Friday 20 July 2012

Heat, light, power, and oppositionalism

In response to Wednesday’s post, one anonymous commenter said that (s)he was disappointed that I was so dismissive of the no confidence motion, and wrote “What other form of censure have they got?  How else can they hold the Government to account and ensure that they cannot continue to mislead the electorate?  If the opposition parties were not to go ahead with the vote of no confidence, then the minister would justify centralisation by claiming that it was an independent report”.
There are a number of interesting points there.  Let’s start with this business of ‘holding the government to account’.  It's a phrase which often trips off the tongues of opposition politicians – whether in Cardiff or in London – and it’s one of those phrases whose meaning seems obvious.  But what does it really mean?
Clearly, no opposition can actually sack, or even censure, a government unless that opposition has a majority in the relevant chamber, whether a ‘natural’ majority or else a majority based either on government rebellion or differential absenteeism.  It’s why no confidence motions are so rare in most legislatures; unless the opposition thinks it can win one, there is little point holding one, since the failure of a ‘no confidence’ motion effectively confirms the opposite, i.e. ‘confidence’.
So, if they can't be sacked or censured, ‘holding a government to account’ can really mean little more than forcing them to answer difficult questions, and making sure that the answers are given the widest possible airing.  A motion of censure or no confidence which you know you can’t win, and which, even if you did win, has no effect, doesn’t strike me as a particularly effective way of doing that.  Even more so if it’s held on an issue of process rather than an issue of substance.
Could it be, though, as the anonymous comment seems to suggest (“How else can they…”) that it was actually born, at least in part, out of frustration and impotence, as a result of a lack of any alternative options?  Possibly, but attempting to press the nuclear button because there’s no non-nuclear option isn’t a line of reasoning which appeals to me.
Is it even true that there are no other options, though?  Are the scrutiny processes in the National Assembly so weak and inadequate that tabling a certain-to-fail motion of no confidence is the only option open to opposition parties?  I would hope not; and I don’t believe it’s so either.
If we look at the Westminster model, on which AMs often seem so keen, some parliamentary select committees actually do quite a good job of exposing government failings.  That isn’t to say, however, that all MPs are good at the job.  An observation that I’d make is that some MPs go into those committees with the intention of scoring points and grabbing sound bites, whilst others develop a depth of expertise in their subject and go in well-briefed, with a mastery of the subject, ready for a forensic examination of witnesses.  The first category get the headlines; but it’s the second category which are most effective in ‘holding the government to account’.
Westminster has one obvious advantage over the Assembly in this regard.  The sheer number of MPs, and the corresponding lack of numbers in the Assembly, allows a degree of specialisation and expertise.  It also allows more backbench freedom, on both government and opposition benches, for individual MPs to follow a particular hobby horse without endangering the government’s majority.
Are there, nevertheless, any valid comparisons with the Assembly in Cardiff?  I think there are.  The most effective harrying and scrutiny of government which I can recall in the entire period since the Assembly was created was the work which Dr Phil did over European funding and Barnett.  He mastered the subject better than any minister, was always well-prepared, and challenged the government time and time again.  There weren’t many sound bites, but the centre ground on those issues moved, in large part, I am convinced, as a result of his work.  Policy changed.
It’s an example of the second type of MP to which I referred earlier.  But much of what passes for scrutiny in the Assembly seems to be of the first type.  I don’t know what actually happens, but the impression often given is of opposition AMs who have been given a briefing note, ten minutes before going into a committee, of a few key points, rather than of most AMs having any real mastery of the subject.
And that brings me back to the point raised by Anon.  ‘Holding the government to account’ needs to be about more than scoring points and grabbing headlines.  It may be easier to generate heat than it is to generate light, but generating light will achieve more in the end.


Peter Black said...

I agree with much of this, however you do need to note how the Assembly Committee system has changed since Phil Williams' time. In those days, because the Minister was a member of the committee there was almost weekly detailed scrutiny of his/her policies and also of the civil servants. That enabled expertise to flourish and pick apart misconceived policy. Nowadays you will be lucky to get a Minister to a general scrutiny session once a term and then it largely unfocussed. You can get them to inquiries on specific topics but that is fairly limited too. Most scrutiny now takes place around committee inquiries. The session with the health minister last wednesday was an exception. What we need is more of those type of sessions to really hold the government to account. (note: this is not an attempt to justify using a motion of no confidence, which is as you say a blunt instrument of last resort. I think on balance we had to do that, but only because of the timetable that presented itself once the e-mails came to light and the impending recess in particular).

Anonymous said...

You need both John, but no one is stating the main reason for the problem, namely the massive amount of obfuscation and stonewalling that goes on by the Welsh Government to prevent all but muted scrutiny of its polices.

This leads to an unhealthy situation where even if the opposition expose bad policy or bad judgement ending in the failure of Ministers it rarely if ever changes the Welsh Government's policy or results in any action against the offending Minsters, such as being sacked, reshuffled out of the Cabinet or lose their seats at elections.

On the Health service the Welsh Government has neither proved it's case for centralisation or the opposition exposed its potential failings, the debate in policy terms to date has been non existent and will continue in that manner as long as there are political points to be scored.

John Dixon said...


I accept, of course, that you (collective rather than singular here) felt you 'had to do that'; but from outside it simply looks like an example of bubble groupthink.

Your comments on scrutiny and 'holding government to account' basically suggest that the Assembly is pretty impotent in that regard. But, surely, this isn't entirely an impotence imposed from outside by legislation; this is a self-inflicted impotence through adoption of standing orders?


I agree with your comment about 'obfuscation and stonewalling'. And I thought that it was at its very worst during the One Wales years when, with a large and tame majority, the government was able to ignore all opposing voices with utter impunity.

I don't agree with your final paragraph, about the Health Service. I think that the case for making some change is pretty well-proven. The problem is in defining what that change should be; the government have not been very explicit to date, merely mouthing generalisations, and the opposition have responded with simplistic oppositionalism. What we really need is clear proposals which can be properly examined and debated - Betsi Cadwaladr, at least, seems to be putting something forward now. Under propoer examination, I suspect that we will start to get some clarity. The probability is that the need lies somewhere between what the government will propose (much centralisation) and what the opposition will accept (no change).

But back to the scrutiny question - is the problem inevitable?

One of the main things that is holding scrutiny back in the Assembly is the extent to which AMs see themselves (or are 'persuaded' to see themselves by the whips) as being there either to blindly support the government or else to equally blindly oppose it. The result is heat not light.

That lack of independence of thinking is, in part, due to the small size of the Assembly - an independently-minded backbencher is more obvious in an Assembly of 60 than in a parliament of 650. And if the 'government benches' are going to contain only 30-40 members (which is the experience to date), and half of those are going to be ministers, deputy ministers, whips, or group officers, and the rest are going to aspire to those positions, then things are unlikely to change.

Adding the extra 20 AMs proposed by Richard might help, but I suspect that the same people who criticise the current crop would be equally opposed to such an increase.

The other thing that might be done is to look again at the extent to which committees can cross-examine ministers - as Peter's comment above suggests, there's a real weakness there.