This is a guest blog by Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Electoral Reform Society.
This week the Electoral Reform Society organised a debate event in Aberystwyth on democracy. As the keynote speaker, I was given the opportunity to outline Plaid Cymru’s proposals for opening up and making our government more accessible and accountable. A Party of Wales led government will work to re-energise public debate and re-empower the citizens of our country.
Central to achieving this aim is the introduction of a new Welsh Representation of the People Act. This we hope to secure by the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Act. Within the first one hundred days, a Plaid Cymru government will consult on the most significant democratic renewal our country has seen since devolution.
As the Electoral Reform Society wrote in its last report on devolution:
“Under devolution, Wales is a young democratic nation; yet in many ways our youth does not equal vibrancy. Turn out for Assembly elections has been consistently low, never regaining the ‘high’ of 46% in 1999, and falling as low as 37% in 2007.”
That same report also said that in the 2010 General Election, more than three-quarters of those aged 65 or over voted; compared to fewer than half of those aged under-25.
Young people especially, but not exclusively, have been hit by changes to voter registration. It is a scandal that so many have been disenfranchised.
As part of Plaid Cymru’s proposals for a New Welsh Representation of the People Act, we will grant 16 & 17 year olds the vote at all elections within the competence of the National Assembly. Fostering democratic engagement at a young age should be promoted through the establishment of a National Youth Parliament.
We will also consult on digitalising Welsh democracy – learning from countries such as Estonia. I would like to see us pilot digital voting. Digital voting is not new in Estonia and there is much we can learn from there in terms of cyber security.
For too long, engagement in and an awareness of Welsh political developments has been hampered due to the lack of a widely consumed Welsh media. That means every possible step must be taken to widen access to our National Assembly and its work.
The work of the Assembly’s petitions committee has been valuable and we want to build upon it. We will seek to create a mechanism to whereby a petition that gathers ten thousand signature or more would automatically be debated in the National Assembly for Wales.
The Party of Wales also wants to maximise people’s participation in the Assembly’s deliberations. To that end, we propose that during questions to ministers, including the First Minister, time is allocated for “public questions” to be submitted through the Presiding Officer and answered on the
floor of the Assembly.
We will introduce the right of recall to enable citizens to challenge Assembly Members and local councillors under specified circumstances.
In addition to these concrete proposals, it important that people in Wales to have a clear sense of the nature of a Plaid Cymru government. A sense of how we will open up the corridors of power to scrutiny and to discussion.
The steps I will instigate from the office of the First Minister will begin with publishing all ministerial decisions and holding public cabinet meetings across the nation. It is vital that people in all parts of our country “own” of their democracy. Ensuring access to the cabinet in all parts of the nation will help this.
A Party of Wales government will commit to the principles of open government. To this end we will ensure the proactive release of all government information, records, reports and datasets in accessible formats for reuse for any purpose. This will also help to involve citizens in making decisions and developing policies, programmes and services.
In recent weeks, there have been several, disturbing revelations in terms of how the Welsh government has handled public money. There needs to be more transparency on the use of public funds. Plaid Cymru will designate all private contractors to public bodies as subject to section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act and we will create a Welsh Freedom of Information and Open Data
People here in Wales have endured the best part of two decades of a Labour bunker mentality government, burying itself away from public view as best it can for fear of attracting scrutiny.
The government I lead will be very different. We will be open, accessible and accountable. We will not shy away from scrutiny and will seize every opportunity to secure a better Wales.
That kind of government, coupled with a renewed democracy that can be facilitated by our new Welsh Representation of the People Act, will provide the firm foundations for an old nation to emerge as a vibrant, youthful democracy.
ERS Cymru will be holding a number of events featuring keynote speakers from the major parties in Wales in the run up to the Assembly elections, and this follows the first such event.