Andrew RT Davies - Speech to Gorwel, 4 February 2016

Andrew RT Davies; speech to Gorwel think tank
Thursday 4th February 2016

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Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

It is a great pleasure to address Gorwel today.

Wales lacks independent think-tanks. Their absence is felt – so the work this body has undertaken in stimulating debate, thought; and challenging decision-makers, deserves immense praise. 

I am very honoured to have been invited to speak to you all tonight.

We are 91 days from the most important Welsh Election in a generation.

I’m excited. My colleagues are excited. My Party is excited.

When I visit communities across the country, I so often hear of an over-riding desire for change …

Change that I know my Party is ready to deliver for Wales.

And change that only my Party can deliver for Wales.

However, today, I am here to talk about something different. Something, worryingly, I also hear very often across Wales.

Apathy.

Because one of the biggest challenges continuing to face Welsh democracy today …

… is the lack of public understanding of the powers held by the National Assembly for Wales, and Welsh Government.

On a day-to-day level, the National Assembly for Wales is the most important institution for Wales’ people.

When you consider the services people rely on, each and every day …  

… they hinge on decisions made by Welsh Ministers, and votes held by Assembly Members. 

Despite this, turnouts for Assembly Elections continue to be painstakingly lower than those for General Elections.

66% of the electorate in Wales voted at the General Election in May – electing many MPs who have no direct say over the nation’s education services, or their NHS.

In 91 days, hundreds of thousands of those 66% will stay at home. They won’t bother to vote. Mr Nobody will again win a majority of hearts, and minds, in Wales.

And to compound the problem; as I have said; an EU Referendum in June could also overshadow the debate about some of the public services we hold most dearly.

The facts are clear. Assembly turnouts – 46%, in 1999; 39% in 2003; 44% in 2007; 42% in 2011. Third-class turnouts; for what should be a first-class institution.

And it’s not because the public inherently dislikes the Assembly – in fact, calls to abolish the Assembly are at just 12% according to a recent BBC poll.

And believe me, I say that as someone who didn’t even vote in the referendum to establish this place.

But whilst the majority of the public wants to see decisions taken closer to home, that’s not to say that they are happy with the way political affairs are conducted in Wales and low turnouts show that.

Clearly, something has to change.

And we can start by affording the National Assembly for Wales with the respect it deserves.

The Wales Bill has attracted considerable controversy in the Cardiff Bay bubble. 

But this legislative vehicle is, potentially, an historic piece of law for Wales.

For not only is it seeking to deliver new powers to the Assembly; new powers to Welsh Ministers; and establishing the permanence of this place within our constitution...

… but it’s most historic provision may be one of the more straightforward ones.

The Wales Bill empowers the Assembly to have the ability to change its name.

That’s a power I want to see utilised immediately – so our legislature becomes, in name, and in stature, a true Welsh Parliament.

The Wales Bill, of course, is also anticipated to deliver something else very significant for the Assembly – financial accountability.

The arrival of income tax powers to the National Assembly for Wales is a game changer.

For seventeen years, the Assembly has only been able to function as, effectively, a spending department.

Welsh democracy has been severely undermined by constant squabbles about the size of the cheque working its way down the M4.

That – in part, at least – is set to change.

Budget debates – no matter how important – have always carried an undertone of ‘give us more’.

Mature political debate is hampered when all you’re discussing is how to slice up the pie; not how you can make the pie bigger.

Income tax powers offer new credibility, credence and importance to the Assembly.

They bring mature, grown-up accountability to spending decisions.

It is something I will fight to achieve until my last political breath.

And, with these historic changes on their way to Wales, this is something we must embrace as part of a comprehensive package of reform which increases public understanding, and perceptions of this place.

But there also has to be fundamental reform of the way the Assembly – or a Welsh Parliament - works. We need to be objective, and be brutally honest with ourselves about what works – and what doesn’t.

Proceedings for the National Assembly for Wales need a full procedural review.

I’ve already touched on the huge gap in turnout between General Elections and Welsh elections - and we need to revitalise proceedings here in Cardiff Bay… making them more relevant and topical.

Take Senedd TV, for example.

All Assembly proceedings are streamed live online, and available to the public to watch.

In 2014/15 its viewing figures were a little over 17,000…

…that’s not per day. That’s for the entire year.

On average; 47 viewers per day.

The Assembly Commission employs hundreds of staff;

…and then there’s the journalists; the public affairs companies; political staff…

I think it’s safe to say that the wider public aren’t logging on in great numbers.

So I have long been an advocate of a thorough overhaul of the way the Assembly operates.

This is an institution with full law-making powers, and which will soon have responsibility for raising some of money it spends through the tax system.

There is also a clear distinction between the executive and the legislature, which highlights the need to work together to establish ways in which we can better engage with an increasingly apathetic electorate.

Many commentators reach for old, tired arguments and call for more AMs here; 

But that’s not going to improve engagement with the public… 

We need better politics. 

At times, the Assembly gives the impression of being a ‘part time parliament’ –

… and if that’s how the public views it too, then it’s easy to understand why they’re disinclined to engage with what goes on here.

