I’ve changed my mind – the Assembly needs more members

Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Daran Hill

I’ve changed my mind. Independently, without coercion, and without a single Damascene moment, I have come to realise I have become wrong.

By that, I do not mean I was wrong in the past, but rather it would be wrong to continue to believe something now which is demonstrated as palpably untrue.

I have accepted the case for the increase of the number of members of the National Assembly for Wales.

Ok, that may be a so what moment outside the bubble, but at least within it I’ve been known as one of the most trenchant and vocal opponents of expanding the number of AMs.

Put simply, my opposition has always been twofold: the cost and public perception; and the argument that AMs should do what everyone else does – prioritise.

The publication of the report by Professor Laura McAllister and her team of experts has helped change my view. They have brought academic rigour to bear.

They are not part of the Bigger Bubble Brigade who just want more, more, more without ever really justifying it. McAllister’s work is at a higher level.

Strain

Aligned to this is Brexit. Back in November, I was one of the signatories of an open letter by Electoral Reform Society in Wales calling for an expansion of the number of AMs.

They place at the heart of this the added workload from Brexit and that is a point with which I concur.

Also over the last eighteen months, I have seen – and this is a purely spurious and subjective point – a significant increase in the thoroughness and demands of the work of Assembly Committees.

This has been partly fuelled by Brexit, partly fuelled by the rigours of legislation, partly fuelled by the more engaging nature of the Committees as a whole, and partly fuelled by disproportionate over servicing of Committees by their bloated secretariats, churning out forests of papers so that AMs sometimes find it hard to see the wood for the trees.

The situation is at straining point. The recent creation of a subcommittee to deal with a piece of primary legislation shows this very clearly.

Aligned to this is the expansion of Welsh Government last year, with three extra backbenchers taken out of the Committee system by being appointed to Government. This will place Labour backbenchers, particularly, under ever-increasing strain.

Costs

These are the myriad reasons I have changed my opinion. But, at the same time, I accept more politicians is a very hard sell.

If that is to be done effectively, then the issue of cost needs to be addressed head on. I am pleased that an article I wrote for Nation.Cymru last summer didn’t just generate headlines, it  helped shape a much forensic and critical environment in which the Assembly scrutinised the budget of the Assembly Commission.

The report of the Finance Committee eloquently demonstrates that our elected politicians are acutely aware of this.

The Assembly Commission has acknowledged this too. The new Chief Executive and the Llywydd have embarked on a staffing review. Such a move is welcome.

Cost and staffing are critical parts to winning some sort of consensus on moving forward. More AMs will of course mean a bigger cost but – and here’s the challenge – if the number of AMs and staff are expanded that should not necessarily mean an expansion of the funding of the National Assembly.

Square that circle and try, genuinely try, to make the whole thing as cost neutral as possible and the major objection is immediately eliminated.

Yes, that means tough choices and it also means the same prioritisation argument I’ve used for years. But get it right and the case for increasing AMs without increasing costs will make itself.

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