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Monday, May 22, 2006

Time wasters?

As is by now well-reported, the Presiding Officer has fired a broadside at the Assembly, challenging us to get our act together in response to the new Government of Wales Act.

Presiding Officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas has strongly condemned the "horrendous time-wasting" and "worthless processes" of the Welsh assembly.

He said it was "exasperating" the full assembly sat only two afternoons a week, and then often finished early.

Lord Elis-Thomas said voters neither loved the body nor had value for money.

He had some particularly strong things to say about Plenary and the subject committees, one of which I chair:

"I think regional committees are a complete waste of time," he said.

First Minister Rhodri Morgan backs change, says Lord Elis-Thomas

"I think the way subject committees are structured does not allow us to have an opportunity to question ministers properly or to pursue policy areas properly."

He told BBC Radio Wales he was ready to abandon the assembly's "family-friendly" hours.
"After all, it would mean sitting after 6 o'clock only two nights a week and I think the people of Wales would expect us to do that - not every night, but some nights.

"And start in the morning on proper plenary sessions and proper questions. Even the House of Commons does that now.

"We sit in plenary for two half-days a week and we often finish early and I find this absolutely exasperating," he said.

"We've got a wonderful chamber, the public come there to look at us, we've had 110,000 visitors [since the Senedd building opened in March], and yet it's very difficult to point out anything that has happened recently."

He said ministers often "got away with it" and he accused some fellow AMs of lacking the appetite for change to be more efficient.

There is no doubt that many of these criticisms are valid. The Regional Committees for example have never really found a niche within the Assembly decision-making structure, though they are invaluable as a means of engaging with people in their own communities and have a dedicated following as they travel around each region.

Subject Committees are a different case in point. The fact that the Minister is a member of these committees can often constrain scrutiny as Labour members feel obliged to play a supportive role rather than ask difficult questions. In fact, in many instances they enter the Committee meeting with a brief provided by a ministerial special advisor suggesting friendly questions and lines to take.

How effective scrutiny actually can be was driven home to me recently when the Education Minister gave evidence to the School Funding Committee. All five members, irrespective of party, tested her for an hour or so on the issues and none of them pulled their punches.

It is also true that subject Committees have fulfilled a valuable role in developing policy, in scrutinising Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies and in taking evidence on specific issues. It has to be said that their role in examining secondary legislation is still a learning experience.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas is absolutely right about the amount of time Plenary meets and also that it is not very effective in holding Ministers to account. Question time is rushed. debates are curtailed and Ministers can often avoid bringing awkward issues to the chamber, as happened recently with the RAISE programme for schools.

There is no doubt that changes need to be made and that the extra powers and the separation of Parliament and Executive contained in the new Act will be the driving force to ensure that these reforms are carried out.
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