Update on the Bill by the Member in Charge – Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee
On 17 July 2018, the Assembly agreed the Financial Resolution for the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill.
This is a significant milestone for the Bill, as we can now progress to Stage 2 proceedings on the Bill – the disposal of amendments.
As many people who have followed this Bill will know, it represents a significant amount of work undertaken over a number of years by the Finance Committee of this Assembly and the previous Assembly.
The Ombudsman has a crucial role in representing the people of Wales when they have received poor service or been treated unfairly by public services.
Our main policy intent for the Bill, is to:
improve social justice and equal opportunities;
protect the most vulnerable in our society;
drive improvement in public services and complaints-handling.
If the Bill becomes law, it will extend the powers of the Ombudsman and make the role more responsive to the people of Wales.
It will do this by making it easier for people to complain.
The Bill removes the requirement for a complaint to be made in writing. By allowing the Ombudsman to accept oral complaints, it will allow the more vulnerable members of society to engage with the Ombudsman, creating a fairer and equitable Wales.
The Bill includes provision for the Ombudsman to conduct own initiative investigations – this power will enable widespread systematic maladministration or service failure to be addressed coherently. It will allow the Ombudsman to be more responsive allowing the Ombudsman to investigate matters reported anonymously and again strengthen the citizen’s voice.
The Bill aims to drive improvements in public services and in complaint-handling. It will also expand the Ombudsman’s powers to investigate private healthcare providers where patients have commissioned private treatment alongside that provided by the NHS.
The Assembly’s decision to agree the Financial Resolution means the Assembly has now been given authorisation, in principle, to spend money as a consequence of the Bill.
Whilst there are costs associated with the Bill, we believe there is potential for the Bill to realise cost savings to the wider public sector, with the majority of savings likely to come from provisions that drive improvement in public services, such as reduced compensation claims for the bodies in jurisdiction. Hence, wider efficiency gains.
The Assembly is now able to consider detailed amendments to the Bill. As the Member in Charge (and on behalf of the Finance Committee) I will be tabling a number of amendments which I believe will strengthen the Bill.
These amendments have been developed through careful consideration of the recommendations made by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee in its stage 1 report on the Bill. In addition, I’ve had a number of constructive meetings with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to discuss other areas of the Bill to ensure the Welsh Government is able to support the Bill.
Work is currently taking place to draft amendments which will be considered by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. Once again, I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the drafting and development of this Bill, which has taken another step closer to becoming law.
It is more important than ever that public services deliver for the people of Wales and that the Ombudsman is empowered to ensure that our services are citizen-centred.
Today, the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee launches its report, ‘Work it out: Parenting and employment in Wales’. As part of the Committee’s inquiry into pregnancy, maternity and work in Wales, we sought the views and experiences of people from across Wales. Galvanised by the opportunity to influence change on such an emotive aspect of everyday life, the insights offered by the many women who shared their views and experiences were instrumental in helping the Committee form its recommendations to the Welsh Government.
Impassioned, sometimes distressing, often alarming, but always vitally important, the views shared were key in highlighting the varied experiences of mothers from across Wales.
This was not the time for keeping mum.
The current situation
According to research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2016, 87 per cent of employers in Wales felt it was in the best interests of organisations to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. However, it also found that 71 per cent of mothers reported negative or discriminatory experiences as a result of having children, 15 per cent reported a financial loss, and 10% even felt forced to leave their job.
The associated impact on the UK economy was highlighted in research published by the UK Government’s Women’s Business Council, which estimated that equalising the employment rates of women and men could grow the UK economy by more than 10 per cent by 2030.
As part of its work, the Committee was keen to gather the views, experiences and ideas on how the Welsh Government should tackle the issues within its control, such as employability support, economic development, the Welsh public sector equality duties, public sector workforces and childcare.
What we heard
“When I was pregnant with my first child, I was working as a cleaner and had to stop working at about 3 months pregnant due to high blood pressure. I wasn’t supported by my employer and they stopped paying me. My boss didn’t believe I was pregnant initially because I hadn’t had my first scan. The matter eventually ended up going to court, and even though I won, I was awarded a really low sum of money because my boss hadn’t been properly recording all the hours I’d worked.”
Focus groups were held with mothers in Cardiff and an online forum was created using Senedd Dialogue – a tool which allows for open and frank discussion where participants can share their views and ideas, anonymously or otherwise. It also allows participants the opportunity to read, rate and comment on other people’s ideas and experiences.
