Are there enough Assembly Members?

21 October 2014

Article written by Steve Boyce, National Assembly for Wales Research Service and Sara Rees, National Assembly for Wales Translation and Reporting Service

Style: "DEP 26:04:09 16"

The debate on 13 October in the House of Lords on Assembly capacity has once again aired the question of whether there are enough Assembly Members to effectively scrutinise the Welsh Government. Cross Bench peer Lord Rowe-Beddoe moved an amendment to the Wales Bill to the effect that there should be at least 80 Assembly Members. The case for an enlarged Assembly, it was argued, has been further strengthened by the new powers the Bill will provide, although it was acknowledged that there is little public appetite for additional politicians at present. The amendment was withdrawn after the debate.

A recent paper published by the UK’s Changing Union project, also makes the case for an expanded Assembly. The paper notes the pressure on Members with heavy committee workloads, the pressure on civil society and the public sector in Wales to support the Assembly’s legislative and scrutiny work, and the impact of capacity issues on wider public engagement.

It has often been argued that with full law-making powers and further fiscal and legislative devolution on the horizon, greater scrutiny, particularly financial scrutiny, will be required from the National Assembly in order for it to effectively hold the Welsh Government to account. The issue has been under debate almost since the start of devolution with, among others, the Richard Commission in 2004 recommending an increase in scrutiny capability and the number of Members, and the 2009 report of the Independent Review Panel identifying the need to enhance strategic capacity. It has come to the fore once again in response to the recommendations made by the Silk commission in parts 1 and 2 of its work and in the Westminster debates on the Wales Bill. These have put under the spotlight the way in which the Assembly will operate following any further devolution of powers.

The paper’s authors view the size of the Assembly as fundamental to its scrutiny capacity and compare the number of Members with those in the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly (129 and 108 respectively), but they concede that there is no consensus on this issue and therefore widen the debate to make other recommendations regarding external resources that could be used to enhance scrutiny.

However, there is by no means any consensus on the need for change or the form that any such changes should take. There are some who believe that there is no need to amend the structure of the Assembly or the number of Members elected to it, and that it has sufficient capacity to undertake the changes proposed in the Wales Bill. This has been particularly evident in some of the parliamentary debates on the Wales Bill in Westminster, where both opposition MPs and those belonging to the Government parties have expressed concern regarding any proposed extension to powers and size.

Conversely, evidence to the Silk Commission, particularly from civil society organisations in Wales, made the case for an enlarged Assembly. Support for an expanded Assembly has also been expressed in Assembly plenary debates, often accompanied by a call for reassessment of the number of politicians in Wales at all levels of government.

Now that the Scottish referendum has placed devolution centre stage it is clear that these issues will continue to be debated, even if the political climate makes any significant changes to the capacity of the Assembly unlikely in the near future.