3. Debate: Stage 4 of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill

– in the Senedd at 3:15 pm on 8 May 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 3:15, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

The next item is the debate on Stage 4 of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. I call on the Counsel General to move the motion. Mick Antoniw.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8576 Mick Antoniw

To propose that the Senedd in accordance with Standing Order 26.47:

Approves the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 3:15, 8 May 2024

Diolch, Llywydd. I move the motion.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

(Translated)

It's a privilege to move the motion on this important Bill. Today, we are making history. Twenty-five years ago, on 6 May 1999, the people of Wales elected the first National Assembly for Wales. At that time, there were no real legislative powers. There was no separation between the Assembly and the Welsh Government. Over the past 25 years, our democracy has grown, developed and matured.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 3:16, 8 May 2024

Devolution is about the decentralisation of power. It is about bringing decision making closer to the people of Wales. It is about empowerment: empowerment of people and communities in those decisions that affect the lives of every single person in Wales. Yet, while the responsibilities of the Senedd have grown, its capacity has not. It has remained the smallest of all the devolved legislatures in the UK. The Scottish Parliament has 129 Members and the Northern Ireland Assembly has 90 Members. The Bill before us changes that. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our democracy, by creating a modern Senedd that represents and reflects twenty-first century Wales; a more effective Senedd, with greater ability and capacity to hold the Welsh Government to account; a more representative Senedd to better serve the people of Wales. I urge all Members to seize this opportunity to strengthen the very foundations of our parliamentary democracy, to refresh, improve and modernise the legislature, to make it fit for the many challenges we face as a nation.

This Bill contains a bold package of reforms, a significant improvement on our current electoral system, removing the disproportionality inherent in first-past-the-post. It will ensure that every vote counts. It will provide the electoral framework for greater diversity and fairer representation. It will be simpler. Voters will only have one ballot as opposed to two under the current system. It will create greater transparency and accountability of candidates to the manifesto on which they were elected. It will enable better and more specialist scrutiny of policy, Government and delivery. It will strengthen democracy.

As well as addressing the capacity of the Senedd and addressing its electoral system, the Bill also provides, for the very first time, for the creation of new Senedd constituencies. It repurposes the renamed Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru with the functions necessary to undertake reviews of Senedd constituency boundaries on an ongoing basis. It provides more frequent opportunities for democratic renewal through a return to four-year elections. It requires candidates and Members of the Senedd to be resident in Wales, and it provides a mechanism to review the changes after the 2026 election, and to consider the practical and legislative implications of job sharing for Members and offices related to the Senedd.

I spoke at Stage 1 about the importance of scrutiny and how laws are best forged in the fires of parliamentary scrutiny, and I think we've seen that in the course of this Bill's own legislative passage. We have had some robust exchanges, but we have also had deliberations to improve and clarify this progressive package of measures. We have seen a consensus develop on associated issues, such as increasing the accountability of Members. We've seen cross-party support for the Standards of Conduct Committee taking evidence to identify an effective and proportionate recall machinery that works for Wales and for our electoral system. And I'm happy to reiterate now this Government's commitment to maintain the momentum that has been generated and to engage with and support the committee in its work.

I'd therefore like to express my thanks to all Members and committees for their constructive consideration and scrutiny of this Bill. Your contributions have ensured that this Bill is in the best position it can be, and I'm very grateful to you for that. I'm also very grateful to all the stakeholders, experts and members of the public who have contributed their views and expertise during the Bill's legislative scrutiny. I'd also like to thank the officials, including both those of the Welsh Government and of the Reform Bill Committee, for their support to myself and to Members throughout the Bill's legislative journey.

And finally, I'd like to thank the members of and the contributors to the various commissions and panels over the years, whose work has led us to this moment. This is a Bill whose genesis was in the deliberations of the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform. That committee, in turn, was indebted to the work of its predecessors, including the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform and the expert panel on electoral reform. Without their body of work, the proposals before us today would not have been possible. As our devolution journey marks its 25-year milestone, I believe that this package of reforms will create a Senedd fit for purpose in the next 25 years and beyond. Diolch, Llywydd. 

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 3:21, 8 May 2024

Well, here we are again. We've reached the final stage of the consideration of this Senedd reform Bill, and we have legislation before us in its final form. And I want to put on record my thanks to the Reform Bill Committee team and to those who gave evidence to that committee during its discussions on this wide-ranging Bill.

As I've said before, and I'll say it again, there are parts of the Bill that my party has welcomed. We welcome a return to four-year terms of this Senedd, so that Members have to go back to seek a fresh mandate from the public, and we certainly do welcome the residency requirements that will be placed upon people, so that they have to live in Wales if they want to stand for election to this Senedd as well. However, it's a great shame that the Bill has changed so little during its passage through the Senedd.

There were many sensible amendments that were tabled at both Stage 2 and Stage 3 by my party and those in other political parties, with sincere intentions of strengthening and improving the Bill. Many were in line with the cross-party recommendations of the Reform Bill Committee. Yet Labour and Plaid Cymru Members, including those who sat on the committee making the recommendations that many of those amendments sought to reflect, voted against them. And so we have before us this afternoon a deeply flawed piece of legislation, which I am afraid will only serve to undermine our democracy.

And it will damage the relationship between the public and their elected representatives in this Welsh Parliament. This Bill still includes the creation of a closed-list electoral system, a system that strips away a fundamental right enjoyed by Welsh voters for generations, by taking away the opportunity for them to choose the individual person they want to represent their area, and giving that right to party elites in charge of electoral candidate lists. It is the biggest power grab from the people of Wales that it has ever suffered in the history of Welsh democracy. 

And then there's the scale of the expansion proposed in this Bill—a staggering 60 per cent—and all of the costs associated with that expansion: almost £20 million each and every year, money that our national health service, our schools and our other public services are crying out for. Money that could be building new hospitals, keeping schools, libraries and public conveniences open, but that money instead will be spent on luxury offices and pay for 36 more politicians, their entourage of staff and the structure here at the Senedd needed to support them. Spending £120 million on more politicians over the review period is a luxury that we can ill afford. 

This Bill sends a clear message to the Welsh public: we would love to keep your libraries open, we would love you to be able to get your operation or your scan or your appointment sooner, we'd love to support your child with their additional learning needs, but they're an unaffordable luxury. Instead, we're spending the money we could be spending on them on creating 36 more politicians in Cardiff Bay. It is shameful, Llywydd, and all of this is being done without any clear public mandate whatsoever, and indeed, in the face of very clear public opposition, as evidenced by the public responses to the Reform Bill Committee during our proceedings.

I sought to address some of the Bill's failings via sensible amendments, amendments to introduce a flexible voting list system to enable greater voter choice and direct accountability of future Members of this Senedd to the public they serve; a system of recall to allow the public to unseat Members of the Senedd who fail to meet the high standards of behaviour expected of them; and the requirement for a referendum to be held prior to the introduction of changes to our voting system and any increase in the number of Senedd Members. But, Llywydd, these reasonable amendments were rejected by Labour and Plaid MSs, Members who ignored their consciences, followed their party whips and betrayed the people they serve.

And so, we Welsh Conservatives will stand today in our united and fundamental opposition to the Bill before us. And this week, Llywydd, as we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Senedd and Welsh devolution, I urge Members to reject this legislation: it is a backward step for democracy and accountability in Wales; it will damage public trust, erode the powers of voters, and undermine confidence in this Senedd. Llywydd, it is simple: Wales needs more doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers; it does not need more politicians. So, if you believe in democracy, fellow Members, if you believe in accountability and if you believe in delivering on the priorities of the people of Wales, you will join me and everybody on these Welsh Conservative benches and vote against this Bill.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 3:27, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

Yesterday was the day for reflecting on the first 25 years of devolution, and today is the day for looking forward, and I must admit that I consider it an honour to be a Member here and to have the opportunity to cast my vote for these long-awaited reforms that are before us today.

I'm going to start by thanking everyone that has supported us as parliamentarians to reach this historic stage, especially all those who have contributed to a host of evidence sessions and inquiries that have all come to the same conclusion, namely, that it's about time for us to take the next steps to strengthen our democracy for the next chapter of our nation's history. And what a journey it has been over the centuries.

As we were reminded yesterday by Luke Fletcher, and as we are reminded by pupils who visit this Senedd from our constituencies and regions, devolution and decisions being made for Wales here in Wales have been completely normalised for a generation that doesn't remember Wales being any other way. They see that a different way of doing politics as possible, and they believe in our nation's ability to govern itself and take its rightful place on the world stage. Indeed, the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales showed that Welsh independence is wholly viable, and by creating a Senedd that's more representative of our nation, and bigger, that possibility only grows.

Over recent weeks in this Senedd, the importance of scrutinising First Ministers and Governments has been very apparent. By taking the steps that we will hopefully take today, our ability to hold Ministers to account will be strengthened, and we will create an electoral system that is fully proportional.

And this isn't the end of the journey, of course. A review will take place following the next election. My party will continue to support and campaign for a single transferable vote electoral system. We will wish to create a truly modern and representative Senedd. We will wish to see more powers devolved, and Wales becoming an independent nation. We're also pleased that we've received assurances from the Government that it will table a separate Bill, before the end of this Senedd, to create an appropriate recall mechanism. We will hold them to that, and we will ensure that the review mechanisms in this Bill will be used properly.

So, yes, there is work still to be done to strengthen our democracy. But the step that we're taking today is a huge step forward, not only for this Senedd, but also for our nation. Our task as politicians will be to ensure that we use these reforms to realise what's possible on behalf of our communities and on behalf of Wales. It is a huge responsibility, but it's an opportunity we must take.

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour 3:30, 8 May 2024

I support the increase in the size of the Senedd. In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament have 30,000 electors per Member. In Northern Ireland, for the Northern Ireland Assembly, they have 15,000 voters per Member. In Wales, we currently have 40,000 voters per Member. If we increased to 96 Members, we'd have 25,000 electors per Member and that would place Wales approximately midway between Scotland and Northern Ireland in terms of the electorate. Northern Ireland currently has more Members than we have in Wales.

The number of Members in committees is small. I serve on the Finance Committee with three other Members. If two Members cannot get to the meeting, it becomes inquorate. This can be caused by traffic, as the M4 is incredibly difficult at times, coming in from the west—[Interruption.] Andrew R.T. Davies wants us to have a relief road around Port Talbot. I congratulate him. I will support him when he calls for an M4 relief road around Port Talbot, because that would make my life a lot easier. It can also be caused by illness or a family emergency. The Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee would have been inquorate today if I had gone to the toilet. [Laughter.] You cannot run an organisation like that, when Members have to sit there until we have an official break in order to keep the meeting quorate. Other committees have five or six Members. Does anyone think those are adequate numbers?

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative

Thank you, Mike; you're a gentleman. Why is it that you are following the whip and not allowing a referendum to the people of Wales on this issue? Is it because you know that people in Wales will reject this?

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour

I'm not sure how people in Wales would vote on something like this. I think if the argument was being made about the size of committees, the difficulty of keeping committees quorate, people in Wales may well have thought, 'Well, perhaps we do need some more Members'. If you tell them how we differ from Scotland and Northern Ireland, they would probably think we need more Members. We cannot have Government by referendum. I've been involved in lots of referenda. I've lost more than I've won and I've been very unhappy with referenda, because they bring really complicated questions down to a 'yes' or a 'no', and that is a serious problem. Rishi Sunak could give us a referendum now on his Government—it's called a general election—and everybody on the Labour benches would love to have that.

Choosing a new electoral system is not a politically neutral act. The system chosen has a huge effect on the number of seats won. If Wales in 1999 had used first-past-the-post, Labour would have comfortably won every subsequent election. The introduction of regional Members and the regional system meant that Labour has never had a majority in the Senedd. The votes were the same, but the outcome was different. Two things have been said about the new system. Firstly, that it is proportional; the second that no votes are wasted. Both are provably untrue. It's not a matter of opinion—they're provably untrue. I agree with Rishi Sunak: we need to improve numeracy in this country.

What will happen is that it will be roughly proportional between the three largest parties, but it will make it more difficult for smaller parties to win, and I'm sure that Jane Dodds is going to say something about how it's going to make it more difficult for the Liberal Democrats when she gets up to speak. She'll probably ask for the single transferrable vote, which is a bit like a lottery for seats. Unless each party has multiples of 60 and two thirds of the total vote in each constituency, then votes would be wasted—that's inevitable. You'll have people who will have more votes or less votes than they need to move to the next level. [Interruption.] Lee Waters says 'fewer'. When I see a mathematical formula that says x is fewer than y, I will agree with him, but every time I see a mathematical formula, it says x is less than y. Again, I think that numeracy is a wonderful thing; pity it hasn't got in here. [Interruption.]

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 3:34, 8 May 2024

I really want to hear Mike Hedges. Every sentence is a gem, Mike. 

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour

When historians look at this decision in the future, they'll have something to describe as the reverse of gerrymandering, where a political party goes from having a system in which they can win to one in which it's going to be very difficult if not impossible for them to do so. The aim of the system is to produce a hung Senedd, a European-style Parliament. It's not one that I feel particularly comfortable with, but that's the direction we're going in. 

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 3:35, 8 May 2024

I'm very pleased to support this vital legislation brought before us today. Firstly, let me thank all of those who've been on the reform Bill committees with me, and also the staff and the clerks. They've done an amazing job in terms of crystallising all of the information and bringing us to this point today. We've all learnt from each other, I hope, and I have certainly learnt from those that I've sat on the committees with—thank you so much. I'm really proud to support this legislation, which I see enhances scrutiny and ensures proper representation for each and every one of Wales's diverse communities. We are moving away from the outdated first-past-the-post system, which is definitely a positive step, bringing a more proportional model to our democracy here in Wales. This is progress we should quite rightly celebrate.

But I can't let an opportunity go by to talk about the voting system. The reform Bill as it stands remains fundamentally flawed. The introduction of closed party lists risks robbing voters of true choice, and there was absolutely no evidence presented to us that this would benefit the electorate in any way. We remain, in the Welsh Liberal Democrats, firm in our conviction that the single transferrable vote is the fairest, most accountable system that Wales deserves. STV would create a genuinely democratic model, where every vote carries equal weight and equal power. So, I will be supporting the legislation today, but I urge this Senedd, and all future Governments, to view it as just the first step on our democratic journey—a journey towards a stronger, fully democratic Parliament for Wales, one built upon the founding principle of giving the people an equal voice and choice over those who represent them. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 3:37, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

It it most appropriate that we are here today to vote to give our Senedd the ability to work as a real, national Parliament, almost exactly 25 years to the day from the first elections to the National Assembly for Wales. I am extremely grateful for the cross-party work that has contributed to delivering this next important step in our national journey. In this Chamber, and across Wales, there are differing views as to where we are going, ultimately, in terms of that journey, but this Bill provides us with the kind of Parliament we will need, whatever the next steps may entail. For each and every one of us here who wants to ensure better scrutiny, holding the Government to account more effectively, better policy, better weighing up of decision making, and better public expenditure, then we will have the capacity to deliver that effectively on behalf of the people of Wales. For those who want to move further, we are providing a platform for that, and for those of us who believe in taking responsibility for our own fate as a nation, who want to take hold and nurture that vision of a confident, prosperous, fair and independent Wales, then we can be proud that we are here today creating a Parliament for that independent Wales.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 3:39, 8 May 2024

I said here yesterday that we need to see a step change in devolution as we head into its second quarter century. We need new and targeted solutions to the challenges we face in our economy, on the NHS and in education, to finally get to grips with child poverty, and renew people's faith in and engagement with our Welsh democracy. And we know, as the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales so starkly outlined, that the current devolution settlement is simply not sustainable. Further change is inevitable. A bigger, more representative Senedd, a Parliament fit for the twenty-first century, and beyond, gives us a new foundation on which to build a fairer Wales and to prepare for the forms of political and constitutional change we know are coming. And this will be the Parliament that is ready to serve a confident independent Wales, when we're ready to take that step, taking the levers of change into our hands. We've come a long way—

Photo of Joyce Watson Joyce Watson Labour

Thank you for taking an intervention. I'm a little bit concerned about you putting two things side by side. This legislation we're passing today is about extending, quite rightly, the numbers of people who will be elected to this place; it isn't about moving towards an independent Wales. 

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

As I said, in this Chamber, and across Wales, we have different aspirations for our nation, different levels of ambition for our nation. The key thing is that we are giving ourselves as a Parliament the tools to make those changes for ourselves. 

We have come a long way, and by that, I don't just mean from the 1997 referendum, but since 1979. Remember today the lesson that nothing worth having comes easily, and that it's only by building a case that we bring about meaningful change. And some elements of our evolution require immediate attention. This Bill contains a review mechanism, which, make no mistake, we in Plaid Cymru are determined will be used, and used effectively. We have made no secret of our preference too for the single transferrable vote over closed lists, and we will continue to press the case for it. We'll all make sure, hopefully, that a recall mechanism is enacted where any Member of the Senedd is in serious breach of standards of conduct. 

Llywydd, this is for all of the people of Wales, who all of us collectively represent. I was encouraged by the Conservatives yesterday speaking in defence of devolution, and speaking strongly so. Well, we must collectively nurture and protect our new Senedd. Protecting devolution means investing in it, and, yes, demanding a return on that investment in better services, better laws, better public spending and better outcomes. The context, for one example, is the estimated £20 billion that's needed to be spent on upgrading the Palace of Westminster—the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Those building repairs equate to the cost of strengthening our Welsh Parliament to allow it to better serve the people of Wales for more than 1,000 years. We are taking decisions today to make sure that the people of Wales are no longer democratically short-changed compared with other national parliaments in these islands. 

I'll finish by thanking, once again, everybody who contributed to this historic legislation by noting and celebrating what has been achieved and by looking ahead to the new opportunities it will bring.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. Can I firstly say I welcome very much all the comments that have been made by Members today, and the spirit in which they have been made? I also thank Darren for the support in respect of those aspects we've engaged on—the four years, which is a significant constitutional change, and the issue of residency. I'm grateful that we have consensus around that as well. Those were the constructive areas; I think some of the others were perhaps slightly more predictable. Can I thank Darren, though, of course, for the work in respect of the recall? And, of course, that momentum has been put in motion and will work with the Senedd committee. It is the Senedd committee that I would expect to bring forward the legislation, and, of course, the Welsh Government will work with that committee in order to achieve that, because we all recognise that it is an important change. It was not appropriate at the time within this Bill, but it does need very specific focus, and that is under way at the moment. Could I perhaps also ask the Welsh Conservatives to—I understand the points they make about the closed list— embrace the opportunity it presents in respect of diversity? Because in 2026, if you do embrace it, you have the opportunity to increase your gender representation from 19 per cent to at least 50 per cent. That is one of the opportunities it presents. 

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

I certainly recongise the need for all parties in this Chamber to improve their diversity. On your own benches, there is very little diversity in terms of race, or faith, or anything of that nature. We all need to raise our game on that particular front. But do you also accept that you could still achieve many of your ambitions if you had simply accepted a flexible list system, which would have allowed you to still achieve all of the benefits that you claim from a closed list system without denying the people of Wales the ability to vote for individual candidates?

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

First of all, there is an opportunity, I believe, from the closed list system. It's an opportunity that can be seized, and I think all the evidence is that that system is one that actually contributes more to the improvement of diversity than the flexible list system. But what I do urge very much, of course, is that in 2026, post that election, there will be a review. And I think it is important that that mechanism for a review is on the face of the Bill. Can I also say, in respect of the comments you made with regard to the usual thing: comparing every item of expenditure with how many hospitals, nurses et cetera—if there is a 0.01 per cent improvement in the actual scrutiny and the way in which we take decisions, this legislation actually pays for itself?

I've set out today why I believe the Bill will make the Senedd a more effective legislature for and behalf of the people of Wales. Essentially, it is an investment in democracy, it is an investment in the future of Wales, and I urge Members to support and to pass this historic piece of legislation. Diolch. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 3:46, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

In accordance with Standing Order 26.50C, a recorded vote must be taken on Stage 4 motions, and therefore I will defer voting under this item until voting time. 

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.