Y Pwyllgor Llywodraeth Leol a Thai

Local Government and Housing Committee

30/11/2023

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Carolyn Thomas
Joel James
John Griffiths Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Sam Rowlands

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Dr Jessica Laimann Rheolwr Polisi a Materion Cyhoeddus, Rhwydwaith Cydraddoldeb Menywod Cymru
Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Women's Equality Network Wales
Malcolm Burr Cynullydd, Bwrdd Rheoli Etholiadol yr Alban
Convener, Electoral Management Board for Scotland
Professor Alistair Clark Athro Gwyddor Gwleidyddiaeth, Prifysgol Newcastle
Professor of Political Science, Newcastle University
Shereen Williams Prif Weithredwr Comisiwn Ffiniau a Democratiaeth Leol Cymru
Chief Executive, Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales
Tom Jenkins Pennaeth Polisi a Rhaglenni, Comisiwn Ffiniau a Democratiaeth Leol Cymru
Head of Policy and Programmes, Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Angharad Era Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Catherine Hunt Clerc
Clerk
Philip Lewis Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Rachael Davies Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:01.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:01.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Welcome everyone to this meeting of the Local Government and Housing Committee. We've received apologies from Luke Fletcher, one of our committee members; there are no substitutions. This meeting is being held in a hybrid format, but, aside from the adaptations relating to conducting proceedings in that way, all other Standing Order requirements remain in place. The public items of this meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv., and a record of proceedings will be published as usual. The meeting is bilingual and simultaneous translation is available. Are there any declarations of interest from committee members? No.

2. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn dystiolaeth 6
2. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence session 6

We will move on then to item 2 on our agenda today, which is our sixth evidence session with regard to the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill, and we will be taking evidence from the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales in relation to this legislation.

So, I'm very pleased to welcome Shereen Williams, chief executive of the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, and Tom Jenkins, head of policy and programmes for that organisation.

Okay, perhaps I might begin then just with some initial questions before we bring in other committee members. And firstly, very generally, could you share your general reflections on the Bill?

Okay. The commission welcomes the proposals that have been put forward by the Bill. There are a number of matters in the Bill that affect us directly. So, the establishment of the electoral management board, the transfer of functions of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales, and improvement to the way that we would conduct electoral and community reviews. We've worked closely with Welsh Government officials on providing some content in the Bill, and we provided a very comprehensive response to the White Paper some months ago. And that was also based on the experience we've had in running a full electoral review programme over the past four years.

Okay, Shereen, thanks for that. Anything to add, Tom?

No, I was just going to say that we have worked quite well with officials in the Welsh Government on the drafting the legislation, so we weren't surprised by anything that came out of it.

No. Well, it's useful to hear that, that there have been no surprises after you've had that working arrangement and consultation with Welsh Government. 

Of course, different provisions will place additional workload on the commission. Are you content with that, in that you've had these discussions, but there will be this additional workload?

Yes. Tom heads up all the review programmes for the commission currently. He's a very experienced senior leader within the organisation and has a strong cohort of staff who can undertake reviews, be those parliamentary reviews, Senedd reviews, electoral and community reviews. We are working closely with officials, as well as colleagues in the Wales Electoral Coordination Board and the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales, to set up additional staffing structures within the commission to meet this new demand on the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru when you move forward to the new organisation. 

Yes. So, with regard to the regulatory impact assessment and the resource that's identified within that to fulfil the additional functions and to be able to provide an adequate service on that, are you content that that regulatory impact assessment does set out sufficient future resource?

09:05

We are content. Obviously, it's not perfect to the last penny and there will be some room to manoeuvre—not much—but taking into account inflation, pay awards, things like that, we are content that it would reflect the amount we need. We get a core amount of funding for our general work annually from the Welsh Government. We're going to be doing it in line with separate funding to do the Senedd review, combined with this, and then, as we progress, we'll be doing the next round of parliamentary reviews. So, that's another pot of funding that comes from central Government. 

Obviously, there is no electoral management board in Wales, so we haven't got anything to use as a template, but through conversations with different bodies, we've come to where we've come to. So, we're happy with that.

Thanks, Chair. Good morning. Thanks for coming here this morning, we really appreciate your time. Just on that point about the electoral management board, obviously, section 1 of the Bill does include that provision for the commission to establish that board. I just wonder what your views are on these provisions.  

In terms of establishing the board and the provisions, we are working closely with Welsh Government officials as well as WECB colleagues to help ensure that there is expertise brought into the commission to support us in establishing the board, identifying the kind of person specification that we need, not just from a staffing perspective but also future commissioners. So, I think it's quite comprehensive in making sure that the chair of the board will have to be a commissioner on DBCC, an extra member, and the chair will also need to have returning officer or electoral administration experience, which currently, in our existing complement of commissioners, we already have, which is very helpful in terms of continuity and transition arrangements. 

We have made some recommendations around start dates and commencement dates to make sure that the functions are conferred on the EMB, rather than the commission, because from our perspective, it's the EMB who will have that electoral experience, rather than the commission. We're going to be doing our day-to-day work around reviews. 

Thanks. There might be a simple answer, but how do you think establishing the board is going to make things better?

From what I understand through our engagement, it's the fact that you've got a body now that has the powers to issue directions and guidance to help with the smooth running of devolved elections. It also continues to create a space for electoral administrators to continue their engagement, which they currently do through the WECB, but this then provides that formal body through which they can carry out that work. And it will be staffed as well, as part of our organisation. So, it's a constant, rather than having to go through peaks and troughs during election years. 

And do you think that Joe Bloggs, the general public, will feel that difference and feel like it will be better for them?

I think elections are always a very difficult thing to administer. It's a big challenge, having engaged with electoral administrators for a very long time in this role. Anything that can help the smooth running that helps provide a better experience for people when they go out on polling day to cast their votes I think will always be an improvement. 

And just to add—apologies—it gives us an opportunity also to trial new ways of voting. I think that's really exciting for Wales, as we move forward with the tech that's coming through in elections. There's a chance to see whether we can do things differently and improve the end-user experience for Joe Bloggs on the street.

It might be, also, pertinent that for the next Senedd election, they're talking about using a different electoral system. So, that might be something the EMB can help with to make sure that, like you say, Joe Bloggs knows exactly what's going on. 

Yes. Best of luck. And then just in terms of who the right people are to establish the electoral management board, do you think that the democracy and boundary commission is the right body to establish this board?

We are an independent body. Our appointments are done through the public appointments process. We have experience. Other than the Electoral Commission, we are pretty much the only other body in Wales that has got strong relationship experiences working with electoral administrators. Because of the reviews that we do, we engage with electoral administrators on all sorts of different matters—parliamentary reviews, community reviews—

Electoral reviews on county councillors.

09:10

Electoral reviews, yes. So, I think we do have that expertise, and I think we have a track record: we delivered a 10-year electoral review programme within four and a half years during COVID, during a snap general election. I think from a staffing perspective, we're good enough to deliver it. I know in Scotland there's a different model, where the EMB is managed by a local authority rather than an independent body, but I think we do devolution differently here, and it's a chance for us to have the independent body focus on the EMB work.

And just to add to that again, we've obviously got a track record of being a good independent body with our role in reviews; impartiality is key.

On that point of independence, there has been some criticism by academics and by the Electoral Commission about a potential lack of independence because your funding comes from the Welsh Government. How can you reassure us that independence would be there with the EMB?

The decisions made by our commissioners are fully independent. All our commissioners go through a public appointments process. In the work that we've done, for example, with—

But that public appointments process is by the Welsh Minister, isn't it?

Yes, and there's a requirement—. With the public appointments process, I suppose it's either you believe in the integrity of the process or you don't. But in terms of independence, our commissioners are former professionals or current professionals working in roles that are politically neutral. In terms of staff, we have senior leadership that's politically restricted as well, and we don't look at the politics of things. So, when we get representations when we run reviews, we will get people saying, 'Oh, but if you changed this boundary, the colour of my elected member will change. It will go from red to blue', et cetera. That information is actually something that we consider irrelevant and we don't take it into account when we're deliberating our work, so we can apply that level of neutrality and impartiality for establishing the EMB. And the EMB members will be experienced electoral administrators who are already working in very high-profile roles that are politically impartial.

Do you think it is a fair challenge if people have concerns about independence due to the funding and the public appointments process? Is that fair, or do you think that's not a fair challenge?

I think people will have opinions about all sorts of processes—selection processes, appointments. At the end of the day, I think we've got to have trust that our Governments run an open and transparent public appointments system in which you expect every single appointee to abide by the Nolan principles.

You'd hope that there would be some integrity, wouldn't you?

