The public want better, not more, AMs

Andrew-RT-Davies

Electoral reformists betray an almost evangelic zeal when discussing politics and you can imagine the empty feeling that many had after the further powers campaign had reached its conclusion. Fortunately it didn’t take them long to find a new ‘cause celebre’. The champagne bubbles had barely subsided and their targets had been re-calibrated.

A recent report by the UK’s Changing Union project and the Electoral Reform Society duly called for the expansion of the number of Assembly Members from 60 to 100, ostensibly to deal with the increased workload AMs are facing post-referendum.

In my experience I have found that a common sense assessment of the problem usually throws up a few practical solutions; However, creating more politicians is rarely one of them. The greatest trick a marketing executive can pull is to sell you a fix for a problem you never realised existed. The whole premise upon which the case for 100 AMs is made is based on a false supposition – namely, that AMs are creaking under the strain of an ever increasing workload.

Most, if not all, Assembly Members have always worked hard. When we are not in plenary there is always constituency work to be doing, committee meetings to be had, scrutiny to undertake and letters to respond to. However, it is only in recent months that there has been any perceptible change in the legislative schedule from the Welsh Government. Indeed, the Conservative Group in the Assembly regularly complained that early finishes on government business days were undermining the institution. That time should be handed to the opposition parties if Labour hadn’t got enough work to fill a Tuesday evening.

We need to reduce the cost of politics in Wales and the idea that we need to increase the number of AMs by two thirds sounds frankly absurd to most of my colleagues, many of whom blush at the thought of charging the public purse an estimated £10.4m per year for the privilege.

Neither is it particularly popular with voters. A recent poll on the YourVoice website found that of 416 respondents, just 37% wanted the number of Assembly Members increased, with 60.4 per cent against and 2.4 per cent Don’t Know.

Instead we could do something much more sensible, much more popular and (better still) much less expensive. This time last year I made a call for a comprehensive procedural review of the National Assembly to revitalise the institution’s operations and improve engagement with the public. The last time a review of this type was undertaken was in 2002 and things have changed somewhat since then. For a start we have seen the formal separation of the legislature and the executive, changing the dynamics of the Assembly beyond all recognition.

During the last year I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit other devolved institutions at Stormont in Belfast and Holyrood in Edinburgh, as well as undertaking many meetings at Westminster. One of the things I have been keen to learn is whether there are any ways in which we can make proceedings here more dynamic, relevant and engaging.

Firstly, we must take the formal step of officially acknowledging this institution as a ‘Parliament’ in name, for it has long functioned as one in practice. Its description as an Assembly muddies the waters between the Welsh Government and Assembly Members, perpetuating public confusion as to where responsibility ultimately lies in key areas – particularly in health, education and the economy.

I also hold the view that we need to allow for greater scrutiny of the Welsh Government, particularly towards the end of the working week when ministers regularly issue public statements without recourse to proper scrutiny in the chamber. Ministers should be accountable to members, but the lack of formal sanctions available to the Assembly to ensure that major announcements are made in the chamber and not through the media is a serious cause for concern.

We need to review the timetabling of Assembly proceedings and consider the introduction of an additional plenary session on a Thursday morning. Not only would this make the Assembly far more topical and relevant, it would allow for greater in-chamber scrutiny of government business. It would also mitigate the prevailing perception that we are running a part-time Parliament.

I would also like to see consideration given to improving tabling regulations governing ministerial questions – in both oral and written form. An extra plenary session could be used to create space for Ministers to face a period of ‘topical questions’ at the start of each session – such as exists in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Allowing members to be selected on the day to ask topical questions without prior notice that would create a more dynamic environment and allow up to the minute discussion of important issues. Often it can feel like the process leaves us talking about last week’s events in an age where the internet has already rendered yesterday’s news out of date.

Outside the chamber, members are able to use Written Assembly Questions to extract information from Ministers on behalf of their constituents. This vital tool means that we are effectively free to scrutinise the executive around the clock.

Sadly, whilst there is excellent practice in some departments, some Ministers are undermining the good faith upon which the system is based, with sub-standard responses. The situation has become so bad that we have taken to social media to name and shame Ministers via the #WAQOfTheWeek.

The Presiding Officer recently confirmed that there is no tangible sanction available to deal with ministers who provide inadequate responses, suggesting that we should pursue other avenues of scrutiny available to us as AMs. In reality plenary time is limited, Freedom of Information Requests are time-consuming, and the whole process appears clunky, inefficient and expensive.