The breadth of views shared – some of which were positive and highlighted areas of good practice by some employers – were reflective of the diversity of participants. Contributions were submitted by mothers from Blaenau Gwent to Carmarthenshire, and from Bridgend to Flintshire. They included young mothers, single mothers, mothers from low-income households – some of whom were employed, some were in part-time work or on zero hour contracts, and others were out of work. For those who were employed, views were shared by mothers working in the public, private and third sectors.
A number of key themes emerged, which informed subsequent evidence sessions as well as the recommendations made to the Welsh Government in the Committee’s report.
Along with gendered assumptions about childcare and widespread discrimination, inflexible workplace structures was a recurring theme cited by many women as a reason why mothers are more likely to be trapped in part-time, low-paid work with fewer opportunities for career progression.
“Part-time or flexible jobs are important for many parents so that they can juggle childcare and work. There is a severe lack of p-t jobs on offer, and the majority are low paid and low skilled. Many people with great skills and careers aren’t able to work because the jobs simply aren’t available.”
The views shared on flexible working informed Committee members’ briefings for formal evidence sessions, which followed the focus groups and conclusion of the online forum. This was best demonstrated during an evidence session at which Anna Whitehouse, otherwise known as Mother Pukka, founder of the eponymous lifestyle website for parents and staunch activist for flexible working, shared her experience and those of her many followers.
What did the Committee recommend?
The Committee made a number of varied and far-reaching recommendations that included reassessing the Welsh Government’s new Childcare Offer, encouraging culture change, ensuring that public bodies, businesses and charities in receipt of public funding take responsibility for eradicating discrimination, and of course, promoting flexible working.
To read all the recommendations made by the Committee, you can access the full report here.
We will await a response from the Welsh Government to the recommendations made, before they are debated during a plenary session. You will be able to watch the session on Senedd TV.
Guest post by David Rowlands AM, Chair of the Assembly’s Petitions Committee.
On Friday 13 July, the National Assembly for Wales’ Petitions Committee released our report on a petition which calls for improved treatment of Type 1 diabetes in children and young people. The petition was submitted by the Baldwin family whose 13 year old son Peter tragically died as a result of not being treated effectively for Type 1 diabetes.
The petitioners are seeking better recognition of the symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes amongst health professionals and the public in order to aid rapid diagnosis and treatment of children and young people with the condition. This is critical because, if left undiagnosed, the condition can rapidly become life threatening. Tragically this was the case with Peter Baldwin.
In particular, the family want to ensure that all GPs have access to finger-prick testing equipment which can provide an immediate indication about whether a child may be diabetic. It is also vital that health professionals are trained to recognise the most common symptoms of Type 1 diabetes – the Four T’s (Toilets, Tiredness, Thirst and Thinner).
Raising awareness with health professionals
There are approximately 1,400 children with diabetes in Wales, the vast majority of which (96%) have Type 1 diabetes.
Through considering the evidence in relation to this petition we discovered that there was a certain amount of, shall we say, non-recognition of the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes among health professionals. In particular there was some evidence that frontline staff were not particularly looking for Type 1 diabetes and that the disease wasn’t really a factor when trying to identify what was wrong with a patient.
The problem is of course, that many of the symptoms associated with type 1 diabetes are also associated with a number of other health problems. This means that when a patient goes to a GP they may be presenting a number of different symptoms that could be associated with Type 1 diabetes, but could also be indicators for other conditions, so the Committee has a certain amount of sympathy with GPs on that basis.
Our report contains 10 recommendations but if we were to highlight what we feel is the most important factor, it would be the training of frontline staff to recognise the NICE guidelines. Health professionals need to be very much aware that when patients are presenting these symptoms it could be an indication of Type 1 diabetes. The consequences of the disease not being detected and treated within a very short period of time can be, as we’ve seen in the very sad case of Peter Baldwin, absolutely tragic.
Turning scrutiny in to action
In the case of this particular petition, now that we’ve published our report and presented it to the Welsh Government that’s as far as we can go for the time being. It’s now down to the Welsh Government to decide what to do next and we would hope that they’ll act on our recommendations
We’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the bravery of the Baldwin family. By bringing this petition forward it meant they had to reenact and remember the very tragic circumstances of their experience quite some time after it actually happening. The Committee has been very supportive of the proposals they brought forward within their petition.
The great thing about the Petitions Committee is that it is a portal for people to get direct access to the Welsh Assembly. That means if people have concerns or issues that they want to bring to us, through the petitions process the issue will be looked at with the considerable scrutiny.
