Y Pwyllgor Deisebau - Y Bumed Senedd
Petitions Committee - Fifth Senedd01/05/2018
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|David J. Rowlands AM||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Mike Hedges AM|
|Neil McEvoy AM|
|Rhun ap Iorwerth AM|
|Suzy Davies AM||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Janet Finch-Saunders|
|Substitute for Janet Finch-Saunders|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Albert Heaney||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AM||Y Gweinidog Gofal Cymdeithasol a Phlant|
|Minister for Children and Social Care|
|Nigel Brown||CAFCASS Cymru|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Kath Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Lisa Salkeld||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
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 09:04.
The meeting began at 09:04.
Good morning, bore da, and welcome to the Petitions Committee. There are no apologies or substitutions this morning.
The second item on the agenda is new petitions. I understand we have four new petitions before us this morning. The first petition is 'Fair Deal For Supply Teachers'. This petition was submitted by Sheila Jones, having collected 997 signatures. An initial response to the petition was received from the Cabinet Secretary for Education on 6 March. Do Members have any comments they'd like to make?
I'm pleased we have this in front of us. I feel quite strongly that we have a culture of agency staffing that is actually quite harmful to workers across a range of public services—teaching in this case. It's a very live issue. In my brief in health I look a lot at the impact of increased use of agency working in the delivery of doctors and nurses. I think it needs to be addressed. So, I think that should be our starting point.
I'm really interested in whether the Children, Young People and Education Committee has given consideration to looking at this as an issue, because I know some of the Members of that committee are certainly interested in pursuing this, but I genuinely don't know if that's something that's been considered by them.
The education committee of the fourth Assembly did an inquiry into supply teaching, I think in 2015. I'm not aware of anything that's happening in this Assembly.
I think it's important now, because, as you say, Rhun, 50 per cent of supply teachers are employed in this way, and the numbers seem to be increasing.
Can I declare an interest, because I have worked on supply, and then when I went on the books—? I can't recall from memory now, but I might have trebled my income by being on the books rather than on supply. It's almost legalised theft, really, because the agencies are just creaming off such a high percentage. It would be great to get New Directions in. I'd love to have a chat with them and be able to question them about this matter, because there are millions of pounds leaking out of the Welsh education system needlessly. It's a real scandal, to be honest. They're based in London as well, aren't they?
Can I just say I don't care less where they're based? If they're taking millions of pounds out, and they are taking money out of people's pockets, they could be based in Cardiff or they could be based in Swansea and I still wouldn't like it. I don't dislike it because they're in London; I dislike it because of what they're doing.
The point I was going to say—. I know what the supply teachers want, which is to be directly employed by the local education authority. So, we could write to them and get that reply from them, but direct employment from the LEA is the 'old system' that existed, and it's one in which supply teachers would get a far better deal. I don't like the system of agency staff, but I don't like the system of agency staff anywhere, and I've said that on numerous occasions in speeches I've made and things I've written about exploitative contracts, and agency working is one of those exploitative contracts that exists.
I've got no problem with writing to them asking what they want, but I can second guess the answer we're going to get back, which is, 'We would like to be directly employed by local education authorities', and that's what I would like to see happen.
Obviously, the local education authorities have failed to get the numbers there in order to supply these agency teachers themselves. Now, that makes you wonder why that is the case.
It isn't the case. The reason is a man called Ioan Richard, who was a Plaid Cymru councillor and who then became an independent, fought a legal case against local authorities over what they were paying supply teachers, which was substantially more than they get paid at the moment, saying they ought to be given increments every year and they shouldn't be paid on a spot point. He won that case. The local authority then stopped employing directly. If you let local authorities employ at a spot point for supply teachers and make sure they are given training, et cetera, it will improve the quality of supply teachers and you'll increase the amount of money in people's pockets. What he achieved was a highly pyrrhic victory.
Personally—and I do disagree with you that it doesn't matter that the company is based in London, because it's public money that's leaving Wales—I think there is an alternative way forward, which is to set up an agency that doesn't exist to make a profit and that is fair towards the workers. I certainly favour that in supplying staff in the health service. But it would be interesting to know from them what they would favour, what is the model and—.
I think Rhun and I have got a specific political difference. I don't want workers to be exploited at all; Rhun doesn't seem to matter very much if they are exploited, as long as it's by someone in Wales.
No, not at all. The idea of having an agency that is set up not to make profit is to make sure that they are paid fairly, and that they're not exploited. That's the point.
An agency set up not to make profit—I tell you what: there are all sorts of tricks you can carry out in a non-profit-making organisation of payments to your staff, payments for goods and services within the organisation that can leak out money from it. I think the right answer is for local education to appoint people on spot points and let them be paid properly and directly. But let's go back and see what they say.
That's not about this. It's not about where Mike and I stand. [Laughter.]
The possible action is: in light of the range of the issues and concerns raised by the petition, the committee could ask the petitioners whether there are any specific solutions to the issues raised that they would like the committee to explore in taking consideration of the petition forward.
Yes, I'm happy with that.
Are we happy with that?
Yes, as a starting point. It's the start of a process.
Fine. Thank you.
We'll move on to the next new petition, which is 'Welsh should not be compulsory for Children with Dyslexia and Special Needs'. This petition was submitted by Jessica Fox, having collected 81 signatures. I will say that, as this has some alignment to the teaching of Welsh generally and we've had petitions with regard to that, we have had some information in the past with regard to this sort of issue. We had an initial response to the petition from the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning on 18 April. The Minister stated the importance of the study of the Welsh language and that this will continue under the new curriculum that's currently in development. The Government is
'committed to creating an inclusive education system for all learners'.
The Minister stated that local authorities have a duty to provide suitable education for all learners.
There are two points I'd like to make. It would be a much better petition, of course, if it said that, if Welsh were the first language, children wouldn't have to learn English, but they won't say that, will they? I think the Minister's gone as far as we can expect and I'm happy with the Minister's reply.
I did a bit of research. The British Dyslexia Association, for example, actively encourages learning another language. The question at the core of this as far as I'm concerned is how language is learnt. I can understand the concern of a parent who believes that there's a barrier in front of their child, and of course in extraordinary conditions and situations, various decisions can be taken about how a child is educated, but I wouldn't want a child with dyslexia to be disadvantaged or disenfranchised from bilingualism, seeing as the mechanisms are in place, but I think we need to perhaps understand the level of support available in the teaching of Welsh to pupils with dyslexia and what happens in extreme cases where it is identified that somebody who has Welsh as a first language is deeply struggling with learning English or vice versa, as is highlighted here. We can certainly ask the petitioner for a reaction to the response first of all from the Minister.
Speaking as a former languages teacher, really, as Rhun said, there is a huge benefit in learning more than one language, and it's a very old-fashioned attitude that children should only learn one, so I think really—. Well, maybe we can write back to the parent and see what she thinks, but I agree with Mike that I don't think there's much more we can do, really. Obviously, she has an opinion, but I'd say it's misplaced, really. Again, it's just playing into the anti-Welsh language narrative, in my opinion.
Fine. I think it also raises the question of equality of opportunity with regard to learning the Welsh language. I'd be very worried about distinguishing between different people's abilities to learn the language and not getting that language offered exactly the same as everybody else.
