Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Valid questions and silly answers

The suggestion from the Institute of Chartered Accountants that MPs should be allowed to sit in the Welsh Cabinet has not exactly attracted much support, to say the least.  It’s easy to understand why members of one elected parliament would not want members of another ‘interfering’ in their business.  Given the apparent attempts by the Westminster Government to roll back the boundaries of the devolution settlement as part of the latest Wales Bill, it’s also easy to see how this suggestion from an ‘EnglandandWales’ body looks like another attempt to ensure a proper London perspective in the affairs of Wales.
There is a danger, though, of throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.  There are two valid points being made by the Institute which are in danger of being lost because of the rather silly suggestion of using MPs to fill the gap.
The first point is about whether the talent pool in the Assembly is big enough to provide enough choice for a First Minister to select his cabinet.  The Institute isn’t the first body to conclude that it isn’t.  And the fact that the turnover of ministers has been as low as it has suggests that successive first ministers have recognised that their scope for change isn’t enormous.
One can identify several reasons for the situation.  Not least among them is the fact that the Assembly has so few members.  60 is a very small number to start with.  The largest party has had around half of those at all the elections since the establishment of the Assembly – choosing 9 ministers and a couple of deputies from a pool of 30 means that a very high proportion of the governing party’s elected members will also be ministers.  Increasing the numbers to 80 or 100 would help, but there is nothing in the electoral process which guarantees any concomitant increase in ability.
Another important reason is that, for at least 2 of the parties in the Assembly (the two largest as it happens), the Assembly is seen as a second rate institution.  The most ambitious (although I entirely accept that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the most able) tend to seek their careers in ‘proper’ politics, at Westminster.  Merely increasing the numbers in Cardiff might not actually resolve the problem in its entirety.
A third reason hat I’d add here is whether the political process is actually going to attract a sufficiently diverse group of people into the Assembly.  I have similar doubts about Westminster, in fairness; politics increasingly seems to be populated by career politicians rather than people with varied prior experience elsewhere.  It’s not just the numbers which are limited in Cardiff, it’s also the background which they bring to the job.
And that brings me to the second valid point which the Institute is implicitly raising.  Why do government ministers have to be drawn exclusively from the pool of people elected to the largest group in the legislature?  They confused the point by suggesting adding members of another legislature to the pool, but the point is a more general one.  I can understand, of course, why elected politicians want to reserve such roles to themselves, but it means that in Cardiff, as in Westminster, there is considerable confusion between the legislature and the executive. 
It’s an unnecessary level of confusion.  And it isn’t the only way of doing things.  It’s not the way that government works in the US for instance.  But one doesn’t have to go all the way down that route to see that bringing people into the executive who have not themselves been elected doesn’t lead to the end of democracy.  Holding ministers to account does not require them to be members of the body doing the holding.
Why shouldn’t the first minister be able to draw on talent and ability from outside the narrow pool of 50% of the membership of the Assembly if that will contribute towards achieving the government’s objectives and improve the government of Wales?  If the Institute had got that far, and not added the silly idea of using MPs, they might have struck rather more of a chord.  As it is, they’ve made it far too easy for the politicians to avoid discussing the real question.


Democritus said...

IF a party or parties genuinely wanted to elevate 'experts' into Ministerial roles, then surely the route to doing so lies in their Regional List choices? There is no other way into the Commons save representing a constituency; which involving as it does extensive fraternization with the great unwashed who comprise the electorate of the seat is the main thing they apparently object to.

Regions are just too big to canvass and work the way Assembly/Commons seats are. The scale means List members have no particular set of 'local' party activists to account to and far fewer 'parochial' commitments. Regional List elections are determined by the popularity of the Party and favour 2nd and 3rd place parties in general (first place parties by definition tend to sweep the constituencies). Moreover since our supposedly overworked Assembly only sits for 3 days a week and only votes at set times it would be far from impossible to maintain other interests if one's party were not in power and Ministerial office unachievable.

I therefore see no case for a Lords option in Wales as the AMS system can effectively meet the goal - if the parties themselves wanted to do it that is! If they prefer to use the lists as insurance policies for existing AMs in marginal seats, for the Party Leader, or for time served old party hacks whose loyalty is assured then it's up to them. Parties already manipulate the List system to guarantee a minimum floor of women AMs and attempt to achieve BAME representation.

Another way to bring in expertise from academia or elsewhere, particularly where there are political/policymaking functions is as special advisors. A case in point would be Prof Mark Drakeford, who spent a decade covering health as a special advisor before being selected in Cardiff West.

Anonymous said...

In such a small institution it would be would be intetesting to know what the payroll vote is. The problem identified also applies to the opposition parties. With so few members it is difficult for opposition AMs to build up subject knowledge to hold the government to account.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there has been academic work on this. The Welsh Government has a lower proportion of politicians scrutinising it than the Scottish, Westminster or northern Ireland governments. We're stuck debating awkward ways around the problem like paying existing AMs more (won't give them any more capacity) or adding MPs to the government. We simply need an expanded Welsh Assembly and probably for it to be renamed a Parliament. This would be an achievable step for those nationalists who are concerned about further integration into England.