Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) GOWA 2006 is amended as follows.
(1A) For section 3(1) substitute—
“(1) Subject to subsection (1A) below, the National Assembly for Wales shall determine the date of the poll by a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(1A) The poll at an ordinary general election to the National Assembly for Wales is to be held no later than the first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year following that in which the previous general election was held.”
(1B) In section 3(2) omit “if the poll is to be held on the first Thursday in May,”.
(1C) In section 3(2)(a), for “that day” substitute “polling day”.
(1D) Omit sections 4 and 5.
(1E) In section 13, after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) The order may not include provision about the date of an election to the Assembly.””
My Lords, I offer sincere apologies to the noble Baroness and the Committee for the delay in the Minister returning to the Chamber to continue the Committee stage of the Bill. I had been reliably informed that she was just outside the Chamber and I know that she certainly is not far away. I would be happy to remain in place for the noble Baroness’s speech and to ensure that the Minister is properly apprised of the points that the noble Baroness makes as soon as my noble friend returns.
While I am here, I remind noble Lords of what I said following the Statement that we just heard on Scotland: clearly there is much that noble Lords would like to debate about devolution following the referendum. I am pleased that we will have a debate in government time later this month. I very much look forward to that. Once again, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and to noble Lords for their patience.
Thank you. We have just heard about the vigorous referendum campaign in Scotland, where people on all sides talked about the need to respect the established devolved institutions. It should be remembered that the current settlement means that Westminster theoretically still has the power to dissolve the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament without any consultation with the Welsh public or the Scottish Parliament, although in practice the Sewel convention means that, generally speaking, Westminster does not intervene in devolved matters.
However, in this clause, we are faced with a situation where an autonomous Assembly is being told what to do by Big Brother in London. Westminster has changed the date of its general election and therefore, of course, so should Wales. If we have learnt anything in the past few weeks, it is surely that you cannot let the teenager find her feet and explore the paths she wants to take, only to put a curfew on her, insisting that she comes home at a particular time when you feel that she needs to be told what to do or when her decisions do not suit you.
If Westminster wants to change the date of its own election, so be it. What seems wrong in principle is that this should lead Westminster to impose a decision upon Wales about when she should hold a vote, without any consultation with her at all. The Presiding Officer of the Assembly said that the power of the decision about when to hold a vote is,
“more appropriately held by the Presiding Officer, as is the case for the Scottish Parliament”.
In the Bill, we have suggested that it should be a matter for the Assembly, but we are open to debate on that. The principle that we are after is at what level the decision should be made—who should be making the decision. If the Welsh Assembly wants to hold its election in the same year as a general election, that is surely a matter for the Assembly itself. It is too early to say to what extent we in the UK will go down the federal route. However, one thing is certain. If you are serious about devolution, you cannot hand over the powers but attach a spring so that they can be hauled back to Westminster every time a devolved structure makes a decision of which you disapprove or every time you make a decision that may impact on that institution.
The Welsh Government outlined in their response to the Green Paper produced two years ago that,
“no change to the Assembly’s current electoral arrangements should be made without the Assembly’s consent”.
This is a fundamental constitutional principle at issue. It is a necessary consequence of a constitution based on the principle of devolution. Clearly, the reason for the introduction of the original clause is to take account of the fact that the five-year Fixed-term Parliaments Act has been introduced for the House of Commons. The principle of broader legislative competence for Assembly elections should be considered by political parties when they draw up their manifestos. This is an issue that was dealt with in Silk 2. However, surely it cannot be right to bind the hands of the Assembly at such a sensitive time in our constitutional discussions.
My Lords, I can readily identify with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely. I agree that these matters should ideally be in the hands of the National Assembly to decide. None the less, we have guidelines that have been laid down from here. By virtue of speaking to Amendment 5, I want to draw attention to the fact that there are real dangers when a Westminster election overshadows an election to the National Assembly.
Amendment 5 provides that the poll for a National Assembly ordinary general election should not be held within 355 days of the date of a UK general election, although I accept entirely that it should be a matter for the Assembly finally to decide on these matters if we can give it the power to do so. The amendment mentions 355 days rather than 12 months to allow situations to arise whereby one vote could be held on 7 May one year, followed by a poll on 1 May the following year, or similar circumstances.
The truth, which may not be immediately apparent to colleagues from other parts of the United Kingdom, is that the UK media are heavily biased in favour of England-only issues. That is understandable because most of the media are based in south-east England and look through a prism from that perspective. In the leaders’ debates in the run-up to the previous general election, for example, party leaders answered questions relating to healthcare and education, without mentioning that those policies were applicable only in England and not in Wales or Scotland. These considerations spill over to arguments in relation to the settlement that will be made to Scotland as well.
Circumstances such as these are highly confusing for viewers, listeners or readers in Wales and can lead to voters making choices based on policies that would not in fact affect them. Wales has a number of daily newspapers such as the Western Mail and Daily Post, as well as very good local newspapers, but the majority of people still get their news and election coverage from London-based outlets. Were an election to the Welsh Assembly to occur in quick succession following a UK general election, or in inverse circumstances, it is certain that any debates surrounding Welsh policies would be totally drowned by UK election coverage. The Electoral Reform Society Wales has said that combining polls would always have a detrimental impact by causing confusion for voters, and that Welsh elections would be “subsumed” into media coverage of the UK general election.
To ensure that voters’ decisions are well informed, we believe that provisions similar to those contained in Amendment 5 would be necessary to mitigate such media distortion, although I repeat that I would prefer that initiatives along those lines should come from the Assembly itself.
