The next steps for reforming the Senedd

In September, the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform published a report that recommended a wide range of reforms to the Welsh Parliament’s arrangements, including increasing the number of Members of the Senedd, adopting a new electoral system, and implementing measures to improve diversity. In this post, Michela Palese summarises the key recommendations and reflects on the likely next steps.

Reform of Wales’s legislature has been on the political agenda for many years. Earlier this year, the first phase of reform led to the extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year olds; to changing the name of the Welsh Assembly to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru and of its members to Members of the Senedd (MS); and to changes around electoral administration. These reforms were part of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which became law on 15 January.

Another area of reform, which has yet to be taken forward, is the size of the legislature itself. Constitutional developments in Wales, particularly following the Wales Act 2017, have meant that the Welsh legislature has acquired new, primary law-making powers, including in relation to its size and electoral arrangements, and is now recognised as permanent within the UK’s constitutional settlement, alongside the Welsh government. The 2017 Act also moved Wales from a conferred powers model of devolution (an anomaly in the UK’s set-up) to a reserved matters model similar to that of Scotland, as recommended by the Unit in 2016

These significant new legislative powers have not been matched, however, by an increase in the number of members of the legislature (hereafter, MSs or Members of the Senedd, though note their name was Assembly Members/AMs until May 2020), which have remained at 60. 

There has been much, long-standing debate around this issue – it is broadly accepted that 60 MSs are insufficient to carry out the important legislative and scrutiny work of a fully-fledged parliament, with its own committee system, particularly if one considers that 14 MSs (around 23% of the total) are part of the executive.

The 2017 Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, of which the Unit’s Deputy Director Alan Renwick was a member, considered the issue of the size of the Assembly and concluded that it lacked the capacity it needed, recommending an increase in size to ‘at least 80 Members, and preferably closer to 90 Members.’ 

Previously, the Richard Commission, which considered the 1998 devolution settlement and its impact on Welsh governance, concluded that the capacity of the Assembly would not have been able to ‘accommodate a primary legislative programme’ and thus recommended in its 2004 report that ‘the Assembly needs an increase in membership to 80 Members’. Part 2 of the remit of the Silk Commission was to review the Assembly’s legislative powers and consider the future devolution settlement. In its 2014 report, it concluded that ‘the National Assembly is at present too small to fulfil its role adequately […] The size of the National Assembly should be increased, and we note that most analysis suggests that it should comprise at least eighty Members.’ Going back even further, before devolution in Wales was a reality, both the Kilbrandon Royal Commission on the Constitution and a 1955 Private Member’s Bill on the government of Wales envisioned a Welsh legislature of 108 and 72 members respectively. 

Debate has also raged around the Additional Member electoral system, which, it is argued, leads to differences in status and levels of accountability between members elected as constituency representatives (40 of the 60 MSs) and those elected from a closed regional party list (20). There has also been much discussion of the need to increase diversity in Welsh politics. Indeed, despite the then Assembly becoming the first legislative body in the world to achieve gender parity in 2003, the Senedd has since reverted to having a greater number of male MSs (though, at 48%, the proportion of female representatives remains higher than in Westminster, where only 34% of MPs are women). Further, there has never been a female Black, Asian, or minority ethnic  MS and only four MSs have come from a BAME background.

The Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform

Reform proposals on the legislature’s size were taken up most recently by the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform. In July 2019, the Senedd agreed to increase the number of members and to undertake cross-party work as to how this could be put into practice. To this end, the Committee was established as part of the second phase of Senedd Reform. Its remit was to consider the recommendations of the 2017 Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform with regards to the size of the Senedd, the electoral system used, and diversity of its membership. 

The Committee initially comprised members of the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru and the Brexit Party – with the Conservative Party not taking part from the outset – though the Brexit Party representative left the Committee shortly before it reported. The Committee made over 30 recommendations on how to reform the Senedd and increase public awareness, understanding and engagement.

With regards to the composition of the Senedd, the Committee agreed with the Expert Panel’s recommendation that the size of the legislature is currently too small and should be increased to between 80 and 90 members with effect from the 2026 election, arguing that this would lead to ‘more effective policy, more efficient spending and better legislation’. In the interim, the Committee recommended that temporary or permanent changes should be made to the Senedd’s ways of working to alleviate capacity pressures on the 60-Member Senedd.

To elect the larger Senedd, the Committee recommended the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, as it would ‘give voters more choice, maintain clear links between members and constituencies, and produce more proportional electoral outcomes.’ In the event of a change of the voting system, the Committee stated that boundary review arrangements should be established to set up multi-member STV constituencies, but added that these should take place regardless of whether other reforms are brought forward, to ensure boundaries maintain ‘equal representation and voting power for people across Wales.’

