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Thursday, November 25, 2004


The debate on the Assembly's periodic timetable sounds really dull but actually it has produced some real gems over the last 18 months as the opposition have gone into pitched battle with the Labour Government on the frequency of Committee meetings.

To sum up: in the first Assembly committees met on a two week cycle, many though found it difficult to get all the work they were required to do into the time available and also opted for additional formal meetings. Following the elections Labour secured a bare majority of 30 seats out of 60 and decided for various reasons that they were spending too much time in Committee meetings and not enough time amongst the people of Wales. They forced through a three week Committee cycle.

This gave even less time for the opposition to scrutinise the Government and for the formulation of policy. To opposition members it appeared that Labour were trying to avoid effective scrutiny and that they were more concerned with working in their constituencies so as to keep their seats than attend the meetings they are paid to come to. This feeling grew as Labour backbenchers resisted attempts even to use up the optional time allocated for extra formal meetings, to the extent that at the last additional Education Committee, not a single Labour AM showed up.

The Business Minister came under sustained pressure to change things, especially after the Richard Commission noted the lack of effective scrutiny in committee meetings and the fact that the Welsh Assembly sits in committee for much less time than the Scottish Parliament. She promised a review but then decided that she could not do this as she could not get agreement on the conclusion that she believed that this review needed to reach. For some members yesterday it was just too much:

Eleanor Burnham: How can we not pre-empt this? An announcement was made by the First Minister in June, which has probably upset most people who work in all these bodies that will now be soaked into the Assembly. Any decent manager would know that it unsettles and, frankly, unhinges people. It is our duty in opposition to take you to task over these important issues.

It took Conservative South Wales Central AM, David Melding, however, to sum up the whole farcical situation:

David Melding: I have observed three things in this rather sad spectacle over the last 20 minutes. First, a review does not have to review anything. It can just review your earlier commitment to have the review. If the review is such that you believe that the conclusions would be adverse, then you can withdraw your commitment to have a review but still have declared that you have reviewed it in the first place, in that you asked yourselves whether you needed the review.

Then, the Labour Party gave one of its stalwarts, Ann Jones—a person that I deeply respect—the task of convincing us that meeting every three weeks is more than meeting every two weeks. Let us just hope that Ann is never made Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, because we will have to redefine all the mathematics text books.

However, the most chilling remark was made by Peter Law, whose contribution was not up to his usual witty or amusing standard. There was something deeply disturbing about his remark, made in an intervention on another Member, that we should stop criticising the Business Minister because she is there to defend the Labour Party’s business. Is that not what we have had this afternoon? Labour Members have behaved like rather vindictive members of a political party. They have behaved like members of the Labour Party instead of members of the governing party. There is a difference between the two because, if you are in the governing party, you have wider interests, the first of which is the public interest, and not the Labour Party’s interest. It may be a fiction that parties that eventually get to elected office start to decay after a while and lose public trust. In not promoting the public interest, you have done great violence to the institution of the National Assembly. I ask you to review yourselves and the absurdity of saying that the scrutiny role is fine just because Labour Party Members are happy with it. I remind you that, as supporters of the governing party, you are already supporting the Government, which controls nearly all the business that comes before Plenary.

The principal means of holding you to account and of scrutinising you is through the work of the committees. If the committees do not perform their scrutiny role effectively, then the Government can go unchecked, which works against you eventually as policies remain untested and you overextend yourselves. That, eventually, will bring rewards for the opposition parties in future elections. However, to tell us that we should be satisfied with scrutiny in its current form, and should not presume to say any different because to do so would mean being nasty to the Labour Party—not holding the Government to account, but being nasty to the Labour Party—is a constitutional absurdity that you ought to repent.

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