My Lords, I agree with the thrust of the amendment but I am bound to say that I am not sure that I fully understand the wording of the first part of it. If one actually looks at the text, it would seem that the amendment proposes that the Welsh Assembly should revert to a system in which the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, with the consent of the Assembly, would be able to determine to hold an election at any moment that he thinks fit. In other words, we would be back to the situation that we were in before we passed the Act a few years ago that set up the five-year Parliament gap.
If the intention of the amendment is that the Assembly should be able to fix in advance a particular term at the end of which an election should be held—in other words, that the Assembly should decide whether it should be a five-year, four-year or even perhaps a three-year term—that I understand and fully appreciate. If the intention is, however, to give the Welsh Assembly the additional powers that the Prime Minister had in the old House of Commons, to call an election at the time of his own choosing, I am bound to say that I am not sure I agree. I accept the thrust of the amendment, which is that decisions on the timing of an election should be a matter for the Assembly, but I am not sure whether the wording of proposed new subsection (1) in the proposed amendment goes anywhere near achieving that.
My Lords, I understand and appreciate the power of the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, has just proposed to make sure that elections are not simultaneous. However, there is a case against that. The most worrying aspect in the whole of my parliamentary lifetime is the decline in turnout. In a democracy, turnout is extremely important. In the last Assembly election, the turnout was just over 40%. In the last general election to Westminster, it was 65%. The high point was in 1950 when we had a UK turnout of more than 83%. It never fell below 70% at the United Kingdom level until 2001, when it fell to 59%. But even now, at 65%, it is some 20 percentage points higher than the turnout for the latest Assembly election. I wonder whether we ought to be concerned about that. Although I understand and appreciate completely the argument that UK issues drown out Welsh issues, there is a point to make about turnout. It is extremely important in a democracy that turnout is upheld.
The turnout when I served Merthyr for 30-odd years was 70% to 75%. It fell to 70% in the last election in which I stood and I was mortified. But at the last election it fell to 59%, and that is in a highly political kind of community that appreciates and understands the nature of politics and elections. A case could be made, contrary to the one made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, that if you run the elections together you intensify the politics. Parties are more engaged in the streets and you raise the turnout from 40% to 65%.
I am dredging my memory but the last time elections were run concurrently was in, I think, 1979, when local elections and the general election were held on the same date. That raised the turnout in local elections to a dramatically higher level than ever before. Although I understand that there is consensus at the Assembly level on separating the elections, I wanted to register the point about turnout.
I am not altogether certain that that would happen. There is some indication that if the polls were on the same day, people would vote for the local Assembly Member from one party and for another at United Kingdom level. But if you talk about a mandate, it is always better to have two-thirds of the electorate giving you the mandate than 40%. I am not disputing that it is obviously the wish of everyone in Cardiff to separate the elections, but we should take account of the fact that turnout is important. There is no doubt that there is a big difference at the moment between turnout in National Assembly elections and turnout in UK elections.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their participation in this section of the debate. Amendment 4, proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan and Lady Gale, would give the Assembly the power to decide, by resolution, when Assembly elections are held. It would give the Assembly a wide degree of discretion to determine the date of Assembly elections, which is something that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, raised concerns about. We might all be rather worried about that issue because it has such a wide scope. By a simple majority, the Assembly would be able to vote for a change to the length of its terms. Such a power would go beyond that given to other devolved legislatures, which do not have the freedom to vary the length of their terms.
The Government believe that the devolution of further powers to the Assembly, such as this, cannot be undertaken in a piecemeal fashion. Once again, this is an issue that is better discussed and considered in a wider context of other changes to the Welsh devolution settlement arising from the Silk recommendations. It is a fundamental change, as has been said today, to devolve to the Assembly competence over its elections, and it would undoubtedly have knock-on effects on UK government elections. The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, made the very good point that you would get a higher turnout by holding those two elections in coincidence. I do not think, however, that that would be desirable because it is undoubtedly true that the media in Wales are not strong enough to lead a debate on Welsh issues that is not overshadowed, at the time of the general election, by UK issues.
Amendment 5 seeks to preclude an ordinary general election to the National Assembly being held within 355 days of the UK general election. As I have said, I fully agree with the sentiment behind this, that these should be distinct and separate events. I share the concerns of the noble Lord and the Assembly that holding those elections on the same day would not give electors a clear view of Welsh issues. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 changed the length of term of the current Assembly to five years on a one-off basis. Without further provision, the Assembly will return to four-year terms thereafter.
Clause 1, however, already provides for five-year terms in perpetuity for the Assembly’s general elections from 2016 onwards. It already does this without the need for further amendment, making it very unlikely that the Assembly general elections and parliamentary general elections will coincide in future. I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome this, and I thank him for his explanation for including his amendment. I believe, however, that the provisions already included in the Bill will go as far as is necessary to ensure that Assembly elections and parliamentary elections do not coincide.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, I point out that the Assembly agreed to the change of date of the elections. This is not something that has simply been visited upon it: it has agreed to it. I welcome once again the conversion of the Labour Party to the idea that the Assembly should have the freedom to do such things as deciding its own elections. It is important in that context that we note that views on devolution are changing fast in some quarters, and it is important that there is public debate as to what additional powers are devolved to the Assembly.
On that basis, I respectfully request that the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment and that the noble Lord does not press his.
I thank those who have participated in this debate. I stand by the principle that it should be up to the Assembly to determine when its election should be. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about discussion of the Welsh election being drowned out, are valid, but the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, about turnout probably increasing significantly if the elections were held on the same day are also worthy of consideration. Ultimately, however, it should be up to the Assembly to decide. I understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, made on tightening up the wording of the amendment. It is a lot better than the one they had in the Commons, in which there was no mention at all of when the Assembly should have elections; it could have gone on for ever without any. We have improved on that.