On diversity, the Committee reiterated its commitment that there should be broadly equal numbers of female and male MSs and that these should come from a diverse range of communities and backgrounds. To overcome structural inequalities and barriers to accessing office, the Committee recommended that parties publish data on candidate diversity (as required by section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which has yet to come into force) and that they should set out plans on how to increase diversity and inclusion. Further recommendations suggested undertaking further cross-party work on job sharing and implementing quotas for protected characteristics other than gender; providing financial support for candidates with disabilities; and making candidate spending on disability, childcare or other caring responsibilities exempt from election campaign spending limits (an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1983 exempted disability-related expenses from campaign spending limits, though this does not apply to local government elections in Wales).

Finally, the Committee recommended measures to increase public awareness/understanding of, and engagement with, democratic processes and institutions. This is of particular importance given the extension of the franchise and the legislature’s name change, and the consequent need to communicate this across Wales, including among underrepresented groups, and to encourage the public to play a more active role in democratic processes. As part of this work, the Committee recommended that a citizens’ assembly be set up to help develop a Senedd reform bill, so that eventual legislative proposals take into account the public’s informed views.

What happens next and potential barriers to implementation

Upon publication, the Committee’s report received only limited attention and coverage. Reasons for this may be the subject matter (constitutional issues are not generally known to engender widespread interest) and the fact that, by the end, the Committee’s work was no longer truly cross-party. Indeed, Committee Chair Dawn Bowden MS expressed her frustration and disappointment at the fact that the report was not backed by parties other than Labour and Plaid Cymru, and that the Conservatives did not take part in its work. This lack of express support among parties was also picked up in some of the coverage.

But engagement by the political parties will be crucial for enacting any reform. A Senedd plenary debate on the Committee’s report is due to take place on 7 October, which may shed light on the support and impetus for reform among MSs. In terms of legislation, for any reform to occur, especially in the timeline envisioned by the Committee, political parties will need to – at minimum – include the Committee’s recommendations in their manifesto pledges for the May 2021 elections and commit to implementing them in the next Senedd. However, this may be difficult to achieve given some parties’ disengagement with (if not outright hostility towards) the Senedd and its reform, with even supportive parties not explicitly coming out in favour of the Committee’s recommendations, as mentioned above. 

What’s more, legislation to implement the recommendations will require a two-thirds, 40-member supermajority in the Senedd. Based on the latest Welsh barometer poll of September 2020 conducted by ITV-Cymru Wales and Cardiff University, Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats are projected to gain a combined 41 seats in the 2021 elections, which may allow legislation to pass, provided – of course – that the parties commit to enacting these reforms.

Another key barrier to implementation is the fact that, like many constitutional changes, reforming the Senedd is not currently a priority in Wales and, indeed, is an area over which the public has limited knowledge. As the Committee itself notes, the public has limited knowledge of the role of the Senedd, its members, and how it differs from the UK government and parliament, which has consequences in terms of engaging the public with the issue of Senedd reform. Linked to this is the fact that a larger Senedd is estimated to cost around an extra £12 million per year. As the Committee notes, ensuring that this cuts through the arguments of the opponents of a larger Senedd, especially in the context of increased spending as a result of COVID-19, might be difficult to achieve. The current coronavirus pandemic, however, appears to have had an impact on engagement with and understanding of the Senedd and devolution, with a YouGov poll for Yes Cymru showing high levels of satisfaction with the Welsh government’s handling of the crisis and high levels of trust in the Welsh Parliament. This may have positive repercussions on public awareness of and engagement with Welsh politics more broadly.

While the primary reforms set out in the report may not be achievable in the short term, some of the Committee’s recommendations, especially those which parties could enact voluntarily (such as committing to publishing diversity data and engaging in further cross-party work in increasing public awareness and understanding of the Senedd), could easily be put into action in the coming months, particularly in the run-up to the May 2021 elections where 16- and 17-year olds will be able to vote for the first time in Wales. 

Concluding remarks

Welsh politics has undergone an exciting period of development in recent years, with the Senedd becoming a fully-fledged parliament and 16- and 17-year olds being given the right to vote, among other changes.

But, despite long-standing debate and widespread agreement on the need for action, reforms to increase the size of the Senedd, so that it can truly serve the Welsh people, are still outstanding. It is now up to political parties to decide whether they wish to grant this topic the salience it deserves.

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About the author

Michela Palese is Research and Policy Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. She was previously Research Assistant (McDougall Fellow) at the Constitution Unit, where she co-authored Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved? with Alan Renwick.