It is time to introduce a formal requirement on ministers to provide prompt and substantive responses. Democracy is, after all, seriously undermined if the flow of information is restricted at source.

There are a number of practical and sensible reforms that could be made to Assembly proceedings to improve scrutiny and stimulate greater public engagement with the institution. Now is not the time for constitutional naval-gazing. Instead we have an opportunity to consult with voters, businesses and the voluntary sector to seek out best practice and identify ways in which we can engage more effectively with the people of Wales. That starts by recognising a simple, but significant, truth – the public want better politicians, not more of them.

Andrew R.T. Davies is leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the National Assembly. This article was previously published on Speakers’ Corner at www.yourvoiceintheassembly.co.uk.

14 thoughts on “The public want better, not more, AMs

  1. What would happen to the committee meetings that take place on a Thursday morinng and afernoon if there was a plenary session on a Thursday morning?

  2. I just wonder if it isn’t time we all stopped kidding ourselves about ‘who we think we are’.

    If I can just stop myself thinking I am so very different you and you can stop yourself thinking you are so very different to me, we could probably get by with a whole lot less government. Less government in all its forms.

    What a truly refreshing thought for this Wednesday morning!

  3. There are several positive points here. While it’s obvious that the Government regularly struggle to fill their Tuesday afternoons I can’t help but feel that the least effective use of an AMs time is sat in the Senedd. The debates change little, the questions are rarely answered and oral statements are a joke since opposition AMs are regularly left without sight of what’s going to be said until the Minister stands up – heaven help those who have to do the briefings.

    As such, while I have also considered the value of an additional weekly plenary (and I accept as more powers come to Cardiff it would have to happen some time), I can’t help but think more Committee time would be more valuable.

    I also think it’s silly that we have fewer AMs that many local authorities have councillors. Sure, some would say that the solution is to have fewer of both. But given the multitude of roles and committee’s some of the smaller Party Groups have to undertake it seems that an additional number is only sensible. At the very least it would allow for additional support staff who are over stretched as it is.

    That said I do agree with the point that having better AMs is better than having more AMs. If we look to the Labour and Tory groups alone its clear that so many of them are simply not good enough to be there. I would not like to name names as some already speak for themselves on this site, however, it’s clear to me that any expansion in numbers is going to have to be matched by an overhaul in how we both select and elect the members we have.

  4. The wisdom of a fully paid up member of the problem!

    Wales was better run when it had zero AMs – and that remains the only way forward…

  5. Mr Andrew R.T.Davies is absolutely right,we do need improved quality A.M.s. At present we seem to have a
    lot of Assembly members,so inadequate that they could not command a salary of £100 per week in the normal World,winging about their hours of work,pay, and conditions or demanding more powers,as a justification for their Assembly’s failures.If the quality of these beings does not improve quickly.I am sure that the Welsh electorate will wake up to the fact that devolution in Wales is dead and vote to get rid of the whole unfortunate set up!

  6. This is a sensible article that states a lot of obvious truths. Indeed, the only possible criticism is that is does not follow its logic all the way. Since sixty politicians took over from one, there has been no relative improvement in Wales’ public or private sectors – quite the contrary it seems, certainly in economic development, health, and education. At what point do we admit that the experiment has failed? Was it Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is to carry on doing the same thing and expecting a different result? Better politicians would certainly make the system work better, but we have been waiting for such people since 1997 – when we were told the Assembly would attract them – and, to put it politely, there is no sign of them yet. The abolition of the corrupting party system might attract candidates of a higher calibre, but said party system is hardly likely to abolish itself.

  7. ‘RT’ is unfortunately quite right. Having had a good bit to do with the Assembly from the beginning I found many excellent – able, intelligent and communicative – especially ex MP’s, some hard working and well intentioned, but equally some (many ‘risen from the ranks’ of County Councillors) quite frankly an embarrassment to Wales, and to the Assembly (and not only back-benchers…) giving it a bad name and perception which is regrettably borne out by not a few of the remarks already posted here.

    The Institution, and the individual Members themselves, must ensure they are properly briefed on their work, and must decide how best to use their time, which I agree is not always trying to copy the Westminster comedy turn of (prime) ministers questions! More in depth analysis of issues, inquiries and proposals, using small groups of Members where there is no place to hide, might be one way. There is still just too much questionable spending when every penny should be directed to improving the economic lot and quality of life of everyone living in Wales…..

  8. Andrew RT Davies should visit Holyrood where they have 129 MSPs (Scotland: population 5m) and Stormont where they have 108 MLAs (NI: population 1.5m). I suspect he would get short shrift in both places from those members and the vast majority of their populations if he demanded a cut.

