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Friday, March 14, 2014

Sacking of former PO raises wider questions

Every political party needs discipline. some though exercise it more liberally than others and not always appropriately.

In many ways the Plaid Cymru leader had little choice in taking action against Dafydd Elis Thomas as he topped off a nightmare party conference weekend for her by directly and publicly contradicting a key part of her speech. However, the Plaid Cymru peer does have a valid point in arguing that |Assembly committee chairs should have an element of protection from such considerations to enable them to do their job.

In previous Assemblies we have seen members removed from commitees by the ruling party or parties so as to prevent them scrutinising too closely specific items of legislation.

In this Assembly, Labour moved committee chairs around to preempt a rebellion on the social services bill over smacking children, the Tories sacked their committee chair because he abstained in a key vote and now Plaid Cymru have removed Dafydd Elis Thomas as Chair of the Sustainability Committee for internal party reasons.

On the BBC, Lord Elis Thomas says that the current system where committee chairs are nominated by the political parties undermines the system's independence:

He said he would consider over the weekend challenging a motion to replace him as chair of the environment committee.

"It would give us an opportunity to raise the issue in public and explain to the people of Wales that AMs are more gagged and have less of a democratic scrutiny within their party system than happens even in Westminster," he said.

His remarks have attracted support from others. The Labour AM for Pontypridd, Mick Antoniw said the committees needed to be "independent of political party influence" and that Plaid Cymru's decision to remove Lord Elis-Thomas as chair was damaging to the committee.

Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach agreed that "it should not be in the gift of political parties to choose committee chairs".

The North Wales representative added the assembly had "lessons to learn here from Westminster" where committee chairs were elected by backbenchers.

Ms Sandbach said Lord Elis-Thomas's years of knowledge gathered as chairman had been lost and was not "easily replaceable".

"Politically, I didn't always see eye-to-eye with Dafydd Elis-Thomas but I do think he has been a good chair," she said.

Liberal Democrat AM William Powell said he was disappointed with Plaid Cymru's decision to try and remove him as chair adding that Lord Elis-Thomas was a "distinguished, fiercely independent" chair of the committee.

I agree with them but find it difficult to see how any system can be completely immune from party political considerations. Part of the problem is the size of the Assembly and the party groups, which means that members often combine the role of chair with a spokespersonship. In other words they cannot remain above the party political fray in the same way as they do at Westminster.

In media terms too, Wales is a very small place and dissent of any kind attracts disproportionate attention, putting party leaders in a difficult position.

And of course it is very easy to criticise the dsciplinary actions of other parties, not so straightforward when it is your own leader calling the shots.
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