Welsh civil society throws weight behind Assembly reform plans

By agency reporter
February 7, 2018

An alliance of civil society groups is urging Assembly Members (AMs) to back a consultation on the way Welsh Assembly elections work – warning of a ‘missed opportunity’ if it does not go through.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Cymru has joined forces with Chwarae Teg, Community Housing Cymru, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, NUS Wales, Positif and Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales to call for the consultation, which will look at extending the voting age to 16 for Assembly elections, as well as increasing the capacity of the Assembly and reforming the voting system used, to go ahead.

The groups are highlighting a ‘mounting sense of alienation’ in Wales – with changes needed to give voters more power.

The consultation follows a key report in December from the Assembly’s Expert Panel on Electoral Reform, which backed extending the voting age and a 80-90 member chamber elected through a proportional voting system, as well as making recommendations on how to ensure gender balance in the Senedd, including gender quotas, job sharing and publication of data regarding candidate diversity.

On 7 February 2018 AMs will vote on taking the recommendations to the public for consultation, with civil society groups describing the proposals as "vital steps in reviving Welsh democracy".

The vote comes just a week after a raft of reforms for local government elections in Wales were announced by the Welsh Government.

After speaking to over 850 people from across Wales, ERS Cymru found in December that while 89 per cent of those surveyed have very high confidence in the ‘nuts and bolts’ of democracy in Wales (polling stations), 38 per cent are not confident they "can really change the way things are run".

The joint statement – signed by ERS Cymru, Chwarae Teg, Community Housing Cymru, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, NUS Wales and Positif and WEN Wales – reads: “Wales is now at the forefront of bringing politics closer to voters. It is vital that these recommendations to strengthen the Senedd are taken to consultation to ensure we have an Assembly fit for the 21st century.

“We have witnessed a mounting sense of alienation from politics in Wales – and citizen-driven reform is needed to ensure everyone is fairly represented.

“If parties embrace this chance, Wales will be ready to take on the challenges of the coming years, with effective reforms in place for the 2021 elections. Beyond elections this will also help to ensure an Assembly more representative of the diverse range of people it serves.

“We welcome this consultation as a real chance for citizens to have their say on Wales’ constitution at this critical time. It is an opportunity which must not be missed – and which all sides should embrace.”

Jess Blair, Director of ERS Cymru, said, “From reform to local elections to these proposals for a stronger, fairer Assembly, Wales is leading the way in revitalising democracy.

“Our Missing Voices report showed that the public trust and value our political institutions, but often feel powerless in making their voices heard.

“Backing a stronger, more effective Senedd, alongside improving how the Assembly is elected, would go a long way to fixing this – putting our institutions on a sustainable footing for the future.

“The alternative is that these vital changes are kicked into the long grass. Yet Wales has already shown it is leading on democracy with the announcement last week of votes at 16 in local elections, as well as a range of other innovative reforms.

“The Assembly should now continue in the same vein. The consultation being voted on tomorrow is about creating a stronger Senedd – one that is fit to face the challenges that the next few years will bring.

“There is a real urgency to this, so we look forward to working with parties and the public to make sure the Assembly is the best it can be.

“An Assembly shaped by citizens will be one which is equipped for the future – and which leads the way in accountability and effectiveness.”

Ellen Jones, NUS Wales President, added, “Over the past few years, young people have come out in droves to have their say in an unprecedented fashion. But 16 and 17 year olds are still shut out of our democracy.

“We want the next generation to be the most engaged ever. That simply cannot happen unless we give today’s 16 and 17 year olds the right to participate in in the most fundamental way: by voting. Extending the vote to 16 year olds in Assembly elections is instrumental in making this happen.

“That must go hand-in-hand with enhanced political and civic education in schools. With education in Wales undergoing wholesale reform, what better time to get this right?

“We are facing many challenges in the years ahead, not least as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU. We need a strong national parliament to stand up for us and our country’s interests, and that’s why the reforms recommended by the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform are desperately needed. We need the assembly to recognise the urgency of taking these recommendations forward.”

Catherine Fookes, from WEN Wales commented, “We are delighted that the report has gender diversity as one of its guiding principles.

“Whilst Wales has done well in the past in terms of gender balance, recently the numbers of women AMs has fallen and work must be done to address this. All political parties must be bold in their approach and accept the recommendations in this report for gender quotas, job sharing and publication of data regarding candidate diversity.

“It has the potential to make a dramatic difference and would ensure that the 52 per cent of the Welsh population that are women feel properly represented.”

* Read the Missing Voices report here and in Welsh here

* ERS Cymru https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/ers-cymru/

[Ekk/6]

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