Information shut down

Daran Hill says the decision to stop Ministerial Decision Reports is an affront to open government in Wales.

I sincerely, genuinely and passionately want to be much more proud of our Welsh democracy than I actually am. Having sweated as National Organiser of Yes for Wales in 1997 and Campaign Director during the 2011 powers referendum, I want to feel enthused and enamoured of how our Welsh democracy is notably better, more transparent and more responsive. But frankly I can’t be because on so many levels it is so deeply disappointing.

Plenary sessions finishing at five o’clock even when the Assembly hasn’t sat for two months.

Carve ups for Committee chairs because, unlike Westminster, power and patronage is held in the hands of party machines, not by ordinary elected members.

A culture of refusing Urgent Questions as inconvenient, thus allowing the Welsh Government off the hook when it has difficult questions to answer on hoisting flags to commemorate dead Saudi kings, the alleged dropping of the M4 relief road, or a whole range of other issues the oft cited “people of Wales” care about a damn site more than some of the dire, process driven nonsense that finds its way on to plenary agendas.

With the Assembly increasingly behaving less like a democratic, transparent and open forum, it’s no wonder the Welsh Government is following suit.

So we get banal or evasive answers to Written Questions.

Explanatory Memoranda for Bills so wildly variable that even Welsh Government ministers themselves concede they aren’t up to the job.

And now – the cherry on the cake – the Welsh Government has unilaterally decided to stop publishing Ministerial Decision Reports.

This move is a desperately worrying step for anyone with an interest in the transparency and mechanics of government in Wales. Decision Reports have never been best seller reading material, but they have been a vital way of understanding when and why decisions are made. Dozens of them were produced every week and, unlike opaque cabinet minutes, they covered every aspect of Welsh Government policy making.

So now they are gone and all because “From 28 September 2015, as a result of streamlining our process for ministerial advice, we no longer produce decision reports.”

Read that carefully. The explanation is everything to do with internal process, and nothing to do with transparency and democracy. There is no substitute mechanism being developed. It’s just basically an information shut down.

This end of the publication of Ministerial Decision Reports is an affront to anyone with a real belief in open government in Wales.

And before any anonymous commentators on this site says I’m only flagging all this up because I’m a lobbyist, I’d ask them to consider two things. Firstly, the more information that is in the public domain in an open manner, it is arguable there is less need for professional lobbyists to operate. Secondly, if lobbying is all about cosying up to politicians then I’m hardly making a success of that with Welsh Government by writing this article.

But, you know what, I just don’t care. Because sometimes you get to the point where things have ended up so disappointing you that you just speak out and damn the consequences. So that’s what I’m doing – transparently, openly and bluntly.

Daran Hill is the MD of Positif.

34 thoughts on “Information shut down

  1. “No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
    ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

  2. “But, you know what, I just don’t care. Because sometimes you get to the point where things have ended up so disappointing you that you just speak out and damn the consequences. So that’s what I’m doing – transparently, openly and bluntly.”

    Too little too late! Which part of NO didn’t you understand? You had your chance and blew it – now we’re all living with the consequences! Thanks! Not…

  3. An opportunity here for civil society to step into the breach. Monthly FoIs for “the facts and analysis on which ministers have taken their decisions”.
    I’m starting – as from 2 October – with all information relating to:
    – Environment
    – Planning
    – Energy
    They will all then be publicly available on the FoI disclosure log

  4. Darran, thank you for speaking up.

    Is it a case of the Assembly gradually emulating Local Government, reflecting the experience of many of the AMs, and glutinous limitations of the partial powers it has in order to operate?

    Most AMs know that an unequivocal stance is required of the Assembly, in order to keep the Government and Civil Service in line, but their lack of confidence is breathtaking. We need people who will bang tables, stand on a point of principle, and get the best deal. There is a dire lack of conviction. The Assembly is not there for the convenience of senior politicians – they have Westminster for that.

    The answer to all reasoned arguments should be ‘because it serves the vision of a people who want to improve life – in every respect – and create a just and equitable society’. We mostly agree on the principles involved, but we let the minutiae trip us up. What we don’t have is a proper political context to negotiate the delivery of these principles. Currently we are a eastern European basket case, stuck in the prosperous West, and it needs to change.

