The National Assembly for Wales: An Increasingly Powerful Legislature?

By Alys Thomas and Stephen Boyce

The National Assembly for Wales has been in existence since 1999. However, its powers and constitution have undergone significant changes since then. Originally constituted as a single corporate body made up of both the legislature and executive, the Government of Wales Act 2006 effected a separation of powers, creating a separate executive made up of Welsh Ministers, and a legislature.

Between 1999 and 2007 the Assembly could only make secondary legislation. The 2006 Act extended the legislative powers of the Assembly to limited primary powers, whereby the power to legislate in certain subject areas was devolved from Westminster on an incremental basis through Legislative Competence Orders which had to be approved by both Houses at Westminster and the Assembly. The power to legislate could also be devolved through Westminster Bills. This was the system in the Third Assembly (2007-2011) and primary legislation made in this period is referred to as Assembly Measures. Following a referendum in March 2011 the Assembly has the power to legislate in 20 subject areas set out in Schedule 7 to the Act, including economic development, education, health and housing.

Membership

The Assembly is made up of 60 Members elected by the Additional Member System.  Forty Members are elected by first-past-the post in constituencies and 20 by proportional representation in five regions: South Wales East, South Wales Central, South Wales West, Mid and West Wales and North Wales. The Assembly sat for four year terms until 2011 but this has now extended to five years with the next election to be held in 2016. This is to avoid clashing with Westminster elections following the Fixed Term Elections Act 2011.

Labour is currently the largest party with 30 members. Following the 2011 election it chose to govern alone, although there have been coalitions in the past (Labour and the Liberal Democrats between 2000 and 2003 and Labour and Plaid Cymru between 2007 and 2011). The Conservatives are the second largest party with 14 members, followed by Plaid Cymru with 11and then the Liberal Democrats with five. Twelve of the Labour Group are either Ministers or Deputy Ministers.

Composition

In the first Assembly election in 1999, 24 women and 36 men were elected. This was seen as significant as women’s political representation in Wales had been historically low in both the UK Parliament and at local government level. The 2003 election delivered an exact 50:50 split between women and men leading to the Assembly being hailed as the world leader in equal representation. The Third Assembly had 28 women and 32 men. The Fourth Assembly has seen a fall in female representation to the same level as that of 1999 with 24 female and 36 male Assembly Members.

The estimated Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) population of Wales is around two per cent. The first two Assemblies had no Assembly Members who self-identified as being from a Black or minority ethnic background. The Fourth Assembly has two BME AMs.

Assembly Business

The Assembly meets in Plenary on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon and is presided over by the Presiding Officer (currently Dame Rosemary Butler AM) and her Deputy (David Melding AM). First Minister’s Questions are taken on Tuesday afternoons.

Other Assembly business takes place in twelve committees. Five of these are policy committees, scrutinising both legislation and policy. These are: Children and Young People, Communities, Equality and Local Government, Enterprise and Business, Environment and Sustainability and Health and Social Care. Other committees include the Public Accounts Committee and the Petitions Committee.

The Business Committee is responsible for the organisation of Assembly business. It is the only committee whose functions and remit are set out in Standing Orders. Its role is to“facilitate the effective organisation of Assembly proceedings”. The Presiding Officer chairs the meetings, which are attended by the Minister for Government Business and a Business Manager from each of the other parties represented in the Assembly. The Committee usually meets weekly in private to comment on proposals for the organisation of Government business and to determine the organisation of Assembly business in Plenary.

Recent developments

The Assembly has only had full primary legislative powers since 2011 in those subject areas listed in the Act. This new system of conferred powers is not without its tensions. The Act contains the provisions for the Attorney General for England and Wales and the Counsel General (the chief legal adviser to the Welsh Government) to refer Bills to the Supreme Court if there are doubts about them being within Assembly legislative competence. As of May 2014, three Bills have been referred, two by the Attorney General and one by the Counsel General. The former referred the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill and the Agriculture Sector (Wales) Bill on the basis that competence was contested, whilst the Counsel General is seeking resolution of the issue of competence of the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill before it comes into force to pre-empt legal challenge from a third party.

The recent Silk Report II on the Assembly’s powers recommends moving to a reserved powers model, in which subject areas reserved to Westminster are listed and all others devolved, as in Scotland, which would go some way to resolving these tensions. In March 2014 a Wales Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament which would extend the powers of the Assembly with regard to certain taxes, including income tax (subject to a referendum). If passed it will also reinstate dual-candidacy (standing in both a constituency and on a regional list), which was abolished by the 2006 Act and ban “double jobbing”, sitting as both an MP and an AM, with certain caveats.

In response to Silk II both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have indicated their support for a reserved powers model, so depending on the result of the next election a third Government of Wales Bill could be on its way which could further enhance the Assembly’s legislative powers.

Suggested Reading:

Empowerment and Responsibility: Legislative Powers to strengthen Wales, Part II Report of the Independent Commission on Welsh Devolution, March 2014

 National Assembly for Wales Research Service, Assembly Committee Structures, April 2013

The National Assembly for Wales and devolution in Wales: A Bibliography

Alys Thomas and Stephen Boyce are Research Officers in the Research Service of the National Assembly for Wales

Image: Hannah and Simon CC BY-ND

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