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Speech on Legislative Competence Order on Electoral Arrangements

June 11, 2008 12:00 AM
By Peter Black in Plenary

Thank you Presiding Officer, I have had the privilege of being drawn simultaneously to present both a measure and a legislative competence order to this Assembly. The debate on my measure to create a duty on local councils to provide facilities for young people has already been debated and defeated here. I am hopeful that the outcome of this debate will be different.

One of the reasons why I am optimistic for the success of this LCO is that I believe that if every member in this chamber were to speak and vote according to their conscience then there is a natural majority amongst Assembly Members for it. We shall see later on today.

Both the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru are longstanding supporters of voting reform, believing that it is right that the outcome of elections should reflect the way that people have voted. That is particularly important at a local government level where hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money is spent each year on providing vital services including education, social care, sport and leisure facilities, and many more.

We have seen in the past what happens when one party comes to dominate a local Council for a long period of time with only a minority of the votes. They become complacent and unaccountable, whilst the Council itself fails to change sufficiently quickly to reflect the demands made upon it. That can be avoided with a proportionate system of voting, whilst voters living in multi-member wards have a genuine choice of representatives to choose from both when they vote and when they seek help and advice.

We should not forget that when they first formed a government in the 1920s the Labour Party too had a commitment to proportional representation. Due to the circumstances of their first administration they were not able to implement it at that time and it quickly dropped out of their policy programme. Nevertheless, Labour has embraced a form of fair voting for this Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and also for elections to the European Parliament.

Furthermore, working with the Welsh Liberal Democrats, a former Labour-led Administration put in place two Commissions, the Sunderland Commission and the Richard Commission, both of which recommended the Single Transferable Vote form of election for local government and this Assembly respectively. Neither of those recommendations were implemented but I know that there are a number of Labour AMs in this chamber who would support such measures if they had the opportunity.

Although the Conservatives have traditionally opposed reform of the electoral system I think that even they must acknowledge that it is time to move forward. Indeed, they did so in May last year when they presented a manifesto to the Welsh electorate that proposed offering local communities the option of a referendum on the way that their Council is elected.

Every Conservative Assembly Member here today must be aware that the only way that they could possibly implement such a manifesto promise would be if the appropriate powers were drawn down from Westminster. They would need an LCO such as this one to fulfil their pledge. I fully hope therefore that they will support the motion before us today. To do otherwise, even to sit on the fence by abstaining, would leave them open to the charge of insincerity, of making promises they did not seek to keep and I am sure that this is not the case.

I think we also need to be clear about one more thing today and maybe this will help the Conservatives and other AMs who are having doubts about this LCO. This debate is not about introducing proportional representation into local government elections. That is a discussion for another day. What we are discussing today is whether this Assembly should have the power to do such a thing at some time in the future. We are asking for the powers so that we can determine our own Welsh solutions. That after all is the whole raison d'etre behind the 2006 Government of Wales Act.

And in asking for those powers we should be clear that we are doing so for a whole variety of reasons that will help us to make Wales a better place to live. We will be taking wide-ranging powers to modify many aspects of Local Government elections in this country. For example it would make it possible for us to implement other recommendations made by Eric Sunderland's Commission, including giving us the ability to look at setting maximum ward sizes, minimum ward sizes and addressing the different levels of representation different wards receive.

There has been talk recently about reorganising local government in Wales. I believe that the Local Government Minister recently urged Councils to work together more effectively as proposed by the Beecham report and warned them that if they did not do so then the Assembly Government would be forced to look at more drastic measures.

There are of course many good arguments for the economies of scale that bigger local authorities may bring but how can those benefits be reconciled with accountability when a much larger bureaucracy will find itself at odds with local communities? Bigger Councils may well bring a return to the dominance of single parties, relying on a minority of votes.

The logic is that if we are to review the governance arrangements for local services then we need also to look at how decisions on those services are made and how transparency and accountability is maintained. To do that the Government will need the powers offered by this LCO. They should take it now, rather than suffer delay when they need it least.

My own views on fair voting are well documented. I am a supporter of the single transferable vote system of electing political representatives. I could spend all day giving good reasons why this system is superior to many others but this is not the time for that debate. That time will come when or if we have a measure before us. Nevertheless I think it is pertinent that I deal with two common objections now in the hope of giving those members who are wavering on this LCO some comfort that the world will not fall apart if they were to support it.

The most common objection to PR is that it prevents firm governance. Coalitions become the order of the day. Now, we have all had our fair share of coalitions in this place but my LCO relates to local government where such arrangements are far more common and often lead to a better quality of governance. Indeed if we can reach a situation today, as we have, when all but a handful of local Councils in Wales are run by a coalition, then what do we have to fear from putting in place a voting system that will produce a similar outcome but in a fairer way.

We should be clear here, this proposal is not driven by self-interest on the part of my party. Here in Cardiff for example the Welsh Liberal Democrats emerged from the local elections with 35 seats, just short of a majority and with twice as many Councillors as the Tories. Yet in terms of the popular vote we were narrowly in third place. Because of the way that the first past the post system works there was an unfair outcome in the Capital City. In Swansea we would have ended up with fewer Councillors whilst the Tory group would grow from 4 to 11 and there are similar outcomes elsewhere.

The most recent set of local government elections highlights the need for reform. One hundred and two Councillors across Wales were elected unopposed, without a single vote being cast. That is nearly one in ten seats without a contest. In Scotland a similar situation existed until the change was made to Proportional Representation. Last year they did not have a single uncontested ward.

The second objection that I want to address is that which was often voiced by the late Peter Law, that we have proportional voting for this Assembly and look at the mess we are in. Well in some ways he was right. The additional member system that we use to elect Assembly Members is a poor imitation of what a fair voting system should look like. It creates two different types of member, it is not properly proportional and it was designed to skew the result rather than make it fairer.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest such a system for local government. There are better ways to elect politicians than the one we use and I would not want anybody to think that what we use is synonymous with PR, it is not.

I am firmly committed to the devolution process. I want an Assembly with equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament. While LCO's alone will never give us that level of powers, each one that is passed adds another piece of the jigsaw and takes us another step towards readdressing the imbalance.

This LCO is a chance for the Assembly to grow and take on powers that should logically be held in Wales. On its own it will not change the voting system. I hope opponents of change will be willing to save those arguments for another day, and support a logical step in the devolution process.

I urge you to give it a chance today to proceed to the next stage.

I have put forward this Legislative Competence Order because I believe the people of Wales should decide how we elect our local authorities, not the MPs for England and Scotland.

I hope members will see this LCO for what it is - a chance for the Assembly to grow and take on powers that should logically be held in Wales. This LCO on its own will not change the voting system, and I hope opponents of change will be willing to save those arguments for another day, and support a logical step in the devolution process.

Opposing this LCO would merely put the brakes on devolution, at a time when we should be going further and faster to deliver the change that the people of Wales want to see.

There are members in all parties who support change to improve the way our councils are elected and are run, and to ensure more people get involved in the democratic process. We may not all agree on what those changes should be, but I hope we can unite to ensure that these decisions are ones that will be 'made in Wales' in the future.

Thank you