IT HAD all the makings of an Assembly scandal when yesterday it emerged AMs are to be given more than £10,000 worth of Blackberries.
But all talk of extravagant spending on brambly bittersweet fruit was swept aside when it was revealed that the Blackberry in question is a sophisticated portable e-mailing device.
The equipment, which typically sells for about £180 a piece, is part of an IT strategy to help keep Assembly Members in touch while they're on the move.
Alun Cairns, chair of the Assembly's IT committee that recommended their use, last night defended the decision to offer all 60 AMs a Blackberry.
The small hand-held device allows users to access and reply to all their e-mails away from the office and also doubles as a web browser, portable digital assistant and a mobile phone.
"The Assembly took a conscious decision in 1999 to be at the forefront of e-democracy and, in line with those principles, the Blackberry assists in that process," said Mr Cairns.
"For example, any constituent who's watching an Assembly debate can e-mail their AM who can then raise their point of view in the debate."
He said AMs would now have little excuse not to respond to e-mails any time of day, or anywhere in the world.
And he added, "In the first couple of weeks I was piloting it, it drove my family mad as I was responding to every e-mail there and then - but you have to be disciplined and leave some routine e-mails to office hours."
MPs already receive Blackberries as a matter of routine. Meanwhile all AMs who have opted for the device are expected to receive one, together with the relevant training, by the end of the month.
It is the latest piece of electronic kit AMs receive while in office. They are already given the use of three PCs - one of which can be a laptop - and a printer, for themselves and their staff, although they must buy their own mobile phones.
The Blackberry has been growing in popularity over recent years, particularly among political circles, thanks to its compact 'Qwerty' keyboard and its ability to automatically pick up e-mails on the move.
It notoriously got former government spin doctor Alastair Campbell in a jam during this year's general election campaign when he sent an expletive-strewn message to a Newsnight journalist by mistake.
Shortly afterwards, in an unconnected move, Commons Speaker Michael Martin told MPs they would be thrown out of the Commons if they used Blackberries in the chamber.
And in 2002 the trendy device figured large as an important tool during President Bush's triumph- ant mid-term election campaign.
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood, who received her Blackberry device yesterday, said, "I don't know whether this project is going to work or not yet, because I have only just received my Blackberry.
"I hope it will help me to get more work done while I'm on the move. I receive hundreds of e-mails every week and sometimes it is difficult to answer all the correspondence from constituents quickly - hopefully this will speed the process up.
"If it enables our politicians to be more efficient, then it will be a good thing."
But she added, "I hope that this roll out will not be another IT disaster.
"It will only be worth the money if AMs can actually use them and get more work done. Otherwise it will be seen as just another government IT indulgence.
"They have offered training to those who use a Blackberry, so hopefully that will deal with my concerns."
Page 2 - How a Blackberry got Alastair Campbell in a stew