Y Pwyllgor Llywodraeth Leol a Thai

Local Government and Housing Committee

15/11/2023

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

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

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Dr Christine Huebner Darlithydd mewn Gwyddorau Cymdeithasol Meintiol, Prifysgol Sheffield
Lecturer in Quantitative Social Sciences, University of Sheffield
Dr Nia Thomas Swyddog Ymchwil ac Ymgyrchoedd, Cymdeithas Diwygio Etholiadol Cymru
Research and Campaigns Officer, Electoral Reform Society Cymru
Jess Blair Cyfarwyddwr, Cymdeithas Diwygio Etholiadol Cymru
Director, Electoral Reform Society Cymru
Liz Williams Rheolwr Polisi a Materion Cyhoeddus, Sefydliad Cenedlaethol Brenhinol Pobl Ddall Cymru
Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Royal National Institute of Blind People Cymru
Megan Thomas Swyddog Polisi ac Ymchwil, Anabledd Cymru
Policy and Research Officer, Disability Wales
Ruth Coombs Pennaeth Cymru, y Comisiwn Cydraddoldeb a Hawliau Dynol
Head of Wales, Equality and Human Rights Commission

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 today from Luke Fletcher, and one of our other committee members, Jayne Bryant, will be joining us a little later on. 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. 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 Members? There are not.

2. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 1
2. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence Session 1

We will move on then to item 2, which is the committee's scrutiny of the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill and our first evidence session. I'm very pleased to welcome Dr Christine Huebner, lecturer in quantitative social sciences at the University of Sheffield. Welcome to committee this morning, Dr Huebner. Perhaps I might begin with some general questions regarding the Bill and general principles. Firstly, could you share with the committee your general reflections on the Bill?

Thank you for having me and thank you, Chair, for the question. In general, the Bill is designed to make elections in Wales more inclusive, as is my understanding, which, from the perspective of research that I and my colleagues have done, is crucial in order to involve young people, in particular 16 and 17-year-olds, and bring them into the electorate. Any kinds of measures that bring elections into the modern era, that make them more responsive, particularly to the needs of younger people, and more inclusive in bringing more younger people into the electorate, are very welcome and are in line with our research, which shows that many young people do not take up the opportunity to vote in Wales at the minute.

Yes, well, thank you very much for that. You mentioned the aspect of responsiveness, Dr Huebner. I wonder if I could just ask you a little more about that because you have said that responsiveness should be added to the Welsh Government's six principles for electoral reform. So, could you say a little bit more about what you mean by 'responsiveness' and whether you believe this Bill is responsive enough or not responsive enough in its current nature?

Thank you, of course. So, we suggest that responsiveness might be a useful seventh principle for this Bill, in addition to, particularly, the focus on inclusiveness. And that is because, often, young people communicate in research that they feel that elections and elected representatives communicate far away from them. So, the impression that young people communicate in research is that they do not feel responded to in adequate ways. 

Now, of course, we can now legislate for ways to respond to young people today, but we all know that things are changing and that needs are changing, in particular around awareness-raising measures and communication. And so, adding a principle that embeds some form of responsiveness to young people and other under-represented groups can be an additional means to make sure that elections also remain modern and fit for purpose in future years.

09:05

Oh, I see. So, really it's partly a matter of futureproofing the legislation, as technology changes and develops.

Yes. In particular, I'm thinking about technology. I'm happy to go a little bit more into some of the research findings, but one of the issues that we find again and again is that awareness is a huge issue, specifically among younger voters. We all know how much has changed in the communication space and in the awareness space in recent years. I cannot tell you today what will be the next social media trend in the future, but we can legislate for measures that bring young people or other under-represented groups into the process of how awareness-raising measures get designed, in order to futureproof the process around elections.

Okay. Thank you very much, Dr Huebner. We'll turn to another committee member now, Sam Rowlands. Sam.

Yes, thanks, Mr Chairman, and good morning, Dr Huebner. I want to come on to ask questions about your thoughts around electoral registration without application, but perhaps before I come on to that, I just want to come back to your previous point. Just more broadly, I wonder where you think the responsibility lies between those who are likely to vote in elections to seek out information for themselves and to be clear on what they're engaging with, and where that responsibility lies between them and either candidates or the systems that we put in place. I would have thought that you'd accept there's probably responsibility on both sides. 

Absolutely there is responsibility on both sides. We see again and again in research that young people in particular are very willing to take that responsibility at their end, but they run into several barriers when it comes to finding the necessary information. And that isn't particularly only an issue around knowledge and the kinds of ways that information is communicated, but it's particularly also about the responsibility that lies on the side of the elected bodies, politicians and political parties to communicate with young people in ways that address them and are understandable to them.

So, we often, for example, find young people responding to us that they haven't had any leaflets through their doors in electoral campaigns, that politicians and political parties do not communicate on any of the platforms that they tend to spend time on, that elected politicians or candidates do not come to schools in their areas. So, these are all platforms where young people would be seeking out information, would be willing to take responsibility to seek out information, but are often not addressed. So, there is absolutely responsibility on both sides, but there is definitely work to be done, particularly on the side of addressing young people's concerns.

Okay. Lovely. Thank you for that. So then, just coming on to the proposal within the Bill for electoral registration without application, perhaps you could outline your initial thoughts on that and, in particular, how younger people may engage more easily with the democratic process as a result of that.

Thank you. Yes. So, we have done research around the 2021 Senedd elections in Wales and I've also done a lot of research around the lowering of the voting age in Scotland and in countries in Europe, in particular Germany and Austria. And what we see in Germany and Austria, for example, where automatic voter registration is already part of the electoral process, is that young people do not face any barriers in this respect. So, barriers around voting are in other areas, for example, information finding and awareness.

In Wales in particular, electoral registration for 16 and 17-year-old voters in the 2021 election was one of the biggest barriers we found. To give you some numbers, we found that, roughly, estimates show that less than half of 16 and 17-year-olds joined the electoral roll in time for the 2021 election. And there are really two problems here: one is a problem of scale, and so if you are already losing half of young people voting or eligible to vote at the stage of electoral registration, compared to around 10 per cent for the general electorate, that is a huge number of young people—around 30,000 in Wales. The other problem that we have here is that not all young people are equally affected by this kind of barrier. So, we see huge variation by local authority, depending on what kinds of measures local authorities took to engage and motivate young people to register to vote, but we also see huge variation by families. The young people that had family support, that were nudged to get onto the electoral roll in time for the election didn't find the process at all problematic, but there are huge numbers of young people who do not have this kind of family support. So, automatic voter registration takes away one of the biggest barriers to young people becoming part of the electorate, and we think that that is supported by research as a measure that would definitely benefit a number of young people.

09:10

Thanks. Can I just understand the barriers that you mentioned there? So, the family support side, I can understand if there perhaps is not somebody to guide children perhaps through the process; has your research shown what those other barriers may currently be and what they physically look and feel like?

Yes. The young people in our research in 2021 said that they didn't receive any form of communication about registering to vote or they didn't open them; so, there is a problem not just in terms of receiving the letter, but being aware that you have to open that letter. They said that the timelines didn't line up. So, one young person, a 17-year-old from Gwynedd, said in research, 'I signed up, but it said it would take three weeks and I did it about four days before the election.' So, this young person was not able to vote because the way that awareness-raising measures lined up with the timings of needing to register to vote didn't work out for all young people. Some young people simply didn't know. Jacko, 17, from Pembrokeshire, said, 'I had to be told to register because it was one of the things I just wasn't aware I had to do.' So, this is a problem as well. So, the young people we spoke to that made it said that the process itself is very easy and user-friendly, the main issue was just knowing when to do it and how to do it. One particular issue that a lot of young people talked to us about was that they weren't aware what kind of documentation they needed to register to vote. So, a number of young people, for example, hadn't had their national insurance number ready, so when they had to apply for that in advance of applying to vote, they ran out of time for all the steps in time before the deadline.

Okay. Thank you. I could go further on that, I'm just conscious of time, but thank you for those responses first of all. I think, in your written evidence that you sent through to us, you have raised some concerns about possible voter confusion with different registration systems. In particular, you raised an example around the Senedd and then the police and crime commissioner elections in May 2021. Are you able to help us with any practical steps you think that Welsh Government or we should be considering to help address this confusion?

Thank you. We think that this will be a huge issue. In 2021 already, it showed that young people did not understand the different management of the police and crime commissioner elections from the Senedd elections. Some young people left polling stations completely confused as to why their parents were given different ballot papers from them. So, there is a huge awareness-raising measure to be done, and I think the best way forward on this would be to carefully pilot the impact of automatic voter registration on the public's understanding of the different electoral rolls in England and Wales.

One of the biggest problems we see is that young people will not be aware that they have to register for UK elections. So, maybe this is also a burden on the UK Government that you and this committee cannot discuss, but there is definitely an issue around young people feeling frustrated with the electoral process at the end of the day. And we've seen that to some extent in Scotland already, where young people have been allowed to vote at age 16, 17 from 2015. My research there has shown again and again that young people feel that the playing field is not level when it comes to UK and Scottish elections, and this is incredibly frustrating and, at the end of the day, diminishes young people's political efficacy. This will not only affect their efficacy in terms of their UK political impact, but also their understanding of the Welsh electoral system. So, in that sense, awareness-raising measures need to be piloted, and it needs to be understood what kind of information is necessary, what kind of look-up is necessary, but we see a big problem here.

Okay. Thank you. There were a number of quite sweeping statements, I guess, in your response there, I think, in talking about young people being frustrated. It doesn't seem to evidence itself in young people's voter turnout for Senedd elections—I think, if I recall, it was still very low—so they don't seem to express that eagerness to vote when it comes to Senedd elections currently. But just going on to the pilots that you've mentioned as well, which could be put in place around automatic voter registration. Do you think there are any specific features that Welsh Government should include within those pilots?