Whilst not every petition will result in a debate in the Chamber, the process of engaging with petitioners, writing to the relevant Cabinet Secretaries, getting the replies, writing to other stakeholders etc means that there’s a great deal that goes on. It might not be immediately obvious to the public in general but I can assure you that the high level of scrutiny is there for any petition that comes before the petitions committee.
Introduce yourself briefly explain the remit of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.
My name is Bethan Sayed, and I chair the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications committee in the National Assembly for Wales.
We scrutinise government ministers in relation to their portfolio. For example, we’ve recently done an investigation into radio in Wales. We’ve looked at the Welsh language and we’ve also looked at the historical environment as well as non-public funding of the Arts.
It’s been good to be able to have a remit that includes communications so that we can look at the broadcasting landscape of Wales and scrutinise that effectively also.
The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications committee has just launched its report on its inquiry into funding for and access to music education in Wales. The topic of this inquiry was chosen through quite an innovative and slightly unusual way. Could you explain the background and what led the Committee to look at this particular issue?
After being on committees for quite some time that, of course Assembly Members have their own ideas and bring ideas for future work to the table, which is valid but it could obviously be based on our own pet subjects.
I thought it would be interesting to go to the public to ask them exactly what type of investigation they would like us to look into what the population wanted us to focus on, and what were the key priority areas.
We did a public poll and it came out that people wanted us to look at music in education the music tuition that people receive in schools and in our communities and how that can be improved and developed.
It was really good to launch this public poll because then people could engage with a committee in a very different way. So I was happy that our committee was the first to try this and perhaps we could do it again to come up with other ideas for the future.
What were the key themes that the inquiry covered?
They were very keen for us to look at music services in schools. We were seeing, constituents coming to our offices saying that there were problems with the funding of this sector. We were seeing that music services by local authorities were being cut.
So we wanted to get to grips with what was important and come up with solutions to see how we could aid the sector.
We didn’t look at the curriculum, because music education in relation to the provision of tutoring was very different to that. That’s something that we could look at in future. But that’s not what we focused on this time.
During the inquiry the Committee heard from a wide range of witnesses and due to your own experiences as a musician this topic must be very close to your heart – Was there anything that came up through the course of the inquiry that was a particular surprise?
When we went to Ysgol Pengam, we found that they were doing very structured work in the rock and pop field, and they were competing in competitions in England, but they weren’t able to do that in Wales and there was no ensemble. There’s an ensemble for the orchestra, here in Wales but no rock and pop ensembles.
So I guess what did surprise me, perhaps because I’ve come from the more classical side, is that there was such an enthusiasm to set up this ensemble so that people who wanted to go into the rock industry or the pop industry could do that through their school structures.
So that was quite enlightening, but also pleasing to see, because orchestras and ensembles is not always going to suit everybody You don’t necessarily have to be able to read music to take part in those types of activities, so it would open up a new avenue.
In relation to funding streams, that didn’t surprise me, because my sister is 18 and she’s attended orchestras, and I know from my interest in this issue that this downward trend of the provision of services was not new.
The report says that music services must be protected, nurtured and accessible to all. The Committee also states that it welcomes the Welsh Government’s Commitment to put creative activity on an equal basis to other areas of learning and experience. Why is music education so important? What are the benefits?
I think a lot of schools get it in relation to music because they understand that it’s a transferable skill – it’s working as a team, it’s discipline, it’s allowing people to be creative and allowing their wellbeing aims to be met. But some schools, unless the head teacher really understands the value of music, then it might not permeate throughout the school.
As somebody who’s played the piano, viola and violin from an early age, I think it has to be seen as something that isn’t niche, that isn’t exclusive, that is accessible – because it can aid you in so many different ways in life.
For example, an orchestra course would allow me to become independent. It would allow me to make new friends. You’ve got to learn to listen to others and to be able to be respectful of others, and so is not all to do with the music that’s on the paper – it’s about how you want to progress as an individual.
People who go into music at a young age can take their skills elsewhere and you will meet doctors, you’ll meet scientists, you’ll meet politicians who have used music in ways in which they can be quite focused on what they want to do in life.
I think we need to encourage more schools to understand that it’s not just this fluffy thing about listening or playing music for an hour a day, it’s about how that can be seen as a core part of the curriculum in every shape and form. I hope that through this report that we can convince people that we can grow and develop music in our schools.
With all those potential benefits it must have been troubling for the Committee to hear some witnesses characterising the position of music in Welsh education as in ‘crisis’. In July 2015, the Welsh Government commissioned a report into music services in Wales – What has been the Committee’s conclusion about the progress made in the 3 years since the publication of that report – is the Welsh Government doing enough to prevent this ‘crisis’ from developing?
It was very troubling to hear people such as Owain Arwel Hughes, a renowned conductor, Tim Rhys-Evans, who conducts Only Men Allowed, say these things, because I don’t believe that they would use the word ‘crisis’ lightly.
It troubles me that Wales is associated with music and song, and they were saying we may not be the land of song anymore if we allow this, music services are being cut, and may even disappear in parts of Wales. In fact, we’ve seen with the national ensembles, less people have been auditioning for them this year so there is that worry.
Also with regard to the report that was commissioned, , I feel that once certain ministers had left – that it wasn’t a priority for some local authorities. I think that’s why we’ve said so clearly in the report that there needs to be a national guidance and national strategy, because you cannot simply rely on local authorities.
I think some people, to be fair, said ‘well perhaps that’s going a bit too far, we don’t want to scaremonger’. But again, sometimes using those types of phrases can actually say ‘well now is the time to make sure that we don’t get to the point where those services don’t exist anymore’. I hope that our support has allowed for that discussion to happen at the right time before more music services are cut or disappear altogether.
The report itself covers 16 recommendations but what’s the most important issue to take from the findings?
Well, we wanted to come up with solutions because, it’s been close to my heart for many, many years. Perhaps there’s a lack of coming together in the past of people from different walks of life in the music service to say, ‘well actually, how can we make this happen and how can we improve on this?’
I welcomed the Welsh Government investment in relation to the endowment fund, in relation to the music amnesty and in relation to putting music on the political agenda again. But without structural change, things are not going to improve. So the most important recommendation for us has been to say that we need to establish a national arm’s length body for music services in Wales. We simply cannot rely anymore on individual local authorities deciding whether they prioritise it or not. We would need to make sure that it was properly funded, and that there would be a regional element to its delivery on a ground level.
At the moment you’re seeing the national ensembles work in a different type of landscape to the work that’s happening on the ground in our communities. It’s called ‘the pyramid’, so you would have the school orchestras, then you would have the community orchestras, then you would have the national ensembles. If you had one national body – they would be identifying young people to come through the system, and that’s what we’re not seeing at the moment.
There was discussion about whether it could be done in a different way, but I think ultimately we came to the conclusion – especially as we were calling for a national music strategy – that one national body to deal with this particular element of the educational workforce would be integral to its future. I think as a committee we want it to be forward looking, we wanted to put a recommendation out there that would challenge people’s minds and that they would look outside the box somewhat to current funding and current structures.
We wouldn’t want to let any of those particular areas get left behind as well. We didn’t want to be too prescriptive but we wanted to put our marker down and say ‘this has to be a national system now’.
To download Hitting the Right Note: Inquiry Into Funding For and Access to Music Education, click here.
For the latest updates from the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, follow @SeneddCWLC on Twitter.
The Public Accounts Committee has just published its report on the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project. In the report the Committee has said that it’s deeply concerned at how the Circuit of Wales project was approached by the Welsh Government. Can you give an overview of the inquiry and some of the key things that the committee learnt?
In some senses it’s a report of two halves and I think that probably tells you some of the deeper truths that underlie what we learned from the way that the Welsh Government approached the Circuit of Wales project.
Essentially you’ve got the initial period where the Welsh Government was very positive about the project. The Wales Audit Office original report on the initial funding of the Circuit of Wales and the first section of our report address the sense in which corners were cut. For example concerns by some officials about the purchase of FTR Moto and the way in which those concerns were overridden, and the extent of Ministerial oversight of those decisions.
The general feeling you get is that the policy direction was to support the project and therefore anything that needed to be done in order to achieve that goal was done. And then there’s a kind of reverse gear when you move in to the second half of the report which leads up to the final decision – the third in a series of decisions not to agree the Welsh Government guarantee which was essential to making the project happen. So it’s a kind of a ‘grand old Duke of York’ scenario where the Welsh Government marches its officials up to the top of the hill and then marches them back down again.
Now of course governments, like anyone else, can and do change their mind, but the important thing is that processes are not fixed around the policy. Processes, good governance arrangements, transparency, rules, are all there for a reason – to protect public money and ultimately to protect the reputation of government and probity. That’s really why we have the Public Accounts Committee – to make sure that in the enthusiasm of politicians to achieve whatever policy goal they have, that they don’t cut corners because that leads to bad decision making.
