Last autumn when I and others spoke out against the decision of the Welsh Government to discontinue publishing Ministerial Decision Reports – a decision reversed after we persisted in challenging the move – several people warned me to be careful. As a lobbyist, they said, why the hell are you going out of your way to challenge government so openly? Where’s the business case in antagonising the very people you’re trying to influence?
Of course, I thought long and hard about taking such a public role on such a matter. But is my view that it is not just opposition parties which have an obligation to challenge and expose bad policy making. We in the public affairs community have an important role to play too.
I was very struck by the recent suggestion by the UK Government that something needs to be done about third sector organisations using public funds to campaign against them. It is a suggestion I am not entirely persuaded by, partly because my experience here in Wales is of the direct opposite. In many instances those receiving public money do very little to speak out against the Welsh Government.
This is a theme that concerns others too. Let me give one example. I was very struck by evidence presented to the enquiry into poverty undertaken by the Communities Committee of the Assembly last year. During evidence sessions some organisations were very reticent to criticise any aspect of Welsh Government work on poverty reduction. I think Jocelyn Davies, the excellent Plaid Cymru member for South Wales East hit the nail on the head when she got Chwarae Teg, for example, to admit on the record they were directly funded by Welsh Government.
Dr Rebecca Rumbul expressed the same dichotomy in an article which appeared on this site last week:
“There is no question about whether government should provide at least some funding to civil society groups – it absolutely should, in particular to those that provide vital services. However, the distance between donor and recipient has been shown to be concerningly close in Wales, in particular with regard to those organisations that receive the bulk of their funding from the Welsh Government. Quite naturally, organisations do not wish to bite the hand that feeds. To criticise one’s benefactor is risky in the most benign of situations, let alone when you and your staff are vulnerable to an annual review of your organisation’s funding.”
She makes a salient point and one which begs consideration by civil society. There is a relationship of co-dependency between many parts of the third sector and the Welsh Government. It sometimes feels that whole swathes of the sector have been almost nationalised and therefore, in effect, muzzled.
Surely in such circumstances there is an obligation for the financial relationship to be disclosed. In the interests of transparency I think that in the next Assembly every organisation giving evidence to an Assembly Committee, be it written or oral, should disclose the proportion of its income it receives from Welsh Government, either directly or indirectly.
In my view this step would help place the evidence received in a more transparent context. If Assembly Members have to disclose their interests in meetings – and I welcome that step as one of the very few that have been taken toward increasing transparency in the National Assembly in recent years – then so should those providing evidence to them.
But there is more that needs to be considered too. As Dr Rumbul also said last week:
“Without plurality in our civil society sector, and with perpetual organisational fear of funding withdrawal, civil society groups will continue to sanitise their views and limit their contributions to wider debate. The inevitable result of this course of action is that policy development will be stunted. Most concerningly, it will likely travel in the direction of the ideological preferences of Labour Ministers, rather than towards innovative real-world solutions that take advantage of Wales’ agility and showcase the best of its civil society talent.”
This point about ideology is also hugely important and needs addressing. Along with financial disclosure, I would suggest that disclosure of political affiliation should be clearly made. Thus if the person giving evidence is a member of a political party then that should be placed on the record too. If that makes some people feel uncomfortable, then it is a price worth paying.
Bluntly, the case for transparency and the onus for providing ideas for change is not just on politicians. Public Affairs Cymru which I helped found a decade ago as an umbrella body for public affairs professionals once played a key representative role for the industry. We spoke up for publishing a record of meetings between Welsh Government ministers, officials and external organisations. We even said Assembly Members should keep the same sort of record of when they are lobbied. But these days PAC does none of that. It said nothing when I and other members spoke out in favour of steps for transparency. It has become more interested in the quality of the buffet than the quality of our democracy.
If it falls to me once again to be the prick in the Bubble, then so be it. I’ve been called worse. And if it results in a few cold shoulders, I’m used to that too. In defence of Welsh Government, however, at no point in the last few months has any minister, special adviser or official phoned me to criticise the stance I took on Ministerial Decision Reports; and I don’t expect this article to result in any thinly veiled threats either. However, I am aware of plenty of other examples over the years where such warning approaches had taken place. It would not be fair of me to name names, but I am sure this statement will strike a chord with many.
The fourth Assembly has been the most closed and the least-transparent one that I’ve seen. By beginning a debate now, as that Assembly draws to a close, maybe we can see major steps forward in transparency and disclosure for the next five years.