Spin substituted for substance

Daran Hill writes an open letter to Jane Hutt AM about transparency within Welsh Government.

An open letter to Jane Hutt, Minister with responsibility for open government

Dear Jane

On Wednesday evening you appeared on the Wales Report on BBC One Wales offering a response to criticisms levelled by myself and Prof Laura McAllister regarding the nature of transparency and openness in the Assembly and Welsh Government.

I considered writing this letter privately to you as a Welsh Minister – the first time I have ever been prompted to do so in nearly seventeen years of engaging with Welsh Government – but thought more appropriate to make my continued disquiet known publicly.

You began your interview by stressing the commitment of the Welsh Government to both of these things. I know you are a politician of experience and integrity and do not doubt your sincerity, but I remain concerned that the defence you presented does not adequately address the points raised.

As the former National Organiser of Yes for Wales in 1997 and Campaign Director of the Yes campaign in 2011 my voice may carry disproportionate weight, but my passion and commitment to a mature, open and transparent politics in Wales is as important to me now as when I campaigned hard to ensure the Assembly was created and its powers and responsibilities were extended.

The concerns which were voiced on the programme were clear and my concerns are not isolated. My previous article for IWA on this theme had over 500 tweets, retweets and likes on Twitter. They came from across the party spectrum and from many people, like myself, without any sort of party political allegiance. They included many policy and public affairs officers who work in Cardiff and beyond.

Let me look at one of those concerns in detail: the issue of discontinuing the publication of Ministerial Decision Reports on the Welsh Government website. You claimed that the justification for this was to reduce bureaucracy and that alternative methods would be used to “get the message” out. Both of these responses are worrying. Decision Reports were never about “getting the message out”, they were about reporting clearly which decisions had been made, why they had been made, and what the cost was. Replacing them with a cherry-picked process of announcing only certain decisions, be that by press release or social media, is an extremely retrograde step. It looks like spin is being substituted for substance.

Further, you know that every government process involves a degree of bureaucracy. There will of course by a significant multiplication of that bureaucracy if many of us in the policy community start using the Freedom of Information request system to obtain information that was previously easily accessible and freely available. There would also be a significant cost to Welsh Government in responding, which I am sure is the last thing you as Finance Minister would want.

You cited the low readership figures on Ministerial Decision Reports, accounting for just 0.5% of the traffic to the Welsh Government website. That may be true, but since when is page visits the appropriate bar for open disclosure? What other materials might in future be hidden because not enough people read them?

Indeed, you mentioned the Carwyn Connects tours as a substitute for openly publishing the Decision Reports. I don’t condemn that engagement exercise, but I am genuinely struggling to see how town hall meetings will replace online publications. Indeed, if the 0.5% criteria is now being used by Welsh Government as a yardstick does that meeting programme get dropped if local attendances fall below this level?

You also pointed to the publication of Cabinet minutes as a key aspect of openness. Thankfully this means they probably won’t be jettisoned too, but in all honesty they aren’t any sort of substitute. Only big decisions go to Cabinet, as you know, so anything also will not be reported unless you choose to do so. I invite you and others to look at Cabinet minutes which, by their very nature are not particularly detailed and draw conclusions on whether the level of information provided is truly adequate. My strong opinion is that they are just part of a picture and that standing alone they provide very little meat to the bone on the matter of governance.

Finally, the programme also contained my criticisms of removing Jenny Rathbone AM from the Programme Monitoring Committee and also the previous practice taken by Labour, Plaid Cymru and Conservative groups of sacking Committee chairs for stepping out of line on party matters unrelated to such roles. I do not expect you to respond for other parties, but I would ask that you and the Welsh Labour group think long and hard about the perception of these moves. They certainly have done nothing to increase trust in Welsh Government.



Daran Hill is the MD of Positif.

13 thoughts on “Spin substituted for substance

  1. Me thinks Daran is just beginning to understand how wrong he was to campaign for a YES vote.

    Next time I suggest he ticks NO.

  2. I am unrepentant in my support for the institution of devolution. I am just disappointed in how some aspects are being delivered.

    Similarly, I am unrepentant in my support for Westminster. I am just disappointed in how some aspects are being delivered.

    It’s not a difficult or unique position to hold.

  3. It seems that we are back in the situation where the establishment views democracy as an inconvenience to be carried out as cheaply as possible. As long as the ‘right’ decisions are being made, the public should be as little involved as possible.

    Against this, it should be said that the public availability of information is not merely a cost-related exercise. How many members of the public read the legislation that is passed at Westminster or in Cardiff Bay? Not very many. But no-one would argue that legislation should not be published because it is costly to do so. However, given that information can be made available online, this is not a costly exercise at all.