Very quickly, I remember teaching one lad who really struggled with writing but was brilliant orally. Unfortunately, he had to stop doing the language in year 9, but then when he left school he went on to be a salesperson and he's made loads of money, but it's a shame that he didn't have the opportunity to learn more languages, which he would have done easily.
Is there information that can be gathered for the petitioner on former research that's been carried out into how to address the needs of pupils with dyslexia when they're taking on the task of learning another language, or that kind of thing?
I can ask colleagues in the Research Service whether there are publications they're aware of, or advice or information.
That would be useful.
Okay. So, the possible action on this is that the committee could agree to await the views of the petitioner on the response from the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning before deciding whether to take any further action on the petition. Are we happy with that?
The next new petition is petition 'Proposed New Fishing Bylaws and Failings of NRW'. The petition was submitted by Sian Godbert, having collected 1,070 signatures.
And are we tying this in with the next petition as well?
Well, I think, at the next opportunity, we would, but I think we'll keep them as two separate items at this moment in time. They are, of course, closely linked, as you say.
One part that I did note is that the Natural Resources Wales executives at the board meeting openly accepted that they failed to effectively communicate and adopt a policy of implementing agreements with stakeholders, which is rather a stark admission, to be fair.
Well, that's NRW—is it a surprise?
Okay. Well, the background is that we received a response from the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs on 26 March. I think the possible action at this point is that the next petition to be considered also considers the impact of the same decision, and therefore the committee may wish to agree to group them for consideration in the future. The committee could agree to await the views of the petitioner on the response from the Cabinet Secretary before deciding whether to take any further action on the petition. Are we happy to group these two matters together? Fine. And the second possible action: the committee could agree to await the views—are we happy with that?
Yes. I think what's important to note here is that a decision was made last week, which gives us a little bit of time. So, we've got time now to go back to the petitioner on that.
That's right, yes.
The second petition, which is closely aligned, is 'Give Welsh Fishing Clubs and Salmon and Seatrout a Chance'. The petition was submitted by Reuben Woodford—I hope I've said that name correctly—having collected 1,710 signatures. There was a response from the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs on 23 March. This petition asks that NRW actually reverses its 10-year period of zero kill, and it gives a few alternatives to that in order to protect the fishing species in the rivers. So, if we are grouping this, the committee could write to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs to provide the detailed comments from the petitioners and to ask for an update on her consideration of NRW’s application for the determination of bye-laws. This would also answer many of the questions raised in the previous petition. Are you happy that we carry on?
Yes. I've been involved with some campaigners in my constituency. It's clear to me that something has gone wrong here in terms of both what's raised by the first petitioner regarding their decision-making process, and also, in general, in terms of the relationship between NRW and the fishermen, who I see as more than mere stakeholders. I see them as joint custodians of the rivers, with a number of other bodies. I'm no expert, but it strikes me that the fishing community is putting forward a set of proposals that have ultimately the same aim as Natural Resources Wales, because it's in their interests to bolster fish stocks, for example. So, I would like us to see if we can use the next 12 months, which at the moment is, to use their words, a 'stay of execution', as a means to try to influence a little bit of a change, including a review of how the decision was made in the first place.
Yes, and I think it's true to say that the fishing fraternity are very much involved in the conservation of our rivers. They do initiate a number of initiatives in order to protect the environment, particularly with regard to spawning grounds et cetera. So, are we happy that that's the—? Yes. Okay. Thank you.
The next new petition is 'Stop Using Worker Certification On Welsh Government Projects'. The petition was submitted by Paul Fear, having collected 66 signatures. I think the petitioner's quite succinct in putting together the number of items that he wanted to raise, and being explicit about why he believes the imposition of this certificate is contrary to the workers' rights.
It's just another tax. I see this as more bureaucracy, making workers sign up to courses they don't really need to do and pay through the nose for. So, the training companies make a fortune again.
We did have a response from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance on 10 April, and I believe I'm right in saying that the petitioner commented on that. Yes, that's right. I think what the petitioner—. The whole idea of this petition is that these are administered not by Government. There are institutions that administer them, albeit that they are institutions very closely aligned with the building trade. But his contention is that they can be quite arbitrary in their application, and, obviously, the costs to anyone who falls outside the certain umbrellas of employment are quite considerable.
I think we should write to the Cabinet Secretary with his comments and ask him to reply to those comments. I think we also need to know what the insurers' view on this is. If the insurers are saying, 'We are going to add substantial amounts to the insurance on a job if people haven't got these cards,' what it's going to do is depress wages on the job. So, they save on the card but they end up losing money on their weekly income. This could be another one of these pyrrhic victories that people achieve from time to time. So, I think we need to find out if the insurance companies have a view on whether these cards are helpful or not, and what they would do without them.
Fine. And the other possible action is the committee could write to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to seek a response to the detailed comments provided by this petitioner and the alternative approach proposed.
I think if we can facilitate a debate initially between the petitioner and the Cabinet Secretary, that's a useful role for us to play.
Would you like me to explore—? I'm not sure what the mechanism is and who we would write to at this stage, but I could look into how we would get an insurance industry view.
Ask the Cabinet Secretary. They've got a Government full of people who can tell them whether it has any effect on insurance costs, which would then have an effect on either contract costs, which it probably wouldn't, or the only thing that can be depressed in a contract, which is the wages.
Okay. We'll ask the Government in the first instance.
Can we now move on to updates to previous petitions? The first of these is 'Reopen Carno Station'. This petition was submitted by Carno Station Action Group and was first considered by the committee in October 2017, having collected 877 signatures. I think that we ought to point out that this follows on from the initial petition by Carno Station Action Group, which was some time ago. I believe it was back in 2013, was it?
I think it may have closed then. It was started earlier than that.
It was closed, that's right, and then this was resubmitted because of comments by the Secretary of State with regard to stations and the fact that they were being put on the station list. Okay, the committee last considered the petition on 9 January 2018 and a response was received from the petitioners on 19 April.
The petitioners have suggested that the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee should examine the new station's funding issue. Do you have any comments with regard to this? Mike.
It's a question that I've got. I thought it was on the list that was going forward.
There's a long list, which may or may not have become a shortlist, because I know Llangefni is on it.
Yes, I know that Landore is on it. But that was then going on to stage 2 and Carno was on stage 1, wasn't it?
We could ask, on behalf of this petitioner, but I think it's something that all of us would like to know: when are the numbers going to be reduced, and is Carno on the reduced list—the shorter list?
Okay, yes. My understanding is that they're going through that process. I think Carno had made it through to the second stage. The points that the petitioners for this are making now is that that process is developing business cases, but would still, ultimately, require UK Government or Network Rail funding to happen and that, previously, the Welsh Government has directly funded the development of some stations—
Ebbw Vale, yes. And they're querying that apparent change of policy.
Yes. I'd be grateful to have as much information as we can as well, really.
Yes. So, a possible action is that the committee could write to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport to share the petitioner's comments and ask when and for what reasons the Welsh Government has apparently revised its policy in relation to funding new stations.
