Why adding 39 new members will still leave Wales with one of Europe’s smallest parliaments
Wales will move “closer to European norms” when it comes to parliament size after increasing the number of seats in the Senedd – but may still have too few, experts have told Nation.Cymru.
The number of Senedd seats is set to rise from 60 to 96 at the next election as part of electoral reforms which were rubber-stamped at a special Welsh Labour conference last weekend.
The current number of seats means the Welsh Parliament is the same size as those of San Marino and Luxembourg and smaller than those of Iceland or Montenegro.
After the reforms take effect, Wales would still have one of the ten smallest parliaments when compared with European states and there will be seven countries smaller than Wales with larger parliaments.
Even taking into account MPs, Wales would still have fewer politicians than some countries with a smaller population.
Bigger is not always better, according to Professor Emmanuelle Auriol of the Toulouse School of Economics. In fact, the theory she co-wrote on “the optimal number of representatives”, found that the parliaments of France and Italy are far too large and has sparked proposals to cut seats.
But she told Nation.Cymru that “Wales is doing well by increasing the number.”
“According to our formula, 60 people was too little,” said Auriol. “It was the right move to increase the representatives to the level which has been proposed. The exact number you can always discuss, but it was the right move, based on our statistical work.”
The increase finally agreed was higher than that recommended by the expert panel on Senedd reform, which said there needed to be “at least 80 Members, and preferably closer to 90 Members” for MSs to be able to effectively scrutinise legislation.
The optimum number of seats in the Senedd could have been even higher though, according to American political scientist professor Matthew Shugart of the University of California, Davis.
Votes from Seats, the book he co-wrote on election systems, showed how the number of seats in a national parliament is usually close to the cube root of the population. It’s a formula which optimises communication between elected representatives and the public as well as fellow parliamentarians, according to the research.
“For Wales, the cube root would be around 146,” explained Shugart. “So, anything that brings the assembly up closer to this number might be regarded as good progress.”
The average number of seats in EU countries with populations of between 1 and 3 million is 124.
Wales will still measure up better than the EU average on another important benchmark: seats per capita. The next Senedd will have one seat for every 33,021 people – on par with Nordic countries of a similar size – compared to one seat per 40,821 people on the continent.
Wales will also fare better on this measure than many devolved legislatures with similar powers.
Currently, the Senedd has 15 fewer seats than the Basque parliament despite Wales having around one million more residents.
And figures from ‘Size Matters’, a 2014 report by the UK’s Changing Union project, shows how five German lander with populations of under 4 million will continue to have larger parliaments than Wales, even after Senedd reform. At the time, Hamburg’s legislature had 121 seats for a population of 1.8 million.
Wales, though, will have a higher number of seats per capita than Flanders, Catalonia or, to take a non-European comparison, Quebec.
Jac Larner, a political scientist at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, said: “Senedd expansion will take Wales far closer to European norms when it comes to the law-making member-to-elector ratio. The practical advantage of this is that it frees up more members for committee work and for scrutinising the government.
“While comparisons to sub-state legislatures are pretty complex because there are a wide range of sizes across Europe, a larger Senedd will look far more normal compared to most regions and autonomous communities in Germany, Italy and to some extent Spain.
“It’s a less anomalous position to be in as a parliament, though the electoral system will determine what the larger parliament looks like and how truly representative it is.”
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