    Daran makes a point at the end of his piece regarding the sacking of committee chairs by their political parties. What is required here is the advancement of an argument based on constitution law. It concerns drawing a distinction between the executive and the legislature. The committees belong to the process of scrutinising government therefore, if we subscribe to the separation of powers as one of the cornerstones of our democracy, then they cannot be in the gift of the government. The only other option then is that it is in the gift of the legislature, the Assembly as a whole, to bestow that particular authority. Should a particular member incur the displeasure of their party, then there are several courses of action that can be taken, for example withdrawal of the whip or placing a motion before the legislature for the withdrawal of the position of committee chair from a particular individual. What a political party cannot be allowed to do is to withdraw their member from the chair regardless of the authority of the legislature. The choice here is between the path of constitutional law as the basis for authority or allowing the constitution to be a mere extension of party political wrangling. One of the debates desperately needed in Wales is the basis on which we develop our constitution and how we develop the tradition of an independent judiciary in relation to both the executive and the legislature. It is unfortunately significant that on this website, there are many categories of debate at the top of this webpage, not one of them devoted to the law.

  4. Now I may be a little paranoid….no, really, but it seems to me that accessing any level of government has become increasingly difficult in the last 10 years. It used to be that I could go to any government department, find the subsection of that department and click a “contact us” button to be shown an email and telephone number. Same thing with guidance documents, they always had a contact email for queries about the specific document. Now even the local council doesn’t publish a telephone number for its switchboard and I recently could only get in touch with one department of the WG by remembering the name of someone who worked there and asking the switchboard for her personal ‘phone number.

    Similarly 10 years ago I communicated directly with the statistical directorate to ask for, and promptly be supplied with, school data sets. That all changed and I was asked to use the freedom of information officer with a month’s wait for a response…then that response might easily be “sorry, too expensive..” or “You’ve had your quota of data for the quarter…”(too expensive).

    It appears that government, at all levels, has realised that life is much simpler and more relaxed if you just shut out the public and keep serious matters like “whose turn to get the coffees?” front and centre in your working life. There is much less stress if, when you make a mistake or a dodgy decision, no one outside you little circle of friends and associates finds out about it. Wales has always been ripe for this attitude to government; relatives and “who you know” has been the focus of minor political life here in NW Wales and we have exported our people and ways to Cardiff along with our fluent Welsh speakers.
    The Senedd of course is built around the idea of “consensus” which means that our sparse chamber is populated (thinly) by AMs sitting comfortably in a circle tapping at laptops in an endless game of battleships or Super Mario while no one really gets very passionate about anything, after all there’s so much to agree on….particularly the need to keep it from the Plebs.

  5. Government in Wales will improve only when people strongly criticize the practice of government and not keep revisiting its existence.

  6. The problem is not devolution -it’s Labour. Now the longest surviving government in Europe. Time for a change.

  7. @R Tredwyn exactly. It surely says a lot when Daren’s original article attracted so much support and interest on what was on paper a fairly obscure topic.

    @ Chris Franks of course any party in power for so long has real problems of staleness and a desire for too much control – it’s almost de riguer when you are in office for this long – but the Assembly culture, and failure to challenge the WG decision Daren refers to, is the creation of more than just Labour.

  8. Alex, I beg to differ. This continues the discussion on the matter of Ministerial Decision Reports and ensures the Minister is not let off the hook based on her weak responses when questioned. All too often politics programmes have an item, a Minister responds, then that’s it. It won’t be like that this time. This issue isn’t going away, no matter how much members of Welsh Government want it too. A process for properly announcing and explaining ministerial decisions will be made to return.

  9. I am most interested in why Darran and many like him felt that a YES vote was so important to Wales and to the Welsh people.
    I am assuming that Darran and the other YES supporters were aware that a YES could only mean that a South Wales Labour dominated administration would forever hold power and wield it to suit themselves (which is what he seems to be complaining about now).
    The reality in Wales is that it is really two countries – North and South. The less populous, less advantaged North has stronger ties to Liverpool than Cardiff and fewer ties to Labour (there are some Plaid strongholds and many more retired English people in places like Aberconwy with very strong Conservative ties) while the South is firmly wedded both to Cardiff and to a deep, emotionally binding commitment to the Socialist movement which came out of the coal and steel heartlands decimated by Tory cuts (voters never forget). Therefore, Labour will always hold power (even if they have to do a deal with another left-leaning party) but the public appetite for it (particularly in the north, remote from decision-making) is always going to be lukewarm so it will always be insecure and lack confidence (hence the practices complained of). Any comparison with Scotland, of course, is totally ludicrous.

  10. And finally on this matter, Alex, the Welsh Government has now made a welcome U-turn on the publication of Ministerial Decision Reports thanks to the intervention of a number of us, including the Welsh Liberal Democrat decision to FOI the same information – a suggestion which is made in the article above. I think you will find this article both “advanced the discussion” and played a role in the change of heart.

  11. Gary Gibbs: that sort of pessimistic determinism can be self-fulfilling but usually people change in response to changing circumstances, albeit slowly and after a lag. The second and third decades of a Welsh polity will be more interesting than the first. Keep the faith; diversity and self-responsibility can’t be bad!

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