Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau
Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee29/01/2020
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Caroline Jones AC|
|Dawn Bowden AC|
|Delyth Jewell AC|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AC|
|John Griffiths AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Angharad Thomas-Richards||Pennaeth Tîm Polisi Llywodraeth Leol ac Etholiadau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Head of Policy Team, Local Government and Elections, Welsh Government|
|Cath Wyatt||Rheolwr Bil Llywodraeth Leol ac Etholiadau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Bill Manager, Local Government and Elections Bill, Welsh Government|
|Claire Germain||Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr Trawsnewid a Phartneriaethau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Deputy Director, Transformation and Partnerships, Welsh Government|
|Julie James AC||Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Lisa James||Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwyr Democratiaeth Llywodraeth Leol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Deputy Director, Local Government Democracy, Welsh Government|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|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 y cyfarfod am 09:00.
The meeting began at 09:00.
Bore da i bawb. Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. I'm particularly pleased to welcome Delyth Jewell to committee this morning. Delyth has replaced Leanne Wood, so croeso, Delyth. I'd also like to put on record our thanks to Leanne Wood for her contribution on the committee.
We haven't received any apologies. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
We will move swiftly on to item 2 on our agenda today, which is our twelfth and final evidence session with regard to the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. I'm very pleased to welcome to committee today Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government: Claire Germain, deputy director transformation and partnerships with Welsh Government; Angharad Thomas-Richards, head of local government elections policy team; Lisa James, deputy director local government democracy; and Cath Wyatt, local government and elections Bill manager. Welcome to you all; thanks for attending committee today.
Minister, if you wish to make any introductory remarks, that's fine, otherwise, we'll move straight to questions.
Only to say that we're very pleased to get the Bill this far, that we're really happy with the way that the committee's been scrutinising us, and it's really good to work together. We hope to be able to work together with the committee on a series of agreed amendments for second stage in due course. So, we just welcome the committee's input into that.
Diolch yn fawr. Okay, in terms of questions, then, perhaps I could begin with two questions with regard to the extension of the right to vote. Firstly, Minister, are you able to provide assurances that local authorities will receive sufficient funding for 2021-2, similar to the amount committed in 2020-1 as part of the transition phase to extend the franchise?
So, the committee will know that this Bill was complicated by its interaction with the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill—now Act, I'm pleased to say—and that we were having to dual-track some things in case the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act didn't go through in its form, and so we had to pick up some expenses here. So, in early sessions with the committee, you'll remember that I was saying that it was very difficult to separate out the two things, so we're very happily now in the position where we know that the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act will go through, and we'll be meeting the majority of the costs of the changes that affect both franchises through the funding of that Bill, because that will be first, and then this one follows on.
So, we'll be meeting the costs of the required changes to the electoral management system software, and we've committed around £800,000 so far in, and various resources—communications campaigns and so on. Very shortly, I'll be announcing funding—I think, actually, it might be today or tomorrow—to go directly to the electoral teams in local authorities to support that registration, and that will be over two financial years, so some funding in the remainder of this financial year and then funding in the next financial year. And I can get Angharad to talk you through some of the education and resources issues, Chair, if you like.
Okay, that'd be great. Thank you.
So, as the Minister's said, we've committed around £800,000 to a suite of resources that look at educational resources, communication resources and some research. Particularly, we've been working with a number of different stakeholders, so the Assembly Commission, the Welsh Local Government Association, the Electoral Commission and a number of third sector organisations that work with 16 and 17-year-old young people to develop resources that can be delivered in schools, and outside of the school setting as well. So, we've got some Welsh Government-driven resources that we expect to see in the next few months, and we're working across partnerships to make sure that we don't cross over each other's work, but we're each delivering something for young people and for the wider new electorate to support their registration and their engagement with the democratic process.
And, in addition, once we know, with much more certainty, what the new electorate looks like, we'll be transferring money directly into the rates—the revenue support grant; I still call it the 'rates support grant' due to my age—the revenue support grant, to cover that off on a more permanent basis, once it's settled down and it becomes the norm.
Okay, thank you for that. The extension of the franchise to foreign citizens legally resident in Wales is problematic in terms of the absence of data as far as numbers are concerned. And I just wonder, given that situation, Minister, if you're confident that the explanatory memorandum accurately reflects the cost that local authorities and, indeed, partner bodies are likely to face, and the additional workload.
We can't be absolutely certain, of course, but we've got reasonable evidence that we think that there are around 33,000 additional electors as a result of this part of the Bill. And what we'll be doing is making sure that the annual cost of that is reflected, as I said earlier, in the various settlements for local authorities. What we'll obviously be doing is keeping an eye on that, so if evidence comes forward that that's vastly out, by either down or up, then we'll obviously adjust the revenue support grant accordingly. But all the evidence we've got so far—and that's not the best evidence we could have, but it's all the evidence we've got so far—tells us that there around 25,000 non-EU citizens, and 11,000 to 12,000 students who'd be enfranchised by these provisions—so, 33,000 to 34,000 people with rounding. Once we've run the first two canvases, we'll know that for certain, and then we'll be able to adjust the funding accordingly. But we are intending to fund it, and we'll absorb the cost of that once we know what it is. But the funding is in place for the estimates, and that's as much as we can do at the moment.
Okay, thanks for that, then. If we move on, the section 4 duty to promote and provide assistance—why doesn't that extend to foreign citizens legally resident in Wales?
So, at the moment, we're looking at the enfranchisement of young people, partly because we already have duties on the local authorities to do various things for their young people, and it's an easy extension of that duty. And these are people who are definitely voting for the first time in any system and we think they need the encouragement and the education to do that. We'll have a significant programme, which I'll get Angharad to talk about again in a minute, of awareness raising across Wales, which will then go out to all voters. And I don't wish to be unduly pessimistic about the state of awareness of the voting public, but I do think there are very large sections of the voting public that could do with increased awareness of various issues, particularly affecting devolution. And we wouldn't want to confine any awareness raising to a particular set of electors, other than the very specific circumstances of brand-new electors coming on because of their age, which is an obvious cohort of people who are still in formal education, by and large, and who it's easy to get to, and that we can put a structured programme in place for.
But I'll get Angharad to talk about some of the other stuff—sorry, Angharad—that we're doing in terms of the wider awareness-raising programmes.
As I mentioned earlier, we funded a piece of research that has looked at why people are disengaged with the democratic process, but also what would make people engage and what sort of communication channels they'd like used in political communication. And we've got that research, it will be published in a few weeks, but what we're using it for is to develop a wide-ranging communication campaign over the next few years, and, again, working with partners like the WLGA, and other local authorities, we are looking at developing a two to three-year campaign to engage the entire electorate, particularly targeting the newly enfranchised. So, there will be a stream of work for 16 and 17-year-olds, but also a stream of work around encouraging newly enfranchised foreign citizens to take part in the democratic process.
Okay, thank you for that. Sticking with that section 4 duty to promote and provide assistance, did you give any consideration, Minister, or might you give any consideration, to placing such a duty on the electoral registration officers, as well as the principal councils, or instead of the principal councils?
'No' is the short answer to that. The electoral registration officers have specific duties around the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, so making sure that people who can vote are properly registered to vote. And that is a duty that I think is a very important duty, as we know that there's a big problem with people who should be registered and aren't in many communities. And I think that's a pretty big duty for them.
In fact, getting turnout in elections up, which is what we're really talking about, is a role for everyone isn't it? It’s a role for us here; it’s a role of all the elected politicians in the local council and it’s a role for the officers and officials here as well. The truth is that people vote in systems that they're engaged in. So, the poor electoral registration officer is not in a position to get their council to be an engaging and outward-looking council. That’s a role for its executive and its councillors and the whole of its plan.
So, I do think we've got to make sure that we tie those things together in the right way. We’re talking about the electoral arrangements here, but this is a Bill for the whole of local government, and an authority that’s outward-looking and has a proper performance review system in place will engage its local communities and hopefully increase its turnout in elections, because those communities will see that they have a voice. Trying to get the poor electoral registration officer to do that, I think, might be onerous, shall we say.
And I do think that there is a big difference between registering people to vote, which is a huge issue in itself, and getting that right, and then getting people who are registered to actually participate in the vote is a whole other layer of things that we need to make sure we do as well, and that definitely is a thing for the whole of the principal council to take part in.
It's just that the electoral commission, in giving evidence, thought that that might be a useful addition to the Bill, Minister, and it could be in addition to the principal council rather than instead of.
I'm happy to look at any evidence that comes forward, but I’m always really reluctant to give people duties that they have a very limited chance to actually have any influence on. One of the things in my own career that I remember being responsible for at some point in time was the turnout in local government elections, as an official, and I remember thinking, ‘Well, unless I propose to close all the schools in my area, which might get the turnout out, how can I influence this?’ So it’s really important to make sure that the duty rests on people who can actually make a difference to it, and I really genuinely don’t think that an electoral registration officer is the right place in the authority to influence that next stage. Of course they're the right people to influence the accuracy and extent of the register, but that’s not to conflate that with turnout and involvement and engagement. I think that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.
Okay, Minister, thanks for that; that's very clear. And we turn now to Huw Irranca-Davies.
Thanks, Chair. Minister, voting systems: let me preface my remarks by saying that it's great to see the single transferable vote now entering the mainstream of discussion around electoral systems, as a supporter of more proportionality. However, you have seen some of the evidence in front of us, one of which suggests that actually giving local authorities the option to choose whether we continue as we are or whether we go with STV is not a sensible approach. There's an absence of support for the provision as it stands. It's lovely to see it in there, but there's limited appetite for it and a reluctance to see the two of these running coterminously in different authorities. I just wonder, is it right to have it in the Bill in this way?
I think it very much is right. I think if we don't start somewhere, we'll never start at all. I can't put everything in place to run STV across every local authority in Wales as a mandatory provision in the next—how long have we got—six weeks before Stage 2? It's not possible.
I actually firmly believe in local government democracy, so it's not something I think we should be mandating. I'm very pleased that the Senedd has the power to change its own voting system, and I actually think that local authorities should have that as well. So, if you're talking about proper devolved power, subsidiarity, or whatever word you want to use, then actually devolving it down to the level where it's affected is the right thing to do. So, that's what we're doing.
I don't think there's any problem with having—. Name any two authorities that are adjacent to each other. So, I don't know, in my neck of the woods, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot. Swansea does one and Neath Port Talbot does the other—so what? They're two separate elections; they'd be doing it in two separate places. I don't really get why that's a big deal.
We run lots of elections with two separate voting systems. Sometimes, we have three or four elections running on the same day. That's not something—. We try very hard to avoid that, I will say, just in parentheses, but sometimes, it's inevitable. And just as a result of, you know, stuff, we end up with, I don't know, the Assembly elections, some local government elections and the parliamentary election all running at the same time, all with completely different voting systems and completely different franchises, even, and we haven't had a calamity yet. I think that people are more able for that than they are given credit for. Again, in my own career, I have run several elections where we are running two completely different voting systems simultaneously in a single ward, and we've not had any significant problem with that—and that's using paper systems there.
Well, that response is really helpful because it's a categoric rejection of the concerns of the Electoral Commission, which said that running two separate voting systems would require two sets of guidance; two sets of advice for political parties, candidates and agents; the potential need to run two separate awareness campaigns, and the difficulty then of confusing electors, and so on. And you are saying, 'No, it's not a problem. You can do this.'
Well, we elect the Senedd on the basis of completely separate systems—a proportionality system and a first-past-the-post system. We've all knocked doors and explained the two systems to people, and that they have two different votes and so on. I mean, here we all are. We were all elected. I think that that's a very pessimistic view of the capabilities of the various politicians involved in the process, and the electoral registration officers themselves, and actually just the way that the various local authorities are able to run things.
Can I just come in on that particular—?
One thing that I would say, Julie, is that, in the Assembly election, we had the police and crime commissioner elections on the same day. I don't know whether the Merthyr Tydfil count was particularly peculiar, but we had an unusually large amount of spoiled ballot papers for the police and crime commissioner that day, because there was confusion about the two different voting systems.
Okay, well, I'm going to say something very political here and say that, if you don't run the police and crime commissioner elections on the same day as another election, the turnout is abysmal.
I accept that.
And I wonder whether we're assuming that the spoiled votes are because people didn't understand it, or actually because they don't like the thing that they are voting for. I have no evidence one way or the other, but I don't think that we have evidence to say that it's because they are confused either. It's not an election in which you get 60 per cent turnout if you are run it on its own, is it?
No, no, no. But, I think that it was fairly evident that there were more spoiled ballot papers than we would have normally expected, albeit that the turnout was higher because they were on the same day.
Conversely, I've run elections in London with three different voting systems on the same day and had no problem at all. There are things that you can do to make sure that people do understand it and, absolutely, we will have to make sure that if we are running different systems in different places, we have the right guidance out. So, maybe in Merthyr Tydfil, the presiding officers in the polling stations need to be given better training on how to explain to people when they hand the ballot papers out exactly what's going to happen or whatever it is that's necessary. It's perfectly possible to do that.
It's perfectly possible to sit as a presiding officer in a polling station, which I've done on numerous occasions, and hand people papers and say, 'This one is this one, and this one is this one, and tell me back—'. Then, 'Okay, fine. Off you go. Next.' I have sat and done that myself, and I've given training sessions in which we've gone through carefully each set of papers, 'What do you do with this one?' They are different colours, as you know. The yellow one is first past the post; the orange one is proportional—only vote for a party; and the third one is STV—one, two, three, four, or whatever it is. I just am not pessimistic about people's ability to do that.
