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Monday, September 15, 2008

What does a Regional AM do?

An anonymous post coupled with similar comments on the South Wales Evening Post website from the usual suspects prompts me to use this blog once more to justify my own existence as a regional Assembly Member.

The poster, going under the name of 'a Welsh taxpayer' concludes his or her contribution by stating:

I dont expect you will allow this comment, such is the nature of political blogs. You can simply edit out reality and critical remarks. However as as a Lib Dem, I am sure, you will defend my right to question such matters and have my point of view.

Well if you had the guts to use your real name you may have a better chance of your comment being posted. Welsh taxpayer is right though, I do not intend to put his or her comment against the post concerned. Instead I will reproduce it here and answer his or her questions. I will do so because I believe in being accountable and because people generally have a right to know.

Oh and before anybody accuses me of only being able to do this because I have too much time on my hands, I should point out that I am at Party Conference, reading and dealing with my e-mails and writing this in bits between meetings. This is the comment:

Congratulations Peter on receiving yet another award for your blog.

Now, while when you come 'down' from your euphoric high after receiving such an accolade from your peers, would you be so kind as to answer me this.

Besides writing this blog, do you actually do any work?

As a Welsh taxpayer, can you tell me what you actually do with your time each day, other than write posts, allow comments and edit this highly biased piece of political propoganda?
Am I getting value for money from you? I guess not.

You don't represent a constituency do you? So, you have no constituents to look after and care for. So what do you actaully do other write this blog?

From my experience since moving to Wales, Constituency AMs work very hard - meeting constituents with genuine problems.
When they write, they do so on behalf of their constituents - sorting out their problems on a daily basis. They have no awards for doing that. It's their job. They just get on quietly and do it.

Regional AMs like yourself, on the other hand, seem a bit short of something to do - a real waste of money - do you agree?

At a time when we are all suffering with job losses and with finances being so tight, I am sure you will understand that voters look around the political landcape and think, "Why I am paying my hard-earned taxes to Peter Black, for him to write a blog each day?"

Is that value for money? I would contest not. Particularly when you don't have any constituents to look after like other AMs.

First and foremost, I should make it clear once more that I do not approve of the electoral system that is used to elect Assembly Members. It is not proportional and it creates two different classes of AM with all the public perception issues encapsulated by 'Welsh taxpayer' in his or her comment.

Nevertheless, the system exists and as such it is important that political parties use it. Regional members are elected from party lists and, irrespective of how they are chosen, they are essentially party nominees. They must face an election to get to the Assembly but voters are largely voting for the political party not the individuals concerned.

Secondly, as a Regional AM I am both the public face of the Assembly and of my party. I am elected, as are constituency AMs on a manifesto which it is my job to fight for in the Assembly. If in opposition or on the back benches I have a duty to scrutinise the government and hold it to account, whilst also promoting my own agenda and that of my party.

I also play a role in policy development either through the committee system or through my own efforts. Thus I have spent the last few months working with my staff to research and prepare a policy paper on affordable housing including an analysis of the individual policies and actions of all 22 local Councils. This was launched today and will now form the basis of my work on housing in the Assembly next term as well as a debate at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in the spring.

These roles require an on-line presence as one of many tools to get my message across to my constituents. As well as this blog I have a main website here at which constituents and others can find details of my speeches, articles, press releases, campaigns, surgeries and other work. Hopefully it demonstrates the vast amount of work that I do and the many many things I do on behalf of my constituents.

I have of course written in detail on many occasions on the uses and purpose of this blog and other on-line applications such as Facebook, most recently here and do not propose to repeat all of that again. However, suffice to say that it is a useful medium to get across my unedited views and those of my party, to engage in debate with others and to respond to criticisms as I am doing here. Under normal circumstances it takes no more than half an hour a day, though it is only possible to approve comments through the use of a Blackberry whilst on the move and between meetings.

I have also used this blog to generate news items and to add value to various campaigns. It is one small part of my work and yes it is partial and opinionated. If my anonymous commenter does not like that then they do not have to read it. As an Assembly Member I need to reach all sections of society and blogging helps with that. It is not about getting 'down with the kids' as one person alleged elsewhere but talking to people of all ages through a common medium.

None of this answers the basic question posed by 'Welsh taxpayer' but it does put what follows into context. My time as an Assembly Member is filled daily by a whole host of different tasks that amounts to about 70 hours of work a week spread over seven days. I am normally reading my e-mails from about 6.30am and often still working at 11pm on a normal day. It is not the sort of structured day I had when I was a civil servant but it is varied, interesting, engaging and purposeful.

