Senedd expansion is a pivotal moment for devolution

Matthew Mathias, ERS Cymru Campaigns and Projects Officer

Posted on the 9th May 2024

Something historic happened yesterday, something good.

What happened in the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) was the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill passed and did so with over 2/3rds of the chamber voting in favour.

News about Wales barely registers beyond its borders, news about politics in Wales barely registers within. It’s not surprising when the soap opera of Westminster looms large.

I mean, yesterday the Senedd decided to bring democracy in Wales into the 21st century but that pales into insignificance when faced with an MP, leaving a party to go to another one even though she isn’t going to be an MP this time next year.

For the nation, its people and its democracy. It’s historic and we should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Almost 25 years to the day since the birth of devolution the decision was taken to increase the size of the Senedd from 60 to 96 members. Voting for more politicians is never going to get you an open top bus procession through the streets of Fishguard, Pwllheli or Llansantffraid ym mechain but in anything you do, you need the right number of people to do the job properly and this is a case in point.

Back in 1999, the original 60-member assembly was designed for a time when it had no powers to make legislation or raise taxes. It was half the size of the Scottish Parliament, and smaller than many Welsh councils. Today the Senedd oversees over £23bn in Welsh Government spending and passes legislation that affects key services such as health, education, and transport. Its powers and responsibilities have grown and therefore it is only right that its size does.

Back in 2020 Wales’ Auditor General said “Good scrutiny means good legislation, and good legislation pays for itself…a 0.17% annual saving, or improvement in value, in Welsh Government spending, would pay for 30 extra members.”

It gets even better.

Another nail in the coffin for First Past the Post

The bill also means that the Senedd will have a new electoral system for the next elections and the good news for us, is that it’s another nail in the coffin for First Past the Post in these isles. Not everything is sweetness and light though, any move to a fully proportional system is a step in the right direction but the decision to adopt a closed list system of PR, under which voters vote for a party rather than a named candidate, feels more like a sidestep.

We need a better, fairer system and that’s the Single Transferable Vote.

It means our work to make sure the people of Wales get the democracy they deserve continues.

ERS Cymru has campaigned tirelessly over the last few years to secure this much needed legislation along with other partners in civil society.

A change welcomed across Wales

The passing of the bill was also welcomed by other civil society organisations across Wales, including the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) and the Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales.

Joe Rossiter, Co-Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, said:

“Today marks the next chapter in the ever-evolving story of devolution in Wales.

“As powers and responsibilities of the Senedd have grown over the past twenty-five years, it is vital that the Senedd’s capacity and capability continue to meet these shifting needs. The passing of the Bill today is an acknowledgement of the need to create a fit-for-purpose Senedd, which matches its growing list of responsibilities.

“Whilst today is a moment to celebrate progress made, the case for further reform remains. The closed list voting system established in the Bill, whilst more proportionate than first-past-the-post, doesn’t go far enough to create a Senedd which reflects votes.

“The passing of the Bill today is a step towards a more democratic Wales, but it is far from the last step on that journey.”

Victoria Vasey, Director of WEN Wales, added:

“Today marks a historic moment on a journey towards a more effective parliament for the people of Wales. The evidence is clear that a bigger Senedd is better equipped to properly scrutinise policy and legislation, which can lead to better decisions for all of us.

“While the passing of this legislation is a milestone, capacity isn’t everything. An effective parliament is one that represents its population, where women have an equal say and all protected characteristics and marginalised communities come together to make decision on the future of their country.

“We therefore welcome this legislation as part of a package of Senedd reform proposals, including legislation to encourage the election of a gender-balanced Senedd which is currently passing through the Senedd.

“We remain concerned about the closed list system, which will increase the power of political parties vs voter choice. We ask that this is kept under review and urge all political parties to do their bit towards making the most of the opportunity to promote equal and diverse representation in an expanded Senedd.

“This a pivotal moment in the story of Welsh devolution. Twenty-five years after the first elections to the Senedd, this Bill rights a historical inequality by finally bringing the Welsh parliament into line with the other devolved assemblies in the UK. Before this, Wales had a parliament less than half the size of Scotland’s, which was also the same size or smaller than nearly half of Welsh councils.”

The additional Senedd Members are badly needed to ensure that every decision the Welsh Government takes – decisions that affect every person in Wales – is properly looked at. This is an investment in better accountability so that problems are spotted earlier, and public money is spent more efficiently. And that is good for all of us.

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