Towards a Parliament that Works for Wales

Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, delivered the Annual Lecture of the Wales Governance Centre (Cardiff University) on Wednesday 6 December 2017 at the Pierhead  in Cardiff Bay.

A full video of the lecture is available on YouTube or you can read the transcript below….

It gives me great pleasure to be with you this evening and I’m grateful to you, the Wales Governance Centre, for the invitation and opportunity to deliver this lecture as another term and indeed another year draws to a close.

Difficult term

The past few months have not been easy, to say the very least. The sadness which struck the Assembly in light of Carl Sargeant’s death has been accompanied by a whole range of emotions, questions and reactions which will no doubt continue for many months to come. And throughout it all, as Llywydd, it has been my duty to ensure that our Assembly treats Carl’s family with the respect they deserve, and that our Members have been able to mark the passing of a close colleague with the dignity expected of our national democratic legislature.

I have no doubt that our small, but perfectly formed circular chamber provides strength to our politicians – both at times of scrutiny when they want to challenge, to confront or to remonstrate, or on those rare occasions, when we want to unite – sometimes in defiance, but also to express grief and pride. It is during these times that I am most proud to be the Llywydd – when our democratic institution becomes a focal point for a collective national expression. And it’s during the difficult times, that the Assembly demonstrates true resilience and endurance.

For me, a member of the Assembly’s class of ’99, old enough to recall the disappointment of ’79, this resilience continues to be a remarkable phenomenon. For some here this evening it is what they have always known and have come to accept and expect of us.

The Brett and Wil Generation

There are some young, first year politics students in the audience this evening who have made quite an impression on me over recent weeks – you may have seen Geneva, Aisha, Brett and Wil on the Sunday Politics Show recently, speaking eloquently about how we can make politics and the political environment in Wales better for the next generation. This is the generation which is ready and waiting to take on the baton into the middle part of this century – if not before.

Brett and Wil had already secured a starring role on television a few weeks earlier when they rushed over, with great excitement, to the Welsh Government’s Office in Cathays Park after hearing there was a reshuffle underway. They declared this on Twitter – I think I may have retweeted one of them – only to be interviewed later by ITV Wales. And it was during a discussion with reporter Rob Osborne, they revealed that remarkably they had no memory of any time at all when Jane Hutt was not a government Minister.
Listening to them speak, I started thinking about their ages, which I have since confirmed, and I worked out that I was campaigning as a candidate in the first ever election to the National Assembly for Wales when each one of these students – or political pundits as I’m sure they’d now like to be known – was born, between July 1998 and February 1999.

As one of those considered to be the ‘young intake’ of that first National Assembly, it is a sobering fact when you realise that you have been an elected Member throughout the lifetime of an entire new generation. To take it a step further, Wil, who is from Aberystwyth, has never ever had another constituency AM apart from Elin Jones. And long may that be the case!

This is the generation that considers Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones as household names. Brett tells a funny story of how he once went on holiday in a caravan on the same site as Rhodri Morgan. To him it was a perfectly natural, ordinary thing to camp in a grassy field next to the leader of your nation’s government.

For Brett, Wil, Aisha and Geneva – this is the Wales they know, this is who we are. The National Assembly is as much a part of this nation’s identity as Calon Lan, Parc y Scarlets or Gareth Bale.

There are now three generations of Welsh devolutionists – the fighters, the founders and the future:

  • The fighters are those who spent most of their lives battling for self-government, only to succeed and then pass it on to the next generation
  • The founders are those of us who have had the duty to enshrine the Assembly’s place and status in the nation’s psyche and to solidify the foundations upon which it has been built
  • And then there’s the future, the next generation – those who want to run with it and make it thrive. And I’m not just talking about our future politicians. This applies to our future leaders in other areas too who contribute to the politics of Wales outside the elected arena: the academics, the economists, the policy makers, the statisticians, the psephologists, and the commentators. For these people – indeed for all the people of Wales, whether they are interested in politics or not – we have a duty to strengthen the core of our democratic institution.

