Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd
Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd09/01/2019
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Huw Irranca-Davies AC||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Jayne Bryant|
|Substitute for Jayne Bryant|
|Jenny Rathbone AC|
|John Griffiths AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AC|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Angharad Thomas-Richards||Cynghorwr y Rhaglen Diwygio Etholiadol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Electoral Reform Programme Adviser, Welsh Government|
|Chris Vinestock||Prif Swyddog Gweithredol a Chyfarwyddwr Ymchwiliadau, Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru|
|Chief Operating Officer and Director of Investigations, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales|
|Julie James AC||Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Katrin Shaw||Prif Swyddog Gweithredol a Chyfarwyddwr Ymchwiliadau, Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru|
|Director of Policy, Legal and Governance, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales|
|Lisa James||Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr Democratiaeth Llywodraeth Leol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Deputy Director, Local Government Democracy, Welsh Government|
|Nick Bennett||Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru|
|Public Services Ombudsman for Wales|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Chloe Davies||Dirprwy Glerc|
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.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:30.
The meeting began at 09:30.
May I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? The first item on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We have received apologies from Siân Gwenllian, Jack Sargeant and Jayne Bryant. Huw Irranca-Davies is substituting for Jayne. Welcome, Huw. Item 2, then—oh, sorry, are there any declarations of interest? No? No.
Item 2, then, is our annual scrutiny of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales in terms of the annual report and accounts, and I'm very pleased to welcome Nick Bennett, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales; Chris Vinestock, chief operating officer and director of investigations; and Katrin Shaw, director of policy, legal and governance. Thank you very much for coming before the committee to give evidence today. Perhaps I might start, then, with some initial questions on overall caseload and estimates. Firstly, Nick, do you anticipate the upward trend in caseload to continue beyond the trend that, I think, you've identified in your paper 2? And, if you do expect that upward trend in caseload to increase over the coming years, what impact will that have on your work and the work of your office?
Yes. Thank you, Chair. Well, I think the trend is clearly going in one direction. The number of complaints coming to the office has almost doubled over the past decade. The proportion of those complaints that are health related has certainly doubled, and I think perhaps that's the biggest challenge that the office faces; it's perhaps one of the biggest challenges that public policy more generally faces, given the pressures on the NHS, the impact of an ageing population. So, certainly, it's not just the fact that we are receiving more health-related complaints, but by their very nature they will tend to be more complex because people who complain about certain health procedures will be more likely to have a number of comorbidities. So, whereas perhaps people were being treated by the NHS 20 years ago and had one particular complaint, now, increasingly, we see people suffering a number of comorbidities. And, of course, that means that we have to get clinical advice. We've got power to look at professional issues and judgments when it comes to health-related complaints. I have to say as well that they're more demanding, because we're all human and we've got a great professional cohort of staff but these tend to be the most upsetting complaints quite often as well.
So, that's the real challenge that we have in terms of being able to cope with those pressures. If you look at the last annual report, overall numbers for complaints were down last year, which gave us a bit of a surprise, but there was an 8 per cent increase in health-related complaints. And that's why, unfortunately, when it comes to some of our key performance indicators, we did find it a particularly challenging year. But I'm glad to say that we are coping—for now. I don't feel that that's sustainable going forward unless we can embrace more innovation. Certainly, I'm very grateful to colleagues in the office and to Chris and Katrin here for trying to make sure that we are as efficient as we possibly can be, but it's now time, I think, for us to look at broader best practice. I think the committee will be looking at the new legislation that I've been keen for us to adopt for some time. That includes measures such as a complaints standards authority, currently used in Scotland, which can be used to increase transparency and best practice when it comes to complaint handling in different public sectors. I think that would be of great use to us in Wales.
So, we can cope for now, but I think the time really has come for us to look at that legislation. I think it's a challenge for us all. My challenge to the committee would be: can we adopt that legislation and make sure that the possibility of best practice can be adopted in Wales? And I'm sure your challenge back to me as well will be: if the legislation is passed over the next few months, are you able to make best use of it so that we do see a downward turn in that trend, certainly over the next two or three years?
Yes. Okay. Well, I didn't think it would be long before the Bill got a mention, Nick. Could I just ask about resource, because obviously there is a revised estimate now, isn't there, for the next financial year? So, are you confident that the resource that will be available to you will be sufficient for you to properly discharge your duties?
I am, but again I'd have to say that that does depend in part upon what happens with legislative progress this year. The Finance Committee did seek a reduction in our original estimate from, I think, about 3.8 per cent to 1.6 per cent. I think there were a number of reasons around that. For example, I think one of the issues this year is the additional complexity with devolution of taxes. What kind of trend are we going to see in terms of block growth? I think the Assembly Commission had indicated they anticipated a 1.67 per cent increase in departmental expenditure limit measure of the block for this forthcoming year. If you look at total managed expenditure, the figure is significantly higher. The Finance Committee were also—and I'm very pleased about this—very keen that I put an additional column in the estimate for additional powers should they happen next year. If they happen and we get some additional finance with that, then the increase in my overall budget will be more than 1.6 per cent; it'll be in line with overall block movement if you look at total managed expenditure. So, that would mean that we're okay. But I certainly don't think we'd be sustainable if we're looking at 7 per cent growth in total Welsh block, perhaps 7 or 8 per cent inflation in health complaints and we have a 1.6 per cent increase during a period of 2 per cent or 3 per cent inflation. That is a real-terms cut at a time at a time where we've squeezed the sponge pretty dry.
Yes. Okay. On your new corporate plan, Nick, given some of the trends that you've identified and increasing complexity in cases that you deal with, for example, are you content that your new corporate plan will enable you to properly get to grips with those issues?
Yes. We've got a draft corporate plan and we'll be consulting on it shortly. Its working title is 'Delivering Justice'. I think administrative justice is an issue that would obviously be important to this committee but I would hope to the Assembly more broadly. But, again, without wanting to carp on, aspects of this will depend upon issues certainly outside of my control. I was very pleased that Plenary voted in favour of the legislation. I think it comes back to you in Stage 3, Stage 4, hopefully Royal Assent—. I feel I've got to start planning now in terms of what we do if that happens, so that's very much at the core of the corporate plan. And to make sure that we're relevant—we're relevant to the concerns of people in Wales, we're relevant to the views of this committee and the broader Assembly, and that we're fit for the future so that we can make sure that we're adopting best practice and that we can demonstrate that with any additional powers we receive we're exercising them in a responsible way that is relevant to the public policy concerns that people in Wales have.
Yes. Okay. Four public interest report in the last year, Nick, which is a low number really, compared to previous years, isn't it? What would you say were the particular reasons for that?
The main reason is because I'm running a reactive service. We will publish public interest reports where we feel there's been a specific issue of public policy importance, where it's very serious, perhaps where there's been a systemic issue, but we can only do that in reaction to what comes through the door. So, in previous years, I think we've had maybe 12 or 13 public interest reports some years. Last year there were only four. So far this year, there are 11. You know, it's very much a reaction to what happens to be coming in and how serious that is.
Can I ask a follow-up question on that?
Just before you do, Leanne, I think Huw wanted to come in. Huw.
Thank you, Chair. It's purely to ask, that doesn't mean then that you are omitting things from a public interest agenda. Reactive does not mean that you are purely—. If you're reacting to what's coming through the door, are you missing things that are of significant public interest that you should be turning your attention to?
Well, that's a great question and, of course, it is a risk. And I don't want to carp on constantly. I haven't come here—[Interruption.] I have come here to account for last year's annual report, not—
I'm not asking you to argue for more resources, but I'm asking you: as of now, are you missing things? Are you worried that you're missing things?
Well, the genuine, honest answer has been that the office has never had own-initiative powers. The legislation will confer these. Why is this important? Should somebody currently who has, shall we say, an issue with literacy come to my office, there is a possibility we wouldn't help them because they can't provide us with a written complaint. So, that's one thing that the legislation will take up, but also, fundamentally, we can only deal with complaints once they've been made by a member of the public who has used that service. We've currently—. One of the more inefficient and slightly bizarre, and certainly not citizen-centred, things that we have to do, is—. The best example is in health: should someone come to us and complain about the doctor's surgery and the services that they've received there, we can investigate. They've properly made a complaint; we'll start investigating. Should we discover that it's a broader systemic issue, we have to go back to the complainant and ask them to put another complaint in about the health board. So, yes, there is a possibility that we could miss issues.
The other issues, which—. I'm sorry, this has been a few years; I'm going to carry on making the case. Vulnerable people: who complains for the homeless? There are a number of issues here. We're still not seeing the volumes of complaints we would expect to see since we had jurisdiction extended to include private nursing homes. Now, who's wrong here? We're having reports from the previous older person's commissioner talking about some of the issues, some of the systemic issues, that were ongoing in terms of care there; we're certainly not seeing the same level of complaints coming in. Now, is this something to do with the fact that there is a paucity of provision when it comes to older people's care—that there's a fear that there could be relationship breakdown when it comes to complaints in certain areas? Rural issues: there is a lot of evidence from other jurisdictions that the more rural the area you live in the less likely you are to raise a complaint about a public service provider because you're more likely to know the providers and they're more likely to know you and people are scared of the repercussions of raising these issues. So, there is always this risk. There always will be a risk, but I think that own-initiative would be an area where we're not simply dependent upon four serious issues coming through the door. If we felt something systemic and that there was evidence to support that then we could pursue it without going back and asking somebody to make a complaint.
Okay. All right, Huw? Leanne.
It doesn't really instil me with confidence, to be honest, that we could shine a light upon—. Say, something like the Rotherham sex abuse scandal came up. You need to be able to see a pattern of behaviour, whether people are putting in complaints or not, don't you? So, are you saying, then, that the new legislation that you're asking for would enable you to be a bit more proactive on that front and look for patterns of behaviour? Because I'm just not confident from what I'm hearing this morning that, were there to be something like a local authority care scandal, sexual abuse, paedophile rings, that kind of thing, the system you've got in place would pick that up.
Well, I think the point I'm making is—. I've got to be clear: we're a complaint handler, not a regulator. So, I think—you know, we've got to manage expectations in terms of the level of institutional failure we could pick up—
But if you're not looking at this, who else is? That's the thing, isn't it?
Well, I think we can only look—. We are in existence as an independent and impartial investigator of complaints from the public. That is our remit. So, the fact that something's going on—unless someone comes to us with a complaint, then we are very, very much on the back foot. However, should we get own-initiative, more proactive powers, that certainly doesn't weaken the situation; I would argue that it certainly strengthens our ability and our scope to be able to do more when it comes to reacting to whistleblowing, to looking at certain issues where we feel that there is evidence of systemic failure or of a service failure that is of public relevance without somebody coming forward with a complaint. But, currently, I'm afraid, what worries me, Leanne, to go back to your issue about confidence, is that, sometimes, we are dependent upon people, often in vulnerable circumstances, coming to our office in order for us to do something. Without those—
But they're not going to, are they? That's the problem, because of the situation that they're in, as you've just said about the older people situation.
Well, certainly, some do. But what worries me is that perhaps all don't. So, that's why the own-initiative issues would be so important for us.
