By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter
MSs grilled Mick Antoniw, Wales’ chief legal officer, about plans to reform the Senedd amid concerns about “no evidence” in support of the proposed closed-list electoral system.
Under the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) bill, the Welsh Parliament would increase in size from 60 to 96 members.
A closed-list system would be used for future Senedd elections, meaning the electorate would vote for parties rather than people.
And the 32 constituencies that will be used in the next UK general election will be paired to create 16 for the 2026 Senedd poll, with each returning six members.
Jane Dodds, the Lib Dems leader in Wales, said the Senedd reform committee’s inquiry has heard no evidence from witnesses in support of a closed-list system.
She suggested the system was imposed on a previous committee, with agreement reached behind closed doors between the first minister and Adam Price, Plaid Cymru’s former leader.
Mr Antoniw argued people in Wales are already familiar with closed lists as they are an extension of the current additional member system.
He said reformed elections would be fully proportional, bringing about a much fairer result.
Mr Antoniw criticised the first-past-the-post system used in Westminster elections.
He stressed that compromise is necessary because the bill will require a supermajority of two-thirds support to pass in the Senedd.
The counsel general disagreed with Prof Laura McAllister, who has warned closed lists are dangerous, arguing the proposed changes are a step forward.
Ms Dodds said: “I’m still unclear about the democratic benefits of a closed-list system.”
The Conservatives’ Darren Millar agreed, arguing that such a system would lead to less democratic accountability as he added his voice to calls for an open, flexible-list approach.
David Rees, who chairs the reform committee, asked about plans for a 40% increase in the number of ministers from 12 to 17, not including the counsel general and first minister.
Mr Antoniw said the increase was a recommendation from the previous committee due to the additional responsibilities gained by the Senedd in recent years.
He told members there is a need for greater ministerial accountability and accessibility, with the Welsh Government planning for the devolution of parts of the justice system.
Pressed on powers in the bill for 19 ministers in future, Mr Antoniw stressed that the Welsh Government would become smaller as a proportion of the Senedd than currently.
He told the committee the powers would require MSs’ consent.
Mr Rees warned that the two extra two ministerial positions could be used as part of bargaining around a coalition after an election.
He said: “It’s not really a requirement of function or need – it’s more a requirement of political gain,” suggesting that a two-thirds majority should be required for the powers.
Mr Antoniw pointed out that no party has held a majority since the Senedd was founded in 1999 and the powers could give stability to the government by facilitating cooperation.
He said: “I’m speculating that that might happen, it may well never, but it is not the core purpose of the need to increase ministerial capacity.”
Asked how empty seats would be filled, Mr Antoniw described the chances of problems arising as remote despite a high turnover of members during the previous Senedd term.
He explained that the next person on the party’s eight-name list would be elected but the bill does not provide a mechanism for replacing an independent member.
He cautioned that holding by-elections would “sacrifice” the proportionality of the system.
Mr Rees pointed out that any by-election can change the balance of a parliament.
The Labour backbencher also raised concerns about the lack of a recall system if, as an example, a member was involved in crime.
Mr Antoniw said there is no simple way of including a recall system in the legislation, saying the Welsh Government will consider the standards commissioner’s recommendations.
Darren Millar questioned the 10% margin in the number of voters for each constituency, which is twice as much as allowed for Westminster elections.
The Conservative said the electorate could vary by as much as 30,000 voters between constituencies from 2030, giving some more or less of a democratic say than others.
Mr Millar, who resigned from a previous reform committee, also raised concerns about a 12-13% threshold to be elected – almost twice as much as currently.
Mr Antoniw told MSs that the 10% margin was chosen to give greater flexibility for the new Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru.
“The intention isn’t to create constituencies of different sizes,” he said.
Mr Millar criticised the use of council electoral registers in the eligibility criteria for candidates, warning that the rules could be circumvented.
Mr Antoniw recognised concerns about second home owners or people moving after being elected but he cautioned that ministers cannot allow for every contingency.
“No system is absolutely perfect,” he said.
He told MSs that using the electoral register is the most logical, clear and simple system, creating as few loopholes as possible. He argued against calls for a grace period.
Asked about the tight timetable, the counsel general said everything must be in place six months before the 2026 Senedd election.
At the end of the committee meeting on Wednesday December 13, Mr Antoniw said: “I’m looking forward to not discussing closed lists over the Christmas period.”
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