Senedd Reform must deliver a better political machine for rural Wales

We shouldn't criticise the performance of Wales’ parliament, and then condemn efforts to improve it – but the current proposals to increase the number of MSs and change the electoral system aren't the way forward for rural voters. CLA Cymru's Robert Dangerfield blogs.
A Senedd Reform Bill looks to increase the number of MS from 60 to 96, increase the number of Welsh Government and change the electoral system.

The introduction of a Senedd Reform Bill in September has been intended to create a more modern, more representative Senedd which provides a greater and better resource to carry out its job: scrutinising legislation and making laws, more opportunity for voices to be heard, and an improved capacity to hold the Welsh Government to account. In rural areas we should be concerned that the proposed electoral system is complex, diluting rural opinion and critically it detaches candidates’ individual beliefs and personality from the electoral process.

The Bill proposes the number of Members of the Senedd (MSs) increase from 60 to 96. The number of Government Ministers can increase from 12 to 17 (powers proposed to increase this further to 18 or 19). Significantly all MSs will be elected on the closed list system (known as the D’Hondt formula) – currently used to elect our regional Senedd members. Proposals to include gender quotas which attracted some debate were dropped. These could have exceeded the Senedd’s powers and the UK Government (or someone else) might challenge the proposals in the courts.

The D’Hondt system is already used to elect our 20 regional MSs. It uses closed lists of political candidates which are proposed by political parties. Candidates are elected from the lists according to the proportion of votes received for each respective party. The 32 Westminster constituencies will be paired to create 16 – each of which is represented by 6 members. From a rural perspective we might be concerned that badly needed expertise in rural issues cannot be preferred by the electorate unless the views feature in wider party policy. A problem is that our political parties are broad churches in terms of the diversity of opinion and interests of individual politicians within and we like to vote for candidates we trust – based on their track-record. We face the prospect of voting for unknown individuals with unknown views and special interests – all based on a manifesto which might be bland, or which not address specific voters’ issues.

Equally, we can be concerned that the increase in multiple-representation in constituencies reduces MSs specific responsibility in their constituencies. Voters will ask, “Who is my MS” – and face the prospect of contacting half a dozen and potentially receiving 6 different responses to a problem.” In this situation we are likely to see MSs different representing the same constituency choosing to specialise in certain issues. Is this what the reforms intended? At a fundamental level, voters really will be confused, and will either switch-off or feel disenfranchised.

Predictably the Senedd reform proposals immediately attracted criticism: Conservative Shadow Constitution Minister, Darren Millar said “The Labour Government should be focused on addressing unacceptable NHS waiting times, poor standards in schools and the lacklustre performance of the Welsh economy, not wasting time, energy and tax-payers’ money developing yet more legislation on Senedd reform.”

The cost of the reforms is predicted to be an extra £18 million to the Senedd budget – reaching £19.5 million in 2030 – all on top of an existing budget of £67 million. It’s all money which could be distributed where it’s needed most: health, education, transport infrastructure, economic development. However, in the context of full cost of running Wales in the Wales Budget, 2022-2025, it really is tiny. The reforms need to be viewed through a finely focused lens of value for money.

There is a strong argument that action needs to be taken to improve Wales representative and legislative machine. We and other business representative organisations have often criticised the Senedd’s processes of scrutiny, the time-possible and intensity of the work of the essential committees. While our own Cross Party Group on Rural Growth has been well-attended by key MSs, we would have welcomed more and wider input. The Electoral Reform Society’s Jess Blair correctly pointed out that the Senedd “In effect is a part-time parliament as it has not enough members to fully scrutinise vital legislation and significant decisions.” Devolution has thrown huge areas of government into the lap of a body which has not changed in structure and size since it was formed as a more modest National Assembly for Wales nearly a quarter of a century ago. The Senedd is actually smaller than nearly half of our local authorities.

This does tell us that while to do nothing is not an option, the current proposals may not deliver the improvements that Welsh politics really needs and deserves.