Putting quality as well as quantity on the agenda for the assembly

Brenig Davies argues that any move to increase the number of members in the Assembly should come with efforts to improve quality.

There have been longstanding calls from political parties in the assembly – apart from UKIP – for an increase from the current number of 60 members to deal with the assembly’s workload, particularly as new powers over taxation and other issues are devolved with the passing of the Wales Act.

Recent reports have suggested an additional twenty or more AMs to cope with new responsibilities. Added to this the assembly commission – which runs the institution and is made up of AMs from all assembly parties – has already backed the case for more members. There is though, already, opposition to increasing AMs from organisations and individuals not in the assembly.

It is postulated that as increasing the number of members gets more likely, opposition to extra AMs will grow amongst some of the Welsh electorate. Being alert to this the assembly will implement prepared measures to inform and convince voters of the need for more AMs to cope with its new responsibilities and in particular to win over those opposing additional AMs. Helpfully the timing of the public case for more AMs is likely to be close to a high profile UK government publicity campaign explaining the reasons for the reduction in MPs in Wales, before the General Election in 2020. It may be seen by some, especially those who need to be won over, as a reasonable trade off.

Worry about the quality and competence of some AMs is known to be muttered in private and from time to time it surfaces at conferences addressing constitutional matters pertaining to Wales. One such conference (Cardiff, November 2014) addressing the future of devolution in UK’s changing union revealed the concerns about the pressing need to improve the quality of AMs as the number is increased. Taken from BBC Wales Online report of the conference the following quotations, from two political parties, typify the concerns:

“…poor quality of political candidates was the “dirty secret” that “we all know is true”…

But unless we do it … it’s never going to get any better. It’s rubbish at Westminster too.”

“The problem for our institution [the Welsh assembly] is that it’s so small that if we have people who are not as able as some others… there’s nowhere to hide in the assembly.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that political parties are in a state of crisis in terms of members.

…nobody’s putting themselves forward … to stand for election.”

Further, the Western Mail Comment section, WalesOnline, March 2013 (updated)wrote:

If democracy is to work well, we need people of the highest calibre to become practitioners. As the National Assembly acquires new powers, it is even more important that the quality of AMs is sufficiently high for the rigorous scrutiny of proposed laws that will be needed.

It is our view that a substantial number of the current AMs fall far short of the required standard. Some barely make a contribution to the Assembly’s proceedings, and when they do succeed only in embarrassing themselves and those watching. The thought of some of the current AMs making a worthwhile contribution to legislative scrutiny is risible.

Improving the calibre of AMs is, by necessity, a medium term aspiration. Candidates have already been selected … and there are people who will be occupying safe seats whose presence will not enhance the standard of debate….  and there are people who will be occupying safe seats whose presence will not enhance the standard of debate… But a start needs to be made in making the Assembly an institution that does not dissuade talented people from coming forward.

At the same Cardiff conference the discussion turned to the selection of candidates.

One attendee engaging in the debate remarked:

“All the parties in Wales strike me as being shell organisations – if you scratch beneath the surface there is very little there… You see it in the way candidates are nominated and selected both for the assembly and indeed for Westminster.”

Encouraging candidates from a wider pool that is more representative of communities, along with a  published person specification, would be a good place to start improving the selection process and improving the capacity of AMs. Parties may decide – and some do have relatively stringent interviewing processes already –  that ‘HQ’ should provide a list of key person specification attributes for members of the branch candidate selection panel. Centrally determined attributes coupled with locally determined attributes have the advantage of setting a party prospective AM quality threshold while allowing the branch to tailor the criteria to meet their preferences.

Person specifications will vary from party to party and reflect the priorities and values of each. A person specification might seek to emphasise certain individual attributes that, in the round, would contribute to the social, professional and occupational diversity of the party’s team of AMs. Such skills and attributes might include: confidence in public speaking, commitment to public service, career experience, good communication skills, and others considered critical to appointing an AM who copes, ably, with the demands of the role. The emphasis must be on each party selecting a diverse and competent range of candidates that can improve the National Assembly for Wales.

9 thoughts on “Putting quality as well as quantity on the agenda for the assembly

  1. The quality of AMs has always been an issue.

    The problem with tackling it by addressing here they come from is that the Parties end up dammed either way. If they have ‘real people’ who are truly of their communities (whatever that means) they run the risk of getting people who look bad on TV and say silly things. If they parachute public affairs professionals & party officials into safe seats they are accused of being ‘out-of-touch’ (again, whatever that means).

    A big part of the solution has got to be in work training. The Assembly does offer this to some extent, but it has never been mandatory and several AMs have been reluctant to take it up. Professional improvement should be made a central part of an AMs job just like in other roles, and the Assembly should provide a mandatory programme to deliver it. It simply isn’t good enough to have view that the election ever five years is their performance review.

    We need to teach them presentation skills. Teach them how to scrutinize. And teach them to manage their support teams. These are learnt skills far more than they are a natural talent. Doing this won’t stop Wales electing an incompetent AM, but hopefully it may eventually result in them still being able to effectively serve their constituents.