Yes, that's where the legislation would address that, yes.
Okay, just a final question from me before we move on. Welsh language—are you confident that you have the resource in terms of staff able to deal with cases through the language of Welsh? Are you receiving a significant number of cases through the Welsh language? Do the two things marry up, then? Have you got the resource in place to deal with the volume of Welsh language cases that are brought to you through the medium of Welsh?
Ydw, ac gwnaf i ofyn i Katrin ateb y cwestiwn yma.
Yes, and I'll ask Katrin to answer this question.
Diolch. Tua 4 y cant o gwynion sy'n cael eu derbyn yn y swyddfa yn Gymraeg. Rydym ni'n gofyn ar y ffurflen ar-lein am ddewis ieithyddol y person sy'n gwneud y cwyn. Ynglŷn â'n haelodau staff ni yn y swyddfa, mae tua 20 y cant o'r aelodau staff yn siarad Cymraeg yn rhugl, felly mae digon o adnoddau gyda ni i ddelio â'r cwynion sy'n cael eu derbyn. A hefyd mae'r swyddfa'n cefnogi pobl fel fi sy'n dysgu a datblygu sgiliau i wella ein sgiliau ni hefyd ar gyfer y dyfodol.
Thanks. About 4 per cent of complaints are received by our office in Welsh. We ask on the online form about the language preference of the person who's making the complaint. Regarding the members of staff we have in the office, we have about 20 per cent of staff members who are fluent Welsh speakers, so we have enough resources to deal with those complaints that are received. And also the office supports people like me who are learning and developing skills to improve our skills for the future.
Ocê. Da iawn, Katrin. Diolch yn fawr.
Okay. Well done, Katrin. Thank you very much.
Okay. We'll move on then to Jenny Rathbone.
Thank you very much. Just looking at the rise and fall of complaints over the last year—just to deal, firstly, with the good news that the number of complaints against local authorities is falling. Is that because they've got their act together in being able to resolve complaints locally?
I think that there are a number of issues there and I'm very pleased there is some good news. I think local authority complaints have come down 10 per cent two years running. However, within this year, we're starting to see those numbers come back up. I think some of that is down to the fact that we've had a good and effective network dealing with local authority complaints. Perhaps some issues of early resolution as well, Chris.
Yes. I think there are differences between the nature of local government and health complaints, clearly, and, actually, just to give some context on an all-Wales level, there are still more local authority complaints than there are health complaints. I don't know if you can compare them directly because of the range of services provided, but—. There's not a huge difference, but there are slightly more local authority complaints.
I think we've worked hard and we've had a lot of support from the liaison officers and the local authorities in improving their complaint handling. They've worked well with us. But I think one of the things that also makes a difference is just the nature of the complaints, and local authority complaints are very often much simpler to resolve. They perhaps lend themselves more to early resolution. They don't necessarily need such detailed investigation.
I guess that sometimes health complaints are driven by uncertainty and complexity and also an understandable wish on the part of complainants for some sort of reassurance that their partner or loved one was actually treated well and effectively by the health service. So, I think there are people who have got different outcomes and I think that complicates matters and increases the pressure in terms of health complaints. But I think—
Nevertheless, local authorities have to deal with complex issues around packages of care for people with disabilities or mental health issues or, you know—. So, it's—you know, it isn't all about why they haven't collected the bins yesterday.
Absolutely, you're right, and I think one of the important points, and I think Nick alluded to it earlier, is that, when we do get complaints involving social care, they are enormously complex. They very often involve interactions between local authorities, social services and health boards, and they are complex. They are difficult to unravel; they take a good deal of time to investigate. At the moment we're not getting the number of complaints about social care that I think perhaps we would expect, and, at the risk of referring back to new legislation, that is one of the things that we will be looking at in the context of complaint standards, but also in terms of own-initiative to see what the patterns are. Because I think there is a gap and the majority of local authority complaints are not about social care at the moment.
Okay, all right. Just moving back, then, to the more significant issue about the exponential rise in the number of health complaints, I wondered if we could have an overview as to why this is. Is it because of most health boards continuing to be unable to resolve complaints locally and therefore they're coming to you?
I certainly think that's part of the problem. I don't think it covers everything. In terms of rises that are exponential, it wasn't bad news everywhere last year. First of all, I was pleased that—. They're still too high—I had a meeting with the chair and chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr just yesterday—but I am pleased with the fact that their overall level of complaints did come down slightly last year, and that's against an 8 per cent increase across the whole of Wales. There were reductions in other places too, but I think ABMU and Aneurin Bevan—you know, significant rises. I think it's important as well not just to focus on the volume of complaints. What is actually being upheld? I think the fact that people know that they can come to us if they're unhappy, the fact that we will investigate them independently and fairly and impartially—. The overall level of upheld health complaints went down last year, so that is good, I think. Everywhere except—. I think all health boards except Hywel Dda, there was a reduction in upheld complaints last year. So, again, I think that's good.
But I still think there is a cultural challenge for the NHS when it comes to their complaint handling in Wales. Why do I say that? Looking at the data, we've tried to do a lot. We refer to the work that we've done on data in the annual report. I was really surprised, looking at the data associated with the type of health complaints that we were receiving. Less than 5 per cent were about surgery. Less than 10 per cent were about waiting times; I thought that figure would have been a lot higher. Twenty five per cent were about complaint handling itself. So, it seems—. The NHS is shooting itself in the foot to some extent here, and I'm keen—. Without us in any way compromising our independence, I think there are things that we can do. Again, I don't want to go back to this legislation again, but, in terms of a complaints standards authority, can't we adopt best practice and make sure that the culture of complaint handling can at least root out some of these complaints? Because, you know, a 25 per cent reduction in the number of health complaints coming to my office would be most welcome, and this isn't just about the interests of my office, is it? It's about the experiences of people who have been using the NHS; it's about the reputation of the NHS itself. I think it's in everybody's interests for us to be upping the game in terms of complaint handling across the board, but particularly when it comes to health.
Yes, because, in one of the cases that you highlighted in Betsi Cadwaladr, the daughter of the patient, complaining about their parent's care was somebody who actually was an employee of the health board, and nevertheless she had to employ a legal adviser to represent her. So, even though she was obviously quite an expert at how to navigate your way through the health service, she found it really painful.
The individual concerned worked in complaints.
The individual concerned didn't just work for the NHS; she worked in complaints. So, I think that says it all.
So, she obviously was an expert—
And I did, again—. I met with the chair and chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr yesterday, and we did touch on this. They raised it, and they have, in fairness, used it as a point of learning. But I think—. I guess this broader assertion that I make that, you know, I think there's much more that we can do in terms of complaint-handling culture—when somebody who actually works, not just in the NHS, but in complaints, has to come to us for an answer, then I think the case is made in terms of it's time for us to be a bit more ambitious in terms of what we can do to improve the complaints system.
Okay, but we don't want to see many more of those types of complaints. You were saying that you've already had a meeting with the chair and chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr—do you think they have realised that they have absolutely got to change the way they handle complaints?
Well, as I say, I welcome the fact that there was a small reduction last year. I still think that they've got a lot further to go. I share the data that we hold with all those health boards, particularly those that have the highest numbers, because we're keen to see them come down. We can offer support in terms of training, specific seminars—what does best practice looks like? There's more to be done, I think, in terms of openness and transparency. We've had 25 years of Nolan, and I think, too often, a lot of this data that should be transparent that would inform you as elected Members of what's actually going on in terms of complaint handling isn't as readily available as it could and should be, and I think more transparency, shining a torch in this area, would lead to improvements, and those are improvements that would make a big difference to a lot of people using health services.
So, one of the other public interest reports that you did was about Cardiff and the Vale, my own health board, about a lady who had been compulsorily detained and then was discharged from compulsory detention, but it took approximately 18 months to get this lady back into the community with the appropriate package of care to support her. In your report, you say,
'The Health Board...said it could not resolve the issues with the CMHT.'
Well, when I last checked, they employed these people. How is that possible?
No, no, no, they didn't actually. To be clear, the case which you refer to isn't part of this annual report; it's happened subsequently.
Ah, okay, it was a different—
What happened was that the complainant had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, but then wished to move closer to family, who were based in England. I can't say more than that. The community mental health team was part of the English NHS system, but I think I described it at the time as Kafkaesque. Somebody was detained for a year. I think they were subject to physical and mental abuse, during a period of what should have been ongoing support and recovery, because they were detained in that mental health unit. That is basically, 20 years on from devolution, English and Welsh health systems unable to cope with specific mental health issues. So, that's why, first of all, I published the report. Secondly, it was done with the full co-operation of the English health ombudsman, and we both wrote to the Secretary of State for health in England and the then Cabinet Secretary for health in Wales, asking them to sort this out, because it obviously was maladministration and service failure, but it's clearly an area where there needs to be a proper protocol so that that doesn't happen again.
Okay. Can I just bring Huw in on this point, Jenny, if that's okay?
Thank you, Chair. Sorry, Jenny. It's on the previous question you answered. You mentioned just then that there was information on complaints handling that would be helpful to be in the public domain. I suspect that this would not require regulations or legislation. It would probably require the Ministers to actually direct the health boards and the chairmen and so on to say, 'Put this in the public domain.' Would you be able to, if not share it with us now—because I don't want to detain the committee—? Would you be able to write to the committee and suggest what those areas of information would be and what the most transparent way of publishing them should be to enable both the citizens and also community health councils and others to see that? Would you be able to do that?
I can do it now. It's 'Putting Things Right'. Why is it that you as Assembly Members have to submit parliamentary questions to find out what compliance rates are like? I would have thought—particularly now, when health budgets are taking up 60 per cent to 65 per cent of total Welsh Government spending, with billions being spent there—. When it comes to these regulations—I'm not arguing either to revisit the regulations, and I think when you received evidence from the then health Minister, there was a concern that, if we had powers over the complaints standards, we would try and unpick the existing 'Putting Things Right' regulations in a way that is almost undemocratic, because they have been approved, obviously, by the Assembly and by the relevant Minister. What I'm looking to do is reinforce, not unpick what was decided democratically by the Assembly. So, you've agreed and expected that there should be certain provisions operated by these health boards. Are they being held to account? I suggest, well, perhaps not as much as they can be, if you have to seek performance data via parliamentary questions. So, if you were to legislate and give me those powers in terms of complaints standards, we would make sure that the transparency's in place.
All right, Huw? Jenny.
The last area I wanted to pursue was, really, the role of the improvement officers that you've assigned to certain bodies—five of the seven health boards and two local authorities. My understanding is that these bodies that have improvement officers were the same ones who had improvement officers in the previous year. Is that—? So, it does pose a question as to how effective these improvement officers are if they're not seeing a change in the 12 months from the previous 12 months.
I think we've visited this issue before—
I think we probably have.
—in another committee, but I'm happy to visit it again, and I think, again, I need to be open but very straight in terms of what our improvement officers do. Our improvement officers also happen to be our most experienced investigators and, obviously, given the fact that we had an 8 per cent increase in health complaints last year, very much vital to us in dealing with that additional pressure. So, their improvement role, as opposed to their investigation role, would roughly be one day out of five. So—
But you would expect things to happen the next time.
Absolutely, and I've always been clear that I'd expect them to be judged on, you know, certainly their inputs, if they're being proactive in terms of dealing with those individual health boards. And you're trying to make sure that they're aware of best practice, that they are doing their level best, and also, there are, internally within those health boards, the right things going on in terms of not just concerned teams, but clinicians; boards themselves; the health, the safety and quality committees; chairs; chief executives—the broader community there—making sure that they're using complaint data in a non-competitive or market-based environment to try and drive up standards for people.
All have engaged in different ways with those relevant health boards, but all have had an impact, and I think one of the most impactful examples would be in, I think it was Hywel Dda, where we had a 'Putting Things Right' backlog of—was it 200?—which was reduced to maybe only two in the space of last year. So, they have had a real impact, but I think, again, we have to be realistic. An official working five days a week, one day a week on improvement-related activity with a billion-pound organisation that's got hundreds of staff and some significant issues, perhaps, when it comes to complaint volumes, then, I think there's only so much that we'd expect people to do. But I am pleased with that they've done.
Okay. That's fine. So, what you're saying is that these organisations are hugely resistant to change.
Not necessarily, but I do think that there are big cultural challenges to overcome, and to do that, we try to be as innovative as we can internally. Our role is, basically, just to accept these complaints coming in. I've tried to be as proactive as I can without using any—or going beyond my statutory powers, to look at the improvement issue, to say, 'Look, we would prefer'—and I'm sure the health board would prefer, but ultimately, the health service user would prefer—'that it doesn't escalate to this stage'; that things are resolved much, much earlier and that their cultures improve. So, we've done that through what has been a pretty piecemeal approach, if that doesn't sound too pejorative, but I think the next stage for us now is to use the good practice that's certainly been exercised in Scotland with the complaints standards approach, and I'm very pleased that we've got this far with the legislation. I hope that you will see the value of that when you come to look at the legislation in due course.
Okay. So, is there anything else that you think we as Assembly Members should be doing to fast forward the cultural change required? Because we can't afford, as a nation, to have the services that are eating up more than half our resources to be generating this level of complaints and failing to resolve them so that they have to go to the ombudsman. This is a very significant problem.
It is a significant problem, but if you pass that legislation, it might be a small step for mankind, it'd be a big step for my office, and it would be a bigger step for Welsh complaint handling.
Following on on the health issue, my office routinely refers complaints to the health board, and often that can involve months of paper chasing or responding to standard letters so that you can get clarity involving the questions that weren't answered, and so on. And, occasionally, that ends up constructively with a round-table meeting when it usually reaches a quick resolution. We'll come on, no doubt, to your expectations regarding local resolution for local government, but what are your expectations for local resolution with health boards to avoid that often many-months-long paper chase?
Well, the more early or local resolution that we can do, the better. Without early resolution, I don't think we would've coped, going back to John's first question about how we're dealing with the additional pressures. I think, for the last two years, we've resolved more complaints on behalf of complainants via early resolution than we have through full investigation.
There are some risks associated with that. One being that we might miss patterns of broader systemic failure, which we certainly would have with full investigations, but I think we're trying to track the data to make sure that that doesn't happen. So, that's manageable. The other risk is that, sometimes, bodies in jurisdiction think it's better to sign up to an early resolution, because it's not as damning as the black mark of an upheld investigation, so, it's a little smack on the wrist, they can move on, rather than having to be held to account through the full investigation. So, again, on that, what we've tried to do—. Again, it was a health-related complaint, it was Hywel Dda a couple of years ago—there was an early resolution, it was a redress cheque for a very, very small sum of money. A young man whose eye procedure had gone wrong, an apology and a cheque, that's all they had to do. This is a multimillion pound organisation. Three times we asked them, and, of course, it was an early resolution. Nothing was happening, nothing was happening. We warned them, 'Look, I will press the red button, I'll issue a special report to the Assembly if you don't give that young man a letter of apology and a cheque.' And, they didn't do it, so we issued the special report. Now, that was the first special report we've ever done for a health body in the history of the office. But I hope it resonated with other health boards and made them understand, as far as I'm concerned, if you're signing up to an early resolution rather than a full investigation—the recommendations of a full investigation, we'd expect you to uphold. Any commitments that you've made to our office and certainly to the service user involved, we expect those to be upheld.
So, I say, by all means, do more early resolution, do more local resolution. So often, the sooner these things are dealt with in the type of way you describe in terms of being open and honest and getting that round-table discussion, the better for all concerned, but don't shrug it off and treat it as some kind of way of avoiding responsibility or putting things right.
Okay. Leanne, I know we've moved on, to some extent, to improving public services, but would you like to—?
Yes. I want to just go back for a second to a previous question about this 25 per cent of complaints about the complaints handling, because that seems to me like such a waste of resource. Do you know what is the root cause of the problem there? What is the culture? Is it defensiveness? Are they trying to avoid detail coming into the public domain as to problems within the organisation? I mean, are they trying to cover up? What do you think is the root cause of that 25 per cent figure?
Well, certainly, we have come across, and we've published and we've referred to, certain cases where we feel—. I wouldn't want to use the term 'cover-up', but I think people have been a bit disingenuous under certain circumstances, and certainly cases where we've seen people suffer a significant injustice and have been given the runaround, to be frank. So, some of this is about better leadership and management. I think some of it goes back, as well, to an attitude, almost, to public service. These are public services, and it's not for me to talk about the ideology of those public services, but many people I've spoken to who've been involved in the Ministry of Justice would argue if there's a political decision not to pursue competition and have rival providers and you're in a monopoly situation, then you have to make sure that the individual has some contestability, and that should be respected. So, I think a few reminders on that point wouldn't go amiss, and, again, I think there are opportunities for us to pursue that.
I think some of it is undoubtedly associated with the pressures, the genuine pressures, that these organisations are under and the fact that perhaps, sometimes, not enough resource has been put into complaint handling itself. We have seen some significant improvements there. We have done a lot more work in terms of developing networks and trying to make sure that that expertise is improved. But a culture change can take, what, seven years? So, I've been asking for the legislation for about three and a half. So it's still not too late. We could certainly do a lot more over the next few years. I'm not suggesting I've got all the answers and the legislation for my office will provide all those answers, but it would be a significant step towards reducing a significant problem. Even if we didn't get rid of 25 per cent, to bring it down to 10 would be a result, and it would lead to real improvements for people.
Would it be helpful if some of the leaders of these organisations were to say that this was a problem that arose because of resource issues, because of funding cuts, because of austerity? Because I think people are reasonable, and they do understand that when there are public cuts, there are going to be implications to that. But what seems to happen is they tend to not want to say that. They tend to want to give other reasons, and there's a lack of honesty then, political honesty. Do you understand my point?
There is a broader issue, and I would certainly be averse to simply putting this down to resource. Because, to go back to the issue that was raised in terms of local government, how can it be that local government's had further cuts and yet, last year, the complaints coming to the office went down 10 per cent? To some extent, certainly health services in Wales have been protected, yet we've seen a 7 per cent increase. There is no link between funding year by year and trends.
To depress you further, I know there was one UK ombudsman who was Welsh, Sir Idwal Pugh, in the 1970s, and in 1976 he received 560 health complaints the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. This year his counterpart in England will get 23,000; I'll get 900; Scotland will get a couple of thousand and there'll be a significant number in Northern Ireland as well. So this is against a broader issue of a population that perhaps is still grateful to the NHS, but the deference that existed, I think, for that cohort of the population that can remember having to make a payment, or the fact that you'd suffer an illness because you couldn't afford the treatment, has—. If the NHS is 70 then obviously, even in an ageing population, the majority of the population do not remember health experiences in the same way that perhaps our grandparents would. So I think there's been an erosion of deference.
There are a multitude of issues here. We see some complaints come in that, frankly, we dismiss, which we don't think are fair or reasonable. It's reasonableness that's the test that we apply, where we think, on occasion, very unrealistic expectations are being made of the NHS. We don't want to feed an unrealistic complaints culture either, but I do think that mainstream complaints can be a form of intelligence to try and drive up standards, and using that data appropriately can help improve services and experiences for people in what is a non-market environment where there has to be some contestability and some empowerment of individuals who perhaps, particularly in some more deprived areas, are not as used to challenging authority.
Okay. Well, I'm encouraged that you've said in your statement that the improvement and cultural change agenda in your office is starting to bear fruit. I was particularly encouraged to see that that cultural change is happening in my health board area, Cwm Taf, for example. But considering that healthcare complaints increased by 7 per cent and health-board-specific complaints went up by 11 per cent during 2017 and 2018, how can you reconcile those two points?
Well, I think I can reconcile them because, whilst we have seen an additional increase in health complaints, I think it goes back to one of the issues that Cwm Taf themselves raised with me. Obviously, they're no longer an improvement body—we've seen the volume of complaints coming down from them—but they themselves have told me in the past that they'd have actually liked to see some more; they feel that, actually, there wasn't enough feedback being passed to them. What's important about the health data last year is that volumes went up, but upheld complaints came down. So, actually, the level of service failure was lower. So I think that's a really important indicator.
Again, there is more to do. We have to be realistic about what we can do with a cadre of very, very good investigators who are only spending one day a week looking at improvement activity, and sometimes we do see figures go up and down. But, again, I guess going back to one of the earlier questions, in terms of the very serious complaints that came to us, most of them tended to be health related. To only have four public interest reports on health last year was, again, I think, a positive indicator. So, I think, overall, the proportion of complaints that we dealt with that we upheld was down from 60-odd per cent in 2016-17 to 56 per cent.
Leanne, I think we need to move on to code of conduct.
Yes, that's fine. I think that most of the other points have been covered anyway, haven't they?
Okay, that's great. Huw.
Thank you, Chair. Could I ask in terms of code of conduct complaints? You've put in place now the public interest test, partly in response to the rising tide of code of conduct complaints that you are having. How is that going? Do you feel that it's being applied appropriately, that the criteria are working, that you're being sufficiently stringent, that you're not missing ones, that you're not deeming some to be frivolous when, actually, they should be being properly investigated? How is it going?
It's going very well and, originally, it was Katrin Shaw's idea, so I'll ask her to answer the question.
It is working quite effectively. What it is, we can devote the resources that we have to the most serious of cases. So, when we assess the cases at the front end of our complaints process, we look at whether investigation is needed in the public interest to maintain confidence in elected local authority members. And the sort of cases that will meet that test that we've set are serious bullying cases, for example, where there's some suggestion and evidence that a member may have misused their position for their own advantage, or somebody they've got a close association with, and where there are serious disrepute issues.
So, we do think it's working effectively in terms of weeding out the more trivial, low-level complaints, meaning we can devote our resources to those serious matters. And then we are assessing complaints throughout the investigation process. So, if during an investigation the evidence doesn't stand up, we try and close it straight away using that public interest test. If there is a case to answer and Nick considers it serious enough for the matter to go forward for hearing to either the Adjudication Panel for Wales or the local standards committee, then we again would be able to put our resources into really preparing a good case, and I think the ones mentioned in the annual report last year were two cases where members were disqualified as a result of the investigations that we undertook.
