Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Do Assembly plenary sessions need a revamp?

Will Carwyn and Andrew start arm wrestling over fishing boat regulations?
Do we need a more macho, confrontational Senedd?
I'm not convinced.
The National Assembly is back in session after Christmas, and the first big talking point is, unsurprisingly, about the Assembly itself - this time plenary debates, and First Minister's Jeopardy Questions in particular.

Both Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) and Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) raised concerns about how oral questions are answered in the Senedd by government ministers, and the procedures surrounding questions.

There was also the farce of an announcement being made by the Welsh Government via Twitter during the plenary session, while the First Minister himself wasn't providing any answer to a question relating to it. Whoop, whoop, whoop. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

This little fact might take a few of you by surprise – I rarely watch Assembly proceedings, including FMQs.

I might watch the Senedd a half dozen times a year at most – if there's something important, like a big vote, or a debate on a subject that interests me. I use the Cofnod because I can search through it and it saves me time. I'm not around to follow Twitter feeds live, but I monitor other blogs too.

I say that as one of the more prominent, hardcore political anoraks in the whole country. To those who sit through them and who aren't paid to do so one way or another – I salute you. It's always comforting to know there's someone sadder than me out there.

Some might say that's an argument for not broadcasting it at all to save money or whatever, but you need an audiovisual record, simply to prove that transcripts and votes match what's said. It's also important to determine the tone by which questions are asked. I wish we had a Welsh C-Span or version of BBC Parliament, but I doubt that can be justified. Lest we forget S4C2.

I think AMs are unfairly criticised for the standard of debate. We have a very different system to Westminster. There's more consensus building and it seems as though they work on a first name basis. It's more casual. I prefer that. I reckon most AMs probably prefer that too.

I believe it's a bit more grown up than the "yah-boo" stuff in Westminster, but it might be a little too informal and relaxed. I think the Scottish Parliament balances it better.

I imagine one reason Andrew Davies, and other AMs, might want a shift to a Westminster "confrontational" style is because they have no indoor voice. As though shouting more loudly, and getting more worked up about something makes you stand out more. Perhaps that's right to a certain extent. However, it's hard to get excited about some of the stuff coming out of plenary or - if we're going to include written questions - how much Carwyn spends on Christmas cards.

We need to remember that the Assembly has a restricted scope within which to ask questions. Sometimes that means questions are very narrow or vague, leading to very narrow or glib answers. Look them up yourself and see how many times ministers are asked about "their priorities for X,Y, Z" or to "make a statement on X,Y,Z."

But I challenge anyone outside politics to put themselves in the position of an AM or Minister when criticising or defending policy. It probably looks easier than it actually is.

I'm reminded of my viva voce, where your dissertation is ripped apart in front of you by people who know what they're talking about. I imagine Assembly debate is a watered-down version of that, but week after week.

I don't think those criticising will have ever been challenged like that by someone of any real  standing before, and think it's a simple case of standing up and waffling on. AMs can't do that without looking like a plonker. Yet, I do think a minority of AMs do that occasionally, but not too often. No names mentioned.

However, the committees are as good as those in any of the other legislatures. I believe most of the AM's important work goes on there, not plenary. It's just not as "sexy". FMQs is just a fraction of the stuff that goes on in Cardiff Bay, but it's supposed to be the "highlight". It's not, is it? I'm not sure it ever has been, to be honest.

That's not to say there aren't any issues. The First Minister has a point when saying the opposition don't necessarily ask the right questions (from his perspective).

Carwyn Jones is a barrister. He's been professionally trained to use questions and answers to good effect. It comes naturally to him, maybe some other AMs too. That's not to say those AMs are smarter than the rest, just they know what makes a good question and they will know, instinctively, how to bat those questions away.

The trouble is, I believe he's become so used to that since becoming First Minister, he does it every bloody week. FMQs is a bit of a joke and part of the reason I don't watch it is, simply, questions aren't answered, they're generally thrown back at the questioner.
Carwyn seems bored of it, and I don't blame him.

