A parliamentary democracy is more than a name

An election should be an opportunity for renewal. After an overlong five years our Senedd election certainly changed the faces and the atmosphere in the chamber. But it should have been an opportunity for more fundamental change rather than simply re-arranging the seating.

It is disappointing therefore that we end the first term after this election in exactly the same position as we found ourselves prior to dissolution.

All too often debates around Senedd reform focus on the number of members and the electoral system. That’s fair enough. I fully expect this Senedd to finally end the agony of this debate by moving to a larger institution elected by STV.

And Amen to that.

But there are other – and potentially equally as important – issues to address. How we conduct our business and the culture within the institution needs to be addressed. Often overlooked, it is these issues which determine how our democracy looks and how it works.

Some of these issues have raised their heads in recent days. Andrew RT Davies is absolutely right that the Senedd is “stale and subdued”. We certainly need more vitality but it’s not meant to be stand-up entertainment either. My concern is that all too often it fails to deliver the scrutiny and the accountability that any democratic system demands and requires of its legislature.

And quite frankly it is not good enough for the Presiding Officer to respond to this criticism by saying that she will support change. Most would expect her to be an advocate and a leader of change.

But my comments today are about the institution rather than individuals.

In many ways Andrew’s suggestions mirror the points that I have been making for some years. I asked a question on removing the dreadful computers from the chamber two years ago. I well remember Steffan Lewis refusing to turn on his machine. They are an eyesore, a distraction and they need to go. I also agree with Andrew on four year terms. I asked to be allowed to present a Bill to this effect before the last election but my request was refused. Last year I raised the issue of government statements being made to the media before they are made to the Chamber. But let’s be clear. It’s not the government’s role to demand this accountability. It’s the job of the legislature to provide it. The Presiding Officer needs to look to the Speaker of the House of Commons and learn some lessons in holding the executive to account.

At the same time the relationship between the body that runs the Senedd, the Commission, and Members is at its very lowest ebb. In my 14 years as a Member I do not remember that relationship being as difficult as it is today. Decisions such as those on the various policies and procedures that are put in place to help us do our jobs and represent the people of this country have been variously suspended or reviewed or reversed in recent weeks. A Commission in touch with the day-to-day work of Members would not have proposed such policies in the first place. For me the snooping and spying authorised by the IT policy is the final straw. It is now possible for the Commission to read emails that I send to constituents and emails between myself and staff in my office. They can access all my documents, speeches, my committee prep and even access this blog post. These are intrusive surveillance powers not possessed by the police and or even the security services. And they need to go.

And to be fair there is disquiet on all sides of the Chamber. The Labour Group took the extraordinary, and in my experience unprecedented, step of writing to Elin Jones to express the deep unease felt by many Labour Members about this direction of travel. It is disappointing that we have received only warm words in response.

So where do we go from here? I agree that more urgent questions would mean greater scrutiny and would mean Ministers addressing issues of the moment rather than weeks later. But questions also have to be questions. I sat through “questions” last week where sometimes the “question” took nearly two minutes to be read out. This is not scrutiny either. Questions need to be sharper and so do ministerial responses. I’d start by stopping members reading out their questions. We should all be able to speak without notes for 30 seconds or so.

The second issue is that of how we conduct our debates. I know of no member who finds the current situation satisfactory. Hour-long debates shoe-horned into Wednesday afternoons with each one of us allowed only five minutes to make our case satisfy no-one. I would propose that we have a single longer opposition debate – at least two hours – and allow Members the opportunity to speak for at least ten minutes. This would allow us to exchange views and actually debate across the chamber rather than listen to speeches which were written days in advance being laboriously read onto the record. We also need to allow Members to debate and not only to question government statements where we can properly engage with government policy. Debate should mean exactly that. And I do not believe that debates can be held virtually. Politics demands more than that.

My final issue for today is that of our committees. This is where the hard work of scrutiny takes place. Where witnesses and ministers can be cross-examined and where we can get to grips with policy or government delivery. Why then is our ability to scrutinise and question government being undermined in this Senedd?

Last Wednesday with no fanfare and noticed by no-one except the faithful we elected the Senedd’s committees for the next few years. What was not announced was that these committees will move from a weekly pattern of meetings to a two-weekly pattern. At a stroke the time available to scrutinise and hold the government to account is halved. 

This is important. The Finance Committee has already written to say that it will be unable to deliver on its statutory obligations to scrutinise the government’s budget. For other committees with a larger legislative load the time and space available for policy scrutiny will be reduced still further. This will also mean that the ability of the institution to deliver private member’s legislation will also be reduced. A small institution will be made smaller.

And this is not the government’s doing. It is a decision of the Senedd itself.

Committees need far greater independence to set their own timetables, determine when they will meet and how they will conduct their scrutiny. And Business Committee should be established on the same basis as other committees, publishing its papers and transcripts. We need the transparency of light being shed on these decisions.

The Senedd needs reform. And that reform needs to reach into every part of how we manage our affairs. The Senedd needs to be at once a more considered and a more spontaneous legislature. The days of politics like colouring by numbers are over.

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