Reflections on the first Assembly term of a first-time Assembly Member

Steffan Lewis suggests some changes to the way the Senedd works based on his impressions as a new AM.

It’s amazing how quickly it happens. At 4am you’re in a draughty sports hall at a count, waiting to hear whether the election result has gone in your favour, then, just a few hours later, you’re standing in the Senedd being sworn in.

I found myself suddenly facing the exciting prospect of spending the next five years being responsible for representing the people of the region and the perilously steep learning curve of getting to grips with the frontline of Welsh politics.

As Plaid Cymru’s newly elected Assembly Member for the South East, I am also the youngest elected member in the Assembly, narrowly stealing the title from Plaid Cymru’s Bethan Jenkins.

Prior to my election, I was determined that if I made it, I’d want to put community socialism at the centre of my activities. That means actively seeking local issues in the community and bringing people together to find community solutions.

At a time when faith in politicians is at a real low, I believe it is important that we take a fresh look at how we do things and rethink our politics so that it isn’t simply about ‘listening to people’, but about cementing their active participation in our political life.

A criticism I’ve heard many times of the National Assembly is that it’s boring. People don’t follow what’s happening because every time they tune in, they find the proceedings too dull to watch. They expect the spectacle of Westminster, with the shouting and jeering of Prime Minister’s Questions.

I know polls tell us people don’t like the ya-boo of the Commons, but deep down I suspect most actually find it entertaining at least. When a chamber is noisy and animated, politics is alive and so too is democracy.

But tuning into Senedd TV provides a different sort of spectacle. Apart from the main feature of First Minister’s Question Time and the odd debate, the chamber often resembles more of an open-plan office area rather than the seat of our national democracy.

One of the first things I did after being sworn in was to ask the IT department to take my computer out of the chamber –  to remove the temptation for me to use any proceeding as an opportunity to catch up on emails.

Unfortunately, I was told that this isn’t possible because the ‘aesthetic nature’ of the chamber would be compromised. So instead, I’ve agreed to a halfway house where my computer monitor is permanently switched off.

This though, has proved rather unsatisfactory as it means that I spend hours during every plenary session looking at my own reflection on the computer monitor. When you look like me that really isn’t much fun.

I’m not in favour of a blanket ban on computers in the chamber. I know members who work hard and utilise the chamber’s IT and that suits them. But I think we should all have the right to ask for no IT at all and I hope our new Llywydd will consider this.

The first few months of this Assembly term have, in fact, been more exciting than in the past. The EU referendum alone provided plenty of opportunity for passion from both sides of the debate. There was significant turnover after the last election meaning a large proportion of new AMs – over a third of this Assembly’s members are new. Perhaps it was this fresh energy, and maybe a combativeness driven by having a new political enemy in the form of UKIP, that has created a different dynamic.

It’s notable that when the Assembly provided drama – such as with the election of the First Minister – the public viewing gallery in the Senedd ran out of tickets. People are interested, when we give them something to be interested in.

I think there is an onus on political groups to be more creative with the topics they chose for debates in the Senedd that might liven things up by providing passionate exchanges on more timely and topical issues. I also believe that we should consider changing standing orders to allow for more votes by roll call rather than by anonymous electronic voting. Perhaps when we vote on the final government budget and at the last stage of legislation, we could vote by roll call. This wouldn’t just make the chamber more of a spectacle, it would add transparency too.

Another, admittedly small, factor that I think affects the spectacle of the chamber is the tone of proceedings. I don’t for one minute believe we should adopt a Westminster form of ‘honourable’ and ‘right honourable’ so-and-so’s, but perhaps the Assembly, in pursuit of being different from Westminster has gone too far the other way?

I still hear some asking questions or making speeches that are not addressed through the Llywydd and there are even references to other members on first name terms. Surely there should be an air of formality at all times that reflects the seriousness of the institution and its work?

Proper consideration should also be given to the way in which questions are tabled to cabinet members. At the moment, only party leaders and spokespersons have an opportunity to ask questions without giving prior notice of the topic they wish to raise. This creates two challenges. Firstly, it means questions are tabled in advance and thus may not end up being as timely and relevant as when they were first composed.

Secondly, it means a number of questions and answers sound like going through the motions, because they are asking pre-prepared questions and are followed by pre-prepared answers before a supplementary is asked.

It might be worthwhile amending the system slightly so that members are drawn to ask questions the week before question time is due, but can ask any question – followed by a supplementary – on the day. This would make proceedings more unpredictable and perhaps more relevant and interesting.

Engaging with the public is about more than putting on a show. We also need to think about who we reach out to when we look for new ideas and when we attempt to hold those with power to account. I would love to see Assembly committees taking innovative approaches to include a greater variety of voices in consultations and evidence gathering sessions.

I would like to see the public being able to tweet or email or send via facebook questions as committees cross-examine expert witnesses. The chair of each committee could then ask questions to witnesses that are directly submitted from members of the public. It would be a way of hearing different perspectives, and would blow open the doors of Welsh democracy to the populace at large.

The start of a new Assembly is a chance for us to renew Welsh politics and to explore original ways to reach out to everyone beyond Cardiff Bay. I am deeply honoured to be one of just sixty people out of a country of three million, who get to sit in our national legislature. I hope I belong to an Assembly that will constantly seek to reinvent itself in order to reinvigorate the nation and its communities.

Steffan Lewis is an Assembly Member for South East Wales.

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