This is the text of Huw Irranca-Davies’ speech given at an ERS – Positif event on 10 July 2019
Let me begin my thanking all those who contributed to the report ‘A Parliament that Works for Wales’. It is a thorough and robust piece of work. It is timely. It is necessary. As our institutions of government and scrutiny and democracy in Wales continue to grow to meet new challenges, and deliver better for the people of Wales.
The title “A Parliament that Works for Wales” carries so much within those few words. It is not A Parliament which works for a political party, A Parliament which works for Plaid Cymru, or Labour, or the Conservatives, or assorted others. The title and the intent of the report is to envisage a parliament which works for Wales, and the people of Wales.
And in the title is a recognition that the current Assembly, faced with an executive growing as it has done and continues to do in powers and confidence and maturity, has not commensurately grown its capacity for democratic scrutiny.
I agree with this fundamental finding of the report. The majority of Assembly Members here work exceptionally hard and diligently on behalf of their constituents and for Wales, but we are underpowered not in effort but in simple numbers. We can say this confidently in light of comparisons with other regional governments and assemblies across Europe and the wider world. I say this confidently as a former Member of the UK Parliament too who has served as a backbencher and minister, parliamentary aide and committee chair and more in Westminster. We are doing ourselves no favours by pretending that we can continue as we are. More importantly, we are doing Wales no favours by keeping up the pretence that we have the capacity to work with our new powers and new demands, or by showing a brave face and say we can just work harder and cleverer. As the report shows, we are doing that already. It is not enough on its own. Numbers really matter.
So the case is compelling. The question is are we, as the masters of our own destiny, so compelled to act. Or do we wait, and wait, and wait – putting off the difficult political decision for ever and a day until we and the Assembly collapses under the weight of inertia.
But the report is not only focussed on the need for an increase in the number of Assembly Members. It is also underpinned with clear principles, by which we can deliver progressive change in our democracy and legislature in Wales. Let me highlight some key principles:
Voter choice, where the chosen system of election going forward should enable voters to select or indicate a preference for individual candidates; where the electoral system should deliver members with broadly equivalent mandates which afford equal status; where we have at least the current level of proportionality as the current system, and ideally more; where votes should have the same value; where the system is as simple and intelligible as possible to voters; and where it is future-proofed for changing needs and trends; and which can deliver government accountability and effectiveness and stability, whether majoritarian governments or coalitions.
I won’t rehearse the full and thorough detail of the report – others can read it at their will – but it leads to clear and well-evidenced conclusions. That we need more Assembly Members to do more effectively the job of scrutiny for which we are elected, and that no amount of cleverer working will make up for a current and growing capacity gap. That we need a new system of election which together with more AMs will not only deliver on the principles outlined in the report, but will – together with recommendations on positive action to promote gender equality – lead to ALL parties and the Assembly as a whole leading the way on greater diversity in action not only in words, and by making all votes count equally can promote higher electoral turnout.
The report refers to itself repeatedly as a call to action. I agree. But our actions must flow from building a dialogue and a consensus here and across Wales which recognises the challenges we face, and is willing to put forward democratic and electoral reforms for the good of Wales.
Let us also be clear what this is NOT about. It is not about the number or election of councillors, or Members of Parliament, or MEPs, or the over 900 and growing Members of the House of Lords. This is about the capacity of this place, this Senedd and Welsh Parliament to deliver effectively for the people of Wales. We now have a parliament in reality indeed, which has seen its role change from a very limited Assembly when established in 1999, through successive iterations driven by Government of Wales Acts, and Richards and Silk Commissions, and a 2016 tax act, to become a muscular legislature on a reserved model similar to Scotland with primary law-making powers and tax-varying powers. Yet our capacity of effective scrutiny in 2019 as a democratic institution remains constrained by the then necessary electoral compromises of 1999.
So I believe we need also to work across parties and right across Wales to build that consensus which will indeed create a parliament that works for Wales and the people of Wales now and to face the challenges of the future. I look forward to playing my part in building that consensus.
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