The general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill and the financial resolution in respect of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill

– in the Senedd at 6:03 pm on 30 January 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:03, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

I don't see that there are objections, so we will ask the Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, to move the motion.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8464 Mick Antoniw

To propose that Senedd Cymru in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:

Agrees to the general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8465 Mick Antoniw

To propose that Senedd Cymru, for the purposes of any provisions resulting from the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill, agrees to any increase in expenditure of a kind referred to in Standing Order 26.69, arising in consequence of the Bill.

(Translated)

Motions moved.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 6:03, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

Thank you. It's a pleasure to open this debate on the general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill and to move the motion on the general principles and on the financial resolution. 

The general aim of the Bill is to make the Senedd more effective for and on behalf of the people of Wales. The size of the Senedd has a great deal of influence on the ability of Members to hold the Government to account. It impacts on its ability to scrutinise, to listen to constituents and to serve them. By now, we have 20 years of reports that demonstrate that we need to increase the size of the Senedd to deliver democracy of the standard that is expected of a modern parliament and legislature in this current era.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 6:04, 30 January 2024

Scrutiny and accountability of government is the foundation of parliamentary democracy. The Welsh Government welcomes that scrutiny. It is at the heart of a healthy democracy. It is a fundamental check and balance, and it is the ability to speak truth to power. Democracies foster debate and challenge. They believe that policies and laws are best forged in the fires of parliamentary scrutiny, and that's why this Bill is an investment in the modernisation of our democracy and its ability to scrutinise government.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 6:05, 30 January 2024

I am grateful to all members of the Reform Bill Committee, the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, and the Finance Committee for their careful and detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and to everyone who has contributed to their evidence gathering. Whilst I am unable to agree with every recommendation made by the committees, there are many recommendations that I do support and that I believe will valuably improve the legislation and its supporting documentation. I will not have time this afternoon at this stage to respond to all the 80 recommendations made across the three committees, but, recognising that this constitutional Bill will be scrutinised by a Committee of the Whole Senedd at Stage 2, which every Member will be part of, I've sought to rapidly respond in writing to the recommendations, and I will attempt to detail my position on a number of them today.

So, first of all, I welcome the Reform Bill Committee's first recommendation that the Senedd agree the general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. This is a key milestone in the progress of this landmark legislation, which I believe is vital to strengthening democratic engagement in Wales and addressing the long-standing capacity deficit of our national Parliament. I also concur with their recommendation that, throughout their ongoing scrutiny of the Bill, Members of the Senedd should have regard to the issues highlighted in the committee's report, and, indeed, those of the Finance Committee and the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.

In concurring, I note also the committee's recommendation 14, which called for me to work with all political parties represented in the Senedd to reach agreement on how the Bill could be amended to ensure the electoral system provides a stronger voice for the Welsh people and clearer accountability for individual Members, and I will do my best. It is my opinion that the proposed closed list proportional representation system provided for by this Bill can both achieve the supermajority that is necessary for it to be passed and will be far superior to our current electoral system. It will improve democracy and ensure that every vote counts, and it will lead to a Senedd that is far more representative of the people of Wales, in all our diversities. It simplifies the current system—voters will have one ballot paper instead of two—and it is a system that is already familiar to voters, being used for the current regional list ballots and, formerly, for the election of MEPs, Members of the European Parliament. Closed lists also offer a genuine practical system by which parties can take action to address diversity in their representation of the Welsh public.

I do, however, recognise there are varying opinions and that the proposal in the Bill is, indeed, a compromise—a compromise to achieve the two thirds necessary to pass and become law, because if it fails to pass, then nothing changes. So, what I have to say to this Senedd is that, for this first election under the Bill, what we have may not go as far as some would like, but the Bill does provide a statutory requirement for a review after the 2026 elections. That will be an opportunity for Members to review how it has worked, what lessons can be learned and what changes, if any, should be made. The power for further change remains with the Senedd.

Turning to other aspects of the Bill, I would say to Members that I am open to constructive dialogue on how the Bill can be further improved. For example, I welcome the committee's recommendations 15 and 50 in relation to candidate names on the ballot paper and recall, which may both be considered to go some way to providing a stronger voice for voters and to improve accountability for Members to their electorates.

I haven't accepted the Reform Bill Committee's recommendation 6 or the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee's recommendation 7, which both called for the removal of a power within the Bill that provides for the legislative limit upon Welsh Ministers to be increased to 18 or 19. The inclusion of this power provides for futureproofing, enabling future Welsh Governments to react quickly and flexibly to circumstances without utilising primary legislation for the sole purpose of increasing the legislative limit by one or two Ministers.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 6:10, 30 January 2024

I have explored whether recommendation 8 of the Reform Bill Committee could be taken forward to sunset any use of this power, but have identified that amendments of such a nature would likely impact on section 48 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which is protected from modification, and so I reject the recommendation on that basis. However, I do agree with the Reform Bill Committee's recommendation 7 that this power should be subject to a two thirds majority, given that the use of this power will have an effect on the Senedd’s capacity for scrutiny.

I've also accepted the committee's recommendations 9, 11, 13, 19, 21, 24 and 26, providing rationales and considerations as requested, and committing to undertake further work and consideration. However, I haven't accepted recommendation 28, which called for amendments to reduce the permissible electoral quota variance from 10 per cent on constituency boundary reviews. In considering this element of the committee's report, I concur with the comments that were made by Professor Renwick that the level for an electoral quota is fundamentally a trade-off between equality of representation and the flexibility to respond to matters such as geography, local ties and community relations. I also note that bodies such as the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales and Boundaries Scotland expressed concerns to the committee that the more rigid the variance is, the more likely it may give rise to otherwise avoidable situations, such as very large geographic constituencies or the breaking of community ties. So, as such, whilst I recognise the concerns identified by Members around variations in constituency sizes, I believe that a variance of 10 per cent approximately balances such concerns against those which might arise from a more rigid electoral quota.

I have accepted recommendation 31 of the committee's report, which called for me to bring forward amendments to reduce the period within which Welsh Ministers must make regulations to give effect to the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru’s recommendations from six months to four months. This will mean that bilingual regulations will be made in equivalent time to those resulting from UK parliamentary reviews.

I've also accepted recommendation 33, committing to bring forward amendments so that the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru must give a single monolingual name to Senedd constituencies if that is acceptable for communication through the medium of both Welsh and English. And I believe that this approach chimes with our wider ideal of harmonising Welsh and English place names, especially in instances whether there is very little difference between them. Similarly, I have accepted in principle recommendation 39, which called upon me to provide a mechanism for a reserve candidate who would otherwise be eligible to take up a vacancy arising during a Senedd term to become registered in the register of local government electors at an address within a Senedd constituency if they have, since the election, come off such a register. So, I'm exploring options by which this recommendation can be delivered.

Moving on, I haven't accepted the Reform Bill Committee's recommendation 41, which called for the removal of sections 7 and 19 from the Bill, or the equivalent recommendations of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. I recognise that Members have expressed concerns about the constitutional appropriateness of these provisions, but I don't agree that they are constitutionally problematic. There are other examples of statutory duties being placed on the Llywydd, and placing a duty on the Llywydd will not constrain a future Senedd to a particular course of action. It will be completely within the gift of the seventh Senedd to determine how it responds to the motions that sections 7 and 19 require the Llywydd to table. Whether it amends such motions, whether to agree the motions and, if they are agreed, how any work arising from such motions are taken forward, I firmly believe that the work envisaged by the motions is rightly for the Senedd to consider.

I have, however, accepted recommendation 47, and will aim to amend the Bill so that if the next Senedd decides to establish a committee under the motion provided for by section 19, and that committee produces a report, then Welsh Ministers will be legally obligated to respond to that report.

