David Rees MS, Chair of the Reform Bill Committee, examines how better representation and scrutiny can lead to a healthier democracy in Wales
Earlier this year, I was sitting in the Siambr of the Senedd for one of the most important sessions of the year, the Welsh Government’s legislative programme, where the First Minister outlined legislation that would lead to some of the most significant changes to Welsh democracy since devolution.
If it becomes law, the Welsh Government’s Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill would increase the number of Members of the Senedd from 60 to 96, change the voting system, introduce new constituency boundaries, increase the frequency of Senedd elections from once every five years to once every four, and require all candidates and Members to be resident in Wales.
These are hugely significant reforms to how our democracy operates. But how do we, as elected politicians who are not in government, make sure that all these proposals are fully thought through?
How does Senedd Committee scrutiny work?
As Chair of the Reform Bill Committee, my duty is to ensure that this Bill is scrutinised thoroughly so that when the time comes, Members are fully informed of what they’re voting on.
One of the true strengths of our committee system is that it encompasses representatives from across the political spectrum.
One of the true strengths of our committee system is that it encompasses representatives from across the political spectrum. This means that, when legislation is put forward, Members often approach scrutiny from different positions and potential laws are questioned and queried from all angles.
Why 96 Members? How will the new voting system work? How much will it cost? How will you explain all these changes to the public before the next election? How will returning to a four year electoral cycle improve efficiency and the legislative process?
These are just some of the questions that the Committee will be putting to the Welsh Government and others over the coming months to ensure that these major changes have been properly considered.
At the beginning of October, Mick Antoniw MS, the Welsh Government’s Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, appeared before the Committee for the first time to answer some of these questions.
And, over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to various organisations, the Senedd Commission, academics and other experts in the field to discuss the positives and negatives of what is being proposed.
A gender equal Senedd
There has also been a lot of discussion about the proposal to ensure a gender equal Senedd in the coming years. From 2003 to 2007 we had 50-50 female/male representation – the first parliament in the world to achieve this – but in recent years the majority of Members have been men.
To reverse this trend, the Welsh Government announced their intention to include measures to support and encourage gender equality in their package of reforms. But, as keener eyes might have noticed, this wasn’t something I mentioned in the list of issues that this upcoming Bill would address.
This is because this provision is not included in the Bill. Instead, the Welsh Government have signalled that they intend to put forward a separate Bill introducing candidate gender quotas later this year.
As responsibility for most equality issues remains in Westminster and not Cardiff, the Welsh Government has expressed its concern that this issue could be subject to a legal challenge to the Supreme Court.
Any such challenge could delay the other proposed reforms (such as voting systems, boundary changes etc.) beyond the 2026 election, when these plans are due to be implemented.
This has led the Welsh Government to split the Bills so that, if there is a challenge and the gender quotas plan fails, the other proposed changes would remain unaffected.
Of course, if this second Bill arrives in front of our Committee, we will undertake our role in analysing and scrutinising it thoroughly before reporting back to the Senedd on whether we think it should continue to the next stages of the legislative process.
The Committee faces a busy few months of scrutiny and evidence sessions, but in January it will be time to publish our initial findings into the general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill; the Stage 1 report.
This report will be the first big test for the legislation. Our job on the Committee is to make sure that Members have the full facts in front of them when they decide what happens next.
A parliament must be brave enough to look at itself in the mirror and examine the health of its democracy.
By examining the general principles of the Bill in detail, spotting any potential barriers or unintended consequences and considering the financial costs, this report will give Members a fuller picture of what the Bill will mean for Wales.
A debate in the Siambr will follow the report, which will allow Members to express their views on what is being proposed by the Welsh Government.
This will be followed by a vote deciding whether the Bill proceeds to Stage 2 and to another level of scrutiny and debate where Members will also be able to propose amendments to the legislation.
Discussions about voting systems and constituency boundaries might seem far removed from the daily issues facing most people in Wales, and democratic reform is not at the top of many people’s priorities.
But the effectiveness of our Parliament as it holds the Welsh Government to account on things like housing, education, climate change and the NHS affects everyone across Wales.
A parliament must be brave enough to look at itself in the mirror and examine the health of its democracy. It must not be afraid of the solutions, but it must be prepared to scrutinise, analyse and dissect those proposed solutions. I’m confident that this Committee is ready for the important role we have ahead of us in helping to make sure our democracy is the best it can be.
To make sure that our work is informed by the experiences, needs, and views of the people and communities of Wales, we’re keen to hear from anyone who would like to respond before Friday 3 November 2023; you can do this here.