For the last eighteen years changes to the membership of Assembly Committee chairs have, by convention, been nodded through the Assembly. They are decided in the usual whips carve up so that every party is satisfied and the outcome is therefore a formality when it comes to the vote on the floor of the Assembly. Except this week when the Conservative Party played hard ball and refused to vote for changes that spiralled out from Neil McEvoy being suspended from the Plaid Cymru group.
Their decision was only partly to do with the same cause but motivated differently. McEvoy leaving the Plaid group means that he has now joined Dafydd Elis-Thomas outside the Plaid designation. Over the same period Mark Reckless moved from UKIP to the Conservatives. These three shifts resulted in a change of balance in the Assembly with Plaid dropping from 12 to 10 seats, and the Conservatives increasing from 11 to 12. This has made the Conservatives the second party in the Assembly and the official opposition in the Senedd.
The issue that has got the Conservatives so angry is that they have not received any additional Committee chairs to reflect this, and that has seemingly turned mild mannered Paul Davies, Conservative Chief Whip, from David Banner into the Incredible Hulk of the Business Committee. He is furious at the situation and quite rightly so. Therefore, the Conservatives took the opportunity this week to abstain on the Committee place allocations. It wasn’t smashing up the lab, but it was certainly turning a Bunsen burner on overnight.
I find myself in total agreement with Paul Davies, who said in Plenary: “It is simply not right that an opposition party in this institution with fewer Members than another opposition party has more committee Chairs, and this could have serious implications in the future for this institution. In the year of the twentieth anniversary of devolution, is this really the message that the Assembly wants to send to the people of Wales? If this situation is allowed to continue, then it has become clear that the majority of this Assembly no longer supports a balanced Assembly that reflects the political balance of its Members. Therefore, Llywydd, I believe that this is yet another sad day for the National Assembly and its operations, and a sad day for our constitution.”
This is more than a semantic point. It is a fundamental point of principle and is basically deeply unfair. The other three parties are, for different reasons, upholding an unfair status quo and the Conservatives are being discriminated against. Plaid obviously have an interest in protecting their advantage. UKIP are still narked over the Reckless defection and don’t want to create a situation in which he could get the extra Committee chairmanship. And Labour are still behaving as if they are in a compact with Plaid and buttering them up as if Labour’s Chief Whip were more interested in appeasing Plaid than pleasing her own backbenchers (the perverse psychology of which deserves a wholly separate column to discuss). The motivations are different but not defensible in public, since Paul Davies was once again the only whip and business manager to speak on the issue on Wednesday. The other parties are too ashamed to vocalise their motivations or their logic.
But let me not just point to the problem, let me offer two possible solutions. Firstly, and most easily, the Assembly could amend Standing Orders to eliminate Paul Davies’ grievance and say that the balance of chairs is fossilised at the start of every Assembly and that the initial balance cannot be changed. It is the silence on this point in Standing Orders that is causing the problem. Such a change would disincentivise the changing of party groups and help to stabilise the role of chairs. Because, even though I agree with the point of principle Paul makes, I feel it unfair to Simon Thomas, Bethan Jenkins or Dai Lloyd that one of them might be faced with relinquishing a chair. They have all done excellent jobs in posts entrusted to them not by party whips or leaders but by their Assembly colleagues.
A second option is bolder still: create another Committee. Before everyone goes spare at this suggestion, reflect on a lesser noticed occurrence this week. Earlier this week the Welsh Government introduced the Regulation of Registered Social Landlords (Wales) Bill. It has been remitted, as all Bills are, to a Committee of the Assembly for scrutiny but the chosen Committee – the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee – is so busy with Brexit it is creating a sub Committee to deal with it. Let me not get into a stress about that action but rather simply make the suggestion that this Committee is split in two somehow. It was constituted pre-referendum and Brexit has changed everything. There should be a stand alone European and External Affairs Committee.
The second part change would then be establishing a small Additional Legislation Committee with a Conservative chair to look at the Registered Social Landlords Bill and also any overspill legislation. It could also be remitted to examine the Bill which is bound to arise from the current examination of the Assembly’s workings under Professor Laura McAllister. That’s enough of a programme to warrant a four of five member Committee which could make use of under-utilised potential Committee members like Andrew RT Davies, Leanne Wood and Dafydd Elis Thomas. To make a beautiful full circle, the Assembly could even elect Paul Davies to chair it.
You might not like either of this suggestions, but surely they are preferable to the current unfair situation. It is time to restore the harmony and change the rules, change the number of Committees, or change the party balance of chairs.
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