It would be good, wouldn't it? Okay, thank you. And then just a final question from me, Chair, if I may. In the commission's written evidence, you've highlighted that commencement powers should be altered to ensure that certain provisions in the Bill don't come into force before the EMB is established, and you mentioned earlier as well some of the timings of things. Could you just elaborate on that a little bit further and explain why you've made those points?

At the moment, the Bill would give some of the functions to the DBCC before the EMB is set up. We feel that the EMB is the right body to be given those functions and the DBCC wouldn't have necessarily the expertise to deliver those functions.

Just to be clear on that point, it's about getting the ducks in a row. 

Yes, that's it.

Yes. It literally is a timing issue as opposed to wanting to make big changes to the legislative document.

Thank you, Chair. Thanks ever so much for coming in this morning. I hope you don't mind, I just wanted to talk about the piloting powers. Obviously, this legislation expands the role that you have at the moment, and you have the Welsh Government saying you've got to evaluate and suggest pilots and everything. I just wanted to get your views on that increased role. You touched upon it briefly with Sam's questions about the electoral management role, and I see from your written evidence you suggested that that would take the brunt of the work on that. I just wanted to get your views on that.

At this point in time, until we have the funding coming through for the newly named commission and the funding to recruit the experts into the organisation established at EMB, we wouldn't have the expertise to be doing evaluations or running any of those pilot forums, because we are very specific in what we do. We know there are experts in Wales who will be able to come into the organisation and support with this work, so we just want to make sure that all the timings work, so that they're in the organisation, the EMB is established, because we will have the Welsh electoral experts around the table, and they will be the best placed people to lead on this work.

09:15

You mentioned there that it's until you get the experts in who have experience with that, but in previous evidence sessions, we've heard how there is a shortage of that, actually, in terms of electoral return officers, how there's a quick turnover, and like with every business in Wales, the skill sets just aren't there. So, you're quite confident that the skill set is there to increase the capacity.

I'm probably going to get told off for this, but possibly even poaching staff from the local authority, who are the experts, to come and join us, even on a secondment basis. We're also working closely with the Association of Electoral Administrators to look at training provision for the existing staff, to upskill and increase our knowledge, and look at some electoral qualifications as well, internally, to support the work. I think there's a general shortage of experts in Wales. However, they are there. There are people in post that could join us on either a permanent or temporary basis to help get things off the ground.

So, you wouldn't necessarily be able to go straight into this. There will be a period of learning and getting to grips with things. 

Transition, really, and that's something we've been discussing with Welsh Government colleagues and the WECB. For example, now, I've started attending the WECB meetings, to observe what they do, just to get a better idea of what we need to do as an organisation to upskill staff to get us to that point. There will be a period of transition before the board is established.

I assume that answer would be the same, then, in terms of your recommendation that at least one member of the electoral management board should be on the electoral pilot discussion forums. I assume it's for those reasons you've just highlighted there. Okay.

To the last question I have, then. You touched upon it there when you mentioned poaching from local authorities. Obviously, the Act allows the Welsh Government to compel local authorities to instigate pilots. What's your view on that, and are there any pilots that come to mind that they should be running?

I don't think it's for us to tell the Welsh Government what they should be doing with local authorities. That's what I would say.

Again, I'm not sure about the pilots. We wouldn't be able to comment on that.

It's just that we don't have the expertise.

Can I just expand that a little bit further? You're saying you don't have a view on whether the Welsh Government should compel local authorities to have pilots. With your experience, you have no view on that.

I don't think it's the place of the commission to make that comment on governments having the powers to compel—

We might have personal—

Yes, we might have personal—

Isn't the whole point of this to have a view on legislation the Government is putting forward?

In terms of the Welsh Government compelling, I think that's a matter for the Welsh Government and, obviously, Senedd Members to decide on whether you feel that is required of elected members.

Thank you, Chair. But you're excited that there could be pilots.

Yes. I think, in the interests of democracy—

It's just the word 'compel'. Yes. Okay, thank you. I just want to ask you about the boundary review arrangements. In your evidence, you recommend a specific change to section 46 of the Bill, which would require mandatory consultees for boundary reviews listed in section 34(3) of the 2013 Act to nominate a specific contact for the consultation process. Could you explain this recommendation?

It's just a simple thing. We don't want to send something to a mandatory consultee and it gets lost, and then somewhere down the line they come back to us and say, 'Oh, I didn't know about this'. It's just a cover that if they then decide to send in a representation or something, that it wouldn't affect our outcomes or our timelines. 

For context, this is not a hill we want to die on. However, I think if you don't ask, you won't get. And I know it's not an ideal provision, because you are putting in a requirement of the list of mandatory consultees to name somebody as a point of contact. But, just based on what Tom has said, in the past, we have had a lot of responses, when we've completed the review, when boundary orders have been made, 'Oh, we didn't know anything about it' or 'We weren't sure.' And I think whilst, in the past, it's been members of the public, what we don't want is a mandatory consultee, for example, a police and crime commissioner or a fire and rescue authority saying, 'We didn't know anything about this; this could impact how we police locally et cetera, with you changing the electoral boundaries.'

09:20

Okay, great. And, in your written evidence, you expressed concerns about section 48 of the Bill placing duties on the commission to 'use its best endeavours'. 

I think it's the use of the word 'best' that is the concern. [Laughter.] Again, it's about people being able to challenge our decisions and how we've allocated our resources and things like that. 

It's really around allocation of resource, because two or three years ago, pre the possibility of us doing a Senedd review, the electoral management board and having the functions of the independent remuneration panel, all we did would be electoral reviews, community reviews and a parliamentary review under the Boundary Commission for Wales. Resource allocation was not going to be a complex matter—wouldn't have been such a complex matter—but, moving forward, because we've got lots of new things coming through, we want to be able to protect ourselves as a commission. I think it's right that we've put forward suggestions that, where they say, 'Why didn't you allocate an extra member of staff to complete the electoral review?' when, actually, at the same time, we've got a hard deadline to complete a Senedd review—. So, in practice, we would, obviously—. It'll be best endeavours from us; that's how we function. However, it's just protecting the commission from the challenge of, 'You did not put in your best endeavours', it was just, 'You endeavoured.'

Have you had any legal advice on it, and would 'reasonable endeavours' be a good, sort of acceptable middle ground compromise, do you reckon—'reasonable endevaours'?

We'll take some advice on that and come back to you. 

No, we have had. 

Okay. What are your views on the review period during which a principal council must carry out an electoral arrangements review for each community in its area changing from 10 to 12 years?

It's interesting, because I don't think they actually have to carry one out every 10 years now. There's a duty on them to monitor, as opposed to carrying out a review. So, there are two changes, really. We support it, obviously, and we think it's important that they do carry out reviews regularly. And doing a review builds into our electoral reviews, gives us better building blocks to work on. So, that's a good thing for us. 

And what we'd like them to do is to do a community boundary review, and, then, as part of that, they would consider the local community electoral arrangements, because what's being proposed is the electoral arrangements being reviewed, as opposed to the actual review of the community boundaries. Because you've got new builds happening, people making extensions et cetera, and, suddenly, your boundary cuts across half a house. So, when you review such local—. When you review boundaries at a community level, you can correct all these anomalies and also take into account new community identities. 

It's a painful process, though; we're going through it at the moment, with a number of local authorities. 

As a previous community councillor on to a county councillor—and Joel's a community councillor—we know how boundary reviews can be quite difficult. You usually go on watercourses, don't you, as well, rather than—

We try and use natural boundaries on that; things that people can see. 

Yes, okay. In your written evidence, you recommend that the 12-year review periods for principal councils and the commission should commence on the same date. So, could you just explain the recommendation a bit further?

Yes, I think, having it start the same date—. In reality, how we'd like it to work is that the first six years is given to local authorities to carry out community reviews, establishing the building blocks for us to carry out electoral reviews in the second six years. 

Okay. All right. And you also recommend that any reviews taking place when the Bill comes into force should be conducted under the unamended previous rules under the 2013 Act, but still count as reviews carried out within the 12-year period.

09:25

Yes, because we've got a number of reviews going on. Well, like I say, we're doing five, and there are another, what, three, four local authorities doing community reviews at the moment. So, it just seems that it would be a bit of a shame for all that work to have to be redone.

And it's very painful work. We are upsetting a lot of people, asking them to look at their community boundaries. So, I think it's really important that this painful exercise is worth something, that it can be carried into the next review cycle and be considered done by those local authorities.

Thanks, Chair. Just on the 12-year period versus 10 years, I'm just interested in your thoughts, because, obviously, community councils and principal councils usually have a five-year cycle, so I was just wondering where your thoughts are when there may be issues in the future. Because 10 years fits nicely, with my maths, into five-year cycles. Twelve years seem slightly unusual. Do you have any concerns with that at all? Does that strike you as unusual? Or do you think, perhaps, that's not going to be an issue?