I'd like to test the extent to which, on STV, you've examined the idea of the additional costs of it, particularly around e-counting. The Electoral Management Board for Scotland suggested that manual counting, of course, is possible, but that it would be time consuming and introduce the potential for human error. It's also this aspect of, at least if you do STV on a national basis, you have got the economies of scale, rather than a one-by-one local authority. So, to what extent have you looked at this?
If we have a local authority that comes forward and wants to do this, which we all hope that we will have, then there are a number of things that the local authority will have to do in order to facilitate it. Depending on where they are in the boundary commission changes and so on, one of the things that they'd have to do is redo their boundaries so that they have multimember wards and so on.
So, there would be a range of costs that we would be supporting the local authority to cover off, because we would like them to—. If they want to do it, we want to be able to help them to do it. I'm not in a position of saying, 'You have to do it.' But, if they do want to do it, then we would sit with the local authority and work out what the programme is to get them there, and we're committing to saying that the Government would then support that process all of the way through. At the point in time you decide that you want to do an STV system in a local authority—
At that point, do the calculations. At that point, Welsh Government will step up and help the local authority.
But the point at which the citizens will be voting is a good long way off. So, there are quite a lot of expensive things to do before you get anywhere near issuing ballot papers and counting systems. So, we will, via guidance and all the rest of it, set in place a system of things that you have to do, including working out the costs and so on, the boundary reviews, blah, blah, blah, all the things you have to do—it's quite an extensive list. And we'd be looking to help people to get to that position.
And do you think that part of your calculations on this should be that no local authority should actually resolve to change to STV until there's actually been some piloting done on electronic counting?
It's perfectly possible to do it manually. It's not optimal, because it takes much longer. Again, I'm sorry, because my own career seems to be highlighted here, but I've actually sat in on systems where you've just got two people who are going through—. This one is marking it on the sheet, and this one is calling out the votes, or you have what's called the grass-skirt system, where you pull them off. There are several manual systems that work perfectly adequately. What they are is slow, and so the politicians are obviously in a state of anxiety, because they have to wait a lot longer for the count to come, but it's accurate—it's just slow. So, I wouldn't want to stop it because we haven't got a tested electronic voting system.
I'll now back up and say it the other way around—I'd like to see an electronic voting system in place for all of our elections, actually. It's much more efficient and so on. But, of course, we've got to make sure that all of the issues that you can immediately see with electronic voting systems are covered off before we do that. Optimally, you'd have an electronic voting system in place as well, but it's not the end of the world if you haven't got one.
Yes, okay. My final question on this: you will have seen the evidence that we've heard from people like Electoral Reform Society Cymru and Women’s Equality Network Wales calling for full roll-out of STV, but also the issues we've discussed already around piecemeal approach. Let me just ask you, should you just put it in an amendment to this Bill calling for the full roll-out of STV across Wales, or alternatively, just pull it out? You partly answered this in the first question, but—
The very simple answer to that is 'no'. I really genuinely do think that the local authority should be able to decide their own voting systems when they're democratically elected. If you believe in local democracy, you believe that they should be able to do that. And each authority in Wales will be very different. Some authorities in Wales are almost all—I think we've got two or three—that are already fully, multimember wards, for example. Other authorities have got a huge mix. Swansea—my own local authority—has a massive mix and would have a huge mountain to climb to get there. Whereas, I think Merthyr and Anglesey, is it, have already got all multimember wards, so are a step-up towards it. So, to prevent anyone doing it until the one with the biggest problem is there doesn't make any sense either.
I hear what you're saying. It's interesting that you highlight those where they've pretty much moved across to multimember wards already. Some have got a mishmash—some multimember, some if you like, the old-fashioned approach there. You're suggesting that, in those that have moved mainly over to multimember wards, it wouldn't be much of a step for them to move to STV, because they have the geographic structure—
There's a political step to take, but they don't have some of the practical problems—that's the only thing I'm saying. There are a number of practical problems in an authority where there are still single-member wards, for example. You clearly can't run an STV system in an authority with single-member wards for obvious reasons. So, that authority would have to do a boundary review and all the rest of it first, whereas an authority that's already there wouldn't have to do that and would be able to go slightly faster. But if I said that nobody can do it until everybody can do it, we'd have to do a complete boundary review of the whole of Wales before anyone could do this ever. I don’t that's quite what WEN and the ERS want.
Just briefly, following up on these issues, Minister, the Electoral Commission thought that if one or more authority were to adopt STV for local government elections, there would be a need for a public awareness campaign, and that might best be run at a national level. Is that something that you would agree with?
There would be no point in running an STV campaign at a national level if Ceredigion was doing it and nobody else. So, again, I would say that what we'd be doing is assisting a principal council that wants to do this, to run an awareness campaign that's appropriate to what they're trying to do. So, if you have a grouping of authorities doing it, then you'd run a bigger campaign, but if you've got—I don't know, looking around the room—Merthyr that's doing it, then you'd run a Merthyr-centred campaign, wouldn't you? And, after all, local elections are always locally-centred campaigns; you end up with, I don't know, in Swansea, 75 different elections running because each councillor is running their own campaign in their own ward, and we still manage that.
I guess their point would be the avoidance of potential confusion, really; that everybody voting in local elections would need to know what system was in place in their local area if there was publicity that a new system was being introduced.
I get that. But if we ran a big single transferable vote campaign across Wales when Ceredigion was doing it and nobody else was, wouldn't that make everybody else much more confused when they arrived and found a first-past-the-post system? I don't really see the point of that. And I'm really not at all convinced that we need to do a whole-system change at once and that it should be mandatory. I think quite a lot of our councils would be very unhappy if we started to say that, on top of all of their other problems, in the first budget they've had that isn't an austere budget after 10 years, we've decided to wholesale change the electoral system in a year. I think you might find you've got quite a few bits of evidence from the WLGA about the difficulties of that approach.
But, quite seriously, this Bill, this whole Bill is about empowering local democracy. It's about putting power back to local government. It's about making them able and willing to make their own decisions about what they're doing for their local people. So, to start it by mandating a system that most of them don't want doesn't seem like a good starting point.
This is not evidence that we've taken, but anecdotal evidence that I've picked up, if you like, amongst local council colleagues would be those working collaboratively on a single footprint in the consortia area, for instance, or public service boards, where you would have councillors from different local authorities working collaboratively on the same footprint that have been elected in a different way, the view expressed to me was that you might then get into disputes about whichever voting system you've used; arguments over who had the most right to be there; who was elected under the fairest system; and all of those kinds of things, because you would be having people sat around the table, working together, across authorities who have been elected on different bases.
But we already have that, don't we? We already have councillors in single member wards and multimember wards.
They're all first-past-the-post.
Yes, but they're still—. Some of them, five of them represent an electorate of 10,000; some of them have one representing an electorate of 8,000. It's very—. I mean, one of the reasons we've got the boundary commission doing what they're doing at the moment is that, with slow incremental changes, we're trying to get people to represent more or less the same number of people, but at the moment, we're quite a long way from that. So, because we're used to the system, people don't make that argument, but, actually, you could quite easily make it now. You could say, 'Well, I've got more legitimacy because I represent more people than you represent', for example, but we don't have that because people aren't scrutinising the system we have. They're scrutinising a new system. Well, I don't see that myself.
And, again, if you have a consortium area—or under this Bill, of course, if it goes through, we'll have the new corporate joint committee arrangements—there would be nothing to stop the entire corporate joint committee area from doing it at the same time if they wanted to, and, actually, that might be something that they would want to put to a regional level to look at what the impact would be. There's nothing to stop them doing that. We're not going to mandate that, but there's absolutely nothing to stop a set of local authorities working in that way together if they wanted to. And that might be something that they thought was very good from the point of view of local democratic engagement.
And later in this session and when we get your evidence back on this first stage of scrutiny—. We're looking at the Bill always, aren't we, as the electoral bit and the other bits, but, actually, it's a complete Bill? So, we're talking about the electoral arrangements for delivering the new performance arrangements that are in this as well. And this is all about empowering local communities. This entire Bill is about empowering local democracy and empowering local communities. So, there are very few things in this Bill that make them do—there are a few, but there aren't many things that make them do things. It's all about getting local authorities to take the power into their own hands to improve the lot of the people who they represent, and that's kind of the whole point of it, really. So, I don't know. I mean, it's a conversation that we have in the Assembly, isn't it? Are Assembly Members elected as regional representatives somehow lesser than the people who are elected as constituency representatives or are they somehow more? So if you're elected on a proportional system, are you are better or lesser? You know perfectly well that it makes no damn difference, once you're sitting here as an Assembly Member. So I take the same view for local authorities.
Okay. Thank you for that, Minister. Mark Isherwood.
In order to reduce risk and enable effective planning for elections, the Electoral Commission told us that changing the ordinary day of election should not happen at short notice. How do you respond to their call for the provision in section 17 to include a similar time constraint to that in section 37ZA of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which states,
'to allow sufficient time for candidates, parties and electoral administrators to plan for the election'?
This is all about trying to plan a system in which you have as few clashes of elections as humanly possible. So, the exact opposite of what we were just talking about, really. Occasionally, events happen in which we have a line-up of elections, so we end up with, I don't know, a local councillor, a parliamentary by-election, an Assembly election and a police and crime commissioner election all happening on the same day, and that is very onerous. So what all this is doing is saying that in exceptional circumstances, where it really is very difficult to organise, we would have an ability to move the date of the local governmental election in a slightly more flexible fashion, and that's all it is. We're not planning to do that on any regular basis, but we know the classic events, dear boy; we know that occasionally, we have a flash parliamentary election, or whatever, and I think we all widely assume that the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011 days are numbered. Because of events, we will have a line-up of elections that just is impossible to organise, and if it's very inflexible, then we won't be able to do anything about it, so that's all—there's no magic in it. That's all it is.
As you will be aware, the present constraint on Welsh Ministers means that the Order can't be changed later than 1 February in the year before the year it is due to take effect. Yes, acknowledging the points you raised, but also recognising the practical issues around the need to have time to plan, to change and do the things in a different timescale. Isn't there validity in ensuring that a similar provision or date is incorporated to manage that risk?
Obviously, we'd want to work with all of the affected organisations to make sure that if we were changing a date, we had everything in place to ensure that the election could be run effectively and efficiently. But the problem with 1 February is it's just completely inflexible. If, by 1 February, you haven't done it, and on 2 February it becomes incredibly obvious that there is about to be a flash parliamentary election, plus all the councillors in a particular area resigned over a local something or other, and, unfortunately, the Assembly Member for the local area has decided to win the lottery and go to Barbados, then we would suddenly end up with three different elections on the same day, the day after the day that we were able to do anything about it, and I just think that's a hostage to fortune. All they're doing is saying that rather than having it completely inflexible in that way, on 2 February, in such an unlikely scenario, we would be able to say, 'Do you know what? Can we have a conversation about whether it would be good to move one of these elections to the week after?' or whatever. And that would be a conversation we would have with all of the people involved in running the election, all the stuff about, you know, you have to have the print—I mean, an election is an incredibly administrative-intense thing, you know. You have to book the demountables, you have to get the printers in place, you have to get—I mean, it's just horrendous, and if you're running a lot of elections in a single place, all of a sudden, you might find that you simply cannot get the printing done, or you can't get the demountables in place or you can't get the ramps necessary to get disabled people in and out. You know, all of these things happen.
So, all we're trying to do is introduce a common-sense flexibility provision. There's no hidden agenda to willy-nilly move the elections every year for no apparent reason. It is literally that—that, on 2 February, something could happen, and you're powerless to do anything about it at the moment, and I think there's no need for such an inflexible arrangement.
Yes. I don't think their concerns were about the choice to move it to a later date, but for all the reasons you've described and all those functions that have to be taken through; it's the notice being shortened that's the concern.
Yes. What we're basically saying is that if, on 2 February, this scenario occurs, what you'd be looking to do is move one of those elections to the week afterwards. So, instead of having them all on the same day, you would decide that you'd have the by-election for the Assembly Member on the following Thursday or the local government elections on the following Thursday. We're not talking about having it a year later or whatever, we're just talking about pragmatically moving a date so that you can organise, in a sensible fashion, the various administrative issues that occur when you have those kinds of clashes.
Okay. In order to ensure access to independent expert advice about the conduct of election changes to the ordinary day of elections, how would you respond to proposals to amend the provision in section 17 regarding the ordinary day of elections and, similarly, in section 13 about the conduct of local elections to include the Electoral Commission within the definition of statutory consultee?
I mean, obviously we'll be consulting with the Electoral Commission as we take this forward, and they've been an integral part of all of the consultation so far, and we absolutely want them to be very much a part of that. And I don't think there's any question that we've had them involved all the way through. Lisa, if you want to say about—we've had lots of meetings and arrangements with them and so on.
Yes. We have regular discussions with the Electoral Commission and with the Wales Electoral Coordination Board. They're a very valuable source of knowledge and expertise that are built into the whole range of electoral reform work we're doing, including canvass reform work, which the Assembly recently approved the secondary legislation for. So, there's absolutely no doubt that they would be consulted, and continue to be consulted, as we move forward.
And along with a range of other people.
Well, I think this is more about being a statutory consultee within the legislation. You have adopted good practice in that context, but that's you, and that's now. The legislation isn't just about you and now, it's about anybody in this role in the future, which is why legislation is so critical. And terms like 'statutory consultee' would ensure that people sitting in those seats in the future couldn't choose to do it differently. How would you respond to that?
