Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture 2023

The Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture 2023 was delivered by Rt Hon Elin Jones AS, Llywydd of Senedd Cymru on Thursday 15th June. The theme of this year’s lecture was: Parliamentary Innovation

Good evening and a warm welcome to you all to the Senedd – to those sat in front of me and those joining us online.

Thank you for inviting me to deliver this year’s Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture and I understand that some of Michael Ryle’s family are joining us this evening online. I hope that what I’m about to share tonight does justice to his life’s work.

Despite not having had the pleasure of knowing Michael, the warmth and respect with which his friends and colleagues remember him are testament to his legacy as a pioneer of parliamentary reform.

I must apologise in advance if much of what I have to say this evening is familiar to immediate colleagues, but I hope you will nonetheless enjoy reflecting on some of your recent achievements as I share with our friends from other parliaments a brief history of Senedd innovation.

We are gathered this evening in the Neuadd – or ‘hall’ of the Senedd – a hub for school visits, celebrations, commemorations and much more – with the modern, wood-clad debating chamber just behind you.

Behind me, the glass panes are not walls to keep people out but rather windows to welcome them in – a realisation of two architects’ vision, Lord Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour – to design a transparent and accessible home for Welsh democracy.

For those less familiar with the history of this pioneering building, I should note that business was not always conducted in the Siambr of today, but next door in Siambr Hywel – named of course after Hywel Dda, or ‘Hywel the Good’ – King of the Deheubarth (the southwest of Wales) who is credited with codifying Welsh law during the tenth century.

So, whilst the Senedd may be a fledgling parliament in some senses still, the very idea of Welsh law dates back to the Middle Ages.

I was elected to that very first National Assembly, as it was first known, in 1999 as one of 60 members. I am now one of only 4 of the original members now left and serving in our 6th term.

Looking back at the first few years of the National Assembly for Wales, it is difficult to comprehend the pace of change this place has experienced.

So that will be the focus of my remarks this evening. Progress and innovation.

Words that not only pay homage to Michael Ryle’s past work, but words that can also, I hope, serve as benchmarks which ensure that our respective parliaments are not only fit for purpose now, but fit for the future too.

Despite the very notion of a parliament for Wales being rejected by the electorate during the 1979 referendum, the debate surrounding devolution did not lie dormant for long.

By the time of the next referendum 18 years later, the Yes campaign secured a swing of 30% against a backdrop of growing indignation with a Westminster Government, and the campaign for a National Assembly of Wales was won.

A key figure throughout this period of course was the late Lord John Morris – who passed away only last week. He was Secretary of State for Wales in Jim Callaghan’s Government during the first referendum and Attorney General in the Blair Government during the latter. Without Lord Morris and others like him advocating so passionately for devolution, Wales would not have a parliament of its own today.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and here we are – new powers, a new name, and a new seat for Welsh democracy.

And not only new, but novel.

Perhaps it’s down to my habit of doing things a little differently that I take such pride in this parliament charting its own course.

I was a school election Conservative candidate turned Plaid Cymru elected politician.

I’m a farmer’s daughter who doesn’t eat lamb.

And the first Presiding Officer to be member in charge of a piece of landmark legislation focused on electoral reform.

I was elected Presiding Officer in 2016 – and I did so on the basis that I wanted to do something with the job, not just do the job.

So back in February 2017, I announced the establishment of an independent Expert Panel on Electoral Reform to provide robust, politically impartial advice on three topics. The number of Members needed to effectively represent the people of Wales, the most suitable electoral system, and the minimum voting age.

The Expert Panel made a series of recommendations in these areas, including lowering the voting age to 16 (following in the footsteps of our colleagues in Scotland of course).
The Panel also concluded after extensive research into international and UK comparators that in order to operate as effectively as possible for the people of Wales, the Senedd should move to a more proportional electoral system and increase its capacity.

To quote the report on the number of Members:

“If the Assembly had the same average number of Members per head of population as the 16 devolved institutions in Europe, Canada and Australia with populations between 2 and 4 million, it would have a membership of 86. If the nine states of the USA with similar populations were also included, the number would be 91.”

Whilst I am on the record as stating that my personal preference would have been to legislate on all these recommendations in one bill, we all know that the last word is decided by the political will of the day.

So, in the absence of consensus on how best to change the electoral system and how many Members this place should have, the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill was introduced on the 12th of January 2019 to extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, and to give this institution a new name – Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament – which better reflects its status as a full law-making body.

On the 6th of May 2020 when the new legislation came into force and a few months into a global pandemic, the very first meeting of Senedd Cymru attended by Members of the Welsh Parliament was chaired by the Speaker, me, on my sofa in my front room in Aberaeron.

As ‘member in charge’ of that Bill – now Act of course – I am proud of how Senedd Commission officials worked constructively with Welsh Government to devise and develop this pioneering legislation, and for the immensely valuable advice they gave me as we navigated uncharted waters together.

But four years on and despite this progress, a restlessness remains among the growing number who believe that Senedd Members are still stretched too thinly and that consequently, the people of Wales are under-represented. One example of this is office holders. Returning to the report of the Expert Panel on Electoral Reform, data shows that whilst 45% of Members in the Scottish Parliament are office holders (including executive roles, Presiding Officer or Deputy POs, Committee chairs or other), the equivalent figure for us here was 63%.

A similar comparison in February 2017 with the House of Commons showed that there were some 500 MPs who did not hold either executive or office holder roles. Of these MPs, 115 were backbench MPs who did not sit on any committee or hold any other additional roles. As a Senedd member here, I cannot conceive what must be an unbearable lightness of being elected to Parliament but not being a member of any committee, government or frontbench. Some of our members in the Senedd chair one committee and serve on one or more other committees. That’s unsustainable.

So, whilst addressing Members’ capacity to give electors the most effective representation possible had to wait in 2019, today, we are in a very different context.

The Co-operation Agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru treads new territory when it comes to the relationship between the government and an opposition party. It was forged from the political reality of the election result of May 2021. 30 Labour members elected and 30 opposition party members. Coalition was not on the table from Labour, and some creative thinking was needed to ensure Government stability for a five-year term.

The Co-operation Agreement was the culmination of talks between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government during the summer of 2021 which explored defined policy priorities where both parties could find common ground. The Agreement was formally published on the 1st of December 2021 and was unprecedented in nature.

Indeed, its very inception was the subject of considerable discussion by the Business Committee on the potential impact on the proper conduct of Senedd Business.
This led to the Senedd Commission seeking legal advice on a question that would delight any political anorak:

As a result of the Co-operation Agreement, is the Plaid Cymru group a group with an executive role as set out in Section 25(8) of the Government of Wales Act 2006?

And if that wasn’t enough for the parliamentary historians of the future, we also have a new entry in our lexicon – the Designated Member; three Senedd Members from the Plaid Cymru Group became Designated Members with access to the civil service and two Special Advisers were nominated by Plaid Cymru and dedicated to working on the Agreement. Working closely with Government Ministers and their officials, the Designated Members and their Special Advisers are halfway through a three-year deal, developing policy in the 46 areas identified within the Agreement.

And yes, one of these areas is electoral reform. The Co-operation Agreement has committed to acting on the recommendations of the Special Purpose Committee on Electoral Reform which was established in 2021 and which I will return to later.

But in short, in just a few months’ time, we expect a bill to be formally introduced by the Welsh Government that will legislate to increase the number of Members elected to the Senedd from 60 to 96.

It is also anticipated that the current constituencies will be replaced by 16 constituencies, each one formed by pairing the 32 Westminster constituencies proposed as part of UK Government reform, and each one electing six Senedd Members.

After nearly twenty-five years as “Elin Ceredigion” I must admit to feeling more than a tinge of territoriality about my ‘milltir sgwar’ (my square mile), but I’m optimistic that all Members of the Seventh Senedd, whoever they may be, will embrace these changes with agility and good will.

I hope you’ve already got a taste for the ever-changing political context in which we are operating, which brings me to the next theme I want to reflect upon with you this evening – Purpose.

If you’ve ever visited the Senedd website, you will have seen a succinct explainer set out as follows:

“The Welsh Parliament is the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people. Commonly known as the Senedd, it makes laws for Wales, agrees Welsh taxes and holds the Welsh Government to account.”

For me, it is that reference to holding the Welsh Government to account which goes to the heart of this parliament’s purpose, and which has served as the key driver of innovation over the last few years.

As I mentioned at the start, this Senedd stands on the shoulders of people such as John Morris who, when Secretary Of State for Wales, ensured the transfer of more functions from other UK Departments to the Welsh Office. The exercise of those functions deserved direct scrutiny and in 1999 we began that purpose of democratic scrutiny.

Like all Parliaments in the world, when Covid struck, our sole focus as an institution – beyond the safety and wellbeing of our staff and Members of course – was on how we could effectively continue to fulfil our purpose.

How could we discuss, debate, and scrutinise together whilst staying apart?

To make things a little more challenging, a day into lockdown I tested positive for Covid.

Confined to the constituency and with strict travel restrictions in place, I asked Senedd officials with exploring how we could metaphorically move the Chamber Chair from Cardiff Bay to Cardigan Bay. I’d heard of something called Zoom that was meant to be much better than Skype – and it needed to be much better than Skype with what lay ahead of us!

At this point I would like to pay a heartfelt thanks to our ICT staff who I count among the most skilful ICT staff of any parliament.

Whilst most of us struggled with anything more than switching it off and on again, they displayed ambition and innovation in equal measure to enable our parliament to meet in virtual form for the first time in its history.

And I remain convinced that this would not have been possible had we not opted for having our ICT infrastructure managed inhouse, allowing us to communicate effectively and move at pace. And not be dependent on a third party contractor.

In fact, except for the Maldives who met just two days before us, we believe that the Senedd was the first parliament in the world to meet virtually on 1st April 2020.
So as the world learned to mute and unmute itself, and our Health Minister was the first viral victim of forgetting to mute himself and use highly unparliamentary language about a scrutiny question from a fellow-Labour colleague – so colleagues from across the globe looked to Wales, from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Republic of Ireland, to name a few – eager for us to share best practice and the lessons we had rapidly learnt since the beginning of lockdown.

But our ICT teams did not work alone of course. A small, skilful, and dedicated team of clerks and other officials demonstrated real procedural innovation to ensure that Standing Orders were swiftly amended and adopted to adequately support parliamentary business in virtual form.

All of that innovation was not in vain, and more than three years later, hybrid working has become a permanent feature of how we conduct Senedd business, and with Members praising the flexibility it presents, it seems to be here to stay.

Hybrid working enables parliamentary agility. An example from yesterday. As our Plenary session was about to begin yesterday, a story broke on the BBC that the Health Minister had misled the Senedd last week when speaking about the current political hot potato of the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board. I was asked for a Topical Question from the Conservative spokesperson, I agreed he could raise a Point of Order. We informed the Government and they came back to say that the Health Minister wanted to respond to the Point Of Order. She did. On Zoom into the Chamber. She was nowhere near the Senedd at the time. But she clarified the situation and corrected the Record. Everyone happy. Scrutiny done. Truth served. Parliamentary standards upheld.

Given today’s events in another place, then at least one former politician could learn a thing or two about the need to correct the record and to do so with urgency and humility.

Hybrid working of course has not only introduced a more level playing field among Members for plenary purposes – some of whom previously spent up to ten hours a week on the dreaded A470 between north and south – it is also breaking down geographical barriers for citizens engaging with the Senedd – (this evening being a case in point of course).

Very recently we have been collaborating with My Society in making our work accessible in new ways through the They Work For You portal.

We’re working with academic researchers like Cristina Leston-Bandera to better understand the barriers – both real and perceived – that prevent people from engaging in the decisions that matter to them. Her work with the Senedd and Westminster Petitions Committees will give us new insights to ensure we are living up to our desire to put citizens at the heart of our work.

As a Parliament we need to innovate continually, because the needs and expectations of the communities that we serve are constantly evolving too.

This is particularly important when we examine the role our committees play in holding the Government to account and ensuring that committee work acts as a mirror to contemporary Welsh society.

That means not only reflecting the challenges that our communities face but also the diversity of the people who live in them – be that age, gender, race, religion or socio-economic status.

With that in mind in 2020, Professor Diana Stirbu of London Metropolitan University was commissioned through the Senedd Research Academic Fellowship Scheme to explore the power, influence and impact of Senedd committees. The aim was to develop a framework to evaluate the effectiveness of committees in the Sixth Senedd.

Professor Stirbu conducted the research between September 2020 and January 2021, beginning by reviewing the current evidence and literature on effectiveness of parliamentary committees.

This was followed by field research, involving 37 interviews with politicians and officials, three group discussions, and three collaborative workshops.

The work culminated in a detailed report including 13 key recommendations ranging from making diversity monitoring common practice to building internal capacity through expansion of internships and fellowships to making lived experience central to committees’ approach to evidence.

That last recommendation I mentioned chimes with one of the Senedd Commission’s three existing corporate goals – to have citizens at the heart of all we do – and I’m heartened that our committees are already making progress in this regard.

Diversity monitoring work is already underway, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of our second pilot phase in the Autumn.

Our Engagement team continues to set the benchmark for linking the lived experience of people with the work conducted by committees. Recently we have conducted ground-breaking engagement with migrant women, care leavers and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. Ground-breaking engagement, leading to game-changing recommendations from our committees, and life-changing alterations to Government policy.

New Committees have been formed in recent years too – more evidence of the innovation required to keep up with the pace of change around us.

Earlier I mentioned the Special Purpose Committee on Electoral Reform. This was established on 6 October 2021 to consider the conclusions previously reached by the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform in the Fifth Senedd, and to make recommendations for policy instructions for a Welsh Government Bill on Senedd Reform by 31 May 2022.

The work of this committee succeeded in maintaining the momentum in the debate surrounding electoral reform whilst being mindful of the need to move at pace if changes were to be implemented in time for the 2026 Senedd Elections.

More recently, and in what has been described by commentators as a “highly unusual agreement” between the Labour Welsh Government and the Welsh Conservatives, a motion was passed to set up a special committee to examine the decisions taken during the Covid pandemic in Wales.

The committee will act following the publication of each UK inquiry module and will explore any Wales-specific issues identified in those reports.

Another innovative feature of this committee is its chairing arrangements. It has been agreed by a motion in plenary that the committee will have co-chairs – one Conservative, one Labour, and the first such example in the Senedd’s history – and relevant procedures are being developed to support this model as we speak.

This brings me to my final theme this evening to complement politics and purpose – that of progress.

And to comprehend how far we’ve come, it’s always helpful to remind ourselves where we started.

When I first joined the Assembly and before the separation of the legislature and executive, we were one corporate body. Members even shared an e-mail domain with Welsh Government – @wales.gov.uk.

That led to all kinds of mishaps. There are a lot of Joneses in Wales.

I remember the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic and as it happens, at the time, the government’s Head of Agriculture and the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member both shared a name – Gareth Jones.

This meant that several useful Welsh Government briefings inadvertently ended up being shared with Plaid Cymru, and Chief Veterinary complex scientific foot and mouth advice meant for the Head of Department and Minister never reached the right Inbox – and was quietly read by the Assembly Member for Aberconwy.

It wasn’t until the Government of Wales Act 2006 that separation between executive and parliament was formalised, and we secured the clarity required around both institutions’ respective responsibilities to pave the way for robust scrutiny mechanisms.

We have had noticeable milestones as a Parliament.

2003 – the Senedd became the first parliament in the world to secure gender balance among its Members. 50 – 50

2011 – Wales became the first nation in the UK to introduce a carrier bag levy. Such a simple concept which resulted in a 90% reduction in carrier bag usage and made people more aware of their impact on their natural environment.

2015 – The Senedd passes deemed consent legislation on organ donation resulting in Wales having the highest consent rate of all the UK nations.

2018 – Wales’s young people elect the first ever Welsh Youth Parliament with 40 constituencies contested by an impressive 480 candidates, and an additional 20 Members elected from partner organisations.

There are many more examples of progress I could cite, but I’m eager to stress that this institution is far from complacent.

On gender equality, today’s percentage of female Members has dipped slightly below half, so the Sixth Senedd Women’s Caucus launched just a few weeks ago has important work to do to push that figure back to 50% and beyond. We also expect legislation on gender quotas to be brought forward at some point before the next Senedd Election as part of the Plaid Cymru – Welsh Government Co-operation Agreement.

On bilingual working, whilst our counterparts in Canada and the Republic of Ireland look to us for exemplary practice, our Official Language Scheme continues to rightly hold our feet to the fire and explore ways of increasing the use of Welsh, particularly in committees. This is a bilingual Parliament and it is chaired by me and my Deputy almost exclusively in Welsh.

And on ensuring that Business is conducted properly and efficiently, our newly established Procedures and Parliamentary Skills service is already looking at what changes will be required to facilitate as smooth a transition as possible to the Seventh Senedd.

So, in what may well be a first for me, I will quote Winston Churchill and the words he used in defence of the Westminster chamber; “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

I happen to believe this to be true of our Senedd too.

The horseshoe configuration of our debating chamber gives primacy to consensus over confrontation. It was deliberately designed that way in 2005.

Our “360-degree democracy” encourages us to understand each other’s perspectives.

And whilst plurality of thought is something which undoubtedly enriches our democracy, I know that where agreement is to be found, our Members will always strive to find it.

I began my remarks this evening by reflecting on the pace of change with which the Senedd has come of age in its twenty-four years of being.

It may well be that the transition between the Sixth Senedd and the Seventh Senedd – will be the most transformational yet.

After the 2021 election, a third of Senedd Members were first-time parliamentarians.

In 2026, subject to the passing of a reform bill, we can expect even more new faces, each one needing to navigate a labyrinth of processes, procedures, rooms, and rules at pace.

But I say this with hope rather than trepidation, knowing that they, like me, will be supported by the very best in their field.

The first strategic aim of our corporate body is to provide outstanding parliamentary support, and I know that Senedd Commission officials take that aim seriously each day.

I also must mention our plenary and committee clerks – many of whom are here this evening – whose expertise and unstinting independence enables each Committee Chair and myself to fulfil our duties with clarity and confidence.

I’d like to end therefore with something to ponder.

I know that everyone here this evening believes in the principle that we are parliaments of equals. That when it comes to engaging with each other we can learn as well as teach, listen and share.

You may also have worked out by now that I have legislative form when it comes to implementing name changes!

So, in recognition of the innovation that has made us what we are today, then let me be cheeky enough to offer you a challenge – you are the Study of Parliament Group. Why not become the Study of Parliaments Group – what a meaningful difference just one ‘S’ can make.

Thank you again for asking me to share some of my experience and my thoughts with you tonight. And as one of those politicians who comes and goes into a Parliament’s life, let me thank all of you who craft, design and re-design our parliamentary structures and do so, so that we can better deliver for the people we all serve.