Senedd reform can be part of a suite of measures to reinvigorate our stagnant democracy, and we must meet the scale of change, writes Joe Rossiter
As outlined in the IWA’s recent report Building Bridges: Wales’ democracy – now and for our future, democratic health in Wales, despite receiving much political attention, is in a state of sustained malaise.
Yes, turnout for Senedd elections is far below that of UK parliamentary elections in Wales, but democratic disengagement is an issue which goes far beyond the ballot box. Just 30% of people in Wales feel able to influence decisions about their local area. We are in dire need of democratic renewal in Wales, across the board, to re-establish the links that bind us together, and engage people in the decisions which impact their lives.
It is within this context that the Senedd (Members and Elections) Bill enters the scene. This far-reaching piece of legislation attempts to modernise both our electoral system and expand the capacity of the Senedd.
Details of the proposals are now well-established: an increase in the number of Senedd Members from 60 to 96, a move to a Closed List electoral system (via the D’Hondt method), the establishment of a Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru to oversee Senedd electoral boundaries, and an increase in the number of Welsh Government Ministers and Deputy Presiding Officers.
Now, the IWA welcomes many of the details contained in the proposals, as well as the intention to deliver legislation which includes both Senedd and electoral reform as one Bill. There is a plainly urgent need for this legislation, to make the Senedd fit-for-purpose and more reflective of the votes cast across the nation. The current 60 Members are insufficient to carry out the Senedd’s evolving mix of powers and responsibilities.
It’s also clear that the devolution settlement is not a closed book at this time. The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales will release its evidence as to the options for what could come next for Wales’ devolution story early next year: entrenched devolution, federalism or independence. We can expect moments of constitutional churn over the coming decade. Our assessment is that the direction of travel is for increased powers to be granted to the Senedd, not fewer.
So, with the caveat that these reforms alone cannot revitalise Wales’ democracy, there is still much further they can go to ensure that the Senedd functions better as an institution and that every vote in Wales cast counts towards its makeup.
Currently, the lack of Members means that the Senedd can only have plenary on two days a week. This means that the Senedd is in full session for fewer days than either the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly (when the latter is in session).
Below I break down some areas where we think the reforms could go further than they currently do. We have made these points in our response to the Senedd Reform Bill Committee’s recent consultation, which closed recently.
Senedd Reform: Equipping the Senedd to deliver
As highlighted above, the IWA fully supports the expansion of the Senedd to 96 members. There is a clear and urgent need for expansion to enable the Senedd to properly function, to exercise the additional powers it has gained over the 20 plus years of devolution and for its Members to undertake effective scrutiny. 96 Members is a sensible number of electors, with an over 50% increase in the number of representatives offering to be transformative.
But beyond this, the IWA believe that the Bill can go much further in improving the operation, governance and, ultimately, the performance of the Senedd.
In particular there is a need for clearer expressions of what the increased capacity of the Senedd will be used for. What is the tangible benefit? Currently, the lack of Members means that the Senedd can only have plenary on two days a week. This means that the Senedd is in full session for fewer days than either the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly (when the latter is in session). The Senedd, as it stands, cannot sit for more than two days because most non-government Members sit on at least two Committees. Yet the Bill has nothing to say on the allocation of days in the Senedd, the Committee process or what the increase of capacity means for scrutiny.
Yes, we agree with the argument that a larger Senedd will lead to better scrutiny, but beyond that, how will the increased capacity improve decision making and outcomes? How can we make the Senedd, as an institution, a space where better deliberation can take place?
Being explicit on this point might also make the political arguments for Senedd reform and expansion clearer to those who are yet to be won over.
Likewise, we know that the Committees are where the Senedd undertakes a large proportion of its scrutinising functions. They have a key role not only in the development of legislation, but also in holding the Government and public bodies to account. But what will the Senedd reform proposals mean for this system, beyond enabling Members to not sit on multiple committees, and focus on one? Could the Bill say more on this? For example, should the number of Committees required by a Senedd be put in the Bill, and if so, should this be expanded?
The Bill also represents an opportunity to improve Senedd standards and process, an issue on which the Bill is conspicuously quiet.
The lack of a recall mechanism in the Bill is a concern. If this legislation is aiming t0 deliver a better standard of debate and scrutiny in the Senedd, the lack of information on how standards will be upheld is a significant gap. We have seen in recent years how a number of Members have been suspended for poor behaviour by their party groups, but have not been met with swift action from the Senedd itself. There should be more robust and transparent mechanisms for ensuring high standards of integrity from our Members and this Bill should be an opportunity to formalise such mechanisms.
Whilst mandatory gender zipping on the closed lists is progressing on a separate Bill, there are other measures that could be contained within this Bill which could improve governance standards within the Senedd, making it a more attractive place to work at all levels.
A modern democracy requires a clear recall mechanism to improve scrutiny, transparency and accountability on behalf of the electorate. Without this, the Senedd will fall further behind its Westminster equivalent in this area which, however flawed, has clear processes around recall mechanisms for parliamentarians.
There is also a need to rethink the lack of by-election process outlined in the proposed changes, where the intention is currently either to leave seats vacant or go further down the closed list from the party in that constituency. There seems to be a lack of scrutiny and accountability attached to this mechanism. For example, if a Senedd Member resigns due to failing to meet the standards required, then is it fair and appropriate that the seat automatically goes to another candidate from the same party? In such instances, it would seem reasonable for a by-election to take place in that constituency, to establish whether the constituency still supports that seat being held by the party of the former Member.
