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Then there were seven

Betsan Powys | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Ok, so not everyone who visits the Senedd leaves impressed with what they've seen. The building? That usually goes down pretty well but the debating that goes on in it?

I give you two former Cardiff students, Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, now authors who visited the Senedd last year on their "Quest for Britishness". They came, they saw, they were bored.

"It's as if the Welsh local councils have devolved upwards all the most tedious bits of their business ... 'What do you think they'll be debating now?" ask the councillors of Caerphilly Borough Council as their tray of drinks arrives in a sunny pub garden. 'Bargoed relief road, I expect. For half an hour!' Then they all laugh like drains.

What we're saying here is: the Welsh Assembly is tedious. At one point, a party of 50 or so schoolchildren trooped into the gallery and sat down. About three and a half minutes later, they all tropped out of their national debating chamber, none the wiser. None the wiser, but bored out of their ****** minds ... So this is the bright new devolved democracy, is it? Because to our eyes it looked - sorry about this - just ... "

I'll leave it there but let's just say the language is unparliamentary.

So was Conservative Health Spokesperson Jonathan Morgan's according to Plaid's Leanne Wood in the chamber this afternoon. He inquired after the health of Labour Deputy Minister for Skills John Griffiths, so concerned was he by his "schizophrenic attitude" - claiming skills to be crucial to any chance Wales has to emerge fitter and stronger when the economic upturn comes, while cutting sixth form and Further Education College budgets by over 7%.

She was overruled but Mr Griffiths was pelted from all directions. He wasn't helped by the timing. AMs had just debated a report from the Childen and Young Person's committee and heard a warning from Labour's Huw Lewis that they had promised much but done too little for families and for children trapped in poverty. "Damaged children don't recover" reverberated around the chamber long after he'd made the point.

So what possible sense was there, asked the Conservatives, in talking about upskilling and reskilling, in trumpeting skills as the vehicle to drive us out of this recession, then very carefully calculating what colleges need to continue doing their job. Then cutting it by 7.43%?

"So much for caring. So much for social justice from this government" from Andrew RT Davies was followed by any number of direct quotes from Labour ministers - including 'London Labour' Ministers as Plaid have taken to putting it - emphasising the crucial role further education must play in a time of recession. The Lib Dems were ready with their figures. How was it that one college in the North East of England had been given £60m, asked Jenny Randerson, more than the Assembly Government has spent on the whole sector in Wales over some years?

Plaid's Janet Ryder appeared. Was she going to intervene, to speak out against the Labour Plaid government, just as she'd taken to voting against their policies recently? Apparently not. She may have resigned as the party's education spokesperson but not to shout from the backbenches. She left the chamber. Her successor Nerys Evans took over. She pointed a finger at the settlement from the "London government". She praised the ReAct and ProAct schemes and the £68m they'd be channelling into reskilling and apprenticeships. But to Tory cheers she went on: that didn't justify these huge cuts in further education. They made no sense. The government had to think again.

"It's wrong Minister!" It was Darren Millar's turn, the Shane Williams of the Tory benches - he gets up, takes up the attack, the crowd perk up a bit and listen.

There wasn't a crowd though. Not even schoolchildren on their best behaviour. There were nine of us in the gallery watching as John Griffiths came back at them. The government was, he said, in a "tight, challenging public spending situation". But what about that £68m the government has put into the skills economy, a fifth of which could go into FE colleges if they're prepared "to show flexibility?" What about the deprivation uplift, the dialogue the government was still having with colleges and what about Cameron's Conservatives and their plans to cut public spending on an unimaginable scale?

It was their debate so Bourne's Conservatives got the last word. Andrew RT Davies speaks plainly. Labour's response was dismissed in seven words, one each for those of us now left in the gallery. "It was the usual rant, it was".

It was a decent debate.

The camera below us whizzed on its circular track to focus on the next politician to speak and the next debate: personal debt in Wales. The gallery emptied.


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