Monday, 22 May 2017

Committees Bite Size #4: May 2017

A brief break from the general election today for summaries of some of the reports that have come out of the Senedd's committees over the last couple of weeks.

I don't know whether this is going to be the last "Bite Size" post, because I don't know how many reports will be tabled between now and August. On the forthcoming Senedd Home site I intend to summarise inquiry reports as and when they're released in their own right separately, so posts like these will (naturally) become redundant.

Public Accounts: Hospital Catering

  • Published on March 20th 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should ensure patients' views of the quality of food served during hospital stays are properly recorded.
  • The Welsh Government should carry out an "urgent" assessment to categorise and prioritise areas of training on patient nutrition that should be compulsory.
  • A named non-executive director in each health board should have responsibility for patient nutrition.
  • The Welsh Government should revise targets for reducing food waste by health boards in order to minimise waste and maximise savings.

Making sure hospital patients get the right food and water is as essential as medication, with patients likely to come into serious harm if this isn't followed. This investigation is a follow-up inquiry into hospital nutrition, of which the Auditor General believes only 11 of 32 recommendations made in that 2011 report have since been properly enacted.

All-Wales standards for patient food and hydration were introduced in 2011, while the average cost-per-patient for meals said to be £3.31 a day and generally kept under control. A patient survey carried out in 2015 found that while most were positive, they had particular concerns over replacement meals (when they've missed a meal off-ward) and one third of patients described hospital meals as "unappetising". However, only 10% said meals were poor or unacceptable. When it came to hydration, 97% of patients said they were provided with drinks, and only 9% became thirsty because they weren't provided with enough water.

So while the overall picture was good, patients with specific dietary needs (i.e. vegans, vegetarians, coeliacs) didn't feel catered for. Meanwhile, there's a lack of refresher training for nurses on nutrition and hydration – partly because a nursing lead post that was supposed to create a standardised all-Wales document was left unfilled. In addition, the cost of wasted food in the NHS was estimated to be £1million in 2014-15, with suggestions to improve this including: same-day ordering, the introduction of à la carte menus and a computerised catering system.

Economy & Infrastructure: The Apprenticeship Levy

  • Published on March 29th 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should ensure all companies liable to pay the levy are properly informed, with a review on the effects of the levy published no later than one year after it's introduced in April 2017.
  • Any future levies in devolved areas shouldn't be introduced without the consent of the Senedd.
  • The Welsh Government should set out how it intends to improve take-up of apprenticeships amongst employers, particularly in sectors which have traditionally shunned them.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure people employed by local authorities in schools aren't used to calculate the levy as this could adversely affect the schools budget.

The apprenticeship levy is a UK Government initiative to fund apprenticeships (funnily enough), and will be paid by public and private sector employers. 0.5% of an employer's total wage bill will be paid, and the levy came into force on 7th April 2017. It's expected to only affect less than 2% of employers in the UK - those with annual wage bills of over £3million. This money will be topped up by the UK Government.

There are concerns over both a lack of engagement and uncertainty, with very little direct contact or consultation with the Welsh Government, and the levy itself was announced without consulting the devolved administrations. The Welsh Government will receive a population-based share of the revenues, expected to amount to around £128million in the first year – but due to the burdens on public employers (£30million in the first year) it's not expected to raise any additional money in real terms, more a re-direction of existing funds.

There was a particular concern over schools. Individual schools will fall below the £3million a year wage threshold. However, once all school employees in a local authority are counted together they'll easily cross the threshold, meaning more budget pressures for local authorities which are unlikely to see any of that levy money back.

Communities: Stage One Report – Trade Union Bill

Key Recommendations:

  • The National Assembly supports the general principle of the Bill. AMs voted 36 to 11 with 1 abstention in favour on 9th May 2017.
  • Supports removing the 40% (of everyone eligible to vote in a strike ballot voting in favour) threshold to trigger strike action in devolved public services.
  • Supports future amendments that will ban the use of agency workers by devolved public services during strikes.
  • Supports measures that wouldn't limit or cap facility time for union officials.

The Trade Union Act 2016 amended trade union laws, particularly threshold for strike ballots, facility time and numerous other aspects. The UK Government passed it on the understanding that trade union law was non-devolved. The Welsh Government disagreed as it would directly impact devolved public services like health and education. The Bill aims to overturn some of these before employment relations become a reserved power in April 2018.

There was "overwhelming" support for the Bill and not just from unions, with a belief the Welsh Government's social partnership model was effective – the WLGA even considering it one of the big successes of devolution.

There's little else to add to what's already been said on the Bill, other than noting a commitment by the Welsh Government to amend the Bill to ban the use of agency staff as cover during strikes (in devolved public services).

Culture: Welsh Language Strategy

  • Published on May 18th 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should "urgently" assess the teaching requirements to meet the strategy's aims and publish what additional resources/money will be needed to meet its aims.
  • Consideration should be given to providing free Welsh tuition to parents of children placed in Welsh medium pre-schools.
  • The new strategy should place equal emphasis on improving Welsh second language teaching alongside Welsh-medium education.
  • There needs to be a clear definition of what a "Welsh-speaker" is to determine whether the strategy is successful or not, and Welsh for Adults schemes should continue to be supported.

The Welsh Government aims to have 1 million Welsh-speakers by 2050. In the last census the number of Welsh speakers was just 562,000. A new strategy is being developed to meet this aim, focusing on planning policy, education, rights and support.

There was criticism that the draft strategy "lacks clear and detailed targets". Witnesses believe that targets should be reviewed every 5 years to ensure the strategy is on track to meet its aims. The Welsh Government have assured the Committee that targets will be included alongside the finalised strategy, but that means the Committee and witnesses weren't able to scrutinise them during this inquiry.

Education is a key emphasis of the strategy and there was wide agreement with that, albeit as long as it doesn't detract from other areas. However, the demand for Welsh-medium education has to be there and proactively created, and local education authorities shouldn't just respond to parental demand alone. This would require serious workforce planning (i.e. recruiting, retaining and attracting more Welsh-speaking teachers).

Despite the emphasis on education, there was an additional need to make sure Welsh becomes a language of business/the private sector to normalise its everyday use.

There was also widespread agreement (and caution) that any new Welsh language policies require additional money. A figure of an additional £100million a year over the length of the strategy was quoted; expanding the Mudiad Meithrin (Welsh-medium nursery) service to accommodate the aims of the strategy is expected to cost up to £37million a year alone.


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