The Minister also talked about this being a fundamental change. I think there are fundamental changes going on at the moment, and so we need to make sure that we keep perspective and an open mind on some of these issues. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment and to suggest that it could be returned to on Report.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendment 5 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
6: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Size of Assembly
The Secretary of State must introduce a bill to provide that the Assembly shall constitute at least 80 Assembly Members with effect from the 2016 elections.”
My Lords, Amendment 6 is in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Elystan-Morgan. It is rather coincidental that we are debating the Bill on the first day back from the recess, and that it has been sandwiched between a referendum on Scotland and the Scottish Statement.
Many noble Lords will recall that, about two years ago, when the House was debating the referendum and further devolution for Scotland, many noble Lords remarked that, whatever the outcome, the United Kingdom would never be the same. I think that already we have seen that start, and it is not just a start—it is a wave of movement.
This is a simple amendment. Whether it is deferred or whether it is delegated, if it has more power then it is proposed that it must have more people. It may not go down very well with parts of the constituencies in Wales but, for the sake of good governance on behalf of the electorate, to hold accountable those elected into the Assembly, we must have further numbers. I have seen and been told that there are insufficient Assembly Members properly to staff the committees that already exist. We have former Assembly Members here; no doubt they will either agree with me or challenge me on that.
The proposal in this amendment is very simple. The current composition is 60, which is considered insufficient to do the business that needs to be done when the Bill, in this form or its increased form, goes to Cardiff. With increased powers comes increased responsibility, and increased responsibility means a decreased accountability. As we can all see from the paper, there are four or five following amendments which sound very complicated as to how these extra Members should be elected. That is a separate issue. The principle here is that there are not sufficient Members to handle further responsibility. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. If one goes back 10 years to the report of the commission that I had the honour of chairing, we then identified this as one of the problems the Assembly had then and would face increasingly in the future. I will spend just two minutes on analysing where the Assembly is in this regard. We have 60 Members in the National Assembly in Wales; the Scottish Parliament has 129 and the Northern Ireland Assembly has 108.
At first sight, those numbers are a bit odd. I do not see why they should be quite as different as they are. If one then goes on to look at what the present 60 in the National Assembly of Wales do, only 42 of them are actually available to hold the Welsh Government to account and scrutinise legislation. Indeed, at one stage it was even worse than that. At the time of the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition, there were 41 Members either from Labour or Plaid Cymru, leaving only 19 from a non-governing party to scrutinise the whole body of Assembly legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who is sitting on the Front Bench opposite me will no doubt remember those days pretty well since he was one of the 19.
Can that many Members do that work? The short answer is no. They could not do it 10 years ago and they certainly cannot do it now. I recently came across a quote from Rosemary Butler, the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly. She put it like this:
“There are only 42 Members to scrutinise £15 billion of taxpayers’ money, and to scrutinise the government on the big issues of the day—the future of our health service, our education system and the economy. On top of that they have to make sound, thoroughly scrutinized laws for our nation. A quarter of those 42 members sit on three committees, half sit on two”.
She concludes with the comment:
“One would simply not find the same level of workload on Members in Westminster, Holyrood or Stormont”.
That is clearly true.
Over the years, we have given the Assembly greater powers. We have not increased the number of people available to deal with those powers and scrutinise the way they are used. In this Bill, we propose to give them more powers. We will no doubt, in the not too distant future, have proposals to give the Assembly further powers again. To keep the limit at 60 is frankly ludicrous. It hobbles the way in which the Assembly works and means that laws are not sufficiently scrutinised. It means, too, that the way money is spent is not sufficiently looked at. Quite honestly, it breeds inefficiency. The argument for increasing it from 60 to 80 is, frankly, irrefutable.
The only argument now is whether it should be 80 or go up to 100. I have an open mind on that. As a first step, going up to 80 would satisfy me for the moment. If you are to give the Assembly more powers, and if it is to become a Parliament in the sense that the Scottish Parliament is one, 80 may not be enough. Assuredly, if you are to do that, 60 will not be. I support this amendment.
My Lords, it is always a delight to follow a debate proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Richard—to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for having defined an ideal model in 2004 of what the National Assembly could have been.
My Amendment 9 has a whiff of relative autonomy about it, which will not surprise noble Lords. Although I deny being a separatist and I am not an upper-case Nationalist, I am certainly an avid, totally committed, complete devolutionist. My amendment—which my noble friend supports—proposes that the Assembly should decide its own size. No doubt many constitutional objections will be put forward to this notion. However, the amendment proposes that the decision should be subject to the very important principle of a majority of not less than two-thirds of voting Assembly Members on a vote of the whole Assembly. That is a feature we have already in our constitution—and use regularly. It applies to dissolution Motions and other Motions within our procedures.
My amendment has the support—and I had the assistance in drafting it—of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru. I will not detain the Committee by quoting from Size Matters—I know the Government have read it. However, it provides a comparative analysis of the size of national Assemblies—that is Parliaments; we will come to this at a later stage this evening, perhaps with the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. The key issue is the ratio of Members to the size of the electorate in a given constituency, and the relationship between the two. It also looks at the legislative Assemblies of other comparable European regions or nations— whatever you wish to call them. Again, it looks at their size in relation to function. What is relevant in this analysis is the functional level. In other words, with the amount of devolutionary power that the National Assembly for Wales already has, we are reaching the norm of the European Union—and the Canadian provinces, another comparator. However, we are nowhere near the norm in terms of the number of Members.
