Monday, 13 March 2017

Committees Bite Size #3: March 2017

Here's another round up of some of the committee inquiry reports that've come out of the Senedd over the last few weeks, including: ovarian cancer screening, two Stage One reports on Welsh laws, the Kancoat grant scandal and support for ethnic minority and traveller school pupils.

Petitions: Ovarian Cancer Screening

(Pic : Target Ovarian Cancer)
  • Published on 9th February 2017 (pdf)
  • Petition submitted by Margaret Hutcheson (107 signatures)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should keep the potential of a national screening programme for ovarian cancer under review.
  • The Welsh Government should work with GPs to ensure women who show symptoms of ovarian cancer are referred to appropriate treatments and diagnostic tests.
  • Improvements should be made to public awareness of ovarian cancer, including common symptoms and when to seek medical advice.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer diagnosed in Welsh women, but the fourth highest cause of deaths, with only 38% of women diagnosed with the disease surviving five years. When caught early it can be treated effectively, but the symptoms are hard to recognise, meaning many women will leave it too late through no fault of their own.

The petitioner called for a national screening programme for women aged 50+, which would be done via a blood test (CA125). Minister for Public Health, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said the Welsh Government don't believe there's enough evidence to introduce a screening programme because of the number of false positives and false negatives from the CA125 test, leading many women to undergo unnecessary procedures.

A public awareness campaign for GPs and women is being led by Velindre NHS Trust, with a leaflet available in GP surgeries, but the petitioner believed that wasn't enough on its own and needs broader coverage – particularly when compared to breast cancer.

Health: Stage One Report – Public Health Bill

While there's widespread support for the principles of the Bill,
there are said to be missed opporunities, particularly in addressing obesity.
(Pic : BBC)

Key Recommendations:

  • The National Assembly agrees to the general principle of the Bill. They did so unanimously on 28th February 2017.
  • The Bill should be strengthened to prevent it becoming a "missed opportunity" on obesity, including raising nutritional standards in schools and care homes as well as banning sugary drinks from schools.
  • The number of regulated special procedures should be expanded to include laser tattoo removal and hair removal.
  • The proposed age restriction for intimate piercings should be raised from 16 to 18.
  • Toilets in public buildings should be made available for wider public use, and consideration should be given to creating a national map of toilet facilities/toilet-finding app with a single nationally-recognised logo.

The Public Health Bill was introduced in November 2016 with the aim of improving and protecting the health and well being of Wales, including new measures on tobacco sales, piercings and tattoos, public toilets and pharmaceutical services.

The law is broadly welcomed, but with a number of concerns, particularly a fear that it'll be a "missed opportunity" to deal with obesity as well as alcohol abuse. There were calls for Wales to follow Scotland in introducing a minimum per-unit alcohol price, which was excluded from the Bill. In addition, loneliness and isolation amongst elderly people and poor air quality were other areas needing to be addressed.

Another main area of contention were the proposals for piercings. The Bill, as it is, proposes the legal age for a person to get an intimate piercing on their own accord be 16, but the Committee were "absolutely convinced" it should be raised to 18. The Welsh Government argued that as piercings aren't permanent (and can be removed) they didn't need to be treated in the same manner as tattoos. Witnesses disagreed, believing that as 16 year olds are (by law) still children, someone getting a genital piercing at that age could have something darker going on in their lives.

Public Accounts: Welsh Government Funding of Kancoat

(Pic : BBC Wales)
  • Published on 14th February 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should keep clear records of ministerial decisions which go against official advice.
  • The Welsh Government should establish clear guidelines for how, when and why non-repayable (grant) and repayable (loans) finance are offered companies.
  • The First Minister should ensure the Ministerial Code has due consideration for conflicts of interest.
  • When the Welsh Government makes an investment, assets offered as collateral should be properly documented and when handling repeat requests for financial support, there should be a "pause a reflect" period as part of due-diligence process.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Welsh Government – via the then Economy Secretary, Edwina Hart - awarded £3.4million in funding to metal coating company Kancoat, based in Waunarlwydd near Swansea. Despite this, the business entered administration in September 2014.

