The new National Assembly – making the institution match its role

I spoke earlier today at a conference about ‘The new National Assembly’ in Cardiff.  This is a summarised version of my talk, which also appears on Wales Home here.  The slides from my talk can be seen here

The referendum in March 2011 marked a huge change in Welsh devolution.  It was an emphatic endorsement of the principle that the people of Wales wanted an extensive form of devolution, with the National Assembly taking responsibility for a wide range of functions as set out in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006.

One way to think about this change and what it means is to use a framework I developed to think about extending devolution in Scotland, which I used in an article published in Scottish Affairs of summer 2009.  I distinguished there between four models of devolution:

  • Model 1: ‘Local administration of distributive functions’ such as health, education, housing, or planning, but with the overall policy set elsewhere.  That would imply funding simply by way of grant.
  • Model 2: ‘Self government of matters of local concern’, with the regional-level institutions  determining not just how those ‘distributive’ services are provided but what sorts of services there should be, and doing a limited amount of ‘place-shaping’ through powers over economic development, land use planning.  That would imply grant funding, perhaps with limited tax powers.
  • Model 3: ‘Domestic autonomy’, so the regional level institutions would be involved in deciding what government in a particular area looks like: what services there should be, how they are organised and funded, and how law is enforced.  That would imply the regional level having pretty extensive tax-raising powers and raising most of the costs of the services it provides, as well having a major role in economic development, control over most aspects of policing, criminal justice and the legal system, and some say in social welfare.
  • Model 4: ‘Full autonomy’, with the regional level having pretty much complete autonomy over matters other than foreign relations, defence, macro-economy (currency and similar issues).  It would make all decisions about such matters as welfare benefits, tax rates and charges, whether there should be a health service, what that would do and how it would be organised.  That, in effect, is what the ‘devolution max’ option under discussion for Scotland would involve.

None of these models are rigid, and they’re ideal types rather than hard and fast descriptions of any actual form of devolution.  Welsh devolution was probably intended to look pretty much like model 1 back in 1997 – a clearly subordinate body, providing a local face to the exercise of government functions and tailoring UK-wide policies to a Welsh context, whether that be population structure and distribution, or the Welsh language.  But even in 1999 this was not a very accurate description of Welsh devolution – the Assembly inherited, from the outset, functions for economic development, planning and culture that meant its role was already wider.

Very quickly, Welsh devolution moved beyond model 1 in aspiration in any case.  There was clearly a desire for significant differentiation from the policies Labour was following in England, whether in health, education or use of the private finance initiative.  This could all be summarised as ‘clear red water’ or the desire for ‘progressive universalism’.  It resulted in an increasing accretion of powers by the National Assembly, in oddly haphazard ways and in the framework of the ‘single body corporate’ that had been made to work by an internal Chinese wall but which was creaking badly.  Within a short time, Welsh devolution had clearly moved to ‘model 2’ in my formulation, and there were aspects of it that looked to model 3 too.  In this, it largely resembled devolution in Scotland, and still does – and still will even if the Scotland bill currently in the House of Lords is passed in its present form.

There were numerous problems with this sort of Welsh devolution.  A major one was the increasing mismatch between the sort of autonomy Wales had, or aspired to have, and the institutional framework in which it operated.  The single body corporate, drawing on the local government model, may have been appropriate (just) for model 1 devolution; it wasn’t for anything beyond that.  The internal divide between the Assembly and the ‘Assembly Government’ was a rather inadequate way of redressing that, though the formal division put in place by the 2006 Act does fix that problem.  By conferring extensive (if far from untrammelled) legislative powers on the National Assembly and creating an expectation that Wales will differentiate itself more from UK Government policies in England for devolved matters, the internal institutional problems are thrown much more clearly into relief.

What are those institutional problems?  The key one is the lack of vigorous scrutiny of the Welsh Government, its policies and its actions by the National Assembly.  In any comparison with how Westminster does this, the Assembly comes out worse, even though Westminster hasn’t been the strongest of parliaments for some time.  In this area, the Assembly needs to raise its game, so that devolved Welsh democracy can work properly.

That means Assembly back-benchers need to have the skills and willingness to challenge the government and disagree with it.  Up to now, there’s been a general reluctance to do that, caused perhaps by a belief in the importance of supporting one’s own party or in supporting a wider ‘project’.  Either of those beliefs is misplaced.  Parties aren’t supported by avoiding discussing problems and failings in public, but rather by showing a willingness to sort problems out when they do arise.  Welsh democracy needs robust debate at the highest level as part of making it work.  What happens in the pub or rugby club most nights is just as valid in the Senedd.

While attitude and temperament may be part of the problem, sheer numbers are another.  With just 60 members, the National Assembly has one member for every 50,000 residents of Wales.  That’s many more than in most comparable regional parliaments across Europe.  The Scottish Parliament, with 129 members, has one member per 40,000 Scottish residents; the Land of Schleswig-Holstein in German (population 2.8 million, and like Wales in having lot of coastline) has one member for every 29,000 people.  One member for every 30-40,000 residents is a common ratio for sub-state legislatures across most of Europe.  An assembly with one member for every 30,000 people would have 100 members, of course – one for every 40,000 would mean 75 members.

The problems with 60 members are well-known and serious – with currently 12 members in government and one as presiding officer, there are just 47 members available for back-bench duties on committees.  With limits on what the three party leaders and the deputy presiding officer can do, that means there are just 43.  Even for a comparatively inactive legislature, that’s a small number. (Government ministers in most European countries don’t normally sit as members of the legislature if they’re elected to their parliament, but are replaced by alternates while they hold ministerial office.)

One consequence of the Assembly’s limited size is the split between the Assembly’s ‘subject’ and ‘legislation’ committee.  That internal division made it much harder for committees to build up expertise in particular subjects, or indeed have the sort of dedicated expert support to help them.  Time constraints may have meant that a different approach was difficult, but this arrangement was a barrier to the sort of scrutiny needed.  The Scottish approach – to have single committees responsible for both legislation and more general scrutiny and policy development work – has much to commend it, though Holyrood committees are also often criticised for not providing the sort of robust challenges to government that opposition politicians, at least, would like.  It’s good that the National Assembly has now gone down this route too.

This is just to look at internal aspects of how Welsh devolution works now.  There are also very significant issues arising from the wider world – the implications of the Scotland bill, a Scottish independence referendum or possible ‘devolution max’ for Scotland, for example, or the UK Coalition’s ideas for reshaping the state – that will have profound effects on Wales.  The UK as it was known in the first phase of Welsh devolution is gone, and no matter what happens now Wales has to engage with complex constitutional, political and financial questions about how it relates to its neighbours in other parts of Britain.  A vigorous, effective and stronger National Assembly will be needed for that.

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2 Comments

Filed under Comparisons from abroad, Events, Referendums, Wales

2 responses to “The new National Assembly – making the institution match its role

  1. Pingback: The Welsh Government’s strategy for devolution finance « Devolution Matters

  2. Pingback: Wales’s oddest political row « Devolution Matters

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