We also must ensure that, with 36 additional Members likely at the next Senedd election, resources and processes are put in place ensure that they are adequately supported to deliver effectively in their role. How will Members be supported in setting up offices, appointing staff and learning Senedd processes? We know from discussions with new Members that this is often a steep learning curve – is Senedd capacity sufficient to expand this support?
These points also link to the inclusivity of the Senedd. Whilst mandatory gender zipping on the closed lists is progressing on a separate Bill, there are other measures that could be contained within this Bill which could improve governance standards within the Senedd, making it a more attractive place to work at all levels. We think the Bill could consider standards on offering childcare to Senedd members on site, as is customary in other Parliaments, such as Westminster. Furthermore, given that job sharing is continuing across all sectors of our economy, it should be considered whether these reforms could stand the test of time and create a space where all are able to stand for election regardless of their personal circumstances and other responsibilities. It is the IWA’s view that such mechanisms to improve inclusivity should sit as part of this Bill as these deal with reforms of the make-up of the Senedd itself. Is there a need for a separate commission to consider job sharing as proposed in the Bill?
Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.
Finally, the IWA believes that there is a clear case for establishing mechanisms for deliberative methods of democracy as part of a modernised Senedd. As part of our Media and Democracy policy work we have clearly articulated the role that deliberative methods can play in a mature democracy. If we are considering how to reinvigorate Welsh democracy, there should be provisions that go beyond the ballot box and deal with the link between people, communities, the places they live and the Members who represent them. There are a growing number of examples internationally of deliberative mechanisms that have been institutionalised as part of the parliamentary process.
We firmly believe that, within the unicameral system in the Senedd, there must be space for opinions from people outside the field of elected politics to input their lived experience and their perspective directly into the legislative process in a far more substantial and in-depth manner than the systems enabled currently (such as the petitions process and the consultation process, both of which are blunt instruments which are not equally accessible to all). We do however accept that this may sit outside of the scope of this particular Bill, but want to put this on record as a potential area for future Senedd reform.
Electoral Reform: Ensuring every vote counts
The IWA are supportive of moving towards a more proportional voting system. Any move to create a Senedd which more accurately reflects votes is a step forward.
However, we have concerns over the closed proportional list system proposed. Chief among our concerns with this system is the breaking of the historic candidate-constituency link. Under the proposed system, electors will lose the opportunity to vote for individual candidates, and instead will vote only for a political party. a move to a closed list system will have distinct implications for democratic health in Wales. Notably, a closed list system will dilute the accountability and transparency of our democratic processes.
The closed list system will also further entrench political parties’ control of the candidate selection process. As we look to reinvigorate Welsh democracy, we should be enacting changes which strengthen the links between candidates and the communities they serve, not adding further barriers to this relationship.
The IWA, alongside a number of other organisations in the democracy space, would prefer the Single Transferable Vote System (STV), which is not only a more proportional system than that proposed, but also retains the elector-candidate link. If the Welsh Government is committed to creating a proportional Senedd then we think that STV is the best option going forward, creating a Senedd which is most representative of the votes cast. This is also reflective of the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Electoral Reform undertaken in 2017 and a Senedd Committee report on the issue of reform. The current proposal of a closed list system reflects an approach which puts politics ahead of the opportunity for truly transformative reform.
Regardless of the voting system eventually decided upon, it is vitally important that a substantial budget be utilised to communicate the proposed changes to the electoral system to the public in Wales.
Meaningful electoral and Senedd reform is not an opportunity that comes along often, maybe once a decade. There is scope for more ambition, more detail and more of a unifying and reinvigorating vision.
The role of independents in the new electoral system also needs more scrutiny. It is important that individual candidates who are not part of a political party (or are their party’s sole candidate in a constituency) are able to stand for election. But how this interplays in a system which prioritises closed party lists could result in confusion. Could an unintended consequence be that candidates selected on the bottom half of a party list choose instead to stand as an independent candidate? Indeed, party candidates sitting below number three or four on a closed list might stand little chance of election under the new system. As such, as highlighted above, the proposed closed list system could act to disempower candidates and empower larger party cohorts.
Boundary Commission Cymru
The IWA supports the intention to establish Boundary Commission Cymru in order to create boundaries for post-2030 Senedd elections which reflect the new Senedd electoral system. This move continues the pathway of Wales having more control over its electoral process, which has been gathering pace since the Wales Act 2017.
One area of concern, however, is the significant confusion this may mean for electors. Given that there is large-scale change to the electoral system ahead on UK-aligned boundaries, with another change to these for the 8th Senedd, the next ten years will bring in substantial transformations. This could lead to significant confusion within the electorate if due attention is not paid to communicating clearly the complexity of different electoral processes at different levels of government. As mentioned above, it is vital that substantial budget is allocated to the communication of these changes, at each stage in which these changes take place.
A further area of concern is the governance and funding allocated to the new Boundary Commission Cymru. Is this approach going to be a cost effective exercise, when similar work is already undertaken by the current UK-wide Commission?
Meeting the opportunity, and the challenge
When looking at these proposals, it’s important to look at them through the lens of the following question: do they make for a fairer, healthier and more inclusive democracy?
In a number of cases, they do. But do they fully meet the scale of change needed? Or do they meet the opportunity that this moment provides us? Meaningful electoral and Senedd reform is not an opportunity that comes along often, maybe once a decade. There is scope for more ambition, more detail and more of a unifying and reinvigorating vision.
Here at the IWA we will continue to scrutinise not only proposals for Senedd and electoral reform, and to explore ideas which can revitalise our democracy. We welcome engagement with others who similarly care about the future of our democracy.