Room for improvement

As she prepares to stand down at May’s election, Christine Chapman reflects on her experiences in the Assembly.

‘Good progress but some improvements are needed’ would be my assessment of the Assembly as it nears the end of its fourth term. The Welsh Assembly of 2016 is certainly a more sophisticated institution than its 1999 predecessor. That is to be welcomed.  Yet whilst there have been some significant moments in its development, there have also been some frustrations.

The end of the fourth assembly

As the Assembly breaks for May’s election, a range of assembly members offer personal perspectives of their time in the Senedd.

For many people in Wales, devolution has been more about the potential to deliver a better quality of life, rather than what it stands for as a political principle in itself. However, delivery and constitutional processes are inextricably linked. A focus on devolution policies has revealed some trailblazing changes which have altered the fabric of Welsh life. Free prescriptions have been one of the most critical tools in reducing health inequalities in the Welsh population. The ban on smoking in public places has reduced exposure to the harm caused by second hand smoke and has improved air quality. The early policy of free bus passes has provided independence for pensioners and people with disabilities, and has been hugely enjoyed. Our groundbreaking law on organ donation has the capacity to save lives. Policies, such as these,  show the Welsh Labour Government at its best, doing the right thing in introducing  laws which are helping to add a greater sense of wellbeing to people’s lives. Health Minister Professor Mark Drakeford, responding in the recent debate on the Public Health (Wales) Bill, was spot on when he said “[o]ur lives are absolutely full of devices where we use the power of collective action to realise the positives and to contain the negatives…We legislate and we regulate to harness the good and to restrict the harm”.

Nevertheless, the Assembly is faced with some deep- seated challenges. One is the toxic poverty and inequality that remains embedded in Welsh life. Illustrative of that is Oxfam’s recent statistic showing that 16% of the wealthiest in Wales hold as much wealth as the rest of the population put together. It was this sort of stark picture which led the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, which I Chair in the Assembly, to undertake an enquiry into the issue. We accepted that many of the levers affecting poverty rates in Wales remain with the UK Government, and that its austerity measures are pushing more people into poverty. However, we were keen to examine how effective the Welsh Government’s work was in countering this. Our final report challenged the Welsh Government to go further, bolder and deeper in its attempts to make Wales an authentically equal country where all its citizens can reach their potential.

Of personal frustration during my time as an Assembly Member has been the Welsh Government not taking, what I believed, was the opportunity to legislate to ban the physical punishment of children, and to extend to them the same legal protection from assault we give to adults. We have had a great record of commitment to children’s rights here in Wales since devolution. Yet despite previous support from Assembly Members for removing the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, the weight of international evidence and support from all the children’s organisations, Wales still remains out of step. More and more countries across the world have extended equal protection to their children. I hope that the Fifth Assembly will take this final leap to fully supporting children here in Wales.

Given that gender equality is one of the key planks of a modern democracy, it’s regrettable that the representation of women in the Assembly is, as Professor Laura McAllister argues,   still ‘fragile’. Back in 1998, equality of opportunity was one of the many aspirations built into the Government of Wales Act and thereby placed on a statutory basis. The National Assembly for Wales has been exemplary in supporting and encouraging women’s public participation, as demonstrated by the Presiding Officer Dame Rosemary Butler’s excellent Women in Public Life programme. In contrast though, the political parties have often dragged behind like sulky teenagers, protesting and unwilling to do something they know they really should do. This is not good enough.   If Welsh political life is to reflect Welsh civil life then change must come sooner rather than later.

As for me, it has been both an honour and a privilege to have served the people of the Cynon Valley for seventeen years, as one of the first cohort of AMs. I am looking forward to new challenges and opportunities. In the next Assembly, if we are to grow and develop the equal, vibrant, smart and healthy twenty-first century nation we all want, I hope new and returning AMs similarly embrace the challenges and opportunities before them.

Christine Chapman is the AM for Cynon Valley.

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