Key Issues for the fourth Assembly

John Osmond casts an eye over a guide to the intricacies of the policy making prepared for our freshly elected AMs

The publication last week of a policy briefing for new Assembly Members running to more than 100 pages is surely a sign of the growing maturity of what Professor Charlie Jeffrey, of Edinburgh University, tells us is the Welsh political system. The document Key Issues for the Fourth Assembly, produced by the Assembly’s Research Service, can be accessed here.

What first struck me glancing through the document is the range and size of the research and information specialists available to members. In all there are 32 staff available to provide support for  Members, specializing in every aspect of policy, including finance and statistics, the constitution and the European Union. That’s more than one person for every two AMs who, of course, also have their own support staff. In her Introduction to Key Issues Kathryn Potter, Head of the Research Service, says it is an example of the kind of work they can offer by:

“… providing expert analysis using a wide range of sources in a succinct and readable format, capturing the key points without the need to wade through pages and pages of briefing.”

She adds that in the last year her staff have answered over 4,000 confidential enquiries from Members including help with Freedom of Information  requests, as well as providing detailed briefings for Committees and research support for Members developing legislation.

Key Issues was obviously put together during the purdah of the pre-election period. It provides a wealth of information on every policy area, but apart from its selection of topics and facts, no opinions or recommendations. So, for example, in the section on Understanding Economic Performance we’re provided with the familiar facts about Wales’s relatively poor performance in relation to the rest of the UK in terms of growth in Gross Value Added (GVA) – that is, based on the economic output of the country, mainly composed of the wages and profits earned.

At the same time we’re told about an alternative measure of economic performance, Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHD) in which we’re doing rather better. This is an estimate of what a h0usehold has to spend or save after tax and housing costs have been deducted from their earnings and benefits payments. This measure reflects the reality that the cost of living in Wales is relatively low compared with the rest of the UK. GDHD currently stands at 87.9 per cent of the UK average, making Wales the third lowest of the 12 English regions and devolved countries. Moreover, our relative position has been improving slightly. So, for example, between 2008 and 2009, the latest year for which regional statistics are available, GDHI per head increased by 2.6 per cent in Wales compared with a 2.5 per cent increase for the UK as a whole.

On the other hand Welsh GVA is the lowest of all the UK regions. In 2009 Welsh GVA dropped by 2.2 per cent compared with 2008. So look out for Welsh Government spokespersons talking about GDHI while Opposition AMs preferring to quote Wales’s economic performance in terms of GVA.

Another thorny issue tackled in the document is the argument over whether the time is right for another local government reorganisation. As it says:

“The last Welsh Government consistently and forcefully denied that wholesale reorganization was on its radar. Yet with Ministers able to exert increasing pressure on authorities to work together, there are plenty who would argue that it us time to look again at whether the structure of local government in Wales needs altering.”

So what are the arguments in favour? Key Issues thinks there are four:

  1. The current structure is unsustainable, with 22 authorities delivering and duplicating the same services. Many are too small to achieve any significant efficiencies and economies of scale.
  2. Collaboration, as advocated by past Ministers, is not a solution. It needs initial funding and time, and is merely a means of avoiding the fact that reorganization is required. The collapse of the South East Wales Shared Service project in 2010 – which aimed to bring ten local authorities together to share back office functions – showed the difficulties in collaborating successfully.
  3. Although the Beecham report in 2006 did not support reorganization, it said that councils had to make considerable progress on joint working by 2011 or reorganisation would be back ion the agenda, Many would contest whether such progress has been made.
  4. Ultimately, reorganization is the only way of securing efficiencies in the long term.

On the other hand, the report says opponents of reorganisation should not be thought of in such testing times. Such large-scale structural change would be a diverting waste of effort and resources. These arguments are elaborated by Cardiff Business School academic Rhys Andrews in an article in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, and also published on ClickonWales here.

This is just a flavour of the contents of Key Issues for the Fourth Assembly, an invaluable guidebook for our AMs, especially the 23 who are new. But they’ll find they’ll still have to make up their own minds.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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