In terms of the lower level complaints, we do have a review process, so if somebody is unhappy with the way that we've applied the test, they can come back and ask us to review that and look again. And if we do feel that perhaps they've given us more information that they didn't provide in the first place, we can reopen the case at that stage. We can't, obviously, stop people making complaints in the first place, and what it does do effectively is really weed those out, meaning we can decline to investigate at the initial consideration, which are the majority of the decisions that we take on the code cases.
And I assume there's an internal learning process on your side as well, constantly, about how you deal with these, how you apply the criteria, how you work that across the team as well. I'm particularly interested in how you deal with borderline cases. At that point, there are going to be ones that are clearly trivial or frivolous or personality driven, there are others that are going to be clearly serious and worthy of referral, but what about those borderline ones? How do you deal with those? What's the process?
We do have an internal code advisory group that we set up a couple of years ago, because they are difficult decisions, and often you are basing them on the evidence that—. You know, it's quite subjective at times. So, we have an advisory group, so we sit around the table and have a look at those. We assess the evidence throughout. It is difficult because the courts have intervened in cases of this nature, as you'll be aware, where members do need a thicker skin sometimes when they're dealing with each other in a robust way. So, whereas some people might be offended at certain conduct, other people may not. So, they are very difficult judgments to make, and we've also moved to a situation where we have a pool of expert investigators who are dealing with these cases to try and build on that expertise and knowledge base.
Okay, that's good. I think the thing that's reassuring about this is that this is not a tick-box exercise; this is not some arbitrary way of deciding. There is some rigour to this and there's an opportunity to come back and for somebody to challenge your decision as well, and to have it reviewed.
We note that the evidence you supplied suggests that a large proportion of the increase that you had is due to town and community councils. Love them or loathe them. I do both—love and loathe them—depending on my personal experience of the individual ones within my area. Now, could I simply ask on that? Clearly, the process you've just described is helping in determining which of those are frivolous because of changes of personality, changes of membership and so on, but should it be your role to actually do that? If, in a local authority context, this were to happen, one of the first recourses is to the monitoring officer and the local authority, to look at it internally and so on. Are we not missing a tier here, a step, a process, within town and community councils, because a monitoring officer does not apply to them? One Voice Wales does not deal with this; they come to you.
Well, One Voice Wales has, with our improvement officer's assistance—we have an improvement officer who leads on code matters—developed a local resolution process. I understand that about 600 of the community councillors are members of One Voice Wales, so not all of them, and they don't actually record how many have actually adopted those local resolution processes. But we are really trying to encourage that, because we know from our experience of county council resolution, member v member complaints, that it can work. When people sit around the table together and apologies are given, it can be really helpful and stop things escalating to our office. As you say, it's not directly our function, but it's certainly something that we support and encourage others—
But it's become your de facto function. I would suggest there's a tier missing here in terms of town and community councils, where there is the absence of local resolution. Short of them agreeing to that local mediated resolution, there is not something on the ground locally that does it. But you are becoming de facto the people who will resolve this if there's non-agreement.
You mentioned there the numbers. One is the issue of the numbers of town and community councils who are members of One Voice, and then, the numbers who will choose to do a local resolution. Have you got any idea of the proportion of town and community council complaints around code of conduct that have led to local resolution? I suppose the whole numbers for me don't mean a lot, but the proportion of those that have gone to local resolution.
We don't actually hold those figures. As you'll imagine, the ones that we actually see and investigate are either where that may have failed, or where it didn't happen in the first place. Anecdotally, we do hear of One Voice Wales intervening in particular matters, and as I say, we are supportive. There tends to be a pattern where there will be two or three pretty dysfunctional community councils, where maybe there's a big change in membership and it leads to disputes, and Nick has offered to intervene and provide training with the monitoring officer, because the monitoring officer is often willing to involve themselves in training for the community council, on very general issues, I know. So, we don't actually hold those figures, sorry.
Okay. And I suspect nobody does, because some are within One Voice, some are outside of it. It's local rules apply.
One final question then. It's to do with the fact that health complaints are rising and getting increasingly complex, as you've mentioned. So, does that mean that we're going to see code of conduct complaints taking longer to resolve, taking more of your resource, particularly those complex health issues?
There's no doubt that that did impact on our performance last year on our code timescales. I mentioned the group of six investigators. They don't exclusively deal with code of conduct only; they've got to deal with health investigations as well, because as an office, we couldn't sustain that position. But what it does mean is they are dealing with them quicker now, and we are starting to see positive results from that. We are always mindful that it's quite difficult for the accused member during an investigation; it's a stressful process. So, we are working towards trying to improve that, but there is no doubt that the impact of the health work is affecting us across the board.
Sorry, Chair, can I just ask one other question? I'm just going to skip back. There's just been a recent consultation on town and community councils; it went through the autumn. Were you asked for any opinion on that, particularly in terms of your role, and whether there needs to be any thought given to local complaints handling and the code of conduct particularly of town and community councils? Was there engagement with the communities and local government directorate?
Certainly, there has been previously when it comes to any changes to the legislation that would affect the code. But I'd have to check and see if we actually did respond formally to that. We normally do respond to Government consultations—where there's a complaint-handling angle.
Perhaps you could write to us on that. Mark Isherwood.
Briefly, yes. With regard to hotspots in a county council in north Wales, and a town council in north Wales, your predecessor introduced tighter guidance on local resolution and mediation processes, and brought in a £10,000 cap as a guide to local authorities—that they should not be incurring legal costs fighting such cases. How are you monitoring that, are you monitoring that, what are you finding? And, secondly, related to that, I'm conscious that, in certain areas—I won't name them—there's a growing culture where members are frightened to challenge officers for fear of an officer referral to the ombudsman, which is usually infrequently used when challenged, in certain quarters, and there's lack of clarity amongst many members about where they should draw the line in terms of challenge—proper challenge—and accountability, and where that merges into the risk of being interpreted as bullying.
Okay. Well, I'm not monitoring currently the £10,000 issue, but I'd say: what's important here in terms of the broader public interest? And I would hope—you know, is it justifiable to you as a committee, more broadly? I receive public money—I'm accountable to you, I've got to come here, I've got to go to the Finance Committee, the Public Accounts Committee. I'm not going to go spending public money, voted on by you, because somebody's been defriended on Facebook, when I've got other people complaining about their cancer treatment, or somebody was clicking their Biro in an aggressive manner, or somebody only gave their restaurant a 1-star rating. These are not abuses of the code that anybody, I think, would consider appropriate. So, I don't think we've done ourselves any harm, actually, in being much clearer about the need to avoid vexatiousness and concentrate on the public interest.
In terms of those issues, one of the reasons why we wanted to proclaim it a public interest—and it was Katrin's idea, and a very good one too—is that I think we've got to be clear what we expect in terms of public service. I don't expect everyone to be a paragon of virtue, but I do expect people in public office to be concerned about public issues, not following private interests, indulging in bullying, corruption, or any of those issues that can arise in local government, where I think you'd expect some level of sensible intervention. That's what this is about. If there are specific issues when it comes to freedom of speech, I don't think that really holds water, in my experience. I know that we've discussed this before, and that you referred to the fact that it could be interpreted, particularly after some of the cases—I think it was the Calver case. But I think, more broadly, there's got to be an issue there that challenge is not about, necessarily, aggression, is it? It's about good governance. And it's important that people who are responsible for public resource—I expect to be challenged here. There's a difference, I hope, between challenging me and abusing me, and I'd be pretty sure where that is.
Okay. Well, thanks very much for coming in to give evidence today, Nick, Chris and Katrin. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you very much. Thank you, all. Diolch.
The committee will break briefly and resume at 10.35 a.m.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:28 a 10:35.
The meeting adjourned between 10:28 and 10:35.
Welcome back to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. We move on to item 3 on the agenda and evidence session 6 of our inquiry into diversity in local government. I'm very pleased to welcome Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government; Lisa James, deputy director of local government and democracy for the Welsh Government; and Angharad Thomas-Richards, electoral reform programme adviser for the Welsh Government. Welcome to you all.
Perhaps I might begin with an initial question on progress and legislation and whether in your view enough progress has been made by all stakeholders, including the Welsh Government and political parties in moving the diversity agenda forward in Wales. And anticipating an answer that perhaps more progress needs to take place, what really needs to change in your opinion?
Yes, we have got a Bill on the stocks, so to speak, that we're working very hard on and we're expecting to introduce this year—calendar year, I hasten to add, not Assembly year—which will have quite a lot of interesting things that the committee will have a chance to consider properly, obviously, when it comes in front of you around what we can do about electoral reform, and some of those provisions are designed specifically to try and make the job of councillor more attractive in a variety of ways. So, I suppose the most exciting, or headline bit of that is the creation of the ability to job share for executive members and leaders of councils. We know that the remuneration panel thinks of a cabinet member post in a local authority as being a full-time post, so that will widen it out to people who can only work part-time because they can obviously job share it.
We'd be very grateful for the committee's views in due course when we've got the Bill prepared and the committee's looking at it properly, but we're very interested in that provision, making it much more accessible to a wider range of people than are currently able to give up the sort of time necessary to be an executive cabinet member in a unitary authority in Wales. I'll be really interested to know whether the committee has any other interesting ideas about what we can do at this early stage so that we can include it in the early consideration of the Bill before we present it, or indeed, obviously, at the committee stage—about anything else that we can do to make those roles and responsibilities just more transparent and accessible to people.
This is a hobby-horse of mine and it's nothing to do with me holding this particular post, which many of you who know me will know, but one of the problems we have is that a lot of people just don't know what councillors do and so, actually, it's really hard to attract people because their conceptual idea of what a councillor does and the reality of it are really different. I think there's a real danger as well in this world of social media and so on that people concentrate on some of the negative parts of being an elected politician, which all of us around the table have also experienced and they don't really get to push the positive bits of it. So, forgive me, Chair, but one of the things that I do a lot is talk to groups of young women around Wales, and I was doing it in my previous role as well, and the first thing they always ask me is about the abuse you get on social media. We all get some of that abuse, and depending on your age and physical appearance and all the rest of it, you get various different levels of abuse. But I always say, 'Before I answer that question, I'm going to first tell you why this job is worth having and what you get out of doing it.' Because you have to be able to have both of those things to be able to come to that conclusion. If you start concentrating on the negative stuff, then you never get past that into actually the real— for me, anyway—personal and political privilege and pleasure I get out of doing this job. I know a lot of councillors who feel that way as well. When you're encouraging people out in Wales to stand for local elections or stand for national elections, their idea of what those jobs look like and actually what we know they are are very different. So, I think there's a range of things: (a) making the jobs more accessible, but (b) running a real campaign about what your local councillor can actually do for you in your community and what their role on the council is, what the decisions they can make are, what a dramatic impact they have on day-to-day life in your community and so on.
You should run that campaign.