The committee could also write to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee to ask whether it has any intention to look at the issue of Welsh Government funding for new station development in Wales, or if it would consider allocating time to do so, as requested by the petitioners. As a member of the EIS committee, I don't think there's anything on the agenda at this moment in time, but we could ask.
Is there anything on rail, because, presumably, the committee will have to look at the change to the new franchise at some point, and maybe it could be included as—?
Yes, but I don't think there's a specific part of the agenda that asks for this, so we could ask for that, of the EIS committee. Are you happy with that?
Okay. The next one is 'Close the Gap for deaf pupils in Wales'. The petition was submitted by the National Deaf Children’s Society and was first considered in May 2013. The committee last considered the petition on 11 July 2017 and agreed to suggest that the NDCS contacts the Minister’s diary secretary to arrange a direct meeting and ask them to report back to the committee following that meeting. The petitioner submitted further comments on 3 April. Does the committee have any comments on this?
Wait for the petitioner to come back to us.
Yes. I think we've had a positive impact, or the role of the committee has already been positive in that that meeting took place between NDCS and the Cabinet Secretary, and that they think it was positive. I think that's kind of what we do.
Yes, well, there is the option that, in view of the fact that there is ongoing dialogue between the petitioners and the Welsh Government, the length of time that this petition has been undertaken, which we note is from 2013, and the unclear timescales for actions discussed between the NDCS and the Cabinet Secretary, the committee could agree to close the petition at this point.
I'd like to keep it open, really, I think, as the petitioner requests—
It should be noted that that would allow a new petition to be submitted in future if sufficient progress is not made. It gives that option. If we keep it open, it doesn't allow that option.
Oh right. I still think we should keep it open though.
Let the petitioner come back to us and if they're happy, we'll close it when the petitioner is happy that they have made progress.
They could even be of the opinion that now is the time to close the petition themselves so they can resubmit, but our watching brief at this point would have to be fairly loose, because there's a conversation going on.
But if they came back to us and said, 'This hasn't worked, the Minister has not been prepared to talk and engage with us,' then I, for one, would like to get the Minister and them in for an evidence session. So, I want to keep that evidence session possibility available.
Okay. Now, because they're closely linked, the following two items are grouped for consideration. First is 'Remove the Obligation on Schools to Hold Acts of Religious Worship'. This was submitted by Rhiannon Shipton and Lily McAllister-Sutton and was first considered in June 2017, having collected 1,333 signatures. The second petition was 'Keeping Current Guidelines for Religious Assemblies'. The petition was submitted by Iraj Irfan and was first considered by the committee in June 2017, having collected a total of 2,231 signatures.
The committee last considered the petitions on 13 March and agreed to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Education to request further details about the ongoing consideration of issues around human rights with regard to this. A response was received from the Cabinet Secretary on 11 April. It's quite complicated, obviously, the situation with regard to this. Following the comments by the Cabinet Secretary, possible actions? Yes, do you have any comments to make on that at all?
I've got sympathy for the original petitioners who, I recall, were young, and I think it's quite poor that after 10 months we're not able to give them a response. I think that's not good enough, really. It shouldn't take 10 months to get a legal opinion.
I find this—.
I just take a moment to welcome Suzy Davies to the committee. She's obviously standing in for Janet Finch-Saunders.
Many apologies—big crash on the M4. I did leave in plenty of time.
That's fine. Okay, so we are deliberating on some of the petitions that are before us. I think we've already talked about particular ones, so perhaps you'll come in on the next petition—
—if you feel happy to do that.
There are two petitions. One said they should stop having—
Yes, that's right. I saw it last night.
And the other one said we should carry them on.
Can I ask, as a point of information—I'm sorry to land this on you—how many examples, or what kinds of examples, have we had in the past where we have two concurrent petitions arguing the complete opposite? Because what it tells me is that what we have is a live debate where we have strong opinions on both sides, and I guess what we have to consider is whether this committee is the forum in which to try to settle that debate. What examples have there been?
It has happened. It's not particularly common. It tends to happen on certain types of issues, I would reflect. We've had a similar situation that carried over, I think, from the fourth Assembly into the fifth. That was about charitable chaplaincy, which I suppose had a similar basis for it, and an opposing petition was submitted after the first one that time. It has occasionally happened on environmental issues, as well.
And how has the committee approached those issues?
It's tended to consider them side by side, like this, so whilst they're calling for the complete opposite of each other, they relate to the same issues, so the committee has, in the past, tended to consider them alongside each other, but the question as to what work the committee has done on that issue to facilitate that debate, I think, would depend upon the issue and whether the committee wanted to allocate the time to do that. Different approaches have been taken.
Could I make a suggestion, then? Within the year our youth parliament will be set up, and this strikes me as something that might want to be considered there, because it would be young people who would be affected, so they may as well make the decision.
I think, coming back to Rhun's point, the fact of the matter is that these are both related to each other in that the answer that must come back from the Cabinet Secretary would impact on either/or of these two petitions.
Whichever point of view anyone has isn't relevant to me. What is relevant is you've got young people especially engaging in the democratic process and the Minister or Cabinet Secretary is unable to give any clear guidelines, really—any legal view. I think it's a really bad precedent that we've got youngsters using the Petitions Committee, getting a hell of a petition together, and then the Cabinet Secretary's unable to make any progress. Whichever side of the argument you're on, I'm not entering into that debate—I was educated as a Catholic, actually—I just think they've gone to the trouble of putting this petition in, and they deserve an answer, really. I'd like to write to the Minister to say, 'Come on, this really isn't good enough—10 months of waiting.'
On that point, this is something that the Cabinet Secretary is acknowledging requires an answer, or a set of answers, and has said that her officials are working on it. That is unlikely to satisfy the petitioners—it's quite likely not going to satisfy them. At the very least, perhaps, we could get a firmer timescale from the Cabinet Secretary, whether she sees this as being inherently tied in with the development of the curriculum—I don't think it is—or by when or in what context she is trying to reach a resolution to this. Or maybe she's honest and saying she's not really fussed.
Possible actions: the committee could await a further update from the Cabinet Secretary, but given the caveat that's just been brought in by Rhun, that we have a time schedule for that, I think that that's probably the best option at this moment.
Do Members want to write back again—
—and ask whether we can get that clearer timetable?
They should show more respect for both sets of petitioners, really, I think. We appreciate, I appreciate that things do take time, but 10 months?
Or be honest and say, 'Sorry, this isn't something that we want to deal with.'
Maybe ask what evidence she's adduced in the meantime. I suspect that's why she said 'no' to start with.
That's right. Given the uncertainty around the timescale for receiving a substantive response from the Welsh Government, the committee could agree to carry out its own evidence gathering on the issue in the meantime through inviting either written or oral evidence. Are we happy to do that?
In terms of the timescales around that, the committee's forward work programme, based upon decisions Members have made at recent meetings, is taken up until the summer recess. We wouldn't be looking to do anything specifically if it involved evidence sessions on this until the autumn, I don't think.
One other thing to mention: the committee has been contacted in the past and we've published a letter—this goes back several months now—from an academic at Bangor University who has published research on this topic. So, there is Wales-specific research that's been undertaken. I believe that's now a book. It's published, so there are other sources by which the committee could look to get a view. That may be something you want to consider.
