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Monday, November 20, 2017

Time to act on the independent adjudication of the Welsh Ministerial code

'It is wholly unacceptable for the First Minister to be the sole decider on whether he and his cabinet colleagues have broken ministerial rules.' That was the judgement of the then leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams in November 2012 as she led a move to establish a system that allows the Ministerial Code to be policed independently of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

Kirsty moved a motion in the Assembly Plenary on 21 November calling for the Welsh Government to commit to ensure the policing of the ministerial code is independent and transparent. The record of Proceedings can be read here. The Welsh Liberal Democrats group were concerned that the only person who decides on whether or not the ministerial code of conduct has been broken is the First Minister.

Unfortunately, the motion was defeated on the casting vote of the Presiding Officer with the First Minister arguing that there is nothing wrong with the current system. In summing up he said:

We have to bear in mind, of course—and I will draw my remarks to a close at this point—that the ministerial code is a matter for me. It is right to say that Ministers are answerable and accountable to the Assembly and, in their professional performance, to me. I am, in turn, accountable to the Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. We do not have a system where nobody is accountable in any way. There is clear chain of accountability through this Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. In the absence of any examples of where the system has failed, in the absence of any suggestions as to why a presumably paid independent adviser should be put in place to deal with an exceptionally small number of complaints, and in the absence of any argument that suggests that an independent adviser would be in a different position to the civil servants currently providing independent advice to me, the Government is not able to support the motion as presently proposed. There are sufficient checks and balances in the current system. There is no suggestion that the current system is, in some way, not working. There is no suggestion that the current system has, in some way, failed to discover any wrongdoing by Ministers.

If anything the five years that have passed since that debate, and I recent events in particular, have underlined the relevance of the motion brought by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The First Minister himself stands accused of misleading the Assembly, with no satisfactory means of investigating that complaint and holding him to account. 

In addition, serious allegations against a Minister were passed to the Labour Party to be dealt with by the First Minister, instead of using the existing, unsatisfactory process. 

As I said in that debate in 2012, 'We have a situation where the Welsh Government seems to be unique in being the only body, institution, or group of people in Wales that still sits as judge and jury on complaints against itself.'  No body or institution can justify that position in the light of all that has happened. It was difficult enough to argue in favour of that status quo five years ago. Surely it is time for change.
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