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It may come across as frivolous to post things like this during a crisis, but business at the Senedd continues as usual with some changes; all non-time-critical debates have been postponed. Until that changes further – and I suspect it will eventually with 8 AMs already self-isolating – it’s business as usual for me too, though you can probably expect fewer posts than usual. Short of becoming ill myself or having to adjust to someone else being ill there’s no reason to stop for the time being and Easter recess starts March 30th anyway.
It’s important the Welsh and UK governments are held to account for their management of the pandemic – and where AMs do that, I’ll cover it – but don’t expect me to provide a running commentary on what they should or shouldn’t be doing or attempt to amplify political backseat driving. I’m not a virologist or epidemiologist and despite having a background in biology I’m not qualified to talk about coronavirus or pandemic management beyond what official medical, academic and government advice and research says – I’d only be contributing to the noise and there’s a lot of it about at the moment.
Stage 1 Report: Local Government & Elections Bill (pdf)
Published: 13th March 2020
A full summary of what’s included in the first draft of the Bill is available here.
“People have busy lives and taking on the role of a councillor can be difficult to juggle on top of work and family life. This is why we believe that job-sharing for councillors could be an interesting way of opening up the prospect of standing for election to more people. If we are serious about improving diversity on local councils then we must make it easier for people to stand for election and get involved.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)
1. Political education should be rolled-out nationally in schools
The Electoral Commission noted that changes to the right to vote in local/Welsh elections (votes from 16, voting rights for foreign residents) would require a separate Welsh electoral register alongside one for UK elections.
Despite evidence received that 16 and 17-year olds turned out at a rate of 75% during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – and this led to “maintained engagement” in politics – the Committee wasn’t aware of any evidence to support this claim.
Electoral Reform Society Cymru said the “drive” to get this age group to vote had to be led nationally, not by councils – a stance supported by the WLGA. The Committee recommended that the Bill is amended to include a roll-out of political education in all schools, starting from at least 14-years-old.
Amendments extending the right to vote in the next scheduled local elections (2022) to eligible prisoners will be tabled by the government.
In terms of general public engagement, there was a mixed response to making webcasting of all public meetings mandatory. Some councils and representatives argued only the most important meetings should be webcast, while others argued the cost of webcasting can be brought down by using platforms like Youtube. The possibility of an all-Wales webcasting contract was raised by the WLGA.
2. The Welsh Government should engage with councils on switching to single transferable vote
As it stands, the Bill will allow individual councils to choose whether to continue to use first-past-the-post to elect councillors or switch to single transferable vote/STV (where councillors are elected by ranking preferences).
The majority of people who responded called for one system to be used across Wales in order to reduce complexity and confusion – though the Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), argued that the Bill was an example of devolving power to local government.
The Committee dodged recommending that STV is mandated for all councils, acknowledging the “little appetite” amongst councils to switch to STV – but this will result in slow change. They, therefore, recommended the Welsh Government starts engagement with councils with weight given to the benefits STV might bring in terms of increasing diversity.
Councils were also generally opposed to relaxing restrictions on council employees being able to stand for election to the council they work for, believing it would increase employer-employee tensions and lead to conflicts of interest.
To help deal with increasing harassment of politicians, the Committee recommended that regulations are amended so councillors no longer have to publish their full home address (extended to community councillors).
3. The Bill should be amended to allow all councillors to job-share
Job-sharing for executive/cabinet members of councils has been available for some time – most famously used at Swansea Council. Executive salaries are split accordingly.
While there were concerns raised that job-sharing would end up being seen as “just something for women or just something for people from diverse backgrounds”, the Committee supported amending the Bill to allow job-sharing for backbench councillors – particularly committee chairs – and to enable councillors to stand on a joint-ticket.
4. There’s broad support for joint-working between councils and council mergers remaining voluntary
Many councils already work on a joint or regional basis and there was broad support to put this on a legal footing. However, the Bill would allow the Welsh Government to create a joint committee through regulations with the WLGA arguing it should remain voluntary.
The Committee concluded that joint-working arrangements shouldn’t overcomplicate the current plethora of partnerships and regional bodies. They also agreed with the WLGA that joint-working should be voluntary – though they didn’t think the Bill should necessarily be amended to support this view.
In the case of council mergers, the Bill ensures it’s wholly voluntary and the Minister said she would be “very keen to support” any councils thinking of merging. The Committee believes this voluntary approach to mergers was an appropriate solution to a long-argued point that Wales has too many councils.