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Opinion

The case for Senedd reform

17 Feb 2024 6 minute read
Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Delyth Jewell MS

Democracy depends on having a legislature that works properly. It’s been known for some time that the Senedd in its current form needs reform.

As we enter stage two of the Senedd Reform Bill in the Senedd, we should acknowledge how significant these long-awaited proposals truly are as a turning point for Welsh democracy.

They will bring much-needed change that will enable the Senedd to deliver for the people and communities it serves.

And good scrutiny pays for itself – in terms of ensuring we pass effective laws, and have the capacity to anticipate problems with any proposals before they arise.

We’ve seen multiple reports from experts in politics and democracy over the years who have argued fervently for these changes, and who’ve warned that change is needed to deliver a parliament that truly works for the people of Wales.

So let’s explore what some of these proposals as part of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill look like, and what it would mean for Wales.

More politicians?

Calling for more politicians is seldom popular in our society. But we don’t need an increase in numbers just for the sake of it: the health of our democracy depends on it.

Not only will there be fewer Welsh MPs in Westminster as they reduce the number of constituencies in Wales from 40 to 32 (whilst at the same time increasing the numbers in England); but we also know that Wales is severely under-represented in its own national parliament compared with other devolved countries.

Scotland, with a population of 5.4 million, has 129 MSPs elected to its national parliament while Northern Ireland has 90 members, with a population of just 1.8million.

We in Wales have a population of 3.3million, and having only 60 Members of the Senedd is clearly insufficient because it means our legislature just doesn’t have the capacity to do the things a parliament should be doing.

And the Senedd today is also very different from what was established in 1999. For one thing, it is no longer an Assembly – but rather Senedd Cymru, or Welsh Parliament, with a whole range of new non-reserved powers which affect the everyday lives of people up and down the country.

Decisions

While our parliament has made decisions over health and social care, education, and local government for quite some time, successive reforms to devolution in 2006, 2011 and 2017 has meant that the Senedd has gained significant new powers.

It’s also likely that the Senedd will gain more powers in the years to come, with a majority of Senedd Members arguing in favour of powers over justice, policing and rail services.

To put it simply, the Senedd does not currently have the capacity to fully scrutinise the Welsh Government and to properly hold them accountable. Additional powers will likely see that capacity stretched further.

Most of the 60 Members of the Senedd hold an office of some kind, be it Ministers or Deputy Ministers, Chairing or sitting on scrutiny committees, elected as Presiding Officer or Deputy, sitting as Senedd Commissioners, or leaders of their own parties.

There are a whole host of roles and responsibilities demanded of MSs which severely restrict their time and ability to hold the Welsh Government to account and to scrutinise public finances.

In Westminster, by contrast, 115 MPs have no official roles whatsoever – and do not even sit on scrutiny committees. Backbenchers of this nature are essential to influencing policy and holding governments and party leadership accountable. Our parliament loses out from not having this function.

Vital

At a time when finances are tight (because of how severely we are underfunded from the Conservative UK Government in Westminster), it is more imperative than ever for us to scrutinise Welsh government decision making effectively.

This is vital in order to ensure that the public get value for money and that public services are appropriately funded.

And if you’ve disagreed with a policy put forward by the current Welsh Government, don’t you think some of those decisions might have benefited from better, more rigorous scrutiny in our parliament, before they were implemented?

As Professor Laura McAllister – an expert in Welsh Politics – has long argued, more politicians will pay for themselves and may actually save us money.

Ultimately, the driving factor behind increasing and strengthening the Senedd is delivery. As we look to increase the Senedd’s powers, Senedd reform will bring about the change needed so that we can truly make a difference to the communities we represent.

These reforms also present us with an historic opportunity to get rid of the outdated First Past the Post system for good. It’s an archaic voting system that promotes a two-party Westminster system where voters often think they have to vote tactically in order to vote one party or the other out of office.

But gone are the days where people only look to the Conservatives or Labour to represent them.

To us in Plaid Cymru, it is a matter of basic fairness that the votes cast for a party in an election should reflect the number of seats won.

Through Senedd Reform, Wales will be the first country in the UK to fully opt out of this system in favour of a more proportional and representative system which sees every vote count. No more political apathy or thinking your vote wouldn’t matter.

Journey

Make no mistake: these are ambitious proposals for change that will see democracy transformed in Wales.

Plaid Cymru have long advocated for an alternative system to FPTP, and while we are not shy in admitting that STV would be our preferred choice – to us, these proposals are a step forward in that journey.

As we look beyond the 2026 Senedd Election, to 2030, Plaid Cymru will seek to ensure that the review mechanism is used to enable change if that is the wish of the next Senedd.

In expanding the Senedd and delivering proportional representation, we want to reimagine the status quo. To have a parliament that reflects Wales and works for its communities.

And reforming the electoral system brings the opportunity to do just that, and to address the unacceptable situation where women are the underrepresented majority.