Absolutely. We'll do it again and we should do it more and more and more, and that's what I'm saying, so it's more than—. We will do what we can in the Bill, but I would very much like to see, and I will be encouraging this with the local government association, as I get into this role, and from the Government—running that campaign as early as possible, not just in the teeth of the election, because it's now that people are thinking about standing for election in the next council election—so, very soon.
So, that's a very roundabout way of saying we have got some interesting things in the Bill. I'd be very interested to know if there's anything else that you think that we should include. I'm obviously very early days in this portfolio, so I'm getting my head around some of the more intricate bits of the Bill in terms of the election proposals and so on, but I'm very open to any ideas that the committee comes up with that we can do.
Can I just say one last thing? I hope you're talking to the Assembly Commission as well about this, because I also think that the Commission itself could do quite a lot by allowing paid internships for people who are not currently represented in the Assembly as Assembly Members or people who are dramatically under-represented. In my previous portfolio, I spoke to a young Muslim woman about why she'd never been into the Senedd, and her answer was very stark, which was that when she looks through the transparent glass into the Senedd she can't see anyone who looks like her. So, we have to get people who represent all of our communities as role models for other people to come forward. So, we absolutely have to find some ways of getting people more familiar with what we do and feeling able to come forward and stand, or we'll just be having this conversation again in another 10 years. So, I think there are lots of agencies around the place that can come together and do this. Certainly the Government needs to step up to that plate as well.
Okay, thanks for that, Minister. We will be discussing the evidence we received today later on in the committee meeting and we can perhaps consider that role of the Assembly Commission.
Just before we move on, a further question from me at this stage, which is: in the past, of course, Welsh Government commissioned research in terms of encouraging candidates to come forward to stand at local government elections and that fed into the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011. I just wonder what you would say at the current time in terms of the beneficial effects of the provisions of the Measure in terms of achieving greater diversity in local government. What impact has it had?
Well, I suppose it's given it some profile. It was very much designed to get a better profile across Wales, because before the Measure, each council was very much its own little entity and we didn't really look at any of that stuff. For example, it's really obvious that having access to training opportunities and the ability to have support from the democratic services functions of the authority and having somebody who champions the democratic services arrangements, and has as it their job, if you like, looking after the elected representatives, has made a difference. You can talk to councils all over Wales—especially the ones who were elected after the Measure, actually—who don't realise what life was like before those support mechanisms were in place, and some of the other councillors about what the councils now do to support their elected members, which actually perhaps have already become taken for granted but weren't there. Certainly, when I worked in local government, they weren't there. Some very good councils had them in place, but many more did not. So, I do think it has had some impact in terms of supporting existing councillors and helping them to, you know, live into their roles as widely as possible. And, you know, the role of a local councillor is incredibly diverse and very much depends sometimes on the individual and what they particularly want to focus on. In a way, all elected politicians have that issue. But it can be a very demanding role that takes its toll on your family and all the rest of it as well. So, if you don't have that support from the council with your case management systems and your arrangements and where your mail is directed to and how to manage all of the correspondence and stuff you get, it can be a very overwhelming role. So, I think the Measure's made good progress in putting that sort of support in place.
In the Bill, we're very interested in—. In the electoral arrangements—it'll be interesting to see what the committee thinks of this—there's the issue about what you have to list as your address when you stand for election and then where your correspondence should go. So, forgive me for the personal recollections, but my father was a local councillor and our house was a council office; it was just full of leaflets and people and the phone rang constantly and my mother was not best pleased all the time with some of the things that went on. And that's fine if you want to do that, but we ought to encourage people to stand as councillors who perhaps don't want their home to turn into that kind of outpost of the council, because actually it's a job as well, so you ought to be able to direct your post and your constituents and so on to the council, and get your post in your daytime. You don't necessarily want to answer the phone at three o'clock in the morning to people who haven't actually got that urgent a complaint but who know where you live and want to talk about—you know, they happen to be up and they want to talk about something. I'm not denigrating somebody who really needs assistance at 3:00 in the morning—I'm not suggesting that for one minute—but there are quite a lot of people who think councillors should just be constantly available, and that can take a toll and it puts off people who have caring responsibilities and families and so on. So, we want to make the job as doable as possible for just everyone. If you want to do that—if that's the sort of councillor you want to be, well, great. But if you don't want to be that kind of councillor, you could still be a very good councillor without that. So, we're looking to see how to facilitate different ways of working for councillors so that they can tailor that job to be a job that they can do very effectively and still fit it around the rest of their lives, because, let's face it, we don't pay them enough for it to be a full-time job. We expect them to have other working lives and other responsibilities, so we need to facilitate that. We need to make that as easy to navigate as possible and we need to be able to therefore encourage people to come forward into those roles.
Okay. Thanks for that. We'll move on to Jenny Rathbone.
Just pursuing this a bit further, one of the things that surely ought to be in place when councillors are elected are the strategies required to ensure that you don't burn out. Because nobody should be having to answer the phone at 3:00 in the morning. I appreciate there might be some acute emergency, but there are emergency services. I think one of the things that most astonished me in the session I held with some councillors was they were doing things like allowing people to go around to their house at 7:30 in the morning and answering the phone at 10 o'clock at night. Answer machines are excellent and phones can be turned to silent. I don't—. But, clearly, people weren't advising them properly about how, actually, you will burn out if you go on like this. People who said they took all their holidays to do their council work—. Completely—.
So, I think that is a very good example of what I was talking about. It's a huge problem for us, because you'll have seen from the remuneration—no doubt I'm going to wander about all over your questions, so apologies, Chair, but there's an issue with how much we pay the councillors but there are issues about affordability there as well and what we can do about that, which no doubt we'll get on to.
So, my view of that is that, if a councillor is having to work so very hard that they have to take all of their holidays from their main job to catch up with their council work, then, clearly, the council isn't providing sufficient support in case management and how to organise your time. Some of that will be a training need; perhaps that person isn't used to dealing with that volume of stuff and so on. But, let's face it, in some communities the local councillor is very much the pivot of the community and actually everybody does know where they live. My father was extremely happy to answer the phone at 10 o'clock at night. I'm not sure my mother was always happy that he had. But, you know, he was that sort of person, because he liked to be involved in everything. I don't think that's a problem if you want it. It's only a problem if you don't want it. So, we need to put systems in place that allow councillors who want to have a more working relationship with their job rather than a vocational one, if you like, to be able to do that and still to be perceived by the community as the very good councillors that they are. It shouldn't be a requirement that you're on call 24/7 in order to be seen as a good councillor. And, actually, the political parties have a role to play in that. So, we should not be, in our campaigning, and, you know, I'm not—all parties have done this at various points—campaigning that 'so-and-so is always available 24/7 and so-and-so isn't likely to be' as a political points-scoring mechanism. You will all be familiar with that kind of stuff going on, and we have a role in making sure that we don't exacerbate that kind of thing as well—you know, this person's only worked, I don't know, 22 hours a day instead of 24 or whatever. I'm exaggerating for effect, but we've all—. Those campaigns are run; we're all familiar with them. We have a job in stepping up to the plate as political parties in not doing that ourselves.
I'll come on to the expenses bit, which I think is another example of that as well.
Okay. I wanted to stick with the information and support available to councillors, really, and one of the things that was picked up by your two expert panel's focus groups was the limited support within the council for non-executive members, and I wonder whether the local government Measure has in any way addressed that.
Well, it was intended to address it—that was very largely what it was intended to address—and the whole point about having democratic services support for backbench members, that was its entire purpose. Whether it's been as effective as it might have been in every council is, perhaps, a different question, and, in the new Bill that we're proposing, we are looking at additional things that we can do to shore up that.
I think there are a couple of things, structural things, about councillors, which I know from my own professional past—you all know that I was a monitoring officer of a large council for a long time. The Measure prevents the monitoring officer from being the head of democratic services, which I personally think is a mistake, and we will be proposing in the Bill that that restriction is removed. And the reason for that is, actually, you need somebody very senior in the organisation to be able to do that, to have the clout, if you like, to get behind the councillors. An unintended consequence of the Measure has been that, often, the head of democratic services isn't at that senior level, and I think it's a mistake. Lots of people share that view. I think it's just one of those unintended consequences. So, we can correct that.
But there is an issue about having a very senior official championing the backbench as well as looking after the cabinet, as there is in every elected area where there's an executive and a non-executive arrangement. So, all of the lessons that we learn from the Assembly and the way that the Commission runs that sort of support, we should be taking out into local government. It's not a dissimilar situation. So, I suppose the answer to your question, Jenny, is it was intended to do that. I think it's had some effect. I think there are more things that could be done.
Okay, so would you say that one of the issues then that needs to be addressed is about ensuring that local authorities, as a corporate body, have a sense of identity, and that, actually, the executive members are accountable to the corporate body, just as officers need to understand that they are accountable to the executive?
Yes. Well, the officers are also accountable to the backbenchers for the backbenchers carrying out their functions as backbenchers, and I think it's that bit that's often lost. Because of the way that the authority runs, the executive, obviously, is the leadership, isn't it, so you serve the leadership. That's fair enough. But you also serve the backbench, because they are the foot soldiers of the local authority, and that was what the Measure was designed to do, and I think it needs strengthening again in the forthcoming Bill.
Jenny, before you move on, I think Mark just wanted to come in on this point. Mark.
Given your comments about the role of monitoring officer—an aspiration that they should also be head of democratic services, serving backbenchers, et cetera—should a monitoring officer therefore be prohibited from being party to a complaint against a member unless they themselves were personally the victim?
So, I think one of the issues around the—. The corporate complaint processes in local authorities is one of the things that we really need to have a good look at, and the differing authorities have very different structures for that. The monitoring officer is often the person who services the standards committee, and the standards committee should be seized with the complaints, in fact, so you need to have a system in which the monitoring officer can be outwith the decision-making process, if you like, in order to advise the standards committee. There are arrangements—and I'm not aware of an authority that doesn't have this arrangement, unless an official wants to tell me—for the monitoring officer to get somebody else, another monitoring officer, to come in where they are themselves inextricably involved in the process. So, those arrangements exist for that to happen. But, by and large, you're considered to be the adviser to the standards committee and therefore you ought to stand out of the process, and that's been the case for as long as monitoring officers have existed, in fact. Whether it always works in practice is another thing, but—
It hasn't always worked in practice.
No, I'm sure, but it's very clear that that is how it ought to work, and I do think there are some issues around the way corporate complaints systems work alongside of that, because you can have a service complaint going though the corporate complaints process, which then suddenly pulls the councillor into it, and how those things come together can be problematic, to say the least.
Okay. I think, just looking in the round at how we encourage more people to think that being involved in their local authority and designing how services are delivered is meaningful, how do we get from where we are with our schools and the school councils—? And we've all been grilled by school councils who come and visit the Assembly, and pretty terrifying their questions are too, but that doesn't seem to translate into young people then wanting to serve their local authority, in most cases. I appreciate there are exceptions. I suppose the most difficult challenge for me is how we deal with the class issue, which is the sense of disempowerment that so many citizens feel; that they don't actually have any control over any services, and they're just recipients—they're victims of decisions made by other people. How are we going tackle that?