Therefore, this amendment would give the National Assembly the ability to decide its own membership subject to the agreement of a two-thirds majority of Members. This is a proper devolutionary measure for the nature of the constitution itself. I know that that is a difficult concept for the Committee to understand. I am sorry to say that the United Kingdom is still an extremely centralist state. It is not a unitary state and never has been. It is a state of unions and those unions are different, for historical reasons. But the nation of Wales, despite the great time we had during the Tudor ascendancy, is not well placed in the pecking order of UK devolution. This amendment seeks to redress that. I know the Government will not be able to accept the amendment because it is too autonomous—but it is a constitutional principle that it is important to present in this discussion.
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to return to a theme I referred to briefly at Second Reading: the issue of the size of the Assembly. I am also pleased that our debate today may inform opinion in Wales on the number of AMs needed to run our Assembly effectively. My amendment recognises that the Assembly has too few Members to carry out its present functions. It also recognises that there is a simple way to increase its size to 80 Members for the next Assembly elections to be held in 2016, and further recognises that an Assembly of 100 Members at the 2021 elections is possible but dependent on a reduction in the number of MPs that Wales sends to Westminster.
In its publication, Size Matters, the Electoral Reform Society, drawing on the work of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, the Institute of Welsh Affairs and Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales, argues that the size of the Assembly is a matter that is,
“too important to be left to politicians”.
However, politicians, whether here or in Cardiff Bay, will ultimately have to make a decision: a decision that will give the National Assembly the tools that it needs to make it the accountable and efficient institution we desire it to be, or leave it overburdened and struggling to cope with its powers.
We are urged, in all our deliberations, to come to evidence-based decisions, and Size Matters provides us with the unbiased evidence we need to guide those deliberations. Of course, it is and would be difficult for Assembly Members themselves to make the case for an increase in their numbers. Fear of criticism from the media and the electorate results in their remaining silent in public. However, privately many will confess that there are too few of them to hold the Welsh Government to account or to scrutinise the volume of legislation for which they are responsible.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, has already referred to the fact that with only 60 Members—and only 70% of them, 42 Members, available for scrutiny work at present—their ability to undertake this work is seriously compromised. In the UK Parliament, 85% of Members are available to undertake scrutiny and legislative functions; in the Scottish Parliament, 88%; and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, 85%. There are too few Assembly Members to populate the committees where scrutiny takes place, and because of time constraints arising from other duties they are less able to develop the specialist expertise needed to optimise their effectiveness. Because of this, and the increase in the number of plenary sessions, the Assembly’s own remuneration board has increased the staffing allowance for AMs to allow them three staff members to support their research, policy and constituency work, and is even now giving further consideration to increases that will allow each Assembly Member to appoint a senior adviser.
However, appointing more support or research staff misses the main point. It does not address the issue of AMs being unable to find the time to read papers, however well prepared by their staff, and to prepare for committees. That has led to a strengthening of the Executive, with well briefed Ministers apparently able to run rings around AMs who do not have time to read their briefings.
In these times of austerity, proposing an increase in Members to the National Assembly for Wales is hardly likely to be popular. Arguments we make about workload, efficiency, effective scrutiny, accountability and holding the Executive to account will all seem insignificant to an electorate more concerned about costs. However, the truth is that we get our Assembly on the cheap compared to other legislatures. The average annual cost of an Assembly Member, including pay, travel and other expenses, support staff and equipment is £225,000. The annual cost of an MP is £590,000 and that of an MEP is £1.8 million. Based on those figures an 80-Member Assembly would cost an extra £4.5 million per annum and a 100-Member Assembly an extra £9 million. The Electoral Reform Society’s publication argues that this,
“would be a small price to pay”,
given the benefits that would flow from increased accountability and better scrutiny.
That cost could, however, be offset by the better use of existing resources if Wales had fewer MPs and Peers at Westminster, fewer paid councillors and more AMs instead. The case has long been made for a reduction in Welsh MPs. Each Welsh MP has an average electorate of 76,000 while the figure for the UK is one Member per 97,000. While Scotland cut its number of MPs from 72 to 59 in 1999, Wales did not.
In a footnote, which I found extremely interesting, Size Matters reminds us that:
“It is important to note that the legislation to cut the number of Welsh MPs by a quarter, from 40 to 30, has only been deferred—to 2017—and so remains on the statute book. ... Unless the new UK Government after the 2015 general election brings in new legislation, the reduction in the total of MPs for the UK to 600, including the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, will take effect from 2018 … in time for the UK general election in 2020 and the Assembly elections in 2021”.
There can be no reason for Parliament to continue denying the National Assembly the capacity to deliver on the functions it already has and to prepare it for the further powers proposed for it. The first part of my amendment calls for the next Assembly elections in 2016 to be for an 80-Member Chamber. There can be no doubt that I would not support the option that some have suggested of an 80-Member Assembly, where two Members would be elected from each constituency. A return to a first past the post system would be a retrograde step, denying Wales the opportunity to elect an Assembly where the number of votes cast for each party is, more or less, reflected in the number of Members elected.
To deny fair votes to the people of Wales while allowing a proportional system to continue in both Scotland and Northern Ireland is illogical and perverse and would result in a Labour Government in Wales in perpetuity. To ensure the continuation of proportional results, Wales needs an Assembly election in 2016 in which 40 Members are elected in constituencies and a further 40 are elected on regional lists. Further, as the legislation to cut the number of Welsh MPs is enacted and takes effect from 2018, Wales needs a 100-Member Assembly elected by STV, so ensuring an even fairer proportional result in the Assembly elections of 2021.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 6 only, which I believe to be a model of draftsmanship, put together in such a way as to bring about as wide and substantial a coalition in favour of a principle as one can imagine.