Sheen’s fragile institutional framework

The actor Michael Sheen, during a lecture in Merthyr Tydfil, recently re-asked the question ‘Who speaks for Wales?’ and said that as a nation we’ve had difficulty reckoning with our past. I don’t disagree, but what gives me hope is that this appears to be so much less so when speaking with our younger generation. There’s so much less baggage, fewer hang ups – less conflict between the various factors which enrich our identity but have, in the past, been a dividing line in our politics. I am certainly confident that the future generation of Welsh politicians or political aides or civil servants are more at ease, and are even proud, of Welsh democracy and how it is beginning to take shape. So, we owe it to them to ensure that they have the best possible chance to make a success of it for the sake of the people and communities of Wales. We must also ensure that they have the confidence to challenge, to scrutinise and generally to speak truth unto power for the sake of a vibrant, healthy democracy.

Michael Sheen also talked of an institutional framework in Wales that is fragile. Again, I do not disagree, but I also think we now have it within our own grasp to do something about it. And what that means in terms of our Assembly is that we now have the powers, through the Wales Act 2017, to create a parliamentary democracy that really works for Wales.

Changing the name

And yes, the Assembly Commission is recommending that as part of the process of overcoming that fragility we should change the institution’s name to Senedd Cymru – the Welsh Parliament – a name which reflects the weight of responsibility we carry and is recognised and understood by those we serve and whose trust we aim to earn. It is imperative that every single citizen living in Wales feels that they have a stake in our parliament, that they understand what it is here to do and that it leaves a psychological and physical impression on every community throughout this nation and not just here in Cardiff Bay.

We certainly have our work cut out in making that happen, and in the absence of a plurality of commercial media companies reporting on the Assembly, we have a responsibility to create our own platforms and share our own content, and to make our Senedd as digitally accessible as possible. And incidentally, we are moving forward with this by beginning to implement the recommendations of the independent digital news and information taskforce chaired by Leighton Andrews.

I have no doubt that a Wales in which more of its people have the opportunity to be engaged in, and better informed about, the decisions taken on their behalf, will be a stronger, more ambitious and self-confident nation.

EU Citizens

This is also why, post Brexit, I would like to see every EU citizen who lives in Wales maintaining their right to vote for our national parliament. And why stop there – citizens of any nationality who live in Wales should, in my opinion, have the right to vote in our Welsh General Election, regardless of where they have come from. This of course is a matter for the Assembly to decide upon and members will want to know what the public think and so this will be a put to consultation in the new year. But come what may, I want our new Welsh parliament to be even more inclusive than its five predecessor Assemblies, just as I want to see it reach out and build its reputation and relations on the international stage. We must continue to be a welcoming Wales rather than allow Brexit to isolate us on the far Western corner of our continent.

The legislative context

This decisions on these issues will be in our hands.

From the Principal Appointed Day of 1st April 2018, in less than 4 months’ time, the Wales Act 2017 will give the Assembly legislative competence over our own elections and over the size of our parliament.

You will know that earlier this year the Assembly Commission invited a panel of experts on electoral reform, chaired by Professor Laura McAllister, to review, and complement if necessary, the existing evidence and research in relation to the size and electoral arrangements for the National Assembly and then to make recommendations on:

  1. What the size of the membership of the Assembly should be
  2. The electoral system that should be used to elect Assembly Members
  3. The minimum voting age for the National Assembly elections

The panel – which is made up of some of Europe’s foremost experts in all matters electoral – was asked to produce recommendations which could be implemented in time for the National Assembly election in 2021, and to report back by autumn 2017. And I promise that you don’t have to wait too long now for that report. Indeed, by this time next week, the panel’s findings will be breaking stories on all the news wires with what I know will be a thorough, well-evidenced and hefty report. There are 252 pages in English I’m told and 262 pages in Welsh! So, quantity and quality! There’s a task for someone to spot what’s been slipped into the Welsh language version that’s not in the English version!

