Jocelyn Davies says the Welsh Government’s withdrawal from scrutiny by the media is undermining democracy
The changes that have occurred in Welsh Government over the past months have given rise to many questions. How would Labour deal with life governing alone? What would be the major priorities of a government with no majority? What would Labour do – and when? What affects would the budget cuts have on the future of Wales’ public services? I could go on.
Most of these major questions still hang unanswered over six months after the Labour government was formed. The inaction of most ministers has led to more frustration around whether this will be a government of any action rather than debate around the political merit of the action it takes.
However, the government’s response to such serious lingering questions has been to cut off one of the main means the media used to have of holding ministers to account, the weekly Lobby briefing.
The lobby briefing was not always the most comfortable platform for a Minister in the Welsh Government. Ministers would in turn have to front-up on a Tuesday morning in front of an audience of the nation’s political correspondents – collectively labelled ‘the Lobby’. The first task for the Minister was to set out the Welsh Government’s agenda for the week. However, the main challenge was to field questions from the journalists about any issue of the day or any aspect of the government’s work.
At times Ministers have been caught without enough information to be able to fully answer a question, which is understandable. But the real benefit for the Lobby was to be able to really scrutinise what the government was doing, and explore different ministers’ takes on some of the most significant and sensitive issues of the day.
Was it a difficult task? Yes. I sat there myself fielding some difficult questions – and it was by no means a walk in the park. But I did so in the knowledge that it was about allowing public scrutiny of the government’s work.
Here in Wales, general awareness of what our national government does from day to day is not as high as many of us would like. Certainly, it is not as high as it is in Westminster and elsewhere in the world, and certainly not as high as it should be in any democracy. Like other Ministers at the time, I recognised the importance of the briefing in giving real transparency and accountability to the work of the government.
The decision to cancel these important scrutiny sessions may not shake the foundations of Welsh democracy. I suppose that the Lobby briefing may have been more interesting to anoraks than to the average taxpayer and I certainly don’t claim that the issue competes with jobs, health, and education as the main concerns for the public. But it is important because it allows scrutiny of how the Welsh government deals with those very concerns.
So with the demise of the Lobby briefing the Welsh public has lost a serious tool of our democracy. It enabled a level of press scrutiny that allowed journalists to say to the public, “Yes, we put that question to a Welsh Government Minister on your behalf.”
Press scrutiny isn’t something which governments should treat like a door that can be open or closed as it sees fit. If that were the case governments could simply choose whether or not to allow the public to have the opportunity to pose questions on how their money is spent, and how their nation is run.
It may or may not be convenient at the moment for the current Welsh Government to shy away from public scrutiny and close down opportunities to question. But we must take a wider view.
Questions about whether this Labour government should shut down an important tool of scrutiny are fundamental to the nature of our democracy in Wales. Those in power should carefully consider the implications of their decision to go down this road.
In my view the only outcome will be to weaken the all-important link between people and government, as well as to further erode the general awareness of what the Welsh Government does. In a year that began with a resounding renewal of the mandate for devolution, it saddens me that its end will see the raising of the drawbridge of accountability which, in part at least, contributed to that earlier renewal of trust.