I believe with retrospect that there are two essential questions facing the House. First, do noble Lords in their heart of hearts believe for a moment that the Welsh Assembly can conduct its important duties, including scrutiny of legislation in particular, on a basis of 60 Members? Secondly, if noble Lords do not—and I suspect that practically every Member of the House can see the force of that point—what are we prepared to do about it? Those are two very simple but, I believe, crushingly relevant questions.
The facts have already been set out very clearly. Scotland has 129 Members; Northern Ireland has 108; Wales has 60. Of course, even more important than that is the fact that only 42 Members in Wales are available to scrutinise legislation. In the case of Scotland there are 113; in the case of Northern Ireland, I am not entirely sure whether it is 90 or 92—I think it may be 92. In the case of the House of Commons, it is 522. However, the issue is not really how many Members you have in relation to the population. There may well be a proper argument in that respect that is deployed later; that is not the issue at the moment. The issue is the minimum critical mass. If you fall below that and fail to constitute a critical mass, you are not a legislature; you are a mock parliament and no legislature at all.
That has to be remembered against this background. It is a single cameral House. I am not for a moment arguing that we should have a second House, which might be very interesting to dissertate on some day. Be that as it may, we have plenty to worry about at the moment in this regard. It is a single cameral House. The scrutiny of legislation in Wales occurs in the Assembly or does not occur at all. That is the point.
This House does its work magnificently as a scrutinising body. Sometimes, we are given more to scrutinise than we should be. I feel that the House of Commons sends huge pieces of undigested legislation through which almost makes a mockery of the constitutional situation, but that is another story altogether.
Again, one has to remember the point already made by one or two Members. When we think of a critical mass, we should think not just of a number but of whether that critical mass is there, in the main, in the Opposition. If it is not—even if you increase the membership to, say, 80 or 100—if you have a strong coalition between party A and party B that is responsible for, let us say, 70% of the membership, you still fail to have a critical mass where it counts.
We are not talking about mathematical representation; nor, with the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys—with whose address I wholeheartedly agree in the main—do I honestly believe that it is a matter of trade-off with local government or the House of Commons. If I remember rightly, the noble Baroness was not a Member of the House when this matter was discussed three or four years ago, when the proposal was carried to reduce the number of Welsh Members of Parliament from 40 to 30. I do not want to spoil the splendid feeling of unanimity that we have had up to now, at any rate on this issue, but the Liberal Democrats could have done better than they did on that occasion. We had a vote to give the Isle of Wight two seats. Not one member of the Liberal Democrats spoke on the issue of Wales. The real condemnation came not from the Opposition but from the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, the grandson of David Lloyd George, who said, “My grandfather would not be turning over in his grave; he would have been in the Dwyfor by now”. That says everything.
The only other thing I have to say about that, which is on the face of it an attractive argument but possibly a dangerous course to take, is that in 1993 a proposal was before the House of Commons to reduce the number of seats in Wales—indeed, I think, over the whole country. The Home Secretary at the time was Mr Kenneth Clarke. He said, “No, as far as Wales is concerned, I am not having it. Wales is a land and nation with characteristics of its own and circumstances which are so special and so unique that I will make it an exception”. I do not believe that Wales is any less of an exception than it was in 1993.
The question then is: what should the number be? The Electoral Reform Society, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, has properly referred, has examined 42 countries which are comparable with Wales in various ways. It has come to the conclusion, taking all things into account, that the average number for such sub-parliaments as those countries have—perhaps I do them less than justice in calling them sub-parliaments, but that is the term used by the Electoral Reform Society—is about 100. It also concludes in relation to Wales that the ideal figure would be of the order of 100.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, who has placed Wales eternally in his debt by his report of 2004, mentioned the fact that the committee animadverted on the question of whether the number should be 80 and said that it should, although it was not asked specifically to deal with the matter, nor did it deal with it scientifically or specifically. Nevertheless, it was a measured judgment. Now then: if it was 80 in 2004, bearing in mind the huge changes that have occurred since then, what would it be worth today? I hope that I do not take unfair advantage of the noble Lord, Lord Richard—I certainly would not wish to nor could I do that; he is well able to make his points for himself. If 80 was the genuine estimate that was appropriate in 2004, surely by today one should be speaking of 100.
I would speak myself of 120. Why? If you regard the curve of the development as a constitutional entity of the Welsh Assembly in the 15 or 16 years of its existence, one does not have to exercise a great deal of imagination to see where it might be in a few years’ time. The idea of aiming for 120 is not chimerical, irresponsible or populist—certainly not populist—in any way. It projects what one hopes and expects for in relation to Wales. I would be very surprised if the powers that have been given to Wales do not over the next few years amply justify that.
If we were holding this debate a month or two ago, I would still be making that point, but where do the promises and undertakings that have been showered on the people of Scotland, and the people of Wales and Northern Ireland, about devolution—those promises were falling like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa, as the quotation goes—bring us? If a quarter of what was promised solemnly will in fact be done, 120 could well be justified as the membership. However, it is not a question of numbers. It is more a question of prejudice: the vast storm of prejudice that anybody who argues for an increased number will have to face. That has to be done with courage and integrity. Edmund Burke famously said that for evil to triumph, it is necessary only for men of good will to do nothing. If you wish the Welsh Assembly to fail in its main purpose of being a legislature, all you have to do about the membership is nothing.
I am deeply grateful to my friend for giving way. Perhaps I may make a point that I forgot to make. The real case for 120 is that it is very simple. It is exactly double the number now, and you can double both constituencies—the individual constituencies and the regional ones.
