Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd
Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd23/01/2020
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Delyth Jewell AC||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Leanne Wood ar gyfer eitemau 13 ac 14|
|Substitute for Leanne Wood for items 13 and 14|
|John Griffiths AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Joyce Watson AC||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Huw Irranca-Davies|
|Substitute for Huw Irranca-Davies|
|Leanne Wood AC|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Daniel Hurford||Pennaeth Polisi, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Head of Policy, Welsh Local Government Association|
|Davina Fiore||Cyfreithwyr mewn Llywodraeth Leol|
|Lawyers in Local Government|
|Dr Chris Llewelyn||Prif Weithredwr, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Chief Executive, Welsh Local Government Association|
|Emlyn Dole||Arweinydd Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin ac Arweinydd Grŵp Plaid Cymru Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council and Welsh Local Government Association Plaid Cymru Group Leader|
|Huw Thomas||Arweinydd Cyngor Caerdydd, Grŵp Llafur Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru a Llefarydd Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru ar gyfer Diwylliant, Twristiaeth a Digwyddiadau Mawr|
|Leader of Cardiff Council, Welsh Local Government Association Labour Group and Welsh Local Government Association Spokesperson for Culture, Tourism and Major Events|
|Michelle Morris||Is-gadeirydd ac Arweinydd Portffolio’r Gweithlu, Solace Cymru|
|Vice-chair and Workforce Portfolio Lead, Solace Wales|
|Peter Fox||Arweinydd Cyngor Sir Fynwy, Arweinydd Grŵp Ceidwadwyr Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Leader of Monmouthshire County Council, Welsh Local Government Association Conservative Group Leader|
|Ray Quant||Dirprwy Arweinydd Cyngor Sir Ceredigion, Dirprwy Lywydd Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Deputy Leader of Ceredigion County Council, Welsh Local Government Association Deputy Presiding Officer|
|Rob Thomas||Cadeirydd, Solace Cymru|
|Chair, Solace Wales|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Samiwel Davies||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Stephen Davies||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Yan Thomas||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 rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod am 09:31.
The public part of the meeting began at 09:31.
Okay. 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've received apologies from Dawn Bowden and Caroline Jones. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
Then we will move on to item 3, which is our continuing scrutiny of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill and our twelfth evidence session, with the Welsh Local Government Association.
So, let me welcome: Councillor Huw Thomas, leader of Cardiff Council and WLGA Labour group and WLGA spokesperson for culture, tourism and major events; Councillor Emlyn Dole, leader of Carmarthenshire County Council and WLGA Plaid Cymru group leader; Councillor Peter Fox, leader of Monmouthshire County Council and WLGA Conservative group leader; Councillor Ray Quant, deputy leader of Ceredigion County Council and WLGA deputy presiding officer; Chris Llewelyn, chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association; and Daniel Hurford, head of policy for the WLGA. Welcome to you all. Thanks for coming along to give evidence to the committee today.
I don't know if any of you wanted to make any introductory remarks. Not really. Okay. We will, then, move into questions, and perhaps I might begin with a question on the general principles of the Bill and whether the WLGA supports and welcomes those general principles.
Shall I go first? There may be various views, because the WLGA is not a sovereign body. We all have different views, but we have all come together. I think—certainly speaking on behalf of the Labour group, but I also think the WLGA—we certainly support the general principles of the Bill, particularly in terms of some particular themes around electoral reform, around governance and performance reforms.
I think it's fair to say that we also want to put on record our thanks for the constructive way the Minister has engaged with local government on the process. I mean, this Bill has a long history, hasn't it? More than a few Ministers have grappled with it. But certainly, the last Minister has held a series of very constructive meetings with the WLGA.
But the core stance I think we want to express at the outset is that Welsh Government should be fully funding any new national initiatives, or the implications of any national legislation on local authorities. There's been some confirmation, I understand, on some aspects of these, such as the electoral reforms, but there are others that I don't think have been quantified yet. There are varying views on the principles of corporate joint committees, and I suspect we'll get into the detail of that in due course.
I'll echo all that Huw has said. The local government family—we try to move together as a collective in almost everything we do, and I think the whole local government family recognises the general principles of the Bill and is aligned to it.
It comes from a lot of work earlier with Derek Vaughan, when we were looking at reform, following some of the discussions in previous years on reorganisation and all that sort of debate. So, it was a natural progression as well, I suppose, out of some of that work.
I thank the Minister Julie James for the way she's conducted the engagement with us to date, it's been really good; some of the best engagement we've had with a local government Minister for many years. So, I thank her for that.
I would say that, since Julie's come along and taken this care, it's been like a breath of fresh air, moving on from when we were bogged down previously in the past with all the different issues we were going to have and where we were going to reduce all the authorities. There was a lot of aggravation, a lot of dissension about that. So, now, we actually seem to be moving on a path that will actually lead to somewhere, which is good for everybody.
Okay, thank you very much for that. If we move on then to elections, Part 1 of the Bill, and section 2, the extension of the right to vote. Huw, you mentioned some of the funding issues. Would the WLGA wish to see assurances from Welsh Government that it will provide the funding required for local authorities to implement the extension of the franchise and promote awareness of that extension in the initial transition phase?
Yes, absolutely. I think that goes without saying, and I think that needs to be underpinned by realistic estimations of the population levels. Clearly, my suspicion is that there would be huge variances in terms of where foreign nationals are distributed across Wales. So, unless that funding is provided and based on robust estimation, some authorities are likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged, I think, if that funding is not forthcoming.
Jest i ailadrodd hynny, mewn ffordd, ond i ychwanegu, er ein bod ni wedi cael peth sicrwydd am peth o'r ariannu yna, peth o'r sicrwydd yw hynny, a byddem ni'n disgwyl sicrwydd llawn am unrhyw ariannu sydd yn dod yng nghyd-destun yr ymestyniad yna. Oherwydd mae'n ymestyniad, rwy'n meddwl, sydd yn hanfodol ac yn bwysig. Ond i'w wneud e'n gywir ac i'w wneud e'n iawn, mae'n rhaid sicrhau bod yr ariannu yna yn dilyn y bwriad, mewn gwirionedd, neu mae'r bwriad yn mynd i gael ei effeithio yn niweidiol. Mae eisiau ei wneud e, ac os gwneud e, gwneud e'n iawn, gyda'r arian angenrheidiol i sicrhau bod hynny'n digwydd a'i fod e'n effeithiol pan mae e'n digwydd.
Just to repeat that, in a way, but to add, even though we've had some assurance for some of this funding, that's some assurances, we would expect full assurances for any funding that would come to us as a result of that extension. Because it is essential and important. But to do it correctly and to do it in the right manner, we need to ensure that that funding follows the intention, really, or the intention is going to be impacted. So, there is a need to do it correctly, with the necessary funding, to ensure that that happens and that it's effective when it happens.
Yes, okay. Chris.
If I can come in, Chair? It's one of the fundamental principles that underpins the relationship between central Government and local government—in this instance, the Welsh Government and local government—where there are any new burdens or new responsibilities, that they are fully funded, that we try and assess as accurately as possible what the additional costs are likely to be. And, again, in the discussions so far, the Minister and the Government have been very positive in that respect.
Yes, okay. All right. Peter.
My translation wasn't working, so you may have covered it, Emlyn, but I know that it recognises the best part of £1 million to provide that for 2020-21 and for 2021-22. And for any other election, it's likely to be over £0.25 million each year to put it in place. So, it's a significant sum.
Okay, well, thanks for that. The WLGA supports the provision to extend the right to vote to lawful foreign citizens. Has the WLGA undertaken any work to understand the experience of other countries that have taken this step, such as Ireland or the Scandinavian countries? Have you identified any practical lessons that could be learnt in terms of registering and promoting that right to vote? Daniel.
I'll come in on that. I think it's a point of principle that the WLGA supports that in terms of broadening the electorate. We haven't undertaken any research ourselves as an organisation. I know the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators will have been discussing this with the Wales electoral co-ordination board, but the WLGA haven't done any analysis of the practicalities or issues in other authorities. But, on a point of principle, we support it.
Yes, okay. Thanks very much. Coming back to the number of foreign citizens living legally in Wales, there's an absence of data, and that was referenced in the boundary commission's written evidence to our committee. So, are you content that the explanatory memorandum accurately reflects the cost implications and the additional workload on local authorities and partner bodies?
Again, we haven't done any analysis ourselves, and the boundary commission, as you suggest, thinks that the figures are not necessarily detailed enough to give an accurate estimation. But I think the regulatory impact assessment suggests around 33,000 additional voters on the electorate, and if there is a margin of error, it's unlikely to be hugely significant across the whole of Wales. Some authority areas might be disproportionately affected, depending on the population of foreign citizens living there, but given that we're talking about a ballpark of 33,000 across Wales, there's unlikely to be significant variation. Obviously, we haven't done the analysis, and the boundary commission needs to do it when the figures are available. So, we don't think there's going to be a significant variation from that, and, so, the cost implications are unlikely to be significant.
I'd repeat the point though, Chair, that those 33,000 citizens estimated are likely to be highly concentrated, particularly given the role of some Welsh cities as asylum seeker dispersal centres. So, you are going to se high concentrations, I would argue, in probably Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and in Wrexham.
Yes, sure. I would think that's what we'd all expect, isn't it.
Okay. If we move on then to section 4 and the duty to promote, and whether the WLGA is content with the provisions in section 4, and if you'd agree with the Electoral Commission that, subject to adequate funding, the duty should be extended to electoral registration officers.
Yes, we're broadly in support. We want to see the highest participation in democratic exercise possible. I think there are elements that need further consideration in terms of registration in particular, and perhaps reflecting on the experience that we've seen in recent years with the changes done on UK Government level.
In terms of the duty being extended to the EROs, I think funding and capacity is key, particularly, I guess, because, in most councils, the ERO function is discharged or resides with the chief executives, who are already busy people. So, I think that needs to be taken into account as well.
Okay. Does the WLGA agree with the Welsh Government's stated intention to introduce an amendment at Stage 2 of the legislative process here to include care leavers in the definition under section 4?
I think that makes sense, because to bring care leavers in seems the sensible way to extend it, because the section speaks about looked-after children, so that lends itself.
Yes, okay. Everybody content with that? Okay.
