Richard Wyn Jones examines evidence from a new report that makes the case for increasing the AMs in the National Assembly
In some important ways Welsh devolution is a remarkable success story. From uncertain beginnings at the time of the 1997 referendum, our institutions of devolved government have rapidly gained widespread public support and legitimacy. Indeed, according to the most recent public attitudes evidence, fully 80 per cent of the population now support some form of devolution. By contrast, only 9 per cent continue to hanker after the abolition of the National Assembly, with an equally meagre 9 per cent supporting outright independence.
That the electorate have embraced ‘home rule’ despite the manifest inadequacies of the successive constitutional dispensations visited on Wales serves to make the transformation in attitudes since the 1990s even more striking.
The UK government’s establishment of the Commission on Devolution in Wales, coupled with its enlightened decision to collaborate with all the mainstream political parties in drawing up its wide-ranging terms of reference, has created a unique opportunity to finally place Welsh devolution on a truly stable and sustainable basis.
The UK’s Changing Union partnership has embraced this opportunity by submitting its own evidence to the Commission, by publishing background reports, and by encouraging debate across civil society. What has become ever clearer through this process of deliberation and engagement is that, however politically inconvenient it may be to say this, Wales will not have the system of devolved government it deserves until the size of the National Assembly is properly addressed.
Truly effective, accountable government requires a powerful, properly resourced legislature to hold the executive to account. The evidence suggests that the capacity constraints resulting from the National Assembly for Wales having only 60 Members is a real barrier to good government. The National Assembly’s 60 members compares with 108 in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament and the 1,400+ Member of Parliament and Peers at Westminster.
Today the Changing Union Project and the Electoral Reform Society Cymru jointly publish Size Matters – Making the National Assembly more effective. The first systematic, evidence-based investigation of the size of the National Assembly, it argues that the current number of AMs are insufficient to allow for proper scrutiny of the Welsh Government and its legislative programme. What one might term the Silk process will remain incomplete until this nettle is finally grasped.
In making this case we are of course fully aware that the instinctive reaction of many will be dismiss out of hand any argument for more politicians. This is not an easy, let alone a fashionable case to make. All we can reasonably ask is that critics first consider the evidence that Size Matters puts forward. We firmly believe that when considered in an objective manner, the evidence is compelling.
Leaving aside Ministers and other office holders, only 42 of the present 60 AMs are available to hold the Welsh Government to account and scrutinise legislation. This compares with 113 in the Scottish Parliament and 522 in the House of Commons at Westminster. It means AMs have to attend multiple committees. They are always in a hurry, constantly moving from one meeting or issue to another. Many say that they do not always have time to read, let alone reflect properly on their documents ahead of meetings. This is currently not a legislature that is in a position to regularly submit Ministers and civil servants to searching, forensic examination.
The Assembly’s Remuneration Board has attempted to redress the balance between executive and legislature by improving the research and support services available to AMs. However, this is a second best option to actually increasing the number of AMs to at least bring their number closer into line with the other devolved legislatures in Edinburgh and Belfast.
A comparative analysis of equivalent small nation and ‘regional’ legislatures elsewhere in the world indicates that 60 members are extremely few for a legislative Assembly that also provides an Executive. The analysis finds that for an institution with the National Assembly’s functions, at least 100 representatives is the norm.
A history of the half-century leading to democratic devolution in 1999 illustrates the arbitrary way in which the number of 60 Members came about. In all previous proposals the recommended membership never fell below 75, and generally assumed a figure of around 100.
Since the publication of the Richard Commission report in 2004, which recommended the expansion of the National Assembly to 80 members once it was given proper law-making powers, it has been recognised that a growth in the power and responsibilities of the Welsh legislature should be accompanied by a concomitant increase in the number of legislators. But like 60, 80 is itself an arbitrary number that has no clear intellectual or comparative basis. Based on a rigorous international, comparative analysis of legislatures, our report recommends that the National Assembly should be expanded to 100 members.
A 100 member National Assembly would cost the taxpayer an estimated £10.1million per annum. The report argues that with Westminster already committed to reducing the number of Welsh MPs, and with the number of Welsh councillors also likely to be reduced (Wales currently has more councillors per head than Scotland), it is time for a mature debate about the balance of Welsh political representation at UK, Welsh and local levels.
While it may not be popular or convenient to admit it, the Assembly is just too small to do the job effectively. Increasing the number of AMs to 100 is a vital part of the process, which will finally place Welsh devolution on a properly stable and sustainable footing.