09:15

Definitely: ideas on awareness-raising measures around the use of automatic voter registration, a look-up system, and the different impact of UK and Welsh elections.

Okay. And then finally, just on the all-Wales database, I think that's something that you called for within your written response that is not included within the Bill. Could you just outline, perhaps, some of your thoughts on the risks associated with not including an all-Wales database within the Bill?

One of the features that we thought an all-Wales database would give is the opportunity for our young voters to look up whether or not and where they are part of the electoral roll. When we look at young people's journeys towards adulthood and also adult citizenship, we often see many transition points. That is at the age of 18 in particular, when young people join further and higher education, leave the parental home, but also later on in their lives. So, there is a lot of turmoil at these times, and a look-up function to see whether or not they are registered to vote, and, particularly, where they are registered to vote, would be particularly helpful in these situations. That could be quite simple in an online format, that young people can look up where and when they are registered to vote. And an all-Wales database would, in our view, offer this opportunity, but there are probably other opportunities that can be legislated for that would also give this process.

All right. Thank you very much. Great. Thank you, Chair.

Good morning. What features would a successful online voter information platform have?

It's my understanding that the legislation that you're discussing would just look at the basic principles; the details, I think, still need to be worked out. For young people in particular, we often hear that there is another barrier when they pass the registration barrier, to find adequate information. What this adequate information looks like I think needs to be worked out in further research, and in the details of that platform. What we do hear about is that young people appreciate looking up information on their local candidates, on party programmes. What we see in general, and not just for younger people but for the wider electorate, is a move towards issue-specific voting, so we see that lots of people are interested in particular issues, for example the environment or what candidates are proposing to do on housing or healthcare, and being able to look up information in these areas would be really useful for young people.

What exactly that looks like—I think, first of all, not very different from older parts of the population. I think we shouldn't underestimate young people's savviness in terms of finding information, particularly on an online platform. But, secondly, it needs to be geared towards issues and candidates. That's something that we hear again and again. One thing that we are proposing is that young people should ideally have a say or an advisory function in designing this voter information platform, as probably is called for by other under-represented groups. In terms of my first comments on responsiveness, it would be particularly helpful if, for example, Members of the Welsh Youth Parliament or another kind of youth advisory board could work with candidates and political parties to make sure that information is presented adequately.

Thank you. Do you think it would help them with the democratic process, to understand it and become more engaged with it—having that online platform?

Absolutely. One of the barriers we see is that young people often fail to find information. That is probably a mismatch between the way that we communicate party programmes and political information and the way that young people nowadays look for information, so an online platform could solve this, because it gives another way of finding information. In countries in Europe in particular we see huge use and uptake of voter information platforms and these kinds of vote choice information systems, and a voter information platform in Wales would make the foundations for a vote choice application in Wales as well. 

09:20

You've already mentioned about maybe the role of the Welsh Youth Parliament, which was my next question, so that's really useful. Where do you think this could be placed, this information? Do you think it should be just a central database, or maybe with local government, if it's the local government elections? Have you had any thoughts on that, to make it easily accessible for people?

I notice that the Bill, currently, is a little bit vague around what kind of platform this is, whether it should be an online website. And I think, at this stage, it's hard to perceive where the development technologically might go in the next decades. I think one of the issues raised by other organisations giving evidence that we concur with is that, in particular, the rise of generative artificial intelligence will mean that there might be more distrust in information, so I think one of the key principles is that the voter information platform should be hosted by a trustworthy source, that voters know that that information is the kind of information they're looking for and that they can trust. 

Okay. So, it might take some managing, really, mightn't it, so it's for whoever's got the resources to do that, really. Okay, thank you. Thank you, Chair. 

Thanks ever so much for coming in this morning, and thank you, Chair. I just have a quick question, if I may, following some of the questions that Carolyn mentioned there about the online voter information platform. Do you see the need for there to be an element of regulation for that as well in a sense? You mentioned there about having a trusted source, but, for example now, if we take Twitter or X, as it's called now, when things get tweeted, or whatever it's called now, there's that community checkbox at the bottom saying, 'Well, hang on a minute now, this is misleading' or whatever. So, there's always an element there. Every political party's accused of it, twisting it to suit its own agenda or whatever. Do you think there's a need to have that regulation as well, or, in a sense, actually, no, it's just very much as it is now, and it's up to the electorate, then, to make up its mind whether or not it's factually correct or not?

I think this is a—. I cannot answer this based on the research that we have done. 

Okay, then. All right. What about a personal opinion, then, or do you have anything on that?

It's my understanding from the way that the Bill is laid out at the minute that there would be some form of oversight. Whether that is regulatory oversight or oversight of the management of the platform—I think it's for the committee to decide. 

Joel, do you want to continue with further questions?

Oh, okay, yes. It's my go to ask the questions now as well; I didn't know that. Well, I did actually. [Laughter.] I have been paying attention. [Laughter.]

I want to talk, then, abut the piloting powers. Obviously, for example, in the written evidence, the Electoral Commission has said about the success of the pilots that we've had in Wales so far, especially about flexible voting and that. And I just wanted to get your opinion, then, on whether there any other pilots that the Welsh Government should be running, really?

[Inaudible.]—would be important, particularly—[Inaudible.]—confusion around different electoral roles would be particularly important. 

I think we just caught some of that; you just broke up a bit then. But you mentioned a pilot and just about the different styles of voting, did you say then?

Yes, I mentioned the different electoral roles and confusion or possible confusion around them. I think the pilots should cover what kind of awareness-raising measures would best work in these circumstances of automatic voter registration in Wales. 

Okey-dokey, perfect. And then I suppose I've just got a final question, if that's okay. I suppose, in terms of the Bill as it is now, are there any provisions not included that you think should have been, or you would like to see?

09:25

I would like to see some measure of responsiveness of bringing a board of young people or young people advisers into the way that elections are managed in Wales, and particularly seeing that now 16 and 17-year-olds have joined the electorate, and that can take different formats. So, we've already talked about the option to have an advisory board on the voter information platform by Members of the Welsh Youth Parliament, for example, but that could also be by embedding a principle of responsiveness. So, there are multiple ways of doing that, the way to futureproof elections and to bring young people into the electorate also in decades to come.

Okay. With that, then, is there a case where there might be over-representation, then, of young people, if that makes sense? For example, if you have an advisory board, in terms of if you look at all the numbers who vote, they're a relatively small proportion in terms of the actual demographics. And then if you look at, say, the elderly or the disabled—isn't there an argument there that we should be looking to create advisory boards there? You mentioned there about the online communication aspect of it. But, obviously, I represent a region that has a city centre and has rural areas, and both complain about broadband connectivity. I'm surprised that in Cardiff it's quite bad in some areas, and then I've got the rural Vale, then, and people have given up trying to connect to the internet there, really, in some cases. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are there, then. Thank you.

Thank you for the question. I think you're absolutely spot on. At the minute, there are so many barriers, for particularly the 16 and 17-year-old voters, that there is a huge under-representation compared to other groups of the electorate. So, I think there's no imminent danger of over-representation. But, of course, in the long run, there are other groups that deserve as much attention, and we welcome the measures in the Bill that see inclusiveness also adapted to disabled voters, for example. I also want to mention that age is the focus of our research, but is obviously not the only characteristic that some of these young people face that make it difficult for them to join the electorate. We often see that age and barriers related to age intersect with ethnicity, with gender, and other kinds of protected characteristics and groups of the population that are under-represented in the electorate. So, any kind of measures that see the inclusion of other under-represented groups are welcomed because the often also affect young people in the same way, if not more.

Okay, Joel. Dr Huebner, I wonder if I could ask you one or two further questions. When you talk about inclusivity, in terms of the online voter information platform, would you have any thoughts on how it could be ensured that information on the platform is accessible to people with disabilities, including people with sight loss?

We haven't done research with young people who are disabled or who have no vision, so there are no research findings in our evidence on this. What we did hear from young people who are disabled is that they face multiple barriers, in terms of being younger and also having other issues with accessibility. One aspect is that moving things online for young people with disabilities presented an opportunity for them, and they welcomed that when we spoke to them, because any kind of mobility issues, for example getting to information events, were spared. So, I would reckon, for particularly people with sight loss, that moving things online also presents opportunities for younger, disabled voters, but we haven't got any evidence on that in our research.

No, okay. A further matter, Dr Huebner, on electoral registration without application—I wonder if you might again offer some thoughts on the potential risks involved in adopting that system and, in particular, is the 45-day notice period for electors to request anonymous registration a sensible provision, or indeed the request not to be registered at all? Is that period long enough?

Yes. I thought about that when I read the draft Bill. I can't offer hard evidence on whether or not 45 days is long enough, but I think, with everything that we've talked about this morning, young people do not tend to receive formal communication, or not open it, unless they are aware that they should be expecting it. This 45-day measure might present risks that young people join the electoral roll not deliberately, without having received the necessary information.

I think, in general, still, it is probably a better way, this way around, than having young people actively join the electoral roll. If you think about electoral registration or the electoral process as a Swiss cheese, automatic voter registration would limit the number of holes in that Swiss cheese, to some extent. But it is a problem that young people might then be joined on the electoral roll without having deliberated whether or not they want to remain anonymous or not. So, I think, again, pilots around awareness-raising measures, what kind of measures are important to reach young people and make this a deliberate choice, are important.

09:30

I see. And just one further question from me before, I think, we'll move on to another committee member, Dr Huebner, that's around data collection: how would improved data collection allow Welsh Government to understand the current gaps in terms of diversity of representation?

I'm not sure if you're referring to the electoral roll here and the data that comes through the electoral roll, or data on electoral turnout in general.