If we move on then, sections 5 to 10 deal with voting systems. The WLGA has concerns with the provisions that provide local government with the power to choose between first-past-the-post and the single transferrable vote for its local elections. It would be interesting to have you flesh out those concerns a little, and whether you would support mandatory STV; if that provided for a consistent voting system across Wales. Who would like to begin on that? I know there are some thorny issues there that have been played out over a number of years.
Basically, we don't support the proposal that each authority should actually choose its own method; we'd like to see consistency right across the piece. And I think there are going to be different views with regard to STVs, particularly from those of us in the rural areas, we see that as an issue. And when we go on and look at things where they talk about things like three-member wards and all those sorts of issues; that's too many cooks spoiling the broth there—to have three members running around large rural areas actually trying to take on responsibility, and you get an overlap of what's going on for that. So, we don't think that that's such a good thing.
So, is there a general view that there should be consistency across Wales; that there should be one—?
You're going to have real issues with confusion with town and community council elections being held on the same day with two different voting systems. Imagine what your average person is going to be faced with in the polling booth. I just think it'll cause total confusion.
I don't want to speak out of turn, but I think there will be quite a strong view against an STV system as well at local government level.
We're between a rock and a hard place here. On a national level, absolutely STV, and that's my party's position as well. But in terms of local authorities and the allowance of local authorities to choose their own voting system, the complexity around that seems to be quite horrendous. You might have, on the same day, somebody voting and part of that election being under STV and part under first-past-the-post, and the allowance for chaos in that context is concerning.
I think it has the potential to be even more complex than that if different local authorities are using a different system, and a resident moves from one authority to the next, which can sometimes be just a mile down the road, and it's a totally different voting system, and then there is a provision to revert back to the old system after a certain period of time. So, unnecessarily complex, I would argue.
Yes, but STV with an all-Wales approach is different.
Yes, so there's a general view that there should be one system, and there would be different views in local authorities as to which system—yes.
One system, as long as it's first-past-the-post. [Laughter.]
Absolutely. I agree with Peter.
Right, I'll bring in Mark Isherwood at this point.
Just a short one, it's something that was brought up by other witnesses in previous sessions: what do you believe could be the impact on independent candidates or candidates from smaller parties of a local STV system?
I think those of us who are independents, with regard to local authority elections, we would still prefer to go for first-past-the-post, because, as has been said by others, it gives consistency right across the piece for us.
Just on the practicalities of how the system works, could that work against the level playing field in terms of people representing parties or non-parties in given wards or multiple-member wards?
I think it probably would, wouldn't it, Ray? Independent councillors would be at a fair disadvantage, I would have thought, across the local government family.
I guess, in particular, when you consider the resources that a party would have to communicate the message about how you would need to vote in any system, compared with what an independent member would have.
We're on our own. As independents going out there, we don't have that party machine going with us, but it depends what your politics are, of course.
Okay, Mark? There is concern as well, isn't there, that multi-member wards might undermine the link between councillor and community representative? I don't know whether the WLGA has got any actual evidence on that. If not, what would be your views? Daniel.
Yes, I'll come in on that. We haven't done any analysis and I'm not sure whether the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales have looked at a modelling of implications of different voting systems in different areas. Obviously, multi-member wards are quite common across large parts of Wales, particularly urban areas, but generally, rural areas, as councillor Quant has said, tend to be single-member wards or electoral divisions as they will be in future.
I think the boundary commission's current policy around electoral reviews is that their preference is for single-member wards to keep the community links with councillors. If you look at larger, rural areas, and if you put a multi-member ward over a rural area, you're talking about much larger geographical areas. And there is a concern from some members, particularly in rural areas, as I say, that you will break that community-councillor link, if it's just too broad an area and you have large constituencies of three to potentially six members, and that would just break the local ties. So, it tends to be an issue for rural areas, as councillor Quant has mentioned.
Can I just ask a quick question on that? Have you actually looked at any of the evidence in Ireland, say, where there are a lot of rural communities, or are you just basing it on feelings?
As I say, it's a view put forward by rural authorities generally. We haven't done any analysis, as I say, and obviously Scotland has got STV as well. But it is a general concern, and so, if it did come through, and obviously this is, as it stands in the Bill, an option for authorities to choose if they so wish. So, those authorities that would be embarking on this would do that analysis and research and weigh up the benefits or risks around promoting effective local government. So, we haven't looked at the detail, but that's the general feeling that's come through from some authorities.
Okay, thank you.
Did you want to come in, Huw?
Yes. Talking about the challenges from a rural perspective—. Speaking from an urban perspective, speaking as somebody who is a member of a three-member ward, there is a huge disparity across Wales in terms of the number of voters that a councillor represents. This is largely a boundary commission issue, but it can vary from a councillor representing 400 people in parts of Wales to representing 4,000 people in other parts of Wales. Certainly, my lived experience is that having multi-member wards, in wards such as mine where there are high levels of casework, actually allows for a really effective sub-division of labour. So, I would argue very much in favour of multi-member wards. And I think if you look at the experience of Anglesey, for example, and the changes implemented there when the commissioners went in were very much to establish multi-member wards because it was felt, based on evidence at that time, that that led to better governance.
I have a slightly different view. I've been a councillor for 22 years and I am, obviously, a single member for my own constituency, and I'm held to account by that constituency. My 2,000 voters—electorate rather, not necessarily voters—I'm held to account by them. If I had a multi-member ward where we were merging—I don't know—where we've got 4,000 or 5,000 people each to get around, that detaches you, I think, from your local community in many ways. Plus, I've seen over the years other multi-member wards where you've got individuals carrying a lot more load than others. Sometimes, people aren't so accountable, and I don't think that's healthy. And I was talking to the boundary commission only last week, because they're looking at our county at the moment, and they're very much in favour, where possible, of keeping single-member wards.
Well, thanks for that. Still on STV, is there any indication, as far as you're aware, that any local authority in Wales is considering or interested in moving to STV in anticipation of this legislation passing?
None that I'm aware of.
If STV is retained and passed into law, to what extent does the WLGA agree that the provision for e-counting should be included within the Bill, and a cost impact assessment of such a provision included in the regulatory impact assessment? Daniel.
I'll come in on that, and you may hear more views this afternoon, because I think you're taking evidence from Solace. I was with Solace colleagues yesterday, and there was a presentation from one of the UK's leading electronic electoral management companies discussing the benefits and experiences of e-counting and electronic voting in different methods.
There was a lot of interest in the potential around e-counting generally. And the view was, particularly from Scotland and elsewhere where STV is rolled out where, obviously, there's more complexity and there are more challenges in counting, that electronic counting could be beneficial. And similarly, there were views that, actually, electronic counting for elections, full stop, might be beneficial and there's proven technology there; it has been rolled out in the Greater London Authority and in Scotland previously as well. So, you may hear views from returning officers this afternoon that, actually, e-counting should be allowed for all elections. But it's currently not, as I understand, permissible in any of the electoral legislation.
Although it would be quite a major procurement excercise.
Absolutely, yes—significant procurement, particularly if it was done on an all-Wales basis. And there'd be significant cost implications as well.
I think, if you're looking at introducing it for 2022, that would be extremely optimistic.
Yes. It's a fairly lengthy process, isn't it?
Okay. Section 12 and the restriction on the number of councillors if STV is applicable. Does the WLGA have a view on the provisions in section 12 as to whether they're a reasonable limitation if the provision for STV does become law?
We haven't looked at this in detail, and we're not sure what the boundary commission has undertaken around modelling, but electoral wards of three members in rural areas such as Powys are likely to be geographically large. So, currently, the local democracy and boundary commission, in its policy and practice guidance, recommends new multi-member wards of up to three members.
Again, I come back to the comment there with regard to, 'No less than three-member wards.' The issues with regard to that: they're obviously going to be—particularly in the rural areas—large areas to cover, and, for example, if you've got different political parties, those three members could actually be three of different parties. So, they will obviously want to go over and cover all that ground, and, therefore, you can get a duplication of effort; you can get some people being told one thing, somebody being told another thing. So, you're running around and then you're going back to your local authority officers where you want to actually get—another comment from there. So, you've got different stories coming in, and, therefore, I can see that there's going to be an issue with regard to having three members in a rural ward there, particularly if they're different political groups. Therefore, I think the current system is the best issue for that.
I'd agree with that. And what that allows is that, in the towns—and in Carmarthenshire, for instance, we don't have a three-member ward yet. We will have after the next election, but that's around urban, not rural. And as long as that mix is there and balanced and works ratio-wise, then it works for all of us—except, I'm in a two-member ward and we're two different parties and there is a risk of duplication, and that does tend to happen. But if it's a working relationship that is based on the best for the ward, then it still can work. But it gets more complex and more difficult the bigger it gets.
But I would suggest that the fact that you have multi-member wards with different political representation suggests that the electorate is already sophisticated enough to choose who it wants to represent it. I mean, there's an example in Cardiff: the three-member ward has a Labour member, a Conservative member and an independent member, who had to establish a working relationship between themselves. But that clearly reflects the democratic will, and I'm not sure why we need to unpick that and move to a more complex voting system.
And I'd agree, as long as that's based in urban, but when it gets to rural—
—like in Carmarthen, you've got that mix where it's 60 per cent rural, and you have to be very careful about how you extend that.
Huw, with all due respect, you're talking about where you've got concentrated numbers. I'm talking about rural areas where we've got large areas to cover.
Sorry. I'm not arguing for a multi-member system universally, but I'm saying, where it applies, it shows that voters can interact with it without the need for STV.
Can I ask a further question?
One of the arguments in favour of STV that's been put forward to us by equalities organisations is the opportunity to increase diversity. We don't have a very diverse panel here this morning. [Laughter.] Do you think that's an issue? And do you think that that might override some of your concerns about STV? Because it does provide a chance to have more women, have more people of colour, have different representatives. Local government doesn't fully reflect Welsh society as things stand. You could argue no politics does, but local government's got a particular problem, I think, particularly in terms of gender.
I absolutely agree with the need for wider diversity. We're fortunate in that this year there was a growth in the number of ladies voted in and different people representing the county, and that's really healthy. I think that the onus should be more so on our political parties to do a lot more through their own selection processes—
But that hasn't worked so far, has it? We've got 22 per cent of councillors who are women, and political parties were meant to have done that job until now, and it hasn't happened.
