An Expert Panel has recommended that the number of Welsh Assembly Members should increase. The primary reason given is that the scrutiny of Welsh Government would be improved if Assembly Members sat on fewer scrutiny committees.
I am one of those increasingly rare people who is convinced that a civilised society benefits from active political processes and the presence of professional politicians. I have no opposition in principle to increasing the number of Welsh Assembly members; but I am not convinced that the case is well made in this report.
Almost everyone, excepting perhaps Trump and Putin, would agree that political systems benefit from the challenge to Governments that might be brought by high quality political scrutiny. However, most would also agree that political scrutiny which actually impacts on public policy and its implementation is very, very difficult to find.
The two houses in the Palace of Westminster preen themselves on their established status but finding the examples of effective scrutiny is a search for hen’s teeth. The Iraq War, PFI, introducing Universal Credit, the economics of Austerity, Brexit – where were the insightful critiques that made a Government stand back, reflect, change course?
I have just spent 5 years contributing assiduously to the scrutiny process of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council – commenting on school attainment, support for vulnerable adults, the financial management of £billion capital programmes. I cannot think of a single Council policy that was informed by my earnest contribution to scrutiny – even though I shifted mountains by building coalitions around actions in support of my local community.
I spent the best part of a decade advising, in a senior and special way, the Welsh Government. I cannot think of a spending plan, a manifesto commitment or a policy direction that was directed or deflected by Welsh Assembly scrutiny.
And yet we are told that the urgent need for effective scrutiny requires more Assembly Members so that no member sits on more than one or two scrutiny committees. No evidence is presented that members who sit on fewer committees are more effective. No analysis is given of what makes one scrutiny committee or member more effective than another. There is just a rather lazy assertion that more members lead to better scrutiny.
Given the expertise of the Panel, I would have liked to have seen a comparative analysis of parliaments across the world, finding those elusive examples where political scrutiny can be shown to have an impact. If impact can be shown to correlate with the number of committees upon which a member sits, then the case would be made.
I suspect that effective political scrutiny correlates more closely with the vibrancy of the civic society, the contribution of the media, the vitality of the political parties, the political engagement of universities, a political culture which is diverse and reflective, the diffusion of political power. We need to invest in professional politicians but we need to recognise that their contribution cannot be nurtured in a vacuum.