Building a Welsh Parliament

Simon Thomas seeks to build consensus on the next steps for Welsh democracy

Last year we saw the launch of a landmark report on the future of Welsh parliamentary democracy. The recommendations will be discussed in the National Assembly on Wednesday.

I expect that a balanced and rational debate will now happen on the options that Laura McAllister and her colleagues have outlined for reforming the Assembly.

The case for increasing the size of the National Assembly has been made for several years now, but this is the first time that the electoral options for achieving that have been fleshed out and matched up to the need for accountability, representation and scrutiny. But this is the first time we have had the powers to make a change, which is why the Llywydd Elin Jones has decided to begin that process.

While democracy is not something that only exists at the Assembly level, that is the focus of this report.

Plaid Cymru has welcomed the report. Because reform needs a two thirds majority to go forward, we are not setting out a partisan position or a preference for one of the electoral options at this stage. Instead, we are interested in establishing principles behind which a consensus around a strong Welsh Parliament might be built. As the party’s member of the reference group discussing these issues, these are the principles which I think could work.

My first principle is that the scrutiny and capacity of the next Welsh Parliament should be greater than the current Assembly. This is one of the more controversial ones. The crude language of “more politicians” comes into play here, but the costs are actually minimal, and we may be facing a reduction in the number of MPs and MEPs which puts it into perspective. In this case, more politicians means less power for the government. By numbers of legislators, the Welsh Government is one of the least scrutinised in Europe. That is not a healthy situation for the taxpayer. Moving to 80 plus Welsh Parliament Members means a weaker executive. It means twenty extra people scrutinising the government. We can easily compare Wales (60 members) to parliaments in nations and regions like Berlin (141 members), Catalonia (135 members), the Valencian Community (99 members) or Galicia (75 members) and see that we are on the small side.

My next principle is votes at 16, combined with mandatory political education in our schools. This is vital because the two must go together, and curriculum reform takes time. If this is going to happen, then changes to the curriculum must be prepared as a matter of urgency in order to be ready for 2021.

A third principle we should adopt is equalling or bettering the current Assembly’s proportionality. Representation should follow votes as much as possible, whilst still allowing some form of local link. The institutional design of the Assembly recognised this to an extent, but in a way that was weaker that the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly.

Gender balance must also be accommodated in any new system. The early Assembly made huge progress on this front, moving towards the top of the global league tables in terms of women’s representation, mostly because political parties used selection rules to achieve that. But gender balance has slipped back since then. Measures could be built into any change to the electoral system to guarantee a higher level of gender equality.

Finally, I believe that the Assembly should be transformed into a Welsh Parliament in name, composition and status. This overarches the other principles. I believe this as a nationalist, but am now convinced that AMs from most or even all parties can sign up to this. What this means is overcoming the barriers and limitations which were placed upon the Assembly from the start. Make no mistake, giving Wales an Assembly instead of a Parliament was deliberate. We were intentionally shackled from the start. No legislative powers until the 2011 referendum. No tax powers until now. No government in Wales at all to start with. Gradually, we have been able to knock down these barriers, always in a way involving the buy-in of more than one political party. But with more powers on the way to Wales (no matter how grudgingly they are being handed back to us), the people of Wales need a stronger ratio of opposition-to-government Members in order to hold them to account.

My whole aim with this article is to reach out and build consensus, not to look inward. But as people who believe in the Welsh nation, we should also be clear and honest. This is an opportunity to restore Welsh parliamentary governance over our country, and to make more of our own laws. It is absolutely an opportunity to further the interests of Wales as a nation according to our own terms. But that is something that people from all political traditions can sign up to.

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Simon Thomas is AM for Mid and West Wales

5 thoughts on “Building a Welsh Parliament

  1. Once again, we see the difference between life within “the bubble” and the real world.

    Let the People of Wales be given the choice – in the Referendum they ought to have had at the time of the last Wales Act. Let it be a fair Referendum, with equal funding and access to the media, with two options.

    Option One, the Politicians’ Option, as set out or implied in this article: more AMs and their hangers-on; votes for children; “political education” by those in power; surtaxes on people living in Wales; a proportional system that will in effect guarantee continuing Labour hegemony; gender tokenism; and a gradual drift towards independence, or at least autonomy.

    Option Two: it has been over eighteen years and we have seen no material improvement in the lives of most people living in Wales relative to our English neighbours that justifies the hundreds of millions spent on the Assembly, so it is time to spend it on something else.

  2. The report was called for by current member of Plaid Cymru who holds a senior position in the Assembly and included person who stood as PC candidate in general election for Bridgend constituency some years ago and got hammered. As I understand it the reason for PC is mainly to separate us from the UK,and in particular our next door neighbour,I.e England who in the main currently fund our public services. I must as a working class person and well over 65 must be mixing with the ‘wrong people’ as the creation on our OWN Parliament does not seem to be a priority,but what can we possibly know compared to the ‘experts’ who told us a Welsh Assembly would transform our economy/public services,well after nearly 20 years we are still waiting. Chairman Mao stated that the Long March started with one small step,and our long march has already started.The current ‘fashion’ of equality seems perverse as I don’t care who represents me,except that I want/need the best people,rather than people who tick the appropriate boxes.

  3. There is precious little that has been enacted by the Welsh regime to give it any real value, apart perhaps from a fee on plastic bags and possibly the need to register if one does not want to be an organ donor.
    NONE of the other measures like FoC prescriptions and Hosptital Car Parking an#re anything other than atempts to ‘con’ the Welsh people into thinking they are on to a good thing which they are most certaily NOT.

    The opportunity is here for Welsh MPs to meet once a month to revise legislation agreed in Westminster and to stop this shambles of a circus in Cardiff Bay. Only one party represents this option.

  4. I rather like the term National Assembly. It has a sort of French revolutionary air about it. Whereas Parliament calls to mind the bear garden in Westminster with its gothic accoutrements, out-dated seating arrangements and shouting replacing serious debate or scrutiny of the executive. The National Assembly is dull but worthy and the quality of members is at last beginning to improve. Parliament continues downhill. That JWR wants to restore colonialism is bad enough but helpless subordination to that shower? No thanks.

  5. Thanks for this Simon, I read the consultation and your article has made it much easier to offer views:
    1. see the case for more scrutiny but would prefer the emphasis to be on better governance. Many are not convinced that improvement can happen under current government. Maybe more AM/WMPs should wait til we have people in power that can deliver.
    2. Agree strongly with votes 16 yr olds and addition to curriculum, hopefully through practical experience of changing things politically not just learning about systems. The present electorate represents the old not the young, due to the age profile of the population. Change to this is a moral imperative.
    3. Yes to more proportionality. It leads to healthier politics
    4. No to simple gender equality, it so misses the point. If you want a representative governing body you need to look at who is there already to see what skill sets, cultural aptitudes are under represented, then seek people to stand to make up the deficit. To crudely say we must have equal women and men assumes that women and men have different agendas and skills which is itself a sexist assumption. Why not rural and urban, practical and academic, young generation attuned and past ways attuned, managerial and activist.. there are so many diversities we might be missing, why pick on gender as if that was the defining feature of people, I find that offensive.

    And well done Plaid for bringing the issue to us, the public, civil society to deliberate on, and for not making it a party issue, da iawn

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