I know, and there has to be a greater effort from all parties to do more in that regard. I'm very much hoping that the next leader of Monmouthshire will be a woman, and I think that's highly likely at some point. We need to see more of that reflected right the way through our local government family, I think.
Can we do that through the legislation, though? Or are you just hoping it'll happen?
And you think particularly in regard to STV, Leanne?
I think STV—the women's equality network provided evidence that showed that gives us the opportunity to increase diversity, and the way that the current system provides challenges to that.
I'd have to look at that evidence. I can't necessarily immediately see how that would be. Frankly, particularly given the additional complexities and additional strain—
Well, if you had a three-member ward, you could say at least one of those has to be a woman, for example.
So, coming back to Peter's point, I think there's an opportunity here for parties to show the lead. Speaking for my own party in Cardiff, that is exactly what we do. So, if there's a three-member award in a winnable seat, one of those seats has to be a woman.
Do you have a gender-balanced group in Cardiff, then?
We have probably the most gender-balanced group of any political party, I would suggest. It's about a third women, so not as good as it could be.
Okay. Better than the average.
Certainly, in terms of ethnic diversity, I lead the most ethnically diverse group in all of Wales.
But again, that is leadership taken by parties, and I think there is more that can be done on that. I've not read the evidence, but I always think to encode that in legislation would be a very drastic step, I would think.
I don't think we were given clear guidance as to how exactly that could be included. It was a general point about opportunities, really. We weren't given specific amendments, were we, in our evidence?
I would suggest—and I suspect there are duties to back this up—that there are other more significant barriers to achieving diversity.
Sure, yes. Childcare and so on.
Yes, if I may. As the members have mentioned, the WLGA is committed to diversity in democracy, and we've got a working group, a subgroup of our council, which actually met this week, looking at diversity in democracy issues. It was chaired by Councillor Mary Sherwood from Swansea, one of our equalities spokespeople. So, we're looking at methods and opportunities to promote, engage and encourage a more diverse cross-section of people to come forward to stand as councillors. But also, to support those people who are already councillors so we don't lose them in the next election.
With regard to STV, I think there would be an onus still on parties to select and put forward candidates. We did discuss earlier this week about the role of parties and we will be reporting, possibly in the council meeting in March, on some of the recommendations coming forward. So, we'll circulate that to the group.
And I think on that diversity one as well, there are issues that are even more relevant. Much of that is around remuneration and proper remuneration for councillors, because until we get that right, then that diversity is not going to appear. Because you've got the situation where people can't even choose to stand as councillors because they couldn't afford it, because it doesn't allow—especially with younger councillors. I think on gender balance, Carmarthenshire comes out pretty well—half of my cabinet are women and the previous leader was a woman—but as far as the diversity and getting younger people in, then we hit that brick wall because they can't afford to do that, because they're not remunerated properly for the role that they're seeking to fill.
Yes. It's a more general observation. As we've seen this morning, a lot of the issues we're discussing are contestable. I think there's an obvious consensus in terms of the outcomes, the aims, the objectives we're all trying to achieve, but very often we have different ways of approaching them and of achieving them.
In relation to this area of discussion, the WLGA, as a fundamental principle, wants to move politics as close to people as possible, so that individuals have as much of an influence and a say in the way that the services they use on a day-to-day basis are delivered—and we always argue for subsidiarity and devolution and so on. But what sometimes happens is that we disagree in terms of how we achieve those collective aims.
So, in terms of diversity and politics reflecting the diversity of the communities that local government serve, then there is an agreement there in terms of that overall aim, but as I say, so much of this is fundamentally contestable and it's objective and a reflection of opinion rather than being scientific and hard and fast.
We've got to remember we are 22 separate bodies; we have our own issues to deal with. A lot of the issue around diversity is how we put our own houses in order, how we make timing of meetings flexible, how we make sure that we help out with childcare or elderly care, and we build our day and our function around those things to make it more attractive for people, who feel outside of it at the moment, to come in. I think we've all got a part, a big part to play in looking at ourselves.
Yes, well, obviously, there's considerable progress yet to be made, isn't there? I'm pleased to say that my home authority, Newport, has a woman leader succeeding a previous woman leader, so that's very positive, I think. We'll move on to some further questions then from Mark Isherwood.
Good morning. The Bill provides Welsh Ministers with powers to amend the ordinary day of election. To what extent do you agree with the Electoral Commission that there should be an amendment that prevents Ministers doing this at short notice?
We would support that in principle; no problem with flexibility.
Just for the record, could you explain why?
It could allow a clash with an election to be avoided through that, and that's to be welcomed, because those clashes can be avoided.
I think the point of your question is about the short notice.
Yes, the short notice.
Certainly, my view would be you need to give extensive notice of the day of that poll. For what it's worth, I don't have a particularly strong feeling in terms of an election happening the same day as a general election either. I think what we'd be keen to avoid is a repetition of what we saw in 2017—it's not within this Assembly's powers to do this either—where a local election was totally overshadowed by a general election happening a few weeks later. But in terms of concurrent elections on the same day, I don't necessarily see the issue with that. But I agree with, I think it was the Electoral Commission—
The Electoral Commission, yes.
—there certainly has to be sufficient notice, whatever the change of day is.
Even if there wasn't to be a clash with another election, are there wider issues that we should be considering in terms of—apart from just giving returning officers sleepless nights—resource allocation or the practicalities of preparation?
Yes, and that's the key. We saw the Electoral Commission's evidence last week, and this is probably more for electoral administrators who have to do all the preparatory work, but, obviously, they need sufficient notice in order to make their preparations. I'm not sure what the specific deadline should be, and they would be better placed to advise, but I think you mentioned the Electoral Commission put forward a date, and they're the body that oversees elections. So, I think flexibility is needed to move the date, but appropriate notice should be given to authorities, administrators and returning officers.
I think what you're balancing is any impact on local areas of holding an election on a particular day, so I'm thinking, in particular, of examples where polling stations are also schools, and so schools have to be closed, for example. You're balancing that against making it as easy as possible for people to vote, and, at the moment, people know an election happens on a Thursday, so there is an ingrained sense of, 'You vote on a Thursday.' I've taken part in by-elections that took place on a Tuesday, for example, and the turnout was significantly lower.
What do you consider to be the risks and benefits of provisions for an all-Wales database, both in general and specifically if an authority wished to be the keeper of that database?
My personal view is that this is a really important issue and there should be a national database for that. For example, a discussion at a recent election: you've got parents who are divorced and you've got a child who happens to be at university, so the potential is that person could have three votes. He could go and register at his mother's house, at his father's house and at college. Whereas, if you had a national database for that, you'd actually have one point where the person would be registered there, and once he goes along, wherever he chooses to go and register his vote, it would come up there, and he would be ticked off, and there wouldn't be that—. Again, you never know how people might be playing the system. So, I think an important issue would be a national database.
I don't think there's a problem with a local authority handling that. I think what's in place in all authorities around cyber security is robust and strong now, and I wouldn't have any concerns. I don't think WLGA has concerns about which authority, or an individual authority holding that register.
But, I think, until you get that, whoever holds that one, wherever it's held, until you do that, then you can't really have an effective electoral pilot anywhere without having that base, safely and securely, wherever it's held.
Is there a WLGA position on whether this would be better held by councils individually or nationally, or with interconnectivity between the two? And, if nationally, do you have a view on which body would be best to fulfil that role?
I think, if it's held locally, I think people might consider that it's a higher risk there; I don't think it is. I think we hold databases without risk anyway. So, that one's not an issue for me, wherever it's held, and that it's safe, whoever holds it.
Or, potentially, on a lead authority basis, that one county takes the lead for the rest of us.
The key issue is how to interrogate it, to ensure that, I don't know, an Assembly Member who rents a flat in Cardiff isn't voting here and voting in their constituency or region.
Exactly my point.
Or a student. [Laughter.]
I'm sure that would never happen. [Laughter.]
Of course not. I keep getting letters from Cardiff inviting me to sign up and join you even though I'm voting in Flintshire. [Laughter.]
You would be breaking the law if you did that though, wouldn't you?
Fraud isn't a significant issue for most elections, but as Councillor Dole mentioned, in terms of going forward, looking at innovation, particularly looking around electronic voting or different voting locations, then an electronic register, whether it's local authority owned or across Wales, is the way forward. So, for example, with votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, authorities might want to put polling stations in schools or colleges, or if people want to vote anywhere, just turn up at any polling station, then an electronic register would allow the returning officer and polling staff to know that individual A has voted in a particular supermarket or in school, and so doesn't have to turn to their local polling station. So, you'd have up-to-date details on who's voting where and when. So, I think an electronic register is really the foundation for any further innovation around electoral reform.
To what extent do you believe that enabling voters to register without application would impact on voter turnout, and do you foresee any risks or unintended consequences of introducing such a system?
I don't think that automatic registration would have a significant effect on—. I don't think that's dealing with the problem. If the problem is an indifference to democracy and the democratic process, then just registering people automatically doesn't deal with that. It doesn't get to the heart of the problem, and, actually, you might put an argument together that says you have to go the whole way, which Australia have done, which, yes, everybody's automatically registered, but they also have to vote. And then you get closer to dealing with the problem if that's the way you want to go. But it's about engaging people in that democratic process really, and the way you do that, I don't think it's necessarily to get automatic registration; it's about getting people involved and doing that in a way that does increase that democratic interest and accountability.
I do think there's more research work required in this field. I know, for example, a piece of work that the Cabinet Office is undertaking in this regard. You mentioned the letters that you get from Cardiff council. So, there is a legal requirement to undertake a national canvas annually. I would suggest that's sub-optimal, both in terms of the responses, but also in terms of the cost burden of doing so. And if there was a way of using alternative data sources, for example, council tax records, NHS records, whatever, clearly there would be data protection issues to work through, but I think you'd probably generate a richer electoral database, electoral register, if you did that. But I think this all requires significantly further policy work before it gets to legislation.
Any further views? No. Okay. Thank you.
I wonder if you can expand on the views of the WLGA about staff standing in elections without the need to resign first, and if you could comment on any potential unintended consequences of that provision please.
We don't particularly support staff standing in their own local authority. That's where we see an issue—that you could have problems there. Again, during recent elections, members of staff have asked, 'Why can't we stand?' We said, 'You can go and stand for another local authority, but for your own authority there—.' In particular, the person who asked me had quite controversial views about what we were doing in the council in any case, and so, therefore, if they had got on that election platform and had those controversial views going on there and they came back and they had to sit—. If they were successful, okay, they would leave the authority, but if they weren't successful and they came back and worked with their colleagues, there could be huge issues that would emanate from that.
