Success as Labour vote overwhelmingly to increase the size of the Senedd

Author:
Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 7th July 2022

Welsh Labour members voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to back a new package of reforms to modernise the Senedd. This is the culmination of nearly 20 years of discussions around reforming the Welsh Parliament, particularly in terms of its size.

Saturday’s vote feels to many who have followed the debate like clearing that final hurdle at the end of a long race. Yet, in reality, we may only just be warming up as we move on to a complex legislative stage.

The reforms that Welsh Labour backed have come as the result of both a Labour/Plaid deal and a cross-party Senedd Special Purpose committee. The proposals include increasing the size of the Senedd to 96 members from the current 60, a change to a ‘closed list’ proportional representation voting system, and gender quotas.

Creating the full-time parliament Wales deserves

These are much-needed reforms for a Senedd that has seen its responsibilities and powers grow beyond recognition since it was first created as a small National Assembly. As such, the size of the Senedd has been an issue for nearly two decades now – almost as long as the Senedd has been in existence. The current chamber of 60 members leaves just over 40 (those who are not part of the government or party leaders) to deliver the vital role of scrutiny. This has effectively led to a ‘part-time parliament’ in Wales, with Senedd committees only being held every other week this term.

A 96-member Senedd will finally deliver a fully functioning parliament and put us in line with other national parliaments such as Northern Ireland, which has 90 members in its assembly.

Diverse perspectives make for better legislation

The measures for gender quotas are also a welcome step, as they will help ensure women are always properly represented at a national level. These will be the first of their kind in the UK and embed measures that will aim to deliver a 50:50 parliament, mirroring the result in 2003 when Wales became the first legislature to reach gender parity.

We would also hope that these quotas can allow measures to improve the representation of other communities, particularly increasing the representation of people from a black or ethnic minority background.

While we at ERS Cymru would have preferred a different electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote, to be chosen, the closed list system will move Senedd elections away from the ‘winner takes all’ First Past the Post system, which often produces skewed results in parliaments. This new system will mean the will of the electorate is more accurately reflected in Cardiff Bay and give every person in Wales six representatives, increasing the likelihood that people will have someone representing them that they voted for.

What happens next for Senedd reform

Following Saturday, this package of reforms has now been backed by over two-thirds of the Senedd, 76% of Welsh Labour delegates and will hopefully soon be approved by the Plaid Cymru National Executive Committee. That will bring a number of ducks in a row to enable legislation to be developed that will deliver these reforms in time for the 2026 election.

This will be a challenge for Welsh Government lawyers, who will have to work on a very complex bill. As well as the measures I’ve outlined above, the legislation will also have to consider boundary changes, the intricacies of a new system and how to ensure the bill will be able to be delivered within the competency of the Senedd.

On that latter point, some are already suggesting that certain elements of the legislation, particularly the gender quotas, wouldn’t be at the discretion of the Senedd. But those suggestions have largely come from one place – a Welsh conservative party who opposes them out of principle. On Sunday Politics this week, the Chair of the Special Purpose Committee, Huw Irranca Davies MS, pushed back on these challenges admitting that solving them would be “finely balanced”, but adding he is confident it was possible. It is likely though that this won’t be the last word on this and presents a warning to those drafting legislation to ensure it is as robust as possible.

One of the biggest challenges for those drafting and voting on the legislation will be around time with these changes due to be delivered for the 2026 Senedd election. That may seem like a long time away but it gives lawyers only around a year to write a bill and the Senedd a truncated time to debate, scrutinise and vote to pass legislation. Then comes the difficulty of implementing the changes and seeing through a boundary review due to come in after the next election.

It may feel like we’ve come a long way on Senedd reform but there’s still a lot to do before we’ll finally see our parliament working properly for the people of Wales. Those with the responsibility to deliver these changes must grasp the nettle and ensure it does meet that 2026 deadline.

This article originally appeared in the Western Mail.

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