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    25 March, 2006

    Shambles in the Siambr

    Wednesday's Assembly plenary session produced a shambolic farce during voting after the debate on the Report of the Committee on the Government of Wales Bill. With 29 Labour Members present, and 29 Opposition members, it was evident from the first amendment that some Members - on both sides - were failing to have their votes recorded. On the first amendment, Dr Brian Gibbons (Lab) and Owen John Thomas (Plaid) were recorded as not having voted. A number of members, in all parties, failed to have their votes recorded on different votes, which led to a series of points of order, including one from me, during the course of voting.

    With a balance of members on the Government and Opposition sides, it was clear that some issues would be decided by the casting vote of the Presiding Officer. He would have to vote with the status quo, which would mean voting against amendments where there was a tie - and in the event of a tie on the final motion, against that as well.

    Amendments 9,10 and 12 provided the problem. Only there did the 'technical' voting difficulties affect the outcome which would otherwise have been expected. The amendments were carried, when if all members' votes in the Chamber had been recorded, the outcome would have been 29 each and then the Chair's casting vote would have been recorded against the amendment.

    So what was the technical problem? We have been told that the system was working. The problem I think is simply explained. In the old Chamber, it was clear to members whether or not their vote had been recorded, as lights would continue to flash if, as sometimes happened, the vote was not registering. In the new Chamber, although there is a technical indication that your vote has been recorded, it is not as obvious. We vote via the computer system in front of us. I was pretty confident that my votes had been recorded as I was working on speech-notes for the my subsequent debate, and the computer system would not allow me to return to the emails or the Word document of my speech if I had not voted. But that would not be obvious to everyone if they were not seeking to return to other work on the computer.

    After the Points of Order were raised, the Presiding Officer slowed down the voting and that resulted in votes taking place with all Members' votes being recorded.

    Electronic voting is a better system than the antiquated Westminster Division process, but if we are going to have 16 amendments tabled by the Opposition every time, then votes should not be conducted in a rush to get to next business.

    Turning to the substance of the issue, the Report of the Committee was thrown out, much to the irritation of the Presiding Officer, who had chaired it:

    I decided therefore that it was possible for me to preside over the debate under these circumstances, although, on reflection, my time might have been better spent in the House of Lords. [Laughter.] That was not in the script.

    I served on the Committee, which I thought was completely pointless, as I believed it would simply replicate discussions in Westminster. I explained this in the debate (for my speech, please click below). I abstained in the committee on our actual so-called report - a one pager, with annexes - as I believed we should have had a summary report with a narrative which explained the discussions in more detail.

    Leighton Andrews: I thought that this Government of Wales Bill committee exercise was an entirely pointless one and I was opposed to having it from the start, as colleagues in my group will recall. I thought that it would be pointless because all that would happen would be that we would have a committee in which the opposition members would simply roll out the amendments that their colleagues had tabled at Westminster. What happened? A total of 130 amendments were tabled, 95 of which had already been tabled in Westminster. So, my prediction that it was going to be a pointless exercise was pretty much proven.

    I suggested at the outset of the committee that perhaps we should focus on areas that might relate to how this Assembly would work after 2007 and see if we could find any measure of agreement. As I said in committee, I would have thought that that was a more sensible use of our time. However, of course, this was not something that found favour on the opposition benches, and they continued to roll out the amendments that they wanted to see. So, it was inevitable that we ended up with a report that, as far as I am concerned, is of one page with a series of annexes: it includes a page of background, annexes listing the votes and then the verbatim report of what took place. It was a pretty pointless process, which, in my view, has not added anything and was never likely to.

    Jenny Randerson:
    To examine the logic of what you just said—that it is pointless for the Assembly to show an interest in, and to debate, the legislation that will govern its future and that it is, in some way, wrong that the same amendments should crop up here and in London—do you not, in some tiny corner of your mind, think that you might have called the opposition parties inconsistent if they had produced different amendments here from those tabled in London?

    Leighton Andrews:
    I do not think that I said that it had to be pointless; I said that it was going to be pointless because of how I thought the opposition parties would operate. That was proven to be true.

    David Melding: Will you give way?

    Leighton Andrews: I have just given way to Jenny Randerson. I will give way later.

    David Melding: But it is on this point.

    Leighton Andrews:
    I have given way; I will give way later.

    The Government of Wales Bill that has been introduced in Parliament takes devolution forward. It puts primary legislation on the statute book. It means that, if the people of Wales vote in favour of primary legislation in a referendum, we will have those powers in due course. It takes devolution forward before that through the system of Assembly measures. It enforces the separation of the Government and the rest of the Assembly, as everyone here has signed up to. It also deals with the issue of dual candidacy. All of these issues were set out in Labour’s election manifesto. Having been set out in that way, they were then put into a White Paper. On that White Paper, we had a process of consultation and we, as an Assembly, have contributed to that process.

    Nick Bourne: I have checked the Labour Party manifesto and it says:

    ‘In Wales we will develop democratic devolution by creating a stronger Assembly with enhanced legislative powers and a reformed structure and electoral system to make the exercise of Assembly responsibilities clearer and more accountable to the public.’

    There is nothing about banning dual candidacy, nothing about orders in council, nothing about a two-thirds majority to trigger a referendum, nothing about fixing committees with the d’Hondt structure. Where is that in your manifesto? I have the manifesto here.

    Leighton Andrews:
    You will find that the dual candidacy issue was in the manifesto and it was in the White Paper. I quote to you from the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee:

    ‘We note that the Government’s commitment to introducing a bar on dual candidacy was contained in the Labour Party’s general election manifesto in 2005.’

    Do not take my word for it; take the words of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. [Interruption.]

    Presumably, you are implying that members of the House of Lords Constitution Committee cannot read either.

    Let us talk about the big picture. Labour is implementing devolution and taking it forward. That is the reality and that is what the opposition parties do not like.

    However, we had some revealing glimpses of what the opposition parties really want, in the process of this committee. That was one valuable aspect of it. We discovered the commitment of opposition parties to working together to form a coalition after the next Assembly election. Repeatedly throughout the proceedings of that committee, opposition Members tested what would happen under the new arrangements if a coalition was formed. Therefore, we know where they are going. We know what the choice will be in 2007: it will be a choice between a Labour Government or a Tory-led coalition. The Tories are driving the opposition; we will be there to stop them.

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    Promoted by Leighton Andrews AM, National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff CF99 1NA.

    Author's editorial policy: This blog does not publish anonymous comments, unless they are really witty and I like them. If you have something to say, then have the courage of your convictions and use your name or an identifiable alias. Even then I reserve the right not to publish comments that are malicious, defamatory, stupid, pointlessly cynical or boring. Any of the statements or comments made above should be regarded as personal and not necessarily those of the National Assembly for Wales, any constituent part or connected body.