Well, I suppose, but would we not then end up with a long list of prescribed people who have to be consulted? And then you've got the problem of having to add to the list or detract from the list on the face of a Bill all the time because the Electoral Commission morphs into something slightly different or a different-named quango or whatever it is. I'm really reluctant to do that. I mean, not just in this Bill, but in general, you often find that a whole Bill has gone out of date because the Electoral Commission has been turned into something called something slightly different, and the thing that's in the Bill isn't relevant any more. So, I'm always really reluctant to do that. I think it's much better to have a thing in the Bill that says that all relevant people, or whatever—I can't remember what we've said now.
'Any bodies appearing to the Welsh Ministers to represent the interests of the councils affected by the order, and
(c) such other persons as the Welsh Ministers consider appropriate.'
Yes. So, it's a wide duty to consult with everybody, all relevant people, or all relevant persons—I can't remember exactly. And the point about that, Mark, is that that's challengeable. So, if somebody sitting here didn't consult with the Electoral Commission, they would clearly be in breach of that, and they would be subject to judicial review if they hadn't done that by whichever body it was. Whereas, if we start to list them, then, effectively, anybody we've left out or who comes into being afterwards wouldn't be part of that, and you wouldn't be able to challenge not consulting them. So, I take the slightly opposite view of that; that narrows the power rather than widens it.
One might argue that the Electoral Commission is so highly relevant to this that we're not talking about long lists, we're talking about key bodies. But wouldn't this normally be addressed through, perhaps, delegated ministerial powers to vary legislation in the event of, for instance, a name change?
Well, you could do it like that, yes. I suppose we've just taken the opposite view that it's an expansive power to consult with, as widely as possible—. And I think the Government should be under a duty to do just that. I think that's just an opposite way of achieving the same thing.
I don't know if the Electoral Commission has actually asked to be put into that position, but I imagine if we did put them into that position, you'd have a long list of other people who also wanted to be put into that position, very rapidly knocking on your door.
Okay. Witnesses generally gave their support for proposals for the all-Wales database of electoral registration. Again, the boundary commission highlighted the need for significant pre-planning to develop the capacity and capability of the commission in terms of resources, staffing, premises, IT and security. Given that broad support for the qualification, how will you respond to calls for providing a cost estimate now, for establishing and administering such a database, in a revised regulatory impact assessment?
It's just really difficult to do that upfront. So, obviously, once we do the regulations, they will come with a regulatory impact assessment, and the database will be established by regulations. But we're currently working through all the changes to the electoral management software around the franchise and the various reforms, and until we understand quite what the extent of that work is, it's really difficult to say how much it's going to cost. So, we're not, just right now, in a position to be able to say that. Once we've got a kind of spec for what needs to be done, we'll be in a better position to say what the costs will be, and obviously that would then be included in the regulatory impact assessment for the regulations that set up the database. So, I've got no problem with doing what you're asking, we're just not in a position to do it now is the short answer.
Okay, Mark. Delyth Jewell.
Are you in a position to consider extending the eligibility for 16 and 17-year-olds so that they can stand for local government elections?
So, 'no', but 'yes'—[Laughter.] Let me explain why I feel like that. This is quite a historic change that a lot of us have been fighting for for some considerable time. I've wanted to do this for 30 years, probably. It's quite momentous, and so I think we need to bed that in before we start making other changes to the system. So, whilst I'm absolutely in favour of anybody who can vote being able to stand also, I think this is just such a momentous change to the way that we've always done things that it should just be small steps first. So, we've gone for, 'Let's do this bit first, and then we'll do the next bit next,' rather than a big-bang approach of, 'Let's just shove it all in the beginning.'
I can see arguments either way is the truth, Delyth, but we've gone for the incremental approach, just because, actually, there's a lot going on in this Bill, and just adding complexity to it over and over again doesn't seem like the right thing to do. But you can hear that I'm not—. There is an easy argument to make that, if you can vote, then you ought to also be able to stand as a candidate. I certainly have no in-principle problem with that. I just think a lot of the stuff in this Bill is about just the sheer admin of making these changes and that that's just one step too far for our systems to be able to cope with.
Going back to all the stuff Angharad was talking about earlier, about awareness raising and all the rest of it, if you add in, 'And also you can stand, and that would mean all of these—.' It feels too momentous, I suppose.
I appreciate what you're saying. I take it from what you're saying that you would like to see that change brought in in the near future.
I mean, if it was entirely only me doing it, then what I would do is I would make the franchise changes in this Bill and have one election where that runs, and we look at what we do, we learn the lessons of that and then make the next set of changes. So, you're two elections away, aren't you? So, 10 years, that is. So, you'd have had 10 years of bedding in of the systems and so on for that to happen.
Could I just bring Huw in at this point, Delyth? Huw.
I'm just wondering, Minister, whether the Welsh Government would have difficulty with an amendment that actually looked two elections hence and an amendment that, in effect, was a simple form of wording like the South African written constitution, which says that the age of entitlement to vote is also the age at which you can stand. You could write an amendment that would say that would be subject to a vote in the Senedd before it's enacted, and it will not be before two elections. So, would you—?
I don't have any particular problem with that. The only thing that that takes away is the ability to learn any lessons from what we're doing. So, that assumes that everything will work splendidly and all it needs to do is bed in.
Whereas, what this is doing is saying, 'Well, actually, maybe it won't all work entirely splendidly, and what we need to do is learn the lessons of that and then make the change.' But I'm kind of torn about it, is the truth of it. If such an amendment came forward, we would have to work through what the implications of that would be. But you can hear that I'm ambivalent. [Laughter.]
Mark, on this point.
Just to play devil's advocate, as you might expect, constitutionally, is it appropriate for anybody to be able to legislate on matters that they themselves are prohibited from participating in, or having the right to do? For various reasons, including legislation passed in this place, there's a whole load of things that 16 and 17-year-olds can't do until they're 18, including using tanning salons, watching an 18 film, buying alcohol in a pub unless they're having a meal, or getting married without parental consent or whatever. Yet, potentially, they could be legislating over matters that don't actually apply to them until they're 18. Constitutionally, does that not raise interesting issues?
There is a whole of series of issues, isn't there, with the mangled way that we allow people to get to maturity in our society, which needs a fundamental look? So, the committee, I'm sure, knows that I spent a very large part of my childhood in Canada, where all of those ages are completely different. So, I learnt to drive at school, and when I came back here I couldn't drive anymore, which was really weird. So, we have a weird system in the United Kingdom of sliding levels of maturity that I've never been able to get my head around, to be honest. If it was up to me, I would make an age at which you were considered to be an adult, and then you would be an adult. But nobody, sadly, has put me in the position where I can do that.
And that's partly why we're saying small steps in this Bill, because there is a whole series of issues around this: some of which are admin-type issues; some of which are how we roll out the awareness raising and so on; some are how we want our society to get used to the idea that 16-year-olds actually vote, before we go and make the next step to say, 'Well, maybe they should be allowed to stand'; we also have varying—. So, we're going to be allowed to vote at 16 for Senedd elections and for local government elections, but not for parliamentary elections, for example, which is a weird outcome of this as well. A future Senedd might decide that you could stand as a councillor at 16, but not as an Assembly Member at 16, for example. So, there are nuances here that I think bear careful examination. And whilst my instinct is that, if you can vote, you ought to be able to stand—. I don't have any problem with lots of the things you've just said, because those are the nuances that I'm talking about.
And whilst, in principle, the idea of saying 'Well, okay, let's do it in 10 years' time, let's just put it in here'—. Actually, there are lots of things that can happen over that time period that might change some of that, or you might want to do it at different levels at different times or whatever. So, that's why I'm torn. I'm not making any secret of the fact that there are arguments on both sides that I think are compelling arguments, but they clash. So, that's why we haven't done it, is the short answer.
Okay, thanks for that, Minister.
I have a feeling that we're going to be returning to that; advance notice of an amendment there. [Laughter.] Thank you for that.
So, looking at another area of eligibility to stand, I'm sure that you'll be aware that we've heard evidence from a number of witnesses who are concerned about changing the qualifying criteria for council staff to stand for election without having to resign first. Do you share those concerns?
'No' is the short answer to that. I've long thought that stopping people who are involved in local government as part of their career, at every level, from expressing an interest in the democratic process that they're involved in makes no sense at all. So, this is a long-held ambition of mine to do this, because I've always thought that it makes no sense. And again, sorry to reference my own career, but I worked in local government for a long time, and I frequently saw people who were essential local government employees—refuse collectors or maintenance people, absolutely delivering essential services to their local community—who couldn't stand as a local councillor because they were working on the bins or in housing maintenance. That makes no sense at all. Of course those people are the right people to represent the communities that they work and live in. So, I've long thought that that was a very retroactive step brought in, I think, in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.
Conversely, there are clearly employees who would be very conflicted if they did that. So, obviously, the chief executive and people advising the committees and so on are in a very different position, and there are political restrictions on some of those posts—rightly so—and we're not proposing to change that. And I think that solves the problem. So, I don't really see why we need any other restrictions. So, of course, there's a maintained list of people who are considered to be politically restricted, and that's done by regulation, and we can change that around, but to just debar a whole set of people, just blanket, doesn't seem to me to be the right way forward. And so that's what the Bill does.
That seems pretty comprehensive, thank you. Could you explain whether the conditions that are in section 24 extend to employees of fire and rescue authorities standing for election, please?
So, the fire and rescue authorities are combined authorities. So, they're not directly elected councillors and the restrictions apply to them in their principal authorities. So, we don't see any reason to duplicate them, because they're combined authorities. So, just to be really clear: you're elected to a principal council, your principal council decides that you serve on the fire and rescue authority, all the provisions that apply to you as a principal councillor still apply, so you're debarred in the same way, or not debarred in the same way.
All right. Thank you for that. So, looking at election pilot schemes, Minister, could you explain why, on the face of the Bill, there isn't a duty for the electoral commission to conduct an evaluation of any pilot schemes?
'Because they already are', is the short answer. I'm straying into technical stuff now. I don't know if one of my trusty officials wants to explain that.
The new provisions in this Bill sit within section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, so it doesn't replace anything, it's a new addition. So, all of the conditions that are already in section 10 apply to any Welsh Government mandated pilot. So, there is a requirement that the electoral commission would evaluate any pilot undertaken under section 10.
Right, yes, that seems fair. I take it from this that we may have had evidence from some people arguing that it should be on the face of the Bill, but if it's already provided for, then that makes sense to me, certainly.
Finally, in this section from me, would you agree—. The electoral commission has said that guidance about election pilots should be independent in order to ensure that voters have confidence in the integrity of those elections. So, firstly, would you agree with that, please, Minister? And do you think that the Wales Electoral Coordination Board should have a role to play in preparing that guidance?
Can I ask you to unpack that a little bit?
So, the electoral commission said that guidance for election pilots should be independent. So, it says here that they said:
'we're not asking for the Commission to do the guidance...the Commission has a role in providing statutory guidance for all other electoral events…we need to have a discussion as to how we ensure that guidance is independent, one potential solution would be for the Wales Electoral Coordination Board to provide the guidance'.
I think the electoral commission quite rightly feels that they would be conflicted if they evaluated a pilot that they've provided the guidance on. So, I think we're happy to explore how that can be addressed. One solution is potentially the WECB, and we're happy to look into that and work with the electoral commission to arrive at a place where they feel comfortable then with the evaluation role.
Okay, I'm sure they'd be pleased to hear that. Okay, thank you.
Thank you, Delyth. Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. I have some questions, Minister, around meeting the expenditure of the returning officers. So, we've had some mixed responses on this and differing evidence. So, ALACE and Solace have said that, if you're going to do this, you need a complete review of chief executives' salaries, and so on. Then the electoral commission said that they were concerned that the proposal would discourage experienced and capable senior officers from actually wanting to undertake this role. I'll come on in a moment to the business about the independence of the role, but does any of that lead you to think that you need to undertake a review of that proposal? Have you given consideration to the potential impact of that change?
This is a discussion that's been going on forever and has just caused endless problems in various local authorities. I won't name any authorities, but there have been arguments in a number of different authorities about whether it's a separate emolument, as it's called, whether it's a separate employment, whether it should have a separate fee, whether you have to get separate insurance, whether it's pensionable. There are all kinds of issues. The truth is that various local authorities have had different legal advice and have treated it differently, so it's not a level playing field at all. In some authorities it's completely separate. In other authorities, it's been treated as pension. There are all sorts of issues. There are even issues about whether there should be fees paid for people conducting different levels of election. So, if you really wanted to open a can of worms, you would go back and say, 'Well, have you been paid for running elections that definitely shouldn't have attracted a fee, like local government elections, for example, and so on.' So, I think that we're just trying to draw a line under this. Rather than have a 20-year inquiry into exactly who paid what to whom and all the rest of it, which I think would be a nightmare of gigantic proportions, what we're trying to do is just draw a line under it and make it really clear what is, and what is not, the role of the returning officer and so on.
So, the legislation, as I understand it, says that the local authority has to appoint one of its officers as the returning officer. So, they can't appoint a passing stranger. This has to be a person who has to be employed by the local authority. So, it's not separate employment. You have to be a senior officer of that local authority. So, it just becomes part of your duties, it seems to me, as that senior officer.
I don't know if you're going to go on and ask me this, but I'll answer it in advance of you asking me, because it comes up every time: because you are an employee of that local authority, and because you are acting in the course of your employment, you are obviously indemnified for doing so. So, unless you act maliciously or fraudulently, you are indemnified for anything that occurs during the course of that. That's the other thing they say: 'Well, I might be personally liable.' But you wouldn't be any more personally liable for carrying out that part of your employment than you would be for any other part of your employment.
