In 20 years of its existence – through the growth in the Assembly’s responsibilities to the expansion of the Welsh Government and its powers, one thing has changed very little: the Senedd’s capacity to scrutinise, debate and hold Ministers to account. And it’s starting to feel the strain.
This week, the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform – set up to assess how the Assembly needs to be changed and modernised amid the great changes we see today – released its final report.
The recommendations, if implemented, could be a game-changer for Welsh democracy.
They are calling for a more proportional voting system – the ERS’ preferred system of the Single Transferable Vote. Switching to the system used for Scottish local elections would give voters a stronger say over candidates, and would ensure seats always match votes in a more proportional Assembly.
The panel are also calling for votes at 16 – something Scotland introduced for all elections (except Westminster) last year – as well as improvements to ensure greater a better gender balance in politics. When it comes to votes at 16, we know that in Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds turn out in greater numbers than 18 to 24 year olds. For Wales, this could revitalise political engagement.
And the report proposes an extra 20-30 Assembly Members – which could be paid for by no longer having MEPs in Brussels.
MEPs currently cost £1.79 million each per year. Since each AM represents a fraction of that cost, Welsh citizens can have more bang for our buck in a stronger, more effective Senedd.
At the moment, there are already signs that legislation and scrutiny here in Wales are taking a hit as a result of being under-resourced.
But an increase in capacity would take Wales’ Senedd up to the size of Northern Ireland’s Stormont – a legislature which serves just over a million people compared to Wales’ three million.
And it could reap significant dividends to the taxpayer, by improving legislation, policy and decision-making.
This report is a key moment in the Assembly’s history, and the proposals will be vital in securing it’s the success of the Senedd in the future.
Votes at 16, a stronger, more effective assembly, and a more responsive voting system through the Single Transferrable Vote are all essential in revitalising Welsh democracy.
The case for change is clear: with new powers after Brexit and further devolution – but no extra resources to deal with them – the Assembly is facing a capacity time bomb. More powers means we need the Members to be able to scrutinise the big decisions that will affect our lives.
Now comes the tricky part. Parties in the Assembly must now take on board these recommendations and, with voters at the core, chart the next steps forward. It is vital that this report does not sit and gather dust.
Parties have to take action to ensure that these changes can be introduced for the next Assembly election, scheduled for 2021.
That means starting with energy in the new year so that Wales isn’t left short when powers return from Europe.
This is about creating a stronger Senedd – one that is fit to face the challenges that the next few years will bring.
It’s an exciting opportunity – now let’s embrace it.
Read the full report here