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.

15 thoughts on “Can Welsh MPs take on some responsibility from AMs?

  1. Some very good, pragmatic ideas here. Cant wait for the reaction from the nouveau politico class bloggers on here… cornflakes will be spat out this morning 🙂

  2. I’ve got a better idea – how about Welsh AMs take on more of the ‘responsibilities’ of Welsh MPs?

  3. Leigh,

    Nice idea or we could go the other way. Why not give members of the House of Windsor some of the responsibilities, in the same way they help to scrutinise cabinet mieetings at Westminster..

  4. Martin I cant see how this would work unless we created a bicameral system. A second chamber composed of Welsh MPs would have democratic legitimacy (unlike the Lords) and offers a solution to the often very poor scrutiny that currently exists in the Assembly. The main practical difficulty would be to ensure that MPs could guarantee a priority to that work.However that difficulty also exists now within the Assembly. If an MP were made a Welsh Government Minister they could not be properly accountable to the Assembly but then again that is also the position of Ministers in the Lords and the House of Commons.

  5. The Westminster government are cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. The number of Welsh MPs will be cut from 40 to 30. Since our MPs don’t have any influence at Westminster and the Silk Commission Report recommends increasing the number of AMs, while not reduce the number of Welsh MPs at Westminster to 15 and have the other 15 at the Assembly, where they can actually do something for the good of Wales.

  6. I must admit that my first instinct is to dismiss this idea out of hand but in the spirit of establishing a new discourse that is inclusive and welcoming of new ideas, I should move past my first reaction and engage with the debate on rational basis.

    There are a number of difficulties with this idea but I say in all sincerity that the fact that people are thinking outside of the box regarding our main political institution is to be welcomed and that to do so imaginatively is something that has been lacking in the past.

    The major problem is complexity at the ballot box. For democracy to function, it needs to be a system that is clear enough for voters to understand and engage with. Having a representative who is elected to one legislature only to find that they are sitting in another legislature is at best confusing. On what basis would I be voting; Their work in Westminster or their work in Cardiff Bay? As Jon suggests above, the issue is one of accountability, that the accountability has to be transparent and that this suggestion, if implemented, would confuse and undermine that principle.

    As a suggestion however it is indicative of a realisation that the political landscape is changing. Wales and the UK are on different political trajectories although that particular vector is travelling at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately for those who are unhappy with this, it cannot be reunified with the sticking plaster proposal outlined above.

  7. Apart from Councillors Wales really doesn’t have that many politicians. For example I live in Australia where they have local councillors, state MPs and Federal MPs. The state’s have far more members in their parliaments than we do in Wales. For example, Western Australia is the state closest in size to Wales, with a smaller population of 2.5 million it has 95 members compared to our 60.

    Also, do we really want to throw out the model of British parliamentary democracy in favour of a semi presidential system? Think long and hard before we go too far down that road.

    The 40 Welsh MPs in the British parliament should be busy enough with the large number of areas still reserved at the UK level. Including foreign affairs, defence, tax, welfare, broadcasting, police, criminal justice, energy etc. Most of which will be in Westminsters control for the forseeable future.

    The sensible solution is to increase the number of AMs to at least 80 (which is still small when you compare to other sub state legislatures). With Labour’s monopoly on power in Wales it probably wouldn’t do them that much damage anyway to bring in this change. And the more sensible Labour members should realise they will damage Welsh democracy if they keep dominanting Welsh politics forever. They need to take some brave decisions and risks if they really want to get Wales out of the rut we are in.

  8. Unless you think MPs are under-employed I agree with JOJ that they couldn’t serve as a second Welsh chamber on top of the day job. Nor does, having non-elected Ministers does not seem a good idea to me – but I can’t see why you can’t co-opt outside experts on to Senedd committees to improve scrutiny of government policy. Such people would not sit in plenary so would not have a vote on legislation but they could beef up the work of committees, which need it.

  9. It seems we may be at the start of a prolonged period of Tory control at Westminster. If that is so then non English MPs will have less and less say on English only(or mainly) legislation. These “peripheral” MPs may well have time on their hands and a revising role for their nations/regions could make sense.
    The problem with simply reducing their numbers, as Philip Hughes suggests, is that MPs decide matters of war and peace and the overall level of public spending. Why would any Welsh person want to reduce our voice in these vital areas.

  10. I am pleased that this article has stimulated some examination of the ideas I put forward rather than the out of hand dismissal when they were first launched in the media before Christmas. I think it is important to note that these ideas were generated from a wish to avoid, or at least limit, the extra cost of more AMs and a recognition that when responsibilities are devolved the increased demand upon AMs must at least in part be mirrored by a reduction in MP’s roles. Whilst the ideal solution is to achieve LA reduction, MP reduction and more AMs it seems very unlikely that political consensus can be achieved to do all three of these simultaneously, certainly not within the near future if at all
    Bringing others into the scrutiny role, which could be done without threatening the AMs overall control, seems a natural way to utilise the MPs now or indeed as R Tredwyn suggests any other capable individuals through co-option. I accept that the idea of Ministerial positions is somewhat more radical but it would give the First Minister an option to fill a skills gap or a deal with a shortage of AMs prepared to take on such roles which he doesn’t have at present. Anyone becoming a Minister now in Westminster or Cardiff Bay does it on top of their role as an MP or AM and so the argument about already having a full time job doesn’t really hold water. We should also recognize that MPs are elected Welsh politicians and so they would be held accountable to the Welsh electorate if and when they stand for re-election albeit for a different role.

  11. This article like those on federal proposals for the UK seems to me to reflect the desire by the authors to keep the Union wagon rolling rather than an actual desire to improve the democratic system in Wales based on what is the best fit for the people of Wales.

  12. I sympathise with Martin Warren frustrations. There is a lot that needs to be done to increase the capacity of the National Assembly to scrutinise the work of the Welsh Government effectively. But the answer cannot lie in confusing the roles of elected members drawn from two quite separate layers of government, elected by different methods and at different times. The issue of the Assembly’s capacity was addressed fully in a report to the Silk Commission from the UK Changing Union project drawn up by several partners, including the IWA, the Electoral Reform Society, the Wales Governance Centre and Cymru Yfory. This recommended a redistribution of our democratic resources – without increasing the democratic overhead – by reducing the number of MPs in line with current proposals, increasing the size of the National Assembly to 100, and reducing the number of local authorities. It is only by increasing the size of the Assembly that one would be able to create a core of backbenchers sufficiently large for the scrutiny role to be shared and for members to have the time to develop the specialism necessary for effective scrutiny.

  13. Geraint I agree that an increased number of AMs would enhance their ability to legislate wisely and effectively. So to would a revision of their weekly commitment in the Assembly. However there remains an argument that a bicameral system would introduce safeguards that may be particularly beneficial in an institution that sees very little ministerial churn. With the particular exception of Westminster`s appointed House other countries tend to chose elected bodies elected at different times and often with different systems. Indeed if their were elected at the same time with the same system it would tend to undermine their point and value.

  14. GTD is of course right. If the additional members were elected by a proportional system the Assembly would be even less under the control of a single party than it is, increasing the chance of changing coalitions and increasing the probable turnover of Ministers – addressing JOJ’s concern. Unfortunately that is exactly why it is most unlikely to happen.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy