Thursday, 22 June 2017

Committees Bite Size #5: June 2017

I thought I'd done the last of these, but there's room for at least one more.

Environment: New Bovine TB Programme

  • Published on 23rd May 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should set a date by which Wales is Bovine TB-free, and interim targets to eradicate the disease.
  • Targeted badger removal should be scientifically monitored, reviewed and ultimately stopped if it has no impact on Bovine TB rates. The findings should be presented to the Committee within 12 months.
  • Farmers should be compensated with "a reasonable sum" for any cattle slaughtered as part of a TB eradication programme.
  • The Welsh Government should provide assurances that Brexit shouldn't impact on the amount of money farmers receive from the EU for bovine TB testing or access to the single market.

Bovine TB is a bacterial infection which is transferred between cattle but also carried by badgers. Most of the controversy here rests on whether a cull of badgers is necessary (to control the spread of the disease) or a vaccination programme. In 2015/16, the Welsh Government and EU spent just over £26million tackling the disease, and while it's had some success in reducing the number of infections, Wales is still some way from being TB-free.

About 50% of cases are caused by cattle-to-cattle transmission. Here, the Welsh Government intends to introduce stricter biosecurity controls, but veterinary experts believe larger herd sizes are a risk factor in spreading the disease. While the number of cases is falling, the number of cattle slaughtered has increased, reportedly due to the use of the gamma interferon test - which is said to be highly sensitive.

There was no real consensus on whether a badger cull would be effective. Some witnesses were critical of the Welsh Government for not including enough detail on a cull, while others believed a cull might increase the risk of infections as new badgers move into areas vacated by culled badgers (perturbation effect).

The Welsh Government's preferred strategy is to trap, test and remove infected badgers found in areas with persistent bovine TB outbreaks, instead of culling them. The Committee expect the Welsh Government to be transparent about this approach – regularly monitoring the programme and publishing details - and it should be stopped if evidence finds it's not having any effect.

Children & Young People - Stage One: Additional Learning Needs (ALN) Bill

Key Recommendations:

  • The Senedd agree to the general principles of the Bill. They did so unanimously on June 6th.
  • Amendments should be tabled to: improve the definition of ALN, timescales for undertaking assessments, place a duty on health authorities to notify local authorities if someone under school age is suspected of having ALN and have due regard for the UN Rights of the Child.
  • Clarity should be given on how and when Welsh Government regulation-making power will be used.
  • An explanation is required for why special schools will no longer need to appoint an ALN co-ordinator.

Although similar measures were tacked on to another law during the Fourth Assembly, the stand-alone ALN Bill was introduced in December 2016, aiming for a "complete overhaul" of the special needs tribunal system and enshrining minimum service standards in law for ALN children and young people. In a survey, 90% of parents and carers believed children and young people don't have ALN identified early enough.

There was broad support for the Bill, but with some reservations on how it would work in practice and a lack of clarity in the Bill itself. For example, some witnesses believed the definition of ALN was too narrow and focused on learning, not on general development. Others criticisms were directed at the statutory timescale to develop individual plans (IDPs) - because it wasn't on the face of the Bill but will be left to the new code - as well as a lack of understanding of who will be responsible for drafting the IDPs in the first place.

The report has been overshadowed by a separate investigation involving the Finance Committee which revealed the Bill will cost £13million+ more than first anticipated. So despite the broad welcome for the new law, it's already in choppy waters.

Public Accounts: Coastal Flooding & Erosion Management

  • Published on 13th June 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • The Welsh Government should clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of those involved in coastal protection.
  • A single point of information should be created for coastal flooding awareness.
  • Consideration be given to managing coastal flooding on a regional basis with local authorities.
  • The Welsh Government should consider how much money they put towards new flood/erosion defences and how much is used to manage them and sets out their proposed budget over a longer time period.

This inquiry follows-up on a Wales Audit Office report from July 2016.  The WAO report found that while investment in coastal protection had improved, the pace of change in the management of the schemes had been slow.