That sounds a bit like double the number you first thought of. It is always good to follow the noble Lord. Certainly he cannot be accused of populism—perhaps courage, perhaps recklessness, but not populism.
I was tempted to go down his path of a second Chamber for Wales. There may, ultimately, further down the path, be a case for a second-opinion Chamber composed of some of the notables from the local authorities and elsewhere in Wales, but that is not a debate for today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, quoted, I think, the Electoral Reform Society, saying that these matters were too important to be left to politicians. That is a little patronising. The Electoral Reform Society consists no doubt of very worthy people who can help us by doing their analysis, but ultimately these decisions will be made by politicians, who have the experience and do not live in ivory towers. However, I agree with her that the whole matter—the matter of numbers—should be seen in the round and that one should look at the numbers in the Assembly and whether those numbers are capable of doing the job. One cannot exclude the number of those in local authorities. On that subject, I hope to move an amendment in respect of the recommendations of the Williams commission on amalgamations of local authorities in Wales, because I detect among the people of Wales a distaste for the number of people currently in the various authorities. Looking at it in the round, including local authorities and the Assembly, and not excluding the House of Commons, I am not convinced of her case for this House, because on the whole we have far fewer Members of this House than Wales warrants. That is, however, another matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, spoke simply and put forward a simple proposition. There is a consensus around his suggested figure of 80. The starting point is that, after a somewhat bumpy start, the National Assembly has now bedded down, is accepted as a proper part of the Welsh political landscape and has been a pioneer for the United Kingdom in several aspects of policy, as I find when I go into my local supermarkets and am charged for bags, a matter that will come to England somewhat later.
The amendment that I am speaking to will not, as politicians often boast, kill two birds with one stone; it will kill three birds with one stone. In respect of the equality of men and women, it is clear that although the position in the Assembly in Wales is better than in most other legislatures, certainly better than in the House of Commons, there is still a disparity. Many parties and many parliaments have struggled with this problem. Selectorates, often with a majority of women, are frequently reluctant to select women for various levels of representation. My own party tried women-only shortlists in both the 2005 and 2010 elections; in the 2015 election, my own Swansea East constituency will have a women-only shortlist.
However, that is not without problems, as one sees in Cynon Valley, and it can be a matter of considerable controversy. It can be a problem when men find it difficult to find a place in the areas where they were born, brought up and worked for a long time. They are demotivated when there is no chance, because of women-only shortlists, of standing in their own constituencies. I put forward this proposal as a serious option for solving the problem. It is a far more acceptable device for ensuring equality and would make Wales a world leader, consistent with our normal radical policies and progressive traditions.
The advantages do not stop there. My proposal would also abolish the list system. The list system has not been a success. I am reminded that “hiraeth” in Welsh is not a longing for one’s own region within Wales but a longing for one’s own valley, constituency, city or village. It is difficult to work up loyalty or attachment to a region in Wales. “My region, right or wrong”: I cannot see anyone in Wales going to the barricades to fight for their region. It is more consistent with our Welsh tradition not to have regional lists.
Thirdly and finally, I come to the increase in numbers. It goes logically with what I am saying that as the powers of the Assembly increase—and one does not know how far that will go, and here perhaps the consensus ends, because some will want a great leap forward while others will want a more incremental approach—there should at the same time be an increase in numbers. It is also clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, said with great clarity and power, that the number in the Assembly, the 60, may have been an appropriate starting point—the 40 and the 20. Indeed, there would have been difficulties had the number of 40 constituencies been reduced to 30—it would have been perhaps 30 and 30 at that point.
However, the numbers are clearly insufficient for the job of scrutiny. At the moment, particularly when there is a coalition, as often happens in the Assembly, everyone appears to have a job. It is rather like the jibes at the old Mexican army—everyone was a general, everyone had a job. We want to get away from that. We want people in the Assembly who are able to do a job of scrutiny and we should agree to have 80 of them.
There are three good reasons for the amendment. We should not be afraid of change. In terms of gender equality, the smaller units in Wales and the increase in the powers of the Assembly, which would be matched with a commensurate increase in numbers, this amendment is proper and consistent with our radical, trailblazing tradition in Wales.
My Lords, that was an extraordinary speech, if I may say so. We Gogs certainly have an identity, and we have an identity when we know that the south-east of Wales is spending the borrowing powers that it is acquiring on two tunnels on the M4 and putting a great deal of development into south Wales that we do not see in the north, where we have our own communication problems. To talk in terms of everyone being concerned about their little valley may do very well in south Wales, but I can tell you that in north Wales we feel very differently about it and we welcome the fact that we have regional AMs in the Welsh Assembly who can express a wider view than that of the little valley that they come from.
Although I am not overly enthusiastic about the list system, I will not see it dismissed in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has done. Nor am I convinced by his idea that we should have proportionality of gender but not of political viewpoint. That would mean that the possibility of a dominant party would swiftly arise. My noble friend said that it would be the Labour Party. I would not go that far, because there are forces at work in some of the Welsh valleys today that are not essentially socialist in their approach. I am against the idea of having first past the post in Wales when it does not exist in Scotland or in Northern Ireland and when we have been fighting hard for it not to exist in England as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made the important point that the increasing amount of legislation coming to the Welsh Assembly means that we must have more Members to deal with it. I think that the consensus in Wales at the moment is that there are not enough people to scrutinise the legislation that is going through.
The noble Lord talked about scrutiny. The fact is that this is about not just primary legislation going through but primary legislation without the advantage of a second Chamber. Your Lordships will recall that I suggested earlier that we should surely be working towards a federal, single-tier Parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, with committees for Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland that could scrutinise the legislation that comes through. As I said, if we have English votes for English laws that have to go through the scrutiny of this House, that will be a considerable advantage compared to single parties putting through legislation without adequate scrutiny. On primary legislation in Wales, there is a lot to be done, but what is not to be done is what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, suggests in his amendment. I wholly support everything that my noble friend Lady Humphreys so ably said.