Well, there are several strands to that. So, the new curriculum, as we roll it out, as you know, has a whole strand about being a healthy, involved, active citizen of Wales, and the whole point of that part of the curriculum is to get people to understand better how their country actually works.
When does that start?
Well, it's rolling out to some of the pioneer schools already. I can get you—. It's not in my portfolio, obviously. I can get the committee a brief as to where exactly we are, but you know that the curriculum is being done by having pioneer schools in each particular area of learning and experience. It's amazing how fast we turn those into acronyms, isn't it—AoLE. And a set of pioneer schools tests it and it's very much the work of the teachers and the schools to refine that programme and bring it back and so on. So, the whole point of the curriculum is that it's developed by the teaching profession. And so—I don't off the top of my head know exactly where we are, but that is one of the main AoLEs, so we can get that information for you, and that's very much part of what it's about. It's about: as you grow up as a citizen of Wales, you understand how your country works, you understand who makes what decisions, how your courts work, what your rights as a citizen are—all the sorts of things that we all know that most people don't understand at the moment and really ought to, in order to be able to actively participate. And the idea, obviously, then, Jenny, is that as you understand that more, you have a better understanding of how you might be able to contribute to it.
But the political parties have a big role to play here. We have to be able—. All of us have to be able to help diverse people get selected for our parties, and get selected in winnable seats for our parties as well. You know the struggle that we all have to do that, and this is outwith my brief, but I think it's got to be said out loud: the cost of standing is real issue. The UK Government needs to address some of these things as well, because you know as well as I do that you have to cough up out of your own money in order to stand as a candidate, or you have to have the ability to fundraise to do that. Well, most working-class people are not in a position to do that. So, either the party that they choose to stand for has to help them with that, or there has to be some national system to help you with that, and that's not just about when you're elected—it's actually how you get selected. It can be very expensive to get selected, never mind elected. So, the selection process itself is what I'm talking about. Forgive me, those who are not Labour in the room; I don't know that much about the other parties. But it can be very expensive to be selected as a Labour candidate, depending on how big your constituency is and how diverse your membership is and all the rest of it, and we have to address that, because people aren't going to come forward if they can't afford to do that, and the Government can't do anything about it—the Welsh Government can't do anything about that. The British Government could, and parties can do something about it.
Well, the Welsh Government could, couldn't it, really?
Well, I'm extremely interested in testing our powers in this regard, because I would like to be able to do something about it—that's the truth of it.
I'm sure there could be a fund that people could apply to, or something.
We're actively looking at that, and, if the committee wants to look at that as well, I'd be really grateful, because I do think it's one of the big issues of class, actually. If you're struggling for money, you're not going to have any additional money to be able to produce leaflets—
And gender as well.
And gender. Well, all kinds of stuff. My constituency is geographically quite constrained, but, actually, if you're trying to get selected in a constituency that's not, it can be very expensive indeed. So, I do think there are some—. I'm very happy to explore what the Government can do, and if the committee have ideas about that, I'm very happy to look at them. I'm absolutely open to that. But I do think the parties themselves have got to do something as well.
Just one final point from me. The Electoral Reform Society, as part of our intention to create active citizens in schools, are suggesting that we follow the Norway model of having mock elections prior to, or at the same time as, every parliamentary and local election. Is that something that the Government would look at?
I'm very interested. I know that the Minister for Education is very interested in that as well, and we've both met with the Electoral Reform Society along those lines. It's not in my portfolio, the schools bit of it, but I'd be very interested to see that. What we are doing, of course, is lowering the voting age in the Bill to 16. I very much hope that that means that we will capture people who are still at school and that we can facilitate differential voting. We're hoping to introduce pilots of voting on different days and at different places and all those sorts of things to encourage that, but also to encourage the school to talk about it as people come up to what will then be the age at which you can vote when people are still at school. That's one of the big advantages of lowering the voting age, in my opinion.
Sure. I think we all agree that that is crucial.
Just before we move on, Minister, it strikes me that one of the most important aspects of the Welsh Assembly's engagement with the population of Wales is the regular school visits that take place. I'm not sure how many local authorities in Wales have any structure or programme of encouraging local schools to visit those often grand buildings upon hills that might be seen as a bit formal and even forbidding—
That's a very good point, actually.
—and I think that basic level of engagement might help, if there was something structured.
That's an excellent point that I haven't given any thought to at all, and we can certainly look to see what we can do with that. You know, you're absolutely right.
You need to be careful because you could end up putting them off. [Laughter.] Can I just follow up on the point there about political education? Because this excellent document has come out; are you familiar with it?
Yes, I am.
And are you minded to accept the recommendations?
I'm looking at them now, so, yes, very interesting indeed.
What is that, for the record, Leanne?
It's the Electoral Reform Society, and they've looked at young people's ideas for political education, so they've spoken to the young people themselves to get their views on things. It's good.
Okay. Thank you, Leanne. Thanks very much. Okay. Huw.
Chair, your suggestion there reminded me of my taking a group of leisure students to Neath Port Talbot leisure committee to watch them working, and we had an hour and a half of graveyard maintenance. [Laughter.] They weren't enamoured with that visit at all, very important as it was, the business that was going on.
I want to turn to the issue of the success or otherwise of programmes and schemes, but before I do, could I ask you, in light of your earlier comments about selling elected roles to people who wouldn't otherwise consider it, just to marry those comments you made—and I agree with them—with the experience of Bridgend County Borough Council? The council itself, outside of the party system, ran a candidate scheme to say, 'Come and see, learn about what a councillor is', and it was done in a very friendly manner, with refreshments laid on—a very positive approach to it. And it did actually inspire some to step forward, but the majority actually said, 'No. We had a look. Thank you very much. Workload looks too much. The demands are too great. The impact on my family will be too much. Thank you very much. I can't square this.' Do we have to be realistic, whether it's council, whether it's Assembly or other elected office—do we also have to be realistic with people and say, 'There are ways in which we can make this work for you, but there is going to be an impact'?
Yes, of course there'll be an impact—
And accept on that basis that, for many people, it just won't be an option.
Also, of course, you're not going to have 100 per cent of people who want to put themselves forward for elected office. We all know that who've done it to ourselves. But, as I was saying, I do think you can make it so that the impact isn't so large. I think, in some councils—I don't know enough about Bridgend, Huw, to be able to say, but I think that, in some councils, they have been more successful at mitigating the impact, if you like, on the working hours of the council, and others not so much. I have no idea where Bridgend is on that scale. And, as I was saying, I do think as well there's something about not presenting ourselves as heroes for having done all this work because, actually, they all should be doable jobs, shouldn't they? And if they're not doable jobs, we need to do something about the fact that it's not a doable job. Then I think we need to factor that into account. I grew up in a councillor's household, and many of you also will have done so, and it didn’t put me off, but it did put my brother and sister off. So, one in three.
Of course, there's a limit to what we can do, but, on the other hand, as I say, you should not be asking people to pretty much give up their life in order to be elected, and you also shouldn't be asking them to tolerate levels of abuse and all the rest of it. Their families should also not be impacted to the point where they can't have a reasonable family life, and that's just self-evident, it says to me. The difficulty is getting councils to organise themselves in a way that maximises that potential, and we have a whole raft of problems with that around what time the councils meet, how long the meetings are, the volume of papers you're expected to read beforehand, how councils deal with correspondence—all that sort of stuff.
Yes, absolutely. I take those points. I didn't want to go big on that particularly, but it is interesting in terms of the aspects of increasing diversity, because if one of the backstop positions of this is that when anybody looks at the role they go, 'Well actually, that's not for me', I think somewhere there's a realism within this that we say for some people, they just don't want to do it. They look in through the window and go—
Sure, but a little bit of that is what you see when you look through the window. So, I don't know again if the committee's had the chance to do this, but I had the real privilege of going up to meet with the Bristol mayor and deputy mayor about what they've managed to do in terms of diversity, and it is absolutely breathtaking. So, they went into a council there that was very lacking in diversity and they went in determined to do something about that—
So, what did they do?
Well, they produced a leaflet, which they gave to me, which I'm happy to share with you. I don't know if you've still got a chance to talk with them at all, but I was completely blown away by some of the things they did. But what they mostly did was be determined to do it, actually, and every time somebody said, 'Oh, it's really hard to', they were like, 'No, no—I'm not having it'. And the deputy mayor in particular, who I spent a lot of time with, Asher Craig—a very impressive woman—spent a lot of personal time talking to people in communities not represented in the council about getting represented, and about what they would then be able to do for their community once they were the representative of that community, and basically assisted them through that process. So, I think it would be well worth the committee looking at it. I won't do justice to it, but she set my soul on fire, to be honest, when I spoke with her. She was amazing. And they really have made a difference. If you go on their website and look to see what they've done, it's astonishing—the speed of change.
So, that insight you've given us there into what's happening in Bristol—do we take from that that we're not doing enough in local authorities and at a national level within Wales?
I don't think we're doing enough. In my previous role, when I was the equalities Minister, I was starting to push that. In this role I will certainly be pushing it some more. I only met with her and the mayor a couple of weeks before the end of the last Assembly term. I'm determined to do more in that regard. But I do think local authorities in Wales need to look outside to see good examples of other things that can be done, to learn some of those lessons.
Yes. So, to what extent do you think, going forward, with you being in this role now and taking this forward, and you're clearly passionate about changing the success and effectiveness of what we've done with diversity in Wales, to what extent are you going to be directive as a Minister to local authorities and others to say, actually, 'Get on with this', or do you see scope for a national scheme?
We can have some national schemes. I'm very happy to look at that. But the chances of us doing something at scale on a national scheme not supported by local authorities is more than worth doing just to see what we can do. There have been some national schemes. I think you've had some evidence already about the shadowing schemes and all the rest of it. I'm happy to reproduce those, but, in the end, the local authority itself has got to take on this mantle. I do think there is a thing, going back to the young lady I told you about, who said she couldn't see anybody like herself through the window, that, if when you take somebody up to the window they don't see anybody like themselves, they will have a very adverse reaction to that, and actually we know that the more diversity you get into decision making, the better the decisions are, and the less likely that effect is had. So, it is a kind of rolling, virtuous circle, isn't it? As you get that diversity in, the decisions get better and the diversity gets more. So, you have to start the roll.
Okay. That's really helpful. Clearly, in terms of programmes and schemes, there are some good schemes and good initiatives out there, but we aren't getting to where we should be. What does that mean for you as a Minister, then, in terms of discussions around greater use of PR within local government to increase the diversity not just of candidates, but of those who are elected, and what does it mean in terms of quotas?
For both of those things, we're looking to see what we can do in the Bill. Currently, the draft Bill is looking to put—. They have an option to put a single transferrable vote in for councils. At the moment, we're saying, I think, that councils can choose whether to do that or not. I've only been in post three weeks; I haven't got a view about whether I should change that, and, in fairness to the local authorities, I haven't met with them yet. So, I'm not in a position to say one way or the other, but that's what the Bill currently says.
Do you or your officials have any idea whether there are local authorities that would opt to go for STV?
Do we know? No.
