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MSs reject calls for public to have their say on Senedd reforms

MEMBERS of the Senedd have rejected calls for the public to be given the final say on contentious plans to expand the Senedd and change the electoral system.

Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems voted down a Conservative amendment for a referendum on the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) bill.

Under the bill, the size of the Senedd would increase from 60 to 96 members and a full form of proportional representation would be used in elections from 2026.

The 32 constituencies that will be used in the next general election will be combined to create 16 for the next Senedd poll, with each returning six members.

Darren Millar, the shadow constitution minister, argued the overwhelming majority of the public do not support expanding the Senedd nor changing its electoral system.

The Conservative disputed claims there is a clear public mandate for the reforms as he criticised “scant” references to Senedd reform in Labour and Plaid Cymru manifestos.

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He accused Plaid Cymru of abandoning a commitment to pursue the single transferable vote electoral system, which would allow voters to rank candidates.

Mr Millar said: “It is abundantly clear that neither Labour nor Plaid Cymru voters at the last Senedd elections have given the green light for the reforms this bill seeks to introduce.”

He pointed out that the Conservative-led UK Government held a referendum on scrapping Westminster’s first-past-the-post system in favour of the alternative vote (AV) in 2011.

Mr Millar argued the planned closed-list voting system, which would see the electorate voting for parties rather than specific candidates, would prove even more unpopular than AV.

He told the chamber: “The reality is you’re all frightened of a referendum because you know full well that those proposals would be roundly rejected by the people of Wales.”

Mike Hedges, a Labour backbencher, pointed out there was no vote on the method of election for police and crime commissioners or mayors in England.

Heledd Fychan, for Plaid Cymru, told the chamber more than 63% of the vote in the 2021 election went to parties that had committed to Senedd reform.

She said: “It is beyond any reasonable doubt that there is a democratic mandate.”

Ms Fychan said there was no referendum on reducing the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32, and the UK Government resisted calls for a public vote on its Brexit deal.

Alun Davies, a Labour backbencher, who represents Blaenau Gwent, accused the Conservatives of crying crocodile tears about Welsh democracy.

He said: “If they respected Welsh democracy, we wouldn’t have seen the erosion of the powers of this place week after week, month after month.”

Mick Antoniw, the member in charge of the bill, said a compelling case for reform has been made in expert reports, which have been endorsed by three of the four political parties.

Wales’ constitution minister pointed out that hundreds of new members have been appointed to the House of Lords without a referendum.

Mr Antoniw told MSs the Wales Act 2017, which gave the Senedd control over its electoral system for the first time, does not include any referendum requirement.

Mr Millar also raised concerns about the “unacceptable” potential for a 10% variance in the size of Senedd constituencies from 2030, which is twice that allowed at Westminster.

He said from 2026 all Senedd constituencies will have about 147,000 electors, aside from whichever is paired with the protected Ynys Môn constituency.

Mr Millar explained that the paired Ynys Môn seat could have up to 25,000 fewer electors.

The Tory warned that from 2030 it will be possible for constituencies to vary in size by 30,000 electors or more, which he described as grossly unfair and inappropriate.

He said: “In the interests of fairness and equality of representation for all citizens of Wales, it is important that all MSs represent a similar number of constituents.”

Ms Fychan raised concerns about artificial quotas and unintended consequences, pointing to the example of the new Brecon, Radnor and Cwmtawe seat at Westminster.

The Plaid Cymru MS said: “If there must be a quota then we must include as much flexibility as possible rather than bind the boundary commission’s hands.”

Similarly, Mr Antoniw said introducing a smaller variance than 10% would mean more changes in Senedd constituency boundaries between 2026 and 2030.

He pointed out that there is no numerical limit in Scotland as he stressed the importance of flexibility to respond to matters such as geography and local ties.

MSs voted down the Tory amendment which would have halved variance to 5%.

Following the two-day stage-two debate on March 5 and 6, the bill now moves onto stage three – which will see further amendments debated and is expected to be held in late April.

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