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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Searching for the question

The debate in Plenary yesterday on the Government of Wales Bill was a very lively affair. This would not have been so bad if it was not for the fact that I was in the chair for some of the more controversial moments.

Labour started off trying to pin down the Tories on whether their call for a referendum means that they continue to be anti-devolution or not. Anne Jones started off with an effective intervention on Nick Bourne on this issue and she was followed shortly afterwards by Leighton Andrews, who highlighted the absurdity of a referendum on whether to have the Assembly's powers advanced by Orders in Council:

Ann Jones: You support full legislative powers for Wales, yet only last week your party at Westminster set out to derail the Government of Wales Bill. Are you not therefore undermined by your colleagues in Westminster? Does it not suggest that there are divisions within the Tory Party?

Nick Bourne: There are divisions within the Conservative Party, there is no question about that, but that is one reason why we need a referendum. There are divisions within the Labour Party—look at your own backbench Labour MPs. Two of them, one of whom was Madeleine Moon, voted for a clause stating that abolition should be offered. There are divisions in all parties and that is one reason why the matter should be put to the people of Wales to decide. [Interruption.] There are within your voters, let it be said.

Coming back to the issue of Labour MPs, Alan Williams, the Father of the House, has called these legislative proposals ‘creeping devolution’. He believes that the Bill is a kind of salami slicing provision—you could have a series of Orders in Council that chipped away one by one at the powers of the Houses of Parliament, giving them to the Assembly. That is true, which is why we need a referendum. There should be a clear choice, and I do not believe in this intermediate stage.

I believe that we should have a straightforward choice for the people of Wales on legislative powers or not, with the referendum powers as set out very fairly in Schedule 6 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, if a referendum is ever triggered. A referendum can only be triggered—the First Minister skated over this thin ice, and who can blame him—if it is supported by 40 Assembly Members, which is two-thirds of all Assembly Members, and not just two-thirds of those voting. It is a pretty unlikely scenario if Labour never wants it, even if it is out of Government, which I sincerely believe it will be.

Leighton Andrews: We are all enjoying the latest development in the Conservative Party’s policy on devolution as of this week. Are you seriously suggesting that there should be a referendum around the question, ‘Are you in favour of the Orders in Council procedure as laid down in the Government of Wales Bill, yes or no?’.

Nick Bourne: I am glad that you follow proceedings in the Conservative Party so closely, and that you welcome what is happening. I certainly do. It is very interesting to look at recent polls—I can understand why some Labour Members look a little rattled and concerned. I believe that there should be a referendum on the Assembly measures. It is a difficult question to put forward, but that is because it is a complex procedure.

Things started to go downhill when Carl Sergeant stood up to speak. He launched into a diatribe about list members in which he demonstrated very little understanding of their workload or, indeed, the system which his party devised that resulted in their election:

Carl Sargeant: I will give all the Clwyd West Members a mention in a moment.

If our current list Members are in any doubt about what their role should be, then perhaps they should consult Leanne Wood’s magic memo, or the additional list Member’s bible, as it is known to some. She set out, with great clarity, her own golden rules on how list Members should abuse the system: avoid case work at all costs, misuse the staffing allowance to benefit the party, locate the party office, not according to the needs of the people but according to the interests of the party, and, of course, only attend events that are in the interests of the party—if in any doubt, send a pro forma letter and rejection.

If list Members do not have the self-discipline and integrity to represent their regions as the system originally intended, then we must force a change by spelling out the role in order to stop this abuse. Alun Cairns seems to be more confused than most in this regard. The latest post on his website is against the construction of a superstore in Barry; for those who do not know, Barry is in the South Wales Central region. That is not even Alun’s region; you represent South Wales West, Alun. What could prompt such concern? Is there not enough to do in your own region?

It was a fair point on Alun Cairns but a totally over-the-top party political rant otherwise. Some would say that it was petulance if it were not for the fact that these views have the ear of the Secretary of State for Wales, whose own prejudices seem to be dictating the nature of the legislation he is currently pushing through Parliament. It took Kirsty Williams to put things into perspective:

Kirsty Williams: We have heard more than enough this afternoon about the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly. My constituents, Jeff, regularly ask me what I and the Assembly are doing to help them with the various problems that they face in their lives—problems with the health service, the economy, agriculture, and schools. In the last six years in which I have represented Brecon and Radnorshire, I have never been asked by them when I will change the way in which I am elected—never, ever.