So, not long to wait, but being able to instigate a process of taking decisions on these issues is certainly long awaited.

(Note: The Expert Panel published their report on 12 December 2017.)

Increased Capacity

Can I give you a sneak preview of what’s in the report this evening? No, I can’t, but what I can do is remind you that a report unanimously agreed by the previous Commission in the 4th Assembly concluded that there was a need to strengthen our democracy by increasing the number of its members – as of course did numerous reports and Commissions before that. However, it’s fair to say that this report is different because it examines closely the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’.

In his recently published autobiography, the late Rhodri Morgan said that the only reason that the Richard Commission’s recommendation for an increase in the size of the Assembly to 80 was not implemented was because of the fear that doing so could jeopardise the support for law-making powers. There was of course little evidence to support this assertion at the time, but, it’s fair to say, that asking for more politicians is never going to be the most popular ‘pledge card bullet point’ – even if it is the right call.
But it’s also fair to say that devolution has developed in such a way that this is now a question that cannot be ducked. We need a mature conversation which is based upon proper evidence and not pejorative claims, which is what I hope the report of the panel will create.

The evolution of devolution

From the body with the limited powers to make secondary legislation which opened in 1999, we moved to the appropriately nick-named Hell-co or LCO system in 2007 where we had to ask permission from Westminster to legislate in Wales on a case by basis. Yes, Brett, Wil, Aisha and Geneva – be grateful that you were only reaching your teens by the time the LCO system was scrapped otherwise you’d be writing an assignment on its complexities and limitations right now! The process of approving the Red Meat LCO, which I took through as Rural Affairs Minister, has to be the most tortuous, expensive route for any piece of legislation ever to have gone through, whilst changing so little in reality.

In 2011, we took on primary legislative powers. And next year we will assume a new reserved powers model of devolution and see new Welsh taxes coming on stream before the activation of income tax-varying powers in 2019.

As a nationalist, change has been slow, painful and complicated – but I’m sure for the future political historians in our midst, it will be seen as a time of comparative rapid transformation.

Scrutiny

And of course, with more power comes a greater responsibility to scrutinise the execution of that power – in terms of policy, legislation, finance and taxation. And therefore, the Assembly – our committees and plenary – now meet for more hours in the day, more days in the week and more weeks in the year than ever before. Our timetable is crammed during every working hour and, frequently, way beyond that despite our Standing Orders requiring us to avoid timetabling business before 9am or after 6pm.
Additional staff – whether Commission staff or those employed directly by Members – cannot be seen as a sustainable or effective alternative to Member capacity. Nevertheless, the support provided to Assembly Members has been increased, and services provided to Members by the Commission have also been enhanced to compensate for the problem with capacity.

Committees have used their powers to establish sub-committees in order to increase their capacity as we’ve see recently with the Registered Social Landlords Bill, and with the exception of the Standards of Conduct, Petitions and Scrutiny of the FM committees, Assembly committees meet weekly, with three convening on a Monday too.
Some of you may have read the recent McCormick Commission report on Parliamentary Reform which makes recommendations on how to deliver a stronger more effective Scottish Parliament. Well the good news – or perhaps bad news depending on your perspective – is that many of the recommendations they make in relation to reform, increasing efficiency and capacity and better public engagement have already been implemented in the National Assembly. Of those which have not been implemented, some would be unworkable with an Assembly of only 60 Members, for example holding Plenary and Committee meetings at the same time.

We can’t be complacent of course about our procedures and practices, but it’s clear we have very little room for manoeuvre in terms of our ability to work more effectively and to create more space for scrutiny. And it has just been compounded, not intentionally I hasten to add, by the recent growth of the Welsh government from 12 to 14.