I think what we had in this case is a huge amount of enthusiasm and positivity driving in one direction and then suddenly, for some reason, the political weather changed and then it seems that everything is done to put a spanner in the works.
The Welsh Government seemed to focus its decision around a technical accounting issue and the balance sheet configuration. Does the Committee feel the Welsh Government presented the information around the decision not to fund the project in the best manner?
There is a genuine concern that the Government was not as transparent and comprehensive as they could have been in explaining their decision to perform what effectively was a massive U-turn. You have to remember that the Welsh Government remained very positive about the overall nature of the project and it set certain criteria by which it was going to determine its ultimate decision. It came as a shock to most people that the Cabinet rejected this project.
At the time this quite technical issue of whether or not the project would be on balance sheet seemed to be presented as the central plank of the Government’s argument as to why they couldn’t continue, but during the process of this inquiry we teased out that it wasn’t the only issue – there were also questions about the jobs etc. I think there is still an air of mystery as to how a Government, which had spent a lot of public money and huge amounts of officials time over many years, ended up in a position where all of that was turned on its head in presumably in a 20 minute cabinet discussion.
I understand why governments generally don’t want official advice to be published but in this case it raises questions in our mind.
The other thing the report touches upon is, this issue of the balance sheet was always a general issue but the company and its funders thought that it had been resolved. Nobody knew that it was going to basically be the single thing, more than anything else that killed the project off. So why not pick up the phone or why not try and postpone the decision to see if anything could have been done to salvage the project? The company and the Government had upwards of 40 meetings over a period of 12 to 18 months – almost on a weekly basis. So you would have thought that due to the huge amount of private money at risk and a project that, according to proposals could have generated thousands of jobs – why not just delay a week and see whether we can rejig things to get the project over the line.
I think the conclusion you have to come to is that the Welsh Government, for whatever reason, had decided it didn’t want to do this project. When a convenient rationale arrived which could excuse them from backing off they embraced that with open arms and that was the end of it
You’ve talked about the importance of governance, communication and transparency – later in the inquiry it transpired that there was no evidence to show that the Minister for Business Enterprise Technology and Science was informed of the agreement to purchase FTA Moto. How concerned were the Committee to hear that Welsh Government Ministers weren’t being kept up to date by officials and why is that important?
It’s very troubling when we are told that the Minister wasn’t informed of what I think was an unconventional use of this particular grant fund. Because of the close political interest in this project – a high profile project which had high level political commitment during this period from the First Minister down – you would have assumed that the Minister should have and would have been kept informed. I am troubled by the former as no evidence could be found. This is a formula that we often find in tricky situations because the absence of written evidence, e-mails etc. does not necessarily mean that the Minister was not informed. Why can’t the Government categorically say that the Minister was not informed? Why rely on this slightly opaque form of words which leaves a little bit of doubt in your mind as well? The key point is that in circumstances such as this, Ministers should be kept informed particularly when there’s obviously debate amongst officials with some officials warning against a particular course of action.
The principal point is that the maximum amount of transparency is always better for all parties. If the Welsh Government has again been lax in terms of its scrutiny then that doesn’t lead to good decision making. It’s curious because the level of involvement of officers in this project was very high indeed. The only conjecture you can put on it is this story of two halves where essentially officials seem to be convinced that the project had political buy in at a Ministerial level and therefore they became quite invested, in a literal and metaphorical sense, in the project. Therefore the ordinary rigger that would be applied seemed not to be applied because everyone was aiming to get the project over the line. But even where there is political commitment it’s always best to follow due process. And then of course strangely what happens is that everything goes into reverse and then every argument under the sun that could actually be employed to kill the project off, is applied.
It’s very seldom that actually we see those two processes together in one project where you have the Welsh Government effectively bending over backwards to try to help this project be implemented and then everything done in the latter stages to prevent it. It really raises questions about the capacity of the Civil Service to deal with these kind of complex technical large scale infrastructure investment projects or business investment projects, and it also raises issues about the arm’s length principle.
This project became overly politicized. It’s an economic development project and should have been viewed on its merits or demerits. The politics clouded judgment and prevented the proper application of rules of due process and procedures. There was of course a due diligence process conducted but the interpretation of that still came back to the same point – which was a sense that the objective evidence was fixed around the policy. Basically whatever the officials felt the Minister wanted at any point in time seemed to be driving their actions. Once that interpretation changed, everything changed. That isn’t the way you should approach these kinds of project.
