In Tuesday’s Western Mail, David Williamson reports on Labour criticism of one implication of the Conservatives’ plan to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons. As the number of Assembly Members is tied to the number of Welsh MPs, there would be a knock-on effect on the size of the National Assembly as well – Williamson suggests this would reduce it to about 45 AMs. This is because not only do Assembly constituencies mirror Westminster constituencies, but the number of regional list AMs is to be half the number of constituency AMs. Given the problems the Assembly already has with 60 members, reducing it to that number would have very serious consequences.
Labour anger about this isn’t new – what’s new is that Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan have jointly spoken out about it. (Of course, they had the chance to do something about this when the Government of Wales Act 2006 was being drafted and considered in Parliament.)
A similar issue arose in Scotland, when the number of Scottish MPs was reduced, in accordance with a commitment to end Scotland’s over-representation at Westminster given before devolution. The number of MPs was reduced by 13, from 72 to 59. That would have reduced the number of MSPs from 129 to 105. After a protracted ‘consultation’ period, it was agreed that the effect of this reduction in Holyrood’s size should not be brought into effect – even though the reduction was deliberately written into the Scotland Act 1998.
The solution in Scotland was to pass a new Act at Westminster, the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004, which had the effect of freezing the size of the Scottish Parliament at 129 MSPs. At the time there was considerable concern about the possibility that this bill might re-open debates about other aspects of Scottish devolution, and the drafting was described to me by one person involved as ‘adamantine’ as a result, so there was no scope for amendments about broader issues to be attached to it.
This suggests that there are two options if the Conservatives do go ahead with their plans to reduce the number of MPs. One is to let the knock-on effects hit the National Assembly. It would be hard to think of a clearer signal of Conservative scorn for the Assembly than that, as it would create very serious practical difficulties for running the Assembly as well as its symbolism, and it would be at odds with recent Conservative statements.
The other is to follow the Scottish precedent and decouple the number of AMs from the number of Welsh MPs. That would need Westminster legislation, but there will have to be a bill to give effect to the reduction in any event, so there will be no need to find a special slot for it – it simply needs some extra provisions in a bill going through anyway. (Messrs Hain and Morgan don’t acknowledge this in their comments, and seem to think that the changes for Westminster can be made without primary legislation. They can’t.)
But if that is happening, it creates an opportunity to make another necessary change. Given the strength of support there is in Wales for an 80-member Assembly (as was recommended by the Richard Commission, and even proposed in 1978), would this not be a practical way to make that change too? It is the one pressing change a proper legislative assembly needs, and which is not included in the Government of Wales Act 2006. Finding a separate slot for that would be very tricky, but here would be a convenient chance to do it with minimal practical inconvenience.