Can I add that I agree with all of that? But I'd add to that that it's about protection for the wider staff body. Because you could imagine a situation where, suddenly, you went from being somebody's boss, and if they were elected and appointed to the cabinet, they would in effect become your boss. So, particularly if there were grievance issues at play or disagreements in terms of management responsibilities, that could lead to a very difficult situation with unintended consequences in the context of being allowed to stand for election in your own area.
Can I say, I can see your concern there, but from the evidence we've taken from trade unions, they seem to be in favour of this provision, albeit with safeguards? And one of the next questions I wanted to ask is whether or not you think the Welsh Government has demonstrated that the provisions would mitigate for conflicts of interest and good governance, and whether the Scottish experience provides any evidence to support the need for that provision.
We're not aware of any evaluation of the Scottish experience. We've certainly fed back our concerns on this matter as far back as 2017.
Yes, and anecdotally from Scotland, as I say, we haven't seen any evidence of analysis, because it's been in place there for some time. But, anecdotally, feedback from the monitoring officers or chief executives in Scotland is that actually it's very rare for staff to stand anyway, so it's not going to make a significant impact.
One of the reasons they see is the issue being—and it will be the same issue in Wales—that the salary for a councillor would probably be a significant pay cut for a member of staff to go for it, and it obviously is a more insecure post to hold—obviously you're at the whim of the electorate—rather than having maybe a full-time permanent contract. The view is as well that staff are aware of the political risks and intentions, and if you do put yourself forward, even though you know you could resign, if successful, it is quite a challenging role, if you're a relatively junior member of staff, to potentially stand against an incumbent member in your council. So, you mentioned the unions want some safeguarding, certainly that would need to be undertaken, but we just do have a concern that there is too much risk around the potential undermining of good governance and good employee-employer relations for potentially limited benefit, because there is no evidence to say that a lot of officers or employees want to stand.
You can imagine a scenario where—let's work through a hypothetical example—somebody, an employee in the parks service, stood to be a councillor and in doing so criticised the current parks provision in their local wards. Let's say he or she was unsuccessful, they go back to their job in the parks service, having spent the last two months criticising what that department is doing—
—it lends itself to awkwardness and if you criticised the incumbent councillor during that time as well, certainly that councillor has a reason to have an agenda against that individual as well. So, I think it can lead to all sorts of really messy unintended consequences.
Okay, so you're not satisfied that the Government has considered the unintended consequences enough then from this—do you think it's fair to say?
I think it's fair to say.
The evidence isn't compelling enough to be honest. I think that there is so much potential there for a conflict of interest, and the truth is, local government and elected members aren't always held in the highest regard, and in this instance, it seems that there is too much potential for people to be concerned about issues of good governance. Anything that makes it easier for people to stand for election and increases diversity, as we've said earlier, is clearly a good thing, but in this instance, there's a trade-off here, and I don't think the argument is compelling that the advantages of allowing staff to stand add enough to outweigh what are potentially disbenefits and disadvantages.
Okay. Thank you. That's really clear. I wonder if you can outline your views on election pilots, referred to earlier in the electronic database discussion, and the potential benefits or concerns that you've got around those, please.
Support it in principle.
Yes, in principle, obviously, anything to encourage greater turnout and accessibility. Inevitably, there are cost implications, depending on how innovative and ambitious the pilots are, but I think—and you'll probably hear this later from Solace—it's around what's the longer term vision. It's all right doing pilots, but they need to lead somewhere eventually. So, having an overarching direction of travel for electoral reform is key. But, in principle, exploring what different methods can be rolled out for elections, the WLGA would support.
Okay. Great. Thank you very much.
But there should be additional resource as well if that's happening, because are we expected to do it from existing resource? If it's coming from the centre, then fine, we should all agree.
Okay, we hear you loud and clear. On finance and resources, I wonder if you can clarify your position on the provisions relating to returning officer fees. What are the potential unintended consequences of that provision, both practically and financially?
I think the removal of a specific returning officer fee would require a proper re-evaluation of the post that had incorporated the substantial returning officer role, as noted in the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers' submission to the committee. This may be a chief executive, but it is also performed by other senior officers. And it should be remembered that the returning officer is independent from the authority, and the additional demands, responsibilities, personal liabilities and risks of being a returning officer are significant and should not be dismissed. A form of this arrangement is already operated by several employing councils in Wales where the chief executive is also contracted to be the returning officer, but for no additional fee beyond their evaluated salary. If this is introduced, this would be a significant change in terms and conditions and a reduction in salary to a lot of people.
Okay. Has anybody else got anything further to add on that point? We've covered everything. Okay, I think I've covered all the questions there, Chair.
Yes. Okay, Leanne. Thanks very much.
If we move on to Part 2 then, the general power of competence, could you expand on the potential benefits and risks associated with that general power, particularly in relation to pre-commencement limitations on local authorities?
I think we strongly welcome the proposals. I think it reinforces and provides confidence in the core leadership role that the local government has. I believe you're going to be taking evidence from a group of lawyers working in local government in due course, and I think they would put forward the view that, in essence, where these powers are enjoyed elsewhere in the UK, they haven’t seen a great step change in behaviours, because largely the powers are already—. The work that we do is already done, so it hasn't seen necessarily a step change, but we welcome the formal, official confirmation.
And I think around the pre-commencement limitations, other local government legislation could be prohibiting a council discharging a specific activity, and the lawyers will probably refer to that. But there are hundreds or thousands of pieces of legislation—primary and secondary—where you'd be conflicting in that sense, and that would be a serious concern for them, doing something that might be prohibited in another piece of law. And that's probably a point they'll be making.
I think this is an interesting issue, because, the truth is, as local government, as the WLGA, we've always argued for this—for the power of general competence—because we think it reinforces the community leadership role of local government. So, historically, we've argued for it, but the evidence and experience of it elsewhere suggests that the impact is relatively modest. I suppose it's more about the principle than the actual impact of the change.
Sure, yes. Peter.
It's been in place in England since 2012, and as Chris says, the evidence shows it hasn't necessarily been used a lot. We welcome it, but you can still do a huge amount in this country without it. I'm not saying I don't welcome it; under the power of well-being, you can still go and do a huge amount, but obviously, the power of competence allows an authority to do what any reasonable person would do in their own lives. So, it gives you that opportunity to look at things in a different way. Sometimes, though, that can be stymied by other laws that stop you progressing along that way, but it's a positive step forward to allow local authorities to evolve to be able to do new things whereas perhaps traditional ways are not really fit for purpose in a modern age.
Okay. Thanks for that. I think that's quite clear. Mark.
I think it was you, Mr Llewelyn, and Councillor Fox, who referred to this not having been used very widely, notwithstanding the existence of the power in England. But can you give us any examples of where it has been used effectively?
I don't know if anything's been done by the WLGA.
I know the Local Government Association has a written submission; I don't know if there are any case studies there. Certainly, in the early days, within the first few years of it being introduced, there was some work by the LGA around case studies that were being developed. I think the select committee in Parliament looked at it as well. So, we can certainly send you some information about how it was used. But as the members have mentioned, it's not been widely used because councils already have quite a lot of powers, and the experience was that, actually, lawyers had to spend a lot of time looking through legislation to find out whether they could do what they wanted to do, or whether they were precluded in other bits of legislation. So, there are some examples.
You are right, Daniel, in terms of the LGA's submission to the committee as part of our evidence gathering; it does, in fact, contain examples of the use of the power.
Okay. I know there are a couple of other documents, so I can forward those through as well.
Yes, that'd be very useful, thank you very much. Okay, it's back to Leanne.
Okay. We're on promoting access now. I wonder if you can expand on the existing duties on local authorities by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 to involve the public, and whether the WLGA sees the benefit of consolidating such requirements in this Bill.
I think there's possibly scope for that consolidation through the Bill, but it does beg the question: what extra value would that add in real terms? Because it's something that we already do and we're already absolutely involved in. So, to what extent that consolidation would add anything, I'd question, but I've no problem with it being there. But it's what we do already; we already work to those principles.
So, you're saying it's superfluous, really—it's there, you're not against it, but it doesn't really add anything.
Okay. Anybody else got anything to add to that?
Particularly on that, I think it's good to include it. It keeps us thinking about it. But, participation is fundamental to all of us, in whatever thing we're doing. Engagement and consultation—I don't like the word 'consultation'—engagement is fundamental to all we do. But we should always strive to do better and find new ways to engage people to participate. We know there are many examples around the country where people are using innovative ways, via their country shows or agriculture shows, whatever function they're at, finding new, innovative ways to engage people, and hopefully that will continue.
Okay, thank you very much for that. You've said that you don't support the specific provisions regarding duties to encourage participation for connected authorities, noting that such a proposed hierarchical relationship undermines their own status, accountability and sovereignty, and this echoes the views expressed by the community council sector as well. So, what amendments would you like to see proposed to this section?
I think the main one is that if that duty to promote that participation and also to produce a strategy around that stays in the Bill, it should apply separately to local authorities, national parks and community and town councils. As a member of a county council and a community council, I think that makes absolute sense, because, in both cases, I'm equally answerable, and so it should apply equally to both, rather than through one to the other.
But it's also the case that these bodies, be they community councils or national parks, are separate responsible, accountable bodies in their own right, and local authorities cannot compel them to do anything. I think that's one consideration. The other consideration depends on the particular geography, but this could be a very onerous burden. Take, for example, Powys, it would have to develop a strategy for its engagement with the national park and hundreds, I think, of town and community councils.
As Chris mentioned earlier, the WLGA believes in subsidiarity. If you believe in subsidiarity and divesting or devolving power down to those bodies, it's for them to be held responsible and for them to be guided and encouraged to do things, but not imposed on them. I think that's fundamental to devolution in Wales. Subsidiarity should always be respected.
Yes, that's a good point. Thank you.
What would that require of connected authorities, though, if this provision wasn't to be adapted? Would that be quite onerous in terms of them producing their own or—? Any thoughts on that?
To a large extent, I'm thinking of my own authority, I can think of five of our town and community councils that would be perfectly able to do that and to do it really effectively and well and would want to do that. I think where it's a rural community council, then it would, probably, become onerous if that was imposed upon them.