Or, in the first instance, the committee writes back to the Cabinet Secretary and asks for that further detail on timescales.
I think we can do that. I'm wary of taking on work in this committee because I'm not entirely convinced that this committee's the forum to do it. Both sides have got very, very strong and very, very valid arguments. There's a case of an irresistible force and an immovable object here, and it would no doubt be a fascinating discussion. I'm not sure where it would go, that's all.
Whether it would resolve the issue—that's what you're saying, Rhun.
Okay. So, are we happy to carry on with at least gathering evidence? Is that what we're happy to do?
And write to the Cabinet Secretary to ask for the timescale.
Yes, fine. Okay. Can we move on, because I'm mindful of the time that we have?
'Ensuring Equality of Curriculum for Welsh Medium Schools e.g. GCSE Psychology': the petition was submitted by Chris Evans and was first considered by the committee in November 2017, having collected 652 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 7 November 2017, and agreed to await the views of the petitioner on the responses received from the Welsh Government and Qualifications Wales before considering further action on the petition.
I'd like to point out that the clerking team have e-mailed the petitioner on a number of occasions and contacted him by phone in the last week. He indicated that he would provide comments to the committee but had not done so before the papers for this committee were published.
Shall we wait, then, and give him another two weeks to send the comments?
It's not an example where the petitioner's ceased communicating with us; it's just maybe there's a reason why this evidence hasn't got to us or the comments haven't got to us. But I think this is a really, really important issue, and it's very easy for people in these kind of circumstances to say, 'Well, forget it, then, I'm not going to win'. But this is an important point of principle, and we should return to it if we can.
Okay. So, the actions proposed, then: the committee could agree to give the petitioner a further opportunity to provide his comments in response to the correspondence received, but we will consider closing the petition at the next meeting if this is not forthcoming. Are we happy with that?
Yes, but if we tell him that we are eager to continue with this.
Yes, we'll indicate that.
It sadly reinforces points that were made during the introduction of the legislation that introduced Qualifications Wales as well. You know, they were warned this was going to happen.
Where is the lack of support that means examination bodies from England will not in any way entertain the idea of putting forward Welsh assessments? I'm sure there's a level of support that can be put forward by Government.
Or, in fact, the WJEC, because they were seen as acquiring a closed market on this, effectively, so where are they?
We have to move on.
'Protecting Class Sizes in Design and Technology Classrooms and Workshops': the petition was submitted by Aled Dafis and was first considered by the committee in March 2018, having collected 338 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 13 March, and agreed to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Education to share the further information provided by the petitioner. A response from the Cabinet Secretary was received on 10 April. The petitioner has also submitted further comments.
I think last time we asked for an advice note to be sent out to headteachers, and I again ask for the Cabinet Secretary to send an advice note to headteachers. We'd obviously like to have a copy of it as well, but let's have the advice note sent out, because the advice note does carry an awful lot of power, as people who follow technical advice notes will be able to tell you.
So, what we're doing is actually strengthening the situation with regard to the information that is given to headmasters with regard to their duties. Are we happy to do that? Okay, fine.
'Port Talbot Community Against the Super Prison': the petition was submitted by the Port Talbot superprison protest group and was first considered by the committee in November 2017, having collected a total of 8,791 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 13 March 2018 and agreed to await the views of the petitioner and, at that point, to consider writing to the Ministry of Justice. The Welsh Government issued a written statement on justice policy in Wales on 6 April. Do we have any comments?
I think things have moved on, and we haven't heard from the petitioner what they think of what's happened since in terms of the Government statement, which I guess they would broadly welcome.
Yes, I think it's worth while us reading out the statement, which is that the Welsh Government has
'written to the Secretary of State for Justice to inform him that until a more meaningful dialogue'—
on justice policy—
'with the Welsh Government takes place, we will not facilitate the further development of prisons in Wales.'
So, do we have any comments on it before we pass on to—?
Only just to say that I think I'm right in saying there's been a public meeting since then, at which these points were conveyed. But I don't know if the petitioner's written in to this committee on the back of that.
So, the committee could await the response of the petitioners to the Plenary debate on this petition, and the recent statement by the Welsh Government before taking further action on the petition.
I think that's the sensible thing to do.
It's got its own momentum, actually.
Are we happy to allow that? Okay. Fine.
The next petition under consideration is an urgent appeal for a Welsh veterans commissioner for the health and well-being of wounded, injured, sick and homeless veterans. This petition was submitted by Nicola Hester and was first considered by the committee in February 2018, having collected 50 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 27 February and agreed to write to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services. A response was received from the Cabinet Secretary on 16 April, and a written statement on the subject was issued on 23 April. Do we have any comments?
Chair, I should add that we hadn't received comments or contact from the petitioner when these papers were published last week, but we received contact yesterday. The petitioner apologised and said she'd been away and hadn't been able to turn around the comments, so has asked for the committee to defer this to provide her the opportunity.
Good. Are we happy to defer? Fine.
The next petition is 'Prescription drug dependence and withdrawal - recognition and support'. The petition was submitted by Stevie Lewis and was first considered in May 2017, having collected 213 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 23 January, and agreed to invite individuals affected by the issue—health boards, the British Medical Association and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society—to provide written evidence on the issues raised and write to the Health and Social Care Committee to ask whether it has considered these issues in recent work, or intends to in forthcoming inquiries. So, we've had a number of responses.
Yes. So, just to cover briefly, we've had responses from all of the health boards and professional bodies that we've written to. Because of the volume of that, the research service has provided a short paper that's in the packs that just summarises the positions taken by those organisations, and there's some information in this briefing as well, and there's a further summary of that. We also invited and received I think around 14 comments from individuals affected by this issue, which were too numerous to include in the pack for the meeting, but are published on the website so that people can see those. Clearly, they all indicated a significant issue here that is supported I think, by and large, by the comments received from the professional bodies and the health boards, and the petitioner has also provided her analysis of those responses received as well. So, there's a large volume of information in the pack here and a large volume of evidence that the committee now has on this subject.
Could I just ask a question? Have we had any update from Welsh Government about when the substance misuse plan or strategy—framework, there we are—is likely to come out, as we're no longer in April?
I think that's a good starting point.
So, the committee could consider using the information it has received to produce a detailed letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services outlining the evidence received and any recommendations that the committee would wish to make in light of this.
I certainly think we have the makings of that, along with a need to ask for an update on the points raised by Suzy—that we were actually given a point in time, which was yesterday. [Laughter.]
Well, what I'm thinking is, if it's delayed for any reason, there may be some time still to influence it, rather than just complaining that it's late.
We could potentially undertake both of those actions at the same time. We could make inquiries with the Government as to whether there is an imminent publication date for that document, or not, whilst at the same time preparing that kind of detailed summary, in the form of a letter, for the committee to consider at a future meeting.
We could do both. I see no problem with that.
Well, shall we suggest that you submit a draft for our consideration—a draft letter for our consideration? Is that okay? Fine.
And we'll seek that—we'll ask a question of the Government as to where that framework is.