So, by that same token, what you're also saying—. I'm not putting words into your mouth, Julie, so—. You're also saying that there should not be a question around the impartiality of somebody appointed as a returning officer, just because it's incorporated into part of their salary, as opposed to being a separate fee. You're saying that the salary of whoever the local authority determines should be the returning officer should be recompense in itself; it's part of the job of that particular officer, which may or may not be the chief executive.
Yes. And it isn't always the chief executive, actually. But 'yes' is the short answer to that. To be honest with you, we've overcomplicated it unnecessarily for years, and it's caused all kinds of problems for no apparent reason. I don't understand at all why it's considered to be—. The electoral registration officer is an employee of the local authority. They do all of that as part of their normal—. What's the difference? Anybody who thinks that the actual returning officer does all of the work hasn't actually attended an election.
It's all the team of people below them, yes. So, the fact that you're proposing to remove the RO fees for the Assembly election: do you see that as just—? You are kind of moving ahead with this proposal, in effect, but bringing it into the Assembly election. So, you would reject the accusation that what you're doing is trying to get a returning officer for free for the Assembly election.
Well, I think that most senior officers in local authorities could hardly be described as 'doing their work for free', at the risk of offending everybody in the whole of local government. These are hard-working and often hard-pressed officials, but this is simply one of their many jobs, isn't it?
Indeed. I'm just looking at what the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives said. They said that there are
'grave objections to expecting an individual—for no fee—to take on all the personal responsibilities associated with running an Assembly election, including responsibility for employing staff for the election.'
So, that's the personal responsibility bit, which I think that we also need to clarify. It is not a personal responsibility, it is a function of the local authority that you are carrying out as one of its officers—
On behalf of—
—on behalf of that local authority, as in everything else that you do. We will clarify that the local authority is empowered to, and does, indemnify its officers in the carrying out of those duties.
In terms of Senedd elections, the Welsh Government provides an indemnity for returning officers as well. So, they are indemnified, as the Minister said, for that function.
Okay. That's clear, in terms of where you are with that. So, have you considered the need for placing statutory Welsh-language requirements for returning officers and electoral registration officers? It's not a requirement at the moment. I think that it varies from authority to authority, in terms of how they deal with the issue of the Welsh language.
It's very important that the elections are conducted bilingually. I've seen lots of different arrangements for that, and sometimes two different people make the announcements—somebody makes the Welsh announcement, somebody makes the English announcement, and sometimes it's the same person. And those seem perfectly sensible arrangements to me. So, at the risk of being overly flippant, if it ain't broke, I don't see why we need to fix it.
Just so that I'm clear for the record, then, the requirement is that the election is conducted bilingually, but there's no requirement for the announcements to be made bilingually by the returning officer, as long as it is done in—
Bilingually, yes. I think the short answer to that is 'yes'.
Okay. That's all from me, Chair, I think. Thank you.
Right. Thank you. Moving on to a question about general power of competence—
That's quite a big shift. [Laughter.]
Lawyers in Local Government, supported by the Welsh Local Government Association and the society of local authority chief executives, expressed some concerns regarding the proposals in the Bill, and noted that the provision in the Bill mirrors the English drafting of this legislative power, but they said the experience of lawyers in England was that the general power was being used as a last resort, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the power. How do you therefore respond to calls for you to conduct an evaluation of the use of the power in England before introducing it in Wales?
Gladly. This is something they've been asking for the entire time I've worked in local government in Wales and the entire time I've been in the Assembly, so that's since the early 1990s. It's something local authorities in Wales have consistently asked for all the way through that time, and it has a very simple application. Instead of having your team of lawyers having to look for powers to allow you to do something, you can assume that you can do something, unless there is a restriction on that power.
The idea that we should try and look for all the restrictions possible in the power and list them on the face of the Bill—I mean, honestly, I don't want to be rude, but it makes me want to laugh out loud. What are they trying to do—put themselves out of work? What's the point of having lawyers in local government if that's not what they do?
Of course we don't want an unrestricted power of general competence. We don't want local authorities to start running bank accounts in the Cayman Islands or wherever. We can all think of a whole series of things that we wouldn't want our local authority to do. What we expect our local authorities to do is to do sensible things in the interests of their local people, subject to the restrictions that are in the law. So, if you look at other jurisdictions, that's how local authorities have always worked—they can do anything they can do unless the Government says they can't do it. We've always done that the other way around—we've always said, 'You can only do the things that you can do, so unless you can find a way to do it, you can't do it.' And all this is doing is flipping it. So, what we're saying is, 'You can do everything that you want to do in the interests of the local people unless there's a specific restriction. And, of course, if they come up with specific restrictions that are having unintended consequences or unintended restrictions on that power, we will look to remove those restrictions. But nobody has come to us and said, 'Here is a specific restriction that will prevent us from doing a thing we've always wanted to do, and now we've got the power to do it.' So, I'm a bit, as you can see, irritated by that suggestion, because this is something they have lobbied for for a long, long time, and we are doing it.
And this is very much in keeping with the whole ethos of this Bill, which is to empower local government and to devolve power to local government. So, I can't emphasis enough—what we're doing is flipping it around. We're saying, 'You can do anything that's in the interests of your local population, as long as there's no specific restriction existing in any statute that says that you can't. And I'm very happy to say in the committee that in the guidance we will be making it clear that that's what we mean, and that if any specific restriction that they are aware of that is causing a problem in England or anywhere else—if they want to bring that to our attention, we will look very seriously at removing it, because we're not trying to restrict it unnecessarily. But, absolutely, we do not want local authorities to be able to do absolutely anything they want with no restriction—there are clear and obvious problems with that. So, I think we just need to hold on to what we know we want local authorities to do.
Well, I think, looking at the same issue from the other side, Lawyers in Local government told us they had concerns about the lack of clarity in the Bill about the legislative limitations that exist that could hamper the use of the general power. So, how do you respond to their proposal that drafting should list the specific bits of legislation that sets out the limitations on local authority lawyers, and in conjunction with that issue statutory guidance making clear the sort of things the power could be used for and the sort of things it couldn't be used for, and they could be required to take into account to give them more certainty?
Well, I think I just went through that, and I don't want to be really rude, but I'm just irritated as anything by that suggestion. That is the role of the local authority lawyer. That is their job. So, the idea that we would produce an incredibly long list of restrictions and whatever, and then, I don't know, spend half our lives in court arguing about whether that was an exhaustive list or not just fills me with horror, Mark, to be honest.
This is a general power of competence. That's what it is. It says that you no longer need to look as a local authority for a specific power to do something. You can do anything that's in the interests of your local inhabitants, providing there isn't a specific restriction. That's what it says. The Government has never taken any view as to whether it's a power of first resort or last resort—it's simply a power like any other. Local authorities have lots of powers to do various things, and this just adds to their arsenal of things that they can—. If they can come up with innovative and interesting things to do in their local community that are in the interests of their inhabitants— way to go. But I think we can all think of things we don't want them to do. I don't want our local authorities to start making speculative market investments in Hungary, for example, because they think that there's a good land market there. And you might think I'm just making that up, but some local authorities in England are doing exactly that, and I don't think that is a good thing to do. That is highly speculative and very dangerous for the local inhabitants, if that sort of investment goes wrong. So, we will be looking to restrict some of that, but I expect our local authorities to be sensible and grown up and step up to that plate. But the idea that we somehow list out, because they don't have any competent lawyers themselves, all the things that are restrictions—I mean, you can see I'm just really irritated by that.
I think that's perfectly obvious, Minister. [Laughter.]
That wasn't my comment. I was reading a quote out from them, so—.
I think we'll be having a little meeting with them shortly. [Laughter.]
Other witnesses who have expressed support for the proposal nonetheless have expressed the view that the well-being power already addresses much of this. How do you respond to that?
I think it does, yes. I mean, this is something local government have asked for, so we're giving it to them. I was a lawyer in local government for many, many decades. My view is that they can almost always find the power to do anything they want to do already. It does make it easier, though, so I'm happy to make it easier. I mean, we are doing this because we've been asked to do it, not because we want to. I'm happy to—don't get me wrong. I'm not reluctant to do it, I'm very happy to do it, but we're doing it because we've been asked to do it by local authorities who have been asking for this for some considerable time.
Even with existing powers, some of them, some years ago, still managed to invest in Icelandic banks.
Quite. Exactly so.
The last question from me in this section: to what extent do you believe the general power of competence could be used by corporate joint committees, or does the Bill require an amendment to facilitate this?
I think it could be used by corporate joint committees. What we're going to look to do is to ensure that the general power of competence used by a corporate joint committee is used in the area of the powers delegated to it by their component local authorities. So, it will be more restricted in the sense that if you're a corporate joint committee and you are responsible for delivering—I'm going to make something up—I don't know, procurement of toilet rolls, then your general power of competence would relate to how you procure the toilet rolls. It wouldn't enable you to run a joint transport system, for example.
So, we do need to restrict it to make sure that the delegation to the joint committee of various functions holds and that they don't run away with doing all kinds of stuff because they have this unrestricted power. But we do want them to be able to do everything that's delegated to them in the widest and most innovative way. So, we will be ensuring that they don't have to look for specific powers, for example, in the field of economic development. So, if economic development is something that's been delegated to a CJC, and it will be, because that's one of the mandated ones, then they will have a power of general competence to do anything in the field of economic development that they want to be able to do from the point of view of the CJC, but they wouldn't, for example, be able to run the social care system, because the power would be restricted to the thing that is delegated to them. So, we'll work that out in guidance, and we've got quite a lot of work to do to do that, but that's the—.
What I'm telling you, Chair, here, is what we're intending to do with the guidance. This is something we're still consulting on with local authorities, because we're co-producing a lot of this stuff with them, and, obviously, this is the new idea in the Bill, so we need to work it through. But you can hear that we're very keen not to restrict the functions of the CJC, so that, by delegating a power from a constituent principal authority to the CJC, you don't somehow narrow the power down, because it doesn't have the power of general competence, but, at the same time, we don't want to take away the whole point of delegation by simply saying that a CJC has the power of general competence, it can do anything it likes. Obviously, that's not the intention either.
OK, Mark. Caroline.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Moving to eligible community councils, to what extent has the Minister considered the support and advice mechanism eligible community councils may require in addition to the need for upskilling community council clerks in order to use the general power effectively?
So, we'll be issuing guidance to them about how best to use that, and, again, I can't emphasise enough: the power of general competence is the power to do things within the ambit of your existing powers. It doesn't, again, give you the power to run the social services system if you're a town council, for example. So, what we will be doing is we'll be making sure that we issue guidance to assist them both in getting to a position where they could ask for the power of general competence and then in exercising that power once they've got it. So, as you know, we're putting restrictions on the ability of town and community councils to do that. We're saying that they have to have qualified clerks and they have to have unqualified accounts and various other things, and that's because we have—I can never remember the exact number—750-ish community councils in Wales, and they range from people with budgets of £5,000 to budgets of tens of millions of pounds, and, obviously, one size does not fit all. So, what we want to do is enable the competent, good ones to be able to do this, whilst not creating a whole series of problems for community councils that function perfectly well, but are very restricted in what they do—perhaps maintaining a loved community resource or something, but not really delivering any other services. And trying to find a system that fits all of those has been complex, so what we're saying is, if we put those restrictions on, we'll be able to do that without disrupting the system too much.
Thank you. When you mentioned accounts there, Wales Audit Office officials have noted in evidence that, unlike principal authorities, community councils don't have their own in-house lawyers, and often are unfamiliar with public law requirements, and therefore they need to be signposted, really, to suitable sources for the advice that they require. Avenues are available, which we know, such as through local council associates, but the danger here is that the information required may need to be specific and factual, and the information they can actually get is more of a generic nature, so I just wonder if you can tell me your thoughts on that.
Yes. This is why the system interlinks. So, we're saying that a community council has to have two lots of unqualified accounts, not just one—because it can be an unfortunate problem in one, but, two consecutive ones, clearly, you're not learning from the previous experience—that you have to have a qualified clerk—for all the reasons you just set out, Caroline, actually, so that that clerk is qualified and competent and knows how to do it and understands what the regulations say and understands how to get help from outside, and all that sort of stuff; I agree with that—and also that the community council has—. Is its two thirds we've gone for of elected councillors?
Yes, two thirds elected.
We had a long conversation about that, because a lot of our community councils co-opted people, and that's not great, either.
So, we are trying to make sure that a council that can exercise these powers meets a set of threshold criteria, so it's not just the unqualified accounts. That's just an indicator. It's not meant to be the definitive thing. We accept entirely the WAO's contention that that's not in itself the sole indicator. It's just one of a series of things that we want them to be able to do in order to do this. Then, obviously, the other thing to say is that we will be working closely with One Voice Wales, and the community councils that are not part of One Voice Wales, to help them to do this, because what we want is well-administered local town and community councils. What we don't want is well-intentioned local people doing their best but getting themselves into all kinds of difficulties as a result of a series of hurdles that they may not even have been aware of. So, we're just trying to make sure that we have a system in place that allows people to walk along the right path without an undue burden placed on them, because, you know, our town and community councils do a good job for us across Wales.
Minister, I could add to that that, in terms of advice and support, there's certainly a role for ourselves in the guidance, certainly a role for the vested bodies—I think a role for the sector itself, that peer support, that they help each other through using this power and working through that.
