Secretary for health before deciding what further action to take on the petition. The clerking team has sought to contact the petitioner on a number of occasions to seek a response and also invited her to give oral evidence to the committee as part of their consideration of petition P-05-736 'To Make Mental Health Services More Accessible'. However, no response has been received.

So, possible actions: the committee could close the petition as it is difficult to see how the committee could take the petition forward in the absence of contact from the petitioner, or the committee could consider the issues raised by the petitioner as part of the forthcoming evidence session with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services on petition P-05-736 'To Make Mental Health Services More Accessible', which is scheduled for 27 February of this year.

I think we do both. I'm not sure in which order. Either we sort of close the petition and say, 'Thank you. We're closing the petition, but we'll bring up the fact that you petitioned us as part of the inquiry' or, after that inquiry, we report back to the petitioner and close.

Fine. How are we set technically for that? Are we able to do both?

In relation to the process, it might be neater to keep the petition open whilst we are still actively asking the Government about its contents.

So, the committee will consider the issues raised by the petitioner. Therefore, we'll keep that petition open until that time.

The next petition is 'Prescription drug dependence and withdrawal—recognition and support'. This petition was submitted by Stevie Lewis and was first considered in December 2017, having collected 213 signatures. The committee considered the petition for the first time on 5 December and agreed to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services to share the information provided by the petitioner and to ask for his views in response to the points made by the petitioner about whether antidepressants should be added to the list of drugs targeted for reduction by the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group, and whether patients across Wales should have access to a prescribed medication support service. A response was received from the Cabinet Secretary on 4 January. Does the committe have any comments on the report?

09:45

It's something that we've not really done a lot of in the Assembly, and it is clearly something that is affecting a number of people.

It's interesting that they are pointing to good practice in the north, and it is one of the problems that we have in the NHS in Wales that, where we have good practice, it's not rolled out quickly enough.

Yes, there's not enough joined-up thinking on it or there's no cross-pollination.

Well, the possible actions are that the committee could consider inviting further evidence on the issues raised by the petitioner, including from health boards, the British Medical Association and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. We've also suggested—Graeme and I, in our discussions—that we also expand that to invite the individuals affected to contribute their thoughts on the matter.

We could, at the same time, write to the health committee.

Yes, absolutely, and the committee could write to the Health and Social Care Committee for an update as well.

If we're writing to the health boards, then in the letter to Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board we could certainly ask for further details about the programme referred to by the petitioner in north Wales.

Yes. All agreed? Fine.

The next petition we're considering is 'Tackle Rough  Sleeping'. The petition was submitted by Hanin Abou Salem and was first considered in December 2017, having collected 71 signatures. The committee considered the petition for the first time on 5 December and agreed to write back to the Minister for Housing and Regeneration to share the additional points raised by the petitioner and request an update on the recommendations produced by the rough-sleepers working group when these are available. A response was received from the Minister on 9 January.

This is another one that's affecting all communities now. We've seen an increase of it in my own town of Llandudno. Last Wednesday, with the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, I went along to the Salvation Army building here that supports and shelters. There's money going into the system, but it's not getting to those—you know, the support for our rough-sleepers. It's just increasing. So, I think, again, we should keep this one going and keep putting pressure on the Welsh Government. I know I'm going to be making some enquiries within my own authority because I know that the previous Cabinet Secretary, the late Carl Sargeant, actually, highlighted some money that was needed. But if this money's just going in and being swallowed in the abyss of local government in trying to balance their budgets, to me it needs to be really intended. We don't have any rough-sleeping facilities—any homeless facilities—at all for them, and quite often now you see people out in all horrendous weather.

So, our possible actions then are that the committee could await the publication of the rough-sleeper action plan in February and seek the views of the petitioner at that point.

Yes, because on this one it does concern me. I've tried to get it from the Cabinet Secretary, but they have this sort of—where they consider a temperature is, you know—. There isn't a temperature, if you like. So, it could be that not everyone knows when to facilitate their own emergency procedures because there's no guidance from the Welsh Government. So, I think this is another petition that well deserves our support.

Okay. The committee could suggest that the petitioner provides her views to the short inquiry into rough-sleeping being run by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, and the committee could agree to keep a watching brief until after that inquiry. Is that—[Inaudible.]?

