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The Chamber

Betsan Powys | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Another first: the first First Minister's Questions since the two parties in opposition in the Assembly formed a coalition to govern in Westminster.

Would someone have been in the chamber, quietly digging trenches in anticipation of the 11 months to go until the next election?

They hadn't but they might as well have. Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams wore bright red and a words-can't-hurt-me expression on her face. Nick Bourne looked up for the fight - a constructive one based on mutual respect, naturally. Every one else looked, as usual, at their computer screens. They wrote Emails. They read the Guardian online. They sifted through paperwork on their laps. Yes, I know what Assembly Members argue. This way they can get their work done without having to stay away from the chamber. Point taken but boy, it's a switch off.

First up? What did the First Minister have to say about under-age drinking? It's clear, said Joyce Watson, that the amount people drink is related to the amount in their wallets, rather than the number of units in the bottle. Adverts suggesting the World Cup can only be enjoyed with a beer in your hand didn't help. What were the First Minister's thoughts?

His first thought was to lob the first brick of the afternoon at the new Westminster coalition. If their reported plans to hike VAT happen, then this Liberal Conservative government would clearly be out to hit the poorest hardest. One half of the chamber liked the way things were going already. In the other half they rolled their eyes.

On to protecting industrial heritage. In the chamber they were talking about the Hafod Copper works and the Musgrave Engine House in Swansea. I couldn't help looking at the small Liberal Democrat group and wondering about protecting the industrial sized impact they'd had on the Labour vote in places like Merthyr and Pontypridd on May 6th. I visited Dowlais Top a few days before the election. I saw a series of home-made signs in gardens saying things like "Give ... Labour ... in ... Merthyr ... a ... shock!" - and the Lib Dems did just that. Never again, local activists must be thinking ruefully.

The First Minister was already on to the next questions: what did his government intend to do about marking Wales' sporting heritage, about reviewing spending not just on education, or health but across the board? Jeff Cuthbert joined in. "Did the First Minister agree the Lib Dems should clearly state their position on student fees?" Hadn't they been very much against then but now - in coalition government - were for them? Would they scrap any policy in order to gain power?

I peered over the edge of the gallery, just in case Plaid AMs had been tempted to join in the jeering.

People in glass houses come to mind here, muttered Mick Bates.

On went the First Minister. Legislation around the removal of asbestos from public buildings wasn't devolved but he shared Nick Ramsay's concerns about the number of teachers from Wales who, over the years, have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

And as to the Lib Dem leader's question about Food Standards Agency plans to display information about food safety assessments online only? Well that would be dealt with by "your new" Conservative Liberal Democrat government in London. Not devolved. Next.

Labour's Alun Davies was already furious when he got up and he was no less furious when he sat down. The details he'd heard from the Treasury about proposed cuts had "absolutely terrified" him. The Lib Con cuts had been outlined "with relish". Would the First Minister make it clear why cuts were having to happen, so that Assembly Members had a chance to spell out to their constituents whose fault it was and fight every cut made?

The First Minister would. He did, however, welcome the 'flexiblity' offered yesterday by David Cameron, an opportunity for the Assembly Government to defer cuts for 12 months if they wanted. A pretty abrupt change of tune there from a First Minister who was extremely dismissive of the same offer when it was made before the election. Yes, the offer of flexibility was welcome. Pressing ahead with cuts so soon, though, was unnecessary.

End in sight now.

What about unauthorised absences from work during the World Cup, asked Conservative Darren Millar. What would be done to make sure tax payers didn't pay for public sector workers to bunk off and watch crucial matches? Tax payers should never pay for public servants who are bunking off, said Mr Jones. Neither should they be expected to pay for unauthorised absences from the Tory front bench. Alun Cairns' seat in Cardiff Bay was empty. The green leather of Westminster for him today.

Road safety, fitness of school buildings, closing small schools, the government's priorities for the next six months left one more chance to turn on the new coalition government. It fell to Rhodri Morgan. Was the First Minister concerned that his priorities would be knocked sideways by the very different priorities of the new, incoming Lib Con government? What would happen to the Defence Academy in St Athan? What about the full electrification of the Paddington to Swansea line? Would it still go ahead and be finalised by 2017?

The First Minister assured the old First Minister that these were issues he'd raised with the Secretary of State and he'd do so again soon.

Then a point of order. Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams must have used her time online wisely. The aspect of the Food Standards Agency's work that she'd raised in her question was, in fact, devolved in 1999. Would the First Minister acknowledge he was wrong to say it wasn't?

Not in so many words, no. That is not, after all, how it works. Some aspects of the FSA's work may have been devolved but labelling was an issue now bound up with European regulations ... The jeers came from the other half of the chamber this time.

The Presiding Officer beamed, by his own admission unusually indulgent this afternoon. I get the feeling something has put him in rather a good mood and that we'll find out very soon what that something is.


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