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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The wrong button

What is it about the Assembly's voting system that causes apparently intelligent and capable Assembly Members to fall apart when faced with the prospect of using it? Yesterday's debacle in which the Health Minister vehemently opposed a public inquiry into the Wales Ambulance Service and then voted for it is just the latest in a long line of such incidents since we moved into the Senedd.

Earlier in the day we had a vote on the Government's Business Statement, which should have resulted in a 28-28 tie. The guidance says that the Presiding Officer would then have cast his vote against, thus forcing the Government to go back to the drawing board. However, the vote was won by the Business Minister by 28 votes to 27 due to the failure of David Davies MP AM to press his voting button, even though he was there.

A Welsh Liberal Democrat amendment to the motion calling for a public inquiry into the ambulance service was passed by 28 votes to 27. In this instance, Conservative AM Brynle Williams failed to get back to the chamber in time for either vote, however Labour's Val Lloyd inadvertently voted with the opposition to ensure the success of the proposition.

The voting on the main ambulance motion was slightly more complicated than a simple mistake by the Health Minister. Again Brynle Williams was absent but his oversight was cancelled out by the failure of the Business Minister to record a vote. As a result it was left to the Health Minister to decide the outcome.

Some members are all too ready to blame the electronic voting system but my theory is that these oversights are purely the result of a lack of concentration. That was the reason I voted incorrectly on amendment four to the Social Justice Annual Report. Mistakes are also made in the more deliberative Westminster lobby voting system, with MPs walking through the wrong lobby inadvertently due to being deep in conversation or because they are rushing to catch the vote before the lobby doors close.

It is also significant that the vast majority of those voting the wrong way are not Welsh speakers. They need to rely on the simultaneous translation to follow proceedings when the Presiding Officer is in the chair. It is actually quite easy to be distracted and lose the drift of proceedings at these times, especially when events are moving quickly. That is why the worst offenders are often Ministers. Still, better luck next time.

For all the details of voting yesterday click here.
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