In the Economic Renewal Plan instituted post-Great Recession, Kancoat was deemed to have fallen under the "advanced materials and manufacturing" sector, one of several key sectors to be supported by the government. However, civil servants were unsure whether metals coating fell under that category as it's not particularly advanced.

When the Welsh Government were undertaking its due diligence process (English: double checking the details to make sure they're making the right decision), they use 11 risk factors. In Kancoat's case, civil servants failed to take into consideration all the risks, in this case sourcing all its steel from a single supplier. Also, there were concerns about a conflict of interest involving Edwina Hart as the company employed constituents and was located just outside her constituency. The Committee didn't find any evidence of undue influence on her part, but the interest issue should've been taken into account.

The most damning criticism is that the company's business plan was poor - even lacking CVs of key directors - and involved the Welsh Government taking on the risks of a landlord and investor in a relatively new company. They awarded the money anyway, against the conclusions of the due diligence report. The Auditor General believes the decision has cost the public at least £1.5million.

Children & Education: Support for Traveller & Ethnic Minority Pupils

While some ethnic minority pupils excel at school,
black children and travellers are still lagging behind.
(Pic : Wales Online)
  • Published on 21st February 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should keep under review the best model for funding traveller and ethnic minority pupils and should revisit the question as to whether current funding has improved matters by the end of the Fifth Assembly.
  • The framework/expectations should make clear reference to expected outcomes for traveller and ethnic minority pupils.
  • The Welsh Government should consider whether the decision to amalgamate 11 different grants into a single scheme is compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
  • The Welsh Government should "do more" to close the attainment gap between traveller and ethnic minority pupils and their peers.

Just under 1,000 Welsh school pupils are from a gypsy/traveller background and around 40,000 are from an ethnic minority (about 10% of all pupils). The reliability of the data has, however, been questioned. Attainment for traveller children is often below average, but for ethnic minorities the picture is mixed, with some ethnic groups – Chinese, Indian in particular – outperforming white Welsh pupils, while pupils from a black Caribbean background still under-perform.

During the Fourth Assembly, the Welsh Government introduced Educational Improvement Grants (EIG). In total it amounted to £141million, with £8.9million allocated specifically for traveller and ethnic minority children. The current Education Secretary believes the introduction of the new system has resulted in administrative cost savings.

One of the key issues that's emerged is the lack of monitoring as to whether the EIG is actually working. The EIG is awarded to the four regional consortia and they decide how to spend it, but there's very little guidance issued to local authorities on how to spend it with regard traveller and ethnic minority children. The arrival of children of asylum seekers and unaccompanied refugees may also put more pressure on the EIG, which hasn't been protected from cuts.

Finance: Stage One Report – Landfill Tax Bill

(Pic : ITV Wales)

Key Recommendations:

  • The National Assembly should approve the general principles of the Bill.
  • The Welsh Government should include more detail on the face of the Bill itself, including the proposed tax rates and details of the proposed communities scheme (which will be part-funded from tax proceeds).
  • There are numerous recommendations on changes/clarification of definitions with regard: disposable materials, pet cemeteries and materials resulting from mining and quarrying.
  • The Welsh Government should provide more detailed costings for enforcing the Act.

Landfill Disposals Tax is one of a few taxes to be devolved to Wales, and will be collected by the Welsh Revenue Authority from April 2018. At the moment it raises about £35million a year. There was clear support to have an equivalent of landfill tax, though witnesses demanded there's wide consultation before any regulations relating to the Bill/Act are put forward. The Finance Secretary said the reason many things were left off the face of the Bill was purely flexibility - to deal with changing technology in particular. Nonetheless, the Committee were disappointed by the lack of detail.

There's little else to add to that other than a detailed going over of the changes the Committee would like to see, including definitions etc.

The other big thing in the report refers to the Landfill Tax Communities Scheme, which will be a grant scheme aimed at funding environmental and biodiversity projects within a five mile radius of a landfill site. It'll be at least part-funded by the proceeds from the tax, but as it isn't set out in law it could be shut at the whim of the Welsh Government; campaigners would prefer it were made statutory. There was caution, however, that as income from landfill tax is falling (due to increased recycling rates) it's not worth getting people or organisation's hopes up of a big windfall.


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