    Stephen Crabb’s fear of independence, implied recently by an aide, is a little suggestion of what may lie behind this, at least in part. ‘If we stand up for what we want, they’ll think (gasp) that we want independence’. Even though the term ‘independence’ is practically meaningless, any sign of backbone is seen as a sop to it, and to be avoided. Much easier to be municipal, and at Wales County Council, its business as usual.

  5. The Welsh electorate have the solution in their own hands – throw the rascals out. Here’s a simple rule: in the constituency vote, if your AM is not Labour vote for whichever candidate you think is best for you, including the Labour one. If your AM is Labour don’t vote for him/her on any account, even if you like them. Choose the next best alternative. On the list vote for anyone but Labour. Ask them if they would restore Ministerial Decision Reports. Vote for someone who knows what they are and says yes.
    We can’t decide who rules at Westminster but this is our National Assembly and we can change it if we want to.

  6. I’m surprised that your ‘surprised’ that the Labour Party In Wales given any power will always seek to a)control any thing that moves,b) restrict information to as limited number of people/institutions as possible. I spoke to a really influential welsh ‘insider’ many years ago about the actions of KGB if the Soviet Union was able to invade/conquer the UK,and where it would go in the first instance to check out the current power ‘structure’ in Wales,so as to control it ASAP. After discussion I felt it would be the County Hall in Cardiff as the Labour Party ‘power brokers’ knew how to a)control power,b) appoint like minded people ,c)fix the media. There was never any need for ‘internal exile’ as the populace were well and truly ‘on side’ and marching as one to a socialist paradise.When you add in to the ‘malaise’ down the Bay the reaction of BBC Wales to our team winning by 3 points at HQ you know the world has gone MAD!!. We are now run by a bunch of left wingers who are totally reliant on English ‘capitalism’ funding our public services and the welsh ‘media’ about as unbiased as Iran/North Korea. This will definitely end in tears!!

  7. Darran’s courage lies not only in speaking out but on a topic that the media has let pass without so much as a murmur. Lack of transparency is a characteristic of masonic politics, the kind of thing that the Assembly is supposed to stand against. Yet after 16 years in power, Labour clearly regard themseives as untouchable. It is not because they are Labour but when there is no challenge to your power base, you design power in your own interests, not in the interests of democracy.

    It seems to me that this is something that the IWA should, as a critical friend, take a stand on. Or are we about to be treated to a deafening silence rather than truth being spoken to power?

  8. Requests of the type that Gareth has in mind will be easily refused under the appropriate limit or because they do not adequately describe the information, and anyway, requests like that will simply play into the government’s hands and provide the evidence that FOI is too costly and time consuming to justify the watering down of the Act. There’s no legal obligation to maintain a disclosure log either, so that could be the next thing to go.

  9. Thank you Darran. Surely a topic for an emergency debate in plenary session. But not before an FOI request for any documentation that led to this decision. Should we not hear a protest from the Presiding Officer? And what has the Welsh Audit Office got to say?

  10. Daran and everyone else are right to criticise this decision, but it needs to be stressed that this is a decision of the welsh labour government – not the senedd! And if carwyn doesnt get a majority next may and approaches kirsty or leanne wanting a deal on a coalition they have to make reversing this decision one of the conditions of any such coalition. So the welsh electorate have it in their hands to ensure that ministerial reports are once again published and available!

  11. Thanks for the responses to this post. i won’t respond to anything by the “devolution deniers” but there are a number of sensible observations I would like to come back on.

    In respect of Gareth’s point re FOI, I think he makes a sensible suggestion, but I too worry it will fall foul of the too costly route. Maybe some AMs will join him in this endeavour as part of their political response to this situation.

    Rhobat, on the matter of Ministerial Decision Reports it was David Deans of the Western Mail who spotted the matter, came to me for a quote and then inspired this column. On this occasion the media has served Wales very well indeed.

    Geraint, you would be doing a public service to place such an FOI. Clearly, from the First Minister’s disappointing comments in plenary yesterday, he expected this whole matter to disappear with nobody even noticing because it was “mundane”. Check on the Record of Proceedings when it’s produced here later today to witness the full horror of the response:

    Geraint, I gave up expecting any sort of protest from The Dame some considerable time ago. My piece here is as much of a judgement on the decline of the Assembly as an incisive democratic forum as it is on aspects of government secrecy. And for the record, it finished again before 5pm yesterday, which pretty much proves some of my argument.

