Time to Sort out What to Call the Executive Arm of the National Assembly; Constitutional Confusion Is Jeopardising the Quality of Democracy in Wales, Warns Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales. Here, He Claims the Welsh Assembly Government Is in Urgent Need of a New Name

Article excerpt

Byline: Dafydd Elis-Thomas

THE National Assembly recently surveyed more than 2,500 people in Wales for their opinions about the National Assembly for Wales and how much they understood about the powers of the Assembly.

I was naturally delighted to find that opposition to the Assembly, which has constantly declined from 39% in 1997, is only at 15% today. I am also very pleased that across Wales there is now a similar level of support for the Assembly in all regions.

The research also found a reasonable degree of interest in politics and knowledge about the Assembly. Most people know that the Assembly is responsible for education and isn't responsible for defence. However, there is very little understanding of the difference between the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Assembly Government.

Only 14% knew that the statement - 'the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales is Rhodri Morgan' - is wrong. Western Mail readers, of course, will know that Rhodri Morgan is the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, but despite our excellent personal relationship, our roles and our institutions are hardly interchangeable.

The lack of a clear separation between the Assembly itself and "Welsh Ministers" as they are now always described in UK legislation conferring powers on them, and the civil servants working for them, has always been a constitutional issue for me. But the evidence now clearly shows that perpetuating the confusion is preventing clear communication about democratic decisions.

This is the view of the Electoral Commission, who in its reports on general elections to the National Assembly asserts that public uncertainty about powers and responsibilities was a contributory factor in the relatively low level of turn-out. A clearly-perceived separation between a legislature and an executive is a crucial part of democratic governance and is fundamental to the workings of any constitutional political system world-wide. How could Wales be different?

The separation between the two was formally made in the Government of Wales Act 2006. There was complete unanimity both in the National Assembly and in theUKParliament that the granting of legislative powers should be accompanied by a proper separation between the parliamentary institution of the National Assembly, and the "Welsh Ministers", as they are described in the Government of Wales Act 2006 which is the present constitution of Wales.

However although the term Welsh Assembly Government was enshrined in Part Two of that Act itself, "Welsh Ministers" is now far and away the most common term used in legislation.

Our present confusion is a creation of our history. The National Assembly for Wales was set up by our first constitution in the Government of Wales Act 1998 as a "corporate body" with no formal differentiation between executive and legislature, Government and Assembly. …