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.