I also welcome and accept a range of recommendations made by the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, setting out opinions and explanations in response to recommendations 4, 6, 9, 12, 13 and 14, for example. Similarly, I've accepted a range of recommendations made by the Finance Committee. Many of their recommendations invite me to consult the Senedd Commission, and, in some cases, to subsequently update the regulatory impact assessment. Discussions between the Government and the Senedd Commission have already commenced in relation to a number of these recommendations, and I anticipate that I will provide more detailed responses to the committee in due course.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 6:15, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

I look forward to hearing your views on this Bill. We've waited 20 years for this package of reforms and I believe that, taken together, they help to create a Parliament for Wales that will be fit for purpose for the next 20 years and beyond. Thank you very much.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 6:16, 30 January 2024

It will come as no surprise to anybody in this Chamber this afternoon to hear that the Welsh Conservatives will be voting against the progression of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill this evening.

Wales needs more doctors, nurses, dentists and teachers, it does not need more politicians. And it is a great shame, Llywydd, to see the time, energy and resources of both the Welsh Government and this Senedd focused on a piece of legislation that will increase the number of Members of the Welsh Parliament by an eye-watering 60 per cent when we could be discussing matters that are more important to the people of Wales, such as helping patients get access to doctors, dentists, tests and treatment, driving up poor standards in our schools and delivering better paid jobs for Welsh workers. These are the priorities of the people of Wales and they should be our priorities as their elected representatives too.

Not once have I ever knocked on a door in Clwyd West, or Clwyd North—. When I've spoken to the public, not once have they said that their priorities are more politicians in Cardiff Bay. Instead, they tell me that they want action to deliver better schools, hospitals, roads and flood defences. I've heard proponents of Senedd reform say that we can address all of these other issues, all of these other priorities, whilst still expanding the size of the Senedd, but that isn't true, because the costs of a larger Senedd and more Welsh Government Ministers will run to tens of millions of pounds each and every year, and that's tens of millions of pounds that we won't be able to invest in our schools, hospitals and other public services.

Llywydd, the Bill before us today is a Welsh Government Bill, it is not a Senedd Bill, which is how the Minister has tried to present it. It is seeking to bring forward legislation that will pave the way for a programme of reform that has been struck in a deal between the former leader of Plaid Cymru and the soon-to-be former leader of Welsh Labour without waiting for the outcome of the work of the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform, making a mockery of the Parliament they claim they want to strengthen. There was no prior consultation with Members of either of their respective political groups, and, more importantly, of course, there was no consultation with members of the public either.

Presiding Officer, significant changes to how Members of this Welsh Parliament are elected should only be implemented with the consent of the public we are here to serve, yet there is no public mandate whatsoever for the changes proposed in this Bill. Every one of us in this Chamber knows that the overwhelming majority of the public do not support an increase in the size of the Senedd; that was borne out by evidence taken by the Senedd reform committee. We had an avalanche of correspondence from the public opposing the Bill that is before us today, compared to just a tiny trickle of public support coming in through correspondence. And even those in favour of Senedd reform acknowledged that even after presenting the arguments in favour of a larger Senedd to the public, they still remain unconvinced of the need to change.

Both Labour and Plaid MSs have been claiming a mandate for the proposed changes. They say that the woolly references in their manifestos to Senedd reform provide them with the necessary cover to introduce this package of measures. But that isn't the case at all, is it? The Labour manifesto, in advance of the last Senedd elections, made no reference to increasing the number of Members of the Senedd. It made no reference to changing the voting system, and it made no reference to taking away the opportunities for voters to vote for an individual candidate of their choice. Plaid's manifesto did at least refer to a larger Senedd and a change to the voting system, but not the change proposed through this particular Bill, and they didn't mention a 60 per cent increase in the size of the Senedd either. No-one mentioned this closed list voting system that has been proposed in the Bill. And let me be clear: this is a system that amounts to a power grab by political parties, taking power away from the voters and preventing them from being able to vote for a candidate of their choice. [Interruption.] I'll happily take an intervention.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 6:21, 30 January 2024

Who selected you to be a candidate? Was it the general public or your political party? How is this different to how candidates are currently selected?

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

The beauty of the current voting system is that if the members of the public do not like the choice made of the candidate selected by my political party, they don't have to vote for me. That's the difference. You may want to take power away from the people of Wales. We don't, and we will defend them to the hilt. The ability to vote for a person and not just a party is absolutely vital. It ensures that there is direct accountability between elected representatives and the public they serve. The abolition of a voting system that allows that choice in favour of one that gives enormous powers to political parties to determine who gets elected and who doesn't will result in a Parliament where loyalty to your political party is more important than your loyalty to your constituents, and frankly, it will be devastating for Welsh democracy. It will also—[Interruption.] If you will allow me to take an intervention, I'd be happy to. 

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 6:22, 30 January 2024

You have to admit that the leader of your own party here was selected through a list system by his own party members.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

The people in my constituency have an opportunity to vote for an individual person, and of course they have a vote for a political party on a list. But they have a vote. Everybody in this country—[Interruption.] I know you don't want to listen, but if you will allow me to respond—

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

The reality is that everybody in Wales at the moment at a Senedd election can vote for an individual candidate of their choice. You want to take that ability away from them.

The system before us will also deliver a less representative Welsh Parliament due to candidates needing to secure 12 per cent of the vote in an individual constituency in order to secure a single seat. You're trying to argue that it's going to be more representative, and yet those smaller parties, one of which is currently represented in the Senedd but may no longer be in the future, are going to suffer as a result of that, and you're going to silence their voters. So, there's no public mandate for these changes. I appreciate that some members of other political parties believe that there is public support, so I say this to you: if there is, let's have a referendum. Give the people of Wales the choice on whether to endorse this atrocious system to elect people to this Senedd or not, and I can tell you which fingers they will use to salute you in response.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:24, 30 January 2024

I was so keen to call Darren Millar that I forgot to call the three Chairs of committees, who were meant to be called first. I apologise to all three. David Rees, the Chair of the Bill committee. 

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. Before I focus on the committee's report, I wish to express our thanks to the witnesses who gave evidence, and to those individuals who took time to submit a written opinion to the committee. Everything we heard and received was taken into consideration when coming to our conclusions. I'll also express the committee's thanks to the clerking team who supported us, because without their dedication and commitment, we could not have undertaken this work and produced the report for your consideration today.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:25, 30 January 2024

Llywydd, the committee was tasked with undertaking the Stage 1 scrutiny of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill, or, as many of us refer to it, the Senedd reform Bill. We were not asked to consider whether the Senedd needed reform, or the shape of that reform. Previous committees in this and earlier Seneddau had considered those issues. We were asked to consider the Bill that the Welsh Government has brought forward, and whether that Bill delivered on the reform proposals that would deliver improved democratic scrutiny for the people of Wales, which will lead to a healthier democracy within Wales.

With this remit being clear, we undertook the scrutiny with the view to comment upon whether we believe the Bill should progress and, if so, how it could be improved to strengthen the democratic health of our nation, whilst always recognising the fact that such constitutional changes would require the support of two thirds of this Senedd's Members. In doing this, we reminded ourselves that, as Members of the Senedd, we are elected to work for and with the communities we represent. Our job is to make sure that our communities' interests are at the forefront of our thinking when we hold the Welsh Government to account and when we seek to improve policy, legislation, spending and taxation decisions through robust and effective scrutiny.

We need to be confident that the structures that will be in place will allow that detailed scrutiny. And against the backdrop of continual change, the Senedd and its Members have found ways to work differently and more efficiently, but in doing so we have often seen the Senedd's fixed capacity stretched to its limits. This Welsh Government Bill is a key milestone in the Senedd's development, and in the development of Welsh democracy that we all prize so highly. The Bill covers a wide range of reforms, and the committee has explored these in detail, which has allowed us to come to our conclusions.