Anything, really, that improves data collection and how it would be relevant to diversity and gaps.

Thank you for the question and the clarification. We think that data is crucial in order to find where gaps exist. I know that one of the committee members mentioned earlier doubts around turnout among young people. The reality we face as researchers is that we currently actually do not know how many young people turned out to vote in Wales in the last election, because the data is not robust enough to make these kinds of estimates, and particularly when it comes to groups within young people. I mentioned that young people not only face barriers because of their age but also because of other protected characteristics. So, if you think about that we need to split down young people again into sub-groups in order to find out where the variance exists—if, for example, young people in the Valleys or of certain socioeconomic status or ethnicity face other kinds of barriers than the majority group young people—we cannot currently confirm those numbers, because we simply do not have that kind of data. So, if you think about making those Swiss cheese holes visible, data is particularly important and it needs to be high-quality data, because there are many smaller groups to look into. Making these gaps visible can then help define and design measures of awareness raising that are specific to these kinds of groups that need the most help or that need the most motivation. So, in that sense, any kind of additional data would be welcomed by us.

Okay. Thank you, Dr Huebner. Sam Rowlands.

Yes. Thanks, Chairman. Just reflecting a bit further on some systems that are attempting to be put in place with the Bill, which are seeking to make it more likely for people to engage with our elections here in Wales, I was wondering whether you think there's a risk that we could think that having these systems in place is going to solve lots of the issues. Because, actually, they're probably not, in reality, because it's actually probably more about passion and knowledge of the impact that voting has. I think of my great-grandmother at the turn of the twentieth century, and imagine her thinking that a barrier is somebody opening a letter—a barrier to them being able to vote. Those barriers I accept exist at a certain level, but if someone wants to vote and engage in political discourse then opening a letter I wouldn't have thought is the hardest thing for them to do to be able to engage with that. I was wondering whether you think that we risk thinking that putting a great system in place is going to solve our problems; actually, it's probably much broader than that.

09:35

Thank you for the question. I think it is worth pointing out that, between the beginning of the twentieth century compared to now, we've seen a huge expansion in the electorate and the voters that we are trying to engage with. So, if you think about democracy as defined by including as many eligible voters as possible, then the number of eligible voters that we are addressing today is very different from the early twentieth century. So, in that sense, I think it's justified to think about barriers in a different way. I think you are absolutely right, though, to point out that just introducing automatic voter registration won't solve all problems. I've spoken about barriers—multiple barriers. There are others that are not addressed by this Bill. We think our research shows quite clearly that voter registration was by far the biggest barrier in the 2021 election for 16 and 17-year-olds, but that, of course, you're absolutely right, doesn't mean that there aren't other barriers that aren't addressed and that need other kinds of forms of addressing, for example, measures around education, civic education, in schools. I know that there is a lot that is being done by other committees on this. So, it is a sort of holistic approach, but we have to think about what kinds of holes in that Swiss cheese we can fill in. And I think this Bill would offer the opportunity to fill one of the biggest holes.

Okay. I think that's a useful analogy to use, and helpful to get the context right in what the Bill may or may not be able to achieve. And believe it or not, I'm not necessarily against the automatic registration, I'm just trying to play devil's advocate a little bit with perhaps what some people think it may seek to resolve. I think that's probably it from me, Chair, on that point, if that's okay with you.

Yes, thanks, Sam. I think it is an interesting exchange, isn't it? Dr Huebner, you mentioned young people's perhaps disappointment, or even frustration, although you didn't put it in those terms, in terms of engagement of the political process with schools. I visit schools regularly in my own constituency—I'm sure other Members do the same—but, actually, sometimes it's a frustration that there isn't more structure to that, either through the local education authority perhaps or the Senedd itself. Because I do think it's valuable, and one thing I often say to young people is that political parties very often tailor their campaigning and their policies, if they get into Government, towards age groups that vote in higher percentages. And we see that with older people, for example, and policies like the triple lock around increases to the state pension. I find that, when you put it to young people in those terms—that, if they vote in greater numbers, they're more likely to get the sorts of policies that they'd like to see, in terms of their own priorities—then it does make them think a little. But you need to have that engagement, to have that conversation, and I'm not sure there's enough structure around that in Wales. Obviously, this Bill is one thing, but, as Sam said, obviously other initiatives need to take place around that, I think.

I think you raise a really valid point. And one thing that we have seen in the research around the 2021 election is that it's definitely not up to a lack of effort on all sides, but maybe where work can be invested is in a joined-up approach on some of these measures. We've heard from youth workers across Wales that they just didn't have a central point to find or signpost young people to when it comes to information, or to request a Member or a candidate to join a school or a youth work session. And we've had, on the other hand, also a really positive development since 2021 in terms of democratic engagement networks. There's been a really strong movement of the network Democracy Group Cymru, led by the Electoral Reform Society, where youth organisations and other representative organisations of minority groups come together and discuss how to make a joined-up approach happen. So, this is something that started in 2021, and it's been really successful. It's been picked up by colleagues in the Welsh Government, with their democratic engagement group, and I think this is a way to get on the train towards a more joined-up approach, to bring the effort into the places that it's needed.

09:40

Okay, Dr Huebner. Well, thank you very much for that. If there are no other questions from committee members, that concludes this particular evidence session. You will be sent a transcript of this session, Dr Huebner, to enable you to check the factual accuracy. But thank you very much for giving evidence to committee this morning. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you for having me. Diolch.

Thank you. Okay then, committee will break briefly before our next evidence session.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 09:40 a 10:09.

The meeting adjourned between 09:40 and 10:09.

10:05
3. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 2
3. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence session 2

Okay, welcome back to committee members, and may I welcome our witnesses for this, our second evidence session on the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill? Would you like to introduce yourselves for the record, perhaps starting with Megan? 

Hello, everyone. I'm Megan Thomas, policy and research officer at Disability Wales. 

Morning. I'm Jess Blair. I'm director of the Electoral Reform Society in Wales. 

Bore da. Nia Thomas, research and campaigns officer, Electoral Reform Society Wales. 

Bore da. Liz Williams, policy and public affairs manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People Cymru. 

Okay. Diolch yn fawr. As I say, thank you all very much for coming in to give evidence to the committee today. Perhaps I might begin with a few questions and firstly, very general, general principles. Could you share your reflections on the Bill as a whole? Who would like to begin? 

10:10

I don't mind kicking off.

Good morning, everyone. I think the first thing to say is that we really welcome this Bill. There’s a general sense that this Bill is around removing barriers for voters. I think it’s right that, with devolution of elections, we have a proper think and legislate upon how we might do democracy differently, essentially, in Wales, and we support that.

I think the thing we want to really reiterate is that this Bill doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is another Bill around Senedd reform currently going through its legislative path in the Senedd, and we’re expecting a further Senedd Cymru Bill later this year. So, what we really want to reiterate is that, for voters, while these are three separate pieces of legislation, this is a massive change to democracy that’s going to have to be communicated really effectively.

Okay. Thank you for that, Jess. Would anybody like to add anything to that? Megan.

We also really welcome this Bill. We were really glad to see the commitment and key goals towards diversifying access to politics and access to elected office specifically. The thing that we would like to push in this Bill is some of the specifics in terms of the accessibility, some of the specific proposals, and then also keep bearing in mind that there are other quite significant areas that can prevent people from being able to access both politics and elected politics specifically.

We absolutely welcome the principles of the Bill. It's really great to see Welsh Government's ambition to make voting more accessible to disabled people. Something I really want to highlight today is that blind and partially sighted people face really unique barriers to voting. So, in the 2022 local elections, only a fifth of blind and partially sighted people could vote independently and in secret, so we absolutely welcome this ambition, like I said.

However, we do think there could be a number of unintended consequences arising from this Bill. So, what the Welsh Government propose to do is change the wording on the face of the Bill from having a prescribed device as a minimum standard in law to having a device that they consider to be reasonable to help or enable someone to have an independent vote. So, what we think this could do and the risk is that it could weaken blind and partially sighted people's legal rights. It will put the responsibility on returning officers to decide what they consider to be reasonable to help someone vote independently and in secret. So, those are the points we want to talk about today.

Thank you very much, Liz. Okay. Well, thank you for that. Before we turn to other committee members, a couple of questions from me on the electoral management board. Do you think the democracy and boundary commission is the right body to establish a new electoral management board?

We see this idea of the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru as a body that could have specific oversight for democracy across Wales—a kind of arm's-length body that can provide services that are currently held much closer to Government. So, we're really pleased to see that the electoral management board is being legislated for in this legislation. It's something that we've called for for quite a while. We do think that it makes sense to link the EMB to the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru, if it does have that broader oversight of democracy in Wales. 

Okay. And there are no contrary views to that, no. Okay, thanks very much. Well, again, then, Nia or Jess, there are a number of networks and groups working with the newly enfranchised populations in Wales, including the Democracy Group Cymru, which you co-ordinate. What would you see as a possible role for the electoral management board in co-ordinating these groups?

The electoral management board in Scotland, for example, has been a really important place for the specific management of elections, but I think it's really worth us remembering that democracy is much wider than solely elections. This EMB, as it's written in the legislation, will be made up largely of returning officers and electoral registration officers, which is really important for its function in that electoral management capacity. But it is also really important that we hold conversations wider than that. And so, I think our thoughts on this are not so much that the EMB would co-ordinate the groups, but maybe that the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru could bring groups together and form as more of an umbrella organisation over the top of those different aspects of democracy. We know that the third sector has a really important role to play in democracy, and it's also really vital that we have voters' voices being heard as well. So, yes, that kind of umbrella ability of the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru could be really important here, so that we'd have the EMB under that, alongside other aspects, and either that they would support existing networks and provide pathways to engagement to make sure that that dialogue continues and that conversation is as wide as possible, or, potentially, they could establish new networks as well.

