A plan to increase the number of members in the Senedd in order to be able to better hold the Welsh Government to account has been backed by the Electoral Reform Society.
The plan recommends increasing the size of the Senedd to between 80 and 90 Members, from the current 60, with effect from the 2026 election.
The Welsh Parliament is currently the smallest in the UK. The House of Commons has 650 members, the Scottish Parliament 129, the Northern Ireland Assembly 90 and the House of Lords over 800.
The report also suggests introducing a Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system at elections. STV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, leading to more proportionate outcomes.
The report was prepared by the Senedd’s Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform. Since the National Assembly was established in 1999 it has taken on primary law-making powers and power over some tax rates, putting more pressure on its 60 Members, they say.
Commenting on the report, Jess Blair, Director of ERS Cymru, said that the Senedd was operating at “chronically over-capacity – and it is ordinary voters in Wales who lose out”.
“Stronger scrutiny pays for itself. Let’s boost Welsh democracy and build a Senedd fit for the challenges of the future.”
They said that STV is was viewed as the “gold standard” of proportional representation by reformers, and gave voters a clearer say over which candidates get elected.
Any increase in the number of members and change to the voting system is likely to be backed by Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats but resisted by the Conservatives.
Commenting on the report, Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies said there was no public appetite for an increase in the number of politicians.
“The current voting system enables a roughly proportional Senedd while maintaining local accountability with two-thirds of Members of the Welsh Parliament elected on a first past the post basis,” he said. “We see no reason to change it.”
Responding to the report, Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price said that at a time when devolution was “under direct assault from Westminster,” Wales needed a strengthened Senedd.
“Better value for money than any five billion pound refurbishment to Westminster, Plaid Cymru has long maintained that our national parliament needs more powers and that our electoral system needs urgent reform.
“Our Parliament is too small and that represents a big danger to the health of our democracy. Despite having ample opportunity over the last five years, the Labour party have refused to deliver a stronger Senedd – with more representation and a fairer electoral system – preferring instead to defend the status-quo.
“This is not a problem that can be put off until tomorrow – it’s a crisis in our democracy that we have to put right today.”
Dawn Bowden, the Chair of the Committee for Senedd Electoral Reform, said that the way in which the Senedd operates during the Covid-19 crisis had been put under the spotlight more than ever.
“We believe that the people of Wales would be better served by a Senedd which has the right number of Members,” she said.
“A larger Senedd would be cost-effective, as Members would be better able to hold the Welsh Government to account for its spending and decisions, and pass better legislation, as well as helping people across Wales with their problems.”
Professor Laura McAllister, Chair of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, said that the welcomed the changes outlined in the report.
“The issue of its size will not go away and needs addressing as soon as possible,” she said.
“Proper capacity to scrutinise the actions of government and other agencies has been further highlighted during recent events, including the pandemic and Britain’s exit from the EU. Effective scrutiny will pay for itself.
“I am very glad too that the Committee has reinforced the Expert Panel’s commitment to creating a more proportional electoral system to elect a larger Senedd. Equal mandates, voter choice and diversity should be at the heart of a new electoral system.”
The Welsh Liberal Democrats said that they had “long called” for a democratic voting system which delivers equal power to voters.
“STV is a such a simple system that even a young child can understand it,” the spokesperson said. “It is used in countless parliaments around the world as well as by sports clubs and societies to elect chairs and captains due to its simplicity and fairness.
“We completely support this proposal and encourage other parties to do the same.”
The report said that a new STV voting system would reduce the number of wasted votes, be more proportional and retain a clear link between politicians and their constituancies.
The report recommended that:
- It should be simple for voters to complete their ballot papers and there should be a clear constituency link between constituents and their representatives
- Votes should be translated into seats fairly, and the electoral system should produce broadly proportional outcomes
- All Members should be elected by the same route to resolve the recurrent debate over whether regional Members are accountable to voters or parties
- The Senedd’s electoral system should operate on the basis of multi-member constituencies. This would offer more choice to voters and enable parties to put forward multiple candidates, allowing them to diversify their selection processes and encourage the election of a more diverse Senedd
The Committee also outlined a series of recommendations for positive action to improve the diversity of the Senedd by overcoming structural inequalities and barriers including:
- Creating an access to elected office fund to support people with disabilities to stand for election
- Support for candidates with childcare or other caring responsibilities by exempting this from election expenses
- Requiring political parties to publish diversity and inclusion strategies and collect, anonymise and publish data about the diversity of their candidates
- Further cross-party work on how job sharing of elected roles could work in practice