The next petition is 'Hi speed broadband to Llangenny village'. The petition was submitted by Llangenny village residents, and was first considered by the committee in January 2018, having collected 72 signatures. The committee last considered both petitions—'both'? Sorry—.
That might be a typo. I think that's just a mistake.
Right. Okay, fine. Thank you. So, obviously, there's some degree of misunderstanding between the Welsh Government and the deliverers of this, in that one believes that it's been delivered and the other believes that it hasn't—
This is us as a committee acting as we all do in our roles as Assembly Members in our constituencies or regions. And at this point, we go back to them and say, 'Listen, you still haven't connected this village—will you do it, please?', both to Openreach and to Welsh Government.
And I can say this is a little bit off the beaten track, this particular community, so it needs it pretty quickly, I'd say.
Write back to the Government—
Yes, I think we could either write to both, or to one, copying the other in—no, I think probably to both—asking them to talk to each other, and make sure that it's done, because it's frustrating—as somebody who's getting connected tomorrow.
It's lovely when it happens.
And the superfast—[Inaudible.] It seems very, very strange, this particular one.
I feel their pain.
So, are we happy to do that? Yes, fine. Okay.
'Male domestic violence victim support services to be independently run & funded' is the next petition. This was submitted by Tom Embling, and was first considered by the committee in February 2018, having collected 138 signatures. The committee last considered the petition on 13 March, and agreed to write to the leader of the house to ask what consideration the Welsh Government has given to funding specific support for male victims of domestic violence, and whether there have previously been opportunities for organisations to apply for funding. A response was received from the leader of the house on 10 April, and the petitioner has also provided further comments. Yes, Neil.
I think, as the petitioner says, what the Cabinet Secretary has put sort of reinforces his position, really. I would certainly dispute that the national strategy is inclusive and conscious of the experience of men. From what I can see—in this building and also in my constituency office—is that the experiences of men are ignored, and don't count, because men are not able to be victims of domestic abuse, largely. She's not addressed the now-recognised discrimination that men face in Wales, with the domestic abuse helpline having been described as sexist, discriminatory, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I'd like to have a question and answer session, really—I think we should take some evidence on this, because the domestic abuse of men is a major contributory factor in the massively high rates of suicide in men, and nobody talks about it. And I raised the domestic abuse of males in the Chamber, and I was told to get my priorities right—incredible.
If they're commissioning domestic abuse services now, then I think it's the ideal time to maybe put some questions to the Minister. She references the Dyn project. The Dyn project discriminates against men. I say that quite openly. It's run by Safer Wales. If you go to Safer Wales as a female, you'll not be screened; you'll be treated as a victim, as you should be. If you're male and you go to the Dyn project, run by Safer Wales, you will be screened—you'll be treated as a potential perpetrator, which is discriminatory. So, there's a huge lack of provision in this area. There's a knock-on effect as well with South Wales Police. I'm fed up of having people in my constituency office who have been assaulted, but because they're male, they're not treated as victims of domestic abuse and I have to get in touch with the chief superintendent and ask why, and suddenly they're treated as victims, but there's nowhere to send them. I wouldn't refer to the Dyn project because of their discriminatory practices. The whole area is a mess, and I think it's the duty of this committee to shine a light on this area, really.
We're told that the Welsh Government is currently consulting on guidance for commissioning domestic violence services, which will inform how regional services are arranged in the future, and that funding provided directly by the Welsh Government supports the Live Fear Free helpline and the Dyn project, which you mentioned earlier, Neil, to provide information for men and women. The committee could close the petition, but I don't think we're in a position where we would want to be doing that at this moment. The committee could agree to keep a watching brief on the petition and return to it following the result of the public consultation on guidance for commissioning domestic violence services.
I think we should call them in and play a role in the consultation. It would be good to get some victims of domestic abuse in here, maybe anonymously—whether or not they would even want to be identified, I don't know—and ask them how they've been treated by the system. If you're male, you are not a victim, more often than not.
An alternative, of course, having talked about how tight things are time-wise, is to get assurances from Government that those people who we could bring in here are, instead, able to give evidence in some sort of public way with a public response from Welsh Government so that we understand exactly where we are. I don't read the situation in the same way as Neil, who says that men aren't able to be victims of domestic abuse, because I hear a debate where it is very much recognised that men can be victims of domestic abuse. Now, do we need to tighten up or improve the way that men who claim to be victims of domestic abuse are given fair treatment? Absolutely. I have no reason to doubt that things need to be strengthened, because I've no doubt that, a few years ago, we were in the situation, perhaps, where domestic abuse against men wasn't even discussed. But what we need is for those people to be able to, and to feel that they are able to, give evidence and to be taken seriously by the consultation that's already ongoing.
Are there organisations, Neil, that would be in a position to engage with that consultation, specifically for men?
The problem is that none get funding. The other side of the equation is that there is a huge industry, which gets tens of millions of pounds in Wales, and there is no funding for victims of male domestic abuse. In this city, there is no non-judgmental support. I'll qualify what I said, Rhun, because you are right, of course; men can be victims. But most of the time, they're treated as if they're not, and it's all, 'Pull yourself together', 'If it's so bad, why don't you move out?' In a 999 call where a man's been assaulted, the police turn up and they arrest the male. These are the issues that men have to deal with. I'm actually employing somebody now, a specialist, to deal with the number of cases that I'm getting. So—
But this consultation period should allow people to be able to express all those concerns. Isn't that right? It doesn't preclude those organisations that speak up for men to be included in this. The lack of funding would not impede them, would it?
Maybe put it on ice and come back to it after the process, then.
Because we need to be satisfied as a committee, as we would with any issue, that the Government is taking concerns that are brought to our attention seriously.
Can I mention as well that it is, of course, possible for us to take private evidence in sessions like this? We've done it in the children and young people committee in the last Assembly more than once on very sensitive issues, where people were able to give their evidence privately, but their anonymised reporting was used as part of the evidence in our report. I don't see why evidence of that nature couldn't be made available to the Minister as part of the consultation. It would be anonymised and the evidence taken privately from individuals.
The difficulty would be, for this committee, the timescale for that. The consultation, we understand, is open until 22 June, so I think there would be difficulty in doing that and feeding it in—us doing it. So, I think perhaps—
Chair, can I suggest that we maybe agenda it for the autumn, in that case, and see what the consultation looks like, what the results are, and then maybe get some evidence in the next term? I think probably one of the cruellest forms of domestic abuse, which certainly is not recognised, is withdrawal of contact with one's children. It's an action of coercive control but is not yet regulated by the new legislation. That's a dimension that could be explored as well.
I was going to say that I think there's two things we need to do. I'd be very concerned if we became a consultee in anything. I don't think the role of the Petitions Committee is to become a consultee, because if we start doing that we're going to be bogged down by being a consultee. Let the consultation take place, let's urge everybody who's written to us to take part in that consultation and, after 22 June, when the consultation ends, the Government will come up with something, probably in the autumn, we'll see what they come up with and we can decide whether we want to do anything then.
And also seek assurances from the Government about the way that they will deal with the issue of male domestic abuse as part of that.
So, are you saying we write a letter to that effect? Are you happy with that?