10:15

Thanks, Chair. Good morning, everybody. We really appreciate you coming in this morning. I just want to touch on the proposals within the Bill for electoral registration without application or auto-enrolment—whatever sort of language you want to use—and just understand, perhaps, what you see as the biggest risks with the electoral registration application. In particular, on the 45-day notice period for electors to request anonymous registration, or not to be registered at all, is that long enough, and are there any particular concerns you may have?

So, we do have some concerns around the 45-day limit. We are concerned that this may not be enough time for a lot of disabled people to be able to start to understand the quite large change within electoral registration and to be able to fill out whatever paperwork is required, or be able to get support to fill out what paperwork will be required either to be able to remove themselves from the electoral register or to become an anonymous voter. Should this be enacted, we would say that this would need to be done in very close consultation with a diverse group of disabled people and their organisations to ensure that the quality of the communications around this rule is adequate. But we are concerned that there is such a strict timeline on this, as, for many of the people we speak to, sometimes they're not even really aware of changes in electoral policy until it is within the voting period.

And perhaps, before I come on to a broader point, to support people with disabilities, aside from the timescale and the communication or consultation, are there any particular features that you think you'd want to see to ensure that people with disabilities are properly considered within this?

We do think that registration without application could be really positive for disabled people. This is because we've had feedback that the amount of paperwork that goes into it can be quite difficult and it can be quite difficult to register to vote, and having that auto-enrolment process would be a positive. From what we've seen, there's not too much, additionally, to impact disabled people, but if we do see anything, then we will write to the committee to let you know.

In terms of registration without application or automating registration, the first thing to say is that we really welcome the provisions in the legislation. We know that registering to vote does act as a barrier to people, and we also know that this is something that many countries successfully do already, so there's no reason why Wales couldn't do it. Having said that, I think it's crucial that it is thought through properly and implemented well.

One of the risks that we can really see is around the kind of sale of people's data, but obviously, that is being mitigated in this legislation by the removal of the open register, which we really welcome. We would say that there's clarity needed on how anonymous registration will work. There are a couple of issues around anonymous registration. There's a question, really, about how long that registration will last. So, Professor Toby James, who did a report on this for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, I think, a couple of years go, said that registration for anonymous registrants should last at least five years. Women's Aid have said at least five years, potentially for life. So, I think there are questions there and definitely organisations that it may be worth the committee engaging with. The 45-day period I think is interesting, because the international time frames—. Professor Toby James's report recommended at least four weeks, so the 45-day period is longer than that, but that's obviously notwithstanding the concerns that Megan's raised here.

I think the other thing we'd really welcome is clarity, really, on how the Welsh Government will mitigate risks about a lack of communication with voters about these changes. The big question we have is how voters will be able to know that they've been automatically registered for devolved elections but actually need to proactively register under a different system for reserved elections. I guess that's something that a pilot could seek to address, so we really welcome the idea of this being piloted first.

10:20

Just talking broadly on your first point around the barriers that people face currently with manual registration, can you describe how you think they look and feel for people—what those barriers actually are?

The proactive need at the moment for people to register just adds that additional hurdle for people to be able to access the polling station. We heard anecdotal evidence at the 2021 and 2022 elections, primarily from newly enfranchised young people, that people were turning up at polling stations not having registered, not having realised they had to. I think automating registration will allow for that barrier to be removed, and I'm more than happy to talk later about a digital register and being able to amend information much closer to election time, which would also remove a barrier there for voters.

Okay. We haven't got a huge amount of time. I'm still not clear how turning up at a polling station is a barrier to registering to vote. You're going to have to help me out with that.

In that they hadn't registered to vote, but were turning up to try and vote without registering, because they weren't aware they had to proactively register in advance.

So, the barrier there is an awareness thing, perhaps.

Okay, lovely. And from RNIB, are there any particular risks you think there may be from those 45 days?

We would broadly welcome this automated registration, because of the unique barriers for blind and partially sighted people to vote, in terms of the online registration form, the paper registration form, and we've heard that the annual household letter prompting people to register is often sent in inaccessible formats. In terms of the 45 days, it would just come back to communication, and I would echo all of Jess and Megan's points around ensuring you're communicating with people effectively and in their required format. So, you'd have to be proactive in finding out how people need to be communicated with. But one of my main points, really, is automated registration won't help address the major barrier, which is that the physical act of voting, which is a visual exercise, won't be made accessible to blind and partially sighted people if it's not done properly and that the registration won't make a difference to that, really.

That's a fair point. I wonder, just going back to the registration itself, and the ability for people to want to remain anonymous in registration, again, for blind or partially sighted people, is that just about the way in which that's communicated in terms of the format of the materials sent to them?

Absolutely. We know that blind and partially sighted people often receive written communication in font sizes 10 or 12 and that they're not able to make an informed decision, because it's not in their required format and they might have to rely on someone coming to the house that week or that month in order to tell them that this piece of communication has come through. So, that's absolutely crucial, in the broader sense, as well, of making sure people feel that they can exercise their democratic right. They need to be informed, they need to be communicated with effectively.

All right. Can I just ask all four of you, perhaps, if we as a committee are to seek to ensure that the Welsh Government make it as clear as possible for people who want to apply for that anonymous registration or to request not to be registered, how we as a committee might recommend to Welsh Government that people don't miss that 45-day window? Are there some real, practical things that you think we should be putting forward as recommendations to the Welsh Government at all?

If I may, for starters are the formats that the communication is available in. So, we've been in recent discussion with policy officers across the disability sector, discussing that one of the big problems with some of the Senedd communications is the lack of easy-read, and the lack of accessible versions of communications that aren't consultation responses. There is still a problem there.

And then, for us, it's the volume of information put out in as many formats as possible. We'll need to see letters going to people's homes, we'll need to see advertisement in key hubs like general practitioners, libraries, key social spaces. We need to see advertisements on the radio, on the television, and just to be very proactive about engaging and promoting this message through as many different channels as possible.

10:25

I would echo that. I think the fundamental here is that clear communication is really vital—definitely different formats, considering accessibility, but also thinking about how the information will signpost for assistance for people who want to register anonymously, for example. There's also, I think, a question of how this will actually work in practice, in terms of communicating this to voters, because there may be an initial tranche of people put on an automated register who get that letter, but then, in theory, in future years, it will just be newly enfranchised people getting that letter, so the visibility of a nationwide campaign would possibly diminish. So I think it's about being consistent with that communication and thinking how it will work in different phases of this move to automation.

Just to add to that, we would want to see disabled people involved in this work, so for co-production to be at the heart of it. And just to build on what Megan said about using lots of different platforms to get this information across, I think for the people we work with, they often get information from trusted sources, so it'll be organisations like RNIB, like Disability Wales, and actually utilising those trusted links is sometimes the most effective way of getting information out there. So, that's something we'd really push for.

Certainly more trusted than political parties, I guess, in terms of information that they may be giving out from time to time. And then, with the pilots in mind, again, on this theme of auto-enrolment, how do you think the pilots can ensure that people can check if they've been missed from the registration process? How can that be done easily?

This is something that we've called for regardless of automatic registration, to be honest. We've long campaigned for some kind of easily accessible 'am I registered' function, whether that be online, or an easier way to access returning officers to actually check that. With automatic registration, I think it becomes even more important that that is put in place.

Professor Toby James's report, which I've already mentioned, did a lot of research on the international ways that AVR works, and typically, he said there will be an option for citizens to check that they are correctly on the list and haven't been inadvertently excluded. So, in Czechia, registers aren't public, but citizens can check their inclusion and correct any mistakes up to two days before polling day. In Denmark, citizens are sent voter cards and corrections can be made up to and including the day of the election.

One thing that might make this more possible in Wales is the inclusion of a digital register, making registers much more adaptable and flexible. That could, I think, combine really well with automatic registration and allow for any corrections to be made much closer to the day of election than currently exists.

Can you just expand on that point about international examples? I think you've shared examples in written evidence around Estonia and how they use a notification system as well. Can you just expand on that point?

Yes, absolutely. I think that automatic registration gives us an opportunity to think about the way that we actually communicate about elections, and there are massive international examples of that, with countries that are doing things much more proactively ahead of an election. I was recently out in Estonia for meetings and met with the state office for elections, and every year before an election, or every election year, they send to every registered voter a letter or an e-mail—it comes in different formats—that includes information like what the election is, candidates eligible in their constituency, where they can vote, information on the registered voters in their household, so they can amend any incorrect information. I feel like moving away from the individual electoral registration process actually gives us an opportunity to do something like that in Wales, and just having that information, I think, just prior to an election will really empower people who feel that there may be a lack of information or who may be a bit confused about what the election is about in advance. 

Thank you. Sorry, if I can jump back to the question I asked earlier about how the pilots might be able to ensure that people can check if they've been missed from the registration process. I'm not sure if anyone else has any thoughts on that at all. You don't have to.

The only other thought we would have is that we would like to see data collected during those pilots on the number of disabled people both registered and who have been able to vote as a result. Something that we do see as a problem is that there is a bit of a lack of information or a lack of hard data on the numbers of disabled people who have been able to register and vote, which is making it quite difficult for organisations like ourselves to be able to see—we know that there is a problem because of our membership—how widespread the scale is and how widespread this is across Wales. We would really emphasise the importance of that. 