We sit on a national advisory group with One Voice Wales, with the Society of Local Council Clerks, and WLGA to keep an ongoing view, really, as to what works for us and what they need so we can keep this in mind as we go forward and if there's more they need. But I think in that space of statutory guidance—peer support, member body support, that's a good basis for them to work from.
Thank you. May I ask also for a response regarding the Auditor General for Wales's concerns about the use of unqualified accounts as a condition for eligibility for community councils?
Yes. So, as I said, I think the point that they were making was that it's not a sole indicator, and we agree with that. We're not using it as a sole indicator, we're using it as one of the pieces of evidence that we would use to say that the council isn't yet in a position where it could have a power of general competence. So, there are a number of other things as well.
Just to be really clear: we are not saying that, if the WAO give a council a unqualified audit, that will automatically mean that they couldn't have the power. That's not what we're saying at all; we're saying that it's one of a range of things that would lead us to believe that this council is struggling and needs to put a number of other things in place in order to make sure that it's functioning correctly.
Thank you. And, finally, will you be looking to provide additional support through bursary in light of One Voice Wales's evidence, noting that it will be necessary for Welsh Government to provide funding support to encourage the take-up of qualifications for a period of no less than five years?
Yes. So, I've been having conversation with them for some time about how we could reach an agreement around qualification, in particular of clerks, and I think—I'm looking desperately along my officials for which one it is now. It was quite a while ago that I had the meeting with them, but I think we agreed in principle that we would support training for clerks, didn't we?
Yes. We, historically, have provided funding to support clerks to take the sector-specific qualification. We increased that this year in light of early increase in demand, and we have more in that space, and we have agreed to significantly increase it going forward.
Okay. We move on now to Part 3 and promoting access to local government. Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. I've got a serious of questions on encouraging participation. Now, this first question may seem a bit loaded, but we're asking you to respond to some of the evidence that we've had, specifically here from the WLGA. So, with that in mind, would you think it's appropriate that in section 46 of the Bill it requires principal councils to encourage participation in decision making within connected bodies? Now, the WLGA thinks that that creates a hierarchical relationship. And lawyers in local government said that they would have preferred to see a duty on connected authorities and the principal council to co-operate and work together to produce a strategy. So, that's the context of why we're asking this, so, with that in mind, do you think, on balance, it's appropriate as it is in the Bill?
I'm quite open-minded about how we do this. Obviously, what we're trying to do is increase public participation in local decision making. So, it's a question of: how do we do that to the best effect? Who's in the best position to promote that? Who's in the best position to produce the original community plan or community participation plan or whatever we're—public participation, whatever? I have a lot of sympathy with principal councils feeling that we give them responsibility for stuff where they don't have any power. So, I've got responsibility, Delyth, for making sure that you do something, but, actually, I've got no way of making you do it; it's that kind of stuff. So, I'm quite open-minded as to how we do it, but we are determined to do it. And I think most councils welcome that as well.
We do want to make sure that there's a public participation duty in all of the decisions that local authorities and their connected bodies make, because we've got a myriad of those, so we want that. But I'm very happy to take the committee's view and other people's view on what the best structure for that looks like. It is quite difficult to see—.
Part of the other reason that we're having this Bill is we're trying to simplify some of these structures, because there is a spiderweb of structures around some of these things, and what we want to make sure is that those are as transparent and open to public participation as is humanly possible. But I don't have the magic bullet for that, so we're very happy to discuss with the committee evidence that you've taken about the best way to do that.
Okay, thank you for that. So, just briefly, Mark, on this point.
Might a way forward be to link this into existing legislation, such as the five ways of working under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and codes 2, 3, 4 under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and so on, which specifically already require this sort of working to be carried out—although, too often, it isn't understood or isn't, and that understanding is key—and also, to help their understanding, linking them in perhaps to some of the work that I know you and colleagues have quoted at times by the Carnegie Trust on the enabling state, or Oxfam on the livelihoods approach and so on? But rather than reinvent the cake, you have already got Welsh legislation that specifically requires them to work in this way.
Yes, I think that's a very good point, and we are very mindful of the fact that we've got the well-being of future generations Act and we've got the health and social services stuff going on. But we've—. I'm not saying anything in the committee I haven't said lots of times in other forums, but, with the very best of intentions, we've layered on things in Wales, so we've got public services boards and regional partnership boards and regional strategic planning boards and—. So, part of what this is doing is putting a mechanism in place that would mean you could put all of those things into a single mechanism, so that would have better transparency.
But, clearly, a corporate joint committee, for example, would be expected to work inside the well-being of future generations Act, in line with the health and social services Act and so on. This is about how do we make sure that they do that in an outward-facing way, and I think it's fair to say that there's good practice in Wales around the place for that, but it's not universal. So, I suppose what we're trying to do is push it into being universal, and I'm very happy to take the committee's view about the best way to do that.
So, I agree, Mark, that we've done—a lot of the groundwork is in place. This is about whether there are practical things we can do to make sure that somebody, some corporate body, takes responsibility for actually driving it. I don't necessarily think we've got it absolutely right at the moment, so I'm very happy to take the committee's view about it.
Okay. Thanks for that, Minister. Delyth.
That seems very constructive, thank you. The WLGA, when talking about the new public participation duty on local authorities, have said that they're not clear what additional value that would achieve. Now, to put that in context again, they've said that they do support the spirit of those provisions, but they think that they are already provided for under the well-being of future generations Act. So, how would you respond to that view, that they don't see what additional value that new duty would bring?
It's part of what I just answered, isn't it, really?
Yes. It is linked, yes.
I suppose we feel very strongly that many of them are not doing enough. So, I'm not arguing at all that there isn't some good practice out there and that some authorities have gone a long way down this road, but it's absolutely the case that not all of them have. It's a very frustrating thing in Wales that good practice does not travel well. So, a large part of what we're trying to do in this Bill overall is actually to encourage local authorities to look at good practice next door to them and think to themselves, 'Why can local authority A do this when I have not been able to do it? What can I learn?', rather than, I'm afraid, them saying, 'Oh, don't you know that it's different in local authority B and there are all kinds of good reasons why we haven't been able to do X,' which I'm very frustrated by.
So, what we're trying to do is take evidence from them as to why some local authorities have been able to do this in their partnership arrangements and others not so much. So, if the committee wants to help us with that, I'd be most grateful, because I'm not sure that we—. We haven't got a silver bullet for it. But we know, from all the surveys, for example, that most local people don't feel strongly that they can influence the decisions of their local council, or they don't feel involved in those decisions, or they don't feel that those decisions are the right decisions, or whatever. So, that's what we're trying to address, just to be clear. So, there's a fundamental disconnect between many local people and what they think their council does, and we're trying to work out a way to try and reconnect that.
Okay. Thank you for that. The final two questions I have are points of clarification, really. So, firstly, could you please explain if the fire authorities have been consciously omitted from this whole section of the Bill? In their evidence, they've said, they pointed out, that they were omitted from specific provisions, like the duty in section 46 that we've just been talking about, and section 56, public notices. And they have argued that the Bill is inconsistent in the approach. So, in terms of—. Well, what would be your response to that generally, please, and, specifically, about section 46, was that a conscious omission?
I'm very happy to consider adding them back in, if the committee wants to recommend that, or for the duty to be separately applied to them if the committee wants to; I don't mind which way we do that. Fire and rescue authorities are combined authorities, as I keep saying, so they are made up of constituent members of the principal authorities that already have the duty. So, if they want to be specifically mentioned, that's fine.
Okay. That's helpful.
I don't, as you can see, have a very strong view on the subject. [Laughter.]
I'm not getting the vibe that it was a specific, 'No, you shall not pass.' [Laughter.] Okay, that's good.
Finally from me, could you please explain why the duty to consult local people in section 48 doesn't extend to businesses, please?
I think it's
'such other persons as it considers appropriate',
which is considered to be anybody they like, really.
So, it could include businesses; it's just not specifically set out. Okay. Thank you.
Okay, Delyth? And Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. So, the duty on principal councils to publish official addresses— now, you'll be aware that the WLGA have expressed some concern about that, particularly on the register of interests for land ownership, where it's required that a councillor has to publish their home address unless they can identify a specific threat that would say that they shouldn't. Have you given some further thought to that in the current climate, with the abuse that can—
Yes. So, my understanding—and I'm happy for Lisa to say more in a minute, but my understanding is that that comes out of the way that the code of conduct is currently written, and the way that the register of interests work. And we don't need this Bill to change the guidance for that, so we can just change it.
So, that can just be changed in any event.
Yes, so that you say that you have an interest in a piece of land in your area, but you don't say a specific address, and that's registered with the council and it only becomes an issue if you've got a conflict, for example. I don't see any reason why we can't change it to that. Unfortunately, this is a provision that's necessary because of the amount of harassment that, in particular, young women councillors have been getting as a result of their home addresses being published. And I don't see any public good in that, so we're just putting a provision in place that means that they don't have to do that. In truth, we know that, good local councillors, people know where they live. So, it's very hard to protect it completely, but it does mean that you don't have to put it out there on wider social media and all the rest of it, so that everybody—every keyboard warrior in Britain—can get hold of it and get you. So, it's always going to be a compromise.
Somebody said to me during the general election, 'I thought I had an idea where you lived, and now I know, because I saw the six-foot placard.' [Laughter.] Bit of a giveaway.
But it can be a real issue for people, and we don't want that to put people off.
No, no. That's the key, isn't it?
Yes. So, my understanding—it's up to Lisa to correct me—is that we can already change the provisions in the code of conduct and the registration of interests, and so we'll just do it so that it matches.
And would that extend into community councillors as well, then, because they're required to publish on the community council's website, aren't they?
Yes. Yes, although I think there's a little bit of clarification perhaps around town and community councils, because we feel they can already publish an official address on their website, which is why they're not included in this provision, because we made provision for that in the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013. So, as the Minister said, it is our intention to review the model code of conduct in any case, because, as a result of a number of provisions in this Bill, we need to refresh quite a bit of secondary legislation falling out of other Acts and Measures. So, we'll make sure that that is included when we take that work forward.
Okay, that's fine. Thank you.
Okay, Dawn? Mark.
Thank you. Widespread concerns were expressed to us, for practical reasons, about the proposal to require the broadcasting of all public meetings electronically, including the capital cost to provide infrastructure in all committee rooms, cost implications in technical staff resources to manage the systems, but also the potential for councils to limit or stop taking meetings out into different localities because of cost, limited Wi-Fi connectivity, particularly in rural areas—and evidence was given to us of some meetings that had had to be cancelled or conducted with, effectively, absent people because connections had broken down—and decisions being delegated to officers rather than taken to meetings in order to save money. How, therefore, do you respond to proposals such as those from Lawyers in Local Government for inclusion in the provision of the term 'where reasonably practicable', and, from a number of witnesses, that the minimum requirement instead should be included to broadcast just full council cabinet executive meetings and planning meetings?
So, I have some sympathy with some of the practical difficulties and trying to work out the costs, but I'm really reluctant to restrict it to main meetings, because, often, things that are really interesting to local people are done in small sub-committees of various things and we don't want them to not be able to access that on the internet afterwards or whatever. On the other hand, I want it to be pragmatic, so we don't want to stop people going out into the community and having a meeting in the village hall or whatever if it actually turns out to be completely impossible to get internet access or whatever. So, we will be looking at some pragmatic solutions to that.
Also, I'm really interested in terms of the cost—I'm very happy to work with local government to try and make sure that we get the best options in place. I have no fixed view of this at all, Mark, so we could do a national procurement for this kind of stuff, we could do regional procurements, we could get each local authority to do it, we could get them to do it in consortia—very happy to discuss with them what the best way of doing it is.
If they're going to work in corporate joint committees, they'll also have to have equipment that allows each council to be able to connect to that, so they'll have to work collectively to do some of that, and that—pragmatically, it would seem sensible to me to do that. But I don't have any view. If one of them has a brilliant way of doing it, we're very happy to look at that.
I'm reluctant to exclude specific types of meeting, particularly on the face of the Bill, because what we'd really like is for all of them to be able to be streamed. And, okay, there might not be a massive audience for the sub-committee on agricultural dwellings in somewhere or other, but there will be a group of people who really are interested in that, who want to look at it afterwards, when they've come home from work and so on, and, at the moment, that's really hard to access—you've got to get hold of copies of the papers, you only get the decision note; it's really difficult, isn't it, to get—and what we're trying to do here is make people a bit more enthusiastic about what their local council is doing.
Frankly, I think, as well, it always amazes me how many people watch Senedd committees at 2 o'clock in the morning. Because people are browsing, aren't they, and they find something that they're interested in—they find a key word—and they start looking at it and whatever, and that's how you get people interested in what's going on. And so I'm just really reluctant to artificially exclude what might look like a small meeting, but might actually turn out to be really interesting to a particular group of citizens in Wales.
Having said all of that, we would like to get pragmatic solutions in place. We certainly don't want people to not have the meeting because it's prohibitively expensive or because they simply can't get the equipment to work, so we'll have to work out a set of pragmatic guidelines for how you do that.
I think as well—we have recently established a joint working group with the WLGA and a number of local authorities to look at the very practical implications of this provision and the remote attendance provision as well. And there are a number of practical concerns that we are looking at as part of that work.
But I think, as well, it's maybe just worth mentioning to the committee that section 53(4) enables Welsh Ministers to make regulations to specify proceedings to which subsection 2 does not apply. So, there is a regulation-making power to potentially exclude meetings from the 'all', and part of the work we'll do in that group is to look at what the case is for making those regulations, and what sorts of meetings should be included, so that we can get a pragmatic solution to this but, at the same time, achieve the goal of greater transparency, openness and more access to local democracy for more people.