And I think lots of authorities have now established charters with community councils, as well, which set out the terms of reference of how the local authority will engage with community councils. Certainly, in my experience, that was a negotiated process where the local authority responded and acceded to requests for support from the community councils as well.
In my authority, that sort of liaison happens four or five times a year on an official basis, where they come in and we discuss that, so that any problems they might have about that can be resolved there and with that participation and help.
Local councils and town and community councils have their support networks as well, with One Voice Wales and those sorts of—. In the same way as the WLGA, we guide and help each other, those bodies needn't do things themselves; they can call on One Voice Wales who may be facilitating something that could cover a whole range of authorities, and everybody could usefully embrace that. So, it's not for us to tell them, though.
I think, as a local authority, at this moment in time, we do support our town and community councils. When they're looking for guidance and support we give them that, but whether to actually come and engage and be detailing how to run their facility—.
And there's another debate going on outside here. There has been talk over the years about rationalising how many town and community councils there are, and that needs to possibly move forward, otherwise, it becomes a mishmash, if you've suddenly got local authorities trying to deal with councils that might be breaking up in any case. Some of them are very, very sustainable, and they really work hard, whereas others—basically, they're so small that they really look after things within the community, but they don't look outside their community.
If I can move on to petitions and the abolition of community polls, can you tell us whether you think the anticipated benefits of the provision would outweigh any cost implications, and whether there's been any analysis of the potential increase in petition submissions and the potential impact on local government as a result of that?
In terms of the cost of a community poll, we've got some estimates and this ranges from £3,000 to £5,000, so not overly burdensome, necessarily, but probably less than you'd expect from a petition. Certainly, we are supportive of the proposal to move away from community polls to something more petition based. Certainly, in the time I've been a councillor, I've seen the system abused by one individual in particular—I'll let you guess who—where, on single issues, following a campaign of misinformation, with the threshold for a community poll so low, they've been able to basically call a poll based on the people they've misinformed, and it doesn't lead to any better governance at all— quite the opposite. So, it's right that we are considering doing something else.
Okay, thank you for that.
Just to say, a workgroup has been established involving monitoring officers, heads of democratic services, Welsh Government officials and so on, looking at provisions around petitions, because a number of authorities already allow petitions, and learning from what's working well and what, perhaps, isn't working well. We'd be obviously keen to engage with the Assembly around the Assembly's approach to petitions. One of the key issues is thresholds; looking at appropriate thresholds and criteria. Obviously, we wouldn't want to have repeat petitions coming through, so, certainly being able to learn from the Assembly's experience, but also from good practice across Wales.
Thank you. Has anybody else got anything to add on that? No.
Publishing councillors' addresses is the next question. The provision in section 50 provides clarity for local authorities. Can you tell us to what extent that flexibility within the provision to publish either an official or home address for members provides for an inconsistent or consistent approach throughout Wales? Do you have a view on that, please?
I think many colleagues have expressed their concerns around that and the fact that that is published at the moment. That has led to all sorts of situations where people have been intimidated at home and have suffered not only abuse, but damage to property as well.
You've got examples of that, have you?
There are examples of that. But I have to say, personally, it hasn't affected me; mine's always been out there and I don't think I've ever had anybody just call because they know my address. It hasn't really concerned me, but I think it has concerned many, and because it's a concern it should be respected, and the fact that it could be a corporate address would suffice.
There have been several cases. I think all of our councillors could probably identify somebody who's been subject to harassment or intimidation or concern because somebody's found their address, where they feel that the best thing is for them to get their address off. That doesn't deal with some of the other issues we have; we all have to publish our interests, and our interests usually hold the address of our property or where we live. So, whilst we might take it from one arena, if somebody wants to hunt it down enough, they will be able to find it. But the flexibility is welcome, I think, to be able to choose how that is handled.
I would add that I've had somebody come to my front door with casework, and on one level, that's very positive, but certainly, I know of examples where council leaders and backbench opposition councillors have had harassment based on the fact that their address is in the public domain, up to the point where the police have had to be involved.
I think I'd ask you to take on board the fact that there's no point changing what appears on the council website; there's also the register of interests, which is published on the council website as well, which would enable somebody to find your address.
Is there a way of resolving that issue, then? Because it seems pointless doing this if we—
I might suggest that you register that you own property at a high-level postcode—
Right—without specifying the address.
—a four-digit postcode, for example, that clearly identifies that you have a property interest in that area, but doesn't make it identifiable.
That makes sense, yes.
Will there be clarity and consistency, though, enough consistency, if the provisions as proposed are enacted? Are there any concerns around those issues?
There's a hole, isn't there, in terms of the register of interests? I think it's right to allow members to choose. They could choose the county offices or another address or their home address. I know there are some members who feel very strongly about identifying themselves as being within the ward, so giving councillors that option I think is right. But I think there's no point closing a potential avenue of threat if you're leaving it open within the register of interests.
It can be so varied—the experience. Like I said, in my ward, because you represent a small ward, everybody knows where you live anyway. But if you're living in a city, you've not only got your own ward around you; you've got thousands and thousands of people who could target you very easily because they may be only a few hundred yards away in a different ward. So, it's different. One size doesn't fit all, I think. That flexibility is needed to protect certain people in certain cases.
Do you think there's any evidence to suggest that that provision, as it currently exists, might be putting off people standing for election, if they think that their address is going to be plastered over everything, going back to the diversity question we were asking earlier? Is this something that would make people feel more unsafe, maybe?
Anecdotally, I think that that is the case. We've got evidence, as has been mentioned already, of elected members suffering harassment. I think that the additional flexibility provided here is welcome. We have anecdotal evidence that it is an impediment and, again, I think your point is right. As we've discussed, we want to have a situation where as many people as possible can participate in the democratic process, and we reflect the diversity of the communities of Wales. If we suspect that this is an impediment, then it seems to be a reasonable step to take to try and address that issue.
Okay. We move on to Mark Isherwood.
Thank you. What is your view on the provision in the Bill that will require councils to publish guides to their constitutions in 'ordinary language'?
We'd like it for ourselves, really. [Laughter.]
They're not particularly accessible documents, frankly. To give you a recent example, sometimes councillors struggle to follow and adhere to them. I guess this is what the precept's burden of developing that is, because, clearly, it would need to have reference to the legalities, and each constitution I think would be different for each authority. So, it's not a once-in-Wales job.
We already produce a summary of ours that's useful; that's for councillors but it's available for anybody, and it's also on the website. So, that's already there in summary form. That probably helps councillors more than the public but it's there and available, and that's a good thing because it summarises the main points of that constitution and whether it's relevant to the people who need that.
I think model constitutions are a good thing if they give clarity and bring things along forward. Each council will base it on that, but I think what we do need in the constitution is that clarity, particularly when it comes to delegation down through it, so that people can pick it up and—. I mean, one of my cabinet responsibilities is the constitution and we're going through ours at present, and we're working that off in pieces with the cross-party team to go through issues that come along and arise, and it's surprising how you can get bogged down in different views for that, even simple things like how you run a call-in procedure. Different people on different authorities will have views on that, but it would be good to have models and follow it through.
I think you'll see, if you're taking evidence from some of our legal officers this afternoon, some will be monitoring officers. Different monitoring officers have got different views, and we've certainly got a new monitoring officer who's really looking at simplifying the constitution, taking it apart, even though we only reviewed it a couple of years ago, to make it far more accessible, far more user-friendly. It isn't a significant burden on authorities to do that; it's just sitting down and just working through it. They are complex documents but very, very important to have in place, but they do need to be accessible for those who use it as well because it's really difficult, sometimes, for us to grasp.
And just to clarify, obviously with the Bill there's quite a lot of constitutional reforms and governance reforms for authorities, so constitutions will need to change, certainly for the 2020-2 municipal term. There is a model constitution at the moment that was developed by Lawyers in Local Government and the WLGA with input from the Welsh Government; I think it was back in 2013. So, there will be that exercise nationally between all of the monitoring officers and the WLGA to look at good practice, best practice, and outline a model constitution. But, obviously, as members have said, it's then up to authorities to determine what part of that model constitution they adopt or how call-in arrangements are implemented locally. So, there will be a new model constitution because there's going to be quite a lot of reform as a result of this Bill.
And some might say that certain councillors themselves might benefit from this, but I couldn't possibly comment. [Laughter.] It's the importance that this goes beyond ordinary language in English and Welsh, but also to ensure that people with sensory loss, for example, can also access this in their ordinary language.
Great, thank you. In terms of election broadcasts, your evidence notes the costs in the regulatory impact assessment are likely to be a significant underestimate and that the regulatory impact assessment does not take account of the additional administrative burdens and implications of broadcasting all council meetings. To what extent do you believe that the benefit in terms of transparency and accountability and understanding of this outweigh the potential concerns you raise?
I think there are ways of doing this cheaply, but I think if you did that then you lose any of the potential benefits. So, it is possible to record the meeting and put it on YouTube, for example. In Cardiff the current system that we operate is far more sophisticated than that, where you can listen live, and post event, click through to hear different speakers at different points in the meeting, and have that in whatever language that they're talking in, either Welsh or English, at the time—with the translation. Clearly, you don't have that functionality on YouTube, so to find a particular item you would be clicking through and finding a meeting that could be lasting six hours. So, what is the value added of that?
I think broadly we welcome the principle of broadcasting more meetings, but I do worry that we're conveying the impression that a council meeting is the bread and butter of being a councillor. Like being an Assembly Member, what happens in the Chamber, in the Senedd, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work that we do as elected representatives. So, I think it gives a false impression of what the life of a councillor is actually like. And certainly in terms of viewing numbers, the evidence so far suggests that there isn't a huge public appetite for this, frankly. On certain contentious issues, you will get a spike in viewing figures, but you'll also get a spike in attendance at those meetings. If you look at some of the smaller authorities, they're getting only around 100 people watching council meetings. And, to be frank, I can't blame the rest of the people for not watching them, sometimes. [Laughter.]
There are benefits to it. Obviously, you want your community to be able to hear the actual debate that took place and not a spin on what took place. We do ours on YouTube. It costs us very little, but, as Huw Said, it's not that accessible if you're trying to find a specific debate within a three or four-hour meeting. That's quite hard. But it costs you nothing; it is very cheap.