Following our scrutiny, we published a report, which included 50 recommendations, the first of which was that the majority of committee members were persuaded by the evidence that a reformed and larger Senedd would be better able to fulfil its responsibility to the people of Wales, now and in the future. As such, we recommended that the Senedd agrees the general principles so that the Bill can progress to the next stage of the legislative process. I note that the Counsel General referred to that. I would have been surprised if he hadn't said that he concurred with our decision. I'm very pleased that he did concur with our decision. However, this does not represent unqualified support for all of the Bill's provisions. There are elements that we believe require further reflection, and that's why we made various recommendations.

I understood what the Counsel General said, and I very much welcome the recommendations he's accepted, but there were some that I still think that he needs to consider further. Our most significant concern was with the proposed closed list electoral system that is within the Bill. The evidence we received led to our concern about its impact on voter choice, and the extent to which it will contribute to a healthy democracy in Wales. Whilst we recognise that this system is already operational to elect regional Members to the Senedd, it does change the relationship voters have with a named individual for whom they have voted for in the current first-past-the-post system.

We have not reached a committee view on which electoral system should be used, although we have heard evidence about flexible lists and the single transferable vote, and believe that either of those systems could go some way towards addressing the concerns we have heard about voter choice, accountability, and party influence upon the lists. We urge all political parties in the Senedd to work together to ensure that the system that comes forward does provide greater voter choice and improves accountability for future members of the electorate.

Our report also sets out other ways to improve the Bill to ensure that Welsh democracy remains progressive and healthy, including, for example, adjustments to the number of democracy and boundary commission commissioners; technical changes, which the Counsel General has accepted; and practical ways in which the new residency disqualification for candidates and Members is implemented. I'm pleased the Counsel General accepted one of those as well. We also want to see changes to section 5 of the Bill, regarding the size of the Welsh Government. I listened to what the Counsel General said, and I understood his argument on GOWA, but I still think, and we do believe, that it is important that we do not use just regulation powers—that primary legislation should be used if you wish to increase the number of Welsh Ministers.

There was a majority of committee members that believed such changes should be made by primary legislation, and we therefore call for those regulation powers to be removed and for the Counsel General to rethink that situation. We appreciate that he needs to strengthen the process, and he has accepted the two-thirds majority, but we still ask him to go back to think about the primary legislative solution as recommended.

We have also got concerns about sections 7 and 19 in the Bill, which, again, the Counsel General has rejected, as he's highlighted, because we believe that the requirement of putting rules on a future Presiding Officer to table motions to propose the establishment of committees to carry out specified work—we are concerned about those requirements. We believe that, for example, section 7 unnecessarily delays further work on job sharing—why can't we start that now? We don't have to put a motion to the next Senedd for that? And section 19 is out of step with other electoral law review provisions that place duties on governments. It would also place significant constraints on the timetable for any committee's work. We have also heard concerns about the principle of these provisions, especially the extent to which it is appropriate for this Senedd to bind it successors. As a mature Parliament, the Senedd must have the flexibility to determine its own structures and how it uses that scrutiny capacity, and that's why we felt that sections 7 and 19 were constitutionally problematic. 

Llywydd, we've also considered some matters that are not within the Bill, including how constituents can hold Members to account, and I think recall was mentioned by the Counsel General. We think those are important questions that need to be raised, but we also understand the complexity of applying the current model in a closed list system. The standards commissioner suggested that there was scope to strengthen the disqualification arrangements and sanctions for Members who breach the code of conduct. We therefore believe that Members should be accountable, and these are complex, but we're asking the Standards of Conduct Committee to look at these matters further to develop that for public consultation.

Finally, we remember that, if this Bill is passed, all Members of the Senedd and our successors to come have a responsibility to ensure that people in the communities we represent have confidence in the robustness and integrity of Senedd elections, and that the potential benefits and improved outcomes that this Bill promises are delivered in practice. I think it's important that we take forward this understanding of the complexity of the Bill and the need to ensure that people come with us, because it is important that people have that confidence in what we are doing.

Llywydd, to conclude, I want to express my thanks to all committee members, particularly Jane Dodds and Llyr Gruffydd, who substituted for Heledd Fychan during the final consideration, for the positive, collegiate and constructive way in which our work was conducted. I hope our work and the report produced will help Members as they consider the Bill at this stage and at future stages, if it is passed today. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:32, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

Alun Davies now to speak on behalf of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 6:31, 30 January 2024

I'm grateful to you, Presiding Officer. Like other Members, I'd like to start by thanking the staff and the secretariat of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee for the work they did in bringing forward this report. For the record, and for those Members here who are not aware of these matters, I took on the temporary chairing of this committee for the purpose of scrutinising this Bill. I would also like to thank Carolyn Thomas and Luke Fletcher for stepping in as substitutes for Huw Irranca-Davies and Adam Price to undertake this work. We're very grateful as a committee to you both for that.

Presiding Officer, our report on the Bill drew four conclusions and made 14 recommendations. Given the significance of the Bill, we concluded that space should have been found within the timetable to prepare and seek views on a draft Bill. Such pre-legislative scrutiny is particularly important for Bills of this nature. It would have provided Senedd committees and Members with opportunities to engage with stakeholders and to consider at an early stage how the Welsh Government proposed to turn policy objectives into law. In our view, it is vital to get this legislation right to avoid unintended consequences. A draft Bill would have been a great help in this process.

On section 5 of the Bill, the Counsel General has rejected the majority view of the committee that section 5(b) should be removed. If the face of the Bill were to specify the maximum number of Welsh Ministers as 19, this would remove the need for a regulation-making power to change the figure of 17 to 18 or 19 at some point in the future. It would provide greater flexibility, but in a more appropriate way. 

On sections 7 and 19, our report expressed concern that a Bill whose aims include increasing the scrutiny depth of the Senedd and its capacity to hold the Welsh Government of the day to account is seeking to influence and potentially constrain the seventh Senedd's committee system. That should be a matter for that Senedd to determine. The Welsh Government, in both sections 7 and 19, is asking the sixth Senedd to pass legislation that would impose duties on the seventh Senedd and bind that Senedd's Presiding Officer. In doing so, it breaches the principle that an Act of Parliament should not constrain the freedom of action of a future Parliament. We do not consider such provisions to be constitutionally appropriate.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 6:35, 30 January 2024

Our report also drew attention to other issues with these sections. For example, on section 7, we noted that there is no guarantee the policy development work undertaken by a committee—work that, in the main, is a matter for Government—will be implemented by the Welsh Government, calling into question the use of Senedd resources that would be better utilised on scrutiny and holding the Government to account. We therefore recommended, Presiding Officer, that the Counsel General should consider the constitutional propriety of sections 7 and 19 and whether they should be included in the Bill.  

The Counsel General’s explanation for retaining these sections, namely that they are akin to the Government of Wales Act 2006 placing a duty on the Presiding Officer to decide on whether or not a Bill is within the Senedd’s legislative competence, is, I'm afraid, not persuasive. The Senedd is a creature of statute. To pass legislation, the 2006 Act places permanent duties on the Senedd’s Presiding Officer so that the Senedd is able to perform its democratic role to legislate. That is in no way equivalent to what is proposed in sections 7 and 19 of the Bill. I also note the Counsel General’s justification for retaining section 19 on the grounds that the Bill emanated from a special purpose committee. However, section 19 itself is not based on a recommendation of that committee.

In our view, post-legislative scrutiny could take place without the need for section 19. For example, any relevant committee of the seventh Senedd could agree to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Act, setting its own terms of reference and time frame for undertaking that work. We have also concluded in our report that this is, in essence, a Government Bill, and that there is no reason why Welsh Ministers could not be placed under a duty to report on the operation and effect of their own legislation within a set time period, as often appears in other Acts of the Senedd.

