Speech Clause 2 Wales Bill

It is a pleasure to speak to new clauses 4 and 6, which are in my name and those of my hon. and right hon. Friends. We intend to press new clause 4 to a vote, but new clause 6 is probing.

If passed, new clause 4 would transfer responsibility for deciding the number of Assembly Members to the National Assembly, as explained by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on my behalf. At present, the National Assembly has 60 Assembly Members, which is same as when it was established in 1999. The Scottish Parliament has well over 100 Members, and I am sure, Dr McCrea, that you could inform me that the number in that fine building in Stormont, which I have visited many times, in Northern Ireland is also above 100. Since 1999, the institution’s legislative competence has grown considerably, particularly after the 2011 referendum, which I referred to in my earlier contribution, resulting in full law-making powers in devolved areas being given to the National Assembly. Common sense would dictate that the Assembly, working with the Boundary Commission for Wales, should now determine the number of Members necessary to ensure its smooth running. I take the point made by the hon. Member for
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Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) in his intervention on the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but new clause 4’s intention is that, should the discussions be concluded, it would be a matter for the Assembly to determine rather than this House of Commons.

Increasing the number of Assembly Members has been endorsed by the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, as well as the 2004 Richard commission, which was commissioned by the Welsh Government of the time. The present Presiding Officer of the Assembly, Rosemary Butler AM, has also argued that the institution should have 80 members. The second report of the Silk commission, published in March, argued for the same and stated:

“The size of the National Assembly should be increased, and…most analysis suggests that it should comprise at least eighty Members.”

In October 2013, the Electoral Reform Society Cymru and the UK’s Changing Union project published a report, “Size Matters”, that went further by arguing for an increase in the number of AMs to 100. It based its findings on an evidence-based examination of legislatures across Europe and further afield. It concluded that, as the Assembly now controls a budget of nearly £15 billion and can pass laws on education, health and transport, a larger legislative body is needed to ensure that the law-making is done thoroughly and is not rushed.

4.45 pm

The Assembly at present is arguably buckling under the weight of the new powers it has been granted. It would be in the best interests of full and open democracy to ensure that there is an adequate number of AMs to keep the Executive in check. After all, aside from the Welsh Government Members, there are only 42 Back Benchers in the Assembly, which by any standard is not enough. I read with interest the comments of Julie Morgan, the AM for Cardiff North—she served with distinction as a Member of this House for many years—in yesterday’s Senedd debate on the Silk commission. She made the case that the Assembly should immediately set up a Committee to determine how many Members it needs to perform it functions.

Mr Harper: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. One of his arguments for having a larger number of Assembly Members is that the Assembly will need more of them as its responsibilities grow and cover more areas. Given that those powers and responsibilities have effectively been transferred from the UK Government and therefore relate to policy areas that no longer need to be scrutinised in this House, does he think that it follows that increasing the size of the Assembly because of its increasing powers and work load means that there should be fewer Members in this House representing Wales to reflect the smaller work load and lower level of responsibility here?

Jonathan Edwards: That relates to some of the points the hon. Member for Ogmore made earlier. My position has always been that any reduction in the number of Members of Parliament must be complemented with the transfer of significant further fields of power to the National Assembly, as happened in Scotland. Perhaps a more interesting context is the Williams commission, which has been set up by the Welsh Government to consider public service governance and delivery across Wales and, in particular, the number of local authorities.
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There seems to be a move towards reducing the number of councils and, therefore, councillors. Perhaps that might provide a better context for the debate on the number of AMs in Wales, rather than the number of MPs.

Mr Mark Williams: Given the timing of the Williams commission’s discussions on local government reform, does the hon. Gentleman not think that the amendment would be better placed in our manifestos—my party has already signed up to the reforms recommended in part 2 of the Silk commission—and debated at that time, rather than now?

Jonathan Edwards: The Minister made that point to me before the debate, but this legislation provides an opportunity now. Rather than making the case either for more Assembly Members or for fewer, the new clause essentially states that when the time comes to make that decision, it should be made by the National Assembly, not the House of Commons. It is a point of principle about where power lies in these matters. Given the shadow Secretary of State’s comments when he intervened on me earlier, I look forward to the Labour party’s support when we vote later—[Interruption.] Well, that is exactly the point.

