Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 7:30 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate and to join in the celebration of 20 years of devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is an issue that has been a massive part of my adult life, and I welcome the progress that I have seen.

For those of us of a political disposition in Wales, the defining question has always been: do you believe in independence or in home rule for all the nations of the UK, or do you believe in what used to be the status quo—government from London? In the late 1970s, when I was a political animal searching for a political home, even though I lived in Liverpool at the time I realised that that question would still define my decision. My political home became the then Liberal Party. The party of Lloyd George still carried his commitment to home rule and, to me, devolution of powers to the nations of the UK under a federal system was the most sensible and pragmatic way forward. I believe that it still is and hope that it still could be.

I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales for a relatively short time in its first session in 1999. It was a heady, exciting but sometimes confusing time, as the dream was replaced by reality and the Assembly struggled to find its purpose. The initial settlement conferred on our National Assembly was different from that for Scotland. Without the ability to pass its own primary legislation, our new Assembly sometimes seemed a toothless dragon.

In 1997, the dragon had been ready to roar. The result of the referendum, narrow as it was, buoyed us all. The yes campaign had been well organised. I pay tribute to those Members of this House who led that campaign: my noble friends Lady Randerson and Lord German and the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley. Those of us who supported that campaign owe them our gratitude.

The first couple of years of the National Assembly were dogged by political instability and it was obvious that a partnership Government would be required. In 2000, the Liberal Democrats joined the Labour Party to form that partnership Government. My noble friend Lord German became Deputy First Minister and my noble friend Lady Randerson took on the role of Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language. This made my noble friend the first female Liberal in the party’s history to hold ministerial office.

Both my noble friends made an impact on the Assembly, with my noble friend Lady Randerson introducing Iaith Pawb, the first attempt by the Welsh Assembly Government—apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, but it was the Welsh Assembly Government at that time—at a policy on the Welsh language. This was introduced in March 2003 as A National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales.

As we celebrate its 20th anniversary, the National Assembly for Wales is no longer a toothless dragon. As other speakers have pointed out, in 2007 it gained partial powers to pass primary legislation and gained full legislative powers in 2011 following a referendum where two-thirds voted in favour. The Wales Acts of 2014 and 2017 extended the range of policy areas over which the Welsh Assembly now has control, and I am proud that 1 was able to play a very small part in the debates on the two Bills.

It would be a mistake to think that everything in Wales is now perfect. Among some of the electorate, there is a lack of understanding and knowledge about the powers and responsibilities of the Assembly, with some still astounded that the Conservative Government in Westminster are no longer responsible for the NHS and education in Wales. Perhaps that could be put down to the lack of media presence in Welsh government talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley.

Within the Assembly, there are issues still to be addressed. An expert panel led by Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University concluded that the Assembly needs another 20 to 30 Members to do its work effectively. It also recommended that 16 and 17 year-olds be allowed to vote in Assembly elections and that future elections be held under the more proportionate STV system.

The need for further Members is increasingly obvious: the Assembly is taking on more powers, leading to the need for more legislation. More legislation leads to the need for more scrutiny and the Assembly Members outside the Executive are already hard-pressed to meet the current scrutiny needs. Poor scrutiny, as those of us in this House know, leads to poor legislation.

Wales needs a different electoral system, and the power to change it now lies in the hands of the Assembly. The present system, where 40 constituency seats are decided by the first past the post method and 20 regional top-up seats are decided using the d’Hondt system, has resulted in 20 years of either a Labour-dominated or a Labour-led Assembly. This is set to continue, but one-party government in perpetuity is not good for the Assembly, the electorate or, I would argue, the Labour Party itself.

When Professor McAllister produced her report in 2017, its recommendations were widely welcomed and it was anticipated that they would be put in place for the next Assembly elections in 2021. Unfortunately, that timescale appears to have slipped. I urge the Welsh Government to take these recommendations forward and ensure that our future Assembly has the tools to do its job and is truly representative of the people of Wales.

In the referendum of 1997, the people of Wales—probably unknowingly—followed the advice of Lloyd George, who said:

“Don’t be afraid to take a big step … You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps”.

In voting for devolution, the people of Wales took that big step. I am convinced that those who voted for it do not regret their decision.

Like any other legislature, the Welsh Assembly will have its problems, but it will change, develop and grow. I wish it well for the next 20 years of its existence.