The downsides of doing it—you're probably going to be constrained about where you can do your meetings. So, in the past we have had a flexible approach to taking meetings out to the community—select committees to meet right in the communities at certain times—whereas now you're more constrained to go back to where your main hub of IT will be and where it allows it. So, then, of course, everything now is happening in County Hall, whereas in the past it wouldn't have been. So, there are some disadvantages of moving that way. It's also been very helpful for us in the past to track or to hear exactly what was said in a meeting. It's been taken as a—it is a verbatim minute, so you can actually find exactly what's been said, and that's been quite crucial in how certain things that certain members might have said are dealt with.
We've seen a drop-off of press ever coming to—we don't see the press in meetings now because, of the 100 people watching, most of them are the press. They can sit at home and do it from their sitting room—
If you've still got press, that is.
Yes. So, it's swings and roundabouts. I wouldn't be somebody who would say it was a bad thing. I think being accountable is important.
But I think the way you do it—it should be done well. That's the approach we've taken. And doing it well means it's a multi-camera approach in a meeting. We televise the council meeting, the planning, the cabinet, but that requires, basically, an editor, who sits in the room and works the cameras, so that you get a close-up as well, rather than it being just a general wide angle, where if you're listening in, you don't know who's speaking and you won't find them unless—. So, if you're doing it, then it should be done well, and if it's done well, then it does mean that people would look in, and, again, as Huw said, there's that availability to break it down as well. So, if you want to go to a specific—it might be a council meeting that lasts three hours, but you might only have one interest in it and you can go to that on the one that we do. So, as Huw says, you can find that issue and you can listen to what you want to listen to without having to listen to the whole of it. So, done well, it works well, but it's costly, and to extend it, even to a scrutiny committee or whatever would be costly as well. And—
And—sorry, Emlyn—I think what's been proposed is that every single meeting is broadcast. That is a significant additional burden. Peter's point is a good one in that it has centralised everything into County Hall and the anecdotal feedback I've had from some of the lawyers in my authority is that what they would have to do, because of budget pressures, is actually deal with certain matters in a different way outside the meeting, and that actually has a result of reducing transparency.
In our local authority, at this moment in time, we basically only broadcast council meetings. And, again, people are asking to expand it and that, but on the point that Emlyn and others have made there: it's costly, you need good-quality equipment if you're going to do it, and also, we're basically a bilingual county, so it's all simultaneous translation. So, you need the staff to look after the equipment and to manage it and you need the translators there to be giving that simultaneous translation, so there are lots of costs. We've had an estimate, if we really want to expand this: it's about £100,000, our expansion. So, it's not cheap, and, as I say, I don't really know what YouTube will give you with regard to translation and all those sorts of issues.
Nothing, you see, and that wouldn't be acceptable in our area.
It shouldn't be acceptable anywhere, really, should it?
You may have noticed you're actually surrounded by multi-cameras at the moment. [Laughter.] How realistic is the assumption that this should be delivered on an all-Wales broadcasting contract across the authority?
If the Welsh Government's going to pay for it, that's their choice, isn't it, to be able to do it for us?
There is a provider that works with the majority of Welsh authorities already. There are different approaches, there are different companies out there, and so a contract could be undertaken, but, as you alluded to earlier, a national contract and national procurement is more complex and whether a monopoly provision is good and healthy is another matter. But it certainly could be done, but there are costs and additional complexity around that.
And my final question this session: to what extent do you believe that this Bill addresses the concerns expressed by the WLGA that the 2011 Local Government (Wales) Measure didn't provide for flexibility in relation to remote attendance and voting?
If I start, I think, again, remote attendance by councillors in meetings is something the WLGA supported, and it supported it when it was introduced in the 2011 Measure. The concern at the time was that the Measure was too prescriptive, which made it quite difficult to implement. So, this Bill is taking some of those restrictions, prescriptions and constraints out, so it's positive, and councils do already allow remote attendance. In Monmouthshire, some members used FaceTime or Skype to go into meetings, and that's great.
The one comment we do have is whether there needs to be a saving provision on the face of the Bill similar to the broadcasting element, where, if connectivity goes down—and we all know that sometimes video-conferencing fails or whatever—that the validity of a decision made in a meeting isn't affected. And that's covered in the broadcasting sections of the Bill, but not in this section. So, just as an additional safeguard—and, obviously, a chair might decide to adjourn if a significant proportion of members who were remotely attending suddenly got cut off—there probably needs to be some legal provision in there just to project the decision-making process that, if one member is at home or on holiday or whatever, and the connection goes down, the meeting isn't automatically adjourned and decisions can still be made.
We have some experience of this as an organisation because we try and promote remote participation in meetings, but the truth is that, very often, the technology, for a variety of reasons, doesn't actually support it, and there is nothing more frustrating than the sound or the video going down midway through a meeting. So, it sounds good in principle, but it's not without its difficulties.
I think that we have to go a lot further down into the digital or technological revolution before that can be an effective way of conducting meetings. Not only in what you see or what you can't see, or what you can hear or what you can't hear, or when somebody disappears totally and that how that affects a meeting—it's not conducive to good working.
So, I've taken part in a scrutiny meeting remotely, where I was remote. Actually, that worked well, and it enabled me to take part in a meeting that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to attend. What I worry about, as well as the technical risks, is the unintended consequences in terms of actually turning up to a physical meeting—not so much a committee meeting, but I'm thinking of full council meetings, where you will be voting. Without safeguards, what happens if everybody attends remotely? They will be able to vote, but can you imagine co-ordinating a debate across 75 councillors who are all Skyping in? So, I would suggest that some challenge needs to be applied to the Government's proposals, as to how they've thought that through.
We found that when we tried, 10 years ago—obviously, the individual couldn't vote at that time, but my deputy leader delivered a report from Salt Lake City into a cabinet meeting. So, we could show that the technology was there to be able to do it. Now, we have individual cabinet members certainly come in where they have a report, but they're working, perhaps they're working individuals, and they can get a slot where they can come and join the cabinet, they can present their report, and they can back away if they need to.
There are the issues, which I'm not sure are ironed out yet, or need to be ironed out, which are, when you are making decisions of a confidential nature or, rather, you are discussing a pink paper, how do the public have reassurance, or how do we have reassurance, that that conversation is being taken confidentially. Obviously, there's a level of trust and things, but you'd have to make sure that that was—that the governance around that was really strong. But it has to be a way forward. If we are talking about diversity, and we want people to be able to get involved with local government, we've got to make our arrangements flexible for them.
Okay, well, that's fine. At this stage, we are going to take a short break—very short, I'm afraid—until 11:05 a.m. A short comfort break.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:58 a 11:10.
The meeting adjourned between 10:58 and 11:10.
Okay, welcome back, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, and we continue with our scrutiny of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. And I would like to ask some further questions on the role of chief executives and, indeed, members, officers and committees, with regard to local authority arrangements. Firstly, might the WLGA expand on its concerns in relation to section 60, which establishes performance and management requirements for chief executives? Who would like to begin? Huw.
Well, a couple of issues. We think the Bill should be less prescriptive and allow some local flexibility in terms of how authorities determine who should conduct performance reviews. For example, the council may wish to involve other members or external peers as appropriate, rather than just the leader.
I think it's a point of principle that the performance review of chief executives should not be published—we wouldn't expect that for any other public employee—so it should be confidential between the members of the council and chief executives. And, similarly, in order to protect personal information, the Bill needs to reference that a report about the review shared with members—it would be exempt from publication to the wider public. We've previously expressed concern also as WLGA regarding ministerial guidance-making powers with regard to performance management of chief executives, as there are potential risks of Welsh ministerial interventions in local relations and arrangements between local authority leaders and chief executives.
Okay? Yes. Okay, if we move on, then, to the power to establish joint overview and scrutiny committees, the explanatory memorandum states that the provision in the Bill
'amends a regulation-making power in the 2011 Measure so that regulations may require principal councils to establish a joint scrutiny committee. The amended regulation-making power could be used to require councils to establish a joint scrutiny committee where services are being provided across those councils' areas.'
So, this is intended to ensure effective and efficient scrutiny of services delivered in collaboration. So, we'd be interested, really, in your views on the extent to which this level of scrutiny already happens for services being provided jointly, and whether the provision to mandate such committees is one that you would support.
I think we could point to several examples of joint scrutiny. So, for example, scrutiny in joint public services boards where they exist in Conwy and Denbighshire, or Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf. You also have joint scrutiny arrangements for city deals. I would contend, though, that scrutiny done on a regional basis is challenging, both in terms of the complexity of the issues that members are asked to engage with, the additional time commitments placed on individual members to form part of a further scrutiny committee, and then being able to commit sufficient time and resource in interrogating regional projects. Probably the best scrutiny I've seen done of regional arrangements has actually been done by the local scrutiny committee, approaching it from that perspective.
I think, when it comes to regional joint committees there, again, as Huw just said about when it's local there—also I think really the nub of it is when there are financial implications between those different authorities, that's when you really do need that scrutiny to be looking to see how the finances have been handled, but whether you need them actually overall all the time, that's a point of debate between those authorities, because there can be so much scrutiny going on over these issues that you've got all these different boards that are looking at them, like your ERWs and all those people that are going on. So, do you want that, on top of that, going on as well?
And two examples from Carmarthenshire, then: one is with the ERW model on school improvement, where, across six authorities, it is scrutinised individually, as you said, by the individual authorities, and that works well, and there's no reason for that to be changed, but, on the city deal basis, where we have 11 projects covering the whole region, some of them that are owned specifically by individual authorities, there's a joint scrutiny that works well but there's a proviso in there that it doesn't overlap the individual scrutiny by the authority on their own projects. So, there's an allowance within the joint system that the joint work is on a holistic basis but it also doesn't interfere with the individual scrutiny of a specific project in the local authority. So, it works in both ways.
Yes, I see. Peter.
Yes, John—sorry, Chair—you asked about mandation of these committees and we would not support the powers for Welsh Government to mandate joint arrangements on a point of principle—we'll no doubt talk about it a little bit later as well—as it would undermine local democracy and accountability. We believe that councils are best placed to determine the appropriate and proportionate accountability arrangements locally. It might be that councils agree to establish a joint scrutiny committee to look at a joint service or a strategic issue. However, it may be equally valid for the joint service to be scrutinised separately by individual authorities to ensure outcomes are being delivered to their local communities. So, one thing we're quite passionate about is—several of us in the WLGA are quite passionate about this thing about mandating. We talked about it earlier, didn't we—subsidiarity. We have our own responsibilities to do things—held to account if we don't do them right, quite rightly, but I think that's an important point of principle for us.
