The last week of any term in the Welsh Assembly is always one where the Welsh Government try to get rid of the dead wood. You can expect Government statements about such important matters as the growing threat of the killer shrimp on Welsh waterways (something which, incidentally, Gareth Bennett has previously quizzed the relevant Minister on, gloriously outfoxing her), or an hour’s debate on the annual report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Wales Committee’s Annual Review. That’s exactly what we had to endure on Tuesday [12th Dec 2017].
A 19 page report, printed of course bilingually and on glossy paper with no taxpayer expense spared, I scanned the document to look for any little nuggets that might be of use. Realising quickly that in the last year this quango had achieved the square root of zero, hence my incisive research into the matter was complete, Gareth then put pen to paper and came up with a speech.
Well, the speech itself generated plenty of hot air in the Chamber on an otherwise frosty Cardiff Bay afternoon. The mock outrage shown by some of the few Assembly Members who were actually there for the debate led to a few smiles in the UKIP Group Office, and Gareth ploughed through it with gusto, refusing to take any interventions from the Cardiff Bay cartel of politicians “gone native”. All in all, a good day at the office.
Wednesday [13th December 2017] was the last day of term and many Assembly Members and their support staff were gearing up for their Christmas parties, not really paying much attention to what was going on in the Chamber. I was in Sainsbury’s buying a bottle of tonic water (well, you can’t drink it neat), when I got a call to say that there was a Point of Order, and could I come back to the office.
After discussion Gareth went back to the Chamber along with Neil Hamilton, UKIP’s Group leader here in Cardiff Bay, to listen to the so-called Point of Order. Unsurprisingly, it was from Joyce Watson, a former publican and one of only two Labour AMs elected by the Regional List system. She’s also the Assembly Commissioner for Equalities and People. She promptly denounced Gareth for his “homophobic” remarks and demanded an apology, claiming she’d received phone calls and messages from people who were “outraged”. The Presiding Officer (the Llywydd) then went on to say that she’d found some of the remarks “particularly hateful”, even though she hadn’t intervened when the speech was being delivered the previous day.
Gareth’s response was succinct; “Thank you, Llywydd. There will be no apology. There will be no withdrawal”.
Perhaps the Presiding Officer was not expecting this reply. She couldn’t pinpoint specifically what words or phrases were so offensive when asked to do so by Neil Hamilton. She bumbled her way through the next few sentences, suggesting that she objected to the use of the phrase “deviation from the norm”, and then ended up with this little gem; “I have asked the Member to apologise and to withdraw his comments. He has said that he will not do so. That Member will not be called in this Chamber in 2018 until he has done so”.
With that, Gareth replied “so be it”, and left the Chamber.
Like any legislature, the Assembly is governed by Standing Orders and in this case, the Presiding Officer could have, and should have, ordered Gareth to withdraw from the Chamber for the remainder of the day’s proceedings. This doesn’t happen very often, but the power has occasionally been used, notably when the now leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, refused to withdraw her use of the term “Mrs Windsor” in relation to Her Majesty the Queen. She was booted out by fellow Plaid AM Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas.
In theory, the Presiding Officer can call whoever she wants to speak, but there is no provision in the Assembly’s Standing Orders to effectively gag a Member just because she doesn’t like what they’ve said. Since I’ve worked for Gareth, one thing has always been clear. He knows his own mind, is not afraid to speak his own mind, and he is going to be the last person in Wales to accept the cosy Cardiff Bay consensus.
In sticking to his guns and refusing to apologise, Gareth is standing up for the right to be heard on behalf of the constituents who elected him to represent them. In any debating Chamber, there will be opposing views, but surely democracy is about having those views and being able to express them without the fear of censorship.
Incidentally, Gareth’s office has been overwhelmed with messages of support from across Wales and beyond who have congratulated him for, to quote directly from just one email; “speaking up in the Assembly for those of us who feel without a voice and who are being crushed by political correctness” As for the naysayers? Well, I suppose we’ve been inundated by an email.
In the last week, an “independent report” has been published calling for an expansion from the current 60 Assembly Members to 80 or 90, together with additional support staff, office space and IT equipment etc., on the basis that there’s a lot of work on what with Brexit and all that. The Assembly costs £55m a year and the increase would mean a budget expansion to over £80m. Wales is the poorest region of the UK. Poverty and mortality rates are higher than elsewhere; over 20% of Welsh households are in fuel poverty. Our schools and hospitals are failing; we have the lowest educational attainment standards in the UK. Our farmers are struggling and our infrastructure is collapsing.
There is more to be outraged about in Wales than an Assembly Member saying what he thinks.