Presiding Officer, you have allowed me to make some personal remarks at the conclusion of this contribution, and I'm grateful to you for that. Speaking, therefore, in a personal capacity, let me say this: I have listened to this debate and I've enjoyed listening and contributing to the conversations that we've had across this place. I've even enjoyed the contributions of Darren Millar. [Laughter.] I think, sometimes, we lose something in this debate. Do you know, I've listened and participated in these debates almost since Kilbrandon published his report in 1973? I was in Dukestown juniors at the time; I took a great deal of interest. But let me say this: we've debated these matters for perhaps too long. We've debated for perhaps too long about the nature of our democracy. We need to vote on these matters and we need to move on.

Let me also say: I sat on the Finance Committee examination of the costs of this reform. We heard Darren's view on some of these matters. I have to say that I was neither impressed nor persuaded by many of the arguments and the evidence of costs that were put in front of us. The scrutiny of the Finance Committee did not demonstrate that many of the costs put forward are costs that are, in any way, real, and I believe we do need to look again at some of those matters. But I also think, in attempts to measure the possible cost, we seemed to lose sight of why we are here.

I listen to what the Conservatives say on these matters. I listened to Darren speaking for an age about how much he had no wish to support additional politicians—we've got too many politicians, we don't need any more. What was running through my mind was, 'Has he had this conversation with Lord Cameron? Has he had this conversation with the family members of Boris Johnson? Has he had this conversation with all the donors and cronies and hangers-on that now populate the red benches in London?' And, of course, the answer is, 'No, he hasn't.' And he's sat there with all his friends who have supported—[Interruption.]—oh, here we go; give me a moment—who have supported the creation of the biggest legislature in the world in London, bigger than the Chinese Communist Party, without saying a word.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 6:40, 30 January 2024

My own view is that the House of Lords needs reform, Alun. I've got no problem in saying that, and I think it is too large, and we've got too many peers who don't work and still have an entitlement to sit in that place. That is wrong and it needs to be addressed. But two wrongs don't make a right, and we're in danger of making a dreadful mistake here as far as democracy in Wales is concerned, particularly with this closed list voting system.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 6:41, 30 January 2024

Okay. What we're doing is entrenching and deepening democracy, and that is important. What is happening in London is a democracy that is being undermined by the creation of unelected peers on the basis of donations to the Conservative Party. That is a fundamental affront to democracy. It shouldn't happen and you should be supporting the democracy in this place.

But let me say this, let me say this—[Interruption.] There are too many Lib Dems, okay, fair enough. [Laughter.] But none of these people ever criticise the costs incurred in Westminster in London. They never criticise the creation of new politicians in London. They never criticise—[Interruption.] They never criticise—[Interruption.] They never criticise the profligacy of a UK Government. They only ever criticise the deepening of democracy in Wales, because, fundamentally, they don't like Welsh democracy, and they don't care about Welsh democracy. But let me tell you, I care too much to allow you to undermine our democracy.

I also believe—and this is important as well—I actually believe in the STV system, the single transferable vote. I believe that STV empowers people and provides a fair and accountable democracy. It is far better than first-past-the-post and it is far better than most other systems. I look forward to Labour in Government in the United Kingdom delivering STV to the rest of the United Kingdom, and I look forward at some point in Wales to us delivering STV here in Wales as well. But I also recognise—and this is the difficult part—that to deliver change involves compromise, and, for me, the great compromise that I make personally in supporting this is not to push further on STV. I believe that STV—I passionately believe that STV is the most accountable form of Government and democracy and we need to seek to do that. But I hope that what we are able to do today is to move forward to a proportional system that will enable us both to represent people in constituencies up and down the country but also provide accountable Government here in Wales. Presiding Officer, I will finish by quoting—[Interruption.]—by quoting Margaret Thatcher. [Interruption.] Margaret Thatcher—[Interruption.] It was said that Margaret Thatcher knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Today's Tories have learnt nothing since then.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd. And I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate on the future of the Senedd. As well as thanking Senedd officials who have supported the committee’s consideration of this Bill, I would also like to thank the committee’s expert adviser, Ailsa Henderson, whose expertise and knowledge of electoral systems and boundaries provided essential context that informed our work.

Our report makes 16 recommendations, and I’m pleased the Counsel General has accepted the majority of our recommendations and that the work has commenced in looking at some with the Commission and others. However, his response says that some of the recommendations are matters for the Senedd Commission, even though the committee explicitly noted its expectation that it is a matter for the Member in charge to provide these figures, in consultation with the Commission.

Although we accept that this Bill is unusual, in that the majority of costs fall on a body other than the Welsh Government, we find the Counsel General’s unwillingness, as Member in charge, to take lead responsibility for these costs disappointing.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:44, 30 January 2024

Turning to the committee's main findings, we are broadly content with the financial implications of the Bill, as set out in the RIA. However, the committee has concerns about some of the assumptions used to model the estimates presented in the RIA and our recommendations aim to improve and increase the transparency of both costs and potential savings.

We welcome the Counsel General’s claim that an increase in the Senedd would lead to improved scrutiny of budgets and legislation, matters that are close to the heart of the Finance Committee. However, we are disappointed that detailed estimates of savings were not included.

The Counsel General also maintains that the Bill is an investment in democracy and will pay for itself. While we accept that improved scrutiny leads to improved outcomes, better attempts should have been made to quantify the scrutiny benefits. As a result, we have recommended that the Counsel General models the anticipated savings as a result of the Bill to quantify the impact of scrutiny benefits. While we welcome his willingness to assess the potential savings, it is a shame that such work wasn't done prior to the Bill's introduction, given that these proposals have been in the pipeline for a number of years.

I note the Counsel General’s assurance, in response to recommendation 12, that no additional Welsh Government staff will be required, unless there is a change in devolved responsibilities. However, we remain unconvinced and believe that it will be difficult to sustain levels of ministerial support within existing resources if the number of Welsh Ministers increase and ask the Counsel General to look in more detail at this again.

Turning now to other recommendations aimed at improving the clarity of cost estimates, the committee is concerned that the creation of larger constituencies could, on average, have financial implications for Members’ travel and accommodation costs. We have recommended that the costs be reassessed using a range rather than the average costs of current Members, who cover a smaller geographical area, which the Counsel General has accepted in principle.

In addition, a greater rise in the number of committees, above three as accounted for in the Bill, could replicate the need for Members to sit on multiple committees and thus could imperil the scrutiny gains made possible by additional Members. Our recommendation 5 calls for more modelling work to be done to understand the scrutiny benefits and the impact that an increase in the number of committees would have. The Counsel General has agreed to discuss this further with the Commission and we urge this work to be undertaken to ensure that scrutiny benefits materialise, and he's confirmed that some of that work has already started.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:47, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

Finally, Llywydd, I would like to draw attention to our recommendations relating to the cost of future boundary reviews. Reviews conducted after the initial pairing exercise for the 2026 election will be drawn so that no new constituency is 10 per cent over or under electoral parity. This could potentially be a complex undertaking that may lead to considerable change and result in higher costs. I'm grateful to the Counsel General for agreeing to provide an update on costs once all the relevant boundary changes have been completed to enable the committee or a future finance committee to understand the full financial impact of the Bill. 

Llywydd, our job as a committee is to ensure that the cost estimates presented alongside all legislation introduced in the Senedd are as robust and accurate as possible. We are content with the costs presented alongside this landmark Bill, but we believe that there is a need for some fine-tuning to ensure full transparency. Thank you very much.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 6:48, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

Today, we mark another step forward in the journey of this Bill, which is also a major step forward for Wales. I think it's important that we reflect upon the importance of this Bill.

The provisions in the Bill, taken together, are a definite and long-awaited step towards the creation of a Senedd that can better serve the people of Wales and create a real Parliament for Wales that is stronger, more effective and more representative of our nation in every sense of the word, and such a Senedd will be in place by 2026.

This will deliver fairness for Wales in terms of the number of Members in our Parliament. Why should we settle for having a small, inadequate Senedd as compared to comparably sized nations? Why can't we demand the best for Wales in terms of democracy?

