New powers make devolution for real

John Osmond listens to a warning that the fourth term Senedd will be unable to afford any numpties

As they begin serious business as legislators in the Assembly’s fourth term,  following the referendum giving them primary powers, AMs were told yesterday that they should be prepared for a major culture shift in the way they work in Cardiff Bay. With legislative powers devolution in Cardiff Bay was now for real.

The warning came from George Reid, the Scottish Parliament’s former Presiding Officer who is chair of the Independent Remuneration Board of the National Assembly. In that capacity he interviewed many of the Assembly’s AMs during the last session and found that most of them wished to emphasise their constituency case work rather than their role as legislators in the Assembly and holding the Welsh Government to account.

He said this would have to change with AMs becoming specialists in different policy areas over the coming five-year term of the Assembly. This was why he had insisted that part of AMs remuneration should be linked to a requirement that they hired researchers to assist them in their work in the chamber and on committees.

He said it was noteworthy that the background of most AMs was in the public or voluntary sectors and very few had been disadvantaged by their pay scale as AMs compared with what they had previously been earning. Very few had high level managerial experience. This meant that in the fourth Assembly, many AMs would have “a steep learning curve” to adjust to the new demands that would be placed upon them in scrutinising legislation. “People will have to step up to the table,” he said.

Speaking to an Assembly Commission conference in Cardiff Bay on The National Assembly as a legislature – then, now, the future George Reid added that he hoped AMs would take advantage of new training opportunities that had been put in place to help them with performing in the chamber and on committees.

Intimating that there had been some  poor quality performers in the past he said, “It can be a very difficult transition to make from a local authority to a Parliament. We need to improve the quality of the questioning in the chamber. Members need to think through the way they put their supplementary questions.” He added that he expected see a “small cultural change” in these matters in the Senedd over the next four years.

However, he thought AMs would be helped by the reduction of the number of Committees in this Assembly, from 19 during the last term down to ten. “Committees in Cardiff Bay were like topsy, for ever growing,” he said. “Some Members were on as many as five committees which was a nonsense. People were running from one Committee to another, grabbing their brief as they went. What has been done in reducing them down to ten is a significant step forward.”

This had been achieved by combining  legislative committees with those that had previously been devoted to policy areas such as Children and Youth justice, Communities, Equality and Local Government, Enterprise and Business, Environment and Sustainability, and Health and Social Care. This should allow AMs to develop expertise in their chosen areas over the coming five years, so long as the whips refrained from moving them round too much.

However, Reid warned that the new Committee structure would need excellent chairs if it was to work effectively. They had a major job in organising the committee business, focusing the work, taking care of the ‘awkward squads’ among then, and generally keeping the show on the road.  He said it was important in this respect that in the Senedd Committee Chairs had extra remuneration over and above their salaries as AMs. This meant that backbenchers could chart a career path with the committee system. This contrasted with the Scottish Parliament where Committee Chairs received no extra payment. As a result in one survey he had only been able to identify four MSPs who wanted to build a career within the committee system in the Scottish Parliament.

George Reid drew attention to the small number of backbenchers in the Senedd available to hold the Government to account. There were only about 45 outside of Ministers in the Government and the Presiding and Deputy Presiding Officers. This compared with 552 available backbenchers in the Westminster Parliament, 113 in the Scottish Parliament, and 92 in Stormont. As Reid put it, “You can have a lot of numpties in Westminster and still find enough people of quality to hold the government to account.” This was simply not the case in Wales.

George Reid also drew attention to an external scrutiny gap within the Welsh political system compared with Scotland which has eight daily newspapers constantly focusing on the work of its Parliament. In Holyrood there are 42 journalists crawling over the institution for stories which was an important part of the scrutiny process and holding the Scottish Government to account.

“This makes a huge difference compared with Wales where you only have two bit papers,” he said. Wales would have to come up with ways for compensating for this deficit and Reid suggested looking at the web and new media. He pointed to the Scottish web-based newspaper Caledonian Mercury as a role model, though he acknowledged that Wales had generated some good news analysis sites, such as ClickonWales and WalesHome. “You also have some good blogs which I follow,” he added. “Keep them going.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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