I'm conscious that there are loads of exclusions. I have one constituent who e-mails me regularly who takes a hand-held camera to every meeting that he can get into and broadcasts that on the web. But we heard, from evidence, of one council that tries to address this in a fairly low-tech way. That means that it's not bilingual, and it doesn't have disability access. Others invest in more complex systems, but at greater cost. So, again, how do we address those issues—not only the bilingual requirement, but also people might have sensory loss or other communication needs? Because I know, personally, that the technology is out there.
So, it is just about being pragmatic. As Lisa just said, what we're trying to do is ensure the maximum access for the maximum number of people, whilst not disadvantaging groups. So, yes, we're very happy to work with local authorities about what's the best way to do that. This technology rapidly changes, doesn't it? So, things that are possible today weren't possible when this Bill started off on the starting blocks. I'm sure, in three years' time, there will be solutions available that we aren't currently able to think about. So, it is about just maintaining the flexibility in it to make sure that we just—you know, the overarching aim is to make public participation and transparency as maximised as possible, and all of those things about people with sensory impairments and all the rest of it are really important. Actually, streaming a meeting can be an excellent way to do that because, if you have got a sensory impairment, you will have the equipment yourself to be able to access that in a way that something that's not streamed on the internet wouldn't be accessible to you, for example. So, we just have to be able to facilitate that in a pragmatic fashion. The flipside, as you said, Mark, is that we also don't want to discourage people from actually physically going out into their community, because that can be a really good way of doing that as well. So, it's the balance, as always, isn't it?
Okay. Moving onto, again, briefly in this context, fire authorities and national parks: if you make provisions to broadcast their meetings electronically, how would you respond to their call for a grant similar to that provided to local authorities in the past to enable them to do so?
When we do the regulatory impact assessments for the various regulations, if they're impacted by it, they will be included in the costs in the normal way. We certainly wouldn't be not including them. I don't see any issue with that at all. If, when we do the impact assessment for our regulations, it shows that there's a cost incurred to a fire authority, then that will be part of the assessment.
Right. To ensure the validity of proceedings if technology fails, which we all know it can do, how do you respond to calls for section 54 to be amended to provide for a saving provision similar to that in section 53(6)?
So, there are two different scenarios, aren't there? One is where a person who should be participating in a meeting as a voting member isn't able to do that because the technology fails—so, the committee is suddenly inquorate, for example, because my internet connection has failed and I am no longer able to participate. So, that's one scenario. Then, there is another scenario, where the meeting is quorate and everybody's technology works, but the broadcast equipment fails. So, I think that they are quite different, and we have to have different, pragmatic ways of dealing with that.
So, not having a quorate meeting because the member from X just wasn't able to participate and a decision is made that that person is not happy about, blah blah, is a different problem to the meeting was quorate, it was all conducted completely correctly, but it wasn't broadcast. So, I don't think that we necessarily have to have completely the same provisions. We have to work through what the implications of the two scenarios are, and I suggest strongly that they wouldn't be the same. But I'm happy to look at anything that you want to suggest for those. I personally see a very distinct difference between not being able to broadcast something that was correctly conducted, and not being able to correctly conduct it.
Okay. Okay, Mark? Okay. Thanks for that, Minister. At this stage, I think that the committee will take a short 10-minute break. We will recommence at 10:50. Diolch yn fawr.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:40 a 10:48.
The meeting adjourned between 10:40 and 10:48.
Okay, welcome back, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. We recommence our evidence session with the Minister and officials on the local government and elections Bill, and we have further questions from Caroline Jones.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Regarding section 57, the annual reports by community councils, could you tell me what consideration has been given to the possibility of community councils producing composite reports to include the annual report, along with statutory reports required under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, and will the Welsh Government be providing some form of revenue support to community councils for this new requirement?
The very nice answer to that question is, 'Yes, we're very happy for them to produce composite reports.' It's entirely up to them, really, whether they want to incorporate all of their reporting requirements into a single document, or to report separately on the well-being of future generations Act if they fall under the duty. I mean, as you can hear, I don't mind. If they want to do it in a composite way, that's fine, and if they want to do it separately, because that suits what they're doing better, that's also fine.
We'll be reviewing reports as we go forward and just producing some good practice guidance to say, 'We think this one was particularly great', or whatever. But as I said, this is such a diverse sector, it's really difficult to say a one-size-fits-all approach. You've got tiny, tiny little community councils doing a very good job of a local asset, and you've got big town councils with tens of millions of pounds delivering local services. So, a one-size-fits-all approach just does not work. So, we've been looking for a pragmatic response and an efficient and effective use of their resources in a way that suits what they're trying to do for their local communities.
And regarding revenue support?
Well, if they need it, but again, these are things that they should already be doing. I'm always open to having a discussion about additional burdens, but I'm not at all convinced there is an additional burden, though. So, I'd want to be convinced.
I think, from our estimates, for the smaller councils who are small scale and perhaps small scope we're estimating it could cost about £60 for their clerk's time to produce one, up to a couple of hundred for the very large councils. So, it's not necessarily a large—. Grant money may not be the best way forward. What we're proposing instead is thinking about how we use guidance but also to arrange workshops and practical support. So, rather than financial support, how can we help them to achieve a proportionate approach and how can we support them through it?
Okay. Thank you for providing that information.
Okay, Caroline. We'll move on then to Part 4: local authority executives, members, officers and committees. We start with questions from Huw Irranca-Davies.
Thank you, Chair. Can I just turn for a moment to the issue of the oft-maligned community council clerks? We've heard some evidence suggesting that they need now to be put on a firm legal footing in a position similar to that that applies to chief executives of principal councils. Do you have any sympathy with that, that there's a scope and a need to extend the provisions or a new provision to address this position of community council clerks?
'Not really', is the short answer to that. It's a really different role. So, the Bill lays out not just the job title of chief executive but all the role and formal functions of the chief executive of a principal council, which is obviously a big job, controlling a very large number of local services, and even the biggest of our town and community councils don't have anything even remotely approaching such a thing.
At the moment, under the Local Government Act 1972—I'll dredge my memory for it—they have to appoint a proper officer, who everybody calls the clerk, but it's the 'proper officer' if you wanted to be really formal about it. I'd want to do a little bit of work on what would happen if we started to call them the chief executive and whether we'd have unintended consequences for the sorts of people who came forward to be that person, et cetera, et cetera. So, I'm a bit reluctant. I can kind of see why they want to put something more formal in place, but it might have a lot of consequences that we're not aware of.
Part of their focus was very much on this development of the professionalisation of this role and so on. Now, I'm assuming you do have some sympathy with that—
Very much so.
—because there's a great deal of difference in skills, capabilities, professional approach, expertise, background. But maybe there's a different way of suggesting to unwrap that, rather than—
We've been doing a lot of work—I can see Claire's desperate to come in here. We've been doing a lot of work with them about this business about having a qualified clerk. So, I do think there's a big thing there. We were discussing in answer to an earlier question from Delyth, weren't we, about the need to get councils to move along the road of getting qualified clerks who understand the requirements of the legislation and so on? I'm very sympathetic to the fact that a large number of people have been doing this who are not qualified, we know, but we want to get them into a position where they feel able to take the qualifications necessary. We've been working with them for a while. Claire's desperate to come in, I think.
Just to confirm that there are other ways of recognising that status. Even if we're recognising the title of 'clerk' in legislation in that way, would that clash with [Inaudible.] officer and would that unintentionally constrain community councils who maybe have different approaches to their staffing? So, we need to give more thought, so that we don't accidentally make things worse rather than better.
Okay. It's clear from what you're saying that you intend to carry on looking at this area and you're sympathetic with the calls that we've heard to increasingly professionalise and raise the standards within that role, but you don't think that this is an appropriate way to do it, within this Bill?
We need to do a lot more work with town and community councils. The diverse nature of them and the large number of them causes a real problem with a one-size-fits-all-type approach, and there is a whole series of things that I'd like to explore. Can I just emphasise, before I say this out loud, these are just ideas to explore? So, I'm not announcing that we're doing them or anything, not to set hares running.
But in some areas, a community council might employ a clerk for two hours or something, it's not a job that you could live off. There may be scope for saying that actually what we should do is have a pool of experienced people who have full-time jobs but they might provide clerking for a range of local community councils in an area, and actually you could comprise a proper part-time or full-time job out of that and professionalise it in that way. That's one idea.
There are other things that we could do around employing clerks via the principal council or via a co-operative arrangement between them or whatever that might lead to a more professionalised-type service. But that's not to take away from the very good service that many people give two hours of their time to. I don't want to take away the opportunity for somebody to do that. So, it is about just trying to find the right balance, isn't it, of those things?
Yes. There's clearly a bigger, wider discussion to have at some other point on this, because even the individual who is giving two hours, nowadays, with the complexities of a community council, will need quite a degree of expertise and knowledge for that two hours.
Let's turn to the issue of the requirement within this Bill for a local authority to publish a chief executive's performance management review report. Just to put to you what's been put to us as a committee: why single out principal council chief executives for this when it doesn't apply to any other public body in Wales?
I think there is something about the transparency of what an individual in that very influential position might be being asked to achieve for the local population that really doesn't apply in any other circumstance. The chief executive of a local authority is a very specific thing. Most people just do not understand the complexity of such a position. Over my years in local government, I often had spirited arguments over a glass of red wine in the pub with people who thought it was an easy job and anybody could do it. You start to list out the functions of a local authority that this individual is meant to have an overview of and, by the time you'd got to the end of the sixth page, they'd all lost interest and gone away, but it makes the point.
But you could apply the same principle, Minister, to a chief executive of a health board or all other public bodies.
I don't disagree with that, but I'm not currently in charge of health boards or other public bodies. And a health board isn't a democratic institution in the way that a local authority is, and I think that's the difference. So, this is a democratically elected body with an official at its head that is carrying out the wishes of a democratically elected set of people. And that person has a major impact on whether the democratically elected people get their manifesto commitments through or not. I think that there is, therefore, a role for some public transparency in that, in a way that a health board, which isn't elected in that way, and doesn't have that kind of association with its local community, doesn't have. I think that's the difference.
I think there are some things we need to do to the Bill. We've just been discussing, over the last couple of days, actually. I've a very firm view that the chief executive serves the entire council and not just the executive members or the elected controlling group or whoever. So, I think we need to look again at some of the provisions in the Bill to make sure that that's what we're saying.
This isn't intended to be a cosy discussion between the leader and the chief executive that is unpublished—this is intended to be a public setting of the objectives of the chief executive and then an accounting of whether the chief executive has met those public objectives—nor is it expected to be a HR process, or any kind of—. So, this isn't to prevent the chief executive saying, 'Do you know what? I need some media training', in public, because nobody is ever going to do that; that would be very counter-productive. This is about saying, 'This is the new council, elected for its five years, the chief executive has worked with the executive members and in full council to decide that the chief executive's main public objectives for the year are X, Y and Z, and they'll be measured in this way and they'll be held accountable for those.'
So, I just want to be really clear this is not about any kind of personal performance-type issues or not being able to say that you need training in how the health and social services Act works or something, because we do not want that; that is very counter-productive. This is about the public facing, overarching objectives of the person who leads a democratic institution.
So, that allows, in effect, the internal—what we would traditionally regard as a performance review of somebody and their capacities in that job—to carry on separately there. This is much the public-facing—. But you are hinting there that you are still considering whether the provisions in section 60 are appropriate, because you're suggesting there that we need some flexibility to include, for example, opposition leaders, but also to include—. There is a myriad of ways at the moment in which the effectiveness of that public-facing role of a chief executive is undertaken by different local authorities. Do you want to expand a little bit on your thinking?
Having re-looked at the provision very recently over the Christmas recess, we think that it requires a bit of tweaking, shall we say, to ensure that the chief executive is seen as serving the entire council and not just the executive members and so on. So, Lisa knows much more about the detail than I, but I think there's a section we're probably going to recommend that we remove.
Just on this issue, if I may, Huw, do you think that the drafting is sufficiently clear in terms of what you've described to us as the intention at the moment, Minister? I'm just looking at the heading, 'Performance management of chief executives', and then further on:
'conduct a review of the chief executive’s performance at least once in each financial year'.
So, I think what we're proposing, and we'll come back with a more specific thing, so don't take this as gospel, because we'll have to tweak it. Broadly, what we're proposing is we keep section 60(1), we delete subsection (2) in its entirety, I think—
Yes, and maybe think about (3).
—and possibly (3).
And then the guidance—
And then the guidance power stays, and what we do is we issue guidance around how that should work in the way that I've just outlined, so that we make it clear that it's not an HR function, it's about a public-facing set of performance targets. But I will come back to you about that, Chair, if it's okay, because that was slightly off the top of our heads. We're just working through that.
That would be fine. Thank you very much. Okay, Huw.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. With regard to family absence and duties on political leaders in relation to standards, could the Minister confirm whether the provision for family absence extends to members of national parks and fire and rescue authorities? If not, can this be rectified? And also, what consideration has been given to extending the provision to members of town and community councils? Because south Wales fire and rescue have told the committee that, if the provision remained as drafted, it would not apply to fire and rescue authorities and, therefore, the provisions would only apply to local authorities and the local authority member role, and not the fire authority member role, which is, I know, a separate legal entity, as it refers only to meetings of local authorities. Would you also be considering extending the duty on political group leaders in relation to standards of conduct to fire authorities and town and community councils?
