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Devolution, the Third Sector Partnership and Equalities in Wales

Published: 17 September 2019

In her contribution to our series on devolution at twenty, Amy Sanders examines the statutory Partnership between the Welsh Government and the third sector and assesses its impact on equalities.  

The Welsh third sector-state Partnership is set out in the Government of Wales Acts (1998, 2006). It is managed by Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA).  The Third Sector Partnership Council and a series of Ministerial Meetings are the key nexus between ministers and third sector representatives.  These representatives are drawn from twenty-five thematic third sector networks.  Such mechanisms are collectively referred to here as the Partnership.

In the same legislation, Welsh Government made a commitment to the advancement of equality of opportunity.  At least ten of the twenty-five networks are equalities themed.  Thus, the position of equalities matters within the Partnership is of interest.

This study used semi-structured, elite interviews to explore policy actors’ accounts of the Partnership and these policy actors were drawn from Welsh Government, WCVA and Equalities Third Sector Organisations. A critical discourse analysis of these accounts was used. 

Findings included that the Partnership has enabled the equalities third sector to develop a sophisticated, nuanced approach to claims-making.  They invoke a repertoire of actions and display certain qualities both formally and informally in their influencing of Welsh Government.  This is done both within and beyond the Partnership mechanisms.   Therefore, they adopt multiple positions on the insider-outsider spectrum.  Crucially, they maintain a critical voice, holding Welsh Government to account. 

However, the discourse on representing people with protected characteristics is diluted by two other discourses of representation.  First, there is a call for representation of smaller, geographically-defined communities which threatens equalities’ place on the Partnership agenda.  This is exemplified with the term “usual suspects” to describe organisations involved in the Partnership.  Such a label undermines the achievement of giving disadvantaged equalities groups a say in policy development.  Secondly, equalities representation is threatened by the dominating discourse of representing other third sector organisations.  This results in equalities matters not being deemed sufficiently “cross-cutting” for a “unified voice” of the third sector.  Subsequently, they are sometimes supressed from the agenda setting process. 

The Partnership does enable a collaborative equalities third sector in some respects.  However, some tensions between organisations could threaten an intersectional approach.  Furthermore, expectations for one representative body per equalities strand damages intra-organisational relations. 

The equalities third sector are also constrained in their ability to present their own organisational interests.  Making representation for their organisation’s needs is against the ‘logic of appropriateness’ (i.e. the expectations or accepted rules of the Partnership).  Austerity has exacerbated this suppression of financial concerns expressed by the third sector.  Equality organisations differ in resources available for their representative role and the distribution of Welsh Government funds to third sector organisations is therefore the ‘elephant in the room’.

The Partnership’s legitimacy is reinforced by its symbolic value: the uniquely Welsh statutory nature of the Partnership affords a close relationship between ministers and the third sector.   That notwithstanding, the Partnership is now struggling to sustain its legitimacy.  Policy actors describe some failings in terms of delivering outcomes, achieving representation and procedural legitimacy.  The Partnership is seen as unable to adapt in response to these shortcomings.  Policy actors in WCVA hope for a tipping point to act as its catalyst for change.  Yet to be proven is whether the twenty-year marker of devolution will enable this tipping point to be realised.  If not, a faltering Partnership enduring through statutory obligation could potentially damage the body tasked with its administration, WCVA.  Yet the equalities organisations, whose strong position is arguably attributed to the Partnership, are now well-placed to maintain their influence elsewhere in Welsh Government. 

This research was carried out by Amy Sanders for her PhD, located in the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research Data and Methods (WISERD), in Cardiff University and was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. 

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