The learning curve of an assembly for Wales.

Peter Black looks back at how the assembly, and the role of its members, has changed since 1999.

For a politician each election is a new chapter. It is part of a badly written thriller. Although we can never predict how it ends, we know that the direction of travel.

From an electoral point of view I have spent my career on a knife edge, never knowing whether I will be returned as an Assembly Member. However, so far I have survived and I fully intend to do so again.

The end of the fourth assembly

As the Assembly breaks for May’s election, a range of assembly members offer personal perspectives of their time in the Senedd.

Just as each election opens up new possibilities for me personally, so it seems they have also defined the development of our National Assembly.

In the first Assembly we seemed to be treading on eggshells in case we broke the new institution we had inherited. The vote of no confidence in Alun Michael was a turning point of sorts, but the new coalition still faced a steep learning curve.

For the first time we were making distinctive Welsh policy, but we were still being bogged down in dense strategy papers that promised a great deal but a long time in the future and delivered little.

And of course there were the hundreds of millions of pounds of objective one money, itself caught up in interminable strategy documents and bureaucracy so that, despite two funding rounds, we are actually no better off as a nation today than we were at the start of the process.

My role as Deputy Minister for Local Government was another innovation, but was a far cry from the role as it is today. I had no decision-making powers, no secretarial or policy support other than that assigned for specific projects, no role in answering questions in the Assembly and it was even made difficult for me to claim back expenses when I travelled on ministerial business.

I was given a series of projects such as a commission looking at homelessness or a review of Foyers to keep me occupied and allowed to reply to the odd short debate. The first time I did this I inadvertently committed the government to spending more money than it had intended on an affordable housing scheme. Fortunately, the responsible Minister honoured my commitment so I was not forced to resign.

I also had a run-in with the First Minister when I opposed a scheme being proposed for my region. He did not seem to recognise that I did not actually have collective responsibility in this area. His actions also contradicted the leeway he later gave Ministers from his own party in their constituency.

The second Assembly saw the first minority Labour government, and the first signs of open revolts on the Labour backbenches from John Marek and Peter Law. We spent a lot of time in that Assembly putting together coalitions on individual policy areas such as tuition fees. Sometimes we did not know how a vote would go, which was far more stressful for the government than it was for us.

Budget negotiations did not go so well. The sort of concessions we secured did not measure up with those won in the fourth Assembly largely because the three opposition parties could not maintain their unity and surrendered their negotiating strength.

Throughout both the first and second Assembly we set in chain a process that led directly to two further Government of Wales Acts and the Silk Commission. Devolution may have been a process not an event, but it was that process that kept us occupied for the best part of a decade and a half and which still dominates our discussions.

The 2006 Government of Wales Act brought in the notorious and largely unworkable Legislative Consent Order system. Even a coalition government with an overwhelming majority in the third Assembly struggled to make it work and a lot of time and energy was spent dismantling this system, leading to the 2011 referendum.

Thus we came to the present Assembly, and the opportunity to actually make real laws. Whether we have done a good job of this only time will tell. Sometimes I think that the strategy-obsessed first Assembly has not yet been purged from our system, as evidenced by the rather vague Well-being of Future Generations Act.

The 17 years I have been an Assembly Member has been a learning experience for me and for the Assembly itself. I do not recognise the politician I was in 1999, nor is the current institution anything like the one that first gathered in a converted computer room all those years ago.

It has been a journey of personal growth for both of us, and the next chapter is just weeks away. One of us is certain to take that next step towards a new Government of Wales Act and the final transformation into a proper Parliament.

My future is in the hands of others and the next chapter remains unknown. The one thing that is certain is that the fifth Assembly will be as different from its predecessors as all the others were from those that went before them.

Peter Black is an Assembly Member for South Wales West.

2 thoughts on “The learning curve of an assembly for Wales.

  1. Something about nothing and nothing about the missed opportunities to make Welsh Assembly work. An institution that has no relevance to most Welsh people unless one happens to be a ‘bilingual’ – More of the same after May 5th?

  2. I don’t believe Peter Black is bilingual. Bilingual AMs are a minority in the Senedd as bilinguals are in Wales. If the Senedd lacks public interest,language is not the reason. Except to you Jacques for whom it is the reason for everything. In your world it would stop raining if the Welshies stopped using their “tribal” language. But you are boring the rest of us.

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