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It is a great unwritten rule never to hold an Assembly event on “Black Wednesday.” The last Wednesday of every Assembly winter term is always a stormy one. Government usually brings forward lots of business, it always over-runs, and people tend to depart without the usual festive spirit until they hit their respective group Christmas parties to moan about their political opponents and sometimes, after an extra sherry, their political colleagues too…
Black Wednesday 2012 was the probably the blackest one yet as the Assembly found itself in a bit of a conundrum over Council Tax benefit regulations. TheUK government is devolving responsibility for the benefit – which is the most widely claimed means-tested benefit or tax credit in Wales- to the devolved administrations and local councils. Thus Welsh local authorities have to get their schemes in place before the start of the next financial year in April 2013. But, and here’s the catch, they cannot do so until AMs approve the regulations by a two thirds majority in a chamber where Labour only commands half the votes.
Local Government and Communities Minister is known for his Christmas cheer but on this occasion none was forthcoming when he asked the Assembly to pass the regulations despite their content only being made public an hour earlier. He blamed the UK Government for not sharing the appropriate data until 5.15pm on Wednesday afternoon, while Assembly opponents said the Welsh Government was being tardy and tabled the 300 page document too late for proper consideration. The Sarge argued that the Welsh Government could not prepare regulations until they obtained figures from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – a claim disputed by the Treasury, who pointed out that councils in other parts of the UK have got ready for the changes.
The row resulted in the Welsh Government losing the vote on the floor of the Assembly by 33 votes to 18. Labour found support from just a handful of Plaid members for their standpoint and as a consequence the First Minister has indicated he may ask the Presiding Officer to recall the Assembly during the Christmas recess to deal with the issue again and get the regulations through.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, one thing seems to be clear: if the Assembly wasn’t being dissolved on the 6th of December, almost three weeks before Christmas Day, then this whole sorry episode would not have arisen.
Ho ho ho…
Daran Hill is MD of Positif Politics, a public affairs consultancy, and a trustee of the Bevan Foundation.