Rachel Evans, Director of the Countryside Alliance in Wales, sets out the case for reform of the petitions committee in the Welsh Assembly, following abuse of the system by animal rights groups.
As with much of modern life, the process of signing a petition is moving online. This is making petitioning more accessible, which is a good thing, but it is also making it easier to distort public opinion and spread misinformation. Nowhere is this better seen than the Welsh Assembly’s petitions committee.
The committee operates a petitions system on their website which allows anybody in Wales to start a petition and share it online. It was supposed to give a voice to people in Wales, but it has been used by campaigners to promote niche causes which few people in Wales care about.
Petitions are published on the committee’s website with a minimal amount of scrutiny and are not checked for accuracy first as the committee have claimed in the past that it is not their job to be judge and jury and that “factual inaccuracies are a matter of opinion.”
Once a petition has been published it only needs to gain 50 signatures over six months for it to be considered by the committee. In the last five years the committee has considered 260 petitions, on topics ranging from making vegan options compulsory in public canteens to a request to allow the filming of a James Bond movie at the Senedd.
The painfully dull process of considering the petition usually results in the relevant Minister being contacted by the committee and asked to respond to the issue in the petition. The information from the Minister is then passed back to the person who started the petition and, usually dissatisfied with the response, a game of ping pong begins with letters going back and forth between the petitioner and Minister with the committee in the middle.
An FOI request by the Countryside Alliance revealed that the committee has no individual budget so there is no limit on the amount of time or taxpayer’s money spent considering petitions.
This would not be so bad if the petitions were backed solely by people in Wales, and went some way to reflect Welsh opinion, but anyone in the world can sign these petitions. A petition on the committee’s website calling to ban the sale of real fur in Wales has been signed by people as far away as the USA with a lot of backing from people in England. Petitions published by the petitions committee in Westminster can only be signed by people with a UK postcode and an email verification system is also in place to prevent fraud. Why can’t this be the same for our petitions process at the Assembly?
Until last year the committee were considering petitions that were not even on their website. Anyone could approach the committee and ask them to consider a petition, regardless of where it was and who had signed it. Action from the Countryside Alliance helped to change this, and the committee will now only consider petitions on their website, but the damage has already been done in some cases.
Last year the committee considered a petition on the campaign website change.org calling for pheasant shooting to be stopped on public land in Wales. The petition was backed by several animal rights groups, including Animal Aid, and contained a number of factual errors. It was signed by over 12,000 people and yet less than 1,500 signatures were from people in Wales (representing 0.05% of the population of Wales).
The committee took this issue up with the Minister who commissioned Natural Resources Wales to review the situation. Despite the review recommending that shooting should be allowed to continue, the Minister took the decision to impose a ban and four pheasant shoots now face closure with the loss of jobs and investment in some of our most rural areas.
This is not democracy, and this not how government should work. We need to raise the quality of the debate and the decision making process in Cardiff Bay. Reform of the petitions committee would be a good place to start.
Rachel Evans, Director for Wales