Scrutiny has been a hot topic throughout the pandemic. At one point or another, almost everybody in Wales has had an opinion on something the Government has done.

Welsh ministers have been under the lens like never before; making decisions with the eyes of a nation often watching every turn.

At times, that heat has threatened to reach breaking point. Despite running a coherent communication campaign in the shape of regular press briefings throughout the pandemic, cracks have shown.

Ministers have at times barked back at journalists, while everybody remembers Vaughan Gething’s expletive-laden response to Jenny Rathbone when she asked him a question on Zoom and he thought he was on mute.

Of course, we live in unprecedented times and frustration is bound to show. However, there are concerns that bad habits are increasingly becoming the norm. Habits that are a direct challenge to the most powerful Government Wales has ever seen.

The media has played a vital role in relaying the Government’s decision making over the past 18 months, but for opposition parties in the Senedd, it is a tool it has become too at ease with as an alternative to tradition.

Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, told The National: “At the height of the pandemic, life-saving announcements had to be made via the media, particularly as the Senedd was itself closed for a period of time.

“However, as we now approach the end of the pandemic, the urgency for such information is not as it was at the height of the crisis - and yet the Welsh Labour Government continues to be a government by media.

“Throughout the pandemic, Labour ministers have chosen when to make these announcements for political gain. It was a tactic they used to their benefit during the recent election, and it’s continued since our return to the Senedd.

“In my opinion, it’s not a big ask to make the announcements in the Senedd first before going onto the lights and glory of the press conference arena that ministers are so desperate to be involved in.

"By refusing to do so and bypassing the Welsh Parliament, they are laughing at members and undermining the institution – the same institution they claim is under attack from some quarters. The hypocrisy from Labour is laughable.”

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Of course, the Government denies such criticism.

In response, a spokesperson said: “Senedd Members are informed of changes to coronavirus restrictions in Wales ahead of the media.

"In addition, opposition leaders and party spokespeople are invited to detailed briefings with ministers and senior medical and scientific advisors ahead of any public statements about changes to the regulations.”

For comparison, it is an issue that House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle has had run ins with the UK Government over in Westminster.

Last month, the speaker urged Boris Johnson not to “shy away” from parliamentary scrutiny, adding he had been “perplexed” by the Government’s decision to announce policies through the media rather than in the Commons. It’s an approach Mr Davies believes the Senedd’s presiding officer could mirror.

“The Llywydd has been too passive and needs to take control of this issue,” Mr Davies added.

“Like her counterpart at Westminster, she should ensure that democratically-elected representatives are able to scrutinise the actions of the Government before Labour’s favourite journalists in the Bay bubble.”

For Cardiff University’s Professor Laura McAllister, the Government has to be careful not to allow a shift in norms on its watch.

READ MORE: If not now, when, for Senedd reform?

Professor McAllister said: “You have to be careful not to see a cultural shift post-pandemic where the media has first dibs at announcements and news. That would be wrong.

“There is of course context to this. Committees are only now being set up, and the committees are usually the most effective scrutiny of decisions. It is also the end of the Senedd term.

“That’s not reason not to take this seriously. It is important to ensure the sixth Senedd has committees that are effective. They already aren’t big enough, and if you weaken what happens further, it adds another layer to the lack of scrutiny.”

Discontent with how the Senedd is operating is also bubbling on Labour’s own backbenches.

Several Labour MSs have voiced concern about the poor quality of debate and scrutiny within the Senedd’s siambr, with some going as far as saying they do not believe Government ministers fear the Senedd as much as they should.

For Labour backbencher and MS for Blaenau Gwent Alun Davies, that is an issue with the structures of the Senedd; broken structures that need fixing.

“The scrutiny of government is not a matter for the Government. It is a matter for the legislature and the Senedd collectively has to do something,” he said.

“We have an underpowered government and an underpowered legislature, and people wonder why we don’t things get done.

“It is a tragedy that we haven’t had the courage to actually create a parliamentary democracy in Wales that is worthy of the name. Everything we do is either rushed or stretched.

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“Labour is very good at doing nothing for a long time and then doing a lot very quickly. I have no doubt at all that we will become committed to expansion of the Senedd and implementing a more proportional voting system, but don’t underestimate the conservative opposition to it.

“The Conservatives should stop trying to play games fighting an election they have already lost. They have taken their approach straight out of Trump playbook, using slogans and rhetoric.

“Scrutiny from the Labour backbenches is as important, if not more important, than opposition scrutiny because we don’t have the temptation to score party political points.

“When you have a very small backbench, the pressures on you are huge. In Westminster, there are 100 people on the backbenches. It is easy to get lost in a palace by the Thames but there is nowhere to hide in Cardiff Bay.”

The office of the Llywydd has refused to comment on personal criticism and concerns of the level of scrutiny in Cardiff Bay. However, the criticism of the Government also come from her own party.

Plaid Cymru believes the Government is “ducking” scrutiny by refusing to launch an independent Welsh Covid inquiry.

The Government has said it will play into the UK-wide inquiry that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said will begin in spring 2022. However, Plaid’s health spokesperson Rhun ap Iorwerth believes the Welsh Government should be ready to stand alone and be judged on its actions.

Mr ap Iorwerth MS said: “For over a year Plaid Cymru asked for a Wales-only public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. The Labour Government has instead opted to have a Welsh chapter in a UK-wide inquiry.

“That opens them up to a charge of ducking scrutiny. If they take responsibility, they have to be ready to be judged on their actions, good and bad. By refusing a Welsh-specific inquiry, Welsh Government is effectively agreeing to Boris Johnson’s delays.”

On an independent Welsh Covid inquiry, Professor McAllister believes there is enough reasons for the Government to be judged on the decisions it has taken.

“There is enough distinguishing intervention from Welsh Government to have an inquiry,” said Professor McAllister. “The issue is, will it be a sub inquiry or something more independent that feeds into that.

“There is enough independent action to merit one. Mark Drakeford has protected his autonomy when it comes to decision making, but you cannot have it both ways. If he has established himself as the decision maker for Wales, then we have to look at where there have been differences whether they are positive or negative.”

As far as the Government is concerned, the decision not to hold a Welsh inquiry is the right position, and it looks unlikely to budge.

Scrutiny can be the everyday workings within the Welsh Parliament, or the unprecedented decisions taken during the pandemic. Both the big and small have a great impact on governance in Wales.

While that responsibility to front up to scrutiny falls somewhere between the Government and the Senedd’s back and opposition benches, Wales cannot afford the Senedd’s functions to be weakened further than they already are.

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