No single body is responsible for coastal protection and there's a complicated web of organisations involved, with some being unclear of their own role or the role of the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales (NRW). NRW is in a position where it monitors everything and essentially reports on/scrutinises its own activities – a clear conflict of interest.

The production of Shoreline Management Plans – which set out coastal protection schemes for up to 100 years – has taken longer than expected, with some local authorities said to be making slow progress in implementing them and effectively left to their own devices. The Committee believe national oversight is now "essential".

One controversial aspect of coastal protection is "managed retreat" – where land (often including homes and communities – like Fairbourne in Gwynedd) is abandoned so authorities can set up a better long-term line of coastal defences. Nobody has, as yet, set out how to help communities affected by managed retreat, which could include compensation, "buy-to-lease" deals or physical relocation. The Welsh Government are still considering their options.

Public Accounts: Natural Resources Wales Accounts 2015-16

  • Published on 15th June 2017 (pdf)

Key Recommendations:

  • NRW should undertake a full review of its governance arrangements with regard contracting.
  • NRW should also review its internal understanding of State Aid rules, public law and the regulations regarding contract awards.
  • NRW's accounting team and executives should have greater oversight and scrutiny role when it comes to awarding contracts.

I don't make a habit of covering reports on annual accounts, but I'm making an exception this time due to a highly controversial £39million timber deal signed off by NRW and flagged up by the Auditor General – who believes some parts of the deal were "irregular" and "contentious".

The contracts awarded to the timber mill were abnormally large. NRW defend the decision because of the rapid spread of larch disease, but the Committee were surprised that the decision to award such a large contract was left with one officer – a former director at the Forestry Commission. There was an acceptance, however, that the accounting team should've had greater oversight on the deal.

The Committee were "shocked" that such a large contract could be awarded to a single company without either a competitive tender process or a full business case. NRW claim it was the only operator which could've dealt with the volume of timber, so it was pointless to open it up to competition because of the "sense of crisis" ( the spread of larch disease and a collapse in the larch market).

The contract was awarded on the basis that a new saw line would be built to deal with the additional larch – but it never happened, and there was enough capacity in the system anyway. This, together with some of the contract irregularities, raise questions as to whether NRW complied with EU state aid regulations, which – in the Auditor General's verdict – render the contracts illegal. NRW didn't seek legal advice on the contracts until the Wales Audit Office raised concerns.

External Affairs: The Great Repeal Bill White Paper (Brexit)

  • Published on 19th June 2017 (pdf)

Key Conclusions:

  • The lack of detail in the White Paper makes it difficult to tell what the implications are for the Welsh Government and Senedd and fails to consider the role of the devolved administrations.
  • The lack of consultation is unacceptable; the UK Government needs to "adopt a more positive and constructive approach" to working with Wales and delay publishing the Bill until they have.
  • Any doubts over Welsh Ministers' ability to make changes to Welsh law under delegated powers before Brexit should be removed.
Unlike other committee inquiries, this is a set of non-binding observations rather than recommendations - meaning they can be ignored by the UK Government.

The UK Government's white paper on the Great Repeal Bill – which will be used to enshrine EU law in UK law prior to Brexit – was published in March 2017. At the moment, EU laws and regulations override domestic law, but are so intertwined in terms of regulations etc. it's easier to keep them and let future governments change them or repeal them as they see fit than getting rid of them wholescale.

Disappointingly, but not at all surprisingly, there's been little to no mention of the devolved administrations in the white paper, despite many aspects of EU policy and regulations being the sole responsibility of the Senedd, Scottish Parliament etc. This failure to consult could well be a prelude to a constitutional crisis if it isn't resolved, as the UK Government and UK Parliament could well strip the devolved administrations of existing powers through the Great Repeal Bill.

Amendments to the various Government of Wales Acts may also be on the cards to ensure that Welsh Ministers are able to exercise their functions with regard current EU law in devolved areas from the first day of Brexit. This will certainly require proper consultation with the Senedd because it would change the devolution settlement, but as of yet there's no sign of this or, where it is included in the white paper, is rather ambiguous.


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