Welsh Assembly must not miss this golden opportunity for reform

Jess Blair urges the Assembly to take the lead on democratic reform ahead of a motion today in plenary.

Politics in Wales has reached a critical juncture – and this week Assembly Members (AMs) have a big decision to make.

One road would see exciting changes to the way politicians are elected, placing power back into the hands of the millions of people who are currently left feeling confused and frustrated.

But journey down the other road and a golden opportunity will have been missed.

The decision will be made in the Senedd today(Wednesday) when AMs will vote on whether to consult the public on the findings of an Expert Panel on Electoral Reform.

This panel – which worked independently from the Assembly – came up with several recommendations which could, if implemented, be a game-changer for democracy.

Firstly, it is proposed that 16 and 17 years olds are given the vote in Assembly elections. Votes at 16 is a policy which has attracted support rapidly in recent years, and for good reason.

All the evidence from the Scottish independence referendum shows 16 and 17 year olds will vote when given the chance and politicians from all parties were impressed with how they engaged with the historic vote.

With votes at 16 also set to be introduced for council election in Wales, keeping the minimum at 18 for the Assembly would create a bizarre and unhelpful constitutional imbalance.

Secondly, it is proposed that the number of AMs is expanded from 60 to between 80 and 90. This, we say, is long overdue.

As more and more powers are devolved from Westminster to the Assembly – and there will be a surge of additional powers when Brexit goes through – the workload of AMs increases too.

The ability of AMs to effectively scrutinise legislation, and for backbenchers to hold the Government to account, is being greatly diminished.

There would of course be a financial cost associated with expanding membership but this could be dwarfed by savings achieved in the long-term as a result of improved scrutiny. Wales currently has four MEPs costing £1.79m each a year. Following Brexit this saving could cover the cost of 24 additional AMs.

Additional AMs would also mean a more representative Assembly and more voices promoting the interests of the Welsh people.

Thirdly, and importantly, the panel recommended a change to the voting system.

Currently AMs are elected by what is termed the Additional Members System (AMS) which uses a combination of the antiquated winner-takes-all system used in General Elections, and a ‘party list’ selection.

The alternative being recommended is called Single Transferable Vote (STV.) This system, where voters rank candidates, creates a legislature which more accurately reflects the will of the people and does away with the problem of ‘safe seats.’

There are other recommendations too including a ‘gender quota’ to ensure there is a fair balance between male and female AMs, a requirement for parties to publish diversity data on their candidate selections and ideas on new ways of working including job sharing for elected representatives.

These are significant changes and so it is right that they should be properly scrutinised with the Welsh people given the chance to have their say.

That is why ERS Cymru has joined forces with Chwarae Teg, Community Housing Cymru, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, NUS Wales, Positif and Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales to urge AMs to approve the consultation.

This is an opportunity for Wales to lead on democratic reform, to engage its citizens and give them a greater voice in the running of the country.

The alternative is that these proposals are kicked into the long grass and power in Wales is kept from its people for potentially years to come.

This blog originally appeared on the ERS Website

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Jess Blair is Director of ERS Cymru