10:30

Thank you, Chair. Thanks ever so much for coming in this—. Yes, this morning; I lose track of the time, I'm afraid. I want to follow on with what Sam was asking there about pilots and piloting powers. I know, from the written evidence, that the Electoral Reform Society have highlighted the pilots that were done in 2022 as a base, almost like an example to follow, and I just wanted to get your views on them first. Because I know the Electoral Commission weren't necessarily disappointed in the pilots, but they said that the take-up wasn't that much really in terms of having that earlier voting period, and, obviously, there's an issue there as to whether or not there is a lack of awareness or of advertising of that. I just wanted your views, because you've mentioned also in your written evidence that, on any pilots going forward, there need to be well-in-advance awareness campaigns on that. Could I just have your views on that first?

I think in terms of the pilots that were undertaken in 2022, maybe the uptake was lower than the Electoral Commission would have hoped in their report, but also, we would note that the awareness of the electors in those areas was also relatively low, so, at 22 to 30 per cent. So, you're starting from a lower baseline then of people who can actually participate in those pilots. That's something that we really need to work on in future pilots, I think—that communication. We know that the timeline for those pilots in 2022 was also quite short, and not only can that impact things such as how those pilots are planned, how local authorities might be involved, it also really affects that communication campaign. So, I think taking learning from them and moving forward to better communicate, start things earlier and allow that extra planning would be really useful.

Is there a form of—? It's a very simple question, so, sorry for that: is there a form of communication that you think is better than another, if that makes sense? Because a lot of the evidence we're taking is that people say, 'There's a lack of awareness', but then, in many cases, the communication and engagement is there on the other part, but it's just not sinking in, if that makes sense.

I think what we would say on that is that we're obviously not one homogenous group of people in this room and in Wales, and so I don't think there is the answer that one form of communication is better, because, actually, the communication should be multifaceted because each individual person will have their preferred method to access this information. And so I think it's about having that broad view and having any information on any pilot like this, and more widely on these changes as well, in a multitude of ways—the way the information is presented but also in easy-read and youth versions so that everyone can access information in a way that is best suited to them. We can't really take one type of approach for all in this, because that isn't how we all work individually, I don't think.

One of the other things, just very briefly, to add around that is around the fact that the 2022 pilots had a relatively limited take-up and were in a small geographical area. If this were done on a much wider scale, you would be able to do a much wider communications campaign. If you used something like the letter I was talking about for Estonia, you could include information there on the pilots, for example. So, there are different options, I think, if it's done on a much wider scale.

With that in mind, then, are there any other pilots that you think the Welsh Government should be actively looking at? Because we've mentioned tactile voting and audio voting. And I know that there was a High Court issue a couple of years back, where I think the judge said that it was incompatible with how you expect to vote. And I just wanted to get people's views on that. With the previous evidence session, we heard how they should be looking at the different types of voting that there are. I was just wondering what your views were on that. Liz, do you want to go first?

Yes, of course. The RNIB does have a strong view on this and we'd like Welsh Government to be really ambitious. So, at the moment, voting is a visual exercise, like I said—it's marking the box. But in other countries, there are lots of other ways of voting. We would love to see a telephone voting trial, for example, being piloted. Northern Ireland did a version of it, but I think we could introduce something like that here. It would be incredibly beneficial to blind and partially sighted people but also could increase uptake in rural and remote areas, and those could be the areas where it's piloted. We've seen this in Australia already, and the Welsh Government can learn from other countries, like I said. 

In terms of the audio and tactile provision, you're absolutely right; the tactile voting device is not fit for purpose, and the High Court judge ruled that. So, we have done some research and some user testing trials, which show that audio and tactile together can help facilitate an independent and secret vote. So, I think, like I said, we just need to be ambitious and the Welsh Government need to be proactively seeking different innovations and equipment. 

10:35

With that telephone idea, then, how was that utilised? How was that rolled out, in the sense of ensuring that the person on the other end of the phone was the person entitled to vote, if that makes sense?

The person had to register over the phone and so was given a registration number and then has a personal identification number. So, it goes through a process where this is all checked, and checked again. And then it's a human-assisted telephone voting trial. So, the person would use their code to vote, and then a second person would just check that vote. So, it's anonymous in the sense that the person isn't identified by name, it's just that PIN that would identify them. So, people felt a lot more in control. They felt that they were able to exercise their vote much more effectively. And the anecdotal feedback we've had is that, in Wales, blind and partially sighted people feel incredibly humiliated and frustrated in polling stations. So, this could be a really effective solution to that. 

Does anyone else want to come in on anything there?

I think we might come back in on that, if that's all right. We noted that the Counsel General confirmed in earlier evidence sessions that no pilots except AVR would take place ahead of the 2026 and 2027 elections. Obviously, we really support that AVR being piloted, as Jess mentioned earlier. Given that we did have one set of pilots and it hasn't been moved on legislatively, those things, we would really recommend further pilots on things like voting on different days and in different places. We'd support an extension of the places trialled. We'd like to see more schools, for example, more places that people go to regularly—potentially supermarkets and places like that.

We also noted that the trials took place in quite a limited range of areas last time. It was very south-central, south-east Wales centric, in relatively urbanised areas. We need to really have trials that get a much more geographic spread of Wales to understand how these different factors in voting and changes that could be made might have different effects across Wales and might be better in some places than others. And so we would really like to see both very urban and very rural areas being included and a wider number of local authorities taking part. 

And, again, I would just reiterate that cohesive communication campaign around it so that people can really understand what's going on in their area. It would fit in quite nicely to the idea of an online voting information platform, to have this extra information there available to voters. And, as Jess said, with the letters, it's something that could be included. In Estonia, the days that you can vote on and the places where you can vote are included in the information that you get. 

With that, then, the online platform in terms of electoral material that's been suggested—and apologies if you've already answered this—how do you see that being regulated, for want of a better word? We had a discussion earlier with—. I don't think she was a professor, but a doctor. She mentioned then that, with Twitter, or X as it is now, when you post information, now and then you'll see a community check saying, 'This is misleading', or, 'This might not be factually accurate', or whatever. Do you feel that there might be a need for that, then, when people are posting? What I find, from my own personal experience, is that political parties are quite good at ensuring that what they're saying is legal, is relatively true, but then independents don't necessarily have that same—. Do you know what I mean? So, how would you regulate that, then, to say, 'Well, hang on, this candidate shouldn't be saying that because that's factually wrong', or what and that, you know?

10:40

So, you're looking at the candidate statement side of the platform.

Yes. So, hopefully, this isn't going to be something that's just going to be in a random location on the internet; it will be hosted by an organisation. We don't have a completely fixed view on that, but it could be something that would be suitable for the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru to host. We really think that there needs to be strong guidance to candidates on what they can and cannot include in those statements. We think that things like external links need to be carefully thought about because, you know, while some websites are highly regulated and have information there that we know can be trusted and maintained, if we're having a wide variety of external links, not only could that information change over time, but the information might not be something that abides by those rules.

I think one thing that would be worth looking at is that Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council did include candidate statements, and the option to do that, in the 2022 local elections. We saw quite a lot of those statements giving voters a way to access that information quite easily. People aren't always around for a knock on the door—sometimes you don't even get a knock on the door or even a pamphlet until the day after the local elections, speaking from experience—and, so, to have that information in a place that's easily accessible, as we know that people really struggle with that finding information. It shouldn't be on the voter to go out and hunt down this information, it needs to be in a place that makes it easy for them to access. So, engagement with Merthyr Tydfil, I think, would be really useful on this, to take any learning from them on what worked well, what didn't work well, could be really useful in that sense.

Okay. Perfect, then. Just one final question—and I'm conscious I sort of touched on someone else's area of questions then that they wanted, so sorry about that, whoever's asking them—in the evidence you've submitted, you've mentioned there about the power of the Welsh Government to compel local authorities to run these pilots, and you mentioned that it could be quite a good innovative tool, do you see any drawbacks with that, then, or any issues or implications that could arise from that?

I think, you know, while we support the idea that Welsh Government has that power to compel, we really should also emphasise that should be a last-case scenario. We really think that Welsh Government can work with stakeholders to get that more diverse range of pilots, and one of the things that we think needs to be made sure that it happens is that pilots are effectively resourced. So, that's both from the side of capacity and financial barriers that local authorities might face, so that no-one has less because of conducting a pilot. It's trying to remove some of those barriers. We also think that broadening the list, if it can be involved in suggesting pilots, is a really good thing. And I think, again, we come back to that planning idea, that timescale idea, that being able to have the planning much more in advance of the election than it was in 2022 could really help with that broadening of the pilots and reduce the need for maybe any sort of compulsion from Welsh Government as well. So, all of these things together, we agree that it's in there, but we don't really see that it—. It shouldn't need to be used because there should be conversations that are open, and finding ways to work with people and making sure that there's no kind of downside to conducting these pilots.

Okay. Perfect. Any—? No, that's it? No. Perfect. Thank you, Chair.

Okay, Joel. Diolch yn fawr. If we move on to diversity issues, perhaps I might ask you, Megan, initially, in terms of Disability Wales, whether you think that putting the current access to elected office fund on a statutory footing is the right way to proceed. Is that something that you would support?

Yes, absolutely, that is something that we would support. So, this is something that we were very pleased to see being included in this Bill, and that this financial support is being confirmed and protected for disabled people in future elections. In terms of some of the feedback that we've had on the access to elected office fund, after it was launched in February 2021, of the two candidates the funding was made available to for the Senedd elections, one told us that the availability of the fund played a significant role in their decision to stand. That kind of feedback was also reiterated in the subsequent Welsh local government elections, in which 90 per cent of the candidates approved of the scheme, and told us that the access to elected office fund was a key part in their decision to stand and that they would be willing to re-stand for elected office with the knowledge that this fund was in place. We believe it's really important for this to be included, and we also believe that it's important that financial assistance to be able to access the elected office fund is further expanded. We've seen that finances are an extremely large barrier to being able to stand, for disabled people, but then also multiple people with different protected characteristics. We have in particular heard from the Women's Equality Network about the need for this to be expanded to unpaid carers, and financial support for those with caring roles to be able to maintain those duties and still be able to provide the care that they do provide whilst running for office.