Right. And you've set out in your evidence a framework of guiding principles around collaborative reforms and the fact that they should be rooted in a business case that's clear and viable and subject to local decision making. So, on that basis, what would you say about the provisions to establish these corporate joint committees in terms of whether, actually, we could be confident that they would lead to better public service outcomes or not? Any views on that, Chris?
Shall I come in first? On this particular issue, I think that there is some divergence of opinion. By and large, up until now, in terms of the discussion we've had this morning, I think there's a broad consensus. And, in this instance, Chair, you mentioned at the outset of your questions some of the criteria that authorities use in terms of assessing whether to work in a regional or a collaborative way. And in, indeed, the work that Derek Vaughan shared last year, in the terms of reference, there were some principles that were set out, and, in those principles, they identified a range of options that are open to local authorities to improve outcomes to add value to the services they provide. And it looks at regional working, shared services, merged services and so on. But the principle that underpins all of that is the idea that it adds value, that it uses resources more effectively or more efficiently and improves equality of provision. And I think where there's a bit of contention on this issue is whether or not the proposals for corporate joint committees genuinely add value or not. And I think there's agreement that, as an additional mechanism, there could be some value in this mechanism, but where there's some disagreement is over the level of prescription and, in particular, in the areas that are prescribed. So, within the association, there are those who are comfortable with what's contained in the Bill and there are others who agree with the principle but believe that it should be a voluntary option.
You often hear the WLGA talking about the fact that we think the role of the Welsh Government is to set the strategic direction, to set out strategy, and then it's up to local authority to interpret that strategy according to local circumstances and to deliver services within their local context as they think is most appropriate, and that local government is the tier of government that is most appropriate to make those decisions. And I think that's the nub of the contention on this particular issue.
Okay, Chris. Thanks for that. Are local authorities already discussing forming such joint committees and how collaboration might work? Is that happening at the moment?
Well, yes, and in terms of the city deal in the south-west, that's effectively what we did. And the point around the mechanism around a model of a CJC would be welcome in that context, because our experience down there over two years in trying to get that joint agreement in place and make that work in a way that's feasible has been very onerous, and to have a model that's there and ready to go I absolutely agree would be a great advantage. And we're already discussing how that might evolve under the city deal into the other areas that are mentioned in the Bill.
Yes, I think CJCs could be a very useful tool, and there are some informal discussions now emerging about potential collaboration using CJC as a basis for it on areas outside the four proposed prescribed areas and on different footprints as well.
I think the point you need to come back to is collaboration—what is the purpose of collaboration? It can't be an end in itself, it's got to be a means to a particular end. I think CJCs can provide for that, but I think, across the board in WLGA, we would have concerns about the principle of mandation, where we would be forced to enter into these arrangements on specific issues or of us being forced to collaborate for collaboration's sake.
I'd agree with that. There's a whole compendium of collaborative arrangements already in place across Wales, and we've been exercising that for a long time, and we continue to look at it. I thank the Minister for the way she's worked with us on this. I know it's been contentious at times because of that initial rhetoric around mandation that really upset some of us because we'd very successfully put arrangements in Cardiff capital region city deal—arrangements of our own. We weren't forced to put those in, we put them in—very, very positive arrangements to take forward the Cardiff capital region that is overseeing a lot of areas and an area that has half the Welsh population in it. And we've successfully managed that without being told to do it. So, it's something about that thing about the legitimacy we have as governments in our own right to do these things.
Again, I keep talking about subsidiarity because sometimes I think devolution stops at a certain level in Wales and, actually, devolution should carry on right down and we should be trusted. I went to Stuttgart many years ago to see how city deals had arrived there, and the parity of esteem between the various levels of government were so evident and yet we don't sometimes see that, this trust relationship—'Get on and do your job' sort of thing. But I do welcome the moves that the Minister has made within the Bill, and we constructively keep working toward the—. Because these committees can have a real benefit. It was just that some of us were really quite anxious about what was being signalled. And it'll be important when the regulations are drawn up of how it is stipulated—how some of those things are stipulated. So, there isn't unanimous agreement around that. There are fears in some areas, as opposed to—other people are quite comfortable with it, and the principle of having the joint committees is fine. We've already demonstrated how we can do it voluntarily, and that's the nub of it for us, John.
And also welcome that offer that's there about co-production around the regulations.
Okay, diolch, Emlyn. And Mark Isherwood.
Thank you. You've described the current performance and governance framework as regulatorily 'burdensome' and as 'output-oriented rather than outcome-oriented'. To what extent do you think the proposals in the Bill for a new performance and governance framework will deliver benefits or potential drawbacks?
I can start on that. We support and welcome the provisions in the Bill around performance. I think the Wales programme for improvement that came out of the 2009 Measure is dated, there's quite a lot of prescription in there, about setting objectives, producing specific reports by a certain time, certain processes that all authorities need to go through, and, over the course of the past decade, the Wales Audit Office has observed that it's not really the right focus and that it's burdensome, bureaucratic, a lot of tick-box exercising, because you have statutory duties to do X, Y and Z, rather than actually focusing on the way the organisation needs to assess the direction of travel, assess what it's doing well, assess what it needs to improve and then put those reforms in place.
I think it's been superseded as well by the well-being of future generations Act, where there's duplication, really, around well-being objectives and improvement objectives. So, a lot of the framework is already there. So, I think it's welcome that some of that's been removed, some of the regulatory and auditing burden will be removed as well, so I think it's a much better direction of travel for authorities, because it allows authorities to focus on what they need to improve, rather than what they think other people think they need to improve.
Okay. No other comment? That's fine. Quickly, what evidence, if any, do you have to show that the self-assessment regime has worked in Scottish and English authorities to improve performance and governance?
There's been independent evaluations of peer and self-assessment in the English context, and in Scotland there was the Crerar report, I think in 2007, which looked at the relationship between self-assessment and external assessment.
But I think it's important to remember that self-assessment is a current part of the existing improvement regime of all organisations, but specifically local authorities. So, authorities do self-assess their own performance, as I said, and look at what they're doing well, what they need to improve on. Self-assessment is a key part of the improvement inspection regime around social services, and around Estyn's inspection framework around education as well. So, all authorities are used to a process of self-assessment, and this Bill just takes out some of the bureaucracy that goes along with it, on the regulatory side of things. So, it's the status quo, but this just gives authorities more scope to self-assess for their own benefit.
Can I add to that? I think there is lots of international evidence to support this approach. We've got an education system that has undergone significant reform, but is moving in the direction of being a self-improving system. As I say, there's international evidence that this works elsewhere. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has supported this approach within education, and it's something that authorities do now, but have been doing in the past as well, because it's in everybody's interest. It's a mechanism they've got at their disposal to improve the quality of service provision and to improve outcomes for the people they serve. It's about learning lessons, and it's a mainstream idea, not just within the various service areas within Wales and the UK, but elsewhere as well.
Thank you. Why does the WLGA express concern about making panel assessments statutory?
Our performance assessments? Well, at this moment in time, most of us are doing our performance assessments on a voluntary basis within our authorities. Now, with regard to this, you've actually got the WAO overlooking you, you've got Estyn overlooking you, you've got CSSIW looking at you, and then, in our own authority, we actually have a quarterly performance review right across all the services—that is, the self-assessments there. There used to be a situation where the WLGA would actually have peer assessments on a voluntary basis within it, and that proved very, very effective. Again, it's a case of whether or not you actually need to mandate that you will have to have those performance assessments. Give us the means to do it and the finance to do it and then we would just carry on and do it on a voluntary basis run by the WLGA. We used to have that funding to do it. It was withdrawn from us abut five or six years ago when the Minister at that day didn't go with it, so that's where it fell apart. So, it's a very, very effective system within our system, and we're getting on to do it, and the peer-to-peer ones, we can do that.
That peer review that disappeared was very effective as well, I remember. I visited four or five other authorities, across borders, across political boundaries, and they really did work well. We were invited in to look at some of these, and it was a holistic look over one or two days, and we did the same to them. The benefits of that were absolutely immeasurable, but that disappeared about four or five years ago, unfortunately, because that really worked exceptionally well.
Local government operates within an incredibly complex regulatory and accountability framework. We know that voluntary peer assessment works well, and there is something about having a system that is proportionate, and in this instance, we just think that it goes too far. There's evidence that a voluntary system works well, and, as I say, we have to keep an eye on the system as a whole being proportionate.
Most organisations in all sectors have some degree or some requirement for internal performance and self-assessment. The difference is the extent to which that is prescribed. So, the forms have to be sent into head office to show you've done it, and the extent to which the requirement is there but it's not prescribed, so that you can continue to engage in this on a proper ongoing, evolutionary basis where you celebrate the success but also agree what you need to do differently. So if this was a requirement, but then it didn't stipulate how you should do it, would that be an alternative?
Yes, generally, the local government view is that there should be—[Inaudible.]—prescription around aspects of this. In the past, as members have mentioned, we had the improvement funding, and I think it's important to note that the Minister is committed to investing in improvement support and sector-led improvement again in the future, so we're discussing with Welsh Government how that might look. So, there might be resources to support authorities both around peer review but also around self-assessment, member development and so on, so it's very positive.
In the past we did some work nationally working with authorities around looking at principles and characteristics around good self-assessment—so, how to ensure that the self-assessment is robust, rounded, taking the views of external people and so on. We also provided support to authorities around informal peer support, so, as part of an authority's approach to self-assessment, invite someone in for half a day, a day, just to provide that external challenge to say, 'Well, you said you're doing this. Where's the evidence? Why do you say that?' So, it just provides additional checks and balances in the system. So, you don't need to prescribe it—the local government family can help design and shape this ourselves.
Is anyone not doing it? Any council not doing it?
All councils do the self-assessment side of things. In terms of peer review, peer support, most authorities invite people in informally. As members said, formal peer support through the WLGA hasn't been provided for a number of years due to funding resources. However, some have commissioned peer reviews in the recent period through the LGA, and we work closely with the LGA, and there's a very similar model. For example, Pembrokeshire have commissioned the LGA, and we're providing support and advice, to provide a full corporate peer challenge in February, which is a similar model to the panel assessment going forward, but on a voluntary basis, and learning from the experience of England. So, that will be quite an interesting experience for them, but also for wider learning for the rest of Wales.
