The National Assembly for Wales (NAW or NAfW) (Welsh: Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru [CCC]) is a devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales. The assembly building is known as the Senedd.
The Assembly was formed under the Government of Wales Act 1998, by the U.K. Labour government, following a referendum in 1997. The campaign for a 'yes' vote in the referendum was supported by Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and much of Welsh civic society, such as church groups and the trade union movement. The Conservative Party was the only major political party in Wales to oppose devolution. Despite this, only 50.3 percent of those who voted backed devolution.
The election in 2003 produced an assembly in which half of the assembly seats were held by women. This is thought to be the first time elections to a legislature have produced equal representation for women. Following the Blaenau Gwent by-election in 2006 the Assembly composition is 29 men to 31 women, giving women a majority.
The establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964 effectively created the basis for the territorial governance of Wales. The Crowther (later Kilbrandon) Commission was set up in 1969 by Harold Wilson's Labour Government to investigate the possibility of devolution for Scotland and Wales. It published its recommendations in 1973 and formed the basis of the 1974 White Paper Democracy and Devolution: proposals for Scotland and Wales. Welsh voters rejected the proposals by a majority of four to one in a referendum held in 1979. The current Assembly was established following a referendum on 18 September 1997. The Labour Government's proposals for devolution were passed by a majority of 6,721 of 1,112,117 votes cast (50.3% to 49.7%). In its 1997 White Paper, A Voice for Wales, the Labour Government argued that the Assembly would be more democratically accountable than the Welsh Office. For eleven years prior to 1997 Wales had been represented in the UK cabinet by a Secretary of State who did not represent a Welsh constituency at Westminster.
On March 1, 2006, the new Assembly building in Cardiff Bay, the "Senedd", designed by Richard Rogers, was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.
Powers and status
The National Assembly consists of 60 elected members. They use the title Assembly Member (AM) or Aelod y Cynulliad (AC). The executive arm of the Assembly Welsh Assembly Government, is led by First Minister, Rhodri Morgan.
The executive and civil servants are based in Cardiff's Cathays Park while the Assembly Members, the Assembly Parliamentary Service and Ministerial support staff are based in Cardiff Bay where a new £67 million Assembly Building, known as the Senedd, has recently been built.
One important feature of the National Assembly is that there is no legal or constitutional separation of the legislative and executive functions, since it is a single corporate entity. Even compared with other parliamentary systems, and other UK devolved countries, this is highly unusual. In reality however there is some sort of day to day separation, and the terms "Assembly Government" and "Assembly Parliamentary Service" have been used to distinguish between the two arms. The Government of Wales Act 2006 will regularise the separation once it comes into effect following the 2007 Assembly Election.
Although the Assembly is a legislature, it currently does not have primary legislative or fiscal powers, as these powers had been reserved by Westminster. However, the position is set to change when the Government of Wales Act 2006 comes into force. The current legislative powers of the Assembly are therefore more limited than most other sub-sovereign state legislatures, such as the Scottish Parliament in the UK or state legislatures in the United States.
The Assembly does have powers to pass secondary legislation in devolved areas. Sometimes secondary legislation can be used to amend primary legislation; however, the scope of this up to now has been very limited; for example, the Government of Wales Act gave the Assembly power to amend primary legislation relating to the merger of certain public bodies.
It is important to note that most secondary powers were conferred on the executive by primary legislation to give the executive, (i.e., Ministers) more powers. By inheriting these powers from ministers, the Assembly has sometimes surprisingly wider legislative powers than appearances would suggest. For example, the Assembly delayed local elections due to be held in 2003 for a year by use of secondary powers, so that they would not correspond with Assembly elections. (In 2001 the UK parliament used primary legislation to delay for one month local elections in England during the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic).
Whilst in theory the Assembly has no tax varying powers, the Assembly in reality has some very limited power over taxes. For example, in Wales, as in England, the rate of Council Tax is set by local authorities, however since the Assembly largely determines the level of grants to local councils, it can influence the level of local taxation indirectly.
In terms of charges for government services it also has some discretion. Notable examples where this discretion has been used and varies significantly to other areas in the UK include:
- Charges for NHS prescriptions in Wales — these have now been abolished.
- Charges for University Tuition — are different for Welsh resident students studying at Welsh Universities, compared with students from or studying elsewhere in the UK.
- Charging for Residential Care — In Wales there is a flat rate of contribution towards the cost of nursing care, (roughly comparable to the highest level of English Contribution) for those who require residential care.
This means in reality there is a wider definition of "nursing care" than in England and therefore less dependence on means testing in Wales than in England, meaning that more people are entitled to higher levels of state assistance. These variations in the levels of charges, may be viewed as de facto tax varying powers.
This model of more limited legislative powers is partly because Wales has had the same legal system as England since 1536, when it was annexed by England. Ireland and Scotland were never annexed by England, and so always retained some distinct differences in their legal systems. The Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly (when it isn't suspended) have deeper and wider powers.
