The cooperation agreement between Plaid and Labour raises major accountability and scrutiny issues, Andrew RT Davies argues.
They say a week is a long time in politics. And it’s fair to say that during my absence over the past two months, the political dynamic in Cardiff Bay has changed significantly.
First and foremost, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who sent messages of support.
They’ve come from across the political divide and all walks of life. They were hugely appreciated at a difficult time and I’m delighted to be back in the job.
The most important element of that role is leading the opposition in the Senedd. It’s fair to say the Labour-Plaid Co-Operation Agreement announced in recent weeks has made scrutinising the Welsh Government more complicated.
‘To say this deal places the Senedd and the structure of governance in Wales in unchartered territory is an understatement.’
It won’t surprise readers that I have many concerns over certain policy aspects of the deal.
You’ll hear lots from me on this in the coming months. But firstly, I’d like to examine how this deal impacts the integrity of the Senedd, and the way it conducts its business.
To say this deal places the Senedd and the structure of governance in Wales in unchartered territory is an understatement.
Before us, we see a coalition in all but name. To underline this, Plaid Leader Adam Price will regularly join Mark Drakeford at Cathays Park for joint press conferences. I’m sure it will be blockbuster viewing.
But at the same time, he’ll supposedly be scrutinising him at First Minister’s Questions every Tuesday afternoon.
And the Coalition Agreement is so wide-ranging, there will be few issues Plaid will actually be able to scrutinise.
Forty-six areas of governance are now covered by this coalition deal. And Adam Price is riding two horses, simultaneously acting as a coalition partner while being an opposition party leader too.
This creates a major conflict and is simply not sustainable.
I’m not alone in finding it confusing that Plaid members will be receiving support from dedicated civil servants one moment, and playing opposition the next. This makes the current Senedd systems unworkable and untenable.
Under the Government of Wales Act, Plaid are not considered to have executive responsibilities because they will have no ministers. Technically, powers will be exercised by the Welsh Government.
But the exercise of those powers will all be agreed with Plaid on a ‘no surprises’ basis. Plaid will have Special Advisers in Government and so-called ‘Designated Members’ to work jointly with ministers, acting very much like a Deputy Minister.
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Will these Designated Members fall under the Ministerial Code, and will they be subject to collective responsibility? These are key components of the check and balances of government.
Even former Labour Minister Alun Davies told the Government, ‘it might not be a coalition, but it looks like one’.
Plaid will have all the trappings of government, but without any of the accountability. There’s no mechanism for MSs to scrutinise Adam Price or his Designated Members. I think anybody who believes democratic accountability is important should be concerned by this.
The Senedd’s Presiding Officer has described the arrangement as ‘novel’. Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it.
‘The new way of governing must not be at the expense of democracy.’
When we saw the One Wales Coalition in 2007, the structure of governance was much simpler. We knew where we stood.
The Labour Party were short on numbers and made a deal with Plaid Cymru. Plaid had ministers in the Cabinet who were properly scrutinised by AMs.
A few months ago, I wrote for the IWA to discuss ideas I had for improving and modernising Senedd business. This new arrangement should see dramatic changes.
The new way of governing must not be at the expense of democracy. New procedures must be implemented to reflect the field of play.
The closest example to this arrangement that I can find is the agreement in Scotland, where the SNP share power with the Greens.
The Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament has taken away the Greens leader’s questions at FMQs. She’s also stopped automatically calling them at the start and close of debates, and reduced the amount of public money they receive.
All these measures reflect the fact the Greens are sharing power with the SNP.
When taking her decision, the Scottish Presiding Officer noted the ‘no surprises approach to parliamentary business’ in the SNP-Green Agreement. She said this fundamentally altered the Greens’ position at the third largest opposition party in the Scottish Parliament. We see that same approach in this Labour/Plaid deal.
‘No minister should be sitting on a committee, let alone chairing one.’
The Labour Government and Plaid Cymru like to think they’ve looked to Europe for inspiration when it comes to this deal. The Presiding Officer must now look to Scotland for inspiration when it comes to dealing with its Labour and Plaid signatories.
Another aspect of this coalition (I believe in calling a spade a spade) that must be looked at is the role of Senedd committees.
No minister should be sitting on a committee, let alone chairing one. After all, they exist to scrutinise the Welsh Government.
Plaid argue their Designated Members are not ministers, but if something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, most likely it’s a duck.
It’s no longer tenable for Plaid to have responsibility for chairing the Finance Committee, which has the important responsibility of scrutinising the Welsh Government budget.
Peredur Owen Griffiths MS has been an excellent chair of the committee. But as part of this deal, Plaid will receive regular and substantial updates on the budget, something not traditionally afforded to opposition parties.
It places him and the committee in an impossible situation. It’s not right that someone who belongs to a group working to deliver a programme of government can lead the scrutiny of that programme.
Labour and Plaid often claim they want to protect the Senedd. But barring the odd vocal exception on their backbenches, it seems like they’re now paying little regard to its responsibilities and functions.
I’ll unavoidably take issue with some aspects of a Labour-Plaid programme for government. But this is an issue that goes beyond ideological differences. It’s a matter of the democratic accountability of those who wield executive power.
Undoubtedly, the Presiding Officer has an important couple of weeks ahead. The new arrangements have huge implications for delivering the government’s programme, and the integrity of the Senedd.
The credibility of the Welsh Parliament is at stake. It is important that the Presiding Officer acts now to preserve its Parliamentary integrity.
Andrew RT Davies MS
Leader of the Welsh Conservatives
This article has been amended on Wednesday 8 December to reflect the fact that Peredur Owen Griffiths MS, not Llŷr Gruffydd MS, is Chair of the Finance Committee.
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