It’s important to point out that the inquiry focuses on the handling the funding and not on the principle that the circuit avails project itself. Does the Committee feel that the Welsh Government is doing everything it can to maximize the opportunities for investment in Wales?
I think this sorry saga shines a light on how poor we are at these kind of large scale investment projects. It’s a bit of a stereotype, but stereotypes are there usually for a reason, that the wheels of Government move very slowly and here is a project that took 7-8 years to arrive finally at a ‘no’. In business it’s better to have a quick ‘no’ or ‘yes’ decision. The worst thing is what happened in this case which is a seven year long ‘maybe’. Governments need to get better at actually getting to a decision earlier because prolonging decisions does nobody any good. We have to get faster and more agile in decision making. The real danger is the reputation, not just of the Welsh Government, but of Wales as an investment location has been directly harmed by this decision.
We need to build our own capacity in Wales for coming to quick decisions on these large scale investment projects and we should be actively seeking them. We are a country which needs investment. We do not currently have our own financial capacity to the extent that we would like. We don’t want to continue to be in the position that we’re currently in which is that we’re reliant on a relatively small pool of large institutional funds that are based not here in Wales unfortunately, but based in the country next door and principally in the city of London. These institutions talk to each other and what happened on this project will have been seen. I wonder what Aviva are saying to their partners and to their investors and stakeholders about the experience that they had in this case. They haven’t invested that often and actually it’s kind of exceptional that Aviva showed any interest in this kind of project based as it is in the Heads of the Valleys. When we say that we’re open for business as well, this was a terrible experience and it has not reflected well on the Welsh Government and by extension on Wales.
It is no criticism of individuals, it’s always systems that fail. The Welsh Government was out of its depth from the very beginning and we should never allow this kind of thing to happen again.
Why is this kind of scrutiny important to the people of Wales?
Good scrutiny ultimately leads to better Government. It’s obviously painful to focus on mistakes but that’s how we learn and learning is the key to innovation. Failure is actually a gift to us from the recent past and is a platform in which we can then can build a better future, and that’s the way that we have to see it.
Scrutiny is not about castigating individuals. It’s about trying to understand why the system is badly designed, why the system is failing and how we can redesign the system so that it can deliver better outcomes than all the individuals within it. Nobody goes to work to do a bad job, people want to do their best. When we fail is when we either design systems that are poorly calibrated to the purpose that they’re meant to achieve or the system design or the framework is there but the culture or the rules within that system are not being implemented. That’s where scrutiny comes in – to identify the problems which hopefully if we can be open, transparent and honest enough about them, means that the future will be better than the past.
The Public Accounts Committee is charged with scrutinising the spend of all public money in Wales. The Committee can undertake either their own inquiries or they can follow directions from the Auditor General for Wales and the Audit Office. It’s a pretty big brief as they can look at all aspects of funding including health, education, local authorities and economic development as is the case for their latest report on the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project. You can download the full report on the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project and out more about the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee at http://www.assembly.wales/SeneddPAC, you can also follow the Committee on Twitter at @SeneddPAC.
The Public Accounts Committee is releasing its report on its inquiry into the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the circuit of Wales project. What led the committee to look at this particular issue?
There was a fair bit of controversy around the original funding of the Circuit of Wales project and there were opinions on both sides as to whether it was a good idea or not.
The Auditor General decided to do his own inquiry into the spending of money and his report came up with a number of concerns and areas that he thought were worthy of greater scrutiny. On the back of that the Public Accounts Committee decided that it was worth looking at the project as well.
The inquiry focused on the handling of the funding and not on the principles of the Circuit of Wales project itself. We thought that had the project gone ahead it would have had great potential for Wales and for economic development. There were certainly aspects that we thought could have produced economic development and provided jobs for people in some of the poorer parts of Wales so we had no issues at all with the basic ideas of the project.
It’s not the role of the Public Accounts Committee to tell the Welsh Government what it should or shouldn’t do. At the end of the day the Government is elected by the people of Wales and they have a number of policy decisions that are for them to take – not for us. However it is the role of the Committee to make sure that when the Welsh Government decides on a certain policy that they are justified in pursuing that policy, that the amount of money the policy is going to cost is efficiently spent and we look at the broader issues surrounding the policy-making decisions that are taken by the civil servants under the Minister’s guidance.
What were the key themes that came out of the inquiry?
