On 18 July the Llywydd issued a statement on the progress of Assembly Reform. It said that the Assembly Commission had met and discussed the findings of its public consultation on electoral reform, Creating a Parliament for Wales and agreed the next steps for this programme of work.
The Commission consulted previously on the name of the Assembly and it is its intention to bring forward legislation to change the Assembly’s name to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru. Assembly Members mandated the Commission to hold a public consultation on matters relating to increasing the size of the Assembly and associated electoral and operational arrangements. The consultation took place between 12 February and 6 April 2018. At the heart of the consultation were the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, which considered the number of Members the Assembly needs, suitable electoral systems, and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. A summary of responses was issued on the 18 July.
Commenting, the Llywydd said:
Ensuring a broad degree of support in each of the reform areas is critical before we, as an Assembly Commission, seek a mandate to legislate on these matters. With all this in mind, the Assembly Commission has agreed to a two-phase approach to Assembly Reform.
The size of the Assembly
On the issue of the size of the Assembly, how Members should be elected and the approach taken to improve diversity the Llywydd said:
it is clear that there needs to be more time for discussions to take place. Although I am confident… that there is sufficient support for the proposal to increase the number of Assembly Members, there is not yet consensus on the voting system that should be used to elect that larger institution.
Votes at 16
The Expert Panel’s report said that a reduction of the minimum voting age to 16 for Assembly elections would be “a powerful way to raise political awareness and participation among young people”. The Llywydd stated that she is “reasonably confident at this time that legislation to implement the Panel’s recommendation would secure the support of a comfortable majority of Members in the Assembly.”
The public consultation demonstrated that members of the public want the franchise for National Assembly elections to match the franchise for local government elections. It is the intention of the Welsh Government to lower the minimum voting age to 16 for the next local authority elections in 2022.
The Commission is of the view that in order to ensure the highest level of participation possible, that this should be implemented for the Assembly elections in the first instance. This reflects the conclusions of the Expert Panel that it is “desirable that if the franchise is to be extended in Wales, it should first take effect at the higher salience Assembly election” in 2021. In order to ensure young people are encouraged and supported to exercise their right to vote, votes at 16 would have to be accompanied by appropriate, political and citizenship education and public awareness-raising.
The Llywydd stated:
I can therefore announce today our intention to legislate to reduce the minimum voting age, to change the name of the National Assembly to the Welsh Parliament, to address issues around disqualification and to bring about other organisational reforms. In the autumn, the Commission will make a decision on the scope of a Bill with the intention to legislate to implement these changes before the 2021 elections. [Research Service emphasis]
There are three other areas which were included in the consultation about which the Commission made decisions:
- The question of our human rights obligations under international law in relation to votes for prisoners. The legal, ethical, democratic, practical and human rights issues relating to prisoner voting require thorough political consideration and judgement. The Commission is of the view that further work is needed in this area to consider further evidence and this requires more time than we have to be able to properly consider it for inclusion in the Commission’s legislation. The Commission invites the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee to consider holding an inquiry to examine the issue of whether prisoners from Wales should be allowed to vote in elections to the National Assembly.
- the voting rights of EU citizens. The franchise for the Assembly currently allows a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the European Union to vote. While the details of the Brexit deal in relation to voting rights for EU citizens are not yet clear, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 preserves the entitlement of EU citizens to vote in Assembly and local government elections after exit day. The Assembly Commission is therefore satisfied that no further action is needed at this time to protect EU citizens’ right to vote in Assembly elections, although it will continue to monitor the situation.
- Standing for election on the basis of job sharing. The Llywydd said apart from the fact the idea did not draw widespread support, the legal advice she has received casts doubt on the competence of this Assembly to make the changes needed to implement this policy effectively, specifically in allowing a job sharing Member to become a Minister or a Cabinet Secretary. She concluded “I would have grave reservations about introducing a system which created two tiers of Assembly Members”.
Article by Alys Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service