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Monday, November 12, 2007

Ministers evade scrutiny again

The warning in this morning's Western Mail that cuts in government plans to slash health research funding in Wales could lead to patients being denied life-saving drugs is a good example of the mess that the One Wales Government has got itself into over the budget.

Whilst, Professor John Williams, director of Word, the Assembly Government’s body which commissions and funds health and social-care research and development, has tendered his resignation over the cuts, the government is insisting that it is sticking to the commitment in the Labour-Plaid One Wales agreement to work to create a National Institute for Health Research. They say that issue affects more than one portfolio and discussions between ministers on further allocations for medical research and development are still ongoing.

That may well be the case of course, however the opacity of the budget itself makes it impossible to properly scrutinise the process so as to establish what exactly the government's plans are. That is the role of the Committees and I have already commented on what a good job the newly created Finance Committee has done in wheedling out of the Finance Minister the exact status of the announced budget rises for certain services. In his replies to that Committee though the Minister made it clear that he could not answer on his colleagues individual portfolios. They would do that themselves when they appear before their respective scrutiny committees.

That is the theory at least, but in reality it appears that the very tight timetable that the government has set for this budget and the Ministers' own diaries will prevent that happening in many instances. The Local Government Minister for example, at the time of writing this, is unavailable to appear before the Health, Wellbeing and Local Government Committee this week, the last opportunity that those AMs will have to quiz him on his spending plans before the final budget is laid.

Similarly, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government and the Deputy Minister for Housing have declined the invitation to appear before the Communities and Culture Committee on Wednesday to answer the numerous questions that members have on their budgets, not least regarding affordable housing, community safety and Communities First. It is not as if Ministers did not expect to be invited, after all they set the timetable so they should have ensured that their diaries were kept free.

The whole business leaves a very bad taste in the mouth giving the impression that Ministers are evading effective scrutiny or at best do not think that it is important enough to change their diaries. If this is the way that the One Wales government plans to proceed in the future then I fear for the future of our fledgling democracy. If Committees need to use their powers to summonse Ministers to appear before them then it does not give a very good account of the attitude of the Government to this Assembly and the devolution project.
Depressing news on both fronts.
Please keep up the pressure on this issue. As you know Local Councillors are being exhorted to take a robust approach to scrutiny by WAG and if Ministers are allowed to evade scrutiny themselves, then this sets a pretty poor example for local councillors who are trying to do their best to get to grips with the sometimes difficult scrutiny role.
Perhaps they could take some money from the Wales Office budget to cover the £1million cut in funding for medical research? Just a thought!
Just think what medical research could do with the £46m now spent on the Assembly's running costs
Just think what we could do with all the money saved if we abolished democracy altogether and had a dictatorship instead! :-(
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