It's not going to be an issue, because one of the things that has been proposed in this Bill is that we shouldn't be submitting any recommendations in the year leading up to elections, so that, really, cuts out two years for us to do the work. So, it does balance out over time.

Right. Did you want to deal with the abolition of the independent remuneration panel, Sam?

More than happy, Chair, yes, no problem at all. It sounded like I should, didn't it? [Laughter.] So, section 56 of the Bill abolishes the IRP for Wales and transfers its functions to yourselves. What are your views on this? 

We would welcome it. I think our board looks at quite similar evidence in terms of councillor workload. We engage in the same areas. It also means that you have a secretariat that's independent from Welsh Government, because, obviously, currently, it's Welsh Government officials supporting the IRPW, so you have an extra layer of independence there are well. In terms of functions as well, we've already got—. Our current chair and a member of the commission are also members of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales, so there is also an element of continuity that would come through as part of the transfer of functions.

Thanks. And just more broadly, I wonder if you have a view on—. We have a remuneration panel here in the Senedd, and that's not been—. The opportunity to do something with that within this hasn't been taken. I wonder if you had a view on that at all. It seems to be quite a big change to the IRPW for local authority—

You were asked this question last week.

Yes, I was asked the exact same question at Senedd reform, and I will give the same politically restricted answer, which is I think that is a matter for Senedd Members to decide on. And should they decide to do so, we will be more than happy to open up conversations on resourcing and abilities to do so.

Obviously, lots of things are matters for Senedd Members, but perhaps you had a view on it, at all.  

No, we don't.

Thank you, Chair. Yes. Just to come back to what Sam was saying earlier then about maintaining that independence, obviously, the concern that I have—. As Carolyn mentioned, I used to be a councillor, I'm still a community councillor, and, obviously, with the independent remuneration panel, the public perception there is that it's independent and it's always used as a get-out-of-jail card then for councillors to say, 'Well, hang on, we've got to accept the recommendations of the independent remuneration panel.' Do you think there's a loss there of, for want of a better phrase, brand recognition, when it comes to yourselves, then? And, obviously, not all of it's coming to you. If I remember rightly, I think chief executive pay is not. What's your view on that? Is that something that should have come with it?

No, I think—. I have had a read through of some of the evidence that's been provided that, in terms of chief executives, that's a matter for local authorities as their direct employees.

I think the branding issue is something we can overcome. I know IRPW—the current panel—are already talking to elected members across Wales as part of their deliberations and consultation on their annual report about the changes that are due to come, assuming all the Bills go through. So, they are aware that change is coming.

I understand what you mean about the independence. So, the independent—'IRPW have decided that, so we've got no choice.' That is not going to change. The deliberations of the commission on remuneration functions will have the same level of requirement and status as what the IRPW are currently doing.

09:30

Okay, Joel? Just one or two other questions from me. Firstly, sections 65 and 66 make changes to the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru's governance and audit committee arrangements. What view do you have on those provisions?

I think that brings us in line with other public bodies, with having an independent audit and risk assurance committee chair, also increasing the provision of our governance and audit committee independent members. We've already taken some steps towards that path. We have the ability currently to appoint more than one independent member, and we've just recently appointed two independent members. So, I think we'd welcome that. I think, with additional functions coming to the commission, having a strong governance and audit committee is really important, not just for us from a process and operations point of view, but also for public trust. So, we would welcome that.

Yes. Okay. And finally from me, at least, the electoral management board and automatic voter registration—would you have any views or concerns on the potential impact of automatic voter registration on the electoral management board?

I think, in terms of guidance, it's something they'll have to consider, how they manage the process and how they engage with electoral administrators on how that's being done. At the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, they already have such discussions, and that will then be transferred. Those discussions will continue to the EMB, when it's established.

From our perspective—. On a different note, from DBCC's perspective, when we've done reviews, we use electorate figures for all our reviews rather than population figures, so a more accurate picture of the actual number of electors in Wales will strengthen the work that we do.

It'll help us from a review point of view, definitely.

Yes, definitely.

So, it could potentially then affect the geography of reviews and re-allocation of geographical areas, then. So, an area that has a higher number, a higher percentage, of population of voting age who are not registered could see change that would, well, I suppose, benefit that area in terms of democracy and—

And improved representation.

—democratic legitimacy compared to other areas. Would that be your take on—?

Yes. When Tom and his team carry out electoral reviews, we look at the ratio of elected members to electors, and we look at the variances, whether some areas are under-represented or over-represented. A far more accurate elector figure will mean that that variance could be smaller.

The other place where it'll have a big change is in the proposed Senedd review—not the first review, but the second review—where we have to work to an electoral quota. So, if there's automatic registration, it'll have a quite big impact on what the electoral quota will be and the variances either way. So, it'll be quite interesting, that.

Just a point on this: the balance of representing a rural area and a more urban area can be quite stark. So, that balance of per-person representation—. Living in a rural area, you still have to get around a big rural area, and there are issues, not just per-person issues, but roads, drainage, things like that, that are still a huge issue, and that's always something that we used to try and raise locally, as community councillors or county councillors representing rural areas. So, how do you get that balance right? Because I just see that things are moving more to per person, per capita, in the way of funding or representation, so—.

It is difficult, isn't it? We're actually carrying out a piece of research at the moment on councillor workload, which should be reporting soon.

Yes, in a couple of months. And that will actually give us some suggestions on how we tackle that specific issue of the rural and urban divide, whether rural areas should be given an allowance of having an extra councillor, because of the fact that it's a rural area et cetera. We're looking at improving and changing our council size policy for the next round of electoral reviews. We've got feedback from our stakeholders that four categories weren't enough for Wales, to take into account the different levels of geography. So, we're looking at increasing that.

09:35

Yes. I think Scotland have got seven, haven't they? So, we're looking at different ideas, different models.

It is a challenge, and we're looking also to things like geography, accessibility to the place—have you got to leave one electoral ward to get to the other side of your electoral ward? The most painful part of the whole electoral review process is done, because, when we completed the last electoral review programme, there were parts of Wales that hadn't had a review for over 20 years. So, that was the most painful part. This next round should be—

—should be, in theory, slightly less painful. It won't be no pain, but it should be a lot less painful than what we had to go through between 2018 and 2022.

And those historical links as well—that all made a difference.

Cultural, heritage, as well, rather than just per capita, per person. Okay.

Okay, Carolyn. Could I ask you, as well, on the electoral management board and the voter information platform, would you see the electoral management board hosting that platform?

Yes, I think that is a sensible place to put it, in terms of, obviously, the organisation hosting that platform. We would have the resources, the staffing structure, to do the updates, to carry out the work that's needed to maintain that platform. We've already got links as an organisation to electoral registration officers, so, when they're dealing with candidates, there's already a pathway that's there. I'm not sure where else or which other body would hold it and provide that level of support, because I think it would make sense for it to go along with the electoral management board.

Just on that point, Chair, can I ask a further question?

We've received evidence from others who perhaps have some concerns—well, all sorts of different concerns—about the voter information platform, and I wonder whether you'd share any of those broader concerns about information being held, who's responsible for what, make sure that there's integrity with any information that's on there, who then becomes liable for that information. And then, I guess the final point on that is the—. I appreciate you said that there's some resource there, which is probably manageable in a parliamentary-size election, but, in a council-size election, where you have potentially thousands of candidates, how would that be managed? Any concerns?

I think there'll be a lot of planning involved, figuring out how we do this. As an organisation, we're used to bumping up operations and then slowing down, when we've had to do peaks and troughs of work. I think the challenge with holding that much information is that it will always be a challenge, regardless of who holds that information. We're used to dealing with electoral data, so there is an element of integrity and strength in terms of how we manage our data. I think, on planning, the only way to overcome these challenges, it's got to be—. Whoever ends up with the voter information platform, they will have to work very closely with the EMB, with electoral administrators, on how that is managed. You'll have very busy periods, obviously, in the run-up to elections, so we could scale up operations then in order to support the information that's going to be put on the voter information platform.

Okay, Sam. Okay. Thanks very much. If there are no other questions from committee members, it just falls on me to let you know, as I'm sure you already do, that you will be sent a transcript of this session, to check for factual accuracy. So, thank you, both, very much for coming in to give evidence to committee this morning. Diolch yn fawr.

Committee will break for a short period.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 09:39 a 10:01.

The meeting adjourned between 09:39 and 10:01.

10:00
3. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn dystiolaeth 7
3. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence session 7

Okay, welcome back, everyone, to committee this morning. We've reached item 3 in our evidence taking sessions with regards to the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill. At this point, I'd just like to add the apologies of Jane Bryant to the apology from Luke Fletcher for non-attendance today.

So, we are now taking evidence from Malcolm Burr of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. Malcolm, thanks very much for joining committee today. Perhaps I might begin with an initial question before we turn to other committee members. In your written evidence, you state that the electoral management board in Scotland operates

'through a progression of consensus where possible, guidance where helpful and direction if necessary.'

Could you just expand a little on that approach taken to electoral co-ordination in Scotland, please?

Yes, I'm happy to do so, Chair, and thank you very much for the invitation to speak to you on this subject. What you've just read there, which is our modus operandi, I think, reflects what we consider to be a very close and supportive community of returning officers and electoral registration officers in, perhaps, like Wales, a relatively small country, and there's a balance between what the board does centrally and the independence and the personal accountability of returning officers and electoral registration officers. We're not there to take over; we're there to support and promote best practice. But, yes, there is the power of direction, and we use that where—I hesitate to say 'uniformity'—consistency of practice is helpful. The directions are overwhelmingly consensual. The only time I have felt it necessary to say, 'Look, this is a direction', was in the COVID environment, where we set a direction of maximum number of electors per polling station. And, even there, there was a procedure for exemptions to be granted where turnout was traditionally very low, for example. But, generally, the power of direction is there to assist and to clarify rather than to be directive.

Okay. Thank you very much for that, Malcolm. You've also said that the board in Scotland would only make directions following consultation, and you've mentioned the exceptional circumstances, really, of COVID. Would there be any other examples that you could give committee as to when that direction-making power has been used? And, when it is used, are there any common issues that tend to arise?

There's no dissent. I've never had dissent from directions and, generally, that's because we will consult about them far enough in advance. For instance, directions about the official mark about the date of dispatch of poll cards, postal ballot packs, information in the count centre, all these things can readily be agreed and they're helpful to everybody. And they're helpful, of course, to suppliers as well. It also means—and this has been an issue in Scotland in the past; I don't know if it has with you—the EMB co-ordinates the arrangements with Royal Mail for the polling day sweep of sorting offices. There had been instances of late delivery of ballot papers, so we co-ordinate that for returning officers.

But, no, we haven't met with any dissent. We even agreed a script for declaration of results last time, because there was a feeling that there was quite a bit of variation and that it would be helpful to have an agreed script. So, even that, which people might see as personal to the returning officer, was readily agreed. As always, it depends how well you consult and what the relationships are with the electoral community, I think.

10:05

[Inaudible.]—community where, obviously, people know each other, and I guess some people have been in position for a number of years and relationships are well established.

Yes, although turnover is high now among chief executives, who are generally returning officers—not all returning officers are chief executives, but that's usually the case—and the turnover in Scottish local government at the moment is quite high.

Is that quite a recent development, Malcolm, that that turnover is higher than it's been in the past?

Yes, I would say so. I think it just reflects the funding position, amongst other things, for local government and general what I might call 'unsettledness' in the political sphere.

So, does that have any particular implications, then, for the operation of the electoral management board and the way that things work, in the way that you've described them?

Yes, it does. I think our role of assisting and promoting best practice is moving more to very practical assistance, inevitably, as numbers employed in local government fall, with the turnover at a senior level. Experience goes and numbers are small anyway in the election teams, and we are asked more and more to help out, and we have, on a couple of occasions, arranged, for example, for retired deputy returning officers to come back to assist a council whose team is a bit threadbare. I anticipate that growing, and that is certainly an area on which, I'm advised, the Scottish Parliament is going to be a key focus for the board. Now that we're through the COVID period, we're likely to have a UK parliamentary election next year, of course. After that, there should be a fallow year, and I intend to use that year for consolidation of the assistance we provide.

I see. Okay. Could you just tell us, as well, if a returning officer was to disagree with a direction from the board, what action could the board take? Is there a particular procedure for dealing with that potential eventuality?

I would certainly use all means possible to persuade the returning officer to comply with the direction. But failure to comply with a direction, I think, would be a matter that the Electoral Commission would, in time, have to take a view on, as the regulator on electoral practice.

Yes, I see. Finally from me, before we move on to other committee members, Malcolm, I wonder if you could set out your views on the importance of the independence of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, and the steps you take to ensure that that independence is maintained.

That is an absolutely critical part—it's absolutely fundamental that there is no, obviously, political control, or perceived political control of those who are charged with administering elections. Hence we are, as a board, accountable to the Parliament at Holyrood. That is, I have to say, fairly light touch. We submit an annual report, and that's generally received without comment, but we are asked to speak to the parliamentary committees, as you can imagine, from time to time, and they will often pick up matters in our annual report, even if that's not the direct subject of the inquiry. So, our relationship with the Parliament is close. We are, of course, funded through Scottish Government, we're accountable to the Parliament for how spend that money, and that's pretty critical.

I have to say there has been great respect from all political parties and from Government about the independence of the board, and we have never been the subject of any undue pressure to opine one way or the other. That's absolutely critical, and it's essential, of course, that we demonstrate that independence, as well as exercising it.

10:10

Okay. Just one quick supplementary: could you explain how the resource and budget allocation works for the management board in Scotland?

Yes, we receive—. The board, at the moment, although this will change, I think, is not a legal entity in the sense of contracting. It's a statutory body, but it's not a legal entity. So, I am an employee of another council, of course, and chief executive in Western Isles. The secretary, who is a returning officer, is employed by the City of Edinburgh Council. So, the money that Government provides is really to allow for his secondment to the work of the board and such other minor expenses as we have. We're a very best value service, I would submit. The budget is only about £200,000, and that includes, of course, the production of materials, advice, running our annual conference jointly with the Electoral Commission, all of these things. It comes to us through the elections team at Scottish Government, but, as I've said, we're accountable to the Parliament as to how we spend that money.

Okay, thank you very much, Malcolm. We'll move on, then, to another committee member, Sam Rowlands. Sam. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, John. Good morning, Malcolm, thank you for joining us here today. It's appreciated. The Bill that we're scrutinising places a duty on the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru, which is a Welsh Government-sponsored body, and it's the duty on them to establish the EMB here in Wales. I'm just wondering what your views are on the commission creating that body and on the EMB sitting within the commission itself.  

I have to be circumspect here, of course, because that is a policy matter for yourselves. I'm interested in the link within the boundary commission, or the democracy and boundary commission. The boundary commission, or Boundaries Scotland as it is now, is an adviser to the EMB. We're not part of that structure. Objectively, I wouldn't see any particular reason why an electoral management board should be linked with the boundary commission in particular, although they do perform politically neutral functions on a basis of accountability to the Parliament, so there are parallels. I don't objectively see why those should be linked, but that is a policy matter for yourselves.

What is critical is the independence. What is critical is that those who are charged with assisting with the delivery of elections, supporting the electoral community and, of course, for issuing directions are seen to be absolutely independent of the political process. That is the standard, I think, that should be used in assessing the proposal.

Thanks for that. I absolutely accept that, ultimately, it is a decision for Parliament what happens here. I guess I'm trying to just pick away at your experience and observations in Scotland as to how these things could work, and I agree with you in terms of the independence, and one of the concerns that other witnesses have raised through our proceedings has been the risk of that independence not being there with the democracy and boundary commission being funded by Welsh Government—similar to yourselves, though, I suppose. So, I just wonder if you could expand on that a little further, about how you’re able to demonstrate that independence that you have, and how perhaps the EMB when it’s established here in Wales could learn from what practices you’ve undertaken to make clear that independence.

10:15

Yes. It's an important question. The independence is demonstrated, I think, by action. I mean, you have to be functioning to demonstrate anything, that's clear, and it will be for the new board to demonstrate its independence, very clearly. But, structurally, that is done, I think, by making sure that the board is inclusive in the advice it takes, by which I mean it should choose its advisers carefully: there will be Welsh Government no doubt, there will be UK Government, there will be the boundaries commission itself, there will be the ERO bodies, there will be the Association of Electoral Administrators; I dare say there will be the equivalents of the various bodies we have in Scotland too that support the electoral process. So, part of that is not just the board itself, but those from whom it takes advice, how it deals with that advice, how it demonstrates its independence. But critically for us is the accountability to the Parliament and to cross-party committees not unlike your own. We are accountable to the Parliament, and that's a very important safeguard, as it were, for me. I think that is the primary demonstration of independence.

Thank you. And on that point, can I just understand that a little bit further? So, that accountability to the Parliament, could you help me understand what that looks like? So, is that an annual sitting in front of a committee? I know you mentioned the report that you submit; perhaps there's an opportunity for parliamentarians to respond to that.

And then, perhaps further to that, I wonder whether you think, whilst that accountability exists, to improve things there should be any changes in those accountability arrangements that you think would make things even better from your perspective.

I'm keen personally that the EMB have a legal status. I think that is important, and that shows a maturing of the position of the EMB within the electoral structure in Scotland, but those comments may apply only to Scotland, I suppose.

