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Monday, December 02, 2013

Spitting in the wind

There is no doubt in my view that at some stage we will have to address the issue of whether there are enough Assembly Members to properly run a legislature.

This is not about the workload of individual AMs. It is about whether there is enough time in the working week for all the committees and Plenary to do justice to the policy, scrutiny and law-making job they have been given.

To do it properly there needs to be more Plenary meetings and more committee meetings, but unless we have more Assembly Members then these bodies cannot be populated, simply because members are already engaged on other committees.

However, this is not the time to press it, simply because there is no consensus for such a change and, in times of economic hardship, when we should be focussing on cost of living issues instead, our constant obsession with the size of the Assembly and its powers looks self-serving.

In the first instance, I direct this advice at the Cardiff North AM, Julie Morgan, who is reported in the Western Mail this morning as raising precisely these issues. She has told the paper that a shortage of AMs mean that backbenchers are more “controlled” by whips due to the delicate balance of support in the Senedd.  She has pointed to the fact that half of Labour’s 30 AMs have some sort of role in governance, either as a Minister, Presiding Officer or Chief Whip:

“I think we need more government backbenchers. Part of the role of the backbenchers is to criticise the government. It’s an accepted role of the backbench role that you do praise them and try and push your policies and that sort of thing.”

She added: “It would be commonly accepted in Westminster that a government minister would be given a hard time - or questioned very acutely in a very challenging way - by people from his or her own side. That would be completely accepted as part of the culture. But because it’s so small here, it’s quite difficult to do that. I think it makes it more tribal really.”

Mrs Morgan also called for an overhaul of the committee structure, saying a decision by the Labour Chief Whip Janice Gregory to replace her and two other members of the Children and Young People’s Committee in April at very short notice, allegedly over a Plaid Cymru proposal to write the issue of writing a smacking ban into the Social Services Bill, was an example of something that could not happen in Westminster.

Actually, none of these are good reasons to increase the number of Assembly Members. The fact that half the Labour Group are on the Government payroll is their choice. It has not always been thus. If Julie Morgan has a problem with that then the person to address her complaint to is the First Minister.

There is nothing to stop Labour backbenchers engaging in constructive scrutiny or holding the executive to account, indeed one or two of them do so rather effectively. The problem is when it comes to legislation they meekly accept the whip on issues they have felt very strongly about at stage one.

The fact is that even with 80 members the same culture would prevail. That is because Welsh politics is tribal by its nature and it is still easier to control a small group of 30 to 40, squashed into one building than it is one of 250 to 350 spread out amongst several office blocks around Westminster.

There is no committee structure that would prevent Labour whips acting in the way they did on the Children and Young People's Committee. Even in Westminster, whips make sure that troublemakers do not get on to Bill Committees. 

The fact is that when we start to look closely at this call for more members, it is not about the size of the Assembly at all. It is about the control-freakery of the Welsh Labour Party. It is a culture Julie Morgan and others have been part of all their political lives. Thank goodness some are now starting to question it, even if only by proxy.
Control freakery of the labour people... YES ... making my life a hell on earth for the last years
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