Our parliament should be a place where everyone who chooses to live their life in Wales feels they are properly represented.

For us in Plaid Cymru, we strive for fairness and ambition for Wales. Senedd Reform is an essential step for us to progress as a nation.

So let’s take this chance to celebrate what is a hugely significant milestone in our national story: a Senedd, a parliament that’s fit to address our problems and to catapult us into our future as a nation.


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Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

Well written Delyth, the people of Cymru are under represented in the Senedd and that has to change. It will help with the running of the country now but more importantly it will create a parliament fully able to run an independent country, 60 MSs will not be enough. The future is as an independent country so we need to make sure now it will be democratically well represented.

Steffan Gwent
Steffan Gwent
1 month ago

The closed list is a Plaid/Labour axis stitch up.

John Brooks
John Brooks
1 month ago
Reply to  Steffan Gwent

We currently have a closed list system for the Regional Senedd members, it is not new. In effect one of the two current voting systems, FPTP is being abolished leaving the other current system in place. At the last election there were 6 parties looking for my vote on the Regional ballot. Each party had a full list of potential MSs, if that is replicated in the next election I would be faced with a a ballot paper with 36 candidates listed which I would be asked to rank in order. I fear that would be a turn off for… Read more »

Barry Taylor
Barry Taylor
1 month ago

I agree that the Senedd needs more members, for the sake of our democracy. The government needs effective scrutiny. I don’t agree with the proposed party list system, however. Voters should be able to vote for a specific person, not a party list. The proposed system leaves independent candidates out in the cold, for one thing. How does that benefit democracy? Even within parties, many voters will have their own preference as to which candidates do and do not deserve their vote. That element of choice will be stripped away under the proposed system. I am 100% in favour of… Read more »

Moya Russ
Moya Russ
1 month ago

Ms Jewell makes some valuable points about the size of the Senedd
I would be in favour of increasing numbers of Senedd members. However there is a scandalous duplication of roles in local government.. do we REALLY need 22 Directors of Education?
If this country is to thrive then we need to take a long hard look at how much of available resources are being consumed by the machinery of government.

KC Gordon
KC Gordon
1 month ago

…and not a word about the undemocratic closed lists!

David
David
1 month ago
Reply to  KC Gordon

We the voters are not allowed to have any choice in the position of ordering those that are standing on the closed list. Is this what you call DEMOCRACY? Do you want to disenfranchise us? Answer those who have commented is on this site Delyth Jewell.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago

Good piece Delyth. I’ve always stated this for years. You can’t do democracy on the cheap. Thanks to Blair’s New Labour in 1997, their initial devolution slur on Wales has meant for the past 24 years our Senedd has struggled to function having initially no real powers and only 60 AMs/MSs compared to the other nations of the UK, who are not only smaller geographically and have less population in Northern Ireland’s case, but are overrepresented like England are. Also, seeing it’s only Wales that are losing 8 of its 40 MPs at Westminster leaving us only 32 , where… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Y Cymro
Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

I doubt the reduction in Welsh MPs will make much difference to Wales, those already there do not stand up for the rights and needs of Wales, far from it. With regard to the Senedd, I would not agree to an increase in numbers, I see no reason for optimism on that front. After all these years of their existence nothing works in Wales, not housing, transport the NHS etc. all devolved powers. In reality the Senedd is stuffed full of administrators, no vision, no ideas, , no creativity, no challenge to Westminster as they walk all over us, no… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

Preaching to the converted to a large extent on this site Delyth. However, the battle over the electoral method needs to be taken up with vigour. The proposed closed list system is awful. Yes, Plaid’s preference is STV – now fight for it!

Richard E
Richard E
1 month ago

In general a very well argued and thought out contribution by DJ though what real evidence there is that more politicians “ pay for themselves “ as suggested by Laura is tue – I very much doubt. Good Governance and Accountability through robust scrutiny may be the real purpose best struck to. Current Low Quality oversight from subject committees without real “ expert “ or “ specialist “ support and an INDEPENDENT secretariat must be ways forward. However non on the above will work without key MS members who will have the freedom to question, probe, test and recommend. These… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago

What about the elephant in the room, the closed lists? Hardly augers well for democracy.

G. Williams
G. Williams
1 month ago

A good article in very many respects. As a Plaid Cymru member I wholeheartedly support the increase in members of the Senedd. But Delyth, alas, does not mention the awful closed list voting system. No way should Plaid Cymru have endorsed this outrage.

Keith Parry
Keith Parry
1 month ago

The Senedd needs reform. It needs all lobbyists listed and all ex lobbyists standing for political parties listed so the public knows who they are voting for.There are too many people in the Senedd pushing their agendas and not the interests of the people. The Carmen Smith incident shows why closed lists and affirmative action will be a disaster.Yes men and women and cronies will fill the Senedd the popular vote will ignored.

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