I’ve lost count of the number of occasions on which Welsh Government business has been wrapped up on a Tuesday by 5 o’clock.

The Welsh Government were tortuously slow in bringing forward any substantial legislation for deliberation during the Fourth Assembly. 

But when they eventually got up and running, it quickly became apparent …

… that there is a growing case to increase the number of plenary sessions to consider government business from the current sole weekly session on a Tuesday.

More scrutiny.

More opportunity for debate.

More opportunities to engage.

I want to see fundamental reform of the timetabling of Assembly proceedings and consideration given to additional plenary sessions on Thursday mornings …

… or to extending sitting times on a Tuesday and Wednesday.

We need to enable greater scrutiny of the Welsh Government, particularly towards the end of the week when important statements are often made…

… but Ministers don’t actually need to appear to actually defend them…

It’s an unacceptable way for any Government to operate.

And this all needs to be attached to a cultural shift in the Assembly itself.

The current system, is too readily skewed in favour of the Government - and lacks the degree of respect needed for Opposition Parties, or Groups…

… and the need to create a distinct, Welsh political culture, and identity, which is more separated from Westminster.

No new money is needed to achieve this.

The introduction, however, of a proper system of 'Short Money' to ensure Opposition parties more effectively fulfil their Welsh Parliamentary functions …

… would enable political groupings in the Assembly to develop more formidable, distinct identities which people can engage with, relate to; and which more clearly articulates the Assembly’s function as scrutineer of Government.

The Fifth Assembly must be about greater transparency and accountability.

We also need to make proceedings in the chamber more topical – as well as more relevant to people’s lives to show that the institution is on the side of the people.

In Stormont, members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have the opportunity to ask ‘unseen’ questions in the chamber …

… and not only does this allow opposition parties greater flexibility; it also enables them to pose questions which are relevant to the day’s news agenda --- not written the week before.

We operate in a 24-hour news cycle and it’s ludicrous to think any government can be properly scrutinized a week in advance.

I’m calling for the introduction of a 15 minute session for Topical Questions at the start of each ministerial session in the Senedd.

It works perfectly well in Northern Ireland, where question sessions are often more dynamic and engaging, so why not try it here?

Now, I don’t want to talk about these issues forever and a day…

Since becoming an Assembly Member in 2007, political discourse in the Bay Bubble seems to have been dominated by process, constitution and powers.

And I’ve spoken, at some length, of disengagement with the Assembly across Wales. And a continual sense of apathy towards an institution which has such influence over our nation.

But, perhaps most troubling of all, that disconnect too often extends to our young people.

Thousands of people will have turned 18 in recent months, and have the chance to vote for the first time in May's election - but won't do so. That should trouble all of us.

This isn't through lack of interest, or desire.

When I’ve taken questions in classrooms, or six form colleges, across Wales; I’ve been asked some of the most thought-provoking, difficult questions in my whole time as an AM.

And we know, when asked, that 79% of young people say they want to learn more about politics and the voting system.

That is why it was such a travesty when the Welsh Government cut funding for the National Children and Young People’s Assembly.

Wales should embrace organisations that encourage children and young people to get involved in the decision-making process; and to support them in understanding their rights and responsibilities.

Denying young people that opportunity to learn; to influence and to develop is all too hard.

That’s why, I wanted to announce today…

That a Welsh Conservative Government would cut Ministerial pay by 10% across the board…

… and plough every penny of that funding into giving young people a voice… reviving support for a National Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales.

That’s a quarter-of-a-million pounds dedicated to improving youth engagement in politics. Necessary action to improve engagement.

But engagement with politics is not all about this place – or this institution. Far from it.

For too long, the Welsh Government has failed to empower local communities. If devolution is a process; then local communities across Wales have been waiting a very long time.

In England, great strides have been made in recent years to give local people, and communities, more power to control their own destiny.

Nothing can inspire an individual to become an active participant in their local area, or community, than empowering them.

Trusting them.

Accepting they know best.

So – today – I want to confirm that a Welsh Conservative Government would introduce a Welsh Localism and Citizenship Bill.

A standalone Bill devoted to bringing both transparency and local people to the heart of local decision-making; and making democracy more accessible to the people it represents.

This Bill would introduce Community Rights to Bid and Buy - providing the opportunity for local groups to take over the ownership and running of key services. Local people in control.

It would introduce new rules on senior pay…

… and confirmation hearings for certain Government posts; placing Ministerial and Special Advisor appointments under scrutiny and external endorsement …

… restoring public confidence in the system.

It would clarify the use of referenda in our system; cementing their role in the decision-making process and empowering local Communities.

And it would make all Commissioners appointed by, and accountable to the National Assembly, not the Welsh Government.

The fact there is such a lack of understanding across Wales – 91 days out from this election – as to the powers held by the Assembly; and as to the importance of devolved decision-making; only reinforces the importance of us getting this right;

From empowering local communities, engaging young people in our decision-making process and giving the Assembly the respect – and name – it deserves …

… my vision is for a Wales that takes pride in having active, informed and involved citizens …

… shaping their own destiny as front and centre of the democratic process. 

And as discussions about the future shape of devolution continue; that is a challenge which all politicians must be prepared to embrace.