Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Mr Martyn Jones: Did the Commission's research not pick up any indication of voter confusion about what additional Members are?

  Ms Jenkins: It certainly picked up voter confusion about the electoral system, that is undoubtedly the case.

  Q121  Mr Martyn Jones: I thought it might be.

  Ms Jenkins: People do not understand the electoral system and how people are elected. As you know, many people working in elections do not understand it either. There is undoubtedly a level of voter confusion about the electoral system, but that does not impact on whether or not they vote, interestingly. The issue is getting people into the polling station. Once they are in the polling station they will vote whether or not they understand the electoral process.

  Q122  Mr Martyn Jones: That I am sure is correct but in this modified de Hondt system that we have in Wales there is an additional vote. Did any confusion come out about what the additional vote was for? Did they think they might have to vote for some other party? Did that not come out?

  Mr Mathias: I think it is true to say that the research revealed an element of ignorance that there were going to be two votes and indeed what they were supposed to do with the second vote, that is certainly the case. We were also asked specifically by the First Minister Rhodri Morgan to look at the issue of changing to one vote rather than two because people were so confused about it, if you like, and that was the rationale for us to look at it, that there was an element of confusion in the public mind. Indeed, if you went to one vote rather than two you would remove that element of confusion. On the other hand, the disadvantage would be that there was already a second vote, and a percentage of voters (we do not know how many) take advantage of that second vote and use the second vote tactically or consciously to vote for the same party or a different party, and to take it away from them would be depriving them of that vote which they have already got. Also it is arguable that one vote rather than two would further disadvantage minor parties and independent candidates, which is certainly a consideration to bear in mind. However, the arguments for and against one vote rather than two are less clear-cut, I think, in our minds anyway, than the other issue.

  Q123  Mr Crabb: Just so I am clear, are you saying therefore that the proposed changes in the White Paper, particularly relating to electoral arrangements, could lead to voter turnout falling below the 38% which we saw in 2003?

  Mr Mathias: What we are saying is currently, as you have heard, there is a degree of ignorance and lack of awareness about the voting process, which is probably why this particular issue amongst others has not come to the fore in the public consciousness. If however there is a great political battle about this particular proposal and it does come to the fore in the public mind then I think it could serve to undermine public confidence and could serve to foster distrust of politicians, which we know already exists out there to a considerable degree, so that is the danger.

  Q124  Hywel Williams: Can I just confirm with you, however, that in terms of any confusion that you might have discovered in the research that confusion does not concern what is called the Clwyd West problem? It is about a number of other things but not about that particular issue?

  Mr Mathias: Yes, that is correct.

  Q125  Mrs Moon: I wonder if I could just take you back to your focus groups. It is very striking in relation to this 38% and the impact on turnout. Turnout for an election involves commitment to the democratic process, as in some respects does turning out for a focus group. Did you look at how many people who came to your focus group failed to turn up to elections? Have you carried out any research into the majority of people who are not turning out for elections as to whether or not the electoral system has an impact on why they are not turning out? Have you looked at that issue?

  Ms Jenkins: Yes we have because the focus groups are not randomly selected. We particularly looked at people in different groups so for example we selected voters and we selected non-voters and we selected what the researchers describe as "differential" voters, that is, people who vote, for example, at the general election but not at the Assembly elections, so that we could probe why they are voting in one election, why they are not voting in another, why they have never voted. So we look at those different aspects to try and get a full view. Can you remind me of the second part of your question?

  Q126  Mrs Moon: It was whether or not the electoral system impacted on whether or not people turned out. There was the complicated issue of people voting for a list but that was not impacting?

  Ms Jenkins: It has no impact at all. We particularly looked at whether or not the electoral system impacts on turnout and our view is that it does not have any impact. I think there has been quite an extensive body of research done on that. The Independent Commission on PR was looking at that because there is an argument that proportional representation encourages people to vote, but in Wales and Scotland so far the experience has been that it has not impacted on voter turnout either way.

  Q127  Mrs Moon: Can you tell us why they were not turning out? What were you being told was the reason people do not turn out for Assembly elections?

  Mr Mathias: A whole host of reasons. It is easier for us to ask the question why is the turnout in Wales lower than the turnout say for parliamentary elections to Westminster. One of the prime reasons there is lack of knowledge about what the Assembly is doing, which is at least in part down to the media structure in Wales, but an ignorance about the Assembly and ignorance about the electoral process supporting the Assembly, which is one of the reasons why we recommended (and we are very pleased to see our recommendation included in the White Paper) that the Assembly should be given powers to publicise its own elections. There is legal doubt about this at the moment and we are very grateful that is going to be in the White Paper because this could be a means of helping to address that particular problem.

  Q128  Hywel Williams: Some of the thinking about the Assembly sees it that Assembly elections are second-order elections. Does the voting system mark it out as being a second-order election and would first past the post impact it differently and increase the perceived importance?

  Mr Mathias: I do not think so. As Kay has been saying, we do not believe from our research that the method of election has any particular impact on turnout. It is far wider issues about engagement with the political process and engagement with the political process in the Welsh Assembly as distinct from Parliament. Those are much more important issues in terms of the turnout than the method of election.

  Q129  Mrs Moon: We heard from Lord Richard prior to your submissions and, as you know, the Richard Commission recommended an increase of Members from 60 to 80. If that had been followed what impact would that have had on your preferred system of Assembly elections, if we were looking at 80 Members?

  Mr Mathias: We felt it was not within our remit to look at the structure or the powers of the Assembly. We are here to comment on specifically electoral issues. So the straightforward answer to your question is this is not something we have considered and not something we have a view on.

  Q130  Mrs Moon: The Richard Commission also recommended a different electoral process, however. Did you not look at that?

  Mr Mathias: No, we have not looked at that and there is a very good reason for that. There are currently five different electoral systems in operation across the United Kingdom. It is the role of the Electoral Commission to give guidance on and in some sense regulate aspects of all those elections. It is therefore not appropriate for us, we feel, to state a preferred system of election one against another because we have a responsible role in connection with all of them. So we do not state a preference and we have not considered whether one system is better than another.

  Q131  Mrs Moon: But you are saying that the system that is being recommended in the White Paper is not one that you would see as being positive so you are making a comment on one system.

  Mr Mathias: We are making a comment on a change to an existing process, not whether one whole electoral system should be changed to another. We feel that is a different issue because the additional Member system operates, as I have said, around the world and the proposal here is moving outside how any other country operates, and we felt that was a legitimate question to comment on, quite distinct from suggesting that STV is better than AMS or vice versa.

  Ms Jenkins: I think as well one reason why we considered it important to comment was that the White Paper justifies the proposed change in the electoral system as being reported voter confusion and concern and indeed refers to reports of the Electoral Commission on the 2003 elections, and so we felt it was important to look at the issue from the point of view of voter participation and how we thought it would impact potentially on voter participation at the 2007 election.

  Q132  Mrs Moon: Thank you. Just very briefly, are you able to comment on the change potentially to the turnout and to the result of the 2003 election if we had had the 80 Members?

  Mr Mathias: Obviously that is not something we have looked at it. We have not looked at the issue of the structure of the Assembly or any consequences that flow from it. It is our job to comment on any proposals that specifically are made by the Government and we look at it from the voters' point of view. We did not feel that was within our remit to do.

  Q133  Mark Williams: In your written submission in paragraph 20 you set out four points which were your criteria for evaluating any potential changes in the electoral arrangements. You talked in terms of the reasons for change should be comprehensible to voters, changes should be fair and seen to be fair, the need to avoid accusations of partisanship which could affect participation (which we have talked about) and the need to consider the broader context. In your view, do the Government's proposals meet those criteria?

  Ms Jenkins: We have already partly gone to that question in that we are talking about low public understanding of the whole issue. What we have looked at particularly is how it would impact on voter participation, and our concern is that voter understanding of the whole issue of electoral arrangements is very low. We were worried that in the runup to the elections if there are accusations about partisanship, which we think is very likely, that that could have an adverse impact on voter participation at the next election. Also one of the criteria is that we have said in terms of arrangements for political parties then they should be the best possible arrangements for political parties and candidates to participate, and obviously if there are strong views by some parties about those electoral arrangements those, in our view, could not be the best idea of arrangements. I think there is another issue about the proposed changes and how they might be understood by voters. If it is said that the concerns about the Clwyd West problem are about the issue of dual candidacy. We would really like to know more about the basis for that confusion and concern because we do think there is a possibility that voters are confused and concerned about the additional Member system as such rather than dual candidacy per se in that if you prevent dual candidacy you will still have the situation that parties which have lost in the constituency election will be seen to have won in the regional election. The additional Member system is a compensatory system. It is specifically designed to correct the advantage in the constituency election through the regional list so it may be that what is said to be confusion and concern about dual candidacy might in fact be about the additional Member system as such, which we feel has not been probed sufficiently in the White Paper.

  Q134  Hywel Williams: I seem to remember reading in the paper that in some countries list candidates are also required to stand in constituencies. Is that not an equally elegant answer to the Clwyd West problem as the one proposed?

  Mr Mathias: You are referring to the situation in Quebec which has recently reviewed its electoral system and come to the conclusion that in the additional Member system they would wish to require all candidates to have stood in constituencies. You cannot be elected on a list unless you have stood in a constituency which is precisely the reverse of what is proposed in the White Paper. Here I think what the rationale is if you have a two-tier system of Members, constituency and list, the conclusion they came to was it is better to integrate the two tiers as much as you can by requiring all list Members to have fought a constituency battle, whereas the net effect of the proposal in the White Paper is that it further distances list Members from constituency Members and makes them even more second tier than they are at the moment and that is one of the risks, but it is a contrast, you are right, between the conclusion in Quebec where they did a thorough review of all the international systems before they came to their conclusions and what is in the White Paper, for which there is no evidence at all.

  Q135  Mr David Jones: In paragraph 25 of your submission you caution that "there should be compelling reasons for introducing a change to an electoral process that is as yet untested over a period of time." Would you say that the Government has actually shown any such compelling reasons? I have particularly in mind the comments you make in paragraph 19 of your submission where you observe that the same electoral arrangements apply to the Scottish Parliament. Do you not think it anomalous that the Government should perceive this to be a problem in Wales but apparently not a problem in Scotland?

  Mr Mathias: As I mentioned earlier, the situation is slightly different in Scotland because there are four Scottish MSPs on the list who are Labour MSPs and where there are tensions between list and constituency Members it tends to be more cross-party than one party against the others. So the situation is slightly different. The point we are making there is the fact that Wales might be different in its process than Scotland is not an absolute reason why it should not go that way but that regard should be had to the situation in Scotland and consultations should be had with the Scottish Parliament to ensure that no unnecessary differences and anomalies are created.

  Q136  Mr David Jones: I would like to touch on what everybody keeps describing as the Clwyd West problem. I must say I take it rather amiss that my constituency is described as a "problem"! In your view has what happened in Clwyd West had any impact on voter turnout and participation? Also perhaps could you comment on the fact that, as I seem to recall, in Clwyd West, the Conservative Party which came second in the first past the post election secured a bigger share of the vote in the regional list. Does not that show a degree of sophistication on the part of the electorate rather than it being a problem?

  Ms Jenkins: There is no evidence that the Clwyd West so-called problem has had any impact on voter participation. We do not believe it has. I can only refer back to the research we have already talked about about what makes people vote or not vote in any election (but in an Assembly election particularly) and we have not got any evidence that that has been the case.

  Q137  Mrs James: I am very interested in the Arbuthnott Commission and it has been quoted quite widely by you in a number of places. While the final report says the current voting system has "potential to add to existing cynicism (about politics and politicians) current engagement was not the result of voting systems." How do you interpret this research?

  Mr Mathias: It largely backs up what we have said.

  Ms Jenkins: I was just going to say it is very similar findings to that which we have found out ourselves. There are a whole host of reasons as to why people vote or do no vote and they relate generally to disengagement with the political process. People feel very strongly about issues but they do not necessarily translate those into party political issues or as to why they should vote in any election. All those background issues are going on but also going on are issues related to particular election short-term factors, to do with the election campaign and whatever the issue is at the moment which then affects people as to whether or not they turn out. However, in all of that the voting process has not emerged as something that makes people vote or not. In that context we would agree with the findings of the Arbuthnott Commission research.

  Q138  Hywel Williams: Just to sum up—and this is a statement rather than a question perhaps—it seems to me that you are saying it is possibly unwise to base a change in the long term electoral system on the outcome of one election, as it were. Indeed, a geographical or party split might be different in the future.

  Mr Mathias: Yes.

  Q139  Hywel Williams: Can I just turn to the question of the national list. Is a single national list a viable alternative to the present regional list?

  Mr Mathias: This is not an issue which we have looked at because it is not an issue that has been presented to us to look at. In principle, there is nothing wrong with a national list but, as I understand it, it could operate in a number of different ways and we would have to look at exactly what the proposal is before making any comment. I would say this: if the Government wished to develop that or any of these proposals we would be happy to co-operate with research and development of such a proposal if it was appropriate, but we have not looked in detail at the issue of a national list.

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