So, a fire authority is a combined authority, so no member of a fire authority isn't a member of the principal council. So, if you were on family leave from your principal council, you would be on family leave from all of your duties. So, I don't see any need at all to have the secondary role of a—. You have to be an appointed councillor on a principal authority in order to be on the fire authority. So, I'm happy to be told that there's some technical problem with this, but I just don't see it, I'm afraid. If you're a member of a principal council and you take family absence, you'd be taking family absence from all of your jobs, one of which might be on the fire authority. So, I don't see that. So, if they want to come back, or if the committee has very specific reasons why that isn't so, I'd be very happy to look at them, but it's very hard to see why it isn't so. So, I don't really quite understand that.
That's also the case for national parks. You can't be on a national park unless you're a member of the principal council that's a constituent member of the National Park Authority. So, again, if you were taking family absence from your role as a principal councillor, you would necessarily be absent from anything that, as a result of that role, you were serving on; the same for a public services board or any other job you had as a result of being a principal councillor—governor of a school or whatever; there are a myriad of them. If you're taking family absence from your role as a principal councillor, that encompasses all of the other knock-on roles, it seems to me. So, unless somebody's going to produce some evidence saying that there's some technical thing in some statute that we're not aware of somewhere that says differently, I don't think it's necessary to do that.
And, in terms of community councils, they're not paid roles. So, it's very hard to see how a provision that allows you to take family absence while being paid would apply to a role that's not paid in the first place. You presumably don't have to go because you're a volunteer. So, again, I'm very happy to be told differently, but it's very hard to see how that would bite, really.
I think One Voice Wales has stated that,
'whilst technically community and town councils are apolitical bodies, we find that in larger community and town councils political group meetings are held. Consequently, it would appear to be a prudent move if the same provision was included in the Bill for community and town councils to ensure consistency across both tiers of local government.'
We can look to see, on the political group point—
This is standards of conduct.
We can look to see, on the political group point, whether we can draft it so that it says something like 'If a political group is formed and is functioning, then the provisions apply.' But, my understanding is that almost no fire authorities or community councils have political groups functioning in them, so I don't want to put out a set of enormous regulations and so on for something that doesn't exist.
But we could look to say whether there is a sort of 'if' provision in it—that if a group forms, and is running as a political group, then the provisions would apply. But, I have to say, if there are such town and community councils, they're very much in the minority, I think. But, certainly, we can look to see whether that can be done.
So, regarding the duty of standards, my next question is: has the Minister considered extending the provision for standards committees to make an annual report to apply to national parks authorities and fire and rescue authorities?
I'm very happy to look at it, if they think it would be beneficial. As far as I know, the standards committees of the fire authorities and the national parks don't function in quite the same way as the standards committees of principal councils. The standards committees of principal councils often produce guidance or other documentation for their councillors in terms of what they want them to—particular things they want them to comply with, perhaps particular provisions of a local authority's constitution that aren't part of the base universal constitution, and guidance around that. So, the level of declaration of gifts, for example, or whatever. I'm not aware that standards committees in national parks or fire authorities have actually done that; in which case, it would be hard to see what their annual report would consist of.
But, I'm very happy—. I'm not saying 'no'; if they think there's a need for it, we can do it, but I'd be interested to see what they think the annual report would say. I'm really anxious not to put a load of provisions in that say 'You have to do things that have no purpose at all.'
Thank you. And regarding community council training plans, and the requirements on town and community councils to prepare and publish a training plan. Do you think it's sufficiently robust, particularly as there is no requirement on councils to implement the plan?
This is just part of our attempt to move community councils along a professionalisation route. So, this will mean that for the first time, they have to consider whether they need such a plan, and, in putting such a plan in place, why on earth they haven't implemented it. So, it's just another set of things encouraging people along the path to a better professionalism, in terms of how the community council runs.
So, again, we don't want to be draconic about it, and say, 'You will have a training plan and you will go on training', and then we'll have a big thing about how they're going to pay for it and all this sort of stuff. This is just about considering it. So, 'We've had two sets of unqualified accounts, perhaps we should now consider whether our client requires some training and we do'—that sort of stuff, not, I don't know, 'We're a tiny community council and we look after our local bowling green and bench'. We can consider whether we need training and come to the conclusion that, do you know what? We don't; it's all fine. So, it's that sort of level, isn't it? It's not like running a—.
On the other hand, if you're a big town council running big, devolved council services, you might think that there's a need for quite a considerable amount of training.
If we move on to Part 5, Minister—collaborative working by principal councils—when we took evidence from the Auditor General for Wales, and in his evidence paper, he believes that corporate joint committees require a little bit further clarity with regard to this legislation, because they fall within the definition of 'joint committees' under section 12 of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004, but this is not explicit in the Bill as drafted, or the explanatory memorandum. So, the plea from the auditor general is that clarity should be provided in terms of read-across with the 2004 Act.
Yes, I have some sympathy with that. As we develop the—. We're co-producing, as you know, the guidance and regulations for how the corporate joint committees will function, and as we do that, then it may be that we engage the ambit of a number of other pieces of legislation. I'm sure that's one of them.
Our intention is that a corporate joint committee will be part of the local government family in Wales and it will be subject to all of the rules that the local government family in Wales are subject to. So, yes, the corporate joint committee will be subject to audit provisions—the Public Audit (Wales) Act, for example. It will also be subject to the financial regulations, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy stuff and prudential borrowing requirements, and all that sort of stuff. So, there's quite a body of things to work through, but the intention is that operating as a joint committee, the committee will be subject to all of the legislation that any participating principal authority is subject to.
Okay. In terms of what you mention, Minister—the joint production, really, of regulations throughout the Bill, and particularly in terms of these questions with regard to joint committee regulations, how will that process work? How will local government be involved in that way?
We've established a sub-group of the Partnership Council for Wales and an official task and finish group, which has been working on this for some considerable time. And I've personally met with all local authority leaders individually and collectively, both up in Flintshire—was it Flintshire—just before Christmas, and in their offices here. The officials are working through the Local Government Directors of Finance, the Society of Welsh Treasurers, and local government lawyers.
We've asked for the WLGA, formally now, to propose which local authorities want to come together for the purposes of developing the CJCs. That doesn't put it in tablets of stone at all. So, if they propose a grouping of people to work together with us to establish the CJC and then decide that that's not the grouping they want, that's fine. It's not in any way restrictive or prohibitive. But obviously, in developing regional arrangements, we'd like to work with regional groupings, rather than each individual authority for all kinds of pragmatic and sensible reasons. So, we've had indications of groups of councils that they'd like to work together, but I'm just waiting on the formal response back through the WLGA, just to confirm that that's in place.
And then, basically, let's be colloquial about it for a minute, I haven't got a map, so what we've said is, 'Look, we want you to work regionally together. You tell us how you want to do that, and unless it's ludicrously 'un-sensible', then it'll be fine.' It's very hard to see what would be ludicrously 'un-sensible', but should, for the sake of argument, Anglesey and Newport decide to run a joint social care service, I might be a bit disquieted by that. But, assuming that people are reasonably, geographically proximate and have reasonably good chances of success in delivering a regional arrangement, we don't have a view as to what that would look like. We're just waiting for them to come forward. And assuming that they do that in a sensible fashion, we'll run with that.
Then, as we develop the—. Once we have got that official response back from the WLGA, we'll work with those individual groupings, as well as through the sub-group of the partnership council, to develop the individual guidance and regs. I can't emphasise enough that we are not having a one-size-fits-all approach here. If a grouping in the south-west wants to do things in a particular way with particular voting requirements and particular membership and so on, that's fine. That can be completely different to the grouping in the south-east or the grouping in the north or whatever.
We want to get those in place as fast as possible so that we can start developing some of the individualised bits. But, there will clearly be broad things that apply to all of them. They will all be subject, as we just said, to the prudential borrowing requirements and ultra vires-type rules and Schedule 12 and constitutional arrangements—all that sort of stuff. So, there will be a big list of things that they are all subject to.
But, in the delivery of that, and in particular—. I think that you've had evidence from Cardiff on voting; certainly, I have. What we are saying is, 'Well, that will be a matter for the individual grouping—' [Interruption.] Are you all right? Oh, poor Lisa. It's horrible to feel like that, isn't it?
So, what we've said there is that we don't have a view. If local authorities want to come to a voting arrangement that weights the vote or doesn't weight the vote, that's a matter for them. I don't have a view.
And that would be for each particular grouping, as you described.
Yes. Each grouping that comes together can have that discussion among themselves, and they can decide to do it in a way that delivers a regional arrangement for them, and that's fine—so long as it's sensible.
Okay, Minister. Joint committee regulations where no request has been made—. The WLGA, in giving oral evidence, stated that:
'where there is a bit of contention on this issue is whether or not the proposals for corporate joint committees
genuinely add value or not'
and they were questioning the benefits of the provision to mandate where there isn't a request, given that, presumably, that would call into question whether value would be added or not.
Yes, and I have some sympathy with why they are saying that. But, the truth is that in all the years that we have been asking local authorities to come together, they haven't. Everybody always says that there's no need for mandation because they are all very ready and willing to work together. Unfortunately, on the ground, that isn't always the case. It's the case that virtually every local authority in Wales has, at one point or another, threatened to collapse a local or regional arrangement for reasons of falling out with people, or whatever. That is just not a sensible way to proceed.
It's also the case that the Government has done that. In previous Assemblies, a Government has collapsed a regional arrangement for reasons of the Government's own, where, actually, the regional arrangement was thought to be working very well by the constituent authorities. So, I keep emphasising that this mandate is for us as well. Once these are up and running, we can't collapse them either. So, this is a two-way street. I think it's just a sensible and pragmatic approach to making sure that a grouping of local authorities that are already working together have a proper vehicle for doing it, and don't spend an inordinate amount of time and lawyers and all the rest of it trying to get the terms and conditions together. For example, with both city regions, each individual authority employed lawyers to go through the terms and conditions. It took years and years to sort it all out, and so on. Whereas this arrangement just sits there and is working happily with all of the financial arrangements already in place—no need for lots of terms and conditions and negotiations and all the rest of it. It's just sitting there for them. Rapidly, I think, that becomes a vehicle that's very useful to local government, where it wants to share arrangements for delivering big local services.
But, it's not a cure-all for everything. If you do really want to buy toilet roll with Anglesey, and you're Newport, there's no need to form a corporate joint committee to do that. You simply get together and do a procurement. We are not suggesting for a single minute that all partnership working would be done through this vehicle. But, for things like regional strategic planning, transport planning, economic development—these things require big corporate vehicles to do them, and they require staff, and they require resource. The truth is that we could now, if we wanted to, impose regional arrangements for all of those things on local government. The power exists to do it. But, they would all be different. They would all be layers of different types of arrangement. So, instead of taking away from the complexity and whatever, you'd add to it. So, you'd have a different regional planning arrangement, a different transport authority. In a small nation, we need to be smarter about this stuff.
So, all we're doing is saying, 'Look, here's a ready-made vehicle with all the legals sorted out and all the finances sorted out and the constitutional arrangements all sorted out. It's yours to run. We are saying 'You must run these things through it, because we can already mandate you to do that—we're just doing it in a much simpler way.' And, frankly, we need the authorities to come together to do strategic regional planning, and they haven't. So, it's all very well to tell me that they're all ready and willing to do it and they don't need to be mandated, but they haven't.
Okay, Minister, I think that's sufficiently clear.
Could you explain why membership of corporate joint committees is limited to principal councils? Might you see a case where extended membership would be beneficial, for example, the national parks?
Yes. My view, very much, of that is that that's a matter for each corporate joint committee. What we're saying is that each constituent principle authority has to have a voice on that committee, and that voice must be the leader of that authority. And then, they can do anything else they want to do. So, they can establish sub-committees, which a lot of them are already talking about. So, a sub-committee might be established, for example, to do regional strategic planning. We are intending to put regulations in place that say that such a sub-committee must be gender balanced, and must have representatives from local communities on it, and must have health board representatives and so on. So, a sub-committee of that committee would be established with a lot of regulations about who would be on that.
I'm not intending to do that for the main committee. I think if they want to do that and they want to co-opt other people onto it and so on, they can do that. The Bill will have a power to co-opt voting or non-voting members if they want to. Actually, I think, probably and pragmatically, what will happed is that the main committee will consist of the leaders, with whatever voting arrangements they want to put in place, and there will be sub-committees to deliver other arrangements that they want to have, because then they can have an extensive network of people who are involved in that—third sector organisations, local businesses. An economic development sub-committee of a regional corporate joint committee, for example, might have a huge range of people, including the regional skills partnership and a further education college; it might have a whole pile of people on it. And then, what would happen is, like any other structure in local government, those sub-committees would make recommendations to the main committee, and the main committee would approve them and make them part of the policy of the constituent authorities.
So, in terms of the way local authorities work, it's a pretty straightforward and very normal way of working, and we aren't particularly intending to be restrictive or anything, and I really do think that each of them might develop in a very different way, depending on their local circumstances.
Okay, Minister, thanks very much.
Part 6—performance and governance of principal councils—and perhaps I might begin with some questions regarding panel performance assessment. The WLGA are concerned that making panel assessments statutory could turn an existing effective self-improvement process into a quasi-regulatory arrangement, which could stifle engagement, openness and ownership, and they question, really, if the provision is to remain as drafted, whether you might consider providing for a less prescriptive process in the legislation.
