Why the Senedd needs to recapture the spirit and optimism – and healthy working hours – of 1999
Helen Mary Jones, Plaid Cymru Senedd Member for Mid and West Wales
Just over two years ago I found myself having to make a momentous decision. Having settled happily into academic life, very difficult circumstances, of which we are all aware, opened the door to my returning to public life.
I was far from sure that it was the right thing for me personally, but sometimes we’re just called to a different path, so in September 2018 I found myself once more walking into the Senedd as an elected member.
Some things have changed, some remain. This piece is a short reflection on where we are, and some thoughts on what needs to change.
How effective are we – our parliament and our government? I have seen some real improvement in our capacity to scrutinise. It’s been particularly encouraging to see senior backbenchers from the governing party grasp of their role in challenging the government.
This was a rare sight in the old days of the Assembly, when there was sometimes almost a sense that challenging ministers wasn’t very nice. The capability and professionalism of the staff supporting scrutiny was always good and in my view is now excellent.
But one issue that continues to rear its head is that of the workload and the need for more members. When scrutinising legislation a grasp of detail is vital, and while good professional advice is important it is not a substitute for Members doing the detailed work themselves.
At some point, something will be missed, and there will be errors in legislation that will be hard to undo. It is, of course, hard to convince the public to spend more money on more politicians, but if we don’t there will be consequences that cost much more.
With regard to the Welsh Government, however – and I am confining my remarks here to the pre-Covid period – I have been astonished by how tired and lacklustre our national Government has become.
There are exceptions of course. For example, the work on the new curriculum has the potential to be really exciting, but only if it is properly delivered. But my overwhelming experience has been Ministers always searching endlessly for reasons not to do things, even when they know they’re right.
I can fully understand that trying to meet the public’s expectations in a time of austerity, and with the backdrop of Brexit, must be hugely challenging. But this isn’t good enough.
Faced with these enormous challenges, and now the Covid pandemic, we need ambition and courage, not small c conservatism and excuses.
How inclusive are we? When the National Assembly Advisory Group consulted the people of Wales about how they wanted their new democracy to work there was a strong emphasis in the responses of promoting equality and building an institution where the widest possible range of people, particularly women, were able to participate.
We built specific prohibitions on discriminatory language into our Standing Orders, and, in line with the express wishes of the people, we built a parliament that went to work in the morning and went home in the evening, enabling people to be active parliamentarians at the same time as exercising caring responsibilities.
This structure also prevented the development of a Westminster-style culture, with ‘gentlemen’ going to the boardrooms or their legal chambers to work in the day, and fetching up to legislate at teatime.
When the Assembly was first established I, as a single mother with a young child, was able to put myself forward for election, knowing of course that this was not a 9-to-5 job, but also knowing that my formal parliamentary responsibilities would not prevent me from putting my child to bed.
A woman in that position would have to think more than twice now. Of course, the Senedd’s increased responsibilities and legislative powers have increased the workload. And it is inarguable that in order for our democracy to function we must increase the numbers of Senedd Members.
But it is also true that culture has developed where it is deemed reasonable for Members, and for staff, to regularly work till eight or 9 PM. This isn’t healthy and isn’t sustainable. We can’t urge other employers and workplaces to be flexible and take people’s family responsibilities into account if we continue to conduct our business like this.
As well as needing more Members we need to plan our work better. Do we really need as many Opposition debates as we currently have? Must we take legislation in Plenary sessions all in one go, or could we stagger debates?
Should we consider having Committees sitting during Plenary time? Do we need more Plenary sessions?
What is clear to me is that we must do something. If we cannot enable women to participate, what chance have we of improving the representation of other traditionally underrepresented groups?
Another constant has been the challenge of engaging the public in the work of the Senedd and of the Government. The fragile state of the news media, and the inability or unwillingness of UK wide broadcasters to reflect devolution in their coverage leads to a position where large sections of the Welsh public are still not clear about what is decided in Cardiff and what is decided in Westminster.
Frankly, Welsh Ministers whinging about what the nasty Government in London won’t help or let them do on the one hand, while refusing to fight for, for example, the devolution of benefits or serious additional borrowing powers on the other, doesn’t help.
It is arguably the case that the Welsh Government’s different approach to the Covid crisis has helped more people to understand that we can do some things differently here. But again, that’s not helped by the Welsh Government buying into unsuccessful Westminster approaches, like the disastrous Covid testing system.
Without a thriving, Wales focused media in English and in Welsh, our democracy will not thrive. For me, that means that in the very challenging commercial environment our government must support the sector to innovate, and that means funding an arm’s length mechanism for providing direct financial support.
None of these insights is particularly unique. But they have led me to reflect.
I have no regrets about my decision to return to the Senedd. I hope to be back after the 2021 election. But I think it is imperative that we recapture some of the spirit of optimism and enthusiasm of 1999.
Our democracy is still young, and it is still fragile, under attack from a power-grabbing Conservative and Unionist Westminster government and the rag bag of the far-right who, having got their own way on Brexit are looking for other targets for their bile.
We won’t win and keep the support of the people of Wales for devolution if we are timid and pessimistic. We need a bigger parliament, a parliament that is as inclusive as it is robust. We need a government that is passionate, ambitious and outward-looking. A government that will use the Senedd’s existing powers to the full, to show what is possible and build the case for more.
Of course I believe that only Plaid Cymru can form that government. I’m hoping to be in the Senedd and be part of it.