    Of course Wales needs more AMs if they are to fulfil the role of scrutinising legislation efficiently on our behalf. Westminster has over 1400 politicians, a majority of whom are unelected. Wales compares badly in terms of representation with almost all countries & regions in Europe which have legislatures. The state Wales is in today is testament to the failures of successive Westminster governments, of all shades, to stimulate its economy and halt its relative decline. This is an indictment of all three unionist parties, Labour, Tory and LibDems: FAIL.

    Wales has a grim future in the Union. Many independent countries of a similar size (and smaller) have prospered, even in the last twenty years. Sooner or later we will have to take responsibility for our own affairs, as others either haven’t tried, or have failed. A strong Assembly is the first step on that road.

  9. The idea that MPs are better quality than AMs is a myth unless you’re referring to their ability to sell themselves as “Political Consultants”, corruption and incompetence.

    We don’t need more AMs but we do need a more effective governance structure.

    For the Executive to be part and parcel of the Legislature is crazy. How can Carwyn Jones (or David Cameron) be in Government and responsible for overseeing what they are doing? It’s stupid!

    Often in this Parliamentary (Talking Shop) model debates are boring and pointless, because the parties whip their members into submission (comes from English private schools I’m told).. So the result is decided beforehand. Win the argument but lose the vote.

    It’s not a democracy because the government is not elected. It’s only a partial democracy, like the Soviet Union – to name but one.

  10. Andrew R.T. Davies raises a valid point and one which is rarely expressed in an articulate way – that the Assembly and the Welsh Government spends too much time acting as a kind of constitutional convention and not enough on the business of governing. Changes to the way in which we are governed do not really excite the public imagination – hence embarrassing turnouts in the election for police and crime commissioners, as well as the rejection of the Alternative Vote system for Westminster and of elected mayors in several English cities, and the consistently weak appetite for devolution to English regions. It does seem to be the case that the public want better public figures, not more local ones and certainly not more of them. You have to feel sorry for anyone entering Welsh politics as they are to be judged by the actions of their peers and limited by the settlement they inherit, though I don’t think they win themselves any fans by focusing their attention on securing for themselves more powers in the name of the ‘public interest’ at a time when the public frankly aren’t very interested (a colleague of mine who has lived his whole life in Wales had to stop me to ask what an AM was the other day). Along with tabloid journalists and bankers, politicians as a group have presented themselves fairly poorly in recent years and they need to win back the trust of a public who are facing hard times all round before they can ask for anything that, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as favouring their interests.

  11. Andrew RT Davies makes two good points: first that ways should be actively considered to improve process to increase the efficacy of scrutiny; second, that the National Assembly should be acknowledged as a Parliament.

    But that is where it ends. To dismiss the call in the report for an increase in AMs in light of ‘my experience’ and without reference to the evidence considered in the report undermines his arguments. Evidence, for example, not mentioned included:
    • Other comparable institutions having political representatives in the region of numbers recommended in the report.
    • That the call for an increase in AMs was premised on the reduction of MPs and local councillors. In broad terms therefore this is a call for a redistribution, and not an increase ,of politicians.

    Andrew RT Davies questions the standard of ministerial responses to questions. Of course, part of the reason for that could be that there is a lack of effective scrutiny in the National Assembly of their actions, and ministers do not feel sufficiently challenged.

  12. John Walker, why do you say Wales was better run when it had no AMs? I wonder why you think so. It is not brilliantly well run at present, I grant you, but I don’t recall a period when it was any better. At least now the Welsh electorate can throw the rascals out and it is up to the public to wake up, pay attention and do so when necessary.

  13. It is easy for anyone prepared to look for the facts to verify that Wales was ‘better run when it had no AMs.’ Direct comparison with the past is difficult because technological development means that in absolute terms there ought to be at least some improvement over time. The only meaningful comparison is therefore relative to other parts of the UK. In these terms, there is simply no denying that, by most objective indicators, the private sector and the key elements of the public sector in Wales have fallen further behind England since 1997.

    It is fair to say the old Secretaries of State varied a lot in quality but most were competent and some delivered real improvements in both private investment and public services in Wales. The Assembly’s only truly decisive reform was a misconceived attempt to restructure the health service which was quickly aborted and somehow airbrushed from history.

    It would indeed be nice to be able to ‘throw the rascals out’ but the whole gerrymandered system has been designed to make that practically impossible: under the current boundaries and electoral system, there is no likely scenario in which Labour will not dominate the administration. That was, of course, the whole idea.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy