Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 112 - 119)



  Q112  Chairman: Good morning and welcome to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Could you begin by introducing yourselves please?

  Mr Mathias: My name is Glyn Mathias, and I am Electoral Commissioner for Wales.

  Ms Jenkins: I am Kay Jenkins, Head of the Wales Office in the Electoral Commission.

  Q113  Chairman: Could we begin by examining the role of the Electoral Commission. Could you tell us whether the Government has a statutory duty to consult with you with regard to the proposed changes to the electoral system?

  Mr Mathias: No, there is no statutory obligation on the part of the Government to consult us. The powers which are given to us under Section 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act do give us the power to comment on electoral issues where we think it is appropriate. Perhaps it is useful to describe our role in the electoral process in Wales. We did produce a statutory report on the December 2003 Assembly elections which included widespread research into public attitudes, which is particularly relevant to this discussion. In addition, the Welsh Assembly Government asked us to report on the combined elections of 2004, and one of the recommendations we have made and is now being implemented is the establishment of an Elections Planning group to co-ordinate the planning of elections across Wales, in which we are actively involved and my colleague Kay is represented on that group. So we are actively involved on a continuous basis in the electoral process in Wales. That is perhaps more relevant than the statutory basis which you are asking about in commenting on this particular situation.

  Q114  Chairman: Can I thank you for the evidence that you have provided us with. In particular in paragraph 16 you stated: "Our priority is that electoral arrangements should create the best possible conditions for political parties and candidates to engage with the electorate." Based on this point of your criteria is there a case for reform to the electoral arrangements for elections to the National Assembly for Wales?

  Mr Mathias: We have looked at the particular proposal in the White Paper for a ban on dual candidacy really from the point of view of the voter and public confidence in the electoral process. I entirely understand the tensions that exist between list Members and constituency Members of the Assembly and I entirely understand that Clwyd West is not perhaps the best example of how the AMS system works. However, there is a serious danger that an attempt to resolve one particular anomaly or injustice will actually serve to create other anomalies and injustices and that is the basis really of the conclusion we have come to. There are about 30 other countries around the world which have additional Member systems as their electoral system. No other country currently bans dual candidacy on the lines of the proposal in the White Paper. We therefore feel that reasons for going down this road have to be more compelling than if there were those other examples. If you are going to operate outside international democratic norms then you have to have particularly compelling reasons to do so. We carried out extensive public research, as I described, for our statutory report for the 2003 elections. This issue did not figure in that research. We asked a whole series of questions and sought unprompted replies and this issue did not arise. I think also, as you heard partly in the last discussion, that the ban is perceived widely as disadvantageous to opposition parties in its effect if not its intention. It is likely to favour incumbents in constituencies because opposition parties basically have to choose where to put some of their best candidates, whether in constituencies or on the list, and therefore they may have to put weaker candidates in constituencies and that is likely to favour incumbents. It is perceived, rightly or wrongly across the political spectrum, as partisan and there is a danger that if it is perceived as partisan it might undermine public confidence in the process. Above all, what concerns us is that there is no evidence whatever in the White Paper to back up this proposal. There is no evidence at all to back up this proposal and therefore we came to the conclusion that we do not think the case for change has been made.

  Chairman: Stephen Crabb?

  Mr Crabb: I think Mr Mathias has just covered the question I was going to ask, thank you.

  David Davies: Yes, I was going to ask you about the advantages and disadvantages but you seem to have outlined them very well. I can only echo what you say that it is seen as partisan. Certainly as somebody who is stepping down from the Welsh Assembly (and therefore I have no further interest in it personally) I think it is completely partisan and I think it is an absolute disgrace, and many other people feel the same way, and that it is being done purely for political reasons.

  Chairman: Is that a question?

  Q115  David Davies: What do you think, Glyn?

  Mr Mathias: That is clearly not a comment I am going to make. I am sure the intentions are to resolve a particular problem. What we are pointing out is if you think it through as to what the net effects will be, other anomalies in the system will be created. If you look at Scotland in comparison with Wales and the Scottish Parliament in comparison with the Welsh Assembly, to take this particular example, in Scotland there are four Labour Assembly Members who are list Members including one of them a Minister in the Scottish Executive. This particular proposal for a ban on dual candidacy has therefore not arisen in Scotland. It has arisen in Wales partly because the divide between the constituency Members and the list Members runs straight along party lines. All Labour Members are constituency Members and the list Members are other political parties. It is that party political divide between constituency Members and list Members which has exacerbated the problem in Wales. It does not mean the additional Member system is inherently defective.

  Q116  Mrs James: I wanted to take you back to your comment about extensive public research. Could you give us some background on that, the demographic breakdown, who undertook it for you?

  Ms Jenkins: Yes, I can fill you in on that. We have conducted quite a lot of research across Wales. Before the National Assembly election in late 2002/early 2003 we published Wales Votes, which was looking at the likelihood of people voting at the Assembly election and probing voter attitudes towards the National Assembly, and that was based on focus groups conducted across Wales and, in fact, one of those was in the Clwyd West constituency. What we found from that research was the most compelling issue emerging was the public information deficit about public understanding about what the Assembly's powers and responsibilities were. Immediately following the election we conducted public opinion research, a sample of thousand adults across Wales which is the recognised statistically valid sample. We had another series of focus groups across Wales probing voter attitudes to try and get under the skin of what people felt about voting. As Glyn mentioned earlier, we had unprompted questions during that research so that if we were not asking the right question about what made people vote or not vote they had the opportunity to raise issues, so if dual candidacy was an issue for voters it could have emerged during any of that research. In addition to that, we had constituency observations in about ten constituencies at the National Assembly elections where we had commissioners and our own staff on the ground in constituencies talking to party activists, voters and so on. Again, we actually had somebody in Clwyd West by coincidence and it was not something that came up there. We had a post election seminar where we had people from across the political spectrum. Anybody who has anything to do with elections in Wales was at that seminar—political commentators, media, academics and so on. It was not an issue that emerged around election time at all. We also have a huge amount of public correspondence and public inquiries with our office. As you can imagine, people write to us on any electoral subject they care to raise, and it is not something that has emerged during that research. Again, we reported on the 2004 elections in Wales, the local elections and European Parliament election. We have had audits of political engagement across Great Britain in between elections, where again we probe voter attitudes. So we have got a very extensive body of research on what makes people vote and not vote across Britain and particularly specifically in Wales, and it is on that basis that we say it is not an issue we could say that has ever been raised with us or that voters are clamouring to have resolved.

  Q117  Mrs James: I have never met anybody who has taken part in this research. Certainly there has not been huge interest in coming to ask the people of Swansea East. I am really concerned that you are getting to a variety of places.

  Ms Jenkins: Absolutely.

  Q118  Mrs James: I have been involved in focus research and believe you me the same people pop up every time.

  Ms Jenkins: Definitely because we make sure that we have our focus groups in a spread across Wales to reflect the geographical and political spectrum and also each time we have had focus groups we have had them in different places.

  Q119  Mrs James: Do you pay people for attending focus groups?

  Ms Jenkins: No, we do not. Our focus groups are done following a competitive tendering exercise. We use MORI or NOP or those types of people and the volunteers do not know they are coming to a focus group with the Electoral Commission. They know it is going to be a focus group about elections and they are not paid.

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