For a start, the idea that I do not have a constituency is nonsense. I am the only Welsh Liberal Democrat AM in South Wales West, representing over 340,000 people spread over seven constituencies, and a large number of them come to me for help with a wide variety of problems. I hold fortnightly surgeries spread around my region and deal with e-mails, letters and visits in the same way as any constituency Assembly Member.

This involves writing to Ministers, liasing with the Child Benefit Agency, the Home Office, Works and Pensions and a whole host of other government agencies. It also means writing to any one of the four local councils in my regions on bread and butter issues that constituents have not managed to resolve in any other way. And yes, that is my job. I get on with it quietly and do not seek to publicise that work either through this blog or any other way unless I judge it will help my constituent.

I have staff to help with this work and other matters as do all Assembly Members. Without them none of us could cope. They help me prepare for debates, deal with constituents including representing them at appeal tribunals, manage my diary and accompany me to visits where it is necessary. I actively supervise that work and direct it.

So what is an average week like for an AM? Well there is no such thing as an average week. During term time I will spend Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Assembly attending formal meetings, meeting with various organisations particularly during lunch times and in the early evening. In this time I will also be dealing with correspondence from constituents asking for my help or seeking to meet me to discuss a particular issue. This will include many organisations who want to influence the Assembly's position on matters of concern to them.

On Mondays, Fridays and weekends I will normally be in my region talking to various local organisations, holding surgeries or meeting with constituents about their problems. This may include, as it did last week, meeting with my local councils for briefings on matters of concern, visiting local educational institutions to discuss their plans, attending church services or formal events and discussing with the local health trust or LHB their plans for hospital or community services. All of this work helps to inform the decisions I have to take as an Assembly Member and can lead to extensive work in writing to and meeting with Ministers on matters affecting my region.

During recess this activity will spread across the whole week though I will also go into Cardiff to catch up with correspondence and meet up with officials regarding my duties as a Commissioner. I work on policy matters, put out press releases commenting on my policy portfolio and local issues and liase with journalists and media organisations on news pieces they are working on. Communication is part of the job so it is ironic that I am being criticised for doing it effectively.

Of course none of this will satisfy those who want rid of me for their own reasons or just believe that the Assembly is a waste of money and should be abolished. Being a full time politician is not like any other job that I have done. It is challenging and it is hard work. I am often tired but that is something I have learnt to live with, because whenever I feel that I cannot go on something comes along to make it all worthwhile and that is normally news that a constituent I have been helping has won their appeal, got the house they have been trying for or just had their problem sorted out thanks to my intervention.

At the end of the day helping people is what I am there to do and nothing beats the feeling when it all works out for the best.
Well Mr Black; it would appear from your blog and the blog of Ms Wagstaff that the dinosaurs of the Labour party have re-activated the hate campaign they made against you pre-2004.

A couple of the political heavyweights of the Labour Party at the time, namely Noel Crowley (Port Talbot Guardian, 13th February 2003) and I seem to remember Jeff J Jones coming out with the comments that you were an “..Unelected Member of the Welsh Assembly”; no new ideas from the Labour Party again I see.

Regards no-one voting you in, it clearly states on the second ballot paper under the “Welsh Liberal Democrats” the names of the candidates in order they would be elected!

How unfortunate it is that it’s due to the inadequacies of the Labour Party that we have been left with this appalling system of electing assembly members. Remember Labour introduced this method of electing AMs.

Why we haven’t got Single Transferable Voting for Town, County Assembly and Parliamentary Elections I don’t know. This method of electing representative has been proposed and championed by the likes of the Electoral Reform Society, not just the Lib Dems, in addition it is voting system commonly used in Europe.

How unfortunate it is that Labour with a minority of the Votes cast in both Neath Port Talbot (49%) and Bridgend (42%) that they end up controlling the Councils.
post a quick comment at lunchtime.

I may not agree with Peters views 100% but this blog does give an invaluable insight into Welsh Assembly politics and the workings of one of its members.