These are ambitious plans, and let us not allow anyone to claim otherwise, because Wales will be the first national legislature in Britain to move away in full from the first-past-the-post electoral system. Consider how undemocratic the current situation is where someone can be elected to a majority of seats in this Senedd with the majority of voters having voted against them.

The Bill will also facilitate the introduction of statutory gender quotas to place the promise of a more representative Parliament at the heart of a transformed institution. This would be another significant and radical development, and I look forward to seeing the electoral candidate lists Bill being introduced very soon, as it is important, of course, for the Senedd to be able to consider both Bills side by side. In expanding the Senedd, the last thing we should want to see is a repeat of a situation where women are the underrepresented majority in this place. We have to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be representing their communities here and to have a Senedd that is genuinely representative of Wales. 

The Bill provides a mechanism, as mentioned earlier, in terms of the review mechanism, and we will need such a mechanism. There will be further work for the next Senedd to do in terms of the introduction of job sharing. We have to remember that we are a young democracy—it's only 25 years since the first election to this Chamber. We continue to be a new democracy, but we have to be ready to evolve so that we can achieve what the people of Wales want us to deliver here in this Chamber.

Over the years, a number of panels and commissions have agreed that our Senedd isn't appropriately constituted to do the work that the people of Wales have tasked it with doing. There was also a great deal of discussion on what the ideal system should be, and we have already heard the views of a number of Members on this. You'll know full well that Plaid Cymru favours the single transferable vote system, or open or flexible proportional lists, but our priority is ensuring that a bold package of reforms is in place by 2026 and ensuring that the review following that is one that will genuinely enable further changes to be made by 2030.

It's for commentators and academics to challenge, provide analysis and draw attention to best practice, and I'm hugely grateful to everyone who has given evidence to the Reform Bill Committee. It was a privilege to be part of that work, and I would like to thank my fellow members, the Chair, and all of the staff who were involved in supporting that work. And thanks in particular to Llyr Gruffydd for taking my place over the past few weeks. 

A number of important themes have emerged in the recommendations by the committee, including the importance of ensuring the independence of the governance arrangements of the new Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales are beyond doubt and unimpeachable, bearing in mind that this body will have the final word on deciding these boundaries. There are specific recommendations by the committee to strengthen these arrangements and it's important that these are agreed at Stage 2. And I note that the Local Government and Housing Committee has published its report on the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill; it was good to hear those comments too. 

There are further questions about the directions to the commission, and I'm pleased that the Minister has rejected the recommendations to tie the commission's hands in terms of further limiting the 10 per cent quota. I was very pleased that the committee was also unanimously in favour of tipping the balance in favour of using Welsh names for constituencies, and further amendments will be required on this issue. 

The need for more technical amendments to ensure that there are no unintended consequences under the residency requirement has already been mentioned, and there is a need to give the Senedd additional clarity on who will be responsible for leading this work of co-ordinating efforts to raise awareness of the new electoral system. There is also further work to do in developing policy and a system in Wales for the development of party manifestos for the governance of Wales—all this and more to be covered in Stage 2, no doubt. 

However, when all of the evidence has been gathered and everyone has had their say, our work as Members of the Senedd, of course, and as legislators, is to make decisions. The decision facing us today is to weigh up this package of policies and the principles that have been set out. I'm very pleased, and consider it to be a privilege, to vote in favour of our democracy's ongoing journey, in favour of taking a step forward, whilst keeping our eyes on our full ambitions for the future. I encourage every Member to support what is before us today, for Wales and for democracy. 

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour 6:54, 30 January 2024

Can I just start off by saying that it is better to get this Bill right than to complete it ready for the next Senedd election?

On the number of Members, in the 1990s, the initial proposal was 80 Members, but that was overturned for the 60 Members we have today. Scotland has 129 seats for an electorate of 4,245,000—one Member for every 32,900 electors. Northern Ireland has 90 Members for an electorate of 1.3 million—one Member for every 15,260 electors. Wales currently has 60 Members for an electorate of 2,348,000, giving 39,140 electors per Member. So, Wales is out of step. We're higher than Scotland and Northern Ireland. Moving to 96 Members would produce 24,464 electors per Member, which, if you look at it, is approximately midway between Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, there's nothing abnormal about us going up to 96.

We currently have small committees. I serve with Peredur on the Finance Committee. We have four Members: one ill, one held up in traffic, the meeting becomes inquorate. Anybody who travels along the M4 from the west will be well aware of just how easy it is to get held up in traffic.

How do you pay for these additional Members? If you have more Members, then the commissioners, such as the children's commissioner and the older persons' commissioner, will need less staff to scrutinise. Therefore, they would need smaller budgets.

The current closed list system would mean that voters would only be able to choose between parties and groupings, rather than individual candidates. The committee that David Rees chaired heard evidence from experts that this would reduce the choice available to voters and risk voter dissatisfaction and turnout. The committee were also united in their concerns about the impact of the voting system being put forward by the Welsh Government on the level of voter ability to choose who represents them. Getting the electoral system right is fundamental to the health of democracy in Wales, and I agree with the committee on their significant reservations about the closed list system.

If the Bill is voted through its first stage—and I'm urging that that happens—then there needs to be further consultation on the electoral system. Can we approve everything but the electoral system? I think there's probably a majority in here—of which I'm not one—for STV, but I think that we really ought to look at a different system. In democracy, gerrymandering is the political manipulation of electoral boundaries with the intent of creating undue advantage for a party. We do things differently in Wales. Where other parties bring in electoral systems so that they can win a majority, Labour in Wales brings in one to make it difficult to win a majority.

We now have suggested an electoral system of six Members for each of 16 constituencies created by merging two parliamentary constituencies, with 16 constituencies. Under the plan, the new Senedd constituencies will be a paired combination of the 32 set out for Westminster. Many people, including me, were concerned about the size of the constituency of Brecon, Radnor and Cwmtawe, stretching from Knighton and Presteigne on the English border to Lower Brynamman and Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen on the border with Carmarthenshire.

To create a six-Member constituency would involve Brecon, Radnor and Cwmtawe either going northwards with Montgomery and Glyndŵr, westwards with Ceredigion and Preseli, or with Carmarthenshire; southwards produces a choice of Monmouthshire, Neath and Swansea East, Blaenau Gwent and Rhymney or Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. Whichever way of creating a six-Member constituency, the constituency would be very large and involve communities with very little things in common.

Whilst this is the most extreme example, there will be many others outside the cities that will also be covering very large areas. We could elect 96 Members using the parliamentary constituencies, with three from each, elected via D'Hondt. The advantage of that is that these constituencies will have already had a general election for voters to get used to the new seats, and, whilst some will be large, they will be much smaller than any of the joint seats. This is why I'm asking for 32 three-Member constituencies, where the Senedd and Westminster Parliament would have the same boundaries.

I urge support for the principle, and I think that having a 96-Member Senedd is a very good idea and I think that we need it—if only so that we can have an extra Member on the Finance Committee so that we don't end up with a situation where we're dependent on the M4. So, I hope we'll go along with that.

And can I just say one thing about STV? Alun Davies raised it. It is many things; proportional is not one of those things. And if you want to find out why I say that, look at the Irish election results, look at the Scottish council election results, and you'll see how unproportional it is.

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative 6:59, 30 January 2024

Standing here today listening to this debate, you wouldn't think that educational outcomes in Wales were the worst in the UK; you wouldn't think that people in Wales earn £3,000 less than people in Scotland; you wouldn't think that the Welsh economy was the weakest of all the UK nations; you wouldn't think that rates of child poverty in Wales are the highest in the UK; and you wouldn't think that NHS waiting lists were the longest in the United Kingdom. And the reason you wouldn't think any of those things is that we're stood here once again debating adding more politicians to this Senedd at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. When you look at the crisis facing Wales under this Welsh Labour Government, bottom of basically every league table you can imagine, wouldn't you think that instead of increasing the size of the Senedd, we should be spending those hundreds of millions on more doctors and nurses to tackle those NHS waiting lists, more teachers to get to grips with those awful PISA results, and more action to get the very poorest in our country into work and out of poverty? What we're pursuing today aren't the people's priorities; they're the politicians' priorities—prioritising ourselves over better outcomes for the people that we represent.

