As the Senedd approaches the last few months before the 2021 election, a report today is recommending wide-ranging reforms to its structure, including more Members, a new electoral system and measures to improve diversity.
The report from the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform is laying out a series of recommendations to 'strengthen our democracy in Wales'.
The recommended reforms follow the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which extends the right to vote in Senedd elections to 16 and 17-year olds, becoming law earlier this year. In May 2020 the legislature also formally became Senedd Cymru/the Welsh Parliament, reflecting its place within the UK's constitutional landscape and offering greater clarity on its role and responsibilities.
Last year the Senedd decided that more Members were needed, but that further work was required to consider how that could be achieved. The Senedd Electoral Reform Committee was created to examine the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, and to consider how many Members the Senedd needs and how Members should be elected, and to look at the diversity of the Senedd.
The Committee's role was to report on these key constitutional issues and help ensure that the Senedd functions well on behalf of the people of Wales. It has done so today, but the COVID-19 outbreak has inevitably had an impact on the Committee's work as Senedd members and Committees have been focusing their efforts on scrutinising the Welsh Government's efforts to tackle the virus.
However, the pandemic has also demonstrated how the Senedd can function in a different way and the Committee is keen for this to be looked at. In a time of crisis, the Senedd has radically adapted the way it functions and the Committee believes valuable lessons can be learned from this.
The Committee is recommending that legislation should be introduced soon after the 2021 election to increase the size of the Senedd to between 80 and 90 Members (from the current 60) with effect from the 2026 election. This supports recommendations made in 2017 by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform.
Among the reasons outlined by the Committee for supporting an increase in size are the time constraints many witnesses to the inquiry confirmed are faced by Members as they serve the increasing responsibilities of the Senedd. Since the National Assembly was established in 1999 the institution has changed, putting more pressure on its 60 Members. It now has primary law-making powers and power over some tax rates. Following the UK's exit from the European Union, it's likely the Senedd will have even more responsibilities.
A new electoral system
The Committee is recommending that legislation should be introduced after the 2021 election for Members of the Senedd to be elected by 2026 using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, a proportional voting system designed to achieve or closely approach proportional representation through voters ranking candidates.
STV was the clearly-preferred option for many of those who responded to the Committee's consultation with stakeholders highlighting the potential reduction in 'wasted' votes or the need for tactical voting and the retention of a clear constituency link between voters and their representatives (often mentioned as a key advantage of the First Past the Post electoral system).
The Committee's view is that:
It should be simple for voters to complete their ballot papers and there should be a clear constituency link between constituents and their representatives
Votes should be translated into seats fairly, and the electoral system should produce broadly proportional outcomes
All Members should be elected by the same route to resolve the recurrent debate over whether regional Members are accountable to voters or parties
The Senedd's electoral system should operate on the basis of multi-member constituencies. This would offer more choice to voters and enable parties to put forward multiple candidates, allowing them to diversify their selection processes and encourage the election of a more diverse Senedd
The Committee believes that scrutiny, representation and decision-making are better when undertaken from a variety of different perspectives, and when a range of lived experiences can be brought directly to bear. It also believes that legislatures should be inclusive spaces in which the people and communities they serve can see themselves reflected.
The Committee wants everybody in Wales to be able to feel that they could stand for election without facing disproportionate barriers as a result of their own intersectional identity.
The increased awareness of structural racism and discrimination following the Black Lives Matter protests and the significant changes to ways of working adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that radical progress can be made when there is a clear driver and a common purpose. The Committee believes that now is the time to channel that momentum and willingness to innovate into ensuring that everyone in Wales feels able to engage with and participate in our democratic processes and institutions.
The Committee has outlined a series of recommendations for positive action to improve the diversity of the Senedd by overcoming structural inequalities and barriers including:
Creating an access to elected office fund to support people with disabilities to stand for election
Support for candidates with childcare or other caring responsibilities by exempting this from election expenses
Requiring political parties to publish diversity and inclusion strategies and collect, anonymise and publish data about the diversity of their candidates
Further cross-party work on how job sharing of elected roles could work in practice
Dawn Bowden, Chair of the Committee for Senedd Electoral Reform:
"The response to the COVID-19 outbreak has obviously been our top priority as Members of the Senedd. Our efforts have been focused on scrutinising the Welsh Government's response to the pandemic and asking important questions about the support available for people and businesses.
"The way in which our Senedd has operated during this time of crisis has been put under the spotlight more than ever. With MSs and staff working from home, reprioritising plenary and committee business, using technology to continue functioning remotely and developing new ways of working have all tested the Senedd's capacity.
"Devolution has been an exciting journey, and the Senedd we have today looks radically different from how it did when it was established over 20 years ago. With expanded powers and responsibilities, it now makes decisions on laws that affect every aspect of peoples' lives and has responsibility for setting some tax rates.
"We believe that the people of Wales would be better served by a Senedd which has the right number of Members. A larger Senedd would be cost effective, as Members would be better able to hold the Welsh Government to account for its spending and decisions, and pass better legislation, as well as helping people across Wales with their problems.
"Increasing the membership of the Senedd should go hand in hand with increasing its diversity. Our parliament makes decisions that affect everyone in Wales – our country's diverse people and communities should all be able to see themselves reflected in its membership.
"Today we're setting out clear recommendations to reform our Senedd and to make it fit for the future, giving the people of Wales real confidence in its parliament."
Professor Laura McAllister, Chair of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform added:
"I very much welcome the Committee's report representing as it does the next stage in creating a Senedd that is fit for purpose and can properly deliver for the people of Wales. The issue of its size will not go away and needs addressing as soon as possible.
"Proper capacity to scrutinise the actions of government and other agencies has been further highlighted during recent events, including the pandemic and Britain's exit from the EU. Effective scrutiny will pay for itself.
"I am very glad too that the Committee has reinforced the Expert Panel's commitment to creating a more proportional electoral system to elect a larger Senedd. Equal mandates, voter choice and diversity should be at the heart of a new electoral system. I would also urge the issue of legislative quotas to be kept firmly on everyone's agenda for reforms. The public profile and credibility of the Senedd, as well as its effectiveness would be enhanced by "baking in" diversity to its enlargement and reform."
Read the full report:
Senedd reform: The next steps (PDF, 5 MB)