The other week, when Eluned Morgan announced a Bill to reform the delivery of Welsh Language policies would be withdrawn, most people either shouted praise or grumbled condemnation. My own interjection was a little different: I simply asked what other legislation might instead be brought forward in the slot previously pencilled in for the dropped legislation.
Responding to my tweet, two Assembly Members much more familiar with the subject matter offered opinions. Culture Committee chair Bethan Sayed responded that her Committee had been told there wasn’t actually a formal timetable for that Bill. Former Minister Alun Davies (as vocal and provocative outside government as he ever was within) responded almost immediately by saying there was a timetable for the Bill. Bethan retorted that nothing had been made public to her Committee, which was actually the body charged with pre-legislative scrutiny on the issue.
All of which got me thinking. We like to think that political processes are always becoming more open and transparent. In terms of legislation, this current Fifth Assembly is inferior to the Fourth.
I could now write a vociferous paragraph on how the volume of Welsh Government legislation in the first two and a half years of this Assembly is approaching half the level as its predecessor over the same period.
I could also detail another sharp paragraph in which I point to the fact that the current two Bills before the Senedd is the lowest point it has ever been once a legislative programme has been launched.
Or I could write a really frosty paragraph about the drop in the number of backbencher bill ballots in this Assembly – down from nine to three over the same period.
But my target this time is even more precise: the level of transparency around the Welsh Government’s legislative programme is at a low ebb.
Most legislation is introduced to the Senedd by the Welsh Government. The best clue as to what legislation to expect comes from a reading of the programme of the Welsh Government or in an annual legislative statement which is done by the First Minister in the summer every year. This statement has two parts. Firstly, it will look back at the legislative Bills introduced in the previous year, including the ones which have not yet completed their passage, and will announce which pieces of legislation the Welsh Government will bring forward in the following year.
This annual unveiling is the biggest clue of what is to come. In recent years it has not been particularly detailed, with Brexit usually cited as the excuse for vagueness. Oh Brexit, oh Brexit, you are the cause of all ills… Sorry, I was doing so well at not mentioning Brexit, too.
From this annual legislative statement, the brief details that we have got for the last few years have just amounted to title and then subject matter. There is not even a chronological list, but rather phrases like “in due course”, “in the autumn term” and “next year” (i.e. beyond Christmas) are often used as markers of a very rough timeline for introduction.
Although the public pronouncements on the timing and structure of legislation may be deliberately ambiguous, there is much more information available within government itself, as Alun Davies alluded to in responding to my tweet. He knows there will be an overall legislative timetable for a full five years which gets more detailed as the term progresses. The difference is that those within the Welsh Government see it, and those outside do not.
By the way, this isn’t an appeal by a vampirical lobbyist for access to government secrets to then sell on to my clients or prospective clients. What I want is less secrecy full stop and a more transparent democracy that minimises rather than enhances the role of professional lobbyists. As much of the outline of the legislative programme as possible should be in the public domain for everyone to access – not just because that is the right thing to do, but because that’s exactly where it used to be.
In the Fourth Senedd from 2011-16, the First Minister had offered a total five year outline with annual updates on the legislative cycle, but this level of candour now seems to be a thing of the past. In respect of clarity of the legislative cycle, there has therefore been a marked decline in public information between the Fourth and Fifth Assemblies. In 2011 the Senedd Members’ Research Service could pull together a publicly available document listing twenty bills promised over five years, and pegging as much publicly stated content against each one as possible, including, where available, some sort of timings.
By 2016 or even now in 2019 this would be virtually impossible to do if you were not within government itself. The level of transparency has been significantly diminished, as Bethan Sayed illustrated in her tweet to me.
Let me finish on a more upbeat note. I have been impressed by the way in which Drakeford and Co are injecting a lot more media and openness into proceedings. Let that transparency and engagement apply to the legislative programme too, Mark. When you stand up this summer to do the legislative statement, turn the clock back, but just by one Assembly.
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