No. Shaking heads. 'No', as in 'You have no idea', or 'No, you've got no indication that there are ones that would leap at this'?
Okay, interesting. Thank you.
So, again, that will be for—. I've yet to have conversations with local government, so I'm not in a position to say one way or the other, but that's what the Bill currently says.
In quota terms, similarly, we need to have a conversation about how that will work. Again, a very personal view—this is not the view of the Government—my own personal view is that, given the rate of progress, if we don't quota it, we are going to be a thousand years before we get to any kind of better diversity. But quotas have lots of unintended consequences. They have all kinds of hidden problems with them, and so on. So, I'm attracted to the conceptual idea of it, but actually, in practical terms—what it would actually mean, and so on—we need to work through. And I'd be very grateful for the committee's help in working through that in evidence taking, and so on. But, for example, I'll give you an example: if we hit on a quota of, I think the committee suggested 45 per cent at some point—I may be making that up, Chair—but let's assume it was 45 per cent—
We've received evidence, I think, from the Electoral Reform Society on that.
Okay. Well, I'd be really anxious that 45 per cent isn't 50 per cent and women are half of the population—52 per cent, or whatever. And I think there's a real danger if you have a quota of 45 per cent of the council as female that the immediate effect of that will be that 55 per cent of it will always be male. Because the 'open' lists won't be open; they will become the other—
That 45 per cent is for candidates as well, not for elected.
Yes, not for elected. And then there's a whole—
The evidence we've received is that, actually, if you only put 45 per cent, you'll get fewer elected.
Absolutely, and the other seats will all be—. As I say, there are lots of hidden problems with that. There's a whole issue about standing candidates in winnable seats. And, the political parties, again, have a role in this, of coming forward and doing something about it. So, I suppose the short answer to your question here is that I'm very interested in the concept, but the more you delve into the mechanics of it, the more wary I am about some of the unintended consequences. So, I'm very happy to start the work of working through how we might do some of that and what they might look like and who would benefit from quotas, what groups of people would benefit, and so on. But also, I'm very wary that we don't set up a system that entrenches some of the other things in it. So, I suppose, yes, we're happy to continue to explore the concepts. It's not yet in the Bill, because, as I say, there are lots of issues, but I'm more than—. I'm very open to the concept or any other concept that we can think of that would drive some of that diversity. And, just to be really upfront about it, we will need to drive it because it isn't happening by itself.
Just a short supplementary on this, I understand the difficulty of compelling a more proportionate or multimember ward system that would allow the opportunity for more diverse candidates not only to stand, but to be elected, and the resistance on the ground to this. And it may be a step forward in putting an option of STV, and so on and so forth. But if, in five years' time, that option hasn't been taken up, are you also thinking at this moment about that scenario that, otherwise, bringing forward that ability does nothing; it moves us on conceptually but not practically on the ground.
Again, I'm very new in post; I've not yet had any of these discussions with local authorities or anyone, really. The committee is my first formal engagement as the Minister, so I'm not in a position yet to say because I just simply haven't had those conversations with people. I'd be more than happy to come back to the committee once I have had them, but I'm not in any position to say anything about any of those things yet, because I just haven't had the conversations yet with people.
Okay, Minister, thanks very much for that. Okay, we'll move on to Leanne.
Thank you. You started in your opening remarks talking about the negative side of being an elected representative, and the question of online bullying is something that I know from personal experience is something that puts off particularly women and under-represented groups. So, do you think enough is being done to stamp out bullying and harassment and discrimination within the local government tier of government? And do you think the political parties have a role? One suggestion that has been made to us is to have a joint code of conduct between the political parties. Do you think that that would make a difference, and what would such a code look like? Do we have an example of excellent practice on this front? I don't know if your conversations in Bristol touched on this area at all, but there's a big gap, I think, in terms of responding to this.
So, I agree completely that we need to do something about it. I'm not familiar with a code or how that would work, although, again, I'm attracted to the idea conceptually, but I'm not familiar with any of the—. I don't know if anybody else knows, but I certainly haven't come across a draft code of any sort. My conversations in Bristol were very interesting because they have put some mentoring and buddying schemes in place to assist new councillors with how to deal with it, really. And it does put people off. You know, the younger you are and the more vulnerable you are in whatever your grouping is, the more likely you are, unfortunately, to receive that kind of bullying. So, I do think it's incumbent on the councils to put measures in place to assist people to deal with that and, actually, to involve the local police force where necessary if it gets to the point where it's harassment, because that is, after all, a criminal offence, which I think people need to take more seriously. And so, you do need support systems in place and the councils should be doing that, and I think the political parties should be doing it. I'd be really happy to explore whether there was something we could all do together to assist. I do think also we need to be very hard on our own members who indulge in such antics. There are plenty of examples across all political parties of people who do that.
And I'm going to use this as a hook to just talk a little bit about the expense thing for a minute. So, we have a real problem with people not claiming the expenses they're entitled to, particularly for carers' allowances and stuff. I think the political parties need to step up to the plate of not making that an election thing. You know, if you know that if you claim carers' allowance, then your political opponents are going to say, 'Oh, look at Julie, she claimed carers' allowance', then it's going to be a really big problem. And I think we need to step up to saying we aren't going to do that to each other. If you claim the allowances you're entitled to and you haven't done anything wrong, and you haven't doing anything criminal, then why should that be an issue that you've claimed an allowance?
We've taken evidence on this, and one of the suggestions that has been made to us is that the way that that information is reported by councils could change. So, rather than put the onus on political parties to try to police people, which is, let's face it, impossible, perhaps a better way of dealing with that is to put the onus elsewhere.
I want to come back to the question of social media and bullying and harassment, and all of that, because in my experience the problem isn't so much from other political parties, or if it is, it comes through anonymous trolling accounts. And it's those kinds of—. Because if people can hide behind anonymity, they can be much, much more abusive, even criminal on occasion. So, is there anything that can be done in terms of social media training in terms of handling this? But also, is there anything that Government can do in terms of opening up dialogue with the social media companies themselves, because they don't take it seriously? And we've had examples this week, haven't we, with Anna Soubry outside the Houses of Parliament? This is something that is not going to go away. Is there anything Government can do to try to tackle this problem at source?
I'm absolutely happy to open up a dialogue with all of the social media, whether we will get anywhere or not, but I'm more than happy to make the attempt—it's something I feel very strongly about—and also to explore what we can do to make sure that councils do offer social media and media training, just general training, on how to deal with that kind of stuff, to all incoming councillors, and all councillors, but incoming councillors in particular, who are setting up new social accounts and all the rest of it, because that's when, in my experience, you really get a pasting off some of the hideous trolling accounts and so on. And then, just how to deal with it, how to be resilient for it, and all the rest of it. We all have different mechanisms. I'm happy to share mine.
My constituency team hide them from me, and then, if I'm asked about them by any part of the media, to comment on them, they give them to me all at once for me to have a nice look at over a couple of hours. For me—and it's a very personal thing how you deal with these things, I find; each one of us has a different level of resilience to different things—I don't like the drip, drip, drip all the time; I can't cope with it, but, actually, having it delivered to me so that I can speak to the media about it, I find that I can cope with that, and you can kind of get your head around it. So, it's just a very personal thing to me. I came up with that strategy after a long conversation with my team about how we would deal with it and so on. So, it works for me. But the team themselves needed to be resilient for that because they take the strain off me in doing it, so they also need help to deal with that kind of stuff and so on.
Now, I don't want to give the impression that we're deluged by it. I am lucky enough not to be deluged by it, but it certainly happens. So, you do have to be careful of your teams that back you up as well. The local authority needs to be that team for the councillor, doesn't it, and have that conversation about how to deal with it, what they'd like to have happen, what the best way for each individual person to deal with this is, what they'd like to do about it. So, we need to help the local authority to have that expertise inside it, because that's not something that everybody knows how to do. That's an expertise in itself. So, I'm very keen to look with the Welsh Local Government Association at developing that kind of expertise that we can make available to councillors and all elected people in Wales, actually, because it's something we all require, and it's something we've all experienced, let's face it, to more or less degree. So, I'm very keen on that. And I'm very keen to see what the committee thinks could be done, very keen to look at recommendations about what we can or can't do. I'm not an expert in it; I'm just telling you what I personally have managed to put in place. But I'm sure we could find people who would be good at it to see what we can do.
But, again, I want to say that I'm very keen not to put people off by thinking that we're all just deluged constantly by it, because I am not. I can only speak personally; I am not deluged constantly by it. It goes in little peaks, depending on what's been happening in your political life, and whether you've appeared on something that irritates people or not—Question Time is not great. [Laughter.] I am sure you know, Leanne; you get these spikes, don't you?
Yes, yes, just once or twice.
As soon as it's announced that you're going to be on something, it spikes up. But I don't want people to feel that if you're an elected politician, you have to deal with this on a minute-by-minute basis all your life, because that's certainly not been my experience. And—
But it's a public thing, isn't it? So, people actually do see the kind of abuse politicians get because it's there in your feed. So, it's not something—
And that encourages others, in my view as well.
Yes, it does.
So, it's about what you can do about the feed and actually taking it out of the feed and so on, and what the companies could themselves do about that. I personally feel, and it's been my experience, that once one's started up, it seems to encourage them all to come out of the woodwork, as if it makes them braver in numbers, which is—
They get emboldened they do, don't they?
Yes. A particularly nasty characteristic, actually.
Yes, thank you.
We'll move on then. Mark.
Thank you. What proposals for job sharing will be included in the local government elections Bill, in your current thinking, and what consideration are you giving to the opportunities and threats this might present to or for diversity in local government?
So, we're looking at job sharing for cabinet positions, and possibly for leaders. It would have to be within the frame of 'It's not an opportunity to increase the size of your cabinet.' So, each post is discreet, but it could be filled by people sharing it in terms of hours and so on. It's been done in my local council, Swansea council, to good effect, so it clearly does work. It's allowed somebody who wouldn't have been able to do the job full-time to participate at a cabinet level. So, I think it will have that effect on diversity. Job-sharing schemes have had effects on diversity in their history in employment and so on, so I feel it will. We haven't worked through all of the bureaucratic administrative issues that come with that, but that's where we are at the moment. So, we're not talking about—unless somebody's going to tell me differently—job sharing when you stand as a candidate, for example.
Okay. Well, that's what I wanted to put to you, because it seems to me that, as long as people were clear to the electorate that they were presenting themselves as a job-share candidate for X, Y, Z ward, why not?
I'm not sure what the answer to that is. I feel nervous about it at the moment. And, again, I haven't had the chance to really go into all of the detail of this yet, so apologies, Chair, because obviously I'm pretty new in the role. My off-the-cuff remarks, before I've read deeply into it, are that we need to start somewhere, so starting with allowing executive positions in the council to be job shared by two existing councillors, and so on, is a place to start, and we need to develop our thinking there. That's why I'm keen to look at leaders as well, actually, because that's an executive position, that they are off the basis of people elected as a person in their own right. I take your point. I absolutely see that the electorate might be able to see that—you know, you and I have decided to stand together as a job share. I haven't had the chance properly to consider all of the ramifications of that, but we're a long way from that. We've had all kinds of problems with the single council that tried to do it in Wales already.