Hywel Williams: I am disappointed by that sedentary intervention from the Opposition Front Bench. In our view it is the Assembly that should decide, because we see the people of Wales as sovereign, not this place.

Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlights the key political difference between Plaid Cymru and our unionist opponents.

Assembly Members are expected to be members of more than one Select Committee. Indeed, the Committees have a dual role, as they perform scrutiny and legislative functions. That means Members are under tremendous pressure, especially if they serve on more than one Committee, as many do. If more AMs were elected, some would be able to specialise in certain areas, and the burgeoning expertise would ensure that democracy in Wales is better informed. In any case, surely it should be for the National Assembly to determine its membership, not the House of Commons. We will therefore be pushing new clause 4 to a vote. We look forward to the support of like-minded individuals, even those on the Government Benches.

The motivation behind new clause 6 is straightforward. As we have been instructed to draft it by the Clerks, it proposes that the Welsh Government, rather than the UK Government, should have responsibility for determining the system used for elections to the National Assembly. Transferring this responsibility would streamline the election process and bring decisions relating to the democratic make-up of the National Assembly closer to the people it serves. It could also, I hope, lead to a more proportional system being used by that institution. Plaid Cymru’s preference would be for a move towards a more proportional system that reflected the wishes of voters more fairly.

Even with the top-up, the current system is extremely biased towards the Labour party. In the last election, Labour polled 40% yet got 50% of the seats. In elections
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before then, it has had 50% of the seats, and more, on 30% of the vote. We therefore argue that proportional representation would provide a better reflection of how people vote in National Assembly elections.

Jonathan Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his new clause could produce the opposite outcome? He may wish for a proportional system, but his proposal might take us back to first past the post, under which, at the last election, the Labour party got 36% of the vote and 65% of the seats.

Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that intervention. I had been minded to include provisions whereby the Assembly would be allowed to determine its own system but not to move to a less proportional system such as that advocated by the Labour party with its double constituency system. That would be completely non-proportional, with Labour perhaps receiving 70% of the seats on 30% of the vote, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. However, as a democrat, I believe that these matters should be devolved to the National Assembly. Parties would then fight the Assembly elections on manifesto commitments, and if people decided to vote for a party that wanted an undemocratic political system and one-party rule, that would be a matter for them.

Jonathan Evans: Since the hon. Gentleman is a democrat, he will know that there was a democratic referendum. In that referendum, where I argued for a no vote, we lost the vote, but only by a tiny margin. The electoral system was part of what was voted on when the Assembly was set up. Therefore, surely, if we become less proportional, that should not be in circumstances where there is not at least referendum approval for the electoral system.

Jonathan Edwards: That is an interesting intervention. Clearly, it would be a matter for parties standing for the Assembly on manifesto commitments whether they determined to put their preference to a referendum. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid suggestion, and it could well be the case. However, the basic point of what we are trying to achieve is that that power should reside at National Assembly level rather than with this Parliament here in London.

The purpose of the new clause is not to change the electoral system in and of itself, but merely to transfer responsibility to the National Assembly so that it can change the system should it so wish. Who can forget—this goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans)—the manner in which the Labour party used the Government of Wales Act 2006 to gerrymander the electoral system by banning dual candidacy and imposing on Wales an electoral system that is used only in Ukraine? I am glad that through this Bill, the UK Government will rectify that disgraceful decision made through the 2006 Act.

Any decision by this Parliament on the electoral system of the sovereign Welsh national legislature will always be met with concerns that the UK Government of the day are seeking political advantage. The simplest way to address those concerns would be to devolve responsibility to the National Assembly so that it is responsible for determining its own electoral system. The current situation is tantamount to the European Parliament legislating on the electoral system used to
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elect Members of this House. Surely, after a decade and a half, it should be a matter for the National Assembly to determine its own preferred electoral system. It does not need Big Brother Westminster determining these matters. London needs to let go and treat the National Assembly with some respect.

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