Jess Blair argues that current political pressures show the need for increasing the capacity of the National Assembly for Wales
If there was a ‘word cloud’ of popular news topics over the last twelve months then ‘Brexit’ would be front, centre and in bold. Since last June’s referendum the topic has dominated headlines, been the focus of family discussions over the dinner table, and of course the workloads in Westminster and beyond.
On Monday the Institute for Government published a report highlighting the dominance of Brexit on the agenda in the Commons and Lords. The report found that an additional 15 new bills in addition to the Great Repeal Bill could be required to deliver Brexit. It also outlined the extent to which Brexit is already putting pressure on proceedings. There are 55 current select committee inquiries taking place across the two Houses of Parliament, with 21 of the 26 committees who undertake such inquiries currently looking at Brexit related issues.
The additional strain that delivering Brexit brings will not just be felt in Westminster.
A substantial number of policy areas that will be significantly impacted by the UK leaving the EU are devolved to Wales. These include but are not limited to agriculture, cohesion policy, fisheries and marine policy, the environment and energy and climate change, with some impact to be felt on areas like health and education.
A specific committee, the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee, has been established to “examine the implications for Wales of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union”. Three other committees are also considering the implications within current inquiries; the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee.
It is clear that Brexit has already had an impact on the Assembly’s working, despite the fact that Article 50 won’t formally be triggered until 29th March. Perhaps another sign that we live in different times is that the traditional cornerstones of Welsh political discourse – health and education – are being pushed out at all levels by the discussions on Brexit.
All of this is only likely to increase once a deal is agreed. On top of this if plans for boundary changes take place, bringing MP numbers down from 650 to 600, then Wales will have just 29 MPs.
It’s worth noting that the number of peers alone taking evidence on Brexit eclipses the entire membership of the National Assembly. The National Assembly currently has just 60 members, a fact brought into question by a report from ERS Cymru for the UK’s Changing Union Project in 2013. A follow up report, published last November, looked at how an increased Assembly might be achieved.
While we’ve been making these arguments on the size of our assembly for a while, current and impending political challenges as outlined by the Institute for Government now make this an urgent issue. The next few years will be a game changer. To face it effectively we need a game changing Assembly.
An expert panel on electoral reform has been established by the Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, and is being led by Professor Laura McAllister. The panel will consider a raft of issues including the size of the assembly.
This is a crucial step forward in the maturing of our Assembly. And it’s a vital measure to ensure that our democratic processes can effectively meet the challenges that will come.
Arguing for more politicians isn’t easy, but the changing nature of Wales and the UK means it really is now essential.
We could so easily fall into the easy dismissal that ‘now is not the time’ or ‘we can’t afford more’ AMs in these straitened economic times. But when looking at the sheer scale of challenges ahead and potential opportunities for Wales, the work to be done in mapping the post-Brexit terrain, and the vital role in speaking up for Wales with less representation in Westminster – can we really afford not to deal with this?