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Automatic voter registration in Wales edges nearer

PLANS to automatically register voters cleared the penultimate hurdle in the Senedd’s legislative process – with 400,000 people potentially set to be added to the register.

Mick Antoniw, who is counsel general, the Welsh Government’s chief legal adviser, described the elections and elected bodies bill as groundbreaking.

He told the Senedd an incoming Labour UK Government would be committed to following Wales’ lead on automatic registration, with a similar model likely to be rolled out.

He said: “For Wales, It will mean potentially some 400,000 people being added to that register. If it is extended to the rest of the UK for non-devolved elections – you are talking about seven or eight million people who are not on the register.

“Now, it says something about our democracy when you have so many people who are not on the register – not even in a position to vote.”

Peter Fox, the Conservatives’ shadow local government secretary, pointed out that vulnerable people – such as those fleeing domestic abuse – may wish to opt out.

Mr Fox said: “We need to be careful with people’s information, as people are often wishing to remain anonymous for a good reason.”

Members agreed to his amendment which would increase the notice period for somebody to be registered to vote without application to 60 days.

But another of Mr Fox’s amendments – aimed at empowering disabled people to vote in person, “something that’s a fundamental right in our society” – was narrowly defeated.

Speaking after the debate on July 2, the former Monmouthshire council leader accused Labour of prioritising electoral change over tackling long NHS waiting lists.

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Rhys ab Owen, who represents South Wales Central and sits as an independent in the Senedd, focused on disabled people’s participation in politics.

Calling for clearer information about accessibility, he told the chamber: “Imagine, if you may, that you are a disabled voter in Wales.

“Let’s say you have to use a wheelchair. You’re going to the polling station to cast your vote, as is your human right, and then you find you can’t get up the steps.”

Mr ab Owen warned: “It can make you feel helpless, dehumanised, to know that this is permitted to happen in a democratic society. And this isn’t just a hypothetical situation – this is the reality for thousands of people or voters across Wales.”

The former barrister pointed to a poll by the charity Sense which showed nearly half of disabled people believe they are not important to political parties.

Under the bill, Welsh ministers will be under a duty to improve diversity in Senedd and council structures – with tailored support for characteristics protected by equality law.

The bill, which has been overshadowed by contentious amendments about deception, would also lay the groundwork for councillors to be given cash when they are voted out.

Councillors who unsuccessfully stand for re-election could receive “resettlement payments”, dubbed in some quarters as “golden handshakes”, but those who stand down would not.

The policy aims to remove barriers, such as for people with caring responsibilities, and ease the transition for those who are giving up their careers to stand for election.

Wales’ 22 local authorities have about 1,250 councillors. Similar transitional arrangements are already in place for unseated Senedd members and MPs.

After the 2021 election, 20 ex-Senedd members were awarded payments from £14,000 to £50,000, costing the public purse £632,000, according to a freedom of information request.

If the bill is passed, community councillors would be barred from being Senedd members.

South Wales Central MS Joel James serves on Llantwit Fardre community council and a Conservative amendment seeking to remove the disqualification was defeated.

But the South Wales Central MS gained agreement on a related amendment which would ensure clerks cannot be a member of community councils.

He told the Senedd: “I’ve always been concerned by that. I think, as a clerk, you need to be politically neutral and it should be a restricted role.

“As, maybe, an opposition politician, or maybe an independent, what confidence would I have that the conversations I have with that clerk, or the advice I was given, would be fair?”

Adam Price tabled ultimately unsuccessful amendments, calling for voters to be given a “right to know” whether artificial intelligence has been used in electoral literature.

The former Plaid Cymru leader raised a “frightening” recent Dispatches documentary on the potential for technology to have a detrimental impact on democracy.

He said: “It is something that could have very dangerous implications for the integrity of our political discourse over coming years, and we can’t afford to remain static.”

The bill now moves to the fourth and final legislative stage – a vote of the whole Senedd on the proposals as amended – which has been pencilled in for July 9 at about 4pm.

With Labour and Plaid Cymru’s support, and no legal challenge expected, the bill is likely to be passed next week – with royal assent to follow.