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.
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
Guest blog by Bethan Sayed AM, Chair of the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee
In the past ten years, Welsh Government and National Lottery funding for the Arts Council of Wales hasfallen by almost 10% in real terms, while the Government has called on the sector to reduce its dependence on public expenditure.
As Chair of the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee and as a Committee, I felt the time was right to hold an inquiry into non-public funding of the arts to determine how feasible the Government’s call is, and to identify practical steps to enable the sector to respond effectively to it.
Art needs funding to support its future, but what can be done to secure it?
The importance of art to a healthy society
The importance of art to society is undeniable.
Art illuminates and enriches our lives, which makes it indispensable to a healthy society. The wide-ranging benefits of art to both society on the whole, and the individual, are now widely recognised. From its economic impact to the benefits it brings to education – the potential for art to enable positive outcomes within society should be recognised, promoted and utilised fully by policy makers.
Recognising the challenges faced by the arts in Wales
What became evident very quickly during the inquiry was that arts organisations in Wales face unique, diverse and very difficult challenges when attempting to raise non-public funding. For example, the small size of many of Wales’s arts organisations, and their distance from large centres of population, make raising non-public revenue difficult.
In particular, the dominance of London and the south east of England, in terms of the proportion of non-public funding awarded within the UK, is startling.
A 2013 study found that contributions made by individuals and businesses to the arts in London accounted for 85% of the overall funding awarded throughout England. Although Wales was not covered by the study, it’s not thought to be out of sync with the regions of England outside of London.
Until such a disproportionate reality is recognised and addressed it’s impossible to see how the situation in Wales can be adequately improved.
This situation is also compounded by the fact that scale and location are key factors in enabling generation of commercial revenue, making it more difficult for organisations to raise revenue outside of large centres of population.
These distinctly Welsh difficulties illustrate the need for the Welsh Government to back up what they have asked the sector to do with a sufficient level of effective support.
What has the Committee concluded?
We have called on the Government to take action to raise the profile of the arts as a charitable cause and to raise awareness among UK-based trusts and foundations of the excellent arts projects and organisations in Wales.
As it stands, the sector does not have the resources necessary to respond effectively to the Government’s call. A shortage of appropriate skills within the sector was a common theme presented throughout the evidence. This is why we have called on the Welsh Government to establish a source of fundraising expertise for small arts organisations, in an analogous fashion to the support it currently provides for small businesses through its Business Wales service.
As might be expected, we found that larger organisations are more likely to be effective when applying for grants as they have easier access to appropriate skills (for example, to write effective applications). When such a small proportion of the funding available within the UK is awarded outside of London and the south east it’s understandable that competition for the remaining funding is fierce.
In such a climate it’s then little surprise that smaller organisations struggle to compete.
This serves to underline the need for a tailored form of support, one which recognises the differing needs and capabilities of arts organisations throughout Wales.
This is not to say that those within the sector shouldn’t explore every opportunity to increase their non-public income. We also received evidence suggesting that Welsh arts organisations could be more proactive in their approach to applying for funding.
We were excited to hear about the impact of the Welsh Government’s trade mission to China, which included a cultural delegation organised by Wales Arts International. Hijinx, a theatre company that works with learning disabled actors, told us that this trip had opened doors to future international tours and collaboration. This is why we have called for the Welsh Government to commission research on international markets with growth potential for Welsh artists, and, where possible, to include a cultural component on trade missions, alongside a strategy to grow international markets.
What is clear is that if the Welsh Government expect their call for the arts sector to reduce its dependence on public funding to have a tangible impact within the sector – they need to back it up with an appropriate level of tailored and informed support.
You can read the full report and the Committee’s recommendations here.
Follow the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee on Twitter @SeneddCWLC
The food and drink industry is an important part of the Welsh economy and the food supply chain is one of the Wales’ largest sectors, employing more than 240,000 people with an annual turnover in excess of £19 billion.
In 2016, 92.7% of Welsh meat exports which left the UK went to the EU.
As well as being a major employer in its own right, food production also supports a number of other industries such as tourism and hospitality.
To scrutinise the First Minister on the Welsh Government’s support for food and drink, and current issues facing the industry in Wales, the Assembly’s Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister visited Newtown on 16 February.
With uncertainty still about the UK’s future post Brexit, the Committee was keen to question the First Minister about potential future international trade arrangements and the implications for the industry.
Visit to local food producers
To understand local business concerns Committee Members visited Hilltop Honey, a local food producer, and held a roundtable discussion with representatives from the company and two other local businesses, Cultivate and Monty’s Brewery.
The Committee toured Hilltop Honey’s facilities and discussed a number of issues facing the food and drink industry, including tourism, trade, branding and promotion.
In particular, participants stressed the need to promote the quality and range of Welsh products in a more coordinated and high-profile way.
In relation to Newtown and mid-Wales, the Committee heard views that there is a “lack of coordinated marketing message for Powys” and “not enough support to develop the tourism industry in the area.”
The importance of mutual support between Welsh businesses was discussed, with the suggestion that “Welsh companies have got to work better with Welsh companies” for mutual benefit.
The businesses present also expressed concerns about the likely impact of Brexit, including the loss of access to EU funds and continued uncertainty about future trading arrangements with Europe and further afield.
First Minister answers local business concerns
Several specific suggestions that were proposed during the roundtable discussion at Hilltop Honey were raised directly with the First Minister during the formal Committee meeting.
The Committee questioned the First Minister over whether the Government could consider making a company’s first attendance on a trade mission free of charge, having heard that the costs of participating could put off small businesses from being involved.
Whilst the support already available from the Welsh Government was positively regarded, it was suggested that more companies may be able to participate if they could experience a first mission with a lower investment.
Given the emphasis that businesses had put on the need to promote the Welsh food and drink industry and Welsh produce, Members recommended that the Welsh Government should consider theming a future year of tourism promotion around ‘Wales as a home of food and drink’.
The First Minister agreed to give further consider to both of these suggestions and the Committee will write to seek further reflections.
Brexit and future international trade
Brexit and future international trade arrangements were key themes of the questioning of the First Minister.
The Committee heard of major concerns around the potential impact on food and drink producers if tariffs were applied to products exported from Wales to the EU.
The First Minister stated that:
“…90 per cent of our exports go to the single market. Meat, for example, can carry, in extreme circumstances, a subsidy of 104 per cent…Now, it’s obvious what the effect would be on our sheep meat exports if that were to happen, and there are a number of tariffs in other areas as well. So, tariff barriers are the ones that are most obviously talked about, because they would make our goods more expensive in our most important market.”
Concerns were also expressed about the impact of other barriers, such as slower customs processes impacting upon perishable goods and the need for continued alignment of food standards between Wales and the EU following Brexit.
In the absence of future EU support for the farming industry, the First Minister called on the UK Government to provide the necessary funding so that the Welsh Government would be able to guarantee payments to farmers.
The First Minister stated that this funding should not be part of the overall block grant to Wales and should be ring-fenced away from funding for other public services.