Pushing the boundaries: MPs debate assembly elections

It had to compete with the inaugural Political Book Awards and a football match or two, but MPs spent 30 minutes last night debating how members of the National Assembly for Wales are elected.

Last week's House of Commons vote blocked boundary changes at Westminster and led to the Wales Office abandoning consequential changes to assembly boundaries which would, coincidentally or not, have made it more difficult for Labour to win a majority in Cardiff Bay.

The changes had been proposed in a consultation document or green paper and a Wales Office spokesperson said at the time: "The green paper did not just focus on constituencies. Other important issues, such as the length of assembly terms, were included and it is right that we sought people's views on them. We will now consider how best to move forward with these proposals."

So what does that mean? We were given one or two clues during last night's debate. Ministers are considering reversing the current ban on would-be AMs standing in both constituencies and on regional lists.

The last Labour UK government introduced the ban on dual candidacy to avoid a situation where candidates could be overwhelmingly defeated in a constituency but get elected via the regional list top-up system, which compensates parties that fail to win first-past-the-post seats.

Wales Office Minister Stephen Crabb said that although changing boundaries had been dropped from the green paper: "The government will consider how to take forward the other important proposals in the green paper.

"First, should assembly terms be increased from four to five years? Secondly, should the prohibition on standing as a candidate in both a constituency and a region be lifted? Thirdly, should assembly members be prohibited from sitting in Parliament and from having multiple mandates?

"Of the three questions I have highlighted, the most pressing is on the length of assembly terms. Members will be aware that, as a result of concerns expressed by the Welsh government during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the assembly election scheduled for May 2015 was deferred by one year until 2016 to avoid a clash with the next general election.

"That is a good example of the UK government listening to the concerns raised by the Welsh government, and collaborating with them. That is a one-off change. The two elections are set to coincide again in 2020 unless provision is made to prevent it."

Mr Crabb added: "A majority of respondents to our consultation favoured a move to five-year terms to reduce the likelihood of elections coinciding in future. The decision is a finely balanced one - good arguments have been made in support of both options - but however we decide to proceed, we are mindful that electors in Wales should be clear on how long they are electing their representatives for. Importantly, all four political parties in the assembly favoured a move to five-year terms. It is worth putting that on the record.

"In the green paper, the government set out our intention to repeal the prohibition on a candidate at an assembly election standing in both a constituency and a region. All three opposition parties in the assembly favoured removing the ban, but I acknowledge that, overall, a small majority favoured retaining the prohibition in their responses to the consultation. A significant majority of respondents agreed with our proposal to prevent assembly members from sitting in Westminster."

Stephen Crabb gave little away as to how the UK government would implement any changes. There is talk of another Government of Wales Bill, which could also incorporate the transfer of additional powers to Wales (although tax-varying powers could be transferred in a Finance Bill).

The debate didn't get going until after 8 o'clock last night, denying MPs the chance to watch the Wales versus Austria friendly. Fortunately, Plaid Cymru's Jonathan Edwards was able to provide a scoreflash, interrupting the debate to tell MPs: The honourable gentleman is being very gracious in giving way. I am sure that he will be glad to hear that Gareth Bale has just scored for Wales and that we are beating Austria 1-0."

You can read the full debate via Hansard here.