And let's not kid ourselves that having more politicians here in the Senedd is somehow brave and will lead to better representation for the people of Wales. That idea is laughable. Indeed, the cross-party Senedd committee tasked with looking at this Bill found quite clearly that the plans could erode the link between the public and the politicians that they send to this place. The committee heard evidence that the plans would prioritise the influence of political parties over their constituents, putting all the power into the hands of Government whips and taking power away from the people that we represent. Llywydd, this is a democracy. We shouldn't be standing for this. As politicians, we shouldn't be proud to stand for a system that takes power out of the hands of the people. Making our country less democratic shouldn't be something that we support.

I do genuinely believe that the people in this Chamber who support the Bill, many of whom we've heard from today, are not bad people with bad intentions—far from it—and there are arguments in favour of reforming this place. I think we'd all agree that things here are not as perfect as they could be. And those arguments genuinely deserve to be heard. But if they're as popular, as inspiring and as transformational as we've heard so far today, why aren't we putting that to the test in a referendum? What calibre of politician must exist in this place that are only capable of making their arguments inside the comfort of the Senedd Chamber, but are incapable of looking their voters in the eye to make that same case? When the people of Wales voted to establish the Welsh Assembly, as it was then, I was a young child, but the promise was made that this would be a political institution that did things differently, not only bringing decision making closer to the people impacted by those decisions, but the glass on the building, for example, was supposed to signify that there was no disconnect between the public and the politicians inside the building. Llywydd, many across Wales don't feel like this Senedd has lived up to those ideals as it is. But if we support this measure for more politicians today, without the approval of the people of Wales, in their Parliament, we jeopardise the very reason that this Welsh Parliament exists.

For those of us in this Chamber who believe in devolution, a Welsh Parliament and all that it can achieve, we need to remember that this is and should be the people's Parliament. If we vote for more politicians without asking the people's permission, all we will do is create the impression that this isn't a Parliament for them. All we will do is give greater ammunition to those people who don't want this place to exist at all. Whatever side of the Chamber you sit on, however well meaning you are, however much you truly believe in these proposals, if you are a devolutionist, don't risk the perception that this Parliament only serves itself. Don't stray from the opening ideals of a Parliament for the people, by the people, and don't vote for these proposals today, at the very least without supporting a referendum to validate it.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 7:04, 30 January 2024

Since you didn't take an intervention, I'll say what everyone else wanted to say. You basically decided to give us these powers. You had the opportunity—your party in Government—to decide to make it conditional on a referendum; you chose not to do that. And indeed, when we got tax-raising powers, having originally proposed the referendum, you then decided that we didn't need a referendum on that. So, you're not consistent with what you have actually done. Now, I think that—[Interruption.]

(Translated)

Darren Millar rose—

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 7:04, 30 January 2024

I'll happily give way to Tom Giffard, if he wants to come back. Well, okay, I'll be generous, Darren, seeing as it's you.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

I just want to make reference to the consistency argument. Of course, we are being consistent in calling for a referendum where significant changes to the voting system are being proposed. We held a referendum on whether to adopt an alternative vote system under David Cameron's Government. He gave people the opportunity to vote for that or against it. This is an equally significant change, which will scrap first-past-the-post elections to this Senedd, by which 40 of the current 60 Members are elected. Therefore, scrapping it ought to be via a referendum only. 

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 7:05, 30 January 2024

So, does that mean—breaking news—that there's actually going to be a referendum on the changes to the electoral system for the mayor of London, or for the police and crime commissioners happening in May? Where was the—? There's no consistency, Darren, in the position of your party. This is driven by political expediency every time.

Political progress in Wales is painfully slow at the best of times, and it seldom proceeds in a straight line. As Alun Davies reminded us, the Royal Commission on the Constitution, the Kilbrandon commission, which reported 51 years ago, having looked at the Stormont experience with their House of Commons with only 52 Members—very close to us—said that at that level it was too small a Parliament to do its democratic job. It then recommended a 100-Member senate for Wales. Here we are, four commissions/expert panels later, who have all concluded that we needed to be a bigger parliament. And we're almost there—we're almost there—if we get this Bill through.

And I have to disagree. It's a philosophical and a practical disagreement with those on the Conservative benches, because I don't believe that strengthening our democracy's ability to deliver, strengthening its ability to deliver its key function, which is to improve the lives of the people of Wales, is a distraction from the work of politics. That's at the heart of politics. If you follow the logic of your argument, then, actually, you're arguing in favour of abolition, which is, I hope, not where you really want to go—

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru

I've taken one, Darren. Oh, go on, then. 

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

Thank you for your generosity in taking a further intervention. I can assure you that we are not abolitionists of this place. We support devolution and we're proud devolutionists. But you are talking about strengthening democracy and strengthening this institution. You're the same person who undermined this institution by doing a deal with the current First Minister in order to bring these proposals forward, while the committee was taking some important work forward in developing some proposals. So, it's a bit rich of you to criticise us when you're the person who undermined democracy.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

Okay, that was another speech by Darren Millar.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru

I'll think better next time, Darren, before accepting a second intervention. Look, when you have to have a two-thirds majority in this place, to get that level of change, that can only happen at a political level, where you have parties working together. Actually, despite what you said, you're wrong: we consulted democratically within our party, and the only way you could get change was to have agreement across the party political divide, and that's what happened.

In terms of the benefits that this represents in terms of our democracy, at the moment, this smaller scale Senedd is not able to do its job. We're underpowered in a variety of different ways. Think about not just scrutiny, but the formation of the Government. When you have, as a proportion, so many people in the governing party, as it is at the moment, holding ministerial positions, you don't have the pool of other talent on the non-ministerial benches that you're able to rotate. So, by increasing the size of the Senedd, you create a greater reservoir of skills and experience that can be drawn upon. And that's true for us as a Senedd as a whole. At the moment, we're not representative socially and in terms of life experience, as we need to be to do our job. By building a larger Senedd, we can become more inclusive and diverse, and we all gain as a result of that.

Just thinking in practical terms, we can only meet in Plenary for two days a week. We are shorter than all the other Parliaments, even the Northern Ireland Assembly, now it's going to be up and running again. We are unable to meet more than that for Plenary because committees would be inquorate. We simply wouldn't be able to do it. I'm on four committees, if you include the Senedd Commission as well. It's not possible for us to have that third Plenary day. Think of what that could represent in terms of releasing the legislative creativity in this place. We've only passed one private Member's Bill in the last eight years. We've only passed one committee Bill. We've only passed one committee Bill ever, largely because we simply don't have the bandwidth, at the moment, to be able to do that. So, for all of these reasons, this is why this is a historic opportunity, and I hope, beyond the disagreements that we’re having here, Darren, as we were discussing a moment ago, that we can also then have a wider discussion, which includes your party as well, as to how we make the best of this democratic opportunity to raise our ability to impact positively on the lives of the people of Wales.

I'll just say something briefly about the electoral system. Yes, my party has supported STV for almost 100 years, right from the very beginning, and that's where we want to get to. I think it is a hugely positive step forward that we are getting rid of the first-past-the-post system. We were the first nation on the island of Britain to do that, and that takes us in the direction where we would like to go, in terms of STV. The review mechanism gives us an opportunity, and what we should do is, in our respected parties, all of us—. It'll be in the Plaid Cymru manifesto, I'd like to see it in other party manifestos as well. Let's see more local authorities doing what Gwynedd is doing, bringing STV forward at a local level, so we can create a momentum in favour of getting it to where we want to by 2030.

And maybe, based on the recommendation of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales yesterday, maybe in the review mechanism, there's a role for citizens there as well. There's a suggestion about why not have a citizens' assembly, alongside the discussions that happen here, alongside the expert evidence, as the committee has suggested. Why not actually use this as an opportunity to use that deliberative mechanism of a citizens' assembly to ask the people of Wales, 'Yes, we're making a step forward with this Bill, but where do you want to go next, because progress is never ending for our nation?'

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative 7:12, 30 January 2024

I'm actually going to begin by asking you to hold on to your seats because I'm going to begin with some praise. As far as I'm concerned, there's only been one good come thing to come from the Welsh Government's roll-out of the blanket 20 mph speed limit policy, and that is that it has captured the attention of the nation. It has resulted in more people getting involved and engaged in politics, the Welsh Government and, ultimately, the Welsh Parliament. More people have stopped to think, 'Well, if the Welsh Government is imposing this ridiculous policy and wasting our money, what other hair-brained ideas are they coming up with?' And let's be honest, there are plenty to choose from. But the one that's really got people talking, the one that's really inundated my inbox, and I'm sure many of you as well, for all the wrong reasons, is of course Labour and Plaid's pet project of expanding the Senedd to create an extra 36 more politicians. [Interruption.] It certainly has.

Now, our NHS is in dire straits, thanks to years of Labour mismanagement, with nearly 25,000 people waiting more than two years for treatment, and we have the highest numbers of people waiting in A&E for 12 hours when compared to England and Scotland. As my colleague Tom Giffard mentioned, our education system is also failing, with the number of teachers declining in Wales. PISA results for reading, maths and science are falling to their lowest rates ever. Our economy here in Wales is struggling, having extremely poor business survival rates, which probably has something to do with the fact that Welsh Government punishes them with the highest business rates that we've seen in Great Britain. Twelve Welsh towns find themselves in a list of the top-20 most economically fragile in the UK, and 28 per cent of children in Wales are living in relative poverty. The list, sadly, really does go on. It's quite a rap sheet, and one Keir Starmer appears to want to inflict on the rest of the United Kingdom, with Wales as his blueprint for a Labour Government in Westminster.

So, what is the Welsh Government doing to tackle these really big issues? Well, as far as I'm concerned, not a great deal, as the Ministers are far too busy navel-gazing. Expanding the Welsh Parliament has been dubbed by many out-of-touch Labour politicians as a way of increasing scrutiny, but the fact is it's nothing more than a vanity project. I'm in absolutely no doubt that I and all of my colleagues here on these Conservative benches do a fantastic job of holding the Welsh Government to account, day in, day out. That is the role of opposition parties, although you may not think it, looking at Plaid, who claim to hold the Welsh Government to account whilst at the same time never missing an opportunity to jump into bed with Labour.

The people of Wales don't want to see their hard-earned money spent on putting more politicians in this place. They want to see a Welsh Government focused on delivering in the areas that matter to them, like health, education, public transport and the economy. Let me just give you a flavour of some of the messages that I've been receiving from disgruntled constituents, which show how expensive expansion plans have actually gone down. One resident, and I quote word for word,

'What is the Welsh Government expecting to achieve for the people you represent that made you decide that this was the better way to spend £120 million than, for example, on 150 new consultants to reduce the waiting lists in our NHS?'

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour 7:15, 30 January 2024

Will you take an intervention? Where are you going to get those 150 extra consultants? My understanding is that there are very few unemployed doctors in Wales—actually, none—so, where are you going to get them from?

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative

Mike, where there's a will, there's a way. If you've got the money, anything's possible. [Laughter.]

Another resident said—[Interruption.] Let me carry on. Another resident said, 'It's beyond a joke that the Welsh Government claims to be skint', which I've heard the Minister mention, 'but can somehow find £120 million behind the back of a sofa to pay for this expansion. If they honestly think that this is the way Wales wants, then this is even more out of touch than I originally thought'. I'm still quoting the e-mail that was sent: 'I want to see the money spent on fixing our health service. I've got friends and family waiting obscene amounts of time to receive treatment. You seriously struggle to even get a dentist's appointment these days. Why are they wasting our money on more politicians, when there are much more pressing issues to deal with?' Honestly, I couldn't agree with them more. They are right. The Welsh Government's spending priorities are, in fact, completely wrong.

So, what I'd really like to know is how on earth the Welsh Government can really justify spending upwards of £120 million on putting more politicians in this place when the public services are truly struggling and the Government is slashing vital budgets. Quite simply, the Bill is a waste of time, money and effort, in my opinion. And I said this in June 2022: if everyone here is so confident, then, honestly, it remains my belief that it's really not too late, and it still can happen, therefore you must go to the public and actually have a referendum that's fair.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 7:16, 30 January 2024

I would like to say it was a great privilege and honour to be a member of this committee, and I'd like to thank the Chair and all the members, and also the Bill and clerking team—thank you very much. I would like to reaffirm my party's commitment to the Bill's general principles. Reforming the Senedd and expanding its membership is vitally important if we are to be an effective legislative body, and we must provide, as we've heard, that robust scrutiny that the people of Wales deserve.

This Bill represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I know we hear that quite a lot, but it really is an opportunity of a generation to change our democracy and to revitalise it. But, in its current form, this Bill falls far, far short of the requirements of building the healthier, more equitable and inclusive democracy that we seek. I'm going to concentrate in particular on the proposed closed party list system, which I believe would be a profound and lasting mistake. Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru's closed party list proposal has provoked extensive criticism from Members, from the media, from experts and the wider public. Labour and Plaid Cymru argue that their reforms represent a progressive step forward—and, indeed, it is—from the first-past-the-post system. But we have an opportunity to do more, and we haven't grasped it if this Bill goes ahead as it is. We've heard in the committee from expert after expert. Professor Alan Renwick said the changes for Wales would make it an outlier and render us out of step with British and European democratic norms. Professor Laura McAllister said,

'at a time when there's such a disconnect between the politicians and the public, we're disconnecting it further.'

We heard from many experts that there are significant drawbacks of this system. Closed list systems reduce voter choice and autonomy. We need to make sure that our constituents select candidates who represent themselves or similar views. There is an opportunity, and I would plead with you to take it now. I've also, I'm afraid, not heard a single reason as to why this represents a necessary compromise to achieve the supermajority. We know that many of the supporters of these proposals previously have advocated better systems.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour

When I spoke of compromise, my compromise wasn't about achieving a supermajority; it was about recognising that good comrades and friends and colleagues, both in this party and other parties, felt powerfully but differently. And it wasn't about the supermajority; it was about recognising that, with change, comes moving forward, shaking a hand, and recognising that we all need to sometimes compromise.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 7:20, 30 January 2024

Thank you for that intervention. I would say to you this: if Welsh Labour wanted a different system to the one that's been proposed, Plaid Cymru would have supported it. And there is your supermajority, in terms of the way that I understand that to be. And I'm really sorry, but I still do not understand why Welsh Labour will not support a different system from the one that's been put forward, which will then trigger Plaid Cymru—and I'm seeing nodding heads here—from supporting it. I'm yet to hear that. I really would ask the Counsel General to focus his comments on that.

I'll just finish. This is an opportunity for both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru to rethink their support for this system. I am proud to be part of a Senedd that listens to experts. I'm proud to be part of a Senedd that takes seriously the recommendations of all of the committees. There is time still for a course correction, not just on the voting system, but other things, like job sharing, casual vacancies, review mechanisms, and to have candidates' names on the ballots. It's vital that we get this right. We have an opportunity now to reshape our democracy into something exciting and inspiring that will really get Welsh people behind an invested democracy. We should not be left in 2026 thinking about what we could have done differently. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 7:22, 30 January 2024

We are out of time—way over time—on this debate, but I'm going to call two further contributions, if they promise that they'll be shorter than the contributions we've had thus far. So, Gareth Davies first.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative

Diolch, Llywydd. As a Member of the Senedd for the Vale of Clwyd, a constituency that only, by coincidence, I've lived in all my life, worked in, have links to all parts of, I regularly consult constituents, locals, friends, family and neighbours on their priorities for the area and what they expect from a Welsh Government in current devolution times. Since devolution, under the Labour Party, my constituents, in reality, have seen Glan Clwyd Hospital fall from being one of the best-performing hospitals in the UK to being under one of the worst-performing health boards in modern times; the failure to build north Denbighshire community hospital in Rhyl by the Labour Party over 10 years of broken promises; and, more recently, a default 20 mph policy being imposed on them, despite over 13,000 people in the Vale of Clwyd signing the petition against this measure—more than the amount of people who voted Labour in the Vale of Clwyd in the 2021 Senedd elections. On top of this, we have high levels of deprivation, particularly in areas of west Rhyl and upper Denbigh, which have been left behind by Labour in Cardiff since devolution and is one of the reasons why many people in Denbighshire, and more generally in central and north-east Wales, feel disenfranchised with the Senedd, and, in some cases, the very concept of devolution itself. [Interruption.]

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative

Sadly, just look at the current turnouts in Senedd elections, which have barely risen above 40 per cent since 1999.

Now, in the case of doubt, that is not my view, or I wouldn't have even bothered standing for the Senedd in the first place, and I belive that devolution can work better, with the right people in charge. But in my three years in this place, I see a Senedd that sits two days a week, and, on numerous occasions, Government business on a Tuesday often runs just three to four hours—[Interruption.]—between 1.30 p.m. and around 5 p.m. to 5.30 p.m.. And that has happened on many occasions since the conclusion of the summer recess in 2023. I don't have the exact figures on how many times that has happened, but I know, through my own experience, that this is the case. I often refer to the phrase, 'If you want to achieve something in life, such as more Senedd Members, at least make a robust case to make it a reality.' And in this period of time that I've been an MS so far, I've seen very little to no evidence of a credible justification for more MSs post 2026, other than it only being another vanity project from the Labour Party to extend the tentacles of socialism even further, and from Plaid Cymru, as they only see this as another step on the path to Welsh independence, to which I believe we are slowly sleepwalking if we carry on on this path.

But it all comes at the expense of the taxpayer—taxpayers who want a better NHS, better public services, 60 MSs who are accountable to the public, as they should be, rather than to party political managers. It's the good people of Wales yet again who have to bear the burden of the seismic uplift to the Senedd, and the reason why—. If the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru are so confident that the people of Wales want more Members of the Senedd, put it to a referendum and ask the people what they want to happen. If they do vote for it, fair enough—the people have spoken, great, let's get on with it and expand the Senedd full speed ahead. But if they reject it, let's stick to the current system, adopt the new Westminster boundary changes, extend the regional list to make up the numbers lost in the constituency section and maintain the status quo. That, colleagues, is democracy, whether you like it or not.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 7:25, 30 January 2024

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I'd also like to thank the Counsel General for bringing forward the debate today. My views on Senedd expansion are well known and they've been rehearsed—the reasons for that—by other colleagues. But what I do want to talk about, if this is given leave to proceed today, are some of the recommendations that were put forward by the committee, especially around recommendation 16, which is around vacant seats in the Senedd. If we are going to proceed as a bigger Senedd, which I'm against, but if it does happen and the Senedd wants that to happen, I think having a vacant seat in this Senedd would be detrimental to democracy. I think that could end up with parliamentary arithmetic potentially leaving the Senedd in paralysis, with things not being able to happen. So, I would like the Counsel General to look again at recommendation 16 and see if there is something they can put in legislation to make sure there is a backstop there—that if a seat becomes available, it can be filled. 

Another one of the recommendations that came forward was around the closed list system, and I agree with a lot of Members who spoke on this point that the closed list system does reduce voter choice. I would encourage the Counsel General, if this is given leave to proceed, to look at that again and see how we can actually make people more accountable to the public. 

I'd also like to echo some of the comments that were made by Adam Price. Whether you agree with this or not, it has opened up a discussion here about how we can strengthen democracy in Wales and how we can improve our parliamentary processes. So, I'd like to hear from the Counsel General some ideas that he might have of how we can work with the Business Committee and cross-party to see how we can improve democracy in this place without having to increase the number of Senedd Members that are here. Diolch, Llywydd.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I was tempted as I was making notes and listening to the contributions to try to respond to all of them. I won't because I think Members have made their points. They've made them in terms of what Members believe in. Some, I think, have a stronger grounding in fact than others, but, nevertheless, that is part of the democratic process here. So, I'm not going to reply to those in that particular way. I'm going to try and keep, I think, probably, the high moral constitutional ground in this debate, but I do have to make a couple of comments, and that is just this reflection, Darren, that it's quite likely that, after the next general election, there will be no Conservative MPs in Wales. I think we might be—[Interruption.] I think you might be very, very grateful for the fact that we have a system that will ensure that there is a Conservative voice in this Parliament, and that's what the system actually does.

These proposals are essentially about democracy and they're about the value you place on democracy, and the interpretation of what that democracy is. All I can do, I think, is repeat this: I think these changes are an investment in democracy. In investing in democracy, you have to say then, 'What price democracy?' I think 0.7 per cent of the budget, which is what this will entail, is a price that is worth paying, but I also believe it is a price, if it results, as predicted, in better governance, better scrutiny, better delivery, better democracy, that will have paid for itself. 

I think some of the arguments over the cost of democracy—. If Members had stood up when ID cards proposals were coming forward, which cost £140 million, there might be a bit of credibility to those particular arguments. Those proposals really had one purpose, and that is to restrict the number of people that were voting. When we look at the criticisms made recently by the Electoral Commission of proposals that have come from the UK Government without a referendum, which it describes as basically undermining democracy—the challenges to the rule of law, the fact that with first-past-the-post you can have a government elected with a large majority on 35 per cent of the vote—I think the direction we are taking, the investment in democracy, improving our accountability to the people of Wales, improving the scrutiny that will take place of Governments, is a price I think we have to think about ourselves, and decide whether it is worth paying.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative 7:30, 30 January 2024

How do you think Government scrutiny will be enhanced and increased if the size of the Government increases with the size of the Senedd? If the size of the Government remained the same as it is now, with more Members, then that would be a credible argument to make. But if it's like for like, how do you think that's enhancing scrutiny of the Government under the new system?

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 7:31, 30 January 2024

It isn't like for like, because the Government are the Executive and carry out functions. They need to be able to do that to the best of their capacity, which means having sufficient Government Ministers to do that. But it also means then having the sufficient capacity on the Senedd side, the Senedd Members, to enable them to understand, to develop the expertise and to actually achieve that. I do remember the last time we debated this you said there was no point in having more Senedd Members because everyone went home at 6 o'clock. Well, it's 7.30 p.m. now, so I presume you're here on overtime. But that's another matter.

This is a very serious constitutional debate. I very much respect all the contributions that have been made, all the suggestions that have been made, and I can tell you that the work will be ongoing in looking at them, in trying to reach agreement where that is possible, but at least in terms of engaging over those. It's quite an unusual step for a Government to actually say that we will place a statutory obligation on a review to ensure that what has been decided here as part of this constitutional process will be reconsidered by the next Senedd, which is where the powers lie.

I think there's one question we just have to ask, and I think it’s the one question we always ask as we go through, and when we get to Stage 2 on that, and that is this: do you agree that this is an investment in democracy? What price does that democracy have, and how important is it to you and to the people of Wales? I think we’re doing what is absolutely essential. This is a historic step for Wales, and I think it is the correct step. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 7:32, 30 January 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion under item 8. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There is objection. We will therefore defer voting on item 8 and item 9 until voting time. 

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.