  2. I think there may be a case for more Assembly ‘specialist’ staff rather than more AM’s – essentially a larger civil service. Voters, including me, are unlikely to appreciate having an even larger number of ‘politicians’ governing Wales . As to complaints about ‘quality’ there will always be some bad and indifferent apples but they tend to reflect the quality in the country as a whole and compared to other countries ours are shining angels.

  3. Requiring candidates to qualify for elected office is a dangerous road to travel. The only qualification should be the mandate of the people. Where other qualification has been applied it has invariably been used to maintain or enhance the political position of dominant groups within the selectorate, Perceived weaknesses in the in Assembly membership seems to have declined of late and much of the original problem stemmed from the selective application of certain qualifying criteria to which Brenig now commends. Tyrone O`Sullivan was one of a number of male candidates that did not meet the criteria for selection for he first Assembly.

  4. This article does well to focus on the need for greater quality rather than quantity in elected representatives, even if it does rather undermine itself by suggesting, rather naïvely, how the public might be induced to swallow an increase in quantity as well.

    The decline in quality at all levels has been apparent for decades now. The increasing ‘professionalisation’ of politics has put the best people off public life. This has been exacerbated by the centralisation of power of power in and within political parties – precisely what this article seems to be advocating as a solution when it is in fact the root of the problem!

    People with proven track records in other sectors are not going to put themselves forward for elected office if they see they are going to be no more than party placemen. Instead we need to look for ways to restore the power and status once associated with public office. An important first step would be to reduce, rather than increase, the power of party apparatchiks. The next step would be to consider the role of the elected representative at each level – including whether a particular level was even necessary.

  5. ‘Safe Seats’ is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed if quality of AMs is to improve. Any changes to the assembly should also improve representation of the views of the electorate. At the moment, I have an MP who represents a party I didn’t vote for. Not only that, but that party’s policy on certain issues is a long way from my views; thus the MP ignores my comments. I have nobody to speak on my behalf in Parliament. In Wales, things are a little better with the 4 regional AMs as well as the constituency AM, but still none of the 5 AMs ‘representing’ me comes from either my first or second choice political party (and only one is from my 3rd choice of party).

    Thus, I would suggest that any change should abolish the ‘constituency’ AMs (the ones elected using First Past The Post), with all AMs being elected to the ‘regions’ using proportional representation. For an assembly of 80 AMs, I would suggest eight regions each represented by 10 AMs (thus 10% of the vote = 1 AM). Voters should also have the ability (on a separate ballot paper) to rank candidates on the party lists, with the highest-ranked candidate for that party being elected if the party wins one seat, the top two if the party wins two seats etc.

    The current Mid & West Wales and North Wales regions are too big to be effectively represented (what is in the interests of one part of the region may not be of any benefit at all to other parts of such a large region). North Wales should be split into North-East and North-West regions. Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire could fit together in a ‘South-West Wales’ region but adding Ceredigion would be a step too far (Ceredigion is too small to be a region on its own though, so unfortunately it would probably have to be part of a ‘Mid Wales’ region along with Powys).

  6. Jon Owen Jones hits the nail on the head by pointing to the dangers in qualifying for candidacy.

    One further point I would add is that if we wish to persuade the electorate of the need for, say, 20 more AMs, then it should be unconstitutional for an AM to hold another elected post at the same time. This doesn’t just apply to Nathan Gill but also to Neil McCEvoy who, I believe, wishes to stand again for Cardiff Council.

    The same question can be raised in relation to unelected bodies such as the House of Lords. This would affect Lord Elis Thomas and Baroness Morgan of Ely.

    The point is how can the Assembly ask the voters to support more AMs when there are existing members who cannot give 100% of their time and effort because of their commitments elsewhere. If they have the time to work for other bodies, then maybe the Assembly is not as overworked as it claims.

  7. Rhobat thank you for agreeing with me but may i point out a flaw in your further argument.You give four examples of MP`s which have other commitments and cannot give 100% to their Assembly work. The problem with that is an impartial observer of those 4 might well conclude that their 70% effort was rather more effective than the 100% of many of their colleagues.

  8. You’re welcome. However I’m not sure that what you describe is a flaw since the argument is this. The Llywydd has called for an increase in the number of AMs, in order words an increase in human resources. I’n sure you’ve chaired enough committees to know that when someone requests an increase in resources, how the current resources are being used is first examined. So my point is based on that. If at least 4 AMs are able to make professional political commitments elsewhere, then their talents are not being put to full use in the service of the Assembly to which they were elected to represent their constituents.

    As to the quality of the contribution being made, this will always vary in a democracy. But there is no trade off between quality and quantity. In many areas of employment, quantity and quality are often measures of performance. But if one employee obtains 100% in quality and another 70%, it does not entitle the higher quality candidate to work fewer hours.

    My point is that if the Llywydd wishes to make the case for an increase in the number of AMs which she herself has described as a hard sell, then she could start by addressing the fact that it is not a constitutional requirement for current AMs to give the Assembly their full attention.

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