Yes, I'd like to do that. Just echoing what was said, my concern with homelessness around the city and the region, but particularly in the centre of Cardiff, is that the council is being cut to the bone. Local government services are being cut and cut and cut, and yet this Government finds money to finance charities to the tune of millions, with quite heavy management costs within those charities, and no small political connection, either, with some of them.

We got some personal experience in the election campaign. We came across rough-sleepers in the city centre when we were campaigning, and one of our candidates used to sleep on the streets, so there was a lot of empathy, and instead of walking past them, we spoke to them. Anyway, believe it or not, they got involved in the election campaign with us. And, to cut a long story short, just through the intervention of individuals, really, in a voluntary capacity, enabling them to take showers and so on in homes, and making sure that they were able to sleep in a tent outside the city centre, the two people who did campaign with us are not homeless now.

So, if that can be done on a micro level, I'm scratching my head at all these millions going to charities and the problem is still there. But if they solve the problem, then they're sort of like turkeys voting for Christmas, really.

09:50

Anecdotally, we've had a rough-sleeper appear in Pontypool town centre, sleeping in doorways, and he's now been joined by somebody else. So, obviously, the interventions are not working, so I think we're all in agreement that—

Could we invite the homeless in to this committee to give evidence? That's what I'd really like to see happen. 

That's reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. Sometimes, we do have a tendency, as Government and the Assembly, to bring in people who work in agencies, representing various—. I think that's an excellent idea, to be honest, where we actually—. We heard it for ourselves; we spoke to some homeless people, as part of our inquiry, last Wednesday, and it was fascinating—it really was. These people—there but for the grace of God go any one of us—are intelligent people; let's get them in here. I'd support that.

My view is that we're just generating, again, as an Assembly, into silos. If the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee is looking at this issue, why are we replicating it? We could send them the petition to aid them in their inquiry. Why would we want to run a parallel inquiry to a committee that is already doing so? 

We could suggest to the committee that they speak with homeless people.

Yes, because I can raise it, with your—. Okay, that's another alternative.

We can ask the committee to speak to homeless people. We can tell them about the petition we've had. But what would happen if we ran a separate—? Let's say that we take the view that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee produces one report and that we do an investigation and produce another report. Either the two reports will say the same, in which case ours is—. 

If, on the other hand, we produce a different one, well, which is the right one? There is a committee that has this as their job and I think we should send them the petition and tell the petitioner that we've sent them their petition, and let them produce a report and ask if we can have a copy of that report so that we can share it with the petitioner, and we can actually close it with a report.

Because we'd be holding a session for the sake of holding a session, rather than with the purpose of—

Right, okay. So, do you know exactly where we're going with that?

And if you could mention that committee members did see the merit of inviting people who have experience of rough-sleeping in.

Yes. Okay, the next petition is 'Protect the Razor Clams on Llanfairfechan Beach'. It was submitted by Vanessa L. Dye and was first considered in October 2017, having collected a total of 459 signatures.

Just for your information, on the bottom it says about the constituency; it's definitely Aberconwy constituency. This one is another one where I think the community is very grateful to this committee for the work that they've done thus far, but we're not there yet. We succeeded; the beds have been closed. However, there's very little information coming back, so we do need to keep the pressure on the Cabinet Secretary. One of the things that came out of the public meeting was that a survey is required. This affects all sorts of different angles, really.

Yes. I mean, the community are really annoyed about this, because we've got 100 to 150 regularly coming in on a spring tide, and there are concerns about their safety. There have even been concerns raised about trafficking. But the razor clams themselves, there's an ecosystem—you know, the birds—and obviously, it's seen as a jewel in the crown, and we want to sustain and allow these razor clams to mature. There have been concerns about their sizes when they've been taken.

So, what we want, we want more pressure on the Minister. We could do with an update on the assessment. We've got Bangor University down the road, and we've asked whether they would—. Even their own officers don't have any data, and suggested at the meeting that they haven't a clue what impact the massive harvesting of them is having. So, we really want to try and see some evidence-based data behind this before they close the beds.

So, I would ask the Petitions Committee to carry on with this. We need an update on the assessment. There are concerns that the signage has been put on waste litter bins. It needs to be far more prominent. We need a little bit better enforcement, because sometimes—

09:55

The petitioner and the supporters, are they now happy with the policing of the beds? That's an important point.

No. There hasn't been any policing. We've got the signs there, but on occasion there are no officers there to enforce. But what we have noticed is that, when there are—

So, is it still going on? Are there still—? Is clam fishing still taking place?

Collectors are still arriving, yes. And if there's enforcement there, then there's a mitigating factor there. But we need those beds closed, and then we want the data taken. So, there needs to be more research into it that will help to sustain these beds. So, could we request that the Cabinet Secretary looks further into working with the school of ocean sciences at Bangor uni? And, of course, there have been concerns that the sand is now turning into mud with the amount of activity, and these are fabulous sands, Llanfairfechan beach. It impacts on all sorts. It's impacting on tourism—

They're still there. And they want this committee to carry on with its drive towards holding the Cabinet Secretary to account, and I think it's fair to say that the support of this committee has really helped thus far. But we're not there yet. If those beds were to reopen without any survey taking place, it would have been—

So, there are still some considerable concerns with regard to the amount of clams being taken during the open season.

Yes, and we need the information—the survey data we need. That needs to go ahead.

Can we do what we normally do? That is, send on the petitioner's latest comments to the Cabinet Secretary for the Cabinet Secretary to respond back to us.

With our concerns—well, with my concerns, as a member of committee. You know, if we can just—. We've gone halfway; we just need that survey data now. That will be able to provide—. And from what I understand, Bangor uni are willing to do it.

I think we've got, in that one possible action, what would normally be split into two possible actions for our consideration, which would be, one, to close the petition because it has been solved, but because, as it happens, we have a member of the committee that's quite close to the issue, and is convinced that the issue is not yet closed, we are in a position to be able to pass on the petitioner's latest comments to the Cabinet Secretary, and then make a decision in a subsequent meeting about whether it's time to close the petition.

Can we, through this committee, though, raise the question of the survey?

I think that would be providing the petitioner's latest comments to the Cabinet Secretary, and by all means I'd be very supportive of ensuring that the right questions are asked relating to the survey.

Should we also say that the community is still raising concerns about the quantity of clams being taken? Because they can take clams now, during the open season, can't they? Between the periods when they're not breeding. 

They're theoretically closed, but you can imagine—. You could spend more having somebody there. It's that survey data we're after. If that survey data comes back and says that the beds are healthy and various other factors, then, I suppose, job done. But, as I say, we haven't achieved yet what the petitioner or the community actually set out to do. 

10:00

Fine. Thank you very much. You can note where we are. That's the end of the petitions period, and I'm afraid time is running. We're due to do the evidence session. It was due at 9:45 and this is with regard to the petition, 'Recognition of Parental Alienation'. So, we will have the witnesses brought in.  

4. Sesiwn dystiolaeth - P-05-751 Cydnabod achosion o Ddieithrio Plentyn oddi wrth Riant
4. Evidence Session - P-05-751 Recognition of Parental Alienation

Good morning, bore da, and welcome to the Petitions—. Yes, I'm sorry. Neil, would like to—

I'd just like to declare an interest, I suppose, with intimate knowledge of these kinds of issues, really, and the fact that I've met Sue and I also know Paul Apreda. So, I'd like to declare that.

It's nice to see Paul again; I've not seen him for a good while. [Laughter.] 

Always a pleasure. 

Okay, well, again, bore da, welcome to the Petitions Committee and our inquiry into the petition, 'Recognition of Parental Alienation'. Can I tell you that you can speak in either Welsh or English? There is translation equipment there. Do you know how to use the translation equipment? 

Well, I'll be speaking in English, and I've been told to put the headphones on if somebody speaks in Welsh. 

Okay, yes. I would imagine they would be switched to the correct channel for you. 

So, just for the record, could I ask the witnesses to explain to us their positions and who they are? 

I'm Dr Sue Whitcombe. I'm a Health and Care Professions Council-registered counselling psychologist, and I've been asked to come along today because I have an expertise in parental alienation. 

And I'm Paul Apreda. I'm the national manager of Families Need Fathers Both Parents Matter Cymru. We launched the petition earlier this year, because it's an issue that is very, very important to the people who come to our support meetings, from Bangor to Newport and from Carmarthen to Mold. 

Fine, thank you. Well, can I just explain that in these evidence sessions, the committee members will be asking you questions? The idea of that is, obviously, to give you an opportunity. Please don't feel intimidated by it in any way; it's simply that this is the process that we have in order to give you an opportunity to explain to the committee and to those who will be watching outside this arena exactly why you've brought the petition to our notice.

So, I'm going to ask Neil to open—. Sorry, I'll open the questions session. What are the current issues regarding parental alienation, and why does it need to be formally recognised as a form of emotional abuse for children? Broad, but it opens the whole question up for you.

I think for a long time in this country it's been unrecognised. It's more recognised in countries like the United States of America, Canada and Australia, where there has been a lot of research done into parental alienation by psychologists, social workers, lawyers and people who work with families in separation. That's helped to build up resources in those countries, where there is more awareness, people can access resources, and they are better able to identify cases where alienation is occurring. 

The problem we have had in this country is a lack of awareness and understanding, which means that cases where alienation is occurring are not being recognised—they're being understood to be something else—and that leaves children at risk of psychological harm and psychological abuse. And that impacts then on their adult mental health going forward.  

As I mentioned, it's a really significant issue for the people who come to us. Now, let me be very clear: people don't come to us to say, 'I haven't got any problems, the family justice system was fantastic, I didn't really have any difficulties at all.' So, we see a group of people who face difficulties in maintaining a relationship with their children. What they need—and, frankly, what they expect—is professional support to enable that to happen, or for very, very clear and good reasons to be put forward for why they shouldn't have a relationship with their children any longer. That's quite rare that we see that, that somebody is completely excluded—although we do see that, often on the flimsiest of evidence. So, recognising what the problems are and equipping front-line social workers in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Cymru, and elsewhere, is absolutely vital. If you don't understand the problem, you're not going to find the solution, and children are vulnerable.

10:05

The previous Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children stated in correspondence that his view and that of the Family Justice Network in Wales was that the existing regulatory and legal framework is sufficient in relation to the issues around parental alienation. Do you agree with him and do you think any further action is needed?

I think there are appropriate frameworks in place, but the issue is, if the personnel that come into contact with the family don't understand what the issues are, they're not able to access those frameworks. When they do access frameworks, when cases are taken from private law into public law, the majority of social workers I've come into contact with who work for local authorities have little understanding of parental alienation. What they're saying to me is: 'We don't know how to work with these cases. Please give me our normal, run-of-the-mill cases, which might involve substance abuse or regular physical abuse. We don't know how to work with these cases that are coming in from private law.' So, although the framework is there in terms of justice—and I'm not a lawyer, so what I see is there is a framework there that can be used, but my knowledge of the law is very minimal—if the practitioners at CAFCASS Cymru and the local authority aren't identifying what the issues are, that does not go forward into evidence to the court, and that is a big issue. So, the appropriate avenue is not followed.

Yes, just a quick one. I've been an Assembly Member now nearly seven years, and in the early days it wasn't seen as such a big issue. But, I have more fathers approaching me now, totally bewildered with the system and feeling alienated and almost discriminated against. I just wonder why the numbers are increasing.

I think there is greater awareness out there and people are able to identify. If I give an example, I had two mums come and see me last night and they said someone suggested to them it might be parental alienation. It's much easier for people to access the information now, and because people are talking about parental alienation, it's easier for people to say, 'Actually, that might be what's going on for me.' It's having a better understanding of what's going on.

I think a big issue in this country, and certainly when I started my research, was that we didn't use the term 'parental alienation', and the Welsh Government still doesn't use the term 'parental alienation', although practitioners in CAFCASS Cymru use it and solicitors use it and guardians use it. Now that CAFCASS in England are more aware and they've come out and said, 'Yes, we recognise parental alienation as a problem', at least we can start working from the same page, if you like, and start building up resources and doing the research and looking at what's going on. So, I think there is a greater awareness out there of what parental alienation is now, which leaves people to think, 'That might be going on for me. How do I tackle this, though? Where do I go? Where are the services that I can access?'

As a woman politician, in the early days, there was this natural assumption and people would say to me, 'How can you be a politician when you have children?', and my opening line used to be, 'I thankfully have the support of a husband, and my children need the support of my husband—he's equally as capable of looking after my children; it's not necessarily just me', and people couldn't understand that. There is this natural assumption that it should be just mothers. To me, where possible, if you can have both parents involved with the child's life, they've got true support.

All the evidence suggests that a child will be better off if they have the active involvement of both parents in their life, and that is proper involvement: it's not just letters occasionally, it's not just the odd weekend contact; it's regular involvement in family life.

I get slated a little bit now and then because I say there is some gender discrimination in the system. And there is—if you look at legal judgments, it's still quite normal for a judge to assume that a child is better off with the mother and to assume that a reasonable level of contact is every other weekend and maybe once a week, midweek, even when families live very close together and it's possible to have a more equal co-parenting relationship. Also in my work I get to look at police reports and social services reports. In my opinion, again, the way that fathers are dealt with is very different to the way that mothers are dealt with. So, I do think there is that discrimination in the system, but alienation itself is not a gendered issue; this happens to mothers and it happens to fathers. 

10:10

I think the greater number of fathers that come forward is to do with the system where we say, 'Actually, children are better off with their mother', and they tend to stay with their mother, so we see more fathers. The proportion of women and men that I see is roughly in that split. So, if 85 per cent of children are mainly in the care of their mother, 85 per cent of my client base is men and 15 per cent women. 

You say that Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service social workers do recognise parental alienation and they have training and assessment frameworks that enable them to identify parental alienation—

No, I haven't said that. 

But my understanding was that you said Welsh Government did not recognise it but that CAFCASS do.

No, they don't. Certain practitioners do, within CAFCASS and CAFCASS Cymru. CAFCASS now have said they recognise parental alienation. They haven't got general training on that. CAFCASS Cymru have not said they recognise it. My experience is there's no training for it in CAFCASS Cymru. 

I think the issue here is leadership. CAFCASS Cymru is the Welsh Government. It's one of the very, very few areas where the Welsh Government is delivering direct services. So, there's no—. You know, CAFCASS Cymru family court advisers are carrying out direct delivery functions of Welsh Ministers—under, I think, the Children Act 2004—and they sit in the Welsh Government offices and they are civil servants for the Welsh Government. So, it is the Welsh Government here. Now, CAFCASS, which is the English organisation—there's an awful lot of criticism of CAFCASS in England, huge amounts of criticism. We organised, with our sister charity in England, a conference that Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of CAFCASS, attended. Of course, there were an awful lot of people who were not happy about the way he runs the organisation, but he stood there and he talked about his own personal experiences of alienation, so I don't doubt that he gets it. Now, where is there that leadership from the Welsh Government that actually prioritises the safeguarding of children?

I'm less concerned, actually, I'm less worried about the impact on parents—although that is very significant, and we get people who come to us who are genuinely expressing suicidal ideation. Because if you're told that you can't have a relationship with your children, that's a pretty serious thing. The issue here, though, is that the child is reported as rejecting you. Now, that's unfeasibly rare. There are children who are violently physically abused—who are emotionally, sexually and psychologically abused by their parents—and they don't reject them. It's a massive child protection issue. Here, we're talking about children who say, 'I don't want a relationship with my parent', even though that parent may have done nothing wrong.

Now, I would anticipate, if I was a reasonable person living in Wales, that the support services, which are a function of the Welsh Government, would be there to support me, to investigate, to understand why my child is rejecting a relationship with me, and that it would have procedures and protocols in place to be able to tackle that. That is not the case. So, when the Minister reports that there is a range of tools in place and that the family justice system is able to protect children, it felt a little bit to me—. I'm sure I'm being unfair, but it felt a little bit to me like it was passing the buck for child protection from Cardiff Bay to Westminster: 'Oh, well, the family justice system is non-devolved, so that's Westminster's responsibility.' Well, do you know what? Giving advice to courts on matters relating to family issues is a function of Ministers of the Welsh Government. 

10:15

And when the Cabinet Secretary says, as he did on 23 June, that,

' "implacable hostility" as a practice area has been incorporated into CAFCASS Cymru’s learning and development plan'—

There's a conflation, I think, between implacable hostility and parental alienation, and I think this is something that CAFCASS in England are wrestling with, as they're looking to put processes into place. The issues that result in a child rejecting a parent aren't necessarily the hostility between parents, and if you look at all cases as ones of implacable hostility and inter-parental hostility, we miss those more complex cases where that is not the case.

Hostility arises after separation—it is not a cause of separation—and it arises for many reasons. It doesn't always arise in some cases. So, you can have a family who separate; everything is fine, there's normal contact for a couple of years, then a trigger event occurs, normally a new relationship or a change in the family situation or a death of a parent, and that triggers off psychological distress that a parent might have experienced in their childhood that raises their psychological defences, and they begin to behave in a certain way, which then begins to alienate the child against the parent.

So, the issues aren't ones of hostility, though hostility is often present, and if we look at dealing with the hostility, we're not dealing with the problem that's causing a child to reject a parent. A child will reject a parent to reduce the anxiety that they experience in trying to manage the relationships they have with both of their parents, and that will keep them safe in the short term. The long-term damage of doing that, like any short-term maladaptive coping strategy, is—. So, with adults, we might turn to alcohol, or we might turn to other ways of coping. A child in this situation turns to rejecting a parent because it reduces the anxiety that they experience. But in the long term, the developmental needs of that child, to know that they have rejected a parent, or they feel abandoned by that parent that didn't sustain a relationship with them, the damage to their identity, their long-term mental health, their long-term social functioning is quite significant. So, we really need to get away from the fact that this is about hostility. Hostility may be present, but it's not the cause of alienation.

Yes. It was highlighted in correspondence—you haven't asked that one, have you; no—that data collected by CAFCASS Cymru does not identify specific things or behaviours, and therefore information on the number of cases where implacable hostility features is not available. What impact does this have?

Sorry, could you repeat your last phrase, please?

Yes. Therefore, information on the numbers of cases where hostility features is not available. What impact does this have?

We don't know. We don't know the scale of how many alienation cases there are. We know from data collected in the US that they estimate, in a community sample, around 13 per cent of families might experience alienation. What I have heard from senior personnel at CAFCASS Cymru is that there are very few cases. What I hear from family court advisers and guardians and social workers is, 'I've got loads of these on my casebook, and I'm not sure how to deal with them.' So, there's a big discrepancy between what might be reported or thought to be happening. 

Should the Welsh Government be much better at their data collection in this regard?

Absolutely, yes.

And I know that you've raised concerns. In your correspondence of 10 July 2017: you had been invited by CAFCASS Cymru to discuss their data recording and reporting structures. Has this meeting now taken place and have you managed to address those issues?

Well, I mean, I sit on the CAFCASS Cymru advisory committee. It's often placed me in a difficult position because, of course, at the meetings, I will see their dashboard that has quite a lot of very interesting data in it, but it's restricted, so I couldn't share that. So, I thought, 'Well, do you know what—?' I very, very rarely opt for an FOI, but I thought, 'I'll FOI so that I can share the data.' I'm sure it's absolutely coincidental that when I FOI'd the particular document, CAFCASS Cymru decided to change the way that they present the information so those are no longer produced. I'm absolutely certain that's just a coincidence. The difficulty here is if you don't call a spade a spade, then you're unlikely to find a way to dig a hole. And the issue of the prevalence or not, and 'Is it a minor issue?' and the lack of data available is a huge difficulty.

ComRes did a poll, I think for resolution, in 2015—they did a piece of work, and they looked at and interviewed young adults who had experience of parental separation. What that showed was that around 32 per cent of the respondents answered 'Yes' to the question, 'Did one parent try to turn you against the other?' So we see that that's an issue. We also understand how important the voice of the child is to children, to parents and to the Welsh Government, and what we're talking about here is an abuse of the voice of the child, because what's happening is the manipulation of the child by one parent against the other. Now, what I'd like to see is a much better framework for capturing that eventuality and trying to prevent the psychological abuse of children. I'll hold my hand up: what I should have put in the petition is actually—the missing word is 'psychological'. The reason that that becomes significant is that psychological abuse of children is a criminal offence; it was criminialised under section 66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015.

Now, I suppose what we could ask is, 'How often have CAFCASS Cymru family court advisors identified psychological abuse?' and 'In how many cases have they reported that to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service for criminal prosecution?' Now, I'm not—really, I'm not—a fan of the criminal prosecution of parents on a wholescale level. But, do you know what? I think it sends a message. And what we need is we need a better way of understanding the dynamics and protecting children. I know I'm going to sound like a broken record to keep coming back to 'It's about the children'. How do we protect children from the conflict between their parents that creates a situation that makes parental alienation more likely to happen?

Now, I think Mike mentioned about—'We have systems and we have elements in place that can identify these things.' The primary assessment tool is the child and adolescent welfare assessment checklist tool. Now, I have to say, I don't really know how the CAWAC works. I'd be delighted if the committee would like to ask the Welsh Government so that you can examine how it works. I suspect you'll be unsuccessful because I know other Members of the Welsh Assembly who've asked and have been refused. So, this is an assessment tool that is used by CAFCASS Cymru, was paid for by the Welsh Government, which is not available to the elected representatives of the people of Wales to scrutinise. I mean, you may be much more successful than we've been or other Assembly Members have been, and I look forward to that, but one of the issues is that if that's claimed that that's the way that we recognise these things, then, one, we don't know—

10:20

Transparency is a critical issue here. But absolutely fresh in—so forgive me—and I haven't shared this with anybody else, is this, which came to me yesterday. I've not been able to verify the details of this, but all I know is that an e-mail was shared with me that has an address that says '@gov.wales' and is purporting to come from a practice manager in north Wales. What it says is:

'I can confirm that CAFCASS Cymru do not have a tool to work with cases where parental alienation is considered an issue. I understand there is currently no such tool available.'

10:25

Can I just come in on that?

I'm appointed by the court—instructed by the court—to do assessments of families in private family proceedings, normally. I've only ever seen the child and adolescent welfare assessment checklist used in one of the cases I've worked on, and most of those cases have been alienation cases.

Thank you. That's the whole purpose of taking evidence, and you can't argue with that, can you?

Neil, did you want to come in on that for just a second?

Yes, and I've got some other questions that I just wanted to touch on. So, just to establish what you said earlier, the reports going from CAFCASS Cymru to the courts are not fit for purpose.

I think—no, not all of them. Not all of them.

Okay, fine—that's all I wanted to know.

I think we've established that we need more training, or some training. I just wanted to touch on what the chief executive of CAFCASS in England said about parental alienation. How did he define parental alienation? 

Anthony Douglas has stated—I think he's been quoted in national newspapers as being very clearly identifying that parental alienation is an issue for a significant number of what they would describe—what he has described—as 'high-conflict cases'. I have a bit of a difficulty with the concept of high-conflict cases, because I work on the basis that if two people who were in a relationship and have children together are in court, what part of that is not high conflict? So, by definition, if CAFCASS Cymru are involved, it's all high conflict. 

So, what is clear from what Anthony Douglas says is that he and other people senior within CAFCASS have an understanding of what parental alienation is. I'm certain—I'm certain—that there are many people who might disagree about the issue or the particular interpretation.

Yes, absolutely, and it is.

So, he's referred to it as emotional abuse. To take that further, it may sound like a very obvious question: is the emotional abuse of a child akin to child abuse?

I would say no, it's not akin to it; it is child abuse. 

It is child abuse, yes.

Okay, fine, I'm glad we've established that. The next question I want to touch on is the institution. Are there institutional factors that facilitate parental alienation? I'll use that term. Are there institutional factors, such as doctors, schools and domestic abuse charities—are they able to facilitate parental alienation in the way that they work? 

I think the facilitation is through a lack of knowledge and understanding. So, the lack of knowledge and understanding—. Where our whole framework of assessment has gone down a certain pathway for a long period of time, with any case that comes in front of us we will—we have a bias to interpret that information on the information that we have available to us, which tends to lead it down a particular route. If we don't know about parental alienation, we tend to go down the path, or quite often go down the path, that if a child is rejecting a parent, there's no smoke without fire; therefore, that parent must have been abusive. That denies all the knowledge that's grown worldwide about parental alienation.

