Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:19 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 7:19 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for bringing this debate before us today, as we mark the 20th anniversary of devolution. I intend to speak on Welsh devolution, the impact on women in Wales and how the Welsh Assembly’s actions have influenced not just Wales but the whole UK Government agenda.

At our first elections in May 1999, there were more women elected in one day than the total of Welsh women who have been elected to the House of Commons in the 101 years up to today. Twenty-four women were elected, while by that time only seven Welsh women in total had ever been elected to the House of Commons. At the time of the first elections to the Welsh Assembly in 1999, there were only four women from Wales in the House of Commons. In the five elections to the Assembly over the last 20 years, 61 women have been elected as Assembly Members—as opposed to 20 Welsh women MPs in those 101 years. My honourable friend Ruth Jones MP became the twentieth Welsh woman MP only a few weeks ago, after the Newport West by-election.

By the time of its second election in 2003, the Assembly had 30 women and 30 men. The Guardian reported on this event by saying:

“A world record was set yesterday when the Welsh assembly became the first legislative body with equal numbers of men and women. Women’s rights groups hailed the breakthrough after 30 women were elected to the 60-strong assembly—an increase of five. Labour did best, with 19 women and 11 men, allowing the Welsh assembly to overtake the Swedish parliament, where women account for 45.3% of members. The Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru both returned 50% women. The Tories, who have struggled to select women in winnable seats, also did better: two of their 11 assembly members are women”.

That was a great result for women in Wales, but the Assembly has been a pioneer in many other ways.

In 2000, the Welsh Cabinet became possibly the first executive body in the world to have a majority of women Ministers, with five in the nine-member Cabinet. It was regarded as a milestone in equal opportunities when, as First Minister, the late Rhodri Morgan made the appointments. The present First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has appointed eight women and six men to his Cabinet and he plans to have the first feminist-friendly Government in the UK. I am looking forward to seeing how this will progress.

Wales has led the way in equal representation for women. It is the best in the United Kingdom—47% of Assembly Members are women, compared with 35% in the Scottish Parliament, 32% in the Northern Ireland Assembly and 32% in the House of Commons. The House of Lords has the lowest representation, at 26%. Has the fact that there has been a good number of women in the Welsh Assembly made any difference? I believe it has. First, the Assembly looks more like the people it represents, while women are visible in a way that was not possible before devolution. They provide good role models for women in Wales and bring new and different ways of thinking to the legislative approach, and to what is needed in Wales. The pioneering role can be seen in many fields such as the Children’s Commissioner for Wales—the first in the United Kingdom. The Commissioner for Older People in Wales was the first such post, it is believed, in the world. The commission for future generations is the first appointment of its kind in the UK.

Passing the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 meant that, together, these Acts will change the way decisions are made in Wales, ensuring that we act in the interests of future generations and put sustainability at the heart of policy. The Environment (Wales) Act was described as “world-leading legislation” to tackle climate change. It contains strong environmental aims, puts sustainability at the heart of the decision-making by Natural Resources Wales, and has tough targets for reducing greenhouse gases and emissions and increasing recycling rates. Wales now has the third highest recycling rate in the world.

Wales has also led the way in the UK by passing the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act. This Act was designed to improve the responses of all public bodies in Wales to all forms of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. It has put a duty on Welsh Ministers to appoint a national adviser—again, the first of its kind in the UK. Under the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013, Wales became the first country in the UK to introduce an opt-out system for organ donations when it came into force in December 2015. The Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017 and Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014 demonstrated that the Welsh Government will take action to protect Welsh workers and their rights when they are threatened by the UK Government. The Trade Union (Wales) Act disapplies parts of the UK Government’s Trade Union Act from devolved Welsh public services; and the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act established a scheme for the regulation of wages in the agricultural sector in Wales, after one was abolished for the United Kingdom.

We know that a number of other achievements have made such a difference to people’s lives. Examples include free bus travel for over-60s and disabled people; free swimming for children and older people; free school breakfasts; free prescriptions; free hospital parking; free entry to Cadw sites; and, really, importantly, free child burials. The ban on smoking in school grounds, hospital grounds and playgrounds was the first in the UK. As I said earlier, Wales has the third highest recycling rates in the world and almost half the electricity used in Wales in 2018 was generated from renewable sources.

I believe that a Welsh Government Bill will soon be presented to remove the defence of reasonable punishment and so protect children from assault. It is being considered by the National Assembly. There will also be votes for 16 and 17 year-olds in local government and Welsh government elections. For a small country such as Wales, with a population of just over three million, devolution has made a great impact on the lives of Welsh people, giving a big platform to women and allowing a bigger say on what happens in Wales. It brings decision-making closer to the people and allows minority voices to be heard, including the voices of children.

While devolution has been a great success, since 2010 the Welsh Government have experienced big cutbacks to their expenditure. When there are really big cuts, how difficult it is for the Government to carry out all the work they would love to do in Wales. I recently heard Mark Drakeford say how much these cutbacks had impacted on the work of the Welsh Government. I hope that something will be achieved by this debate emphasising what we have done in Wales, but we could have a done lot more if we had not had these drastic cutbacks in our expenditure.

However, we can be hopeful in looking ahead to what the next 20 years might bring. I hope that includes an enlarged Welsh Assembly with at least 80 Members. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said about having a bigger Assembly. I think everybody agrees on that now—we need a debate on it. Perhaps it should have been bigger from day one. We can do something about that. We should have a big discussion on what voting method we have. All Members should be elected on the same basis and not with the two tiers that we have now. I am sure that that will come about.

I am looking forward to the next 20 years. I think that we shall see big improvements and we will continue to work for the benefit of Wales. I am sure that we will see a bigger Assembly and a much better voting method, which I think would reflect what the people of Wales want.