It’s been quite a week.
The sacking of Jenny Rathbone as the chair of the All-Wales Programme Monitoring Committee is one of those political issues that from time to time causes significant disruption to politicians and journalists but without ever touching or troubling the wider electorate. These things are usually dismissed by those who wish to dismiss such matters as merely a subject for the chattering classes. Rarely is there a substantive debate on either the issue or what it represents. And this is a shame because quite often wider issues are raised by such things.
Jenny has a long reputation as a hard-working campaigner and as a forthright political figure unafraid to speak her mind on a range of subjects. She certainly challenged me as a minister over many aspects of CAP reform and food policy and it never occurred to me for a moment that she shouldn’t do so.
Her political roots are deep in the same north London Islington party as Jeremy Corbyn and she appears to share the same dissenting voice as our new leader. And this voice is important. The dissenting tradition has been a strong part of the culture and history of the Labour party and the wider Labour movement. There are certainly times when this tradition sits uneasily with the terror of the whipping system in local government, the Assembly or Parliament. Perhaps today the tradition is honoured more in the abstract than in the particular.
My experience of the Bay is that discipline is enforced as much by peer pressure as by an unexpected visit from the chief whip. In a small chamber the pressure from friends and from colleagues is far more powerful than in Westminster where it appears to be possible to avoid meeting a colleague for years on end. And whilst there is much uninformed comment about the power of the whip in the Labour group my experience is again somewhat different. There is no whip applied on matters of scrutiny and I have never been approached by the chief whip for a quiet word after a particularly bruising encounter with a minister. In the privacy of government I witnessed our current chief whip standing up for backbenchers and telling ministers quite clearly that it is job of backbenchers to scrutinise and to hold ministers to account. And to be fair this is something that most ministers understand and recognise without question.
So why was Jenny sacked for saying something on the M4 which is wholly unrelated to her previous role and for expressing concern on an issue where there is considerable disagreement within the Labour group?
It is clear that this has been handled poorly by the government and the advice received by the First Minister has led to far greater difficulties for the government than the original offence. Jenny’s views on the M4 are well-known and she has expressed those same views on many occasions. Ironically the Government has now appointed Mick Antoniw to take Jenny’s place. Mick is well-known for his opposition to the government’s proposals on the M4 and used an interview on Radio Wales to repeat those views on the morning of his appointment.
Jenny’s comments on the wider culture in the Bay and in government are perhaps more interesting. In general most ministers are quite relaxed about backbenchers opposing or questioning their proposals. I have certainly taken full advantage of Leighton’s patience on local government reorganisation and Edwina’s patience on the M4 itself. Neither minister has at any time questioned my right to speak out or to campaign on either issue.
But there does seem to be an increasing tendency of some in government to impose their views in areas where it is not appropriate to do so. I have already expressed my disappointment with the First Minister’s decision on this matter. It has clearly created some difficulty in the Labour group which was unnecessary and created a situation where members are now playing out these divisions in public.
Our democracy in the Assembly is quite young and it occasionally suffers from growing pains. In a more mature democracy such things would probably pass without comment. But our democracy is one where we are still creating a political culture in which dissent is not only tolerated but valued for providing a broader and wider debate. What is the point of backbenchers if it is not to say what they believe to be true?
And this is not limited to Labour. Plaid leader, Leanne Wood, sacked Dafydd Elis Thomas as a committee chair for making comments which in the Labour party would have got him elected as party leader. At the same time Nick Ramsay was sacked as a committee chair by his party leader for disagreeing on an obscure element of taxation policy which was subsequently dropped by the UK Government.
So what to do about this state of affairs? My own view is that the Assembly should adopt the same approach as Westminster where committee chairs are elected by all members rather than remain in the gift of whips and party leaders who use such positions as either reward or punishment as necessary. This would serve to strengthen both the institution and the independence of the scrutiny process.
The Programme Monitoring Committee, from which Jenny was sacked, is of course not an Assembly committee. The rules which establish the committee insist that the chair is a representative of the Welsh Government, although the EU legislation establishing the monitoring framework does not insist upon this. Like many others I was surprised to learn that the Welsh Government insist that the chair accept the doctrine of collective responsibility which is normally only applicable in an executive role. This is not an executive role it is a scrutiny role and that is different. An executive cannot scrutinise itself. The EU legislation is clear that the Committee “should be able to make observations to managing authorities…and monitor actions taken as a result of its observations” which does seem to imply a certain distance or freedom from the restrictions of government. Perhaps the best approach now would be to amend these rules to remove the collective responsibility demand and allow the Assembly to appoint the chair. This would guarantee the independence of the scrutiny process which oversees the expenditure of many millions of pounds and would bring this committee into line with others in the scrutiny of the government’s actions.