Posted: Wed 1st May 2024

Plans for Senedd increase and voting system change move forward

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales


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Plans to expand the Senedd and change the voting system moved a step closer, but MSs called for urgent action to address a lack of accountability.

The Senedd voted on amendments to the members and elections bill, which would increase the size of the Welsh Parliament from 60 to 96 members.

Under the bill, the 32 constituencies that will be used in the next general election would be paired to create 16 for the 2026 Senedd poll, with each returning six members.

However, proposals to introduce a recall system and make it illegal for Senedd members or candidates to deliberately deceive the public were withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

MSs held a stage-three debate, the final opportunity to alter the reforms, on April 30 ahead of a crunch vote next week which coincides with 25 years since the first Senedd election.

‘Accountability chasm’

Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price proposed making deliberate deception by candidates or Senedd members a criminal offence, with conviction resulting in disqualification.

The former party leader raised concerns about falling public trust in politics worldwide, warning that a credibility gap has become an accountability chasm over the decades.

“Now, we’re staring into an abyss,” he said. “We’re looking at a future world of deepfakes, post-truth politics and wave after wave of disinformation.”

The Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MS told the chamber the proposal would be a world first, stressing: “We need to do something, and we need to do something urgently.”

Supporting the amendment, the Conservatives’ Darren Millar said it is illegal for a doctor to mislead a patient as he asked: “Why should it be any different for us?”

‘Out for themselves’

Lee Waters, a Labour MS, backed the “reasonable” proposal despite initially being sceptical, pointing to bipartisan support for bringing politics in line with other professions.

Jane Dodds, the Lib Dems’ leader in Wales, added her support, saying a 2021 survey found 63% of voters view politicians as being “out for themselves” compared with 48% in 2014.

Mick Antoniw, who is counsel general, the Welsh Government’s chief legal adviser, said further detailed legal and policy analysis is required to avoid unintended consequences.

Mr Antoniw, who is in charge of the bill, emphasised the importance of members being able to speak freely and suggested Wales does not have the powers to create such an offence.

Mr Price withdrew the amendment, saying he did not want to fracture emerging consensus by forcing a vote, but he stressed the Senedd must legislate this term.

‘Public interest’

Mr Millar called for a recall system, which would allow voters to remove a Senedd member between elections, similar to the one introduced in Westminster after the expenses scandal.

The Tory MS told the chamber a system of recall is an important accountability mechanism, which empowers voters to pass judgement on their representatives.

He said: “It would ensure trust and accountability are at the heart of everything we do – not just at election time but throughout the time members are in office.”

Seemingly referring to Rhys ab Owen, who is serving a 42-day suspension without salary from the Senedd, Mr Millar said: “These are matters of live public interest.”

Vikki Howells, who chairs the Senedd standards committee, said the committee will work on recommendations around a recall system as part of a wider inquiry on accountability.

‘Embarrassing’

Ms Dodds said a recall mechanism would be a pivotal step to address eroding public trust.

She raised the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy’s concerns about an “embarrassing political culture of dishonesty and lack of serious consequences for bad behaviour”.

The former MP, who herself won a 2019 by-election triggered by a recall petition before her election to the Senedd, pointed out that Boris Johnson resigned at the threat of recall.

Mr Antoniw said the Welsh Government would not vote for the amendments but ministers stood ready to support implementation of the committee’s recommendations.

Mr Millar withdrew the amendment in light of the cross-party inquiry but the Clwyd West MS warned time is running out to implement recall before the 2026 election.

‘Power grab’

The Senedd voted down calls for a referendum and to change the proposed closed-list electoral system which would see people voting for parties rather than individuals.

Suggesting a flexible-list system, which would give voters more say over who is elected, Mr Millar described closed lists as a power grab that would damage Welsh democracy.

He warned that voter turnout – which has never topped 50% in a Senedd election – could be even lower in future if people are given less say over who represents them.

Mr Millar explained a flexible-list system would give voters more choice, with any candidate receiving more than 10% of the vote moving to the top of the pile.

Heledd Fychan, for Plaid Cymru, said her party continues to favour the single-transferable vote, which allows people to rank candidates, or a flexible-list system.

‘Alphabet soup’

But she stressed the need for pragmatism and compromise with a two-thirds supermajority required for the bill to pass through the Senedd.

Ms Fychan welcomed that Wales would become the first UK nation to entirely move away from the “harmful” first-past-the-post system used in Westminster elections.

Mr Waters described voting systems as an alphabet soup, with everyone having a favourite and each having its flaws, saying he too would focus on the bigger prize of wider reforms.

Mr Antoniw said future votes will be more proportional than the current additional member system, which uses a mix of first-past-the-post constituencies and regional party lists.

MSs will hold a final stage-four debate on the amended version of the bill on May 8, with parliamentary arithmetic suggesting the reforms will get the go-ahead.

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

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