We were surprised by how the Welsh Government went about delivering the project. It happened over a considerable period of time and we were surprised at the way that the rug was pulled out from under the company’s feet at quite a late stage. This was done on the basis of technical questions rather than the due diligence which the Government is supposed to pursue.
Our inquiry looked at who took the decisions in the Welsh Government at certain points in time and who authorised those decisions – for instance regarding the purchase of FTR (which was a Buckinghamshire based motorcycle company) we couldn’t really find any proper decision making process that governed the spending of that money, on that project, in recent years.
The Welsh Government has provided various assurances that lessons have been learnt around the effective management of Welsh public money and the Public Accounts Committee has itself in the past scrutinised several instances where public money has been lost. Now following the Circuit of Wales project where a total of more than £9 million of public money was spent by the Welsh Government before they ended their involvement, does the committee think that the Welsh Government is doing everything it can to make sure these lessons are being learnt and taken on board?
The fact that that scale of public money was spent before the Welsh Government took the decision to end their involvement was a concern. Had the project come to fruition and had there been a benefit at the end, you could have said that money was justified but clearly, as things stand, spending that money wasn’t justified.
We think the Welsh Government has learnt lessons from what’s happened and they’ve given us assurances that in future this sort of situation won’t happen again. We think there needs to be far tighter lines of communication – for instance we found that situations developed where officials couldn’t say whether or not Edwina Hart, the Economy Minister at the time, was aware of funding decisions that were being taken. Now that’s not that that she wasn’t aware but there was no paper trail to prove it. In any organisation you need to have a paper trail that follows the money and in the spending of public money, particularly on this scale, that’s very important.
The report itself contains 13 recommendations but what’s the most important area that you think needs to be focused on?
Whenever a project is given the go ahead, in the initial stages there’s a process of what’s called ‘due diligence’ – for example It’s currently happening or will happen over the summer with the M4 relief road. When a public inquiry comes to the Welsh Government, Welsh Government officials will provide a pretty bulky case of due diligence to look at whether or not the project warrants the amount of money being spent on it.
In the case of the Circuit of Wales there was a due diligence process but then when the project was finally declined by the Government they didn’t cite the due diligence, they cited a technical accounting issue. This issue basically said that if the Government provided the company with the scale of the guarantee that they were looking for it would mean that that amount would be on the Government’s balance sheet. This would in turn affect the spend of the Welsh Government on all sorts of other projects because it was such a huge amount. But the Welsh Government would have known that from the start. What we couldn’t understand as a Committee was, why was it that the Heads of the Valleys company was allowed to go on year after year jumping through ever greater hoops when, at the end of the day, the project could never have been viable because of this technical accounting issue.
We couldn’t understand how on the one hand you had due diligence and on the other hand you had an accounting issue – but neither were connected. We think in future the Welsh Government needs to make sure that when they are asking companies to make bids for projects, and for money for projects, that those companies aren’t wasting their time. If something is going to be knocked on the head you need to do it early on rather than waste everyone’s time.
Why is this kind of scrutiny important to the people of Wales?
It’s vitally important. I think a lot of people look at the Welsh Assembly and they think it’s like Westminster. People see Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in Westminster and they think that’s what politics is. Well of course what happens in the Assembly Chamber is important and that gets issues into the media but behind the scenes there’s the day-to-day workings of Government which often doesn’t get any scrutiny.
It’s for cross party groups like the Public Accounts Committee to hold officials to account. Ministers take policy decisions and then Civil Servants come in and carry projects forward. If we don’t do the job of scrutiny then who else will?
The Audit Office and the Auditor General for Wales do a valuable job in highlighting issues initially but it’s the Public Accounts Committee that really looks into the detail of some of these issues and gets it out there into the media so that there is transparent scrutiny. We’re a cross party committee so it’s not a politicised atmosphere where the Government are saying ‘we want to spend this money on a project you don’t want us to do that’, policy is our area and we are here to make sure that public money is well spent.
The Public Accounts Committee is charged with scrutinising the spend of all public money in Wales. The Committee can undertake either their own inquiries or they can follow directions from the Auditor General for Wales and the Audit Office. It’s a pretty big brief as they can look at all aspects of funding including health, education, local authorities and economic development as is the case for their latest report on the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project.
You can download the full report on the Welsh Government’s initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project and out more about the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee at http://www.assembly.wales/SeneddPAC, you can also follow the Committee on Twitter at @SeneddPAC.
An interview with Lynne Neagle, Chair of the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee.
The Committee is launching its report on the step-change needed in emotional and mental health support for children and young people in Wales. Why did the Committee choose to look at this issue at this time?
