She started by saying that “any increase in the number of AMs must be cost neutral”. I asked myself why. I can understand that politicians have made themselves so unpopular that they’re afraid to make the argument for an increase in numbers, but if doing any job properly requires more resources, than an increase in cost is inevitable. Linking that increase to an arbitrary reduction in something completely different is about presentation rather than logic.
“Wales”, she argues, “...has the highest proportion of councillors compared to residents in the UK”. As a statement of fact, it’s inarguable. But as a reason for reduction, it’s weak. I’m not particularly committed to either the current number of councils or of councillors in Wales, but merely saying that we should cut the number because it’s lower elsewhere is a complete non sequitur. There are a whole series of judgements to be made about what powers local government in Wales should have and how local communities should best be represented when decisions are taken. Stating simply that England has fewer councillors for each thousand voters avoids rather than addresses those questions.
“... too many laws are being poorly drafted”, she says. Again I tend to agree; but I’m not convinced that there is any relationship between that issue and the number of Assembly Members. It might simply mean that we need more – or better – people in the drafting office; or that the government should not be so hasty in legislating. Having more people being told to hold how to vote on the content of laws doesn’t immediately strike me as the solution to that particular deficiency.
“We can’t let the lack of capacity in our Assembly be given as a reason for us not to have the appropriate powers to help build a stronger economy and a fairer society”. I’m not sure who exactly is arguing that the lack of numbers in the Assembly is a reason for not giving the Assembly more powers. This looks like a convenient fiction, invented to be easily knocked down. I’ve certainly seen it argued that the lack of skills, experience, and ability is a barrier to giving the Assembly more powers, but I’m not sure how increasing the numbers necessarily deals with any of those issues.
And then there’s the headline about ‘more AMs needed for a stronger economy and fairer society’. Surely both of those things are actually down to the policies being pursued by the government, not the number of Assembly Members? How precisely does increasing the number of AMs change that?
Despite all of that I actually agree with her that we should have more members in the Assembly. It is after all the conclusion of two commissions set up to consider the matter in depth. But my reasons would be rather different.
Firstly the small number of members leads to a small talent pool from which to select ministers and committee chairs. That is reflected in the fact that successive reshuffles make little difference to the overall appearance of the government – the same people simply swap posts. Secondly, the “payroll vote” is too large a proportion of the total. That leaves little scope for independent thinking. And thirdly, AMs are obliged to be generalists; there is inadequate scope for them to specialise in particular issues and causes.
Having said all that, they could help themselves more as well. Squealing about not having the time to do the job properly when some of them have outside paid interests as well doesn’t sound like much of an argument, and it sometimes seems that a number of them consider ‘scrutiny’ to be the same thing as reading out the political points written down for them by their researchers rather than understanding the legislation and responding to it.
It may well be brave of any politician to suggest an increase in their numbers, but if these are the best arguments that they can find, it’s an issue which isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.