The Welsh government’s “historic” changes to the Senedd, including sharply increasing the number of members, have been criticised by the Conservatives who say the millions of pounds an expanded Welsh parliament would cost each year should be ploughed into improving public services.
Proposed changes set out in the Senedd reform bill include increasing the number of members from 60 to 96 and ministers from 12 to 17, plus scrapping the first-past-the-post element of the voting system.
Set-up costs are estimated at about £8m and additional running costs for the expanded parliament are expected to be up to about £18m a year, which the Labour-led government argues is a tiny fraction of the £24bn total annual Welsh budget.
The Welsh counsel general, Mick Antoniw, said: “This is an historic moment, a watershed in terms of Welsh parliamentary democracy. It makes us a truly modern Senedd.”
Antoniw said a bigger parliament was justified by the extra law-making powers and tax-raising levers Wales has compared with when devolution came into being in 1999.
He said it also helped make up for the number of seats in the UK parliament being cut from 40 to 32 and the loss of Welsh voices in the European parliament.
Antoniw acknowledged that increasing the number of politicians was difficult to justify, but he said: “It’s an investment in democracy. These costs don’t kick in until after the next Senedd elections in 2026 so it doesn’t have an impact on what we can spend at this moment. If we improve our performance by a minuscule amount, this will pay for itself.”
Responding to criticism by the Tories, he said: “This is about the extent to which we value our democracy. They are in a very desperate position politically, they are struggling for anything they think might have a degree of populism about it. The idea of more politicians is a hard sell. They’ve latched on to that.”
Other proposed changes include the 32 new UK parliament constituencies being paired to create 16 “super” Senedd constituencies. Each constituency would elect six members.
Senedd elections would be held every four years rather than five, all candidates would have to live in Wales and a new proportional voting system would be introduced. If two-thirds of Senedd members support the changes, they will be in place for the 2026 elections.
Rhun ap Iorwerth, the leader of Plaid Cymru, which has worked with Labour on the changes as part of the parties’ partnership agreement, called it a “historic step forward”.
The responsibilities and powers of the Senedd had been “transformed” since the Welsh parliament first sat in 1999, said ap Iorwerth. “Yet there has been no difference in the makeup of the Senedd itself. This is a significant and historic day in terms of growing and maturing the Senedd into a body that can better represent the people of Wales and hold the government to account effectively.
“The Tories complain about anything that is to do with developing Wales as a nation.” He said the cost of renovating the Palace of Westminster was put at billions and Boris Johnson had appointed scores of new peers during his time as prime minister.
The Plaid leader said the changes would help make citizens feel their vote did matter. “There’s a feeling in first-past-the-post that votes can be wasted. With this proportional system, which gets rid of the first-past-the-post element altogether, there’s a feeling we can say that all votes do matter.”
The Welsh Conservative shadow constitution minister, Darren Millar, said: “It’s disappointing that Welsh Labour ministers continue to press ahead with plans to increase the size of the Senedd at a cost of tens of millions each year while threatening to cut budgets for schools and hospitals.
“Wales needs more doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers, not more politicians.”
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