Posted: Tue 4th Jun 2024

Standards Commissioner: 10% recall threshold for Senedd members undemocratic

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

A 10% threshold for voters to remove Senedd members from office between elections would be undemocratic, the standards commissioner warned.

Douglas Bain, who investigates complaints against Senedd members, gave evidence to a standards committee inquiry looking into introducing a system of recall.

He said: “I very much welcome anything that will strengthen the ability of the public to call to account members of the Senedd. I think that should always be welcome.”

But Mr Bain warned that the closed-list electoral system, which will see people voting for parties rather than candidates from 2026, poses major difficulties.

He said: “If a member was recalled, the public – the electorate – would not have a choice of who might be elected, with the automatic election of the next person on the party list.”

‘Undemocratic’

He told the committee it would be “quite wrong” to replace a member in this way, without a byelection, “because only 10% of the electorate have said that’s what they want to happen”.

Stressing it’s a personal view, and ultimately a matter for the Welsh Parliament to decide, Mr Bain said: “I wouldn’t regard that as democratic or acceptable.”

He added: “There has to be some sort of mechanism to ensure actually it’s the will of not just 10% of the people that the member should be replaced, but it’s the majority of the people.”

Peredur Owen Griffiths, a Plaid Cymru member of the committee, pointed out that an MS could be elected with 40% of the vote yet removed with 10%.

Mr Bain suggested giving the standards committee powers to recommend disqualification could work as an alternative but this could be viewed as MSs marking their own homework.

‘Unacceptable’

Asked whether proxy and postal votes should be allowed as part of a recall mechanism, Mr Bain said the extra verification steps would unduly complicate the process.

Vikki Howells asked about Westminster’s criteria for triggering a recall petition: a prison sentence of less than 12 months, a ten-day suspension, or an expenses conviction.

Mr Bain, who was appointed in 2021, told the committee chair it is a good starting point.

The standards commissioner said there could be an argument for reducing the 12-month sentence threshold, above which members are automatically disqualified.

He asked: “Is it acceptable that someone who’s been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment … to remain a member of the Senedd? I think many would think the answer is ‘no’.”

‘Agony’

Asked if members should be able to appeal, Mr Bain said in his experience of the complaints process, introducing an appeals mechanism risks prolonging the agony for everyone.

He recommended following Westminster’s model as closely as possible, adapting it for Wales as necessary: “Why try to reinvent a wheel that seems to work reasonably well?”

Mr Bain previously served as acting commissioner following Sir Roderick Evans’ resignation in 2019 after he was secretly recorded by Neil McEvoy, the former Plaid Cymru MS.

The commissioner, who is based in Northern Ireland, said a vote of the whole Senedd and a weighted majority should be required due to the serious nature of the recall decision.

“Otherwise it could be used by a party that had a greater number of seats in the Senedd simply to remove opposition, which would be wholly unacceptable,” he warned.

‘Missed opportunity’

But Joe Rossiter, co-director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, suggested a vote of the whole Senedd is unnecessary and risks politicisation, with members voting in party blocks.

Mr Rossiter, who joined the independent think tank and charity in 2022, described the members and elections bill as a missed opportunity to include a recall mechanism.

He told the meeting on June 3: “The public have a right to expect high standards from elected officials who are having an increasing impact on everyday life in Wales.”

Ms Howells asked whether politicians should be recalled for changing their allegiance, saying voters are often vexed and lack representation when an MS joins another party.

Mark Drakeford suggested members should be allowed to leave a political group but then only be able to sit as an independent for the rest of that Senedd term.

“They wouldn’t be able to hawk themselves around to different political groups,” he said.

‘Unintended consequences’

The ex-first minister suggested it is unlikely the main parties will exhaust their 12-candidate lists for constituencies, saying: “You’d have to have a very, very substantial run of bad luck.”

Prof Drakeford said any independent MS would effectively be on a list of one but he argued it would be preferable for the seat to sit vacant rather than hold a by-election.

He told the meeting the unintended consequences of holding by-elections under the new fully proportional system outweigh the problems arising from a vacant seat.

Natasha Asghar, for the Conservatives, asked whether Wales should introduce a public body, similar to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) in Westminster.

Mr Rossiter said an Ipsa-style approach could raise standards throughout the Senedd as an institution, not only among individual members, but it would require more investment.

 

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

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