Okay. Because it seems to me that, otherwise, we're never going to get candidates who have caring responsibilities, who may have a disability that makes it very difficult for them to do a 40-hour week.
Let me tell you my nervousness about it, and you tell me how we would mitigate against it. I very much fear that, if you do that, what you will actually get is two people working full time, so two people working full time for one salary. Because I don't know how you would restrict the call on the councillors' time for both of them. And I feel the same way about AMs, I will say. So, if there were two of me, I could easily work twice the hours I currently work, because you could accept every invitation you were given, and all the rest of it. So, I think we would have to think very deeply about what would be expected of those people, and how we would curtail the expectation of people that there are two of you, so if you can't come, the other one should be able to come. I really think there are some issues around how we would do that—not insurmountable, I'm sure we can work out a way to do it, but we need to concentrate on working out the way to do it. Otherwise, I fear that what you will end up with is two people, both working full time, for half the pay.
Jenny, just let me bring Huw in on this.
Can I suggest the answer to that may be in your earlier comments, in how you describe the role of councillor? Because, as you said, some people will want to be that councillor where their telephone is always accessible, they walk down the street and they constantly get lobbied on things, and so on. Others, will want to do it on a 'put it in a box, and it has time'. The same thing could equally apply to somebody who wanted to stand on a job-share basis—it's the same rationale.
Yes, I agree. I'm not suggesting for one minute that we can't overcome all of these issues, but they need to be looked at is what I'm saying. So, it may be that we can look at them swiftly and get them into the Bill, it may be that they're really quite problematic. I will say we're already struggling as a result of Brexit with time for policy officials and lawyers to actually draft these things. I don't think that the committee should underestimate the level of resource being sucked into sorting out the Brexit issues. So, actually, the team that's working on the local government Bill is significantly struggling with resource, because the resource is being necessarily moved to dealing with what happens if we have a 'no deal'.
Okay. But maybe that's something that we as a committee could pursue, because it seems to me that political parties could be asked to come up with a solution to that, the scenario you describe. Personally, I don't think somebody who wanted to do a full-time councillor role would then be standing for a job share. It would normally be people who genuinely have other commitments, whether a career or—
I agree with you, Jenny; I just worry that they would be, eventually, sucked in to doing more, and more, and more, because the roles are about—
Okay. But then it would be about having some clear parameters that—one week on, one week off.
Yes. So, that's the point: what would the clear parameters be, what could we do to assist people to have those clear parameters, and to make them transparent and open, and things that people can't be criticised for having held to, and all those? So, I'm not suggesting for one minute it's insurmountable, but I think there are a number of things to think about before we go for job share at election. I don't think those barriers exist for doing the job share at the point of appointment inside the council, and we are very keen to push that forward with some dispatch.
Looking at it from the perspective of the citizen, if the citizen is clear that they're voting for a job share, then why do they care whether—
I think that's a perfectly valid point to make; I'm just saying that there are other issues around it, that's all.
Okay. Back to Mark.
We heard some evidence in support of proposals for job-sharing candidates and non-executive members; we also heard some witnesses opposing the concept. Going back to the earlier conversation about how a councillor manages their time—whether they accept phone calls at three in the morning—a lot of that level of demand is determined by the resident, the constituent and the customer, and if you have more than one councillor, it could be that, or it's not so much that both end up working full-time as that the residents prefer the service they get from one person to another and that that person then ends up taking, inadvertently, a disproportionate share of the work. So, it's an unintended potential risk alongside that.
I think we need to work on what the parameters would be and how directive, or whatever, we need to be about what the parameters for a job share might be—how they might work and all that sort of stuff—put the rules in place within which you can structure your own job share. I don't think it's insurmountable, but I think we need to think carefully about putting that system in place. I'm very keen to start somewhere and there are a lot fewer hurdles in starting with the executive positions and the leader than there are with the actual election point. And there are all kinds of complex legal issues around what we'd have to do to the Representation of the People Act 1983 and all that sort of stuff, which the committee doesn't want me to go into at this point in time. But I'm not ruling it out, but I'm just saying that there are many things that we have to give—
Yes. I think we've given these issues a pretty good airing, haven't we, and we need to move on to other matters?
What consideration are you giving to the role the Welsh Government could play in engaging with employers to promote the benefits of employing staff who stand for elected office? We know that the police do this in terms of 'specials', and the armed forces do it in terms of reservists. Is this a role the Welsh Government would fulfil?
Yes. I think it's very important for us to talk to our companies across Wales, maybe as part of the economic action plan and the contracts they're in, about allowing participation. Having said that, though, I do think the councils themselves need to think much more carefully about when they have their meetings, because I think that a large number of principal councils in Wales have their meetings in the middle of the afternoon or at 4 o'clock, which are not excellent times for anyone with any kind of job or caring responsibility and so it puts people off. If you've got to release your employee at 10 o'clock in the morning to attend a planning committee, that can be very difficult to do. I do think there are a series of issues there. I'm very happy to have the conversation with employers and with my colleague Ken Skates about how we might engage with employers to do that. And I do think that people should allow their staff to participate in that kind of civic and political representation—I very strongly think that—but I do think the councils themselves then have to assist with the best possible outcome in terms of their meetings.
So, one of the things we're very interested in doing is allowing electronic participation in meetings, for example, so if you are an employer, your employee can go to a room in your building for an hour, and doesn't have to travel for 45 minutes each side of the meeting and all the rest of it—you know, you can actually participate electronically. There's no reason why we can't assist with—. And especially as we have, geographically, very large councils in Wales, where the travelling is a significant part of what takes up the time. So, I'm very keen to look at how we can help councils have more innovative practices in their meetings, both in time and in how they construct the meeting, to allow the participation of a wider group of people.
But employers, including my own previous employer, are sensitive if an employee stands for a given party in case they become associated with a given party when they exist to serve a broad customer base. So, it is a consideration that goes beyond perhaps the police and their 'specials', when most people—
I agree. That is one of the issues, isn't it: that you might become associated with that? We can work with employers to make sure that they don't see it in quite that way. But with the best will in the world, I'm not going to be able to change the culture of that.
How can the remuneration package for councillors better incentivise a broader group of individuals to stand? We heard from the WLGA that the current standard allowance is equivalent or based on three full-time days per week, but we also heard that many, many councillors, and you've alluded to this, are working full-time or more—certainly my own wife did when she was a county councillor. How do we square that circle? Should we be reducing the number of councillors and paying more or look to approach this in a different way?
It's a conversation I am very keen to have with local government in Wales. I have not yet had the conversation, so I'm not in a position to even start it. Clearly, it's a conversation we have to have. The remuneration board itself says that if the remuneration had kept pace it would be £16,000 now, and it isn't. But the remuneration board has to take into account the affordability of the arrangement for the council. We are not in a position to give the councils more money to pay off the additional amount of money, so a conversation needs to be had with local government. I have not yet had that conversation so I'm not in a position to say, but I acknowledge the issue very much, and I do think that the remuneration package does drive all kinds of other issues. There are issues around, as I said, expenses, pensions and insecurity and people giving up—even if they don't give up their job, they often give up career progression arrangements because they're not full time in their own job anymore and so on. So, there are a raft of things that we need to discuss about incentivising those kinds of things, because we don't want a situation in which only people who are independently wealthy or already retired are the only people who can come forward to be councillors realistically. That drives a set of behaviours we don't want, so we do have to have that conversation.
In addition to allowances, which you have already commented on—finally, are there other actions such as maternity/paternity leave or other barriers that could be tackled?
Yes, so, again, as I said, I think it's the whole package, isn't it? It's the whole issue about what happens when you're no longer a councillor, pension arrangements, caring arrangements, claiming the right sort of things. We're going to have a—I didn't finish the conversation about the expenses—. I want to have a conversation with the Information Commissioner's Office about what attitude they will take to freedom of information requests, if the council aggregates the response, because that's great if the council does that so that you don't get individuals, but if you can FOI it back to the individual, then, clearly, that completely undermines the whole thing. So, we need to discuss with the Information Commissioner's Office the public purpose of what we're trying to do and get them to come on board with reporting it in that way and not going underneath it for individual requests.
It would be the same for maternity/paternity leave and all that kind of stuff. We want a younger cohort of people to become councillors. Those people tend to be having children and have jobs and all the rest of it. We need to make sure that they can do that and represent the communities that they live in. That's the ideal that we're aiming for. So, I'm very open to suggestions for how we might deal with it. I'm not in a position to have any money at all to throw at that problem, so we have to do it inside the funding envelope we have, but that doesn't mean we can't find the solutions to it inside that envelope.
Okay. Perhaps, then, Minister, I could just ask one further question, really, which is: we've heard evidence about the need for better data in terms of candidates and protected characteristics, and I just wonder, in terms of section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, whether you might be minded to enact that to deal with these issues.
I need to have a conversation with the incoming Minister for equalities about how we're going to be approaching that, but when I was the Minister for equalities, you'll all be aware that we had commissioned research, which is now ongoing, about how we could best incorporate so that we get the best out of all of the various duties, rights and so on, in the light of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, because Wales has that and nowhere else does. So, rather than layer stuff, we need to make sure that we're getting the best out of it. There have been legislative proposals from both Plaid and from the Conservatives for incorporation of various United Nations conventions for disabled people and for older people, for example. There are other UN conventions that we could incorporate in a particular way. There's the socioeconomic duty, there's the section 1 equality duty, there's the well-being of future generations Act, there's the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—CEDAW—and the Istanbul convention. So, the piece of research is taking the very optimal thing that the citizen gets out of all of these conventions—what's the best way to incorporate that into Welsh law, just to be very simple about it. I haven't spoken to the incoming Minister, so I don't know what their view is, but my own view was that I would like to see the outcome of that research to see what we can do to take it forward. At the same time, I'm very keen, though, that we correct the problem of the public sector equality duty not being reported helpfully all in one place. So, I would like to see that particular thing. As you know, many councillors did report—they can if they want to, but there isn't a compulsion to do so. So, you can search the data, it's all publicly available, but they don't have to encapsulate it and report it neatly. So, I'd like to correct that. But I'll have to have that conversation with the incoming Minister and I've not yet had the opportunity to do that.
Okay, that's fine. Well, thank you very much, Minister, and your officials for coming in to give evidence to the committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.
Can I say I will ask Bristol City Council if they're happy for me to circulate the material that I was given? I think it's probably publicly available but I'll just check that.
Absolutely. And we may well decide, when we discuss these matters later, to approach the mayor directly ourselves. Thank you very much.
The next item on our agenda today is item 4: papers to note. Is committee happy to note papers 2 to 6? The first one is on Brexit-related legislation, 3 and 4 relate to the Welsh Government's draft budget, paper 5 relates to our inquiry into pregnancy, maternity and work, and paper 6 relates to possible reform to the Assembly's internal and electoral arrangements.
Okay, thank you very much.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
In that case we move on to item 5, which is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting. Is the committee content so to do? Okay, thank you. We will move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:41.
The public part of the meeting ended at 11:41.