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27 November 2000

The Speaker gets above himself

Cardiff

By Paul Starling

Wales is only now waking up to the mess that devolution makes. Like the flood waters that flung furniture around hundreds of homes never before affected, it is seeping under doors, through floorboards and in directions that are entirely unfamiliar.

The Tories want to scupper devolution, but they don’t stand a chance. The other three parties in the National Assembly for Wales – despite all the mess, drift and damage – are committed to making the new concordat a rock-solid settlement.

But this is where the fun starts.

Alun Michael’s successor as First Secretary, Rhodri Morgan, is determined to go down in history as the creator of the new Wales; and the Welsh Assembly is his vehicle for that ambition. He signed a three-year, centre-left, social justice partnership with the Lib Dems, winning himself a guaranteed working majority while sidelining Plaid Cymru to the whinges and outer fringes of assembly decision-making.

Meanwhile, among the Plaid Cymru ranks, Dafydd Wigley has gone, and his successor, Ieuan Wyn Jones, in order to get elected, has reinvented himself as a “socialist”, toned down Plaid Cymru’s more xenophobic nationalism and re-positioned the party to the left of centre.

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Poor old Ieuan Wyn Jones. At the very moment he was hanging the sign “Leader of Plaid Cymru” on his assembly door, the Lib Dem Michael German was hanging two: “Deputy First Minister” and “Economic Development Minister”.

Then there is Dafydd Elis-Thomas. He is a former president of Plaid Cymru and now Presiding Officer of the assembly. He is to Cardiff what Betty Boothroyd was to Westminster. That’s the theory, anyway. But not the reality, according to a growing number of senior assembly figures. Elis-Thomas has made many enemies over the first 18 months. And now that Plaid’s wings have been clipped by the new Lib-Lab partnership, the knives are out for the “Speaker”.

The Government of Wales Act, which created the Welsh Assembly, gave nothing more than very limited powers to the Presiding Officer. The first is the duty “to make subordinate legislation once duly approved by the assembly”. To make – in this case – means to keep a watchful eye while the assembly civil service does the actual drafting of secondary legislation. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly has no powers to create primary legislation, nor to vary taxes – and this leaves the real power over vast areas of life such as the economy, defence and foreign affairs with Whitehall and Europe. The lack of real influence and control is a sore point for Plaid Cymru. And Elis-Thomas wants to be recognised as the defender of the assembly’s rights. Anyone who fails to accept or “respect” that is slapped down in assembly debate, or accused of undermining his “authority in running assembly business”.

Last week, Elis-Thomas was involved in a bust-up with the assembly’s most senior civil servant, the permanent secretary, Jon Shortridge. The Presiding Officer is now being accused at the highest levels of seriously overstepping his powers. The ruling partnership is now convinced that Elis-Thomas wants to run, rule and control the civil service – and senior civil servants are determined to resist any such attempts. So when Elis-Thomas told the permanent secretary he wanted his personal assistant promoted from level-5 executive officer to the senior level-7, with a large salary increase, Shortridge refused. It was against civil service rules, he said. He couldn’t do it. Elis-Thomas’s assistant must compete in an open board like everyone else.

At that point, “Mr Speaker” is said to have “blown a blood vessel”. He attacked Shortridge at a meeting of party leaders, then sent him a letter – which was rapidly leaked to the press. The letter is very instructive. After accusing the permanent secretary of “challenging the democratic process and undermining the powers of the assembly”, Elis-Thomas then reveals the inner man. “As Presiding Officer,” he says, “I consider I have a duty to defend these. I’m concerned your actions in seeking to question my authority and the decisions which I take . . . to make the necessary judgements in such matters, constitutes a serious impropriety.”

Shortridge has suffered recurring illness over several weeks. “He’s being deliberately targeted,” one furious senior figure told me. “It’s not the Welsh way, to kick someone while they’re down.”

Within two days of Elis-Thomas’s outburst, his party, Plaid Cymru, formally called for “an independent Welsh civil service”. The party’s leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, would not be drawn on who he thought should run that independent civil service. But his political enemies have no doubt.

The whole episode is being seen as a desperate attempt by a sidelined nationalist party to wrestle a different hold on power. But the poison runs much deeper towards Dafydd Elis-Thomas. The Presiding Officer is bound by the Government of Wales Act. That act invests in him just one other simple legal power: to act in an entirely impartial way as a non-political chair, encouraging open debate, along with other formal functions.

This leads Elis-Thomas’s growing (and powerful) enemies to ask several questions. Why has he set up the Office of the Presiding Officer? Why does he need a budget of £3m this year to carry out those simple ceremonial and debating functions? Why is that budget set to shoot up to £7m next year? And if the Presiding Officer doesn’t have ambitions to become, in reality, the president of the assembly civil service, what on earth is he going to spend all that money on?

Tom Brown’s Holyrood column returns next week