Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Committees Bite Size #2: February 2017

Here's my second summarised round-up of some of the Assembly's committee inquiries over the last few months, including: domestic violence, the National Infrastructure Committee, the state of broadcasting, statutory advocacy services for vulnerable children and implementation of the new National Curriculum.

Communities: Scrutiny of the Domestic Violence Act 2015

(Pic : Guardian)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should set delivery dates for specific measures included in the Act, and addresses all forms of abuse included in the Act – not just domestic violence.
  • The Welsh Government should hold discussions with the UK Government on the funding for independent domestic violence advisers and multi-agency risk assessment conferences.
  • Teaching about healthy relationships should be included in the new National Curriculum, and outlined how it can be delivered in further and higher education establishments as well as schools.
  • The Welsh Government should provide clarification on what sanctions are available if public authorities fail to fulfil their responsibilities under the Act.

The inquiry raised concerns about the pace by which many of the changes brought in by the Act are being implemented, as some authorities may not be wholly aware of their new duties due to the limited amount of guidance issued by the Welsh Government - particularly when it comes to non-front line services. There's a preference that any future guidance focuses on stopping perpetrator's behaviour, such as getting them to leave abusive relationships.

There were also worries that there was too much focus on domestic violence at the expense of sexual violence, and the Committee believe all forms of abuse need to be targeted for the Act to have any meaningful impact. One of the headline recommendations is to improve relationship education, which is currently non-compulsory and inconsistent between schools. It's expected this will be included in the post-Donaldson Review curriculum but there's no confirmation as yet.

Economy & Infrastructure: National Infrastructure Commission (NICW)


Key Recommendations:

  • NICW's remit should be expanded to include strategic development, which includes housing and supporting infrastructure.
  • A dedicated team is needed to pay close attention to how private funding is leveraged in to NICW; the Welsh Government will need to consider if it's best placed in the Development Bank of Wales or the NICW itself.
  • NICW should be based outside Cardiff and shouldn't share buildings with Welsh Government departments. The Commission Chair should also be subject to a pre-appointment hearing in the Senedd.
  • NICW should publish a "State of the Nation" report at least every three years.

NICW will be established as an independent body offering technical and strategic advice to the Welsh Government on Wales' long-term infrastructure needs. There was support from industry bodies for a wider remit than simply economic development, including green infrastructure, social infrastructure and housing; the Committee believed the divide between these areas was "arbitrary".

There are practical issues in terms of funding and "fiscal remit", and the Welsh Government are considering whether NICW should be able to borrow or work closely with local government. There were also arguments back and forth on whether NICW should be a statutory body – established by law – or non-statutory. As the need to establish NICW is seen as urgent, the faster non-statutory route is seen as preferable, but it has to maintain a clear independence from government.

Culture: State of Welsh Broadcasting

(Pic : UK Parliament)
  • Published on 1st February 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The BBC should provide an additional £30million for English language broadcasting about Wales and there should be no reduction in current broadcast spend.
  • Wales-only news opt-outs on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2 should be pursued.
  • There should be no further cuts to S4C's funding until after a planned review, and S4C should lay annual reports and accounts in front of the Assembly.
  • ITV Studios should take a more proactive approach in producing network shows about and for Wales.

Broadcasting is non-devolved and this report is almost identical to much of the Fourth Assembly's Communities Committee findings into the BBC Charter (A Smarter BBC Charter forWales). The goal of this report is said to be to feed into future inquiries.

Some new things include provision for Welsh drama at the BBC, with the establishment of nation-specific drama commissioning editor, who will bid into the UK-wide drama budget. The BBC are also undertaking a review into the balance of news reporting from the nations and regions – including the establishment of a local reporting service to cover local authorities (estimated to cost £8million a year). The Committee were somewhat sceptical about the idea, believing the BBC could be "muscling in" on local media, resulting in local media outlets cutting back; they would like further details.

ITV isn't often raised in these discussions, and there are worries about declines in Welsh-specific output, while it's increased in Scotland. The value of the ITV licence has "dropped" because it no longer offers a monopoly in TV advertising. The Committee believe that when the new licence is awarded in 2024, some of the requirements could be relaxed in exchange for more Wales-specific content.

Children & Education: Statutory Advocacy Services

(Pic : Ceredigion Council)
  • Published on 2nd February 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • Ensure all local authorities have signed up to the "National Approach" by January 2017 and are ready to fully implement it by June 2017.
  • Update the Code of Practice for Advocacy as outlined in the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014.
  • Monitor local council spending on advocacy services for children.
  • Review the MEIC Cymru helpline and how it fits with the "National Approach".

Councils are legally obligated to provide advocacy services (work on the behalf of and provide information) to children, particularly those in care and care leavers. The purpose is to protect the children and stop them coming into harm's way. Just over 28,000 children are eligible for such services in Wales and it's particularly important in light of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal.

The Welsh Government are working on a "National Approach", but there's been a "frustrating and unacceptable" lack of progress with the new strategy unpublished and a business case yet to be agreed. It does look like there's been progress – welcomed by the Children's Commissioner – and the Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), confirmed that the new framework should be in place by June 2017.

As usual with such services, funding is a big issue with varied levels of service between local authorities. Implementing the "National Approach" is estimated to cost up to £1.1million, which will be split 50:50 between Welsh and local governments. The Communities Secretary said, however, he didn't want to ring-fence the funding and no additional funding was forthcoming.

Children & Education: Implementation of the New National Curriculum
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should do more to provide a clearer picture of how things are developing.
  • The Education Secretary needs to decide if there should be "a clearer strategic steer" led by the Welsh Government, perhaps in collaboration with regional consortia.
  • The new curriculum shouldn't just replicate what happened in Scotland.
  • Urgent improvements need to be made to teacher training to ensure teachers are ready to deliver the new curriculum, with a window of 12-18 months suggested by the Committee.

The Committee believe that while the vision for the new curriculum is "widely supported", there are difficulties and challenges in making it a reality. The education sector is still waiting for details, and NUT Cymru believe there's a "lack of direction" in terms of translating the vision into a reality.

The new curriculum has been heavily influenced by – you could even say a copy and paste of – a major curriculum reform in Scotland. Prof. Donaldson believes there are lessons to be learnt from the implementation there, but the Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), believes it shouldn't be a case of "slavishly following the Scottish example".

It's obvious that teachers will need to be closely involved in the process and trained to deliver the new curriculum. Major reforms are due from June 2018, with the new curriculum available from September 2018. The timescale was welcome, but the Committee were "anxious" about the amount of work left to do. It's also unclear whether the curriculum will require a new law to be introduced in the Senedd.


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