Five steps to improve Assembly transparency and Welsh Government scrutiny

Alexander Philips considers some options to remedy the recent problems with transparency in Cardiff Bay.

In recent weeks accusations have been made that the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales is becoming less transparent, and that the opportunities for scrutiny are being diminished.

Scrutiny and transparency are of course essential to any effective legislature. However, seemingly few of the discussions in recent days have moved beyond stating the nature of the problem and then complaining about it. While both have their place, we need to advance the discourse further, and look at what practical steps could be taken to improve the situation in light of the ongoing consultation into the Fourth Assembly’s legacy.

In doing so we should always be mindful that those of us in the Cardiff Bay ‘Bubble’ share the blame for how we have reached this point. I may only have worked in the Bay for a relatively short time, yet the problems highlighted in recent weeks are anything but new. To me they highlight the persistent failure of all of us in the ‘Bubble’ to maintain standards and affect change.

So what can be done that could make things better in the next Assembly and with the next Government?

Naturally I don’t have anything close to all the answers. Nor do I claim I’m the first to suggest them. I can, nevertheless, look to my own experience, crystallise some thoughts I’ve had in recent months, and attempt to advance the discussions with five relatively simple changes the Assembly could make, which would result in the institution becoming more transparent, improve Welsh Government scrutiny, and could even work to foster greater public engagement.

Such suggestions are not designed to grab headlines. Instead, with a new Assembly, new Assembly Members and a new Presiding Officer on the horizon, they look at the weekly practices and conventions which are holding us back, and how they can be changed to start driving us forward.

In limiting my suggestions to the Assembly on this occasion I am not ignoring the problems of the Welsh Government. While they are often conflated in this kind of debate, I feel that by making the right changes in the Assembly, and how it interacts with Government, we can further highlight the shortcomings of Cathays Park, whilst also offering them a goal to work towards. I’m also not going to touch on the shortcomings of the Welsh media – hopefully next week’s IWA Media Summit will go some distance to do that for me.

With such caveats in mind:

  • Weekly Business Committee meetings should be held in public

The role of the Assembly’s Business Committee is to “facilitate the effective organisation of Assembly proceedings.” In other words it’s where the Party groups, the Presiding Officer and officials from the Assembly Commission get together to thrash out what goes on in terms of Assembly procedure and Plenary content.

However, unlike other Assembly Committees they are in all but a few occasions held in private, and little is made public about their content other than a short collection of minutes. Yet within these minutes we only get a hint of what is discussed behind closed doors. We don’t even always get to see how people voted on some key decisions. This Committee plays a central role in changes such as the introduction of Spokespeople’s Questions, or indeed which Individual Member Debate is selected for Plenary. The public should be able to find out what discussions were had in full, and why Party representatives voted the way they did. This Committee should not be a special case. It should be subject to the same level of transparency as any other.

  • Urgent Questions should be tabled unless the Presiding Officer fully discloses their reasoning for refusal

Given that Oral Questions have to be tabled days in advance the Urgent Question system is a vital tool to bring Government Ministers to the Senedd to be scrutinized. However, under the current system permission to ask such questions is granted by the Presiding Officer alone. A Presiding Officer who is not required to publish the reasons for their decisions. This has resulted in Urgent Questions being refused with no explanation, and Assembly Members have been unable to directly scrutinize responsible Ministers on matters which are of importance to their constituents. This has caused astonishment amongst Assembly Members given that what gets granted can’t be quantified.

This needs to change. Urgent Questions should be given presumed consent unless the Presiding Officer fully discloses their reasoning for rejecting them. The next Presiding Officer, whoever that may be, should (regardless of how little they are required to say) have the courage to justify their decision to refuse, and explain why they have decided to prevent Government Ministers from being scrutinised. If this takes up too much time on the Agenda then we can simply start before 13:30. While I appreciate attempts to get Topical Question sessions, it’s this issue of transparency over the decision making which also needs to be addressed.

  • Ministers should be made to give full and accurate responses to Written Questions

The Written Question system of the Assembly is an embarrassment. It simply isn’t acceptable that some Government Ministers are allowed to issue responses which utterly fail to answer the questions put to them. Currently the website is replete with examples of single word responses which omit key details. ‘Many’ isn’t a credible response to ‘will the Minister please outline the detail of conversations they have had with X’ anymore than ‘soon’ is to ‘when does the Minister plan to publish their response to Y’. Backbench Assembly Members deserve full and accurate responses to the questions they put to Government on behalf of their constituents. As such the system needs to be changed so that deficient responses can be formally challenged – via a fully transparent Presiding Officer – and full answers provided.

  • Committee Chairs should be elected by all Assembly Members

There are a number of problems with how Assembly Committees currently function. For instance it not should be acceptable for Members who haven’t participated in any scrutiny sessions to be drafted into Stage 2 legislation voting just to even up the numbers. Indeed given the lack of a second chamber, the argument could be made that Committees would provide greater scrutiny if they were balanced so that the governing party/parties always had less than 50% of their membership – it would if nothing else make them more interesting. But such reforms would be complex. What can be achieved quickly is to change the system so that Party Leaders no longer decide who gets the position of Chair. This absurd situation has already led to two Chairs losing their positions for political reasons which had nothing to do with the quality of their chairmanship. This is embarrassing to all concerned and does little for the reputation of the institution. A more transparent and democratic system, as highlighted by Lord Elis-Thomas AM, would empower Committee Chairs to speak freely. This would make them more effective at scrutinising the Government, their own Party, and standing up for their constituents.

  • Draft Assembly Committee agendas should be published at least 1 week in advance

As someone whose job it is to keep people informed about what is going on in the Assembly, it’s a weekly frustration that the Assembly’s website is publishing agendas later and later. This is especially disappointing given that Committee agendas are available to Assembly staff long before they are finally released to the public. It should not be difficult to plan sufficiently in advance so that all Assembly proceedings are publicly available (at least in draft form) a full week before a given session is due to take place. The information is, in the majority of cases, already there and should not be held back from the public unnecessarily. This small change would ensure that interested parties are able to fully assess what evidence or scrutiny sessions are due to take place, read up on the evidence supplied, and then contact the relevant Assembly Members as they deem appropriate.

So there we have it. Five relatively simple steps which would provide greater transparency, encourage greater scrutiny, and perhaps even foster greater public engagement. They aren’t meant to be ground-breaking, but I can least hope they will help move the discourse on from simply complaining about how bad things have got, and instead start to work on how to make things better.

Alexander Phillips is a Public Affairs & Relations Consultant for Grayling Cymru. @AlexLeoPhillips

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