Can Welsh MPs take on some responsibility from AMs?

Can a different approach to a Welsh Cabinet increase the effectiveness of the Assembly, asks Martin Warren.

Wales has 60 AMs, 40 MPs and 4 MEPs to represent a population of just over 3 million inhabitants at governmental level. On top of this, at local level, there are 22 Councils employing over 1250 Councillors, giving us approximately 1 councillor for every 2440 members of the population compared to 4330 in Scotland, 3900 in Northern Ireland and 2900 in England. So do we have right numbers in each category and are they able to meet the needs of Wales?

On the face of it the number of Councillors appears excessive (as does the number of Councils) and the ICAEW support the move to at least halve the number of Councils (and presumably therefore the number of Councillors) as proposed by the Williams report. However if such a major re-organisation were to take place it would seem logical to address the broader need to harmonise areas/regions for all governance in Wales.

Business will operate more effectively if there are fewer barriers to hurdle in each economic region. The creation of city regions should therefore be an integral part of any new structure ensuring they contain a minimum number of authorities with a clear requirement to work together for the economic good of the region. Similarly the governance and policy making for public services would improve if NHS Trusts, Local Authorities, Education Authorities, European funding areas etc. had as many co-terminus boundaries as possible to create the opportunity for greater cohesion between them in creating and controlling policy and delivery. Any re-organisation will be politically difficult so why not aim for as full a solution as possible.

Since the Welsh Assembly was established in 1997 devolved responsibilities have grown resulting in significant workloads for politicians shifting from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. Yet no change has been applied to the number of AMs and MPs to recognise this. Consequently the level of scrutiny than can be applied to work in Wales is suffering alongside the requirement for Welsh Ministers to take on a growing burden of increasing portfolios. As more devolution occurs this situation becomes unsustainable and threatens the ability of the Welsh Government to govern effectively. More AMs is one solution to this problem and could be funded from the savings made from the re-organisation above. However this may be difficult to deliver politically and if this proves to be the case then an alternative is to utilise other resources to relieve the pressures upon AMs. Two options could be considered.

Firstly the role of an MP in Wales is diminishing and, whilst the UK Parliament may act to reduce these numbers in the future, perhaps an alternative would be to give these elected members a role in the Welsh Government. They could serve on committees (as they may have served previously on committees covering devolved issues in Westminster) thus reducing the demands on AMs to populate them whilst not threatening or challenging the authority of the AMs themselves.

An alternative idea maybe for the First Minister to have the option to appoint Welsh MPs to the Welsh Cabinet. Thereby following an established tradition at Westminster where House of Lords members are often chosen by the Government of the day to serve in ministerial roles. Being able to appoint sitting MPs from Wales into the Welsh cabinet would widen the pool of talent for ministerial office and also limit the size of ministerial portfolios. Effective scrutiny of Welsh Government departments could be achieved by Deputy Ministers answering questions in the Siambr whilst MPs in such roles would of course be quizzed in committee. This idea was isolated and headlined by the BBC before Christmas and met with opposition from a number of AMs branding it as undemocratic and returning to rule from Westminster. Neither of these arguments hold much water and can be overcome easily enough if the will is there to change. There are examples elsewhere in the world where minsters are not sitting MPs/AMs.

A more radical second option would be to draw support from the professional community who have a knowledge and skill base to provide closer scrutiny and input into policy and performance. There are examples elsewhere in the world where ministers are not sitting MPs/AMs.

The creation of a non-political body under the auspices of the Presiding Officer could help to keep focus upon policy in a more objective way and inform the long term political direction from an independent stand point. Members of this body could also perform a scrutiny role to complement and enhance these processes. Such scrutiny for example could take the form of sessions in the Welsh Assembly’s old debating chamber in Ty Hywel, meeting three times a year – just before the commencement of each Assembly term – to discuss and debate on-going legislation. The agendas for these would be decided by the Presiding Officer and the cross-party Business Committee.

Wales is a small country with limited resources and making best use of those resources within a democratic framework to achieve for Wales must surely be an objective that crosses all political borders.

Martin Warren is Director for Wales of ICAEW.

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