That they should actively seek out people to take part in the consultation and not just wait for people to get in touch, and to report back to us on how they have addressed the issue of male domestic abuse as part of the consultation.
Would you like to see a draft of the letter before it goes out?
Yes. And just include the discrimination aspect, because they've completely ignored the fact that they've been found to be discriminatory.
Okay. We have to move on, but would you like to see a draft of the letter before it goes out? Yes. Fine. Thank you.
The next petition is 'We need Welsh Government funding for play!!' The petition was submitted by RAY Ceredigion and was first considered in March 2018, having collected 328 signatures online. The committee last considered the petition on 6 February. A response from the Minister for Children and Social Care was received on 13 April. A response from the HSCS Committee was received on 20 April.
They've had answers from the Minister, so let's come back and see what they think of it. They're either happy or they're not happy, and if they're not happy, we see what we decide to do.
Are we happy to do that in the first instance? Right. So, the committee can await the views of the petitioners on the answer provided by the Minister for Children and Social Care before considering further action. We're happy with that.
The next—and I believe this is the last of the petitions—is 'Tywyn Memorial Hospital X-ray & Minor Injuries Unit Petition'. The petition was submitted by Tywyn & District Health Care Action Group and was first considered by the committee in May 2013 having collected 4,486 signatures. It was closed by the committee in March 2017 but there have been some issues with regard to what the board had agreed to do. I believe that it has in fact now complied with the desires of the petitioners, so this is simply a matter to note the correspondence. Are we happy with that? Fine. Thank you.
The next item is the evidence session, and this is with regard to 'Recognition of Parental Alienation'.
Good morning—bore da—to the Minister. Can I ask you, in the first instance, to introduce your officials to us for the record?
Thank you very much, Chair, and good morning to you and all your members. To my right we have Nigel Brown, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and to my left Albert Heaney, my lead official, covering the whole gambit of my role with social care, but also, interestingly, as well, the chair of the family justice network as well, and has been for some time. So, between us, hopefully, we'll be able to add some value to the committee's deliberations.
Fine. So, as a brief background to this session, the committee has been considering this petition since May 2017 and has previously considered several items of correspondence from the Welsh Government. As you will be aware, the committee took evidence from the petitioners on 23 January and subsequently agreed to invite you to also attend an evidence session. The committee has also written to a number of organisations to seek their views on the subject matter of the petition and these were published last week as part of the papers for this meeting. We had a considerable response from different organisations involved, as you could well imagine. So, as you know, the format of these evidence sessions is that we will be questioning you. I will open that questioning, then my colleagues will follow on with subsequent questions. Are you happy with that format?
Fine. Thank you. I'll open by asking: what is the position of the Welsh Government and CAFCASS Cymru on formally recognising the term 'parental alienation' and the actions associated with it, and can you expand on the Welsh Government's current position with regard to that definition?
Thank you, Chair. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today and to expand on our position. I'm sure Nigel will come in in a moment and add a CAFCASS perspective as well. From a Welsh Government perspective, we do recognise that some parents can behave in a way that alienates the other parent from their child's life, and that these behaviours can have a significant adverse impact on the emotional well-being of the child, but—and this is key—the child should always be at the forefront, at the centre, of our concerns. We fully support the principle that a child should be entitled to a meaningful relationship with both parents following family separation where it is safe and where it is in the child's best interest.
In respect of parental alienation and the debate around this topic of parental alienation, we prefer, in the Welsh Government, to refer to parental alienation not as syndrome, a condition, a classification, a label, but actually as alienating behaviours that can be demonstrated and that can be evidenced as well by front-line practitioners when looking at individual cases. The most important issue for us as a Welsh Government is that these behaviours, when they occur, are appropriately dealt with using the existing regulatory and legal framework.
Interestingly, the family justice network—which, as I mentioned, Albert chairs, and includes, I have to say, all of the key stakeholders within the family justice system in Wales—looked at its position on parental alienation back in March 2017. The network recognise that the behaviours described can have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of the child in individual circumstances. But those same network members of the family justice network agreed that, under existing legislation, the family court already has a sufficient range of powers to deal with the cases where these alienating behaviours exist and, where appropriate, cases can be—and, indeed, have been—considered by Welsh local authorities under child protection procedures. So, on that basis, the network's view remains unchanged in that parental alienation should continue to be dealt with under the existing legal provisions.
Just finally, before asking Nigel if he's got anything to add, our view, clearly, from what I'm saying, is that the existing regulatory and legal framework does contain the provisions to deal effectively with these behaviours, and the family courts' primary concern when making decisions is always focused on—and this is the critical thing—the welfare of the child. I hope that helps in laying out the Government's position.
Yes, thank you very much, Huw. Did you want to add anything to that, Nigel?
Yes. Just simply to add on to that, as a social work profession, CAFCASS Cymru is very familiar with working with families where there are a range of behaviours, and where adults behave in a way that can alienate a child perhaps from another family member or even from the extended family. It's very common, it's what we are used to doing, and what the social work profession is used to working with, within the context of the services it provides to children and families.
Fine. So, can I—? For absolute clarification, are you saying, Cabinet Minister, that the framework remains exactly the same—there is no change to this framework envisaged?
Yes, the framework is robust and covers—. We may want to turn to this in some detail, which I'm happy to do, but the framework is robust and covers the spectrum of alienating behaviours. It can encompass it already. One of the things that we might want to turn to is how practice develops within that framework to make sure that we're making the right decisions, and that is quite an interesting debate.
The concern, obviously, raised by this petition is that in some way that framework has been failing, but obviously we will carry on with questioning on that basis. But that is the whole idea of this petition, isn't it?
Yes, it is, Chair, and I recognise that, but, as I say, it isn't simply me as a Minister saying this, or CAFCASS saying this, but actually the family network as well is saying, with one voice, 'It's more than adequate to the task; it's actually robust', and it's underpinned very well both from a high-level statutory basis, but also in terms of the codes of practice and guidance that are given to family courts and front-line social workers as well.
Okay. Albert, you've got a point.
Yes, thank you very much, Chair. Good morning, committee. The family justice network—I've chaired the family justice network from 2013. The family justice network—so, a wide range of expertise, critical stakeholders—first considered parental alienation, actually, back in November 2013 and revisited it, then, in March, quite correctly, as the Minister has explained, in 2017. The family justice network, in its considered view, is clear that the current legislative framework is coping well. It's the right type of legislation. The new Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 places duties, responsibilities, and so, therefore, from the expertise of the family justice network and those critical stakeholders around family justice, they haven't and wouldn't describe the legislation, in places, as failing. Obviously, as the Minister explains, what we're always trying to do in Wales is make sure we have the best possible practice, and support children, and safeguard children, in the best possible way.
Bore da. Croeso atom ni i'r pwyllgor y bore yma. Mae'r gwahaniaeth barn rhwng CAFCASS Cymru a CAFCASS Lloegr yn rhywbeth sydd yn mynd i fod yn tynnu sylw. Mi fyddai pobl yn disgwyl i CAFCASS Cymru a CAFCASS Lloegr, o bosib, gymryd yn union yr un safbwynt, gan eich bod chi yn gyrff tebyg sydd, rydw i'n cymryd, yn cymryd eich tystiolaeth chi o'r un mathau o lefydd. A allwn ni jest edrych ar pam rydych chi'n meddwl bod yna wahaniaeth rhwng CAFCASS Lloegr a Chymru ar rai o elfennau go sylfaenol o'r hyn yr ydym ni'n ei drafod?
Good morning. Welcome to the committee this morning. The difference in opinion between CAFCASS in Wales and in England is something that is going to draw some attention. People would expect CAFCASS in Wales and CAFCASS in England, perhaps, to take the same view, as you are similar bodies that, I suspect, take your evidence from the same types of sources. Can we just look at why you think there might be a difference between CAFCASS in Wales and in England, in relation to the basics of what we're discussing?
Diolch, Rhun, am y cwestiwn.
Thank you, Rhun, for the question.
It may surprise committee Members to know that, actually, there's a huge degree of joint working and collaboration between CAFCASS England and CAFCASS Wales. What has been in some ways portrayed as a difference of opinion on this publicly, I suspect is somewhat narrower. I think both CAFCASS England and CAFCASS Wales recognise, as the Welsh Government does, that alienating behaviours can have an impact on a child's welfare and well-being, without a doubt. The way in which we actually proceed to improve best practice around it is a matter of interest and discussion amongst the two CAFCASS bodies, but, Nigel, you've—. If I can bring Nigel in, because they're engaged in dialogue weekly on this basis—.
Yes, certainly. Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this. We do work very closely with CAFCASS in England. I don't think that there is a difference between what we are saying. Certainly, in my discussions with the chief executive there, he's of the view that the current legislation and regulations are absolutely ample and sufficient to respond to this. He's of the view that there's no need for a new framework to be brought in. As an organisation, they are, as we are, continually looking to review practice, and to look at the guidance and support that we provide for our practitioners. And so we continue to have ongoing dialogue with them to make sure that our approach, and theirs, is informed by the same underlying professional principles that we operate within. So, my understanding of what CAFCASS England have said does reflect our position in Wales.
But when we hear a chartered psychologist telling us CAFCASS in England says it now recognises parental alienation and CAFCASS Cymru has not, do you think it's that clear cut?
I don't know where that person has got that information.
And so when, in written evidence to us, CAFCASS England say it is appropriate to call parental alienation 'emotional abuse', are you happy with those definitions?
I think it's understanding the context of what we are responding to here. So, adults who behave in a way that alienates a child from other parents can simply be in terms of saying, 'They're not very nice to you, they don't love you' to actually trying to block or damage contact between them, to actually fabricating information and making allegations to destroy or damage that relationship. So, there is a continuum in what we're dealing with here.
So, it can be abuse rather than is abuse—
Yes, and I think it's a difference in emphasis, Rhun. Because we acknowledge—Welsh Government, CAFCASS, acknowledges—that where you have, particularly on the extreme end of that spectrum—. Because it can range from minor conversations with parents with children to something much more deliberate and purposeful behind it; there's quite a spectrum of this. But we recognise, as does CAFCASS England, that those alienating behaviours can, in extreme circumstances, lead to damage to the child's well-being, which can amount to, yes, abuse. But it's an issue of emphasis here. What we don't recognise within Welsh Government, and within CAFCASS and within the family network, is that this is a condition, a syndrome, and so on. It's more to do with identifying the behaviours and then responding appropriately.
And in researching—. It's a relatively new area of study, and I've noted in the research that I've done that we've moved from the definition of it as a syndrome. That's where it started and now we've moved some way away from that. Is there enough of a level of understanding amongst professionals about what parental alienation is, or what it potentially can be, and is there a level of understanding amongst the general public?
Let me deal with the first one first. Amongst professionals, I would say, undoubtedly, 'yes'. And some of the—. There is a constant process of ongoing practice review, which ties into continuing professional development within social workers, but also within the family courts. But we've also, in some ways, been at the forefront here in Wales of reviewing what the evidence says as opposed to anecdotes—where the evidence lies. And, if you haven't had it already, I draw the committee's attention to this, which was commissioned by CAFCASS, produced in April 2017; I think it's the most thorough research that I've seen. This was my bedtime reading as well in the last few weeks—the review of research and case law on parental alienation. It goes into not just the academic, but the weight of evidence around what this concept means, how it should be dealt with, how it is dealt with within the family court system as well. And it is really authoritative, and it comes very much down on that side, that this is a question of devising the best practice to deal with where there are examples of alienating behaviour as opposed to rehashing arguments over whether this is a syndrome or a condition and so on. It's very much on that child by child, case by case, basis.
And, in terms of the public's understanding of what parental alienation is, or can be, there's a suggestion from the petitioner that there should be an education programme; written evidence we've taken is split on that. Where do you stand?
Nigel, do you want to—?
Yes, certainly. I think that what we are talking about here are parenting behaviours, and I think that Welsh Government has invested significantly in promoting positive parenting. And, CAFCASS, we have been working with colleagues to look at how that information that we have—in terms of it helps parents, when they are separating, how they can do that in a way that enables them to remain focused upon the interests of the child, not their own adult interests. And we're looking to make that available through the partnerships across all the local authorities in Wales, which will give parents an opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of their child, when they are separating. So, I think that there's already a lot of information out there. There can always be more information; we can always make it more accessible. And that is one of the things that we are looking at—is in terms of how that information can be more readily available to families that support them. We're talking about parental alienation here, but there is a range of behaviours that have an impact upon the well-being of children, and I think that it's about making sure that we look at the whole child, not just elements of the child's well-being.
Okay. Albert, come in. We're mindful of the time, so we have to move on through the questions, but, by all means, Albert.
Thank you, Chair. I'll be very, very concise then. In relation to the first issue, discussions that we've had with the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru and heads of children's services— they're certainly providing us with assurances that, where local authorities see it falling into the range of child protection, they are dealing with those, but in the majority of cases—in the vast majority—it's at a much lower tier. So, important to reference that, but it's being picked up in the current system and dealt with within the current system; social work is built upon assessment and professional judgment. The second issue, around the Welsh Government's approach, I think it's really important that the positive parenting emphasis continues—that gets us into a very healthy, constructive dialogue, of what 'good' looks like and what can be helpful for parents at a very difficult time in their particular lives.
There is just one overarching thing that I'd like to clear, if I can. There are two descriptions of this parental alienation—'implacable hostility' is the other phrase used. What's the juxtaposition between those two, as far as you're concerned? Because it's very important, really, that we know.
'Implacable hostility' is a phrase that the courts have adopted and the courts use.
Yes, fine. Okay. Neil, did you want to come in quickly on that?
I just wondered what you meant by 'lower tier', really.
I think social work professionals are always trying to assess the needs of a child and the support for families. Sometimes, that can be dealt with in softer interventions—it can be talking therapies, it can be understanding the resilience of the family. Sometimes, we know from literature that separation, divorce, and the pressures of that, can lead to real stress for parents, and sometimes the healing process of time, and taking the correct steps and actions—. So, what I mean by 'lower tier' is, really, sometimes, there are softer interventions that can be most enabling and supporting to parents at a very difficult time.
Okay, thank you. Suzy, would you like to come in?