10:45

Okay. Anybody want to add to that? No. You're all content with that. Jayne.

Diolch, Cadeirydd, and good morning. Apologies for not being here earlier. How can the Welsh Government assess which financial schemes to introduce under section 29 of the Bill, which states that Welsh Ministers may by regulation provide for schemes of financial assistance to help candidates who have specified characteristics or specified circumstances?

Is that looking specifically—? Sorry, do you mind clarifying? Is that specifically about how Welsh Government can identify candidates or identify particular groups?

I think it's around—. Yes, with the financial schemes to introduce under that section 29 for specific groups.

We would recommend that this goes out to consultation and that there is active engagement with a lot of the groups that would be impacted by the Welsh Government. So, some of the financial support that has been suggested by and to us includes that for unpaid carers, women, any childcare costs, and any other groups that may experience significant financial barriers. We also are a partner in a mentorship scheme called Equal Power Equal Voice, and under that scheme we do hear that this issue of financial barriers to accessing office is something that is widespread across many different groups and many different protected characteristics.

Brilliant, thank you. Section 28 of the Bill states that

'Welsh Ministers must make arrangements for the provision of services to promote diversity in the protected characteristics and socio-economic circumstances of persons seeking to be elected as members of Senedd'.

Are you content with the provisions in the Bill? What would you like to see delivered in practice?

We are glad to see that there is a specific duty in place. We don't see as much the particulars of what that would mean and what the particulars would be to enforce and support diversity. Something that I see—. Again, that expanded financial support is probably the biggest for us, but then also that mentorship and individual support schemes. Something that was recommended following the closure of the access to elected office fund was networks or groups of disabled politicians and disabled aspiring politicians to be able to engage with each other, work with each other, network and support each other. Unfortunately, some of these have kind of fizzled out over time, but specific support for those would be very useful.

Could I just ask, Jayne, before you go on? Socioeconomic circumstance, I think, is interesting, isn't it, because actually it undercuts protected characteristics and cuts across many relatively under-represented groups in Wales. But defining what would be the indicators, then, of socioeconomic circumstances to allow the promotion of more diversity in that respect is quite difficult in terms of the practicalities. Do you have any ideas or any views on that?

Something that we have seen as useful is almost being—. Disabled people, in responding to a survey that we put out on this Bill, referenced the Access to Work scheme, in terms of that people could apply for specific support or specific support for individual areas. That could potentially be a useful way of supporting people based on socioeconomic circumstance, if it's not necessarily defined by your income or your tax bracket, but by the specific and financial expenses that you experience. 

10:50

Broadly on this point, I think one of the big things that's going to contribute to the effective delivery of section 28 of the legislation is having effective data, and there is a question, I think, about socioeconomic circumstances, and what data you can actually gather around that. But, I think, more broadly, having more effective data in place will allow Ministers to understand where particular gaps lie, and whether the interventions they are making are actually effective or not. 

I just want to ask a question on diversity again. So, still there's a little bit of unconscious bias and structural sexism going on, so just making sure that we have equality and diversity, and expanding a little bit. Many women are still the main carers of children, and you said earlier about the importance of access to financial assistance for people who want to stand, for those with caring responsibilities. So, if that was expanded to include those with caring responsibilities, it might help with that gender bias going forward, do you think?

Yes, absolutely. We believe that that would be beneficial. Specifically looking at things like childcare expenses would be really useful. Something that was interesting from the access to elected office fund from the 2022 Welsh local government elections was that, although due to time constraints, they weren't specifically focused on gender balance within applicants, we found that over 50 per cent of the applicants were women, and a few of the applicants were non-binary. So, although we don't have enough data to say that there was that correlation between the two, we did find, interestingly, that given the percentage of women within local government, having financial support led to 50 per cent of the candidates being female.

Okay. And just regarding harassment and abuse, that was cited as a barrier, sometimes, to standing. So, there have been discussions regarding having a survey afterwards of candidates. So, do you think that would be useful as well? Do you think that might be an issue for people with certain protected characteristics as well, as a barrier, if you haven't got that confidence that some people might have? I'm just saying that a lack of confidence can be a barrier in itself, can't it, and if you have that harassment and abuse—. So, just your views on that.

Absolutely. I think a survey would be useful for capturing evidence so that we can understand how widespread that issue is. That is something that has been raised with us very frequently, specifically by disabled candidates who have experienced discrimination from either voters while they are standing for office within their political parties, or their fear of experiencing discrimination while standing being a barrier to seeking office in the first place. So, this is a very complicated problem, and it is very difficult to find one particular solution. But we do think that encouraging more people into office, so that there's more of a visibility of disabled candidates and candidates of other protected characteristics, and, then, also, raising more awareness and having more support available in terms of hate crime towards candidates, and support for candidates who have experienced it, would be really useful. 

Do you think a buddying system might help in a way, going forward, that sort of thing? I'm just trying to think of solutions as well, to help.

I think, broadly, on the idea of a survey, I don't oppose that, but I just think something needs to be ongoing, rather than a kind of one-shot survey that candidates respond to. Maybe some more effective mechanisms throughout someone's candidacy, and then throughout someone's term in office—reporting processes, that kind of thing, underpinning that—would be useful. 

Thank you. I think that's a good idea, because people's circumstances change throughout that time, so that is really important. You've touched on data—we know how important data is—and you said some of the ways that having better data would be able to help. But, perhaps, are there any other areas where you think current gaps lie in terms of data, in terms of making sure that we get that diversity of representation? I think that's for Jess in particular, really.

10:55

I think the committee might remember that we gave evidence on this to the diversity and local government inquiry and it's something we quite strongly believe—that the current candidate survey isn't fit for purpose. I think the last response rate at the local elections in 2022 was about 12 per cent overall, which is clearly not giving an accurate picture of where diversity is at a local government level, and it's a self-selecting survey. Those responses could quite likely be skewed.

So, really, to understand where the gaps are, we really need a full data set. Firstly, we welcome provisions in the Bill around removing those questions of the candidate survey from primary legislation. I think it's been, frankly, quite crazy that the questions have been put in primary legislation because it makes it so difficult to amend the survey ahead of an election if there is just something that you want to add, or if a question becomes more difficult, or terms are less suitable, for example, over time. That has led to specific delays, so amending the legislation every time has led to the survey going out late, which has then led to a low response rate, so we know that, actually, changing that might ensure that the survey gets included in candidate packs, for example. That would be the No. 1 thing for increasing take-up in that. 

But we do also strongly believe that in the absence of section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 being enacted at UK level, it's right for Wales to think about how we more proactively encourage or put a duty on people to actually fill in this candidate survey data, both at a local level and also at a Senedd level. We note that the Senedd Cymru second piece of legislation is forthcoming and we would hope that there would be some provisions in that around candidate data for a Senedd level. We're unsure if that is actually coming forward or not. But it's a clearly big gap that needs addressing if we are going to think seriously about how we improve diversity. Because we just need that data to be able to measure the effectiveness of these provisions. 

Brilliant. Thank you. And my final question, Chair, is to Liz, really. Are the provisions requiring returning officers to have due regard to Electoral Commission guidance on steps to ensure blind and partially sighted people can vote independently and in secret—are they strong enough?

So, we would argue that they're not. So, just to give a bit of context around my answer, before I answer the due regard section as well, if that's okay—the change in the legislation will require a returning officer to decide how they meet the need of their electorate, so they will have to decide what equipment is reasonable to put in a polling station in order to help someone vote independently and in secret. They will be looking to the Electoral Commission's guidance to help them make this decision and unless that guidance is very comprehensive and in our view includes an audio piece of equipment and a tactile piece of equipment as a minimum standard, so an absolute minimum requirement, we do think there'll be a postcode lottery because, of course, every returning officer might have a different opinion on what's reasonable.

We also worry a little bit about the dialogue between returning officers and their electorate. So, we don't know how they'll be communicating with blind and partially sighted people, whether that'll be proactive, and how they'll find out what is needed in order to ensure that they are able to vote independently and in secret. 

Also, we'd want the guidance by the Electoral Commission to give plenty of detail on what pieces of equipment do help blind and partially sighted people vote independently and in secret. We don't expect returning officers to be accessibility experts. So, again, that guidance would need to be comprehensive. 

And in coming back to your point around the due regard approach, the Welsh Government's own commissioned research showed that it doesn't allow for effective accountability mechanisms, and essentially a public body can show, or can evidence that they've shown due regard in line with the Equality Act, but it might not have resulted in any actual change on the ground for people with protected characteristics. So, we would just want a much more robust accountability mechanism to be in place. We'd want returning officers to have to comply with that guidance, but ultimately we do believe that in order to avoid this postcode lottery, there should be an audio solution and a tactile solution as an absolute minimum standard in every polling station. We don't think that will be the case looking at this Bill in its current form. 

Okay, that's very clear, Liz. Thank you very much. Carolyn. Carolyn Thomas.

So, just regarding the online voter information platform—you've already touched on this a bit already, so I'll go over the questions, then you can fill in gaps. How can Welsh Government ensure information on the platform is accessible to people with disabilities and blind and partially sighted people? So, is there anything you'd like to add regarding that?

11:00

Yes, absolutely. So, we would really welcome this digital platform. It would be so useful for blind and partially sighted people, because they often do rely on digital sources of information. We'd want the information to be available in audio formats so you could have audio files that people can listen to. The information would need to comply with web accessibility standards and also be compatible with screen readers as well. So, those are the formats we'd want the information in. And in terms of the information on those platforms, we know that at the moment poll cards go out in inaccessible formats, for example, and the information on those poll cards are so important to ensure people are informed in advance of an election. So, that information could be made available on the platform as well.