The Assembly inherited the powers and budget of the Secretary of State for Wales and most of the functions of the Welsh Office. It has power to vary laws passed by Westminster using secondary legislation. Peter Hain, whose principal UK cabinet role is as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and who represents a Welsh constituency in the Westminster Parliament, retains a vestigial role as Secretary of State for Wales.
Some Plaid Cymru politicians had argued that its powers were limited and confusing. In July 2002, the Welsh Assembly Government established an independent commission, with Lord Richard (former leader of the House of Lords) as chair, to review the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly in order to ensure that it is able to operate in the best interests of the people of Wales. The Richard Commission reported in March 2004. It recommended that the National Assembly should have powers to legislate in certain areas, whilst others would remain the preserve of Westminster. It also recommended changing the electoral system to the single transferable vote (STV) which would produce greater proportionality.
Even though the Commission included a member of all 4 main parties, and reported unanimously in favour of legislative powers the UK government refused. In the White Paper, Better Government for Wales, published on 15 June 2005, the UK Government rejected Richard's recommendation to change the electoral system, whilst proposing a half-way house between the status quo and the National Assembly having full Scottish Parliament-style legislative powers.
Publicly it was stated that the lack of full legislative powers in the Bill was due to lack of support in Wales, although recent polls suggest that a large majority of the Welsh supported full legislative powers. It is commonly believed that the Bill is a compromise between the pro-devolution Labour AMs and the anti-devolution Welsh Labour MPs, who feared that their number would be culled if the Assembly became a Parliament. The Act will create a Welsh Assembly Government as a separate legal entity from 1st May 2007, and not (as at present) a committee of the Assembly.
The Government of Wales Act 2006 received Royal Assent on 25th July 2006.
Enhanced powers: the Government of Wales Act 2006
The Government of Wales Bill was presented to the UK parliament and published on December 8 2005. It confers on the Assembly legislative powers akin to other devolved legislatures, although Assembly Order-in-Council requests will be subject to the veto of the UK Secretary of State for Wales, House of Commons or House of Lords.
The Bill contains provision to reform the assembly to a parliamentary-type structure, establishing the Assembly Government as an entity separate from, but accountable to the National Assembly. It will also enable the Assembly to legislate within its devolved fields as specified in schedule 5 of the Bill. Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom will retain the power to veto Assembly laws (to be known as Assembly Measures) in certain circumstances.
The bill also reforms the Assembly's electoral system. It will prevent individuals from standing as candidates in both constituency and regional seats. This aspect of the bill has been subject to a great deal of criticism, most notably by the UK Electoral Commission.
The bill has been heavily criticised. Plaid Cymru, the Official Opposition in the National Assembly, has attacked the bill for not delivering a fully-fledged Parliament. Many commentators have also criticised the Labour Party's allegedly partisan attempt to alter the electoral system. By preventing regional Assembly Members from standing in constituency seats the party has been accused of changing the rules to protect constituency representatives. Labour has 29 members in the Assembly all of whom hold constituency seats.
The Bill received Royal Assent on 25th July 2006 as the Government of Wales Act 2006. Changes to the Assembly's powers are expected to be in place by May 2007.
The First Minister is Rhodri Morgan. There are 8 other Cabinet members (Ministers):
- Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services
- Minister for Assembly Business, Equalities and Children
- Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration
- Minister for Health & Social Services
- Minister for Enterprise, Innovation & Networks
- Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning & Skills
- Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside
- Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport
The Permanent Secretary is Sir Jon Shortridge. He and other civil servants support the Assembly Cabinet.
Presiding Officer / Llywydd
The Llywydd or Presiding Officer (Speaker) of the National Assembly for Wales is Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas AM. His Deputy is Dr. John Marek AM.
Under mixed member proportional representation a type of additional member system 40 of the AMs are elected from single-member constituencies on a plurality voting system (or first past the post) basis, the constituencies being equivalent to those used for the House of Commons and 20 AMs are elected from regional closed lists using an alternative party vote. There are five regions Mid and West Wales, North Wales, South Wales Central, South Wales East and South Wales West (these are the same as the pre 1999 European Parliament constituencies for Wales), each of which returns four members. The additional members produce a degree of proportionality within each region. Whereas voters can choose any regional party list irrespective of their party vote in the constituency election, list AMs are not elected independently of the constituency element, rather elected constituency AMs are deemed to be pre-elected list representatives for the purposes of calculating remainders in the d'Hondt method. Overall proportionality is limited by the low proportion of list members (33% of the Assembly compared to 43% in the Scottish Parliament and 50% in the German Bundestag) and the regionalisation of the list element. Consequently the Assembly as a whole has a greater degree of proportionality (based on proportions in the list elections) than the plurality voting system used for UK parliamentary elections, but still deviates somewhat from proportionality. The Single Transferable Vote system had been considered for the Assembly by the Labour Party as early as 1995-96, but according to the evidence given to the Richard Commission by Ron Davies, a former Welsh Secretary,
“ Had we done that of course we would have had to have had a Boundary Commission and that process would have taken forever and a day and that would have frustrated our overall political timetable. So we had to settle on the existing constituency arrangements, parliamentary constituencies and European Constituencies. ”
There have been three elections to the Assembly, in 1999, 2003 and 2007.