Very few people in Wales would disagree with me if I said the Senedd had an engagement problem.
Even though the Senedd now is so much more powerful in terms of its legislative competence than it was when I was elected in 2007, the turnout in this year’s election was barely 3% higher than it was 14 years ago.
Over half of the eligible Welsh public are not engaged in Senedd elections. The Welsh Parliament’s powers have grown, and the democratic engagement needs to grow in line with those powers.
So far, sadly, it has not. If the institution is to be relevant, it must change and change with the times.
The Senedd needs to adapt to the way in which news is produced and consumed. Since I was elected to the Welsh Parliament, or Welsh Assembly as it was then, very little has changed when it comes to the business schedule.
First Minister’s Questions still starts at 1:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon. This needs to be brought forward so that the work of the Senedd can feed into the news cycle, rather than expecting the news cycle to tailor itself to us.
While 1:30pm might be a leisurely start to the day for some, it doesn’t help the Senedd to reach beyond the bubble.
Lots of people in Wales watch and read UK-wide news providers, and we will have very little hope of reaching and engaging with those people if we work to a news cycle which is restricted to afternoon sessions.
It will come as no surprise but I’m a big believer that there should be more unseen questions allotted to opposition leaders and spokespeople to allow the Welsh Government to be held accountable on a greater range of issues.
Often, I have found that after two or three attempts at getting an answer out of the First Minister, your time is up and he has dodged proper scrutiny – normally by talking for longer than it takes to read War and Peace.
More questions (five for example) would give the Government less opportunity to hide from accountability and would empower the Senedd and the opposition benches.
Urgent Questions should also be introduced and I would like the Presiding Officer to work for Members of the Senedd by making sure questions are heard as and when those questions are pertinent.
As it stands there is allotted time for Topical Questions (on a Wednesday afternoon), and often, by the time that segment in the business schedule arrives, the moment has been lost and the news agenda has moved on.
This stale system needs to be overhauled and questions should be asked at the height of their interest.
To her credit, Rosemary Butler, a former Presiding Officer, improved the Senedd’s relevance to the main issues of the day by adopting such an approach. We need to inject a far greater pace and urgency into parliamentary proceedings.
Another way in which the Senedd can become more dynamic is by allowing more Points of Order. Unfortunately, the process of raising a Point of Order at present can be bureaucratic at the best of times and impossible at the worst of times.
There are other business reforms that have to be made. Why should we have opposition debates every week?
I would argue that we should strive for quality over quantity, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an election.
We could replace some of that time with more time on the floor for backbench legislation, rather than packing the schedule with largely inconsequential debates. That way, more MSs who aren’t in government can have their chance to impact and deliver legislation.
I declare an interest (I don’t use them) but let’s take the computers out of the chamber. They look awful and let’s remove the distraction and afford the business of the Senedd our full attention which, after all, is a large part of what we are paid for?
It’s also time we saw a greater number of MSs return to the chamber. Thanks to the huge success of the vaccine procurement and rollout drives, working in close proximity has become much safer than it was when the pandemic began, and seats in the chamber are spaced out unlike the iconic crowded green benches of the House of Commons.
A return of the FMQs atmosphere of old would be a night and day change from the subdued setting the limited members of the public will have seen of late via the various Zoom and hybrid sessions that have been commonplace over the past 18 months.
Speaking of returning to the chamber, I would like the Welsh Government to deliver their Coronavirus updates and announcements to MSs, rather than to news cameras and journalists.
It’s become farcical. How can the public be expected to show an interest in the Senedd if the Welsh Government do not lead by example?
The Presiding Officer should take a leaf out of Lindsay Hoyle’s book and ensure that the Government deliver their statements and announcements in the chamber first. At the moment, the government is laughing at the institution.
Finally, I would reduce the length of the parliamentary term. Five years is too long, and it’s time we returned to four-year terms which – in my opinion – is far healthier from a democratic perspective.
In short, if we are to engage the public in the proceedings of the Welsh Parliament and its far-reaching powers, we have to stop expecting them to come to us.
There comes a point at which it is our responsibility to be innovative and modern in order to pique people’s interest so they will show up at the ballot box.
Some of the above might fail to do that, and there will be far greater minds than myself to bring this place closer to the people, and by eck it needs to.
Because until we do that, then our democratic mandate might never break through that 50 percent ceiling, and as such will always be questioned.
(Photo by James Stringer via Flickr)