The relationship with the Parliament is very important to me, because we are primarily advisers; we support, we advise, we try to ensure that the voter is placed at the centre of events, and who better can support that process than the Parliament itself?

Our work is around consistency, accessibility, integrity. We have a strapline of

'to deliver a result that will be trusted as accurate'.

I think, these days, you have to say it's to deliver a result that will be trusted by all reasonable people as accurate. [Laughter.]

But, to focus on your question, how does that accountability work in practice? Through the written evidence we give. We are called on, I would say, about half a dozen times in the year—depending on the business—to give views, to give evidence. That will usually be followed up with a request to appear at the committee in person and either I or the secretary to the EMB will do that.

The annual report is generally received in respectful silence, but, as I think I said earlier, it comes back—we're not called in to talk about the annual report, but it does filter into the evidence sessions quite strongly. And, of course, there is an electoral reform Bill coming before the Scottish Parliament next year. We'll be heavily involved in the Parliament's consideration of that. So, it's largely through that written and oral evidence, but it's fair to say that Parliament takes an interest in what the EMB does and what the EMB says, and that's very important.

A particular example—sorry to go on so long—was in the emergency Bill we did for the running of elections during the COVID period, and that was a very active involvement with the Parliament as well as with the Minister and all political parties in Scotland. Sorry for the long answer.

10:20

No, no, that's fine—trying to get the details is really, really helpful, so, thank you for that. So, if I was to get this right then: so, there's an annual report and there is opportunity for regular, written evidence as and when it's presented to you and then those opportunities also are in person, as and when it's required. I'm sure we could just find this out, but, perhaps, whilst you're here, in terms of which committee you would usually appear in front of, is there a specific committee usually, or does it vary, depending on the type of evidence required?

It depends on the subject matter. There is a standards and related matters committee—it's got a very unexciting title, but it deals with what you might call the minutiae of electoral administration. But there is also the local government committee, and sometimes the Finance and Public Administration Committee will want a view as well. So, it can be—. We don't have a home base as it were, except for the annual report.

Yes, thank you. Can I just ask a further question, Chair—is that okay? 

Thanks. So, just a slightly different point now, which is in relation to electoral pilots: the Bill that we're scrutinising would give the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru, hosting the electoral management board, duties in the evaluation of electoral pilots. Do you in Scotland have a similar role in that? And then, perhaps a supplementary to that: what are your views on the EMB having this power?

I'm very keen on that power and, indeed, I have asked Scottish Ministers to add that to our own forthcoming electoral reform Bill. I think it's a very valuable power. Again, it should be exercised consensually and with the electoral community. But I think, given the opportunity—. And I've looked at other provisions in your Bill about registration, about increasing turnout and increasing registration, at looking at different methods of voting, and, of course, looking at protecting the voting process as well in these days of cyber incidents all over the place. I'm very keen that we look at pilots. And Scotland has, probably like Wales, such a variety of areas—some remote, rural, urban, semi-urban—for trialling different methods of voting, and indeed counting. So, I'm very keen on that power, not just for the EMB, of course, but I think the EMB is a promoter of good practice and, as a voter-focused body, should also have that power to promote pilots.

Thanks, Chair. You got through the questions quicker than I expected there. So, how does the EMBS interact with the Electoral Commission?

Very well—closely, and we bear in mind the different roles, of course. The cliché would be the three-legged stool: the Parliament legislates, the EC regulates and the EMB promotes the good administration of elections. We always have a debate with the Electoral Commission—a very friendly debate—about the production of guidance: is guidance for the administrators to do or is that for the regulator to do? It doesn't really matter in Scotland at the moment, because the guidance that the Electoral Commission produces—and it has quite significant resources to do that—is often developed and applied following discussion with the EMB. So, it's a pretty consensual relationship. We work very well with the head of office in Scotland, and I know he, of course, consults with the head of office in Wales and the north of Ireland and elsewhere. So, there's a lot of experience that comes from working closely with the Electoral Commission, and it's a good, productive relationship. But there are different roles, and that always has to be borne in mind. 

10:25

Thank you. How does the EMBS—what role does it have in the co-ordination of UK parliamentary elections, and how does it differ from the role in devolved elections in Scotland?

Significantly in law and increasingly less significantly in practice, the EMB in Scotland has no jurisdiction with UK elections at all, but our colleagues have always almost presumed that we do. So, while I don't issue any directions in relation to UK Parliament elections, we have, again by wish and consensus, issued recommendations—and they're no more than that. And the recommendations can look very like the directions that would be issued for a Scottish Parliament or Scottish local government election. And, again, there's a wish for that clarity and consistency, where we believe that's efficient for administrators and is in the interests of the voter. So, you wouldn't perhaps notice much of a difference but we don't have any responsibility in relation to UK elections, but our role in supporting the electoral community, of course, applies to UK Parliament elections and, in the old days, to European Parliament elections as well. 

What challenges have you faced over the last year, and what lessons could a newly formed electoral management board in Wales take on board from you?

Well, that's a—. I don't want to praise the electoral management board here because I'm the convenor of it, but I think the feedback from the electoral community in Scotland over the years has consistently been to the effect that electoral management without the EMB would be very, very difficult indeed. And it was set up for a purpose. It was set up to co-ordinate and support, and its esteem, if I can put it that way, has grown across the political spectrum and within the communities it serves. What advice would I give? Be inclusive, work with everybody, remember that the voter is the focus of all this. The EMB is not a voter-facing organisation, you won't see our logo or anything like that in a polling station, but we are a voter-focused organisation, and that is what matters at the end of the day, that the focus is the voter and that they have confidence in the process. 

We support returning officers and electoral registration officers, but we don't replace them. It's for them to deliver on the ground. So, it's that mutual respect within the electoral community that's important. But there's a reason for having an electoral management board, in Wales I'm sure as well as in Scotland, and it's a model I commend, because it brings the right people together at the right time. The curse of elections in the old days was that things were rushed. We ran an election and then we all stopped and we didn't analyse sufficiently—I'm going a way back here—until the next election came along. And I'm not saying it's because of the EMB by any means, but the administration of elections in Scotland since its formation has been externally assessed as being good, and I genuinely think the EMB is a big part of that. 

You said earlier that resources can sometimes be an issue. You're seconded into the role, aren't you, so your still a chief exec?

Well, I think we will address this in the electoral reform Bill. My position is entirely unpaid and voluntary. I sometimes joke that if my council knew how much time I spent on the work of the EMB—. I'm very fortunate to have a tolerant council. And personally, I don't think that can continue, because that, at times, is a lot of work, even as convener, and we need a couple of permanent staff. I always say to Ministers here, I'm not looking for a brass plaque in the New Town of Edinburgh, nor am I looking for an army of staff, but we need to be adequately resourced. Scottish Government, though, I must say, has always given us—. If we've said we need a certain resource for production of materials—we're doing a lot of work on accessibility at the moment for voters with particular issues—you know, they have always been forthcoming. So, it is the structure that needs to be—and the place of the EMB as a legal entity—that needs to be looked at, rather than any—. I can't complain about the resource that we've been allocated, but, yes, we need to know what that is on more than a one-year basis.

10:30

Okay. Malcolm, thank you very much for giving evidence—[Interruption.] Sorry, Joel. Joel.

Thank you, Chair, and thanks ever so much, Malcolm, for coming in online, as they say. I just want to ask a quick question—

Yes, I'm sorry I can't be with you in person.

No worries, no worries at all. I just wanted to ask a quick question based on your responses to Carolyn there, then. You mentioned then that, sort of, electoral life in Scotland would be a bit difficult if the EMB didn't exist there, and I just wanted to get some ideas there, because, you know, the EMB came about because of one of the recommendations in the Gould report, and that followed the Scottish elections in 2007, where there were about 146,000 discounted votes; so, that's a phenomenal amount of spoilt ballots there. We don't necessarily have that issue in Wales at the moment, though it's a concern of mine with this reform that we could see things like that. Is there a need for an EMB, if that makes sense? You know, because other countries don't have one, Scotland existed perfectly fine before it, until 2007, if that makes sense, and I just want to get your views on that, if I could.

Well, I would say there is, and I would give a particular example, perhaps about the complexity of elections. Now, we run local government elections through the single transferable vote method; that requires e-counting, it requires—. That's a significant project in determining the specification for the contract, the tendering process, the awarding of the contract, the monitoring of the contractor, taking into account that there are 32 centres for this—of course, the contractors would want there to be one big warehouse in the middle of Scotland where everybody's votes were sent, but that's not local democracy. So, there's a lot of work in that, and I think 32 returning officers and 32 councils would find it difficult to do that procurement on as best value a basis as a national board; so, there's a practical example there. But, of course, you can count single transferable votes manually, it just takes a long time—it would probably take about two to three days—but that's perhaps one practical example.

The other one is the guidance that's produced, and I would venture to say that experience of elections and longevity of service in local government now is not what it was, and experience has gone out the door, electoral teams are reducing and the financial position for the public sector in Scotland is not terribly good, and it is exactly, of course, the old administration, legal services, corporate services that provide electoral support that, of course, have been reduced, but, I would say, to protect the provision of more personal front-line services. So, the support that we provide, the reassurance we provide, as well as the guidance, just would not be there. And I think that it's not the case of going to your neighbour returning officer and saying, 'Help me out.' That person may well have no capacity or may well not have an any more experienced team, so I would suggest one could do without an EMB, no doubt, but I do think it adds significant value to the electoral community.

Perfect, thanks for that. Also, we heard in previous evidence sessions, and you touched upon it there, about that loss of experience. Obviously, prior to you coming in online there, we had, basically, the boundary commission in person, talking about their expanded role. They've also highlighted that one of the reasons why they want EMB within their fold is because they lack the expertise, and there's also a concern there that it will take some time for it to be bedded in, or whatever. Is there a concern, then, that maybe the Welsh Government might be rushing into this, because this is all tied in with other legislation that the Welsh Government are doing, and could we see issues like you had then in 2007 happen here, with all this legislation coming in and the changing of the voting, because we're debating how we elect ourselves as well? I just wanted to have your views on that, then.

10:35

What I would say is that careful planning and realistic timescales are absolutely essential. One of the main things Ron Gould said after our 2007 experience was that rules should be there at least six months before an electoral event. That, in my view, is a minimum, if these are substantial changes to rules. That's where the EMB can help. The EMB has the capacity, or should have the capacity, to look ahead, to identify issues from, in our case, 32 council areas across Scotland, record these issues, do the co-ordination with the commission, with the two Governments, with anyone else, as to dealing with issues and how matters can be improved for the next election. That's a key role, and I know you're looking at quite significant changes. My strong advice would be to begin that work even before there's an EMB. You will note from my written evidence that there was a pre EMB in Scotland from about 2009 until it was established in 2011, and that was because it was recognised that 2007 was not the finest hour, and we were doing that because it was the obvious thing, as good administrators, for us to do. So, don't delay, because changes, particularly at a time of reduced resources—that's when things can go wrong if everybody isn't clear, if there isn't time, if there isn't a bit of training, if there isn't a bit of familiarity before the electoral event happens. Again, sorry for the long answer. I talk too much, as you can see.

No, no, no worries at all. It's been absolutely fascinating. That's it from me, Chair.

Okay, thanks, Joel. Not at all, Malcolm. Thank you very much for your evidence to committee today. It's much appreciated. Thank you for joining us. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.

That's fine. Thank you very much.

Mòran taing.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:38 a 10:40.

The meeting adjourned between 10:38 and 10:40.

10:40
4. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn dystiolaeth 8
4. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence session 8

Item 4 on our agenda today is our eighth evidence-taking session with regard to the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill. I'm very pleased to welcome, joining us virtually, Professor Alistair Clark, professor of political science at Newcastle University. Welcome, Alistair. Thank you for joining the committee today.

Good morning.

Morning. Bore da. Perhaps I might begin with a couple of general questions. Firstly, very generally, what are your general reflections on the Bill?

The first thing to say is thank you very much for inviting me to give evidence. I think this is a very important Bill because it deals with issues of electoral infrastructure, which are often seen as back-office-type things. To my mind, it represents an important set of proposals to reform election administration and aspects of the electoral process in Wales, to modernise, for example, processes around automatic voter registration while also introducing new responsibilities, new structures around the running of elections with the electoral management board. I think Wales has very much been at the forefront of developments in this field in Britain, and I think, implemented effectively, this could provide a good example of how something such as automatic voter registration would operate more widely across the state. For Stage 1 scrutiny, my view is that the Bill's main principles, aims and measures are largely to be welcomed and supported.

Thank you very much for that, Alistair. We also, of course, have a Bill in the offing to change the way that the Senedd is elected, and increasing membership of the Senedd, the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. I wonder if you might offer a view, Alistair, on the interrelationship and the crossover between this Bill that we're scrutinising today in this session and that Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. What do you think the committee should be particularly aware of in terms of those interrelationships? 

I think it's difficult when you have such complex Bills before different committees. I understand why these two Bills have been separated out in the way that they have been. You can argue that the other Bill that's before the Reform Bill Committee about the size of the Senedd is arguably a more constitutional and first-order-nature Bill, to do with the size, obviously, of the institution, the electoral system and the like, whereas this one, I think, is the stuff that goes on in the back office: electoral administration and these sorts of things. In other words, things not immediately obvious to the public. So, I understand why they've been separated in the way that they have; that makes sense to me. The thing that struck me most when looking at both of the Bills is that there's a lot of content in both around the democracy and boundary commission, and my worry there is that there's a lot of complexity in both Bills around that particular body. I think that's something that's worth considering as a committee, and in conjunction with the Reform Bill Committee.

My wider concern, and I think this is maybe one for the committee to think about after the passage of these Bills, is actually the complexity of electoral law in Wales now. It's not just the Senedd Bill and the Bill that we're talking about today; there's a gender quotas Bill to come, and there have already been measures around resident voting and things of that sort in recent years as well. So, this has been quite a busy field for Wales. As I say, this is great, because, in many ways, there's innovation happening that I think is very welcome. But I think one of the big problems that we have—and this is at UK level, and not just at the Welsh level—is that electoral law is very complex, and I think there's maybe a need, after these Bills have been passed, to stand back and just think, 'Right. Is there a way of consolidating all of this into one electoral Act for Wales?' So, I think the democracy and boundary commission issue with the two Bills is what we're looking at in particular, but I think there's a need for a wider angle reflection after the passage of these two Bills as well.

10:45

Thanks very much. That's helpful. We'll move on to another committee member, Sam Rowlands. 

Thanks, Chair, and good morning, Professor Clark. I appreciate your time with us today. Just a few questions on the electoral management board proposals within the Bill. As I'm sure you noticed, the Bill does establish the EMB as part of the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru. We're clearly aware that it's a Welsh Government sponsored body. I was just wondering what your views are on that arrangement.

My view on that is reasonably clear. I think it's less than ideal, to be honest. I would prefer de jure independence, actual independence, not to be a delegated body of some other body, which itself is a Government sponsored body. I think this is problematical, and it's fairly clear to me, I think, from the explanatory notes, that independence wasn't really considered seriously as an option in this regard. That worries me, because there's a tendency to suspect government of trying to influence electoral matters. Whether this is right, wrong or whatever, there's a perception there that government tries to influence these things. What we've found from the international research literature is that electoral management bodies that have that independence from government, from other bodies, do actually go on to provide elections with more electoral integrity, they're more trusted by citizens. In essence, perceptions of how they actually operate and how they run elections tend to be more trustworthy and accepted. So, I would prefer an independent body rather than the delegated model that is currently in the Bill. 

It's also unclear to me under these circumstances what would happen were there a conflict of interest between the two bodies, for example. I don't know what that conflict of interest might be; it might be over setting deadlines for something, the dispatch of postal votes, or who knows—it could be for various things. Quite how that would be looked at were there an issue of a conflict between the two bodies is, I think, problematic. So, again, independence resolves that issue. I think, again, the explanatory notes are interesting in this regard, because the text—I think they have this on page 81 or 82, something of that sort—says that the democracy and boundary commission will nominate one of its commissioners as chair of the EMB, and also a further commissioner to serve as a member of the EMB. That doesn't really equal an independent body. This, I think, is concerning—that the chair of the EMB wouldn't be coming from another particular body. So, my fairly strong view is that I would very much prefer independence. I think we've seen from Scotland how such an independent model can work and has worked well under some fairly trying circumstances in things such as the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. So I think there's a model there to be followed, and I think it works quite well.

10:50

Thank you for that. Your view is very clear, so thank you for giving that. In the Scottish model, of course, they are funded by the Scottish Government themselves, aren't they, to the tune of around £200,000 a year, and they argue their independence is then sought through being accountable to Parliament. Would you consider that to be a useful step for this body?

Yes. I think that is my preferred model for these sorts of organisations—to be responsible to Parliament, to be accountable to Parliament. Obviously, they're going to draw on Government funding and Government resources for equipment, procurement and those sorts of things, but to be independent and responsible to Parliament, I think, is the ideal model, to be honest. 

Thank you. Just moving away from that a little bit, but continuing to think about the electoral management board, the Bill looks to provide direction-making powers for the EMB. Do you have a view on that?