My Lords, I would welcome further explanation from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, regarding his amendment. When he suggests that two Members should be elected from 40 constituencies, should the elector have one vote or two in that election?
Basically, whether it should be one or two votes is a matter that should be left to the Assembly. My position is that all these arrangements should be left, so far as possible, to the Assembly. It has mature politicians and it is for them to make those decisions.
My Lords, perhaps I might reply to my great colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, by saying that if you have only one vote as against two, the whole composition of the Assembly, including the one that is to make the further arrangements, will be totally distorted.
My Lords, once again we have had a very interesting debate on how big the Assembly should be and how many seats it should have. I think that this debate has been going on since 1999, when the first Assembly sat. We know that many changes have been made in the Assembly that give it greater responsibilities, with increased powers to make decisions in Wales for Welsh people.
Many calls have been made about the number of Assembly Members. A number of reports have been published saying that 60 Members are insufficient to deal with holding the Executive to account. Increasing the number of Assembly Members has been endorsed by the Electoral Reform Society Cymru and by the Richard commission in 2004. In addition, we know that the current Presiding Officer, Dame Rosemary Butler, has endorsed this. The Richard commission said that there should be 80 seats. Silk 2 argued for the same and stated:
“The size of the … Assembly should be increased”.
In October 2013, the Electoral Reform Society and the Changing Union project published their report Size Matters and argued that there should be 100 Members, based on examination of legislatures across Europe and the competences for which the Assembly is now responsible.
As other noble Lords have said, there are only 42 Back-Benchers, which means that the ability to scrutinise legislation is severely curtailed owing to the capacity issues experienced by those Back-Benchers. We have noted that other noble Lords said earlier in the debate that the Assembly is small in relation to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and other legislatures across the world. As the legislation becomes more complex, there is a necessity for our politicians in Wales to develop areas of specialist expertise. That is difficult for most Back-Bench AMs, as they are members of more than one committee and it is difficult to build up expertise. In debating this Bill, we will be discussing tax legislation—a new and complicated area where it will be essential that adequate scrutiny takes place. If the recommendations of the areas to be devolved from Silk 2 are taken up, there will obviously be still further pressure on Assembly Members.
The noble Lords, Lord Rowe-Beddoe and Lord Elystan-Morgan, and my noble friend Lord Richard spoke of having at least 80 seats by 2016. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, made the good point that more powers really equates to more seats. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, spoke of having 120 seats. The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, argued for having 80 seats by 2016 and 100 seats by 2021, all being elected by STV. That is a controversial suggestion and I am quite sure that it would arouse a lot of discussion in Wales: should we have the whole number elected by STV or should we have the proportions that we have now? I am sure that we will be having that discussion at some time.
My noble friend Lord Anderson also called for an 80-seat Assembly with two Members in each of the 40 constituencies, with gender balance—a good solution, one might think. I am committed to having a gender balance in the Assembly and in all our elected institutions. However, that amendment would be controversial as well, if it were accepted, because we would be saying that there should be a form of quotas in legislation. If you write into law that there have to be two Members in every constituency in Wales, with one having to be a woman and one a man, there would in effect be quotas. I have spoken about having quotas before but we need much more examination of that and I do not think that we would get legislation for quotas passed, certainly not in your Lordships’ House or in the House of Commons. My noble friend also mentioned having a second Chamber in the Assembly, which would be even more controversial.
This debate has shown clearly that there is consensus on having an increased number of Assembly Members, so that they can deal effectively with the new responsibilities and hold the Executive to account. I am sure that there will be further debate, not just in your Lordships’ House, before there is a clear decision on how many Members there should be and by what method of election. But one thing is clear: there is general agreement that the number of Assembly Members should be increased. I am looking forward to further debate as we take the Bill through the House.
Thank you, my Lords, for that interesting debate. I have grasped the picture. There is a cross-party and no-party agreement here today. Noble Lords want the Assembly to have more Members but also have very different views on how many more Members there should be, how that process of enlargement should happen and how they should be elected.
I welcome again the conversion of the Labour Party to the cause of having more Members. If we go back to the days—10 years ago—when the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested having 80 Members, that was not acceptable to the Labour Government then, so I am delighted that we are now reaching agreement on this. However, I have to point out that, although we as politicians here think that what is needed is more Members for the Assembly, I fear that if we asked the general public they would not produce the same answer. Asking for more politicians is not going to be an easy thing, particularly when the public view of politics and politicians is at a pretty low ebb across all parties.
The deal in Scotland was that it had primary legislative powers and therefore the number of Members was reduced from 72 to 59. The people of Wales have spoken. They have had a referendum in which they have provided that Wales should have primary legislative powers and those have been given. Why should the people of Wales object to a reduction in numbers of MPs and an increase in numbers of Members of the Assembly?
The noble Lord makes an excellent point and anticipates part of my speech. There is an issue of ensuring that if the Assembly is to have more Members, and that is to have broad public support, it needs to be done either when there is a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, as was referred to earlier, or there is a reorganisation of local government in Wales, when I anticipate that there would be a reduction in the number of councillors.
In the mean time, there is an important public debate to be had and an argument to be made by civil society. I am aware that a large number of organisations within civil society in Wales share the views that noble Lords have expressed today. There is an engagement with politics that these things should be done by civil society in order to ensure that any arguments on them are put forward with force and relevance for the people of Wales.
