New Senedd Bill is an investment in Welsh democracy

Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 31st January 2024

Yesterday in the Senedd, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, said “democracy only flourishes if you tend the garden to which it is sowed”. He was speaking in a statement around the recent publication of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales’ final report.

Yet, that theme continued throughout the day in the Siambr (Senedd Chamber) as we witnessed the next step in the Welsh Parliament’s democratic coming of age, with Members voting to approve the first stage of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill.

Discussions around the contents of this Bill have been taking place for almost the entirety of the Senedd’s existence and finally looks to be moving forward.

What will the Bill introduce?

This is the legislation that would deliver the long-awaited increase in Senedd Members, something ERS Cymru has been calling for for over a decade and was first mooted by the Kilbrandon Commission in 1973, way before the Senedd was even established. If passed, this Bill will take the Senedd from a paltry 60 members to 96, in line with other devolved institutions across the UK.

The Bill also proposes a change to the Senedd’s voting system. Moving from the Additional Members System to a full Closed List system and altering the constituency boundaries, pairing the 32 new Westminster constituencies to create 16 multi member wards of 6 members in each.

Investing in Welsh democracy

The debate last night was one of consensus between many parties, with one outlier. Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats supported the first stage of this legislation, while the Welsh Conservatives voted against.

The striking thing about the debate was how much it captured the need to invest in our democracy.  While introducing the legislation, the Counsel General Mick Antoniw said this Bill was an “investment in the modernisation of our democracy and its ability to scrutinise government”.

This idea of democracy being something to be tended to, or to invest in, is the very basis for this legislation. This Bill is a recognition of something that has long been known, that the arrangements that the Senedd was established with in 1999 are not sufficient for a fully functioning national parliament.

And let’s be honest. There are many challenges to Wales currently, both economically and in terms of our education and health systems. But getting our democracy right is fundamental to making Wales flourish as a nation. An investment in scrutiny- our checks and balances- ensures that Ministers are held to account. It puts more expert eyes on every line in the budget and strengthens committees that oversee vital legislation.

What’s the next step?

Whilst the Bill has passed its first hurdle with last night’s vote, the finishing line is still far away. At the next stage of its legislative journey Members will be able to table amendments. It is here we hope to see further consideration on the proposed voting system.

We have significant concerns that the Closed List system will remove voter choice as voters will not be able to vote for individual candidates. While there are some reassurances in the legislation around a review process immediately following the 2026 election, which the First Minister alluded to in a discussion with the Institute for Government last week where he maintained that Closed Lists will only be in place for the first election after this Bill passes, we do believe this can still be strengthened at the next stage for this Bill. Opening up or making lists more flexible, so that voters can still back their favoured individual candidate would remedy many of these concerns and possibly create a more sustainable system.

If that review process is also going to be relied on then it must be as strong as it can be. Embedding metrics like voter choice and proportionality into the legislation is key to its long term success.

As the Bill progresses through the Senedd we hope it is strengthened in the ways we have outlined above and ultimately that this Bill is delivered and comes into effect in time for the 2026 elections. With tweaks, this package can represent a giant leap forward for our Parliament. Members of the Senedd have an important role to play in this garden of democracy and it requires careful tending to.

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