I don't have that much to say on this. I think it's good that those direction-making powers are in the Bill from the very start. They developed fairly gradually in Scotland due to how the legislation developed in many ways. To my mind, it's important that this has been recognised as an issue to begin with. I think it's important to be clear about what the Bill's powers of direction will be used for. To my mind, consistency of service to the elector is the fundamental issue that direction should be used for—so, councils have the same dispatch dates for postal votes, same deadlines, and those kinds of things. But to my mind, the power of direction is a very good idea, and it's welcome to see that in the Bill to begin with. 

Thank you. On this point on the EMB still, there is a proposed level of resource in the Bill. Do you think it's sufficient to deliver the functions provided to it?

It's difficult to say, because I think the notes are a bit opaque in how the form of the electoral management board will work. The basis for those cost estimates, if I've understood that correctly, is what the Scottish EMB have budgeted for, and for their functions and for how they operate. On the one hand, you might argue that the Welsh EMB might actually, because it's dealing with a smaller electorate, need a little bit less resource. But on the other hand, it's going to have increased responsibilities—we have new electoral laws coming in, as we've already discussed, a new electoral system to help manage, and so on, the implementation of automatic voter registration, the voter information website, and, arguably, even managing the inevitable fallout from UK Government legislation and the Elections Act 2022, things of that sort. So, there are a lot of pressures pointing in the opposite direction, I think, in terms of needing more resource. 

I think I would say three things. I think they've budgeted around about £130,000 a year, plus £10,000 in pre-election years. So, given that we're almost always in a pre-election year nowadays, that's roughly £140,000. That might seem a lot, but it's important to bear in mind that, first of all, that's helping guarantee the consistency of voting rights for all Welsh citizens and residents. So, in that context, it doesn't seem that much. Having said that, the Scottish EMB have always, in their reports every two or three years, highlighted issues about resource constraints and things of that sort. So, they would clearly like a bit more. 

But it's also worth thinking about this—. I always find, when we're thinking about electoral budgeting, that it's necessary not just to think about the whole raw figure, the total figure—that's important, of course it is—but also to think about this in terms of how much that implies per elector. Now, if you assume a Welsh electorate of—this is a figure from the Office for National Statistics—around 2.3 million or thereabouts, the cost of the EMB is only going to be something like 6p being spent per elector. If you add to that the voter information system that's coming in and will likely be the responsibility of the EMB, that's another 7p. So, we're talking about 13p per elector being spent. That doesn't seem that much to me. I think it's probably reasonably good value for money. 

10:55

Okay. Thank you. That's an interesting way of breaking it down. It's probably slightly less good value for money than the Scottish model, though, if you did it per elector, I suppose. But, yes, that's one way to look at it. Thank you. 

Just if I may, Chair, move on to another topic—.

Just on electoral registration without application, clearly it's quite a significant part of the Bill in here. I just wondered what challenges you think the Welsh Government might face when piloting electoral registration without application, as provided for in the Bill.

I think this is a really significant change. As I've already said, potentially it can show the way to the rest of the UK on these things. I think it broadly simplifies things. We've found in research that we've done that the biggest problem in polling stations is voters being turned away as they're not registered or there's been a problem with their registration. So, this should, hopefully, help deal with that. 

The difficulties I think that are going to be faced are things such as—. Well, the Electoral Commission talks about this in terms of completeness and accuracy. I think completeness the introduction of the new system very much helps with; I think accuracy is something that's always going to need to be kept on top of. So, I think there's the potential for duplicate entries, say if someone has moved or has two properties or addresses or something of that sort. So, there's going to be a need to keep that up to date, to keep cleaning the register to make sure that those kinds of issues are up to date. 

I think there are more back-office things as well that might be worth thinking about. For example, it's often not appreciated that there are often private contractors delivering IT systems to electoral services departments for electoral registration, and the ability of those contractors, those electoral management system contractors, to deliver on time and the costs that are involved in delivering this system seem to me to be largely unquantified in the explanatory note, and we don't really know much about how these operators work to begin with. So, I think that's something that is going to need a bit of careful disentangling. Of course, there'll be contracts to be negotiated and so on. 

What else? There's going to need to be a process of what's known as data mining in order to try and keep the register up to date. In other words, trying to exploit other Government databases—and these may be Welsh Government databases, they may be UK Government databases as well. And the ability of the relevant departments, whether these are councils or there's going to be a Welsh Government department doing this, to do that data mining, I think is—. It's quite technical to do, so there is going to need to be resource capacity there to make sure that that can be done. Related to that, I think, is making sure that there is access to the relevant databases. The Department for Work and Pensions database is one that often comes up in this regard. So, I think making sure that all the data-sharing agreements and things of that sort that are likely to be necessary are in place, I think, will probably be important. 

I wondered also if there's a kind of economy of scale vis-à-vis UK level electoral registration practices here; in other words, what's happening in Wales actually shows the way to the UK Government practice. It seems to me that there's a relationship between the two, and, actually, UK-level registration in Wales—parliamentary registration in Wales for the UK Parliament—might actually benefit from the automatic voter registration initiative. So, I do wonder if there's a benefit in there. There are challenges, certainly, but there's also a benefit to electoral registration processes more widely, for other institutions as well, from this.

11:00

Okay. Thank you. There's plenty there to chew over. Just going back to that accuracy point: how do you think the Welsh Government can ensure that electoral registers are accurately maintained under the electoral registration without application system?

It requires fairly constant monitoring of the applicable databases. I've already mentioned the Department for Work and Pensions as one potential source—they have all the national insurance data and things of that sort—but it also encompasses things such as council tax registers from local authorities, and various others. These are likely to be held by different government departments, so it's going to be important that the relevant processes for co-operation, for data sharing, for data mining are very clearly in place.

There's also a question about how often this process is conducted, whether this is a process that's just ongoing, that it's one of these things that might actually be conducted weekly, monthly, or maybe on a different frequency. I think that needs to be thought through a little bit as well, and it's not entirely clear to me how that process would be conducted. Now, it may well be that there are discussions around this already, but I think those issues around frequency are certainly important ones. I think the fundamental difficulty here is we don't have a population register or anything of that sort, which is what necessitates all this data mining, and which countries that do have automatic registration can rely on to begin with. We don't have that, so it's necessarily a more complex process because of that.

Thanks. And you haven't perhaps touched on—. And perhaps it's the way I've framed the questions, but witnesses on this issue have talked about the potential for confusion for the electors themselves—those elections that are Welsh responsibility versus elections that are UK responsibility. I was just wondering if you have a view on the risk of that, with two different potential systems in place for registration.

Yes, I understand that issue. It's not just an issue in Wales; it's also an issue in Scotland as well. And in part, this is kind of what I'm alluding to when I suggest that, actually, the UK system might actually benefit from what's happening with the implementation of automatic voter registration in Wales. The potential for confusion, I think, is quite simply that they then assume, voters then assume, that, 'Well, we're registered in Wales, therefore we are registered for UK Parliament elections', without realising that they actually have to go and apply for that to begin with. Now, I think this is a potential complication, but, again, I think it can be relatively easily resolved by reminders. There is an annual canvass system under UK-level registration legislation, which continues, I believe, even despite the implementation of automatic registration in Wales. So, that would continue.

I think this is also, usefully, the kind of thing that the voter information website could contain information on as well. I don't really see any reason why communications from the Welsh Government couldn't—or the UK Government, for that matter—mention this in things as well. I think this is an underused source of knowledge about electoral rights—when Government writes to you, mentioning, 'By the way, have you registered for UK Parliament elections?' or whatever.

11:05

Okay. Thank you. And just a final point from me on the registration without application: the Bill suggests a 45-day window to request anonymous registration. I just wonder what you think the risk may be of electors missing that window, those 45 days, and how the Welsh Government may be able to help mitigate this risk, and particularly thinking about any vulnerable electors and how they may be best protected as part of this process.

Sure. This is a kind of angle, vulnerable electors, that—. I'm really not an expert in the sorts of challenges that they might face. My view is that there is a risk, for the simple reason that there's always a risk with deadlines in the electoral process that people will miss it, because people tend not to pay attention until very close to the election. So, if there are deadlines, then there's always the potential that they're missed. My general view, in thinking about this, is that the vulnerability probably means that it's harder for them to fit within specifically and fairly narrowly defined election windows. My sense would be to err on the side of permissiveness here, and to flexibility towards deadlines. And while electoral administrators, I'm sure, might complain about an extra workload from this—I'm fairly sure they would—I would think that the numbers are insufficient to cause major difficulties. So, I'd probably err on the side of flexibility here. But I'd just reiterate that I'm not an expert in the challenges that vulnerable groups might face, so I'd maybe take advice from relevant volunteer charities that deal with these groups as well.

Good morning. Just some questions on the online voter information platform, your views on that. So, it's not currently clear in the Bill who will be responsible for managing and maintaining the voter information platform. So, what do you think, or who do you think should be tasked with this, what sort of organisation? And how important is it that the organisation is independent from Welsh Government?

