WITH today marking 15 years since the birth of the National Assembly for Wales, its Newport-based presiding officer says the chamber has become a model for modern democracy.
But opposition figures have used the anniversary as an opportunity to attack Labour’s record in Wales, with the leader of the Welsh Lib Dems saying the party’s failings are undermining people’s faith in devolution.
It was on May 12, 1999, that the National Assembly for Wales was founded in Cardiff, and since then it has grown from a body that had little of its own powers to change law, to one that can make acts in any of the 20 areas that are devolved to it.
During the 15 years of its existence it also effectively split in two. Its executive functions now rest with the Welsh Government, a separate body whose ministers are Labour Assembly members who rule as a minority government, led by first minister Carwyn Jones.
Labour Newport West AM Rosemary Butler, who has been the assembly’s presiding officer since 2011, said in its first 15 years the assembly has matured into a fully-fledged law-making body.
She said the chamber is increasingly viewed as an “exemplar for modern democracy”.
“Fifteen years since the assembly was established, the assembly enjoys overwhelming public support from the people it represents,” she said.
She used the anniversary as an opportunity to repeat her call for the number of AMs to be increased from 60 to 80, given the scale of workload they face.
Tory Monmouth MP David Davies was however less conciliatory, saying: “I don’t think I could wish it a happy birthday.”
The man who helped set-up and run the 1997 campaign against devolution said: “It’s gained an enormous amount of power in the last 15 years. I would like to see it improve services with the powers its got and stop trying to gain more every couple of years.
“Otherwise we won’t be celebrating the 30th year of the Assembly—we will be celebrating the first year of Welsh independence... That’s the direction we’re going in at the moment.”
He said its record was “dreadful” over healthcare, education and council tax.
David Davies was himself an AM from the assembly’s founding through to 2007, joining the new institution alongside Mrs Butler and John Griffiths, Labour’s Newport East AM and the Welsh Government’s culture minister.
Mr Griffiths said the assembly has come an “awful long way” over the 15 years of devolution, with the institution now having legislative powers after the 2011 referendum.
“We’ve seen Wales come on leaps and bounds since 1999 as a result of devolution,” he said.
“Wales is much stronger now than it was in 1999,” he said, claiming statistics around health delivery and education have shown major improvements.
Plaid South Wales East AM Lindsay Whittle, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East, said: “The establishment of the National Assembly has brought government closer to the people—and given many people easier access to ministers than was ever possible before.
“Thousands of apprenticeships were created thanks to a Plaid Cymru deal with the Welsh Government and free concessionary bus passes have been appreciated by many.”
Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said she was proud that Wales has its own National Assembly but feared “Labour’s routine failings are undermining many people’s faith in devolution.”
“Sadly, the lack of a decent education has allowed many people to struggle to find work… Our health system grabs all the wrong headlines on a weekly basis,” she said.
Wales’ first minister Mr Jones said: “Devolution in Wales has developed in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way over the past 15 years. We have certainly come a long way in terms of our capability to govern, to legislate and to scrutinise and hold the executive to account.
He said law making powers “have enabled us to set Wales apart and lead the way on important issues, including becoming the first UK nation to introduce an opt-out system of organ donation.”
But Conservative AM Andrew RT Davies, who is leader of the opposition in the Assembly, said, “For 15 years, Labour has been wasting money and pursuing populist gimmicks while Wales gets poorer and public services are stretched.”
‘We couldn’t survive on our own yet’
WE asked people in Newport their views of the assembly 15 years on:
Will Pannel, 22, works in the Lamb pub in Newport and said: “We still get money from central government so it’s best of both. They’ve got more local views and there’s less red tape to fight through in small governments.
“It’s helped Cardiff and possibly turned business away from Newport, but that’s up for debate.”
Dominic Mayer, 29, from Chepstow Road, said: “I would have voted for devolution. It’s passed more powers to us and good laws like the free prescription. I wouldn’t want to be completely regulated centrally. I’m pro-Welsh Assembly, but I don’t think we can survive on our own yet.
Eos Bourton, 76, from Pontllanfraith, said: “I like the National Assembly. I’m not overly impressed with my representative Gwyn Price.”
Vivian Williams, 62, from Claremont, Malpas, said: “It has benefitted us as far as free prescriptions are concerned. But it’s always going to be about Cardiff.”
Richard Jones 31, from Cardiff Road, Newport, said: “At the time I would have voted no, but now I see the benefits of it.”
His wife, Elizabeth Jones, 29, said: “They would be on shaky ground trying to work on their own. Let’s see how Scotland fair first.”