Welsh Government plays judge and jury

Kirsty Williams on how Ministers in the Assembly are the last group of politicians in Wales who still police themselves.

The recent controversy surrounding the Health Minister’s cover up of a critical report has highlighted how difficult it can be for the National Assembly to hold Ministers to account. Recently I obtained a copy of the report, commissioned by the Health Minister and written by McKinsey and Company. The document made serious criticisms of the government’s leadership of the NHS. It stated that the Welsh Government’s strategic objectives are “too numerous and not prioritised so none or the wrong objectives are implemented”. It added that the Government’s strategies are “financially unaffordable”, “lack accountability” and that there is “a lack of capacity to deliver” them.

The public interest is best served by ensuring that these recommendations are put in the public domain, not least to help address one of the most serious criticisms in the report, namely the “lack of accountability” for government  objectives.  Indeed, a remarkably similar document, called ‘the McKinsey report’ has been put into the public domain by the Westminster Government.

After I obtained the report, which the Health Minister had denied existed, I wrote to the relevant body to ask for an investigation into whether she had broken the rules set out in the Ministerial Code. The name of the relevant body charged with investigating alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code? Her boss, the First Minister.

Now it is blatantly obvious that the First Minister, in investigating his own cabinet and party colleagues will be unlikely to want to criticise a member of his own Government.

In fact, the situation is more ludicrous than that. A year or so ago, my colleague Jenny Randerson reported the then First Minister for a potential breach of the Ministerial Code. In this instance,  the First Minister was duly investigated. By whom? Well… the First Minister. And in due course, Rhodri Morgan was cleared of any wrong doing by, of course, Rhodri Morgan. You couldn’t make it up.

This ludicrous situation doesn’t work for democracy but it doesn’t really work for the First Minister either. If I as First Minister was accused of breaking the Ministerial Code I would want that accusation disproved beyond all reasonable doubt. And that could only happen through an independent investigation.

So the policing of the Code of Conduct needs to be improved. And I am not the only person with concerns about this matter. The Assembly’s cross-party Standards Committee and the independent Commissioner for Standards have expressed concerns about the policing of this Code.

The Government cannot play both judge and jury. Other Governments in the UK have accepted this and that is why they have different systems, all of which are more independent than ours.

In the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister has set up a panel of former Presiding Officers to advise him on the application of the Ministerial Code. In Westminster, the Prime Minister, after consultation with the Cabinet Secretary, can refer the matter to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests.

Even within Wales, Government Ministers are alone amongst elected politicians in operating this bizarre and inadequate form of self-regulation. Allegations of misconduct by Assembly Members are investigated by the independent Commissioner for Standards. Allegations of misconduct by local councillors are referred to the Standards Board. MPs accused of wrong doing are held accountable by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards – and the system is to be strengthened still further. It is only allegations of misconduct by Welsh Government Ministers that are investigated by the First Minister.

I have called for a full review to be undertaken immediately, with the aim of creating a new system that has cross-party support and is independent of the Government. We cannot have faith in the conduct of Ministers if the power of scrutiny is not open and transparent.

This should be the start of a process to give the Assembly the power to hold Ministers to account. We need other changes too and they will require a confident Assembly and mature politicians. But if the Government makes these changes, Wales can make the first step on the crucial journey towards a better scrutiny system and a more mature, open and effective democracy of which  all of Wales can be proud.

As our democracy matures, strengthening the ability of the National Assembly to scrutinise the Government becomes ever more important. Asking someone else to look over your work improves your grades. Giving Assembly Members a chance to highlight their constituents concerns makes services more responsive. And improved scrutiny leads to improved policy, to smarter thinking and better solutions. The National Assembly has condensed its mission statement into a single sentence, which visitors to the Senedd can see emblazoned across the building:

“The National Assembly for Wales is the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people, makes laws for Wales and holds the Welsh Government to account.

As we approach the referendum on powers next year, we need to consider how we can improve the National Assembly’s role of holding the Government to account. This is also about spreading power to as many people as possible. Spreading power between institutions is an important part of the philosophy of Liberalism. It is by introducing checks and balances that we stop governments from wielding too much power and ensure that they are held to account for their actions.

Kirsty Williams is leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

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