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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Clash of wills

There continues to be a clash of wills on the Education and Lifelong learning Committee, which I chair. Both of the disputes go back to the decision by the Labour Group to reduce the frequency of meetings to one every three weeks. They had previously met fortnightly and the change has caused a huge headache in fitting in all of the business. One of the consequences of the change was that we had to rethink when the Minister would bring the Committee her regular report. Prior to the new timetable the Minister brought a report once a month and answered questions for 45 minutes. When I was made Chair I was determined to extend this to an hour if I could as I knew that many of the items in her report were never questioned due to lack of time. I take the view that Committees are the most effective way to scrutinise Ministers if they are working correctly. The switch to three-weekly meetings meant that this was impractical so instead we now have a 45 minute slot every meeting, which is actually an increase in the total scrutiny time on the last Assembly. Yesterday, I allowed the Minister's report to overrun by 5 minutes on the grounds that it was 20 pages long, we had not got past page three and I knew that there was some slack in the agenda. The Minister was not happy and berated me for my laxness. She quoted examples from previous chairs who had ruled with an iron hand and pulled down the guillotine right on the 45 minutes. I made it clear that I was going to chair the Committee my way and that I have a duty to protect the rights of members to scrutinise the Minister. I do not respond well to browbeating.

The second dispute is over the extra meeting slots put in the timetable for Committees. Education and Lifelong Learning has been allocated two of these this term and even though they are optional I have taken the view that if we are to have any chance of carrying out our review into Special Education Needs then we need to take up both of the slots. This is not a view shared by the Labour Party who believe that those of us who are seeking to hold these meetings are trying to undermine their new relaxed timetable. At yesterday's Committee I decided that we needed to make progress and put the matter to the vote. The outcome was a tie - five all, so I used my casting vote in favour of the extra meeting in accordance with the guidance approved by the Panel of Chairs. This led to protests by Labour members and a suggestion that they would take it up with the Presiding Officer. Sometimes I wonder why they think they were elected. Labour have now used every device possible to reduce the amount of scrutiny Ministers get in Committee including cutting out meetings and reducing the time on agendas for this activity. These procedural tricks are beginning to get tiresome. We have important business to conduct and we need the time to do it.

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