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Asking the questions

Betsan Powys | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

When Andrew Davies left his job as Finance Minister at the end of last year - albeit in circumstances which caused some eyebrows to be raised - the bottom line, he said, was that after a decade in the Cabinet he wanted his life back.

There were mutterings in the corridors of Cardiff Bay at the time of the possibly destabilising effect on the new First Minister in having such an able political operator as Mr Davies on the backbenches, with an awful lot of time on his hands.

In the event and despite his role as Edwina Hart's main backer Mr Davies has remained rock solid loyal, both in public and private since the end of the leadership contest. And his reward? Along with his former Cabinet colleague Dr Brian Gibbons, he's been handed a plum posting: member of the Finance Committee.

Judging by today's performance in taking evidence on further and higher education funding, the former big beasts of the Cabinet are thoroughly enjoying their new berth as interrogators ... rather than the interrogated.

In recent years close observers of Assembly committees (let's just describe them as a small but hardy bunch) have frequently been driven to despair by AMs reading out questions prepared in advance by the Members Research Service in a dull monotone, with minimal attempts at follow up scrutiny. Reports of some performances have been pretty cruel it has to be said. "Why don't they just add 'it says here' to the end of their question and have done with it?"

There were times when today's committee resembled Division One football side which had just signed a couple of Premier League footballers on loan. Both Mr Davies and Dr Gibbons have spent the last ten years or so taking on and grilling the Sir Humphreys of the Welsh civil service. After all, if Ministers are sold a pup by the civil servants, they know its they who have to stand up in the Assembly and take the flak, which tends to concentrate the mind rather.

Mr Davies spent most of the morning picking forensically through the written evidence given to the committee in advance, and demanding a definition of what the witnesses meant by "efficiency savings" in the education sector.

He was clearly fairly exasperated with the answers.

"What I would say about the evidence, Chair, is that assertions are made, and when you ask for the evidence, it's anecdotal? It's very difficult for us as a committee, then, to actually interrogate that."

The rising inflection on the word "anecdotal" left the room in no doubt on what he thought of it. He went on to lecture the witnesses, from the Association for College Management and the University and College Union, among others about the focus on difference in funding levels between Wales and England, without a similar focus on the disparities in performance.

He cited one further education institution offered substantial extra money towards collaboration, but which turned it down because it was a repayable loan, not a grant.

Was this the AM for Swansea West speaking, or a rather frustrated former Minister for Public Service Delivery? It was certainly someone who knows where the bodies are buried.

At the same time, of course, there's more than an element of pride here too - there's a record in Government to defend, remember.

But if having former Ministers free to make the points they perhaps wished they could make while in office is proving painful for witnesses used to a somewhat gentler experience, it's also a headache for the committee chair too.

Last year the finance committee chair Angela Burns AM found herself presiding over a committee that sometimes began to resemble a circus, one particular lowlight being a public row between members as to whether one had plagiarised a document written by another and then submitted it as formal evidence.

The new line up appears to have cured some of those problems but there were signs today that Ms Burns is going to have her hands full in keeping some of the new members reined in. "Through the chair" she snapped at one point, as Mr Davies went after another witness during another AM's questioning. He had the good grace to smile and acknowledge this ... but it would be advisable for future witnesses to make sure they've got some pretty clear answers ready in the coming weeks.

Oh and by the way spare a thought for the new chair of the European and External Affairs Committee. Rhodri Morgan AM will this afternoon introduce and outline the recommendations of his committee's report on Cohesion Policy. The government's response to the report and its recommendations was signed by ... Rhodri Morgan AM, when First Minister, with responsibility for European and External Affairs.

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