Welsh Government to introduce progressive electoral reforms

Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 6th July 2023

Last week in the Senedd, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced the Welsh Government’s plans for legislation for the next year. This covered eight new bills which the government hopes will become law.

There was a time when the Senedd was unable to pass legislation without the UK parliament’s approval and before that could only pass ‘measures’ rather than Bills. The National Assembly for Wales, as was, had limited powers both in terms of the areas it could scrutinise and what it could actively do in these areas. That changed in 2011 following a referendum and further changes were seen with the Silk Commission on further devolution and new powers devolved in 2017 including those over elections.

The Senedd has grown in powers and responsibilities exponentially since 1999. That was clear yesterday with the ambition of the legislation the government is planning to introduce in the next 12 months. Chief among this are three pieces of legislation that will fundamentally reform Welsh democracy.

A Bill to reform the Senedd, increasing its size and changing its voting system is expected when the Senedd returns after the summer recess. This is something long overdue which ERS has been campaigning for, for around a decade. While the Senedd has radically changed since its inception in 1999 its size has remained stubbornly low- in fact ten councils in Wales are the same size or larger. The First Minister remarked in the chamber yesterday that the size of the Senedd was raised as an issue by the Richard Commission back in 2004 and the Senedd had gained even more powers and responsibilities since then so it has been a long time coming. This change will bring Wales closer in line with the Scottish Parliament and Stormont, giving the Senedd the power to more effectively scrutinise budgets and legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account.

Another piece of legislation announced yesterday was a Bill to increase the representation of women in the Senedd through gender quotas. Wales once led in women’s representation, as the first parliament to reach 50:50 gender balance, but since then that has slipped back. These measures will put in place mechanisms to ensure that our national parliament is properly representative of women in Wales. More must be done to increase the representation of people with other protected characteristics, not least people from ethnic minority backgrounds and disabled people, and we hope to see measures to improve the wider diversity of the Senedd included in this legislation.

A Bill to improve electoral administration will introduce important initiatives to increase the number of people registered to vote in Wales. It is also great to see a commitment to establishing an Electoral Management Board for Wales, which we hope will learn from the model in Scotland.

It was interesting to see the tone of the statement in the Siambr (debating chamber) following the statement. It was one of ambition and recognising how far the Senedd has come in its near quarter of a century in existence. And the responses to it recognised that too with Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives claiming the ‘…ability to legislate and legislate in a Welsh sense is vitally important.’ Going on to say that when he first started in 2007 an example of an exciting topic was discussing seed potato regulations from Cyprus and Egypt.

The plans outlined by the First Minister reflect a Senedd that has come of age and one which intends to fundamentally strengthen how it operates. Each of these three pieces of legislation is a step towards building a better democracy – one in which every person in Wales feels properly represented. It is a UK- leading package of reform that one that all four nations should be taking note of.

This blog first appeared on the Institute for Welsh Affairs website

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