I am grateful to the noble Lords whose amendments have enabled this debate. Amendments 6, 9 and 11, and Amendment 14 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, have formed a useful group and theme. Amendments 6 and 9 require the Secretary of State to introduce a Bill to increase the size of the Assembly to at least 80 Members—in the case of Amendment 6, from 2016. Amendment 9 provides that responsibility for deciding the number of Assembly Members should be devolved to the Assembly. Any subsequent change to the number of Members must be approved by a two-thirds majority.
We recognise in government the legitimate concerns about whether the Assembly has sufficient numbers to provide Ministers and the scrutiny that government through the committee system in the Assembly requires. This has been discussed since at least the time of the Richard commission and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on this issue. More recently, the Silk commission recommended in its second report increasing the number of Assembly Members, although it did not go into the detail of suggesting a number.
The Silk commission was not allowed to consider the matter. With rather restrained mischief it made the point that there should be an increase. It produced this memorable line, which introduces a point that has not been considered in this debate. It said: good scrutiny leads to good legislation and good legislation pays for itself.
I think that it was not a case of the Silk commission not being allowed to consider the matter; the issue was that this was not within the specific remit of the commission. It was certainly something that it considered and discussed, and on which it made a recommendation.
While all of us here today seem to have an agreement that there is an issue to be considered, the First Minister confirmed in his evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill that the Assembly could undoubtedly cope with all its new powers with the 60 Members. Reference has been made to the Presiding Officer’s views. I think that it would be useful if the Assembly itself considered this issue.
The noble Lord makes a very good point.
The size of the Assembly is a vital issue that goes to the heart of democracy in Wales and the inter-relationship between the legislature and the Executive. The key issue—the noble Lord has just drawn our attention to it—is that with a small Opposition, particularly in the case of a coalition, scrutiny is very difficult. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said that everyone has a job. The problem is that everyone has two or three jobs in the Assembly, so the difficulty is with Assembly Members being busy. MPs and your Lordships are busy too, but Assembly Members are spreading themselves across several subjects and committees, which makes it difficult to establish expertise. This is a live issue. It needs to be considered as part of the Silk 2 recommendations and after the appropriate level of public debate.
A recent Electoral Reform Society report found that nearly 80% of Assembly Members believed that changes should be made to the way in which plenary time is used within the Assembly, with a view to making the time that they have available more effective. I am sure that that will have been considered within the Assembly at various times. As our debate today has demonstrated, this is a complex issue with a number of strands of opinion.
I wish now to turn to Amendments 11 and 14. Amendment 11, in the name of my noble friend Lady Humphreys, specifies that from 2021 the Assembly should be elected via the single transferable vote system. That would bring greater proportionality than the current system. We have discussed proportionality this evening. It would replace the current mix of first past the post and the proportional system that we have in the Assembly at the moment. Although we have an element of proportionality in the Assembly, it is not complete proportionality. A change in the electoral system is once again properly the domain of manifestos. I would also like to note a recommendation by the Richard commission report that was accepted at the time by several of the parties in the Assembly but has not been implemented.
Amendment 14, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, would increase the size of the Assembly by providing 40 Members of each gender but because it does not remove the proportional element it would mean there would be 80 constituency Members plus 20 list Members. The Assembly would have a residual element of proportionality but it would be overwhelmingly dominated by first past the post constituency-elected Assembly Members and would undoubtedly be a very different place. However, it would not necessarily look very different from the Assembly today in terms of gender balance. One of the great successes of the Assembly is that there has consistently been a good gender balance. In fact, there was a time when there were more women than men in the Assembly. We were therefore the only legislature in the world in that position.
The noble Lord is seeking to guarantee that gender balance. I am normally very supportive of any initiative that increases the number of female elected Members but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, indicated, there would be an element of controversy. For example, if a female was elected as one of the Members and a male as the other Member, but the second male, shall we say, on the list had more votes than the winning female, or vice versa, there would be local controversy.
However, the main concern with this proposal is that it would reduce the element of proportionality. The offer of proportionality was intrinsic when Welsh people accepted the Assembly in the referendum. It was an integral part of what was offered.
The interlinked issues of the right number of Assembly Members, the optimum balance between constituency and regional Members and the system used to elect them need to be considered as part of the further step forward in devolution in Wales. If there are to be profound changes, there needs to be wider consultation. I know I will disappoint many Members when I say that I do not believe that the thinking behind these amendments is sufficiently mature for me to accept any of them. There needs to be further debate.
I can certainly undertake to relay the points of view put forward this evening within government discussions on the future of devolution in Wales. I understand that there are very clear and strong views. Although I cannot promise action on this issue in this Bill, I can guarantee that I will ensure that the views are widely known within government. I fully understand the issues that have been raised.
The noble Lord is possibly being a little on the cautious side in his estimate of how fast a future Government could produce a further devolution settlement. I cannot give any guarantees about anything that a future Government might do, but if this debate is taken forward and undertaken rigorously within Wales within the next few months, and if parties put something in their manifesto on the increase in the size of the Assembly that they believe is required, we can have a debate on the future shape of devolution during the general election that would enable a future Government to take this forward with considerable speed. I regret that there are a number of “ifs” in that answer, but there is no need for the noble Lord to despair of the outcome.
This debate must continue. It must include civil society and seek to engage the general public if the Assembly is to change as a result of the further devolution of powers so that there can be more Assembly Members. I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for her reply and her summing up of a very interesting debate. I am still most concerned that devolved power as contained in this Bill will become law and more money will be devolved, more capital will go down, more tax-raising powers will come along and there will still not be a resolution for scrutiny. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in her concluding remarks. I hope the Government understand that it is inextricably linked. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.25 pm.