The preoccupation of Labour Assembly Members with this problem is a distraction from the real issues and the real opportunities missed in this Bill to address the questions asked by constituents: ‘What will you do to help me, and how is this place structured in such a way that you can deliver the policies that I need to get my child in a decent school, to ensure that my son and daughter have decent jobs, and to ensure that there is a hospital open on a Friday night for me to visit should I need to?’. This Bill is a missed opportunity. The way in which we can achieve some of those goals will be such a convoluted, long drawn-out process that I do not believe that the Assembly will be able to act in the way in which its Members will want to, in order to address some of those problems, following the next election.

Things settled down for a bit until Leighton Andrews got up to speak and in the minds of many members took his party's dislike of regional members too far. In fact he got really personal:

Leighton Andrews: I am pleased to support the Government of Wales Bill. This is an important stage in the new phase of devolution that will strengthen devolution and democracy in Wales. It is worth stating at the outset that this Bill puts primary powers for the National Assembly on the statute book. Sections 104 onwards deal with primary powers for the National Assembly for Wales. That ought to be marked, as it is, in many ways, probably one of the most important developments in the passage of this Bill. Such powers are, of course, subject to a referendum, and I have always been in favour of primary powers being subject to a referendum of the people of Wales. However, in this Bill, we are implementing the next phase of devolution. Even before we get to the stage of having primary powers, we are introducing proposals that will improve the governance of Wales in ways that will make our decision-making swifter, clearer and more streamlined. We should place on record again that it is the Labour Party and Welsh Labour that are strengthening devolution, having delivered it in the first place.

Eleanor Burnham: Will you take an intervention?

Leighton Andrews: I will take an intervention from the Clwyd West reject.

Eleanor Burnham: With regard to what Jocelyn has reminded us of about the new procedures and how long-winded they could be, could you tell us exactly how it will be more streamlined, transparent or more open—despite what you have said to me?

The Presiding Officer: Before Leighton Andrews responds, there is a matter of order. I know that we are engaged in a heated debate on these matters, but as long as the Government of Wales Act 1998 has not been changed, none of us here are rejects. We are all elected, some by a different franchise. I do not want to go back over all this.

Leighton Andrews: I hear what you say, Presiding Officer, but it is a fact that Eleanor Burnham was rejected by the voters of Clwyd West. I was simply stating a fact.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not approve of Members disputing my rulings. I will make the matter quite clear. Eleanor Burnham was rejected by the electors of Clwyd West, but, through our electoral system, was elected by the electors of North Wales.

Leighton Andrews: I was certainly not disputing your ruling; I was trying to clarify my remarks.

Perhaps he needs to reflect on his remarks and consider apologising for them.
Apologise for what exactly?

Even the Presiding Officer acknowledged that she was "rejected in Clwyd West". Leighton was merely stating a fact: she is a Clwyd West reject.

I don't know where this blog would be without Leighton. You don't seem to talk about much else these days.

As ever with Peter "Freedom of Speech" Black - I don't expect to get this comment approved.
Peter, yet again, whist in the Presiding Officer’s Chair, you broke standing orders.

You took the Chair at 4:46pm, and the Presiding Officer did not return until 5:06pm – a total of 20mins. Standing order 1.11 states “Any Member other than a member of the Assembly Cabinet may, at the request of the Presiding Officer or Deputy when either is presiding at a plenary meeting of the Assembly, temporarily preside for not more than a quarter of an hour on any one occasion.”

The Presiding Officer obviously left the Chamber at 4:46pm, but, why did he call on you, rather than the Deputy Presiding Officer, who was in the chamber, and is, after all, paid to be the Deputy Presiding Officer, to Chair the session in his absence? I think he should start sticking to the rules himself, before lecturing other AM’s on order in the chamber.
Wow wee Peter, You are touchy about the role of List Members, I have a full understanding regarding the electoral system and how members are voted to the Assembly. My views are well known within the Assembly and i'm shocked that they came as a surprise to you. The question perhaps you should clarify to the electorate is which seat you and your list colleagues will be contesting at the next election. List or Constituency and why?
Welcome Carl. Your views are well known and you are entitled to them. I happen to think you are wrong and have said why at length on this blog. I thought you might be faking your ignorance in the chamber. Clearly, if you do understand the electoral system then you will know the answer to the question you asked in the Chamber as to why Labour does not have a list member in North Wales despite polling 55,000 votes. What I do depends on what Parliament passes in the Government of Wales Bill but there is equal validity in being a list member as there is in being a constituency member AND I do lots of casework and surgeries.
How many surgeries do you do in a year? And what are the precise numbers for each constituency in your region?
I do between 40 and 50 surgeries a year. Details are available on my website here. I tend to repeat this rota.
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