The statistics

So let’s look at the implications of this on our work in the Assembly. Here are the facts:
At the moment, 64% of Assembly Members, 38 in total, hold additional offices, whether as part of the Welsh Government, Llywydd, Commissioners, business managers, party leaders or committee chairs. This compares with just 45% of Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The comparison with Westminster is probably not fair but I’ll make it anyway – but figures from February 2017 suggest that there were then some 500 MPs who did not hold government or office holder roles – representing 77% of the membership of the Commons. This compares with just 22 Members -37% of Assembly Members – in Wales.
The pressure on our committees is phenomenal. We have 43 Members – those who are not Llywydd, Deputy Presiding officer or Ministers – to fill 79 committee places (excluding Business Committee, Standards and Scrutiny of the FM). This means that 24 of our Members – 41% – sit on two committees, and 7 Members – 12% – sit on three.
Figures like these illustrate the circumstances which prompted the Auditor General for Wales, the office charged with auditing public spending in Wales, a few years ago to say, and I quote, ‘the Assembly needs more Members to do its job properly’.

I am confident that the vast majority of our AMs are giving many, many hours to undertake a huge volume of reading, research and preparation for committees – including writing speeches and drafting questions. But with the best will in the world, if your entire working week is filled with committees, plenaries and surgeries, notwithstanding local and national events, engagements and interviews, then can we really expect each AM to give each inquiry on their multiple committees the same attention? They also need time to think – to analyse the evidence, conceive new ideas, and to find solutions to problems. Thinking time is the most precious time of all – I do mine on the 4 hours spent on the M4 corridor each week.

And the biggest pressure is on Labour, whose place on the Assembly Commission, six committee chairs and 31 committee places must be populated by just 15 backbench Members.

It is also the case that 7 of our committee chairs sit on one other committee, and 4 chairs sit on 2 others.

The situation is unsustainable.

I am mindful of the words of the former Clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane who said that ‘unless you are prepared to make profound changes – such as a virtual Chamber and virtual committees, so that Members need not be present, and Parliamentary buildings become irrelevant – the currency is always going to be Member time’.

And Members’ time in our Assembly is at a premium. Our backbenchers work hard but we need more of them.

Now our institutional framework may be delicate and need strengthening, but our institution’s backbenchers are not. We have a fine cohort of Members who work extremely hard, and whose collective pool of experience and knowledge has recently been enhanced by having the likes of Jane Hutt and Mick Antoniw in their midst. It is as important by the way, that we retain and use the valuable experience of former Ministers in the Assembly, as it is in Westminster – even if we won’t give them ermine!
Our parliament needs the Harriet Harmans, Ken Clarkes, John Redwoods of this world. Please don’t quote me out of context on that. I am merely saying that I want to see former Ministers, former Presiding Officers stay as elected members and give of their experience.

International Comparators

You will of course already be aware that as well as having fewer members than many of our local authorities in Wales, our national assembly is the smallest of all the devolved UK parliaments. Among the countries of the EU, the average size of lower chambers of parliaments is 267 members. According to a recent study, for those parliaments serving populations of between 1 and 6 million people, their average size is 142 members. So, we have an extremely small institution and the people of Wales, per head of population, have far fewer representatives in their national parliament than the EU average.

If we take other devolved regions and nations in the EU, even when we include the smaller regions, those with fewer powers and those who do not have executive functions, the average number of members if 76.

Next steps

So why should the people of Wales be under-represented at their National Parliament and why should that parliament be underpowered when executing its responsibilities?
The only real reasons are because we haven’t had the powers to do something until now, and others, as Rhodri Morgan admitted, have been too reluctant to have the debate. Well, I’m not one who is known to shy away from difficult issues, or from holding this debate or leading it, if that’s what the report recommends and if that’s what Assembly Members ask me to do. In doing so, I will instigate an innovative, thorough and meaningful conversation and consultation with the people of Wales; political parties must also be given the time and space to consider their positions. When the panel publishes its report, I hope we can work together across the political spectrum, in order to develop a political consensus and find the right way forward. The issue cannot continue to be ignored and kicked into the long grass until another Assembly Commission decides to try to tackle it once again. I don’t believe there will be another opportunity like this – where so many factors are aligned – to make this happen for the Brett, Wil, Geneva and Aisha generation.
Financial Implications.

