There’s no room at the Assembly’s inn – so why is it so quiet?

The Senedd. Picture: Smoobs (CC BY 2.0)

Daran Hill, Managing Director at Positif public affairs consultancy

Assembly Commission Questions are usually even less gripping than the obituary hour (or ninety-second statements as AMs call it).

This week, however, someone asked something challenging when Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid Cymru, South Wales West) called into question some new events policies related to the Assembly estate.

She asked: “Will the Commissioner provide an update on the availability of rooms and meeting space on the Assembly estate?”

Two aspects are of concern to Bethan and others including Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), who has raised the matter previously.

Firstly, individual AMs are now being limited to booking only ten events a year on the Assembly estate.

This raises concern because the effect of this could be very negative for both individual AMs and external organisations who rely upon them. Often organisations go to committee chairs or local representatives specifically to become an event sponsor.

For regional members in particular, because of the size of the geography they represent, the challenge may well now be choosing which local campaigns and events to support and facilitate. This new rule will force many AMs into choosing what to sponsor.

It is not unreasonable for an AM either to now reduce the number of national campaign organisation events they choose to support on the basis that they will need to prioritise local work over a twelve-month cycle. Perhaps some are already doing this.

It is well known some AMs are way more energetic than others when they sponsor events, both in the number they sponsor and the extent to which they engage and promote them.

As a parasitical lobbyist, this is well known to people like me, and it probably won’t be organisations like mine that are affected.

The real negative could be the impact on both local campaigns or others which are less adept and well connected. Some organisations – particularly smaller national charities – may only have a real relationship with a tiny number of AM champions.

Take out the possibility to engage one of them, and where does that leave them?

Control

Equally concerning is the new rule that an AM can no longer book an event without it being properly screened and approved by the events team at the Assembly. The officials are getting ever more power over elected members.

There seems to be a layer of control that has been created incrementally which, like any bureaucracy, seeks to perpetuate itself through administrative and bureaucratic activities.

Six months ago, there was a huge bottleneck in the system for any organisation wishing to book space, though this thankfully seems to have been abated.

This is a worrying step. As Bethan Sayed said, “I’m given to understand that there is guidance available, but on occasion I find that these processes are very, very slow because the estates team has to make a decision as to whether an event is appropriate or not.

“We as Assembly Members want to advertise these events, to encourage attendance, whilst the estates team is in a bubble discussing what should happen. These are people who are not elected, of course.”

The answer from the Llywydd Elin Jones AM (Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion) was that these changes were brought about by concerns that some AMs were over-booking facilities at the expense of others.

She suggested it was done to try and ensure a more level playing field, and I have no doubt in her sincerity.

But at the same time, there is little evidence any AM was being discriminated against. Perhaps the Commission sees things others do not see.

To be fair, the Llywydd promised the Commission would look again at the guidance if it didn’t work and agreed there were huge demands on the Assembly estate. Anyone who has tried booking a facility knows that well.

Questions

But something just doesn’t ring true about this whole situation. It is harder than ever to book an event in the Assembly.

It will now be harder than ever, particularly for less influential organisations, to find an AM willing an able to act as a sponsor.

Yet as someone who has been a regular on the Assembly estate for twenty years, I can honestly say I have never known it to be so visibly quiet. This is a worry to many of us.

When you can’t get any space for an event for eight months yet you see the Oriel and Neuadd pretty vacant half the time you go to the Senedd, it does make you wonder what’s going on.

I am not just causing trouble here. I genuinely think there is far, far less “bwrlwm” on the fringe of the Assembly than there used to be. I would ask any AM elected before 2016 and still serving if they feel the same, because I know a number of us in the wider bubble have definitely noticed a dip in energy and activity.

Of course, it’s hard to prove this, but the Llywydd seems to think differently. On Wednesday she said: “There are 32 bookable venues for closed activities and three public spaces across the Assembly estate.

“An average of 137 meetings are held per week during term time. These can be booked by Assembly Members, support staff, Commission staff and contractors.”

Putting aside why contractors are permitted to book space in the Assembly – I’m not quite so petty as to pursue that – there are other bigger questions around these 137 meetings.

How public are they and where are they registered is an obvious concern, and one which was voiced by Public Affairs Cymru during the Standards Committee’s recent review into lobbying.

The Committee agreed, as reflected in its report recommendation and the Commission response.

Another question remains nevertheless. With the Assembly being ever quieter, where the hell are these 137 meetings taking place?

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