Due to restrictions designed to halt the spread of coronavirus, the National Assembly for Wales has made significant changes to the way it works. Last week, the Assembly became the first UK legislature to hold ‘virtual’ parliamentary proceedings using the video conferencing facility Zoom.
The session saw statements on Covid-19 from the first minister and other cabinet members. Party groups agreed to proportionally limit their representation using the ‘emergency Senedd’ model, with three Labour backbenchers joining the government ministers, three Conservative AMs, two Plaid Cymru AMs and one Brexit Party AM taking part. AMs not part of an Assembly group were given free rein to attend, with UKIP’s Neil Hamilton and the Welsh National Party’s Neil McEvoy bringing the total number of AMs participating to 14. While no votes took place during the meeting, Assembly standing orders have been amended so that only four members are needed for votes at plenary to be valid.
Speaking after the session, which was released in its entirety online after proceedings were concluded, Llywydd Elin Jones said: “the innovative way in which proceedings were conducted reflect the Assembly’s determination to continue to fulfil its duty in allowing effective scrutiny to take place”. Since the session, the Assembly says it has been contacted by parliaments across the world seeking advice on meeting remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.
The next virtual plenary session is scheduled for this Wednesday, and unlike last week will be broadcast live on Senedd.tv. More AMs will join this week’s meeting, with up to 28 (12 Labour, six Conservative, four Plaid Cymru, two Brexit Party and all four non-Assembly group AMs) being invited to contribute.
The agenda consists of statements from the first minister and the environment minister on the Welsh Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The meeting will also break new ground by making provision for the UK’s first virtual plenary vote, as AMs vote on the Stage 1 proposals for the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which among other things will lower the voting age in local elections to 16, bringing it in line with Assembly elections following the passing of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. Voting on the Bill will be done using weighted voting by roll call, where a representative of each party group will cast votes on behalf of all members of the group. The Bill’s proposals, similar to the Senedd and Elections Act, have popular support across the Assembly and are therefore expected to pass quite comfortably.
While last week’s session may have been carried out with little incident, the mix of a live broadcast, increased number of AMs and the UK’s first virtual plenary legislative vote, coupled with the fact that certain regions of Wales have notoriously poor internet coverage, this week’s session could be a somewhat more unpredictable affair.
Virtual meetings are set to continue for the foreseeable future. This week, the Assembly Commission extended the closure of the Senedd and Pierhead buildings along with face to face events until at least May 31, with the possibility of extending this further.
The Assembly is set to go into recess tomorrow until Tuesday, April 21.