As the Silk Commission concluded, ‘good scrutiny means good legislation, and good legislation pays for itself’. Nevertheless, I am sure the cost of more AMs will arise should the panel recommend an increase in members. I am also sure that the panel will want to comment on this in their report – although everyone, me included, will be absolutely determined to ensure that costs are kept to a minimum.

We’ll have to wait until next week to see the detail but it’s worth noting that in 2013, one report published jointly by the Electoral Reform Society and the UK’s Changing Union, put the estimated cost of 40 additional Members at around £9 million pounds.[1] Figures produced by the Treasury in the same year estimated the cost of our 4 Members who represent Wales at the European Parliament to be £7.16 million. So £7.16 million for 4 MEPs, £4.5 million, according to the Size Matters report, for 20 Assembly Members.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Westminster Boundary Change proposals are also still technically on the table. So yes, it is worth considering the cost of democracy as a whole in Wales when approaching this decision, as well as the fact that even marginal improvements in scrutiny could result in significant dividends to the taxpayer.

Brexit

When it comes to the implications of Brexit for our National Assembly, there are further, more important considerations of course than the savings made on the cost of MEPs. There is no doubt that the process of leaving the EU will bring about changes both to the role of the Assembly and its workload.

Indeed, it will result in fundamental changes to the constitutional arrangements of the UK and the place of the nations within it.

At the moment, the EU Withdrawal Bill, in its current form, seems as much about Whitehall taking back control from the Welsh people as it is about taking back control from Brussels. But it is very clear to me, that in voting for Brexit, the people of Wales did not vote to overturn the progress of devolution, by freezing and limiting our powers.
As such, the Assembly’s cross party External Affairs Committee has published detailed and constructive recommendations and amendments to address this situation. If UK Ministers do not take heed of these, as things stand the Bill may not receive the Assembly’s consent.

Of course, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU said earlier in this year that one of the results of Brexit would be a “significant increase in the amount of powers given to the devolved institutions”.

One way or another, we are fully expecting that the Assembly will take on a greater volume of work in shaping policy, scrutinising legislation and influencing this debate.
If we go back to where this leaves the next generation we referred to earlier – they of course didn’t ask for any of this. They voted for the UK to remain within the EU. So once again, we owe it to them to ensure that, despite not being able to deliver that particular outcome, we can use this opportunity to shape the future relations between the parliaments and governments of these isles. This is a time for mature, grown up and direct relations between parliamentary committees, between legislatures, between cabinet Secretaries and their equivalent Ministers elsewhere and between government departments. This is the time to forge greater equality and parity between the nations, and it’s a time which requires self-confidence but also, mutual respect.

Towards a Parliament that work for Wales

Despite the challenges ahead, it gives me great pleasure to know that a growing cohort of young people, some here this evening, see a future for themselves shaping and leading the development of Wales through politics or outside of politics, developing our institutional capacity and drive. Some may want to be political journalists, lobbyists, SpAds, support staff, academics or civil servants. In 2021, some may want to become elected members in the 6th term of the National Assembly or indeed the new Welsh Parliament.

It could be a very different institution – even more resilient, even stronger and most certainly, less fragile. It could be larger and more diverse and it could very well have been elected by 16 and 17-year-old citizens. It will definitely be complemented by a new Youth Parliament for Wales, whose Members will be elected for the first time next year.
I hope both parliaments will be at the very fore in pioneering a digital democracy, having revolutionised communication and engagement with their electorate in communities across Wales.

I hope our new Senedd will become a beacon of good practice in terms of its standards of scrutiny, and I expect its Members adopt the very highest standards of conduct.
I also hope our new Parliament, although outside the EU, will maintain its existing partnerships on the international stage and forge new, strategic relations throughout the world.

We have an opportunity towards creating a Parliament that really works for Wales. Let’s embrace that debate, with all the challenges it brings, and use the early part of 2018 to think about the legacy we want to leave for the next generation.

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