Accusation of being biased or propagandist...How can a writer not be?

this info given in this blog is alot better information than any political journalism in Wales..even better than the Kite newspaper!
the electoral system that is used to elect Assembly Members [...] is not proportional

It would be more true to say that it only approaches proportionality. It is at least better than the Westminster system.
Without naming names, I say with authority that the level of activity of these Regional AMs varies enormously. Political parties aside, in South Wales West I would say without hesitancy that Peter Black works harder than the other three South Wales West Regional AMs put together. Peter like all of us has his faults - this Blog of his in fact is a bit of a "Boring Anorak Hobby" a bit like collecting Bus Numbers! Nobody anywhere can match his dedication to working so hard for his constituents all across South Wales West. That's the most important thing. Well done Peter you are a treasure for Wales even if you have an Anorak hobby!
Peter, I am sure you, and most other regional members, work hard. The problem with the closed list system is that it offers no real means for electors to punish members who don't.
You have to live with the system as it is, of course. Even if STV is unobtainable at present do you agree that a either a national list of 20 AMs or an increase to six list AMs per region would improve matters? What are your views on electors being able to vote "below the line" on an open list so as to indicate a preference for a particular candidate on a party list?
"This involves writing to Ministers, liasing with the Child Benefit Agency, the Home Office, Works and Pensions and a whole host of other government agencies."

My word, you are a busy chap - or are you a busybody?

Share with your readers, why precisely you are you interfering with non-devolved matters, when you patently have no responsibility whatsoever for those Departments you referred to in your post.

Why aren't you re-directing those matters directly to the offices of the local Members of Parliament - those people who ARE actually responsible for these matters?

Assuming you want to offer the best possible advice to members of the public, don't you think it would be wiser and more effective to refer such enquiries to the MP?
Anon: I am not going to turn away people who want my help. A number have already been to their MP but got nowhere.Despite this I am able to help them. The agencies concerned are perfectly happy to deal with me. They even issue the numbers of special hotlines to AMs to assist us. I do though work with some MPs, notably those who take casework seriously, especially on immigration matters.
Possible FOI request there Mr Black to the Lower House, the amount of casework done by our MPs.

I'm sure you aren't going to name names, but there are MPs who I've got time for and others I haven't in this corner of Wales.
Anon 9:59pm:More list AMs would certainly make the list more proportional but if you are going to fiddle with the system at all then why not just introduce STV.
...because that would be too bloody obvious!
Nice to see that I'm mentioned in despatches again by anon. The simple fact is that my views about the regional list AMs have not changed since before 1997. It cannot be right that an individual who was supported by just 14 party members is now an assembly member. We have the present system only because Ron Davies knew that a truely proportional system which he wanted would not have been supported by the Labour party. It was also assumed on the basis of the 1997 UK election results that Labour would win a majority in the assembly on the first past the post seats so the regional AMs were therefore irrelevant. The present closed list system is frankly indefensible. The fact that some of the regional AMs are first class public representatives and I include Peter Black and Alun Cairns in that list should not lead anyone to defend a system of election which is way past its sell by date and an affront to representative democracy.
JJJ fails to comment on the "Unelected Member of the Welsh Assembly" bit that anon wrote.

If the current regional top-up list is "frankly indefencible", then neither is the First Past the Post method of electing constituency AMs.

Labour had 65% of the seats with around 32% of the votes.

STV is needed
Anyone who bothers to speak to me personally will know that I support PR and believe that the STV version is probably the best form of electoral system. I also support elected mayors in local government. The problem with the present system is that the real election takes place amongst the very small number of party members who decide the position of the candidate on the closed list. I happen to believe that Peter Black has been a very good AM who works hard for the area he represents. He can only be elected, however , if he continues to top the list selected by Liberal Democrat members. They and not the electors effectively are in control of his political fate.It is clear from the figures for Plaid's internal election for the list system that a very small number of members can effectively get rid of someone who potentially is or has been an excellent public representative. That cannot be defended in any democracy. In next year's European election we proabably already know the names of the succesful 4 MEPs unless of course the present political climate leads to a complete melt down of support for the Labour party. I doubt if most voters will even take part in the election except to give their opinion on the performance of the Westminster government.
Well the lib dems in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend using STV have chosen well in picking Mr Black on three occations.

I can't possibly comment on how the other parties chose their candidates for the list.

I am well aware that JJJ is in favour of PR & STV as per his comments to the Richards Commission.

How are our councillors approved? What say do the public have in picking them?

How many political parties have any form of selection process, candidates are usually slotted in, seem to remember someone living in Maesteg East standing for Labour in Coychurch Lower.
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