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Definition: National Assembly for Wales from Collins English Dictionary


1 the National Assembly for Wales the elected assembly for Wales, based in Cardiff, that has certain powers devolved from the UK government Informal name: Welsh Assembly

from The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales

Following the affirmative vote in the 1997 devolution referendum, the first National Assembly election was held on 6 May 1999, and the Assembly was opened by Elizabeth II on 26 May 1999. Following much debate about its location - a debate in which Swansea made a determined effort to secure it - it was temporarily housed in Crickhowell House in Cardiff Bay. In 2006, it moved to a magnificent new building nearby, designed by Richard Rogers and known as Y Senedd. The executive arm of the Welsh Assembly Government is housed in the one-time Welsh Office in Cardiff’s Cathays Park.

The Assembly’s 60 members are elected by universal suffrage and elections are held every four years. The method of election combines the traditional first-past-the-post system with the additional member form of proportional representation. Each voter has two votes - the first for one of the 40 constituency members (based upon the Westminster parliamentary constituencies) and the second for regional members (four for each of what had been until 2002 Wales’s five European parliamentary constituencies). This is designed to ensure that each party’s representation reflects its overall share of the vote. Members meet under the chairmanship of the presiding officer or llywydd, whose role approximates to that of the speaker of the House of Commons.

The Assembly decides on priorities and allocates funds in a large number of policy areas in relation to Wales, among them agriculture, economic development, education, health, housing, industry, local government, social services, tourism, transport and the Welsh language. Other aspects of government remain the responsibility of Westminster, among them broadcasting, defence, foreign affairs, the justice system, the police service, prisons, social security benefits and taxation. Unlike the Parliament of Scotland, the Assembly lacks the authority to vary taxation, and until 2007 it lacked the power to enact legislation, although it took over the powers of the secretary of state for Wales with regard to secondary legislation - the right to fill in the detail of Westminster acts - from the outset.

The Assembly members nominate a first minister (the Welsh form, y prif weinidog, translates into English as ‘prime minister’), who is appointed by the Queen. The Queen also gives approval to all ministerial appointments and to the appointment of a counsel general. Following the Government of Wales Act (2006), the Assembly is able to legislate within its policy areas. However, such powers are conferred upon it by the Westminster parliament through the granting of Legislative Competence Orders relating to specific legislative fields. Until 2007, the Assembly’s procedures were a bewildering hybrid of those of Westminster and those of a county council. But following the Act of 2006, the National Assembly for Wales (the legislature) and the Welsh Assembly Government (the executive) became distinct legal entities.

In the election of 1999, when the turnout was 46%, the first-past-the-post constituencies were contested by 199 candidates. In all, the Labour Party won 28 seats, Plaid [Genedlaethol] Cymru 17, the Conservatives 9 and the Liberal Democrats 6. Of the 60 elected, 24 were women, a remarkable advance in view of Wales’s previously appalling record in electing female representatives.

The Assembly’s first four-year term was beset by problems. Three of the party leaders - Alun Michael (Labour), Dafydd Wigley (Plaid Cymru) and Rod Richards (Conservative) - resigned, and were replaced by Rhodri Morgan, Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nicholas Bourne. The difficulties experienced by Rhodri Morgan’s minority Labour administration led in October 2000 to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Although the Welsh Assembly government adopted several popular policies on matters such as prescription charges, school tests and university fees, many in Wales felt that it had made no difference to their lives and that it was no more than an expensive talking-shop. Nevertheless, there were others for whom the mere establishment of the Assembly was little short of miraculous. In the second Assembly elections (2003), the turnout declined to 38.16%. Of the Assembly seats, 30 were won by the Labour Party, 12 by Plaid Cymru, 11 by the Conservatives, 6 by the Liberal Democrats and 1 (Wrexham) by an Independent. With Labour winning half the seats, Rhodri Morgan decided to form an exclusively Labour administration. In the 2003 election, 30 men and 30 women won seats, making the National Assembly the first national elected body in the world to consist of equal numbers of men and women. The Labour cabinet was also unprecedented, for the majority of its members were women. There were increasing demands that the Assembly should receive the same powers as the Scottish parliament, particularly following the British government reshuffle of 2003, which changed the secretaryship of state into a part-time office. The Richard Commission (2004) came to the conclusion that the Assembly should progressively acquire legislative powers; it believed that the process could be completed by 2011, by which time the Assembly should have 80 members elected by the single transferable vote system. Labour’s Government of Wales Act (2006) fell short of that aim, but it foresaw the gaining of full legislative powers were that development to be approved by referendum.

In the third election (2007), the most interesting development was the increase in the readiness to vote, with 44.4% of the electorate going to the polls - compared with 38.16% in 2003. The Labour Party won 26 seats. Plaid Cymru 15, the Conservatives 12 and the Liberal Democrats 6. The Labour Party had lost the ability to govern alone and its attempts to establish a coalition with the Liberal Democrats proved unsuccessful. Efforts by Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to create a ‘rainbow’ coalition also failed. The surprising outcome was the establishment of a coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru, parties that, between them, held 41 of the Assembly’s 60 seats. Intriguingly, the coalition became a fact on 7 July 2007, exactly 700 years after the death of Edward I.

© University of Wales Press 2008 text © text, Yr Academi Gymreig 2008

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