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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A question of access

A row that has been simmering under the surface has erupted into the columns of the Western Mail today with accusations that the Assembly is denying professional lobbyists the sort of access they had to Assembly Members prior to the move into the Senedd.

As a member of the House Committee I have had letters from some of these lobbyists and have referred them to the Deputy Presiding Officer for consideration by the new Building Sub Committee. However, in essence the complaint is that prior to the move Assembly Members had to pass through a public milling area to get to the chamber. As a result lobbyists and members of the public were able to collar them to put their point of view.

Under the new arrangements there are two possible routes to the chamber. Members can either walk through the public areas of the Senedd or they can take the more direct route down the back stairs into the Cwrt. Access to the Cwrt is limited to AMs, staff and the media. Given that most of us leave it to the last minute to get to the chamber due to other commitments we tend to use the less public area, although I and others have made an effort to walk through the public area when we can.

Personally, I have more sympathy with the public than with the lobbyists, who will just have to work with the new arrangements. Assembly Members are still far more accessible than many other politicians and can be contacted here most days. We also continue to patronise events and receptions put on by groups in the Senedd and we will meet with most people who ask to talk to us.

There are of course two types of lobbyists. There are those who work exclusively for a specific organisation such as the BMA, and there are those who have a generic practise and represent a large number of clients. Marc Evans of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in Wales makes some very valid points on the nature of the business:

Marc Evans, who chairs the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in Wales, said, “I personally feel very strongly that public affairs specialists should not have privileged access to areas of the Assembly building that are not available to members of the public.

“Apart from the question of physical access in the building, I am also concerned about the issue of public affairs consultants trading on their personal friendships with politicians.

“Some people who work in the public affairs field used to work for political parties or perhaps are still political activists. Sometimes they are friendly with senior politicians.

“It would be quite wrong if they tried to get business on the basis of such connections. There is a distinction to be drawn between giving advice to clients and seeking to profit from personal connections.

“I don’t think the situation is as bad in Wales as it is in Westminster or Brussels, but it’s important that people behave ethically.”

I agree with him.
I concur with that sentiment, but there is a problem with constituents who turn up and wish to contact their AMs.

If I show up at Westminster and fill in a 'green card' House officials will turn heaven and earth to find my MP and let her/him know that a constituent is asking to see them.

In the Assembly, if one turns up at the frontdesk of the Senedd there is no equivalent facility. Indeed if you don't already know the name of your AM or the constituency trhey represent the staff cannot tell you who they are. It should be possible for all front of house staff to have access to the constituency locator and to be able to immediately email the AM and their Bay based staff if a constituent wants to see them.

Lobbyists are not the problem - they get access anyway because they know you to approach - the problem is for ordinary constituents who deserve to be able to access their AM if they make the effort to visit.
Yes, absolutely agree. We are looking at a green card system here as well.
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