Do the people you deal with complain that domestic abuse charities facilitate the alienation that they experience?

I think some people will have said that to us.

I think there's a very good explanation why that happens, but I get constantly criticised for making this point, so, really, I'm glad you've confirmed that there are people out there who feel that it happens.

There have been occasions when I have asked, during an assessment for the court, to view records from domestic abuse agencies because I was concerned about therapeutic input that was given to children in cases where I felt that there was alienation occurring. I feel that that therapeutic input and the interventions of some domestic abuse agencies in those cases escalated the situation and it was dealt with inappropriately. I wouldn't say that was common to the cases I've worked with, but it has happened in some of the cases I've worked with.

10:30

Okay. Neil, I'm mindful of the time. Mike, you had another question that you'd like to ask.

Yes. In your correspondence back in September, your charities—it said you'd been in correspondence with senior officials in CAFCASS Cymru. I know it's only four months ago, but have there been any developments from that? Are we making—even if it's only baby steps—are we making baby steps forward?

I first raised the issue about parental alienation when I gave a presentation to the Family Justice Network, I think in late 2013. Now, have we moved forward from there? Yes, we have. Yes, we have. I think I would describe the pace of change as glacial, and that is particularly difficult when the pace of change in England seems to be so much more rapid. Of course, let me re-emphasise: there are many people who will slate CAFCASS in England, but, goodness me, you compare their responses to the situation in Wales and it gives me concerns, honestly, for the viability of the way in which we do this work in Wales. That's principally because the total number of people working for CAFCASS Cymru, including everybody who works in every function, is less than the central secretariat of CAFCASS in England.

Now, I think there are an awful lot of people in CAFCASS Cymru who are very, very hard working, who are extremely dedicated, and who put the interests of children first, and what they need is clarity, they need training and they need leadership. I think at the moment that's not where I'd like it to be. Let me put it in those terms.

No. You're quite happy.

Well, can I thank you both for coming before us, the Petitions Committee, and for the comprehensive and far-ranging way you've answered all the questions? I can assure you that we will be raising the matter of the child and adolescent welfare assessment checklist with the Welsh Government. So, that only leaves me to ask: are there any other issues you'd like to raise with the committee before we end the session?

I would just like to reinforce something that Paul said earlier on, about that child's rejection of a parent. Children are innately wired to attach to both of their parents. That gives them the best chance of survival in life. It's an evolutionary process. It is very, very rare for a child to say, 'I reject my parent. I don't want to see that parent. I hate my parent'. It does happen more with adolescents who might have been abused, but it certainly doesn't happen with younger children in the way that it happens in parental alienation. There's a very, very different sense of a child who says, 'I hate my parent. I don't want to see my parent. They've done this to me. They've done that to me', where there is no emotional attachment to that at all. It is almost a learned narrative that they have—that they have to say that.

When a child discloses actual abuse, they disclose it very, very differently. They're very torn in disclosing it. They're very conscious about that. They don't want to lose a relationship with that parent, so they're very cautious about giving that information. For me, a big red flag is a child that says, 'I don't want to see my parent', and we need to understand why that child is saying, 'I don't want to see my parent'.

I think, for me, I just want to re-emphasise that this is a safeguarding duty. This is about keeping children safe from abuse. I think we create a culture that allows parental alienation to operate because we are far too tolerant of a situation in which one parent is good enough for a child, and that flies in the face of the legislation in Wales. So, we brought into law in Wales the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives the child the right to maintain direct contact and a meaningful relationship with both parents following a divorce or separation. Now, what part of that is unclear?

10:35

Again, thank you very much for both coming before the committee and answering our questions. Just to let you know that, obviously, we'll now discuss the evidence that has been put before us and we will make some decisions as to how we proceed. I will let you know that a copy of the transcript will be sent to both of you so that you can check it for factual accuracy. Thank you very much again.

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting. Are we agreed? Fine. Thank you.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:36.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:36.

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