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Widening our democracy

This is an article for the IWA's Click on Wales site

If people think that Assembly debates are dull then it may pay them to go on-line and find videos of debates in the first Assembly between 1999 and 2003.

It was not just that these earlier encounters were uninspiring, in many cases we were going through the motion of discussing worthy strategies without the powers or the finances to do anything with them. The only debate with real drama was the no confidence motion in Alun Michael.

The lesson here is that if a debate is relevant and leads to change then it not only engages the Assembly Members partaking in it, but also the general public.

The third stage of the Organ Donation Bill was a good example. Here was an issue that aroused passions on both sides. And although the discussions centred on detailed technical amendments, the arguments were compelling, passionate and of a very high quality.

I suspect that if we ever actually debate a bill on banning smacking that had a real chance of being passed that would also stir similar passions. Certainly we had such discussions over some of the housing legislation, and the proposal to ban e-cigarettes in the last Assembly amongst a number of other issues.

And we were able to engage in high quality debates despite the ICT in the chamber.

The computers are important as they allow members to access information quickly, which might add to their contribution or allow them to rebut a point made by another AM.

It also allows the AM to interact with the outside world through e-mail and social media, communicate with other AMs in the chamber and also catch up with work if they are not participating in the debate.

Without them the chamber may be even emptier during the duller debates. When the debates are relevant and engaging Assembly Members tend to put the ICT to one side anyway.

Wales may be unique in having computers in the chamber but go to other legislatures and their members are doing the same thing on phones or tablets. It really is a matter of personal choice.

The thing is, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of scrutinising and debating legislation, analysing government policies and even holding ministers to account, it can be very dull. That is because this is a serious pursuit it is not show-business.

Senedd and Committee debates exist so as to deliver good governance. They are not meant to be an entertainment . Any AM who believes that we can interest more people in what he or she does on a daily basis has already spent too long in the Cardiff Bay bubble.

And let’s face it, dullness is not just confined to the Welsh Assembly. It applies to other UK Parliaments as well. It is no coincidence that we only ever get to see Prime Minister’s Question Time on our television as a matter of routine.

Politicians and democratic institutions become relevant by what they achieve not through viewing figures,

Having said all that there is still much more to do to make Welsh Assembly politics more relevant and interesting. The spontaneity achieved by Party Leaders and spokespeople asking up to three questions without notice has been effective and really tested some Ministers.

There is a case for backbench AMs being able to ask without-notice questions too and rather than an unworkable standing order to make Ministers answer the question, giving the Presiding Officer latitude to allow an AM to press their point if necessary with further questions.

I happen to think electronic voting works and allows more time for debate. Those who have watched MPs troop through the division lobbies on a muted television feed, taking 15 minutes for each vote, will know what I mean.

However, why do we have to wait to see who has voted and which way? Why do we have to navigate a contrived and complicated set of web pages to discover which government AM has accidentally pressed the wrong button or who has rebelled against the party whip?

This information should be displayed on the Senedd screens and the TV feed as soon as the result is announced.

The formality and mutual respect of the Senedd chamber is important too, as it speaks to the importance of the institution. But I agree that we can still do more in committee to engage with stakeholders, using social media to allow them to feed in relevant questions for example as suggested by Steffan Lewis.

And if we really want to liven up debates then let’s allow more time for them, stop straight jacketing speakers into a five minute slot and in particular extend the time for Ministers to reply so that they can take more interventions. When combined with more topical motions that would produce a more lively discussion, perhaps even one worth listening to.

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