Welsh democracy is under threat, we need more members of the Senedd now more than ever

Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 9th April 2021

Just a few short weeks out from the Senedd elections and it’s clear that the election campaign has now hit full swing. With polls suggesting some uncertainty parties are already setting out their stalls on a number of key issues.

One of those is the size of the Senedd, which the Welsh Conservatives have this week come out against increasing.

The debate on the size of the Senedd is not new – in fact for as long as there has been a Senedd there have been questions of its capacity.

And today, over two decades since it was established, the need for more members is clearer than ever and politicians who so glibly dismiss the issue as unimportant are doing us all, and democracy in Wales, a disservice.

We have been debating the size of the Senedd since its inception in 1999. With only a small margin of support for devolution in the 1997 referendum the then Assembly was given very few powers and just 60 members.

To put this into context the Scottish Parliament has 129 Members and Stormont 90. Even Pembrokeshire County Council has the same number of members as our Welsh Parliament.

Since 1999 the role of the Senedd has rapidly increased with legislative powers, tax varying powers and more recently has taken a critical role in tackling the pandemic and yet the number of members has remained stubbornly the same.

Once you’ve taken out those who serve as government ministers, party leaders and those with official roles, such as the Llywydd/Presiding Officer you’re only left with just over 40 members to do the day-to-day scrutiny work on Senedd committees.

This might sound really technical but in reality, that is where some of the most important work takes place, its where members look at the detail of policy announcements, comb over the small print of about £16bn a year’s worth of budgets and analyse the impacts of legislation before it is signed into law.

If you look back at the last 12 months huge decisions have been made around health, the economy and so many other areas of our lives. Despite the importance of these policy areas it has often fallen to just over 40 people in the Senedd to look into the detail of these decisions.

An Expert Panel report, chaired by the always impressive Professor Laura McAllister, concluded in 2017 that the size of the Senedd should increase to somewhere between 80 and 90 members. She has since said, “…our expert panel heard no compelling argument, backed up with real, hard evidence or suggestions for further innovations in working, as to why 60 members is sufficient to properly deliver for the people of Wales – and nor have I since”.

Just last year a Senedd Committee also concluded that more members were needed after an exhaustive inquiry trying to assess if there were any other options to boost the Senedd’s capacity and went as far as to call for legislation around this early in the next term.

ERS Cymru has long been campaigning for this change alongside a change in the voting system and more mechanisms in place to support diversity in our politics. Addressing the size of our Senedd is one of the key asks of parties in our recently published A Manifesto for Democracy.

This debate around the size of the Senedd now comes at a time when Welsh representation is being slashed elsewhere.

Plans are afoot to cut the number of MPs before the next UK General Election, which would see Wales lose around eight members of Parliament.

If you combine the cost of that cut with the loss of the four MEPs we used to have it makes around £12.6m per year. Last August the Llywydd set out figures projecting the cost of 30 additional Members of the Senedd would be around £12m per year.

But it’s not just about the money. It’s about representation. Like them or not politicians’ jobs are to represent us, the people living in Wales.

Their jobs are to make crucial decisions about our local hospitals, the industries we work in, the schools our children go to. Stopping our parliament from reaching its potential and holding back our politicians from being able to do their jobs to the best of their ability is like cutting off our own nose to spite our face.

Often political parties and politicians try to pretend there are simple answers to really complex problems, that if you don’t spend money on one issue that it automatically goes to funding our NHS or creating more nurses or doctors.

The reality is that we face a difficult time and we need our politicians to front up, stop pretending things are easy and commit to making tough choices that need to happen.

This election we need parties to commit to revolutionising democracy in Wales – not to turn the clocks back.

This article originally appeared on Wales Online

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