Reform of the Senedd has been discussed since its inception. When it opened in 1999 it had just 60 members, no government function and limited powers. While the powers of the Senedd and the function of the executive have changed beyond recognition since then, the number of Members of the Senedd (MSs) has remained the same.
But that could all be about to change. Last Tuesday First Minister, Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price released a joint letter to the Chair of a cross-party committee currently looking at reform, which set out their agreed position on how the Senedd should be reformed.
The letter gives us our first glimpse at how the Senedd could look in 2026, setting out a Labour/Plaid agreed position of:
- An increase in the Senedd’s size to 96 members
- A change to the electoral system, consisting of closed proportional lists allocated via the D’hondt method.
- Integrated statutory gender quotas and mandatory zipping (alternating male / female order) of party lists
- Sixteen new Senedd constituencies for 2026 each electing 6 members with boundaries pairing the 32 proposed Westminster constituencies
- And a boundary review taking place for the subsequent election.
An expanded chamber of 96 members is a huge step forward and something ERS Cymru has been campaigning on for nearly a decade. We’ve talked regularly about the need for more members, with the reality being at present that our parliament can’t properly function.
A stronger Senedd
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. Wales is the only one of the four nations of the UK without enough members to function full time – the lack of MSs is leaving its overstretched scrutiny committees unable to work effectively. The result of this is that the big decisions minisisters take over how our public services work or how billions of pounds of taxpayer money is spent risk being taken without the proper scrutiny and analysis the Senedd was set up to do.
Increasing the size of the Senedd, in line with the Expert Panel recommendations and our own Size Matters report back in 2013, will deliver a more effective parliament that can properly scrutinise key legislation and a £17 billion budget.
A more diverse Senedd
Another positive part of this deal is the commitment to increasing the Senedd’s diversity through statutory gender quotas and zipping. We have seen the effectiveness of quotas coupled with mandatory placement in countries like Costa Rica. With the Senedd the first parliament to reach 50:50 gender balance back in 2003 it is right we are building in measures to ensure women are represented properly in our national parliament in years to come. It shouldn’t rely on the effectiveness of parties selecting a diverse range of candidates to ensure that our parliament reflects the gender diversity of Wales as a whole. What is less clear at present are the measures that might be used to increase representation of other protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, disability and those from the LGBTQ+ community.
While there are positive elements of this deal, there are also those that require further thought, which we hope the Special Purpose Committee will consider when they report at the end of this month. While the proposals are a clear rejection of First Past the Post and the move away from the Additional Member System is welcome, concerns remain about the use of closed lists due to the lack of choice voters will have. This system was rejected by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform who said it left “No choice for voters between individual candidates” and “No accountability for individual Members directly to voters”. In our Reshaping the Senedd report in 2016 we recommended the Senedd move to the Single Transferable Vote (STV), something the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform and a subsequent Senedd committee also endorsed.
The decision to use the D’Hondt method of allocating votes also threatens the proportionality of this new system, by creating a high bar for smaller parties to reach to ensure representation and see members elected. The use of D’Hondt is likely to make the end result only as proportional or even slightly less than the current system.
This package is a step forward for the Senedd in so many ways, but we must be careful it’s not also a step backwards in others. We await the Special Purpose Committee’s report in a few week’s time, then a debate in the Senedd on that report is scheduled for 8th June. Senedd members from across the Siambr (the Senedd’s debating chamber) should consider how to ensure this package delivers proper reform for the Senedd – not just on size and diversity but delivering a fairer deal for voters too. We have one chance to create a new Welsh democracy. Let’s do it properly.
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