Geraint Talfan Davies examines the First Minister’s statement on the Welsh Government’s legislative priorities and the processes that will follow.June 15th, 2011
The proper reflex on hearing members of the National Assembly begin to debate the Welsh Government’s legislative priorities is to pinch oneself. Who would have thought that it could sound so natural in so short a space of time? Perhaps it was testimony to the learning curve of the last four years, despite the convolutions of the system of legislative competence orders. In the wake of the First Minister’s statement yesterday afternoon there was, in the finest traditions of our party democracy, much dissatisfaction expressed by the opposition parties about the alleged tardiness of the announcement and the lack of detail.
Only a week ago some were saying they wanted the programme set out, Westminster-style, by the Queen during the official opening. It is no slight on Her Majesty to want it done differently in an institution that is yet to become hidebound by tradition. The Welsh Government has to avoid recreating the legislative logjam that is the annual lot of Westminster. It needs to frame better legislation than its older counterpart. It also needs to ensure proper scrutiny in a single chamber legislature, that is desperately short of backbench members.
That itself, raises two issues: the shape of the new committee structure and the involvement of civil society. Apparently we will have to wait until next week to know just how many committees there will be, and, most importantly, whether legislation and scrutiny will be combined in single committees or separated out. The public interest surely points in one direction – the combining of legislation and scrutiny committees.
The Scottish Parliament has chosen to combine both functions despite having twice as many members as the Welsh Assembly. A chamber of 60 in Cardiff Bay, with nearly a third of its members on the Government payroll, simply does not have the numbers to make a larger number of committees work. It would be better to bring legislation and scrutiny together and, perhaps, produce a more rational division of subject areas. Members need time and space to develop expertise, rather than be rushed like harassed generalists from committee room to committee room.
In a single, rather stretched chamber – remember that the Richard Commission thought an increase to 80 members was essential for adequate scrutiny – it is important that legislation is not rushed, as is too often the case at Westminster, and that the ground is properly laid.
Although the Assembly’s procedures do allow for pre-legislative scrutiny of bills by committees, unfortunately, its standing orders do not prescribe a minimum allotment of time for this to take place. But it is this early part of the legislative process that can be most valuable, in involving civil society organisations, often more expert than Assembly Members themselves, and perhaps saving time during later stages of the process. It is in this area that the Assembly should seek to make itself an exemplar.
Carwyn Jones, reminded the chamber yesterday that it was during the last Assembly that the then Counsel General proposed the creation of a legislative framework that stretched across a whole Assembly term. Presumably this was a change that Plaid Cymru also subscribed to. It is a sensible approach.
A third important issue that has often been ignored in public debate is the question of what powers legislation gives to Ministers. In recent years the extent to which framework legislation at Westminster has bestowed far too much power on Ministers, including quite often Assembly Ministers, has been problematic. Although the First Minister tried to reassure Members on this issue, saying that this would have to be the subject of particular scrutiny, this is something that Assembly Committees will have to police rigorously. They will not be able to rely on any government’s capacity for self-denial.
But when process issues are put to one side, it is the meat of the legislation that is going to matter to parties and public.
Standing out in all this will be the proposed Education Bill, that will have to play its role in producing a framework within which schools, education authorities, colleges, universities and funding council must produce a step change in performance in the shortest possible time. That will be a sizeable Bill, and we may get a more than a hint of its content in relation to schools when the Education Minister, delivers a lecture on improving schools standards at a forthcoming IWA event on Wednesday, 29th June.
It will be the most important bill of this Assembly term. It will no doubt be challenging for many institutions and interests, and it may even push the boundaries of the Assembly’s powers. But it will be by getting the process right, allowing civil society to have its say, and making the legislative scrutiny thorough that we stand the best chance of getting the pay off that we and future generations need and deserve.