I think it's very 'un-prescriptive', I have to say. We're saying that, as a minimum, they have to do one full peer-panel assessment every electoral cycle. It's very hard to see how that's onerous. You might want to do more. If you thought you were failing, you might do it again. If you did it early on in your electoral cycle, and your self-reporting mechanism came back and said, 'Do you know what? You're the worst council in Wales', you might consider wanting to do something about that. So, that's what we're looking for. If it comes back and says, 'There's lots of room for improvement, but you're in the highest quartile or whatever', you might decide differently.
This is about a proportionate response to poor performance. And it's also about not sitting on your laurels if you think you're really good at something, but actually constantly looking for ways to improve where you are, regardless of where you are in the league table, so to speak. It's something that the authorities very much welcome. It works elsewhere in the world, and it allows you to look across the board at good practice elsewhere and so on, and understand why you're not able to deliver it next door to an authority that appears to be able to deliver it, et cetera. And actually, it's been welcomed very much by everyone.
I think the idea that I would put such a system in place and then say, 'Do you know what? We're not even saying you've got to do one every five years' is not credible, is it, really? I think it's the minimum requirement, and I think many authorities will actually do more than that. If it turns out to be inadequate—and we probably should have said that they do one at the beginning and one at the end of each five-year cycle, for example—we'll have to review that. But it seems to me that this is a proportionate response to changing a system that most local authorities welcome, and if what they're saying is they already work like this, then what's the problem?
Okay, thanks for that.
Estyn raised a particular issue. They feel that, following receipt of a panel assessment report, what's required of them is not clearly stated. So, it's about their expected function, really, in receiving that panel assessment.
So, it's really important to understand that the panel assessment is not in itself an audit or a checklist or an inspection or anything of that sort. This is a self-analysis of how you are performing as an authority with external peer review to assist you to do that, and then that can inform all of the various inspectorates and audits and all the rest of it. So, the outcome of that will inform, I'm sure, Estyn's plans for inspection in that authority, audit plans, various other bodies' plans to inspect, and you would expect that to happen, but it is not in itself one of those things. It is just about the authority understanding how its systems work in a peer review situation and understanding what they would need to do to improve that system—self-improvement.
And, as I say, it's to identify actions that the local authority will take to improve the extent to which they are able to meet performance requirements elsewhere in the system and whether their whole-system approach works, and we don't have anything like that at the moment. The audit regime we put in place under the 2011 measure just doesn't work. It was well-intended, but it just doesn't work. It's too narrow and it's too late in the system, so by the time the audit outcome is known, you will know that the local authority simply says, 'Well, that was then and this is now, and we've done all of that'. I mean, it just doesn't work. This is a continuous self-improving system with a peer review in it.
Yes. So, in terms of Estyn, then, nothing in particular would be expected of Estyn following—?
Well, they're expected to carry out their inspection regimes in the light of the panel assessment.
Yes. It's sharing the report for information, because they would find it of interest in their wider work.
But it doesn't have any implications in resource or anything else for them other than that it's another piece of evidence for them to take into account.
Okay. Special inspection by the auditor general: the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales feels that special investigations conducted by the auditor general should be shared with him if they uncover evidence of systematic maladministration.
Yes. So, there's nothing to prevent that, and why on earth would the auditor not do that? I don't understand what the problem is, really.
Yes, so—. But you don't feel that there should be anything specific in this legislation requiring that.
As I say, I don't mean to be rude, but do we have to put absolutely obvious things all the way through the Act? I mean, if the auditor uncovers something that the ombudsman for Wales should know about, then, clearly, the auditor should tell the ombudsman for Wales. I mean, it's one of these list situations, isn't it? We go through the Act and we list out everybody that everybody can think of that should be told about anything at all. I'm really keen on just having some common sense. If the auditor uncovers something that the public services ombudsman should know about, then they should tell the public services ombudsman, and, for that matter, us and a number of other—. If they uncover something that Estyn should know about, they should tell Estyn, and if they uncover something that the social services inspectorate for Wales should know about, they should tell them. I mean, I'm going to end up with a Schedule 5 of—.
Okay. I think we have a clear idea as to your view on those matters, Minister.
Another further question from me on this section before we move on to Dawn on the power to provide support and assistance to principal councils. Would you consider amending sections 1 or 2 to make it a power for Welsh Ministers to request a principal council to support another principal council rather than a power to direct? I guess this goes back to the general theme of to what extent this is empowering local authorities, rather than prescriptive. And does it take into account the ability and the resource that local authorities have, which they're in the best position to understand?
The power to direct is very much a power of last resort, and I cannot emphasise enough that we would be very disappointed to ever end up in a situation in which we were directing a local authority to do something of this sort. There is a sliding scale—or a ladder, depending on which analogy you prefer—of intervention arrangements, one of which would, of course, be me picking up the phone to somebody and saying, 'Do you know what? Your local authority next door really needs some help with X. How about you guys have a meeting?' Starting there, right up to 'local authority X is completely failing and needs all its powers taken away'. That is a real sledgehammer job, right at the end of what is a long involvement of support and improvement functions, and we should never, ever get to there. So, at this point in time, we have authorities in Wales who have improvement boards in position and support boards in position and the idea of those is to get them back to where they don't need that improvement and support. It is not to escalate it to the point where I'm having to intervene with ministerial powers to make sure that local citizens are having services delivered.
So, whilst we need that backstop, because you never know when something is going to go as badly wrong as that, we should never need to use it, and so the Bill needs to have a proportionate set of steps in place that allow interventions—including voluntary support of one authority to another—and you'd expect local authorities to be working in that way. They have all the powers they need to do that. They could delegate those functions to their local corporate joint committee, for example, if they wanted to do it that way. And we would hope never to be in a position where we have to direct a local authority to do such a thing, because that would be a real failure of the system—and right at the end bit as well.
So, whilst I absolutely think that the Government needs to have that power in there, because you never know what will happen, really, the whole system is set up to make sure that that never does in fact happen.
Okay, thank you very much. Dawn Bowden.
Thank you, Chair. So, on section 118, the 'Coordination between regulators', the Auditor General feels the provisions in the Bill, 'the extensive requirements', as he refers to it in section 118, 'are over-prescriptive, largely impractical and unnecessary', so I don't know whether you've given any thought to either amending or removing the provision, which places the duty on the auditor general to prepare the timetable for each principal council relating to the exercise of the functions of its relevant regulators.
I take a slightly different view. The requirement is already—it's not new; they've already got a requirement to prepare such a timetable. And what we're trying to do all the time is reduce the set of administrative burdens, and staff at local authorities have to deflect into audit away from services. So, the classic adage of 'you don't fatten a pig by weighing it continuously' is always in my mind.
So, what you're trying to do is, you're trying to have a set of planned and regular inspections for local authorities so that they can plan their resources accordingly. That's not to say that that requirement to do that doesn't stop people having spot inspections, or something happens and they think that local authorities having a problem with that doesn't prevent in any way any of the inspectorates saying, 'Actually, we've had an alarm, and we're going to go and do an inspection.' But it does allow for the normal set of performance measures to be known, quantifiable and planned for in a local authority, and that seems to me to be essential, because otherwise, how is the local authority to structure its resources? So it's a balance, isn't it?
The auditor general was saying that he thought it was overly prescriptive and he thought it was 'burdensome' and 'largely impractical', and so on, and you're saying it shouldn't be.
Well, it shouldn't be, should it? I mean, all we're saying is, there are a series of things that are planned that, in conjunction with a particular local authority, the auditor general—and for that matter, the other inspectorates and so on—should work with the local authority to have a set of planned and understood system in place. And that in no way takes away from their ability to do a spot inspection. I can't emphasise that enough, because we all know that planned inspections produce particular sorts of outcomes, and so on. That's not to say they're not useful and worth doing, but taking away the ability to do that seems—.
Well, I think what he seemed to be saying was that he already has strategic agreements in place with CIW, with Estyn and HIW, in pursuit of co-operation and co-ordination through Inspection Wales, and he says that that operates well, both at a strategic and an operational level. So, I think he's questioning that and this additional—
I think that's a misunderstanding of the fact that we're simply replicating the provision in the Wales Measure. I mean, we can have a conversation with him.
Maybe it is a misunderstanding of what's being asked.
Because all we're doing is replicating what exists, and it sounds like what he's describing to you is what they do under that Measure.
Okay. So, there may be a misunderstanding, then. That's a fair point. Okay. Thanks for that.
Can I just move on, then, to a couple of points under Part 7: mergers and restructuring of principal authorities? Again, I go back to evidence we received from the auditor general around the requirement for a special inspection report by him to be a condition for restructure in the Bill. How will you look to address the concerns that he's raised? So, what he's saying is that he has particular concerns about how special inspection reports are to be considered as the first condition for Welsh Ministers making restructuring regulations. And in further written evidence provided by the auditor general, he notes that the conditions in section 128 may not be sufficient in themselves to ensure a sound basis for deciding on whether to make such regulations.
There's no intention of it being, in itself, a sound basis on which to make such a recommendation. It's simply a piece of evidence in a wider set of evidential pieces that would be needed in order to trigger such a restructuring; and nor do we expect that every special inspection report would give rise to sufficient concern for there to be a restructuring; and nor is the auditor general required to make any such recommendation, either for or against. So, it's simply one of a set of pieces of evidence that might be used to trigger such a restructuring. It certainly would not be the only piece of evidence. So, I think that's a misunderstanding.
Okay. All right, that's fine. And then my final question, Chair, is around whether the conditions for consultation placed on Welsh Ministers in section 128, as they're making restructuring regulations, are not replicated in the conditions placed on principal councils in section 121, which is voluntary mergers. So, there seems to be a different approach. Is there a reason why that's so?
Well, because they're different things, really. So, the consultation requirements around—
It's the consultees, isn't it, really?
Yes. So, the consultation requirements around submitting an application for a voluntary merger are obviously completely different to the consultation requirements around compulsory mergers because of performance failure. So, they're just a completely different set of things, it seems to me, and very obviously need a completely different type of consultation.
So, one is, very colloquially and broadly: we have come together and we think we can deliver better services for the local population through a bigger council or a different arrangement, and we consult on what those services might look like and what the area might look like, and how many councils there are going to be and all that sort of stuff. And the other is: we are saying that we are removing the function of X council because it is not delivering its services, and we propose to deliver them via council X, which is a completely different set of—
So, you'd need to determine who the consultees are in those circumstances, as opposed to the local authorities determining the—
Yes, exactly. So, it's just a completely different set of circumstances, it seems to me.
That's fine. Thank you, Chair.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. On section 161, merging and demerging the public services boards, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales noted that there are too many different committees and groupings all on different footprints, and this makes it very difficult for national bodies and larger regional bodies to engage effectively at all the different levels and different boards that they need to engage with. She goes on to say that she would like to have seen the legislation promoting a merger of PSBs and giving more functions to PSBs rather than creating a separate layer. So, in view of this, would you look to amend the provision for merging and demerging PSBs in order to promote the merging of PSBs to align with wider footprints already in existence?
I've got some sympathy with the ability of organisations such as the future generations commissioner's to service all of the various PSBs and regional partnership boards and all the rest of it, but mandatorily merging them isn't necessarily the answer to that. That sometimes throws up worse problems than it solves.
The Partnership Council for Wales has been working on a report on regional working in its wider sense for the best part of two years now, and is shortly to receive the report. And so, we'll be very much guided by what that report says.
One of the reasons we're putting the corporate joint committees in here is because it gives you the overarching power to actually delegate everything to them. So, if local authorities wanted to, they could put all of those functions into that, for example. So, I don't want to be duplicating provisions to—so, for example, what we don't want is a corporate joint committee that could be doing that, but, actually, what we've done is forcibly merge two PSBs into two different configurations underneath it. That's an unnecessary complication, it seems to me.
If I could add, Minister, that, underneath the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 20115, there actually are extensive powers to collaborate and to merge. So, they're able, already, to merge and to work together on a very big footprint, so this Bill doesn't need to, because that's already provided for. What this Bill does is gives a particular additional option to demerge where, down the line, it's not sensible to carry on a space, so, those powers are already in place.
Okay, thank you. Diolch, Gadeirydd.
Okay, Caroline. Huw.
Minister, if I can turn to some of the evidence we've had from the fire and rescue authorities, they've mounted a really strong pushback against the proposals to amend existing provisions in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. They've highlighted this as an extremely concerning step, and they were robust in their evidence about this. Have you mulled over that? What are your thoughts on it?
So, this is the issue around having a local public inquiry, and that's quite a bizarre kind of thing that we've put in there and it's unique. Nobody else has to have a public inquiry if they want to merge or demerge or whatever. It's very hard to see what that adds, to be honest. It's impossible to imagine why anybody would want to put a combination Order in place that would endanger firefighters' safety or cause people not to be covered by a fire service. I just think it's an enormously complex piece of legislation that involves delay, expense—a massive process—to something that is pretty straightforward.
And yet they argued, as you'll have seen in the evidence, very robustly, that there are good reasons why that is there—
Well, I'm very happy to discuss it with them again, but, honestly, we don't see what the good reasons are. I honestly, honestly don't see what the local public inquiry adds. If two fire and rescue authorities wanted to combine, and they had good reasons for doing so and they went through all the public consultation and all the rest of it that any other merging authorities would go through, why would you need a public inquiry at the end of it?
Are you planning to have those discussions with them again? Because it's pretty hard for a committee to ignore really strong views that were put in front of them by the fire and rescue—
The Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn has been meeting with them regularly, but I'm very happy to ensure that the next meeting includes another discussion on this. But, honestly, we're really struggling to understand what the issue is.
The one point they made, Huw, was that they don't see any evidence base for the proposals and the change, and they wanted to know—