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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Labour blunder through Quango fiasco

Over the last few months the Labour Assembly Government has made a number of important announcements on the future of Welsh Quangos. Yesterday we finally had a chance to have a proper two hour debate on those proposals or so we thought. However, Labour's obsession with spin destroyed all of that.

The Government issued a consultation document relating to the debate at 1.11pm precisely, having first used it to brief the press eleven minutes earlier. When the opposition objected that there had been no time to properly consider the document and requested that the debate be adjourned the Government refused. As a result the three opposition parties pulled all their speakers and left Labour to talk amongst themselves. Nick Bourne's first point of order sums up the issue and the anger of Plaid, Tories and Liberal Democrats:

Nick Bourne: Point of order. I raise this under Standing Order No. 6 on Plenary business, in relation to the debate that is about to take place. Looking around, I can see a few copies of a document that is, rather unfortunately, called, 'Making the Connections: Delivering Better Services for Wales-a consultation by the Welsh Assembly Government on the mergers with ELWa, the WDA and the WTB'. The debate that we are about to have is entitled 'The Merger of Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies'. The consultation document was issued at 1 p.m. today, and few Members have seen it yet. There are 26 pages of the document in English and 26 pages in Welsh, and Members must have an opportunity to digest it before we can meaningfully contribute to the debate. I ask the Government to withdraw this debate under Standing Order No. 6.11, because it is meaningless to go ahead with the debate when nobody has had the opportunity to read the central document. Furthermore, I have been told that the Library was instructed not to issue copies until 1 p.m., although I am reliably informed that it had copies earlier than that. If that is the case, this raises serious questions about the Government's so-called openness and, on quickly flicking through the document, I see references to the Government's commitment to openness, which ring hollow given the fact that this document, for a key debate lasting two hours, has just been issued. How can the opposition parties, and, indeed, Labour backbenchers, properly scrutinise this policy when such a key document is issued at the eleventh hour? The document also talks about democratic accountability. Will this debate be withdrawn? It is totally meaningless in the light of the fact that we have not had the opportunity to look at the document. Many Members will not have seen the document at all.

In the normal course of events this might just be another spat between Government and opposition but Labour backbenchers were equally unhappy:

Peter Law: The drip feed of this red document is the best example that I have come across of worst practice and I must say so, because it impacts on the motion that is before us today, as I have seen from reading it. I mention it because there are some important points in this document. If we are wrong, someone needs to stand up and say that we are wrong, and then we can get on with business. That is why we are here, as Assembly Members, and we have not done that today as it should have been done.


Leighton Andrews: I prepared a speech for this debate and received this document as I was at my computer. I can speed read, but it is difficult to make a meaningful contribution on a debate when a document is presented in this way. I want to make a full contribution to the discussion on the reform of the quango state, and I know that many of my backbench colleagues want to have a full input into the discussion. I want to make it plain to my colleagues on the frontbench that they should not take us for granted in this debate. We want to be fully and properly involved.

After all this the Labour frontbench allowed the debate to be brought to a premature conclusion, however it was clear that they knew that they had screwed up.

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