Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru Westminster leader
The National Assembly is now a permanent feature in the political landscape of Wales. It has secured its place in the hearts, minds and legislation of our nation. It remains, however, deeply flawed in its structure.
Twenty years ago, the British state was upgraded with the creation of the newly-fashioned assemblies or parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That was far from the end of the constitutional story. Over the past two decades, the oft-quoted aphorism of the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies that devolution is a “process not an event” has proved very true.
Today in Westminster, we will debate – on the floor of the House of Commons – the impact of devolution over the past two decades.
After two referendums, the Welsh Parliament has dramatically changed. Limited administrative control has transformed into full law-making powers. Representation without financial accountability has now ended, with increasing tax powers held in Cardiff Bay.
It hasn’t all been bold steps forward, though. Devolution too has fallen under the baleful glance of Brexit. Last year the Labour Government in Cardiff came to a deal with the Tories in Westminster to roll back powers in the light of the constitutional earthquake created by our proposed EU exit.
And further Brexit-based threats are on the horizon for the decentralisation of political powers to the nations. The current and the next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street seems intent on taking back control of economic development and the administration of the replacement of EU funding via the so-called Shared Prosperity Fund.
Westminster snatching this responsibility back would be as constitutionally rapacious as it is economically disastrous. Since its inception, administering the hundreds of millions of pounds of EU funding has been a key pillar of the National Assembly’s functions.
A People’s Vote is important for Wales not just to avert the economic chaos caused by Brexit, but this constitutional landgrab too.
Despite constitutional control seemingly making its wrong way down the M4 – from Cardiff Bay, back to Westminster – our Welsh Parliament remains seriously underpowered.
Several independent commissions have recommended that the number of Assembly Members (AMs) be increased. The 2004 Richard Commission, chaired by Labour peer Lord Ivor Richard, recommended increasing the number of AMs from 60 to 80, with all members elected using the single transferable vote (STV) method.
An expert panel chaired by Laura McAllister of Cardiff University recommended increasing the number of AMs to 80 or 90 to cope with the increased workload, lower the age of voting to 16, as well as using STV.
Even the Assembly proposed for the first referendum in 1979 would have had 72 members – an Assembly that would have had significantly fewer powers than the law-making parliament we have today.
Most recently, the Assembly Commission, the body that administers the National Assembly, announced its intention to introduce several changes to legislation, including an increase in AMs.
But despite the glaring evidence that our democracy is overstrained and lacking the capacity to scrutinise the Government, Labour does not seem to get the urgency of the matter. Due to the governing party’s refusal to support the reform of our parliament by 2021, we will have to make do with a deeply insufficient institution for another full Assembly term.
If Labour truly is a “devolutionist party” as the First Minister proudly proclaimed earlier this week, it would do the honourable thing and commit to urgent reform of our national parliament.
If devolution is indeed a process not an event, Labour would stop stifling its maturing growth and join Plaid Cymru in our efforts to empower Welsh democracy, and support reform now.