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

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