Reading between the lines, are there some authorities that could learn from others in how they progress this?
That's the idea of peer support, absolutely.
That's what worked in the previous iteration. You did see things being done differently and maybe in ways that you hadn't thought of, and vice versa when they came to us. I think I went to Powys, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd in that period, just to see how it worked there. I was just a councillor then, but it was an eye-opener, and it made a difference in your own authority because it's a learning process.
Okay. How do you respond to the Auditor for General Wales's concerns about the risk of 'self-interest undermining the objectivity of panel members'?
We'd ask him for evidence of it.
I think it's a really disappointing comment, and it portrays a negative view of democratic politics. It's this idea that—. Councillors and elected members enter into politics to improve outcomes for the people they serve. The idea that somehow, they only do it because there's an intense regulatory framework that forces them to focus on delivering outcomes is a very negative view of the democratic process and politics. And in this instance as well, we're not clear that there's any evidence to support it.
Yes. I can give you the example of Cardiff's most recent peer review, which took place under the previous system. We had a very senior officer come in who'd been a senior officer within a Conservative authority. There was some reservation expressed amongst certain backbenchers around that, but the authority went ahead with it, and the value-add was tremendous because you're having different perspectives. I would come back to the point that there is no evidence to substantiate what the Wales Audit Office was suggesting.
Okay. Why are you concerned about the provision in the Bill to give Welsh Ministers the power to direct a principal authority to support another local authority that isn't meeting its own performance requirements?
You've heard there's a point of principle about direction, or directing authorities to do X, Y and Z, but authorities do provide mutual aid and peer support at the moment, and where authorities have a particular challenge, which this would obviously describe, authorities collectively and through the WLGA do provide support to authorities. If an authority was unable to provide support, it may be to do with capacity or resource implications. And then, for a Minister to direct that same authority to go into another authority, that doesn't give them the resources and capacity that they didn't have in the first place. So, I think an authority, if it was able to, would provide support anyway, so I don't think a ministerial direction power would help.
And if the direction means that you've got an unwilling partner or improvement agent, you do question how effective that's going to be in the end because, obviously, if they're unwilling, to what extent is that going to work?
What's the alternative?
There have been plenty of examples where authorities have supported other authorities. Certainly, I know from—I don't particularly want to mention the councils concerned, but Ceredigion has certainly helped other authorities with regard to education, for example. There were issues, they were asked to voluntarily go in; they went in, supported them, brought them up to, again, what was the acceptable standards with regard to Estyn, and they moved out. That was done on a voluntary basis, it wasn't a case of, 'You will go in and support it', because that doesn't help the other people at times—to think, 'Somebody's being directed to come and look after us'. And for the people, 'Have you got the resources yourself before you do go off and support other people?' On this occasion that we did support, we felt that we had the resources and we also had that co-operation and co-ordination to do it.
It also works under the present joint committee system, where the resource is put where the greatest need is across that joint committee. So, that resource naturally goes to the point of greatest need, wherever that might be.
I think the local government family has evolved a lot over the last 20 years from what it used to be, and I suppose a lot of that comes from the deeper collaborative work, a closeness with each other, recognising each other's sovereignty but still recognising that we can work closely together. So, I think the maturity in local government in Wales is in a place now where there is greater trust between authorities and openness. If I was in need in Monmouthshire, I wouldn't care what political party or authority came in to look at us to help us because it is about help. We all want to provide the best services for the people we serve, and we're all committed to that. There's more that keeps us together than divides us. So, naturally, I think, we're in a place now where we want to embrace more and more of that self-improvement through peer support. And I think it's important that we do start rolling that out a lot more. But I think the mindset now is that that's something that we want to do. I certainly want to be part of that. I don't need somebody to tell me that I need to do that.
It's probably not well-understood because maybe it doesn't—[Inaudible.]—how much of that informal support already happens. So, in the last two years, to give you an example, Cardiff has informally supported at least two local authorities in south-east Wales on economic development projects. I don't mind admitting—it was before my time as leader—that Cardiff was one of the beneficiaries of support from Ceredigion on education. So, that happens automatically and naturally and organically, reflecting, I think, the strong relations that exist within the WLGA family.
In terms of the—coming back to your question, Mark—directive power, if the capacity isn't there, being directed is going to cause more issues rather than fewer. Whereas if the capacity is there, the chances are that, across the WLGA family, that support is being provided already.
What if it doesn't happen in the last resort, with local cultures or barriers or frictions?
Our view on it is that if it is to be successful, it's more likely to succeed if it's done on a voluntary basis and if it's organic in a bottom-up way. It's far less likely to succeed if it's done in a top-down, prescribed way.
Emlyn, I think, mentioned the education consortia and the way they operate. The education system is increasingly based on this idea of voluntary school-to-school support, support in the classroom between different learners. We know that if learners of mixed ability are put together, then that pushes up, drives up standards. The consortia are based on the idea that authorities pool their collective resources and that the focus is on those areas that are underperforming and that, collectively, they'll benefit by everybody's standards being driven up by the system. So, do you know what I mean? There is lots of evidence that this works. But we also know that it's more likely to work when it's done on a voluntary basis than when it's done in a prescriptive way and where there's local determination that takes account of local circumstances.
Okay. Moving on, there are potential benefits to increasing the numbers of lay members on governance and audit committees, but what are the drawbacks? Why are you concerned about this?
Democratic accountability is one of our issues with regard to that. You've got the councillors, they've gone out, they've sought a democratic mandate to actually do services. They're actually, particularly when they run—. Say they're chairmen of those committees and they're actually operating that, whereas, yes, you have lay members coming on, but in actual fact, to suddenly have more lay members, say, than elected members of that committee, and then to put them in chairmanship positions on that, what actually it is then, you could have the chairman directing locally elected members actually what they feel should be the steer. Is that the right way that it should be gone? You know, there's no hang-up about having lay members on committees there, but it's proportion to the numbers that are there and the responsibility that you will give them, particularly when it comes to the chairmanship of those committees.
That point around local discretion, also, I think is more relevant being that the enhanced role around those two committees in the Bill means that it's even more pertinent that that local discretion is held locally.
Thank you. Moving to mergers and restructuring—I know this has been a hot potato in the past—can you tell us to what extent the WLGA believes that the provisions for restructuring of local authorities are appropriate? And would the WLGA agree with the Minister that she would be, and I quote,
'really surprised if we were ever exercising this. Something would have gone monumentally wrong with the system if we get to here.'
I think, to answer the first part of the question, we're content with the provisions around restructuring. Clearly, if you go back a few years, expression of interest did emerge in favour of voluntary mergers. I don't think we're aware of any currently on the stocks, but the power is there in principle and I think you come back to that principle of the local accountability and the local decision making. So, if two authorities form the view that merging is in the best interest of the people they serve, they would have the ability to do so, and the decision would be taken locally.
The auditor general has stated his reservations in terms of the robustness of the conditions in section 128, which he says,
'may not be sufficient in themselves to ensure a sound basis for deciding on whether to make such regulations.'
Do you think the conditions that are already there are strong enough to make restructure regulations in section 128 of the Bill adequate and sufficiently robust?
They could be strengthened. For example, you could make a provision that the Minister would first have to discharge a measure of support and assistance before that process was triggered, for example. So, I think there are ways of strengthening it, yes.
Okay. Anymore to add on that?
Yes, I think on the auditor general's concerns around the role of a special inspection being a trigger, there would be a risk—it would be a difficult role for the auditor general and his team to go into an authority knowing that on the basis of that report, it may lead to a restructure of an authority. But crucially, in addition to a Minister discharging the improvement and support powers, which are elsewhere in the Bill, restructuring an authority is a significant issue, so there needs to be appropriate consultation, not just with neighbouring authorities and those that may have to effectively merge with that authority, but also with the public as well, in both the authority that is to be restructured out of existence and then the neighbouring authorities with which it may be merged, so the public should be involved in that process as well.
Okay. Has anybody else got anything further to add on that? No, okay.
I'll move on to the removal of the power to provide for imprisonment of council tax debtors. I know that you've expressed concern about a potential slight deterioration in the collection rate as a result of this. Can you expand on what you think the impact of placing this provision on the statute book on local government finances and effective debt collection would be?
I think, as a principle, this is a reform that we would support, but clearly, if the final sanction is missing, you would expect that there would be a decrease in the collection rates. I think you have to factor in as well the fact that, particularly over the period of austerity, council taxes began to play a larger and larger part of council budgets, so an impact on the collection rates has an impact on your bottom line and your ability to deliver services. So, I would say, whilst we welcome this reform, if there is going to be an impact on council budgets, if it's Welsh Government changing the law, there should be sufficient compensation coming from Welsh Government to compensate councils.
That's a fair point. Anything else to add to that? No. You're all at one with that one, are you? Okay, good. Diolch.
Okay, diolch, Leanne. Just a few final questions from me then to conclude. Firstly, we understand that there are likely to be amendments during the course of this Bill with regard to prisoner voting so that more prisoners in Wales are able to vote in local government elections. Does the WLGA have a position on those matters?
I think there's a mixed view generally across the piece. Personally, it's something I'd welcome, but there are differences within different authorities on that. But, personally, it's something I'd welcome.
I think, as a principle, on a personal level, I'm in agreement with Emlyn but I think there are practicalities that need to be thought out. I would assume potentially that the prisoners would be voting at their home address, as opposed to where they were incarcerated. But then how do you canvass people in that circumstance, for example?
Yes. It's one of the practical issues that we explored as a committee, actually, when we were looking at these matters, but it's useful to have the general position on record. Okay. Thanks for that. The WLGA's view on the Minister's intention to bring forward amendments to provide for changes to executive governance arrangements in principal councils: what is the WLGA's view?
We are yet to consider this.
The consultation that was issued just before Christmas was to do with mayoral referenda. It hasn't been discussed at the political level yet.
Would the same apply, then, to the Minister's intention to include amendments to place a duty on local authorities to have due regard to the right to housing? Or is that something that you would have a position on at this time?
As local authorities, we're committed to working with the Welsh Government to improve housing, and using all the levers to increase the supply of affordable housing to meet housing needs in our areas. That's what we're doing. We want to prevent homelessness, where possible.