  12. Daran most of the comments on your article are attacks on Labour and it is undeniable that my party is responsible for all of the problems you complain of. However that does not mean that Labour has sole responsibility. In particular the control that party leaders hold over the membership and chairs of assembly committees is part of an assembly culture. A culture which values a cosy consensus above that of uncomfortable scrutiny which might expose the follies of a government policy and perhaps of an opposition leaders long held opinion.

  13. “i won’t respond to anything by the “devolution deniers” but there are a number of sensible observations I would like to come back on ”

    More than a spoonful of irony in that statement given the nature of this article Daran. Did you not get the memo?! everyone has the right to an opinion whether you agree with it or not. Arrogantly dismissing the opinions of those you disagree with is a classic Welsh nouveau politico trait. I’d say you are more ‘one of them’ than you realise.

  14. @seamor bytts

    There is no obligation to listen to or respond to an opinion that does not address the question in hand, but simply recycles a well-worn rant in a different context.

  15. When is a sensible, sincerely held and well informed opinion a “Wells worn rant” Rhobat? Could it be when it is an opinion that differs to your own?

  16. No it isn’t. That would be an opinion with which I disagree. A well-worn rant is when the same person makes the same point repeatedly, usually unsupported by evidence, and places it into any debate regardless of its relevance. And for the record I know a sensible, sincerely held and well-informed opinion when I see one, even when I disagree with it.

  17. An opinion, however sincerely held, becomes tedious when it is merely restated without any new points being made or a supporting argument developed. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone else is entitled to yawn when the argument isn’t going anywhere.

  18. I look forward to Ross and Rhobat jumping on any Nationalists who shoe-horn their tired demands for independence and endless vilification of all things English into every discussion.

  19. @ J Jones

    You will be hard-pressed to find any nationalist campaigning for independence these days, especially since their leader stated quite clearly on Question Time that they were not campaigning for it.

    As for vilification, I oppose it in whatever form, anti-English, anti-Welsh or the myriad other forms of bigotry, some of which occupy the postings of this website. I also oppose misrepresentation espoused by those who say that nationalists shoe-horn an endless vilification of all things English into every discussion. Sounds more like a rant to me.

  20. @ J.Jones.I,humbly agree with your comments and so do about 90% of welsh people. The original ‘piece’ by Daran Hill was about seemingly changes by WAG in explaining how decisions were made,and the seemingly poor performance of the DAME in controlling matters in the chamber to ensure openness and accountability.Surely the people who opposed the creation of Assembly in 1997 (approximately 50% of people who voted) are entitled to have a wry smile,and satisfaction that many of concerns are now coming ‘home to roost’. The ‘drivers’ of devolution, and ultimate separation from UK, imposition of welsh language ‘measures/enforcement’ are seemingly ‘untouchable’ and any opposition/concern is met with a)derision,b)hostility and questions about the relevant ‘welshness’ of people concerned. All I can say,and pretty ineffectually I agree is that myself,and host of very well educated people (not me) in south east wales are in ‘despair’ about Carwyn Jones and his ‘government’ in Caerdydd. When unemployment goes up in Wales then its the fault of the hated TORIES who do not care about welsh people,but when unemployment goes down,as at present in Wales then it is the effectiveness of WAG that should take the credit. The ‘long march’ continues,and opposition is to be destroyed.

  21. @ Howell Morgan

    Not only an anti-democrat but an ignorer of Welsh History. It is true that the vote in 1997 was close: 50.3% in favour, 49.7% against. What you choose to ignore is that in 2011, a second referendum was held to confer legislative powers on the Assembly where the vote was 63.49% in favour, 36.51% against. But then why let the facts get in the way of a prejudice?

    The chickens coming home to roost, as you call it, are called the problems a society has to face as part of its normal existence. If you or your fellow anti-devolutionists thought that devolution would usher in an era of milk and honey then you are seriously deluded.

    Westminster has had numerous problems and created a few of themselves recently, unauthorised drone bombing in Syria, the English NHS is heading for a £1 billion deficit this year, cutting the tax credits of those in work to make them worse off. According to your philosophy, all of this is evidence, not that policies should be changed, but that we should abolish Westminster. Presumably once that’s done, all these problems will go away of their own accord.

