As part of our Parliamentary Responses to Crisis series, this is the second part of our articles about perspectives from each of the UK’s devolved Parliaments, in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
Sir Paul Silk is a GPG Associate. He is the Former Secretary General of the National Assembly for Wales and Chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales.
Senedd Cymru’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Celebrations were due to have happened in Cardiff on 6 May when Part 2 of the Senedd and Welsh Elections Act entered into force and the National Assembly for Wales become the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru. COVID-19 put paid to those celebrations. But one of the curious side-effects of the COVID-19 crisis has been that the profile of the Welsh legislature has grown even without the name-change.
Legislation that limits personal freedoms was not expected to be on the agenda of the newly-named institution. But that is what we have seen. And legislation that is more restrictive than in England. For example, it was quite lawful to travel to the seaside for the day in England from early May, but until 6 July you ran the risk of being turned back by the police if you decided to drive to one of West Wales’s wonderful beaches.
Because of this, people in Wales, and throughout the UK (perhaps especially England) – have realised that legislative devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland means that laws might actually be different in different parts of the country. This has been particularly remarkable in Wales – a country whose laws had basically been in lockstep with England since the sixteenth century. Not everyone approves what has happened (one English MP called for the Senedd to be abolished), but at least (at last?) people have noticed that laws are made in Wales as well as Westminster.
They have noticed, too, that the procedural response in the Senedd has differed from that in the House of Commons. There was certainly a fair amount of schadenfreude on social media from virtually-voting Senedd members when the voting queues snaked round New Palace Yard at Westminster on 2 June.
The Senedd is very proud of being the first legislature in the UK to sit virtually – on 1 April. Fortunately, there was no impediment to this way of meeting either in Standing Orders or the legislation that regulates the Senedd. It was also easier for a body of 60 Members to meet virtually. But this should not detract from the quick and imaginative response that the Senedd and its officials showed that allowed this to happen.
A temporary Standing Order (No. 34) was passed to facilitate the continuation of Senedd business “during the COVID-19 outbreak”. This Standing Order was amended as circumstances changed. The present version –
- reduces the quorum of Plenary to four
- allows one designated Member to cast all the votes for his/her party group (except where legislation requires votes by two-thirds majorities)
- allows Members to vote remotely in plenary or committee
- allows oral questions to Ministers to be suspended
- allows public access to be suspended (while continuing broadcasting)
- allows the Presiding Officer to recall the Senedd to consider COVID-19 business.
There were four plenary meetings in April, three in May and four in June. Committees began to meet in May – though substantially fewer committees than normal have met. A striking example of a committee meeting was the fascinating COVID-19 questioning at the Committee on Scrutiny of the First Minister on Friday 3 July. Zoom was the platform used – it is the only one that allows simultaneous translation. Zoom has worked well, even if bilingual provision is sometimes a bit clunky. There is also the problem of wifi being patchy in parts of Wales.
Members have also had to get used to new ways of behaving – one Minister did not mute his microphone before expressing his exasperation with one of his party colleagues in unfortunately rich language. On the other hand, the Presiding Officer’s access to the mute button means that disorderly speeches can be cut off more easily than in normal proceedings.
As elsewhere, remote working has brought advantages – it is easier to convene meetings; Members and witnesses do not need to travel; meetings can be held on days and times when they had not traditionally been held.
Most importantly of all, the Senedd continued to function during lockdown. There cannot be a time when this has been so important for democratic scrutiny to continue: as Jelena Gligorijević put it so well in the context of New Zealand: “If there is ever a time for Parliament to take unprecedented steps to hold the Government accountable for the legality of its actions, it is when the Government has exercised unprecedented powers with profound effects on individuals’ lives, livelihoods and liberties”.
But there have been downsides. As Greg Power said in an earlier blog, politics is a “contact sport” – the advantages of physical meeting, from understanding body language to whispered advice from Clerk to Chair, were lost, and the conversations that are the essence of political bargaining became more difficult. More generally, the impossibility of face-to-face meetings with constituents, pressure groups and civil society representatives made Members’ lives more complicated.
Members’ opportunities for scrutiny were also truncated (expedited consideration of legislation; no amendments; no oral questions; fewer written questions; fewer committees; committees avoiding non-COVID-related work). These all made life easier for the Government – though, arguably, this was justifiable during the crisis.
For the future, it will be important to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny is not misrepresented as a bothersome intrusion into the business of government, and that some of the new ways of proceeding (for example, allowing Ministers to respond to questions remotely; or allowing expedited procedures for the consideration of legislation; or reducing the number or length of sittings) do not become permanent “efficiencies” after the crisis is over. One particular concern is voting: the Senedd has a record of strong party discipline, and this was enhanced by the provision for Members’ votes to be cast en bloc by party managers. This restricts dissenting Members’ ability to rebel and certainly ought not to become a regular feature of Senedd proceedings.
Wales is not unique in facing these challenges. But all-in-all Senedd Members and staff can be proud of how they have responded to the crisis. By June, the Senedd plenary (though still fully virtual) was conducting business very much as usual – for example, on 3 June there were questions to the First Minister, three ministerial statements on COVID-19, debates on secondary legislation and on an Opposition motion, with votes taken at the end (the Senedd normally employs “voting time”). But it was not quite business as usual: the Presiding Officer, as she tweeted, ran proceedings from her front room.
From 8 July, the Senedd will return – at least in part – to Cardiff with a Welsh model of hybrid sittings. Twenty MSs will be able to be present in the Chamber but every MS will be able to vote. It remains to be seen if the Presiding Officer will abandon her front room in the beautiful seaside town of Aberaeron. She, at least, has always been able to enjoy our beaches.