We also think that it would be really helpful for people to be aware of what to expect at the polling station, what equipment is made available, what support is available. Ultimately, not everyone will be able to access this digital platform, so other non-digital sources of information will need to be available as well. But it would be a really good starting point and it would just be so important for whoever oversees that platform to work closely with organisations like ours to ensure that the people we represent are feeding into that and are able to shape the information.

We cautiously welcome this platform as we would like to see this being developed with an advisory panel or a group of disabled people and disabled people's organisations in order to ensure that the website is as accessible as possible. So, the kind of things that we would need to see on this website are British Sign Language video formats of the information mentioned earlier. There have been some concerns raised with us by organisations like Learning Disability Wales and All Wales People First about the availability of easy-read information, and that this information would need to be available as easy-read and would need to be screen readable. So, we would like to see this being developed very closely with disabled people. We do think it could be a really useful resource. A thing that disabled people bring up with us frequently is that this information, although it can be out there—it's difficult when it is spread across multiple different websites or multiple different sources. So, it would be useful to have that one consolidated place where all this information could be found. I'd really echo Liz's point about how you can also use the information available, use this website to advertise and give information on the accessibility of certain polling stations, and the accessibility available. We would also really like to stress that it is important that this information is not only available on the website and that there are alternative sources of information, so, for example, if there is a phone number that you could call to be able to access a print copy of this information, or that it is easy to find this information in a print format or in alternative formats. 

Okay. Thank you. And we discussed this earlier as well, but who should be responsible for the management of the platform and how can they ensure that things like candidate statements do not contain misinformation? I think Jess suggested something earlier, didn't you?

Yes, I guess we've been over parts of this a bit earlier in the conversation. But, yes, again, this is something that could potentially be suitable for the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru to host. And, yes, we do need that strong guidance in terms of what candidates can and can't put into their statements. Yes, due regard for external links and how they may or may not be suitable. And also learning from what we've done in Wales so far in terms of seeing what Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council did in 2022. 

Just to answer that, it's just occurred to me that the Democracy Club have run a site for quite a while where they crowdsource candidate statements. It might be worth engaging with them about how effective that's been. 

The Democracy Club.

The Democracy Club. Okay. Great. Thank you. And how can the Welsh Government ensure that the platform is available to digitally excluded people? And you went over that just earlier, didn't you? It's great, I have not had to ask the questions, because you've already spoken on things. What you said earlier about information regarding going to the polling station, there might be people that say to me, 'It's quite daunting going in there, isn't it, and thinking what you have to do?' If they're prepared, it makes it easier. 

11:05

One thing around that daunting process is we've long supported mock elections or parallel elections for young people. The children's commissioner's office ran Project Vote ahead of the Senedd and local elections this year, and just giving young people that taste of democracy before they actually get to a voting age is something that we found particularly helpful. 

I recently visited a primary school that had a mock election, which was very interesting. So, I had to make sure that—. Somebody did ask me, 'Was that politically biased?' And I said 'No'. They were voting on whether they should have more sports and things like that. It was really interesting, yes. Thank you. 

We also know from anecdotal evidence that a lot of the newly enfranchised voters had quite a lot of anxiety around the process. So, again, being able to remove that anxiety, having people know what they're going to be doing and how it functions is really important. I think we would echo that for digital exclusion, having a variety of formats is really, really important. We obviously really support the online voter information platform. It's something that we've called for ourselves, and as has the collective Democracy Group Cymru. I think there are a lot of organisations within that network that would be really important to interact with in terms of how the online platform itself can be as accessible as possible, but where the gaps might be in terms of inclusion around that. 

In terms of the letter idea and what Estonia does, we believe that, seeing as that could be going directly to people, that could be both a signpost towards this online platform, but also then a signpost as to how get the information in a non-digital format. We definitely support things like networks of libraries being places where people might be able to access that information. And again, we're talking about effective communication campaigns and that variety in terms of how communication is fed out to people as well, so that we have comprehensive campaigns so that voters can engage, regardless of their circumstances. 

Just one final point that I didn't mention previously, something that would be really important to include on this online platform is some of the specific differences between devolved elections and reserved elections. We've had it brought to us, especially as the process for voting between the devolved elections and the non-devolved elections continues to differ—we have seen a bit of confusion around that, specifically around the voter ID proposals. So, including that information I think would be really important. 

Okay, Carolyn. Thanks. If we could move on to campaign finance and notional expenditure. Jess, I think it's the society's view, isn't it, that bringing this legislation in line with the UK Government's Elections Act 2022 isn't sufficient, and that, in terms of that UK Act, the society was disappointed that measures to tighten the regulation of political finance, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the 'Regulating Election Finance' report—weren't included in that UK Act, and, presumably, you'd like to see them included in this legislation. Is that the case?

Yes, absolutely. I think our criticism very much stems around the UK Elections Act, rather than this legislation. This legislation just seems to bring Wales in line with the Elections Act, which is fine from a devolved standpoint. I think there are limitations in what we can actually do in Wales around this, but absolutely I think it's right, Chair, that our concerns are around the Elections Act really not considering those recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I think it's the case that that report—. They actually introduced the legislation a couple of days before that report actually came out, even though they were meant to be waiting for that report and its recommendations. So, it really doesn't reflect that. There are 47 recommendations in there—really comprehensive—and it might be something that Welsh Government will want to consider, whether they have powers over any of it to enact, but, ultimately, I think we'd like to see a UK Government really reforming electoral law around that. 

Oh, I see. Okay. So, it's more a question of competence, really, in terms of what this legislation in Wales might be able to do or not? 

Yes. Okay. And that needs to be bottomed out by the lawyers, then, really. 

11:10

Yes. I think it's absolutely welcome that Welsh law around this should be brought into line with UK law; I just do think that there are limitations in what Wales could do beyond what the UK has already done.

Yes, I see. Okay. Just one further question from me before we conclude the session. It's just going back to the earlier points on the electoral management board, and the democracy and boundary commission being the right body to establish that electoral management board. They're separate in Scotland. Would you have any—? Can you understand any views that see risk or disadvantage in having them together?

I think there are obviously risks in terms of establishing new bodies or institutions and having them work with each other. This isn't something that's necessarily being piloted; it's just going to be rolled out. But we see the democracy and boundary commission as something very different, and we hope that Welsh Government Ministers share that ambition. There has been a need, for a long time, I think, for something arm's length from Government that can really oversee elections. If that is what the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru is established to actually do, and goes beyond very much the existing powers of the boundary commission in its current form, that is something that would make sense, potentially, with the EMB. I think there are questions about how it would relate to the EMB if it doesn't deliver on those functions.

I see. Okay. Well, thank you very much for that. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Thank you, all, very much for coming in to give evidence to committee today. Diolch yn fawr.

Okay. Committee will break briefly before our third and final evidence session for today.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:12 ac 11:31.

The meeting adjourned between 11:12 and 11:31.

11:30
4. Y Bil Etholiadau a Chyrff Etholedig (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 3
4. Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: Evidence session 3

We've reached item 4 on our agenda today, then, our third evidence session on the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill. I'm very pleased to welcome, joining us virtually, Ruth Coombs, head of Wales, Equality and Human Rights Commission. Thank you very much, Ruth, for appearing before committee today to aid our scrutiny of the proposed legislation. Perhaps I might begin just with a general question with regard to human rights. Could you set out whether you think this legislation complies with the Welsh Government's obligations regarding human rights?

I think that there are some areas of human rights that are likely to be compromised to some extent, but we think that that's probably proportionate. We know that the Welsh Government cannot contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. We don't think that it does, the way that the legislation is stated. But I also think that it's probably, in terms of the explanatory memorandum, a little bit light in terms of human rights considerations. It's, what, a 400-page document. That thread of human rights, we think, could be a little bit more explicit as things go forward, but, certainly, where things have been—and I know that there are more specific questions around particular articles to come—I can explain why we think that there is no contravention of the ECHR at that point as well, if that would be helpful.

Okay, Ruth, that's absolutely fine. We'll turn to other committee members, then, for those further questions, and, firstly, Carolyn Thomas.

What are the Equality and Human Rights Commission's views on the lack of human rights consultation and analysis included in the Welsh Government's explanatory material accompanying the Bill?

We thought that the explanatory memorandum was quite light on human rights and human rights obligations. We know that the Welsh Government, through the UK Government as the state party, has signed up to a number of UN treaties and conventions, and they could be a bit more explicit in that, maybe as an annex or some such matters, particularly things like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would come into play with the voting age of 16 and 17-year-olds. The UNCRC considers children to be children until the age of 18, so there is a definite interface there. There's also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UNCRPD, and I'll go into that in a bit more detail when we come to the section on diversity, but that's another consideration. And, also, Welsh Government has a commitment to the UN principles for older people, and so to have more explicit mention of these ones that are a particular focus for the Welsh Government would be helpful, so that people could understand that interplay a bit more clearly.

11:35

Okay, thank you. To what extent is the public service equality duty embedded in the Bill?

Well, that's a really interesting question, because the Bill does not have a published equality impact assessment, which is a requirement under the public sector equality duty specific duties for Wales, which are Welsh Government regulations. There is a duty to publish that, as well as to conduct it. There is reference that an EIA has been conducted but there is nothing to back that up, so it's very difficult to see how those obligations have been taken into consideration. The PSED has a due regard duty; the specific duties—of which publishing an EIA is one—are designed to support public bodies to meet the general duty to foster good relations, advance equality of opportunity and not to discriminate, and one of the concerns that we have is that, without that published EIA, it's difficult to see whether or not all the three elements of the public sector equality duty have been complied with in the development of the legislation.

One of the concerns that we have is that quite often, focus is put on, 'Have we discriminated or not?' and ensuring that people don't discriminate, which is only one aspect of those three pillars of the general duty. So, we would like to see something that clearly states that they've looked at equality of opportunity, that balancing of rights, as well as simply not discriminating. I think that, in the document, it says that an EIA is available on request, but there is a legal requirement for it to be published. It's also an iterative—. It should be an iterative document, that, as decisions are taken, and as the Bill progresses through the different stages, that would be revisited and relooked at, and how decisions have been changed as a result of that noted and added in, so you can see how the public sector equality duty is informing the development of the Bill right through its passage. And we would want to see that.

Hi, Ruth. Thanks ever so much for coming this morning to give evidence. I suppose I just wanted to ask about third party controlled expenditure and whether or not you had any concerns with compliance with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I just wanted to know your thoughts on that. I know at the start you mentioned you didn’t necessarily have that many concerns about compliance, but I just wanted to pick your brains on that specific issue, then. Thank you.

Thank you. We know that section 36 inserts the new section into the referendums Act et cetera, and it largely relates, in our view, to restrictions on foreign entities engaging in campaigning activities in the regulated period, which is the pre-election period. Our view of that is that we tend to agree with the ECHR memorandum accompanying the Elections Act of 2022, that any interference with article 10, which is freedom of expression, is likely to be proportionate, for the reasons set out in the memorandum and for the safeguards that are in place. And this is referenced clearly in the memorandum to the Elections Act in paragraphs 97 and 98, so it would be helpful if your legal people and researchers checked out those two paragraphs. But we tend to agree that that is a proportionate Act.

11:40

Thanks for that. I know you mentioned then the Elections Act 2022 and I know from, I think, the written evidence that we've received that the Welsh Government doesn't appear to have provided similar analysis to the extent of the UK. Do you think there's a failing there on behalf of the Welsh Government and that it should look to try and almost duplicate that level of analysis that came with the 2022 Act?

Yes, we think it would be useful for the Welsh Government to use its own lawyers just to check out whether or not anything has been missed. But it is likely to be a proportionate Act because the section is so similar. Demonstrating that their own legal team has checked it out would be really helpful, I think.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Ruth. Section 3 of the Bill requires each electoral registration officer in Wales to add eligible electors to the local government register in Wales, where the electoral registration officer is satisfied that the person is entitled to register. So, I was wondering how you consider that these provisions engage with human rights, whether they do engage with human rights at all and whether you can foresee any challenge from individuals with this requirement.

Well, our provisional view is that this is likely to be a proportionate interference with Article 8—the right to respect private and family life—and we think that, in light of the ECHR case law, which was Bowman, and that also it may be considered to encroach on Article 10 rights, on freedom of expression. But our view is that it is likely to be justified in accordance with Article 10(2), which are the restrictions on freedom of expression in conjunction with Article 3, protocol 1—the right to free elections. So, we all know that everybody has human rights, and human rights are a balance and that if you balance one right against another right, you might balance one person's right against another person's right. The only right that trumps all the others is the right to life. So, we think that the restrictions and those encroachments are likely to be considered proportionate for the purposes of the Bill.

Again, we would expect that Welsh Government would use their lawyers and researchers to check out that they hadn't gone too far and then contravened ECHR, but we don't think they have at this point. I think this would, again, be one to check out with the legal professionals in Welsh Government and also to review in the light of any potential subsequent amendments as the Bill passes. But as it's written at the moment, we think it's a balance.

Diolch, Cadeirydd, and good morning, bore da. I just want to talk about section 28 of the Bill. That section states that the Welsh Ministers must make arrangements for the provision of services to promote diversity in the protected characteristics and socioeconomic circumstances of persons seeking to be elected as Members of the Senedd. Are you content with these provisions in the Bill and what would you like to see delivered in practice? 

Thank you. That's a really helpful question. We know that the Welsh Ministers must have regard to whether there are groups that are under-represented in the Senedd, on counsel, including protected characteristics and socioeconomic circumstances, and we think that's a positive—that the socioeconomic duty is coming into play at this time. So, we welcome that recognition that some people have additional barriers in seeking election. Socioeconomic circumstances can often be a barrier, so the fact that it's reflecting those new obligations under the socioeconomic duty is welcomed. 

But it's important, as set out in the explanatory memorandum, that the arrangements are transparent and politically neutral, and therefore the Welsh Ministers cannot make decisions on who receives support. So, what we need is clarity on who is going to oversee it. We want to see that those who are providing that oversight—we would strongly recommend—are subject to the public sector equality duty so that they become listed bodies. Now, that might be so that, if they are listed under the public sector equality duty, they will have a requirement to engage with protected characteristic groups. They'd be required to conduct equality impact assessments, use equality evidence and report on progress, and it would enable them to use the levers of the PSED as a lever for decision making, to make sure that they're evidence based and meet the diverse needs of different groups. We know this is really important because we know that, the more diverse a body is that's making strategic decisions, the better those decisions are. And the PSED is a really good tool for supporting that to happen and happen effectively. So, it's the oversight body that we think should be listed so that all that engagement that is required is demonstrated and clearly evidenced, and evidenced to the people who they are trying to serve.

11:45

Okay. Ruth, I wonder if you might offer us any thoughts on the practicalities of promoting diversity in terms of socioeconomic characteristics, because it's quite difficult, isn't it, to define who sits where in socioeconomic terms. Is that something that the commission might have a view on, do you think?

You're right, it is difficult. Not everybody wants to share their socioeconomic circumstances, but we've got good population data that indicates which areas of Wales are the most socioeconomically disadvantaged and which areas are the least socioeconomically disadvantaged. So, we can use things like the report that we have around poverty, for example, as a proxy for trying to evidence and unearth some of those statistics, and I think that's important to do. Listed bodies are already required to consider the socioeconomic duty when making strategic decisions, and we feel that this fits very well into that context. That includes the Welsh Government; they are a listed body. 

There is good guidance on the Welsh Government's website. We worked closely with the Welsh Government, advising them, alongside the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, to see how all of that maps across and interfaces. And there are good toolkits on there that people can use practically. We've done a bit of a dip test on public bodies and how they're using those toolkits, and, at the moment, the take-up doesn't appear to be very strong. We'd expect that to be better in the next round of developing strategic equality plans, for example. So, there are some practical tools to support this, which would reduce the barriers of how to engage with people. So, I would suggest that signposting to those practical resources would be really useful, together with signposting, perhaps, to the research that we did around preparedness of the socioeconomic duty in Wales and early indicators of how it was settling in in Scotland, which we did a couple of years ago. Between the two, people would have quite a lot of support that they could use.

Thanks for that. And, finally from me, what's your view on how the Welsh Government should assess which financial schemes to introduce under section 29 of the Bill—that part that relates to Welsh Ministers making regulations to provide for schemes of financial assistance to help candidates who have specified characteristics or specified circumstances?

11:50

Yes, I'm afraid that we find the language of that section as it's currently written quite unhelpful; it's vague. And although we welcome the proposal to set the access to elected office fund on a statutory footing that recognises those additional barriers, we're concerned that section 29 doesn't really actually spell out who that means. So, it's not clearly defined what groups have specified characteristics, it doesn't set out what 'specified circumstances' would include, and this is in direct contrast to section 28, which clearly sets out the protected characteristics. And we would recommend that similar wording is used here, but that it is also expanded, as seems to be the intention, to include people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. So, embedding the protected characteristics in the Equality Act and also embedding the socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act in this section would be really important.

We also think that this section also needs to have oversight by a person or body to ensure political neutrality and transparency. Section 30 sets out which bodies would be excluded from that role, but we think there should be a bit more clarity on who would oversee the schemes. And we, again, recommend that they are listed under the PSED so that they're required to engage with protected characteristic groups, conduct EIAs and use equality evidence and report on progress. Again, that would enable them to use the PSED as a lever and the socioeconomic duty as a lever to ensure that the decisions they make are evidence based and to meet the diverse needs of different groups. I think our biggest concern is that, inadvertently, people could fall through the net because it's too vague at the moment.

Thank you, Chair, and thanks for that response to that question there, Ruth. Just going back to the point where, if I recall correctly, I think you said that you believe that section 28 should be expanded to include support for those from more difficult, perhaps, socioeconomic backgrounds, I can understand, perhaps, the need for that during an election, for example, because of the cost of materials and time taken to run an election campaign, but I wonder if you could expand on what it is you think about people from a less advantaged socioeconomic background that prevents them from filling in a form to stand as a candidate?

I think a lot of people from a socioeconomic disadvantage don't believe that they're represented. It's, 'People don't look like us, don't appear to have shared our journey, so, why would I want to be part of that?' It's similar to why people from some ethnic minority groups don't feel it's relevant. To push to make it relevant, I think that they need to ensure that there is that understanding that if they do fill in that form, there will be support, including financial support. We know people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be digitally connected, they're less likely to have disposable income, so, when we're looking at how much it costs to run a campaign, for example, there might need to be those financial considerations put into it. I think that having some practical sessions to encourage people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds to stand would be good. Maybe that's something that local councillors could be involved in if they live in the areas that they serve, because they'd have that understanding. People often feel—.

There was an interesting report that's just come out—I heard it on Radio 4 this morning—about transport and the cost-of-living crisis and how transport is now the second biggest challenge for people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing work, for example. So, if you are an elected Member and you've got to rely on travel, it could be daunting—how do you get there? It costs £5,500 on average to run a car these days.

There are all sorts of barriers to people, and a lot of it is around confidence and building confidence as well, which is where having sessions in schools and the new curriculum, paying attention to these sorts of matters is really important, and linking that in with young voters—how are we encouraging young people to vote? And extending that. Not just encouraging young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds to vote, but also to consider themselves for a career in elected office as they progress through their career choices. All of that would be really important.

11:55