Friday, 9 December 2016

Committees Bite Size #1: December 2016

Like First Minister's Questions, this is an experiment in improving Oggy Bloggy Ogwr's depth of coverage. As some of you might've seen from my fifth anniversary post last March, I only cover about a third of the Assembly's committee work. This move will enable me to push closer to 80-100%.

I usually only write up inquiries on substantial self-contained topics that are either going to be of serious interest to you, won't result in ongoing legacy reports, or cover a controversial topic/scandal that's been in the news a lot.

This means many reports - particularly budget scrutiny, post-legislative scrutiny, short/one day inquiries and Stage 2 reports on proposed laws - don't get covered on here. Although certain committees carry out more substantial work than others simply because of their subject matter, they perhaps deserve a more equal playing field.

I'll still do detailed write-ups, so I'm not ditching that (for now) even if what counts as a "major report" is entirely my opinion.

These Bite Size posts every couple of months will give you an idea of key findings/recommendations from inquiries I would normally skip over, with a brief summary, focusing on four, five or six reports at a time.

Finance: Assembly Commission Budget 2017-18

Despite an increase in the overall cost of AMs, the Assembly
Commission managed to post an under-spent in 2015-16.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
  • Published on October 19th 2016 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The National Assembly approve the Assembly Commission's budget for 2017-18.
  • The Commission update the Committee on how it's is using its extra £1million.
  • The Commission should update the Committee on possible underspending and how they intend to use it by the end of the financial year.
  • Detailed costings of IT projects should be included in future budget reports.

The Assembly Commission is the body responsible for running the Senedd, and is headed up by the Chief Executive and the Llywydd/Presiding Officer. It requested an increase in its budget of £1million compared to 2016-17, bringing the total to £49.9million - £15.5million of which goes towards paying AMs. The increase is due to extra staff, but in 2015-16 there was a £1.04million underspend for AM's pay and expenses compared to what was originally budgeted.

The Finance Committee welcome the level of detail provided in the Commission's budget report, but there's a level of uncertainty surrounding its future budget due to Brexit and constitutional change. The Assembly is undergoing a rolling programme of IT upgrades too in a shift towards "cloud services", following the successful move to bring IT services "in house". The Committee were also concerned that the costs of providing sign language for FMQs wasn't included in the report.

The National Assembly unanimously approved the Commission's budget on November 16th.

Economy: Business Rates
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

  • Published on 22nd November 2016 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should commit to improving transparency and consistency as well as providing greater clarity on the future direction.
  • Data relating to business rates should be collected centrally and headline date published.
  • The appeals process should be fairer and faster.
  • Revaluations of business properties should move to a three-year cycle (from five/six years).

As those of you who read the FMQ coverage know, a recent revaluation exercise has resulted in massive increases in business rates for some businesses, particularly those based in rural market towns like Cowbridge and Monmouth. The Committee held a one-day inquiry in the form of a breakfast session with business owners and other interested parties.

There are relief schemes available (worth a combined £180million for 2016-17) but business owners and their representative bodies alike find the terminology (i.e. "rateable value") confusing and the relief schemes themselves too changeable. The Finance & Local Government Secretary is willing to explore alternatives to business rates – such as a Land Value Tax – but work needs to begin in earnest, with some of the data around business rates that's needed to form an evidence base being incomplete.

There's consensus that revaluations of business properties are an essential part of the process, with agreement that a three-year cycle is best – even if it results in more regular (but smaller) changes in business rates.

Finance: Draft Welsh Budget 2017-18
There are concerns not enough detail is provided with Welsh Government budgets.
(Pic :

Key Recommendations:

  • More detailed financial information – including information relating to borrowing, debt and repayments - should be made available.
  • Information on how the balance of funding between different sub-sections of the budgetary tables/government programmes should be published.
  • The Welsh Government should provide leadership in preventative medicine.
  • Multi-year settlements for local authorities should be considered, and any future local government reform law should provide accurate costings.

This is the last budget before land transaction tax and landfill tax are devolved and collected by the Welsh Revenue Authority. Despite this, it's expected the Welsh Government's departmental spending limit will fall by 11.6% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2019-20. Even though £436million in extra capital funding will be made available to Wales over the next five years, there are still £3.5billion worth of UK Government cuts that are yet to be found and could – in some shape or form – be made on Wales.

The Finance & Local Government Secretary offered assurances that due to cash increases, any expected cuts to government programmes to fund new priorities – like free childcare expansion – are expected to be smaller than predicted; but the Committee were dissatisfied that the link between the budget and Programme for Government wasn't made clearer.

Following a £120million deal with Plaid Cymru, the Assembly approved the draft budget by 27 votes to 15 with 10 abstentions on December 6th 2016, and is expected to approve the final budget on January 10th 2017.

Health & Social Care : Winter Preparedness
The Ambulance Service say they're better prepared for winter than previous years.
(Pic : Wales Online)

  • Published on 9th December 2016 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • As a matter of urgency, the Welsh Government should work to better integrate health and social care.
  • More effective working arrangements between GPs and pharmacists need to be in place to prevent "competition" in providing flu vaccinations; also winter health campaigns should be evaluated for their effectiveness.
  • The Health Secretary should report back by the end of the first financial quarter of 2017 on progress against target resulting from an additional £50million in winter funding for the NHS.
  • The Welsh Government should publish details of an analysis into the home care sector's capacity, resilience and financial sustainability.

The NHS nearly always faces extra pressure going into winter due to the impact cold weather has on groups like the elderly and those with respiratory diseases. However, the Wales Ambulance Service Trust believe they're in a "much stronger position" than previous years through better planning, ditto social services. There were concerns from BMA Cymru that GP surgeries were expected to be "very stretched" this year. In response, the Welsh Government have made an extra £50million available to deal with pressures in hospitals.

In a broader sense, there was a greater need to plan services and delivery as a patient moves through hospital and into care, with a long-standing desire to integrate health and social care; though at present there's some measure of a communication breakdown at present between the care sector and NHS.

One key measure is prevention. Although take-up of flu vaccines amongst the over 65's is 66.6%, for all at-risk groups it's just 46.9% and for NHS staff it's only 46%. There is said to be some measure of "tension" between GPs and community pharmacists on delivery of vaccinations. There are also shortages of staff to work in home care to prevent unnecessary hospital admissions due – in part - to poor pay and conditions. As large numbers  (1 in 7) of home care workers are from the EU, Brexit could have an impact on home care.


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