Yes. I find this really interesting. I've got to explain it's a good 20 years since I was involved in this kind of work professionally. But what I can say is that, at that time, family lawyers met CAFCASS and social workers quite aware that parents were more than capable of deliberately alienating their children from former partners, doing it unconsciously, and, sometimes, of course, were accused of it when they weren't doing it. So, I think that level of understanding has always been there. But the difficulty at that time—and I wonder if you can tell me what's changed—is there just weren't enough people and enough time to carry out all the observations that were necessary in order to persuade a court one way or the other. So, my question is, you've explained that the current framework is robust, even: are we still in those situations where judges are sitting there saying, 'I've got a CAFCASS report here where an officer has only been to see this child in one setting, rather than more than one setting'? Is the problem still resources rather than the law?
Perhaps I can respond to that one. Certainly that's not the message that's coming back to myself when I meet with the judiciary in Wales. I meet regularly with the judges, both at a local level and at the national level. As an organisation, whilst we had to respond to a significant increase in workload, our priority has been to make sure that we do see the child and are able to provide the court with a rounded picture, as much as possible, of that child's circumstances. I think, as the Minister has already said, our priority is to put the child first. I'm certainly not aware that there is a fundamental issue in terms of guardians not seeing children enough in order to be able to provide the court with the information that they need.
Okay, so why do you think this particular petition was able to be constructed and brought to us today, if things are going so well?
I think this has been a hot topic for a while, both here and at the Westminster Parliament, and there are significant voices adding to the clamour around this, and we welcome that, by the way, because it helps us refine our thinking around issues of parental alienation and how we deal with the responses to this. But our focus will continue very much to be on: how do you use the current best practice, and also the legislative framework we have, to get the right outcomes for the child? And, where appropriate, in respect of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well, which does actually say—it balances the needs of the child against the needs of the child to be with a family, and with both parents ideally, as long as it's in the safe interests of the child—I keep coming back to that. But we do have quite a robust system here now within Wales.
CAFCASS recently went through a series of training events with its own advisers on this. We do, of course, have the family courts and the advice and the children's guardians system as well, which can give good and robust independent advice. Front-line social workers, I think that's what's moved on now over the last few years as well, in terms of their awareness of this, but more importantly than their awareness of it as a headline issue is how to actually work their way through this and how to deal with this, and, of course, there is senior supervision around social workers as well. Part of that ties into what I referred to earlier on about the continuing professional development. So, this now provides part of the continuing professional educational learning framework for those social workers as well. So, it's quite robust, but it's focused on that issue all the time—of making the right decisions within the existing framework.
Ok. I won't take this much further, but I still need to pin you down on this. If everything is in order, why is this petition in front of us? Because even though things may have improved, and obviously I'm very glad to hear that, somebody somewhere still felt that it was enough of an issue to bring this forward to this place. Somebody somewhere is not happy.
I think not simply these petitioners, but the wider petitioners around the UK have also moved position on this over the last few years. So, at one time, there was very much a demand to have this described as a syndrome, a condition, a classification. It's moved actually from there even with them. I think their focus has increasingly shifted on to: how do we recognise that there is indeed a situation on that broad spectrum that Nigel was describing where parental alienation can damage the well-being of a child?
We're absolutely on the same territory, but I think where we differ from them is that the focus needs to be retained on how we deliver this through the existing framework, which is actually what the family justice network is saying as well, and they feel that that is the appropriate way to do it. Things like the Children's Social Care Research and Development Centre report help us in terms of front-line professionals and refining best practice, so we're doing that as well. So, I suspect that we may be trying to get the same outcome, but what we're saying is that we're working to do it already.
Okay, so there's no need for an all-new duty is where I was coming to.
Okay, thank you, Chair.
Okay, fine, thank you. Neil.
Yes, thanks. I'll declare an interest: I've had far too many dealings with CAFCASS over the years. My constituency office is rammed with parents, so much so that I've employed somebody to deal with these issues, because I need a level of expertise. I feel that Wales is light years behind England. What I see in my constituency office is a system in chaos, a system where alienation isn't actually recognised. I notice that you said that the first time that you looked at this was in 2013—is that correct?
Yes. The family justice network looked at in November 2013.
Okay. When was the family justice network set up?
It would have been set up—. I joined the Welsh Government in February 2013, and I believe that it had just been set up, just before that point.
Because the courts have recognised parental alienation since 1983 with case law, and I'm glad that you did recognise that it exists—that's a real positive because not everybody in Wales seems to recognise that, so that's a positive. In terms of recognising things that are a problem, would you agree that domestic abuse is also a problem?
Yes. It's why Welsh Government and partners on the ground have put so much resource into domestic abuse, because it is an issue in Wales.
Great. So, we've establish that. So, parental alienation is an issue. Correct?
Domestic abuse is an issue. So, can you explain the difference in approach, then, from CAFCASS Wales with what you do with domestic abuse—which is great, by the way—and what you do with parental alienation, which is not a great deal? Can you explain the difference? Maybe outline for the committee and outline for the public watching.
It may be helpful if you can explain what you see as the differences, because we have strategies in place appropriate to domestic abuse and strategies in place appropriate to dealing with the wide issues that can affect a child's well-being when they go through family services.
Well, not really, because as you said there, with domestic abuse, you've got the issue of coercive control and then there's a whole training programme with that: there's a training programme with domestic abuse. What training programme do you have with parental alienation?
Happy to do that, and it relates to some of the matters that we've touched on already. There is the CPL framework, which includes those wide-ranging issues of safeguarding and protection of the child. That's in place already.
Okay. So, just to be clear: what training are individual social workers given specifically in parental alienation?
I think you need to look broader than just routine parental alienation, to alienation, and to parent—
We're here to discuss parental alienation. With respect, you've recognised it's a problem, you've recognised that domestic abuse is a problem that is being addressed, great, through your training programmes—brilliant. Why are you not addressing parental alienation? Don't go wider. We're here to discuss parental alienation. Why are you not specifically dealing with that issue?
Well, we are dealing with the issue. We've commissioned Cardiff University to undertake a review for us of current legislation, of case law, which is very relevant to what we're doing.
So, what training—? Right now, today, what training have individual CAFCASS workers on the front line got in parental alienation?
If I can continue: the research that we have done has been discussed, shared and debated with practitioner forums across the organisation. We have got a group of practitioners together to look at developing, as part of our new approach, which will focus much greater upon outcomes for children, our pathway for not just parental alienation but domestic abuse and high-conflict pathways.
We have raised this with individual practitioners who have continued to work in these situations and receive one-to-one supervision on a bi-monthly basis with line managers to discuss individual cases. Team meetings and workshops have been held across the organisation to raise awareness of this, but this is an ongoing process; it's not something that suddenly starts and finishes. We have an ongoing training programme, and as our understanding of issues around parental alienation and other areas develop, we will refresh that and make sure that the workforce are kept up-to-date with the most recent understanding.
So, what—? This is really important. What percentage of CAFCASS front-line officers assessing children have had training in parental alienation up to this date? What percentage?
I can't give you a percentage today, sorry. What I can say to you, though, is that that training is available to all the staff and will continue to be made available to all staff as we roll out this new approach as well.