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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Pushing back the Quango state

The debate on the legislation that will finally abolish ACCAC, ELWa, WDA and WTB yesterday was fairly low key in comparison to the heat that has been generated since the First Minister first mooted the idea over 16 months ago.

On ELWa the opposition raised again the issue of sixth forms. By and large we have found a solution to the problem of the Minister's civil servants proposing a reorganisation following merger, which will then be adjudicated on by her. This scenario raised the potential of the Education Minister acting as a judge and jury on what are quasi-judicial matters, something that a court may not look very favourably on. The solution was to have the First Minister review the outcome of the consultation and to take the final decision.

However, there was still unease that the power ELWa has to open or close sixth forms (normally the latter) independently of a local education authority will transfer unamended to the Assembly Government, giving them the right to trample over local accountability. This was not about removing the strategic overview but making sure that there was a genuine partnership in which all parties were treated equally and that no one felt that they were working with a gun to their head. As a result we tabled a detailed amendment to hand this power back to LEAs.

In the end that amendment was not moved as at the eleventh hour the Minister came up with a better proposal. She suggested that the Assembly Government bring forward for consultation proposals to delegate to local authorities, under section 41 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, responsibility for developing proposals, in partnership with all interested parties, for the future organisation of post-16 provision in maintained schools, which includes faith and foundation schools and further education. This went significantly further than the amendment and so I was pleased to withdraw our alternative.

After that all of the heat was taken out of the ELWa debate, however Leighton Andrews was determined to be controversial nevertheless:

Leighton Andrews: ELWa goes to the quango graveyard entirely unlamented by me. I arrived here as the constituency Member for the Pop Factory, I spent the first 18 months here as a member of the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee and I have spent my entire time here as a member of the Audit Committee. I witnessed a shocking abnegation of leadership over the whole situation with regard to the Pop Factory at the beginning. In my time on the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee, I and many others, struggled for a long time to get sense into the national planning and funding system to ensure that there were proper cushioning and dampening measures and, above all, that factors such as deprivation were properly taken into consideration in the new system.

Leighton is right of course that ELWa is an unelected quango but it operates within the policy framework set for it by the Welsh Assembly Government and often under specific directions from that Government and its officials. Since the Pop factory debacle management and staff have worked incredibly hard to turn the organisation around. They have ensured that it fully complies with all government and civil service regulations, they have focussed its work on the very real deficiencies that exist in our education and training provision across Wales and they have performed miracles in getting the planning and funding framework into place despite the hugely competing demands of government, providers and the sector.

It is right that Leighton and others scrutinise that work intensely and seek to ensure that the interests of learners and other constituents are represented but if there has been any abnegation of leadership then the responsibility for that lies very firmly with the Minister. To criticise people who are effectively civil servants in this way is unacceptable. Even before merger there is a very clear line of accountability in place, what happens after that has yet to be seen.

I for one, am concerned that Assembly Members will not have the same access to information or advice, that we will not be able to quiz officials in the same way or get the off-the-record briefings that help to inform our contribution. The merger may be a good day for democracy but it may well be a very poor one indeed for transparency and accountability.
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