By Gareth Axenderrie
The Welsh Assembly has been advised to implement electoral reform in three major areas.
A report released today by an expert panel has recommended the Assembly introduce more members, change its electoral system and reduce the voting age in Assembly elections.
The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral reform was appointed by the Llywydd and the Assembly Commission following the devolution of electoral arrangements to the Senedd.
In the Fourth Assembly Commission of 2015, it was concluded that: “With only 60 members, the National Assembly is underpowered and overstretched”, and Wales has received further devolved powers since then including taxation.
Today’s report, chaired by Cardiff University’s Professor Laura McAllister, has recommended that the Assembly increases in size to at least 80 members, with 90 the preferable number. This recommendation follows the report’s conclusion that members’ ability to scrutinise is suffering due to a sheer lack of numbers. Many Assembly Members sit on more than one committee, an anomaly when compared to nearly all other parliaments around the world. In Westminster, over a hundred Members of Parliament do not currently sit on a single committee, whilst here in Cardiff, the majority of Assembly Members are reportedly struggling to juggle constituency duties and an increasing committee workload.
The report estimates that 30 additional members would cost a further £9.6 million annually, with a further one-off cost of £3.3 million. With political apathy and engagement hardly at record highs in Wales, any suggestion of more politicians will be met frostily by the Welsh electorate.
Addressing this, Professor McAllister stated: “Democracy does cost money, but good scrutiny pays for itself and it can be seen by citizens and communities across Wales.”
The report also finds that the current electoral system in Wales – an Additional Member System that combines First Past the Post and Proportional Representation – would not be fit for purpose in line with the suggested increase in members.
A Single Transferable Vote system has instead been recommended, where voters would be asked to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish in their order of preference, with votes transferred between candidates as they are elected or eliminated during the count.
The recommendation also includes a gender quota to ensure a 50-50 split between male and female candidates, with the Assembly highlighted as a ’trailblazer’ in equal political representation.
Furthermore, a change in the number of Assembly Members would also coincide with a remapping of Wales’ constituencies. The preferred option is 20 multimember constituencies, with current constituencies merging and at least four Assembly Members being elected from each. If implemented, this recommendation would see Cardiff Central merging with Cardiff South and Penarth.
A final recommendation from the report states that the voting age for Welsh Assembly Elections should be reduced from 18 to 16 by 2021. Professor McAllister stated that the report’s research saw no difference in political maturity between 16 and 17-year olds and 18-year olds who are currently eligible.
Upon concluding the report’s findings, Professor McAllister stated: “We see no reason to delay implementing the findings of the report.”
Any move toward implementation would rely on a consensus amongst the political parties in the Welsh Assembly, with each finding set to be scrutinised closely over the coming months by politicians, commentators and the public.
Elin Jones, Llywydd, concluded by saying: “We have just celebrated twenty years since political devolution in Wales. Now, on the eve of our twentieth year, let us think about the next twenty years of Welsh politics.”