The potential effects of the Lobbying Bill on democracy at the UK level have been widely discussed, and it is difficult to cover the myriad problems the Bill poses in a single blog. This is a sign of the limitations of the Bill, not of bloggers.
The specific issue I want to address is the danger that the Bill will have acute knock-on effects on the quality of democracy in the National Assembly for Wales. Due to the dramatically expanded scope of civil society activities and issues now regulated by the Bill, it is likely to affect civil society’s role in the development and discussion of new policy (and scrutiny of current policy) in Wales.
This will be particularly felt in Wales as the National Assembly houses only 60 Assembly Members. As our recent report shows, the Assembly is already overstretched, and diminishing the additional layer of scrutiny which civil society provides could prove extremely damaging.
According to the Electoral Commission, the Bill expands the scope of the policy areas which are regulated to include campaigning on public policy issues. This wider scope brings an additional question in Wales – what happens to charities’ and civil society’s campaigns aimed at changing or influencing National Assembly policy during the regulated year preceding the UK general election?
It is difficult to see how this Bill would not apply to such campaigning. We have governments of different parties in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, and so advocating support or opposition to many policies can easily be read as directed at some parties’ advantage over others. And as Wales does not have a ‘reserved powers’ model (as in Scotland and Northern Ireland), the boundary between what is and what is not devolved is particularly blurred.
This goes against the tradition of politics under devolution. From its inception, devolution has always emphasised the role of civil society in deliberations and in the process of making effective policy. Indeed, the National Assembly for Wales has a statutory duty to engage with civil society. As the Electoral Commission has said:
“The impact of the Bill’s changes to the scope of the non-party controls, taken together with the lower registration thresholds and spending limits could be particularly significant in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where civil society has often had a prominent role in the development and discussion of new policy and legislation in recent years.”
The National Assembly’s 60 Assembly Members compares to 108 in Northern Ireland, 129 in Scotland and over 1,400 across both Houses at Westminster. In practice, it has just over 40 backbenchers acting as watchdogs over the Government at any one time. Our recent report, Size Matters, outlines how the National Assembly’s lack of capacity threatens its ability to scrutinise and make policy, particularly as it has gained more powers over more matters. We argue for a rise in the number of AMs to 100.
Compared to the other elected institutions across the UK, the National Assembly for Wales is therefore disproportionately dependent on charities and third sector organisations to help alleviate the scrutiny gap. If charities and organisations are – or feel they might be –constrained in what they can say on public policy in Wales for a period of 12 months before a UK general election, this will likely damage democracy in Wales. By diminishing the rigorous questioning and scrutiny of the Welsh Government that charities and the third sector bring, the quality of Welsh law and policy will suffer.
With such a small institution in comparison to Westminster, Northern Ireland and Scotland, any loss of such expertise and independence will be most keenly felt in Wales.