I think it's incredibly important that it's independent from the Welsh Government, for largely the same reasons that I've alluded to with EMB independence. There is always a fear out there nowadays, unfortunately, that Governments try to manipulate electoral processes—rightly or wrongly, that fear is out there and can take hold quite easily. So, independence of this site I think is important. There is an implication—. I agree the Bill's not clear on this, but there is an implication in the explanatory notes that this would be located with the EMB. I've no real problem with it being located with the EMB and the EMB running such a site, but with the qualifications I've already mentioned when we began speaking about EMB independence I think being really important here as well.

I think it's also important to recognise, if it was with the EMB, that it adds a second side of the coin to their responsibilities, which, up until then—. Although they'd be voter focused, they're not actually really dealing with voters, whereas, with a voter information website, they would be dealing directly with voters and they would really need to think of that in what was published on the website. So, I can see a logic if it ended up being located with the EMB; I would have no real problem with that, if that was an independent body. If it's not, I would prefer some independent body to be involved in the running of this site. But I think it's an important development, something we've argued for very much in the past, and it's exciting to see this as part of the Bill.

Oh, definitely. Definitely. We've argued in a number of reports for both a voter information website like this and also for the implementation of automatic voter registration. So, I think both things in this Bill are very welcome to see. 

11:10

Okay. So, what sort of information do you think the platform should include? What are your views on including candidate statements? 

I think that I'd take a step back before we get to that, and just think about the fact that it needs to be engaging and easy to use for people. I think there's always a problem with websites that—. Yes, they can be difficult to use. And with this, I think what it needs to be is accessible to draw people in so that they can fairly easily find information. What it should include—really, a few different things. The first, I think, is key practical information on electoral administration that voters need to know. What are the deadlines for applying for, I don't know, postal votes, proxies or whatever other processes there are? How they might find their polling station, for instance. Is there a way of using information from councils about polling stations to help them with a polling station finder? It needs also, I think, to have a bit of information on how the electoral system works, whichever system that may be—if it's going to be the list or proportional representation that the Bill before the Reform Bill Committee is considering, for instance.

Now, I think on top of that, to come back to the specific thing you asked about candidate information, I think, where possible, that would be useful, yes. I think that would be very, very useful, and ideally the other thing I would add to that is to also have a place where post-election results can be aggregated both by constituency, however those are going to be defined, and also Wales-wide. Now, there's a possible tension here—. There are a couple of possible tensions here, I think. Firstly in reporting election results—how it's done at the moment and what returning officers do at the moment, which is basically only what's statutorily necessary. And I think this would need to go beyond that and make people interested in politics have an easier time in finding election results. 

In terms of candidate statements, I think the tension here is with the type of electoral system that's going to be used. If the party list system—the proportional closed list system that's being considered in the other Bill—goes ahead, then it's less clear to me what those individual candidates may actually be saying in such a statement, because their ranking would be quite simply down to party nomination processes, party candidate selection processes. Voters would actually have very little role in which candidates get elected. Voters' choice in that regard would revolve around which party they preferred, and that would effectively be it. However, if there was a different electoral system, there may be more to that, and you could have far more candidate information if it was the single transferrable vote, which I know has been considered by the expert panel that contributed to these discussions and so on. So, there's a tension there. This is one of those tensions. There's not necessarily an overlap between the two Bills, but there's a tension between what's proposed in them.

Now, a couple of important things, I think, with the website here. The worst thing I think there could be with such a website is that something just gets posted and doesn't get updated, or the website gets updated late, so people aren't getting their information as they really need it. Certainly, in the run-up to an election period, this is going to be needing to be an almost live, updated quickly resource for voters. The worst thing I think that it would be is something that's slow to be updated, and that implies a lack of responsiveness. So, voters need something that's accessible and is going to draw them in. It could have a lot of information on it that's useful to them, but it needs to be carefully handled in how it's published. 

11:15

That's what I was going to ask on next—how can we ensure the trustworthiness of the information, and who might contribute to such a regime of ensuring that trustworthiness?

Sure. I mean, I think again this has been going through my mind with some other stuff as well, and I know we're all a user or steering group. A user group I think is definitely something that would be useful, to advise on this. I reiterate that this really needs to be voter focused. Voters don't follow politics. They don't know the ins and outs of the political system. They need fairly straightforward, clear, simple information. Who could contribute to such a group? Obviously, some people technically oriented—web designers and so on. There'll be a need for careful awarding of contracts here, I think. But primarily, I think, voters for content testing, and particularly voters from normally under-represented groups—youth groups, retired persons groups, both of which have different challenges using online systems, for instance. Disability groups, academics to advise on the overall content of what it says about the political system, for instance. I think the media are also possibly important partners in this as well, because they will use this as a resource to find information. So, some sort of input from them as well. And there will be pressure, I would assume, from political parties to be part of any such steering group as well, which I think is fine, but I'd be very cautious about them having a dominant role in this. To reiterate, this must be voter focused. It's voters that it's there to serve, and I think we'd probably all agree that the main purpose of such a site is to get more voters engaged and to get them participating in elections to begin with. This would be an important way of doing so.

There has been concern from previous evidence sessions with the Welsh Local Government Association and EMB about them managing it, being it charged, and maybe monitoring it as well. I think there are real concerns about the monitoring of information and the trustworthiness of it, really, so—. 

This is why I took time to highlight the issue of responsiveness and so on, and the type of information that's up there. Because it doesn't necessarily need to be all bells and whistles, completely interactive and so on, but it does need to be accessible, it does need to be clear, and it does need to draw voters in. Now, if EMBs or others are saying that this is going to be something that's difficult to do, then I think a lot of pressure then goes on to the awarding of whatever contract there is in this regard, and potentially the EMB or whichever body runs it having to add additional expertise to do so. But to repeat, I think the worst possible thing would be something that doesn't get updated, that's not accessible and that voters ultimately don't use. I think if that were the case, that would be very much a missed opportunity, and I think this is why some sort of user group that particularly emphasises voters, and particularly under-represented groups who may have issues with the electoral system and online systems and so on to begin with, is absolutely crucial. 

Thank you, Chair, and thanks ever so much for coming in—well, coming in online—this morning. Sorry, I keep saying that. I just wanted to ask a few questions about electoral piloting powers. In your written evidence you mention about the constant need for the introduction of potential electoral reforms. Why? If that makes sense, why is there a constant need?

Because processes evolve. Because what might be acceptable evolves. It may be that electoral administration is, in many ways, beginning to be outdated. I mean, the roots of electoral law in the United Kingdom go back to the Victorian period, unfortunately, and various representation of the people Acts throughout the many years—indeed, I think it's about four decades or so since major work on that has been done, which is, kind of, why I highlighted that complexity issue earlier on.

But I think there's a need always to be thinking about, 'Can we do things better?', and I think the issue around pilots is, actually, if they're going to be implemented, to be clear about why they're being implemented to begin with. And this is not just having a pilot for pilot's sake about whatever it happens to be, but to be clear about what the problem that's trying to be solved is. So, again, I would assume that most people would like turnout to be higher and for there to be more engagement in electoral politics. Now, that kind of thing, maybe, and, indeed, I know this has been trialled in Wales to some degree by various means of advance voting or different voting techniques, for instance—. It may be that the pilots are behind the scenes type of things rather than necessarily voter-focused things, so to do with processes around electoral administration or those kinds of things; things to do with, maybe, candidate nomination processes, for example. I mean, could they be done in a more useful way online? Are there any ways of easing those, particularly in light of the process that we went through a couple of years ago for the pandemic and the changes around that for the 2021 elections?

So, you know, those are the reasons why I think there's a constant need to be thinking about these things. But it's important to be clear that you need to know what the objective is to begin with. It's not just a case of having a pilot for pilot's sake. 

11:20

Perfect. Thanks ever so much for that clarification, and I'm quite grateful you said that about not having a pilot for pilot's sake, because that's the concern that I have with this. And we've seen a couple of pilots recently that the Welsh Government launched to try and increase voter engagement and voter turnout, and they've just not hit the mark, as they say. You know, we had the flexible pilots leading up to the 2022 local elections and, honestly, I'm reminded of Edmund Burke here in the sense of 'to innovate is not to reform'.

If we look at the UK general election, it consistently has higher turnouts and it's just a simple method of voting—first-past-the-post and everything. And, obviously, there are criticisms with that process, but people understand that. And the issue here, then, is when we're piloting different voting mechanisms and that, it would just lead to more voter confusion, more detachment from the process, I suppose.

But you mentioned there, briefly, about the pilots that could happen behind the scenes. I just wondered if you could go a bit more into detail about that, if you could, so what would be your Christmas list, if that makes sense, of the pilots? What do you think we should be looking at?