Senedd gender quota plan withdrawn following legal advice to Presiding Officer
A Bill intended to create a gender-balanced Senedd was withdrawn abruptly because the Presiding Officer had received legal advice that it would exceed what was permitted under Wales’ devolution settlement, we have been told.
In September the Welsh Government introduced a piece of legislation called the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill, which contains the major part of the Senedd reform package agreed with Plaid Cymru.
It will see the number of Senedd Members increased from 60 to 96, the electoral system changed to one that is wholly proportional and the length of a Senedd term will revert from five years to four.
One important element of Senedd reform was, however, omitted from the Bill – changing the voting system so that men and women would achieve equal representation.
It was decided by the Welsh Government to separate this proposal from the rest of the reform package. Our understanding was that there were doubts about whether legislating for a gender-balanced Senedd could be susceptible to legal challenge.
At the time it was said that a second Bill, covering gender balance, would be published before the end of 2023.
In October the Women’s Rights Network had leaked to it a draft of this second Bill, a particularly controversial part of which made it clear that transgender women without a medical certificate would be able to stand as candidates for the Senedd.
Election officials would be forbidden from questioning such candidates about their declaration of gender identity. While the proposal was welcomed by trans rights activists, it was condemned by some feminist groups, who saw it as encroaching on women’s rights.
The second Bill – called the Senedd Cymru (Electoral Candidate Lists) Bill – was due to be published on December 4, and journalists were invited to attend a technical briefing about it on November 30. But on November 29 the briefing was abruptly cancelled and journalists were told that the Bill was not being published on December 4 after all.
A full explanation was not provided, but the Welsh Government said the Bill was still being worked on. In line with Wales’ devolution settlement, The Senedd’s Presiding Officer – known also by the Welsh title Llywydd – must publish a statement indicating whether or not he or she considers that the Senedd has the power to pass a Bill.
The current Llywydd is Elin Jones, the Plaid Cymru MS for Ceredigion. A well-placed political source told Nation.Cymru: “My understanding is that the Llywydd received legal advice that the Bill as drafted was not within the legislative competence of the Senedd. It is certainly highly unusual for a Bill to be withdrawn so close to its announced publication date. They say they are still working on it, but frankly I can’t see it coming back.”
We asked the Senedd Commission whether it was the case that the Llywydd had said she would not make a statement to the effect that the Bill was within the legislative competence of the Senedd.
The response we got did not answer the question. Instead a spokesperson for the Llywydd said: “The standard process for legislation requires the Llywydd to make a statement on whether Senedd Bills are within the legislative competence of the Senedd. The Llywydd’s statement will be published upon the introduction of a Bill.”
We put the same question to the Welsh Government and were told by a spokesman: “We aren’t adding anything to our earlier statement – which was we are doing further work on the Bill.”
Wales has a reserved powers model of devolution, under which it can legislate in any policy area except those specifically reserved to Westminster. Among the areas in the reserved powers list which may be of relevance to the gender-balanced Senedd proposal are “equal opportunities” and “gender recognition”.
Retreating from its commitment to legislate for a gender-balanced Senedd would be a major blow for the Welsh Government. The proposal was one of the recommendations of an expert panel chaired by Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University. It is widely supported in Welsh civil society as a way of enshrining gender equality at the Senedd in law.
A statement on the Senedd’s website dating from May 2022 states: “Wales has always had a great track record for gender equality in its parliament. In 2003, the Senedd became the first legislature in the world to achieve a perfect gender balance, with 30 men and 30 women representing the people of Wales.
“While this has dropped in recent elections, Wales continues to maintain a high proportion of elected women. The Senedd’s Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform is recommending the introduction of a gender quota, which would give a guaranteed balance. If agreed, the Senedd would become the first parliament in the UK to do so.”
Equally, trans rights activists believe that allowing transwomen to identify as female in Senedd elections would be a major step forward in their campaign for equality of treatment.
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