As often happens during Recess, the media try to keep people’s interest alive in politics by publishing a piece or two that’s more “general interest” rather than “current affairs”. In spite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the associated political hubris, BBC Wales have republished an updated piece on unparliamentary language. We’ve seen the same sort of thing in several versions before, and to those of us who are interested in Parliamentary proceedings, it’s actually quite interesting.
After all, did we not laugh, or shake our heads in bemusement as Dafydd Elis-Thomas kicked Leanne Wood out of the Chamber for referring to Her Majesty the Queen as “Mrs Windsor”? Did we not also have a bit of a chuckle when Elin Jones, the current Presiding Officer, sent Lord Elis-Thomas a strongly worded letter for calling the Conservative benches “right wing shits”?
But therein lies a difference – and it’s causing a problem. You see, Lord Elis-Thomas used the Standing Orders of what was then the National Assembly to kick Wood out of Siambr Hywel for unparliamentary language. Jones however simply sent him a letter when he was guilty of the same offence.
YouTube is full of clips from the UK Parliament showing various speakers, from Baroness Boothroyd, to John Bercow, and Lindsay Hoyle, making denouncements from the Chair and admonishing members or kicking them out. No such material presents itself for the Welsh Parliament, for this prepubescent institution is yet to find its constitutional cajonas.
Let us take, for example, the recent case of Neil McEvoy, who turned up in the Senedd Siambr with a strip of gaffer tape over his mouth and a placard complaining that he had been “gagged by a racist”, because one of his amendments had not been selected for debate. This was, according to Standing Orders, conduct that questioned the Chair’s authority. McEvoy is now only being called for questions he’s tabled or amendments that have been selected, until he apologises.
The same did not apply to Gareth Bennett, MS for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party and previously for UKIP. After his speech on transgender rights, he was told simply that he wouldn’t be allowed to speak until he apologised. There wasn’t any suggestion, apparently, of him being allowed to table questions in the interim. It’s a double standard, and demonstrates to me that the rules are being made up as we go along. If Members are going to take real liberties with Standing Orders, then by all means kick them out. Have the guts to do it – and certainly don’t shilly-shally with this “until you apologise” malarkey. But at the same time, we need to ask why we’ve got to where we are.
Writing on this website a week or so ago about Mark Reckless’ move to Abolish, my learned friend Daran Hill made a good point. He questioned whether or not people within the Cardiff Bay Establishment realised that people are driven to “fringe” or “anti-Establishment” outfits by the very nature of the Senedd’s attitude to what they would term as “newcomers”. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Members apparently “guilty” of “unparliamentary” language recently are exactly those people for whom the Cardiff Bay elite hope not to be renewing security passes next May.
The fact of the matter is that it isn’t just the language of our Parliament that’s problematic. In fact, the discourse is the last of its issues. As soon as the UKIP Group, and then the Brexit Party Group, started to lose Members, privileges were taken away. Leaders questions were reduced, and they always came last, rather than rotating with the main opposition spokesmen. Committee places were dropped. Members, and staff, were out of the loop on consultation about Senedd business. But this was all evident before people jumping ship. I know – for I was there. Even when UKIP had its full complement the Group was left on the sidelines.
So it’s not just the language that’s become intemperate. The Parliament itself needs to grow up and stop acting like a spoilt toddler.
The Government has rightly come under fire in recent months for its unwelcome habit of dodging Senedd scrutiny. As much as politicos and opposition politicians complain about this, and rightly so in my view; there is only one actual body that can do something about it – and that is the Senedd and its Presiding Officer.
If the Senedd is to aspire to its marketing strapline of “representing all voices in Wales”, then it can make a start by listening to those Members whose message they may find difficult. Only then can we truly take the heat out of the debate and find common ground to deal with the immediate problems that face us. Running up to an election, this is a tall order – but if the Senedd wishes to challenge those who would seek to curtail its powers or, indeed, have a Referendum on its very future, then the time to start talking is now.