  22. @RBJ. I know all the ‘history’,and the facts of life as far as ‘government’ is concerned at various levels we now live under since 1972 and 1999. I was opposed in 1997,however accept the fact that a very marginal majority voted for creation of Assembly,however results since then have not changed my mind.It is important in a democracy that governments change over a period of time so that NEW thinking come in to power,however since 1999 we had a virtual monopoly of a)old labour,b)welsh nationalism and the results are pretty poor. There is NO possibility of a right of centre government in Caerdydd so supply side changes in public services are never going to occur,so we are stuck in the 1945 model,except for the chosen ‘few’ who can create an ‘exclusive’ education system.

  23. Jon, I think there is an obligation on the opposition parties to do away with the corrupted form of selecting committee chairs as political appointments. Above that the problems I highlight are down to Welsh Government secrecy (which they opposed with gusto last week) and the decisions of The Dame. Hopefully a less partisan figure will preside next time.

    Now here’s a truth for the devolution deniers is this: the entire article is based on my belief that in this, the fourth Assembly, that openness and accountability are in decline. Until this Assembly I have had no concerns on that point. Your attacks are based on wishing to savage an institution which you never wanted, never rated and never respected in any way. That’s what makes you deniers and what motivates your ranting. You simply do electronically what the anarchists in Manchester have spent days doing outside the conference centre. At heart, your intransigence and intolerance is exactly the same.

  24. Darren you may be right in saying that openness has declined in this 4th Assembly however the bar wasn’t set too high. It was the first Assembly that created 22 Health Authorities. The results of the consultation on that decision did not see the light of day and the scrutiny that AM`s gave was token. There are other examples, but few as expensive or foolish.

  25. I have no difficulty with your not being convinced by the devolution process and its development; that is you democratic right. It is your assertion that 90% of Welsh people agree with J Jones. The facts do not support that overblown assertion. I notice in your reply that you make no mention of the 2011 referendum. Could it be that the increase in support for more powers for the Assembly that it showed are too much to contemplate and simply proves that your assertion is wrong?

  26. @Daran Hill. A pretty good ‘rant’ about devolution deniers in my humble opinion.Surely people who live in Wales are entitled to free and open views on the structures of government that control/direct much of their lives,even if they are not in line with the ‘elite’ section of society. I was opposed to the setting up of Assembly in 1999,however I could not affect its performance/success,particularly as it received large additional sums of public money which should have allowed major ‘structural’ changes to welsh economic/governance,however it seems to have gone on the favoured ‘few’,and schemes to support LLAFUR. To compare alternative views,however a)misguided,b)badly written on devolution to the MOB of foul mouthed/abusive people in Manchester is insulting.It looks like jon owen jones has somewhat ‘jaundiced’ views on history of Assembly,so what about giving him a ‘kicking’ as well. I would like to add the Gas Boiler Scrappage scheme to the ‘useless’ actions of WAG and in particular the Minister ,i.e. Jane Davidson at that time.p.s. Was not the Health Minister at time of the creation of 22 Health Authorities,mentioned above not Jane Hutt who is,and has been in charge of total public spending for seemingly creation of time. I rest my case!!.

  27. ” It is your assertion that 90% of Welsh people agree with J Jones. The facts do not support that overblown assertion.”

    The fact of the matter is that 90% of the population haven’t been exposed to my impeccable logic and overwhelmingly effective oratory. If they had then I am sure that they WOULD agree with me. Until that time comes however I don’t believe that either Howell or Rhobat can make any assertions on the subject.

  28. Unfortunately we cannot govern a country on the basis of your self-belief. My assertion is based on the two referenda results and the recent polling evidence provided by Professor Roger Scully.

    As for your belief that once 90% of the population have heard your arguments they will be persuaded, I look forward to seeing your many appearances on and in the media over the coming months so that we can test your belief against public opinion.

  29. @J.Jones
    “The fact of the matter is that 90% of the population haven’t been exposed to my impeccable logic and overwhelmingly effective oratory. If they had then I am sure that they WOULD agree with me”

    Yeh yeh and in a parallel universe the score’s 28 – 28

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