We know that mental health is a huge issue for young people, that 1 in 10 young people will have mental health problems and that most of those mental health problems start at a relatively young age in their teenage years.
It’s the biggest area of concern raised with the Children’s Commissioner, it’s also a big area of concern that’s raised with services like the ChildLine helpline and it was also an issue that featured very strongly when we asked stakeholders to share their priorities with us.
What were the Committee’s main aims for the inquiry?
They were twofold: We wanted to revisit the work of our predecessor committee which did a major piece of work on Specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services back in 2014.
That led to the Welsh Government investing a significant amount of extra money in these specialist services, so we wanted to see whether progress had been made.
We also then wanted to look specifically at what work is being done around the need to build emotional resilience in our young people with a particular focus on early intervention and prevention – a lot of our inquiry has looked at whether that work is underway and how effective it has been.
What are the Committee’s main findings from this report?
It’s a big report with some 27 recommendations, but we’ve made one key recommendation that we think is the most important – that much more needs to be done in terms of early intervention and building our children and young people’s emotional resilience.
We believe that schools and education are absolutely key to that.
Due to the reform of the new curriculum we’ve got a once in a generation opportunity to actually embed learning about emotional resilience into our schools. But it’s not just about the curriculum – it’s also about making sure that everyone who comes into contact with young people understands the importance of emotional resilience and feels comfortable and able to talk to young people about it.
We think it’s crucial that health services work closely with schools to help support this step-change – teachers cannot be expected to shoulder this on their own,
Were any of the findings a surprise?
Personally, I expected the need for early intervention to be a key theme but what was notable was how strongly that came across, and from how many different stakeholders.
These varied from third sector organisations like the Samaritans to the police who, during the course of the inquiry, called for the curriculum to include mental health.
I think that has been the standout issue and unless we get that aspect right, a lot of the other pieces aren’t going to work.
Children and adolescent mental health services
Tackling emotional and mental health issues among children
and young people must now be a national priority.
In 2014, a predecessor Committee was told that too many children and young people were being incorrectly referred to specialist mental health services and that they needed to be helped in other parts of the system. 4 years on has that situation changed?
There have been some improvements but I think it is still the case that too many young people are being referred inappropriately.
That is a symptom of the fact that we haven’t got early intervention services right.
If the earlier services aren’t there then people will still fight for a referral to specialist CAMHS (children and adolescent mental health services). So although there’s been progress I don’t think that progress has been strong enough.
Whilst the education system is key to making improvements in this area, we are also very concerned about primary mental health care – we came to the conclusion that the improvements in that area that we should have seen by now have simply not emerged.
We don’t think this is acceptable.
In terms of the Welsh Government, in 2015 they established the ‘Together for Children and Young People Programme’ to improve emotional and mental health services for children and young people in Wales. Is the Committee confident that the Welsh Government is doing everything it can in this area?
Obviously the programme is very welcome. It’s introduced a focus on specialist CAMHS and extra resources, which are very welcome.
But I don’t think the focus on early intervention and universal resilience has been sufficient at all. It was meant to be a clear workstream within the programme and I don’t think we’ve seen the progress that we should have seen in that area.
The other area where I would have liked to have seen more progress is primary mental health care services for children and young people.
We were told that it’s going to be a focus for the programme in the next few months – my question then would be, why hasn’t it been in there as a key feature for the last three years?
What is the Committee hoping to see following the publication of this report?
We’ve made one key recommendation and 27 other detailed recommendations. Given the evidence that underpins them, we expect the Government to give them very serious consideration and we’re obviously hoping that it will accept all of them.
As important as the early intervention work is, it is also vital that young people who need a specialist service get that specialist service in a timely way.
As such, our intention is to follow up on every one of those recommendations very vigorously.
We are going to be returning to this issue on an ongoing basis and continuing to scrutinise the Welsh Government‘s progress in this area because it’s something that we absolutely have to get right. The report says we’ve got to see a step change.
I don’t want to be sitting in committees five years from now hearing yet again that mental health services for children and young people aren’t good enough – we have got to get this right this time.
Read the full report and find out more about the work of the Children, Young People and Education Committee via the National Assembly for Wales’ website. You can also follow the committee on Twitter @SeneddCYPE.
If you want to talk to someone about your emotional well-being and mental health, you can contact:
Meic Cymru on 080880 23456 or text on 84001 or through their online messaging service
Or C.A.L.L Helpline on 0800 132 737 or text ‘help’ to 81066