The standard of debate, whilst not perfect, has improved substantially down the years – I can tell that from transcripts alone. The Lib Dems have always been good at it. Jocelyn Davies (Plaid, South Wales East), has made excellent use of motions during plenary over the last few months on her party's behalf. The Conservatives are more than capable of delivering a sucker punch every now and again.

Notice how I've left out one group – Labour backbenchers.

How many well thought out questions and debates have come from the Labour benches the last year or so? Questions that don't involve praising the front bench, latest policy initiative or attacking the UK Government (directly or indirectly)?

Before he became a Deputy Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) was quite good at it during the One Wales government.

A government should fear its backbenchers. One of Westminster's big plus points is that backbenchers wield quite considerable power. The same can be said of the Scottish Parliament. I'm not saying they should oppose everything for the sake of it, that would be stupid. However, effective critique of the government from their own side is the best way to hold said government to account. Ministers have to listen to them. I believe Labour backbench AMs hold far more power than they perhaps think they do, especially when there's no majority.

I don't think it comes down to abilities or skills, just that they're caught in an awkward arrangement and, perhaps, their questions duplicate one another. There's at least one glimmer of hope from the current lot – Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West). And even then, he's not perfect.

Maybe because there was such a high turnover of AMs in 2011, nobody wants to rock the boat in their first term. Some backbenchers could have their eyes on the front row, and don't want to ruin their chances with the boss.

Who's the most likely to make that step up at the moment? – Mark Drakeford.

Who's been, arguably, the most constructive critic of the Welsh Government this term from the Labour side? – Mark Drakeford.

That's not a coincidence. Think about it. Would a First Minister want to move a party loyalist nodding donkey to the front bench? Or one of the biggest, but friendlier, critics?

It wouldn't hurt opposition AMs, and their staff, reviewing how they present their arguments. But, far from criticising other parties for the standard of debate, I think Carwyn needs to turn around and look at his own people too.


  1. FMQs is rather like PNQs it doesn't hold anyone to account and is a fairly meaningless ritual. We need more back bench AMs from all parties, so that they can develop specialisms so that they can more effectively question the First Minister and other ministers.

  2. I think there's something to be said for a big, weekly "flagship" Q&A. The problem is Assembly plenary sessions are fairly open-ended, so there's nothing particularly special about FMQs, when AMs can just as easily get answers from ministers directly in subject-specific debates.

    I agree we need more backbenchers, or more specifically, more effective backbenchers. I don't think that means more AMs as such (yet), just the opposition parties doleing out fewer portfolios to their AMs and letting some AMs - as you suggest - act as general specialists by asking questions around the subject or get their hands dirty with FOI requests etc. I think that's a mistake Plaid have made in particular.

  3. Good post, although I can't understand why people are so overawed with Mark Drakeford?

    Anyway I wrote about FMQ changes back in 2009 just before Carwyn became leader (link below) and nothing has changed since then and I wouldn't hold my breath for new format now. After all if you were Carwyn Jones as FM currently getting away without to many people knowing or fully understanding what you and your Government are doing, why would he volunteer to stand in a brighter spotlight.

  4. Thanks, ACOP.

    I read your latest post with interest. I'm not suggesting Mark Drakeford is perfect in any way, but he is, at least, "talking the talk". He's been a rare bright spot in what's been a rather weak new intake of Labour AMs, though the likes of Ken Skates, Mick Antoniw and Vaughan Gething have their moments.

    You could argue there's some hypocrisy there, but his private affairs are his private affairs as far as I'm concerned. As long as there's nothing outwardly seedy in anything an AM does I don't really mind.

    I agree with your 2009 post about FMQs. I think it could do with shortening. I just don't think Carwyn Jones enjoys it as much as Rhodri Morgan used to. Maybe he just thinks it's pointless the way it is, but he (or Rose Butler) has the power to change it I should think.

    You can argue that FMQs is about attacking his government's record, but you can argue it's the main platform he can defend his government's record too. If we didn't have FMQs, would there really be any reason for Carwyn Jones to say or do anything in the Senedd chamber?