First Minister faces criticism for staying away from Senedd chamber for First Minister's questions

First Minister Mark Drakeford taking Senedd questions remotely
Mark Drakeford answered his weekly questions via video feed from his Welsh Government office

The First Minister has defended his decision to stay away from the Senedd chamber and answer questions from his office elsewhere in Cardiff.

Mark Drakeford and other Welsh Labour members took part in Tuesday's session by video rather than in person in order, he said, to comply with the Welsh Government's own advice to "avoid unnecessary journeys."

But he was heavily criticised by some opposition politicians who described the move as "disgraceful" and as showing a "disregard for Welsh democracy."

Since July the Welsh Parliament has been meeting in a hybrid form with up to 20 members in the chamber and others taking part remotely. Ministers and party leaders have usually been present in the chamber in Cardiff Bay.

Today ministers including Mark Drakeford joined the meeting via video from their offices in Welsh Government headquarters in Cardiff City Centre.

Travel for work or education is included in "reasonable excuse" exemptions to local lockdown rules which forbid travel into and out of those locked-down areas.

Nationwide the advice is simply to avoid unnecessary travel.

Following today's decision by Welsh Labour members, just a handful of opposition members took their seats in the chamber with the majority of MSs joining by video.

"The Presiding officer urged members to "focus on the content" of what was being said rather than how and that all participants would be treated equally." 

The Welsh Conservative leader linked the move to a more general criticism of the Welsh Government making important announcements to the media before the Senedd including last week in a recorded TV address.

Paul Davies said, "Last week, you chose to make an announcement to the media that affected hundreds of thousands of people right across south Wales.

"You failed to answer questions on the timings of your statement, and this week you've decided not to even turn up in person. First Minister, that disregard for Welsh democracy is unacceptable."

Mark Drakeford defended his decision.

"I say to people in Wales all the time that they should avoid unnecessary journeys, and I believe that I'm equally able to answer questions in the way that we are doing now as I would be if I were in the Chamber.

"It is entirely wrong for the Government to ask people in Wales to take action in one direction and then not to behave in the same way ourselves. "

But Paul Davies said "you can turn up to your Government offices in Cathays Park, but you can't turn up to the heart of Welsh democracy, which is also your place of work."

The First Minister confirmed that he was in his Cathays Park office in the centre of Cardiff in a response to the Brexit Party leader Mark Reckless who wondered if members who had gone into the Senedd (not him, he took part via video) could expect to "be receiving a knock on the door from South Wales Police?"

Mark Drakeford said "It is for individual Members to make a judgment about how they stay within the law" and explained why he took one journey to Cathays Park and not another, to Cardiff Bay.

"It is reasonably practicable for me to work from my office in Cathays Park, because in order to be able to answer Members questions, I need the support of staff in the Welsh Government, who help me to make sure that I am as well equipped as I can be to provide answers that Members have a right to expect. So, it is reasonably practicable for me to work from here because I live in Cardiff and need to cross no boundaries to get here."

Andrew RT Davies criticised Mark Drakeford for answering questions via video Credit: Senedd TV

That didn't satisfy opponents. Welsh Conservative Andrew RT Davies accused ministers of contradicting themselves, highlighting an interview with the Economy Minister in last night's Sharp End.

He also seized on another tweet from another senior Labour figure, the MP Kevin Brennan who shares the same Cardiff West constituency with the First Minister.

But Mr Davies was in turn criticised by a Labour MS who said that position undermined the contributions of those Conservative members who were taking part remotely.

The Llywydd Elin Jones refused calls for a point of order on the controversy but said that all members would be treated equally regardless of the way they took part.  

"Firstly, all Members are fully participating equally in this Senedd, whether they do so virtually or here physically in the Chamber. And secondly, to reassure Members here present this afternoon that you do so in line with regulations and guidance. Now, for the rest of this lengthy afternoon and evening of work that we have in front of us, let's focus on the content of what we have to say rather than where we may be saying it from."