Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
First Minister’s Questions
With Adam Price one of several AMs self-isolating, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) was standing in. Plaid Cymru was calling for the Welsh Government to follow World Health Organisation advice and increase testing for coronavirus/Covid-19 to break the chain of infection?
The First Minister confirmed that key clinical workers would be tested to ensure they can return to work as quickly as possible, but generally he deferred to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer:
“Their advice yesterday….is that this is not the point in the progress of the disease where using considerable resources for mass testing is the most effective way of putting safeguards in place. Now, other people may disagree, I understand that, but what I am saying is is that I don’t have a choice but to follow the advice of those people who we employ to advise us. If I move away from that, then the rock on which the advice that I provide to people in Wales and the health service has been kicked away from under us, and I will not do that.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
Another issue is school closures. Rhun said it was now a matter “of when, not if” – though the First Minister maintains that the position of the four UK governments is for schools to remain open, with that position under constant review. If schools were to close, arrangements would need to be put in place for children living in poverty who rely on free school meals as well as childcare for children of key workers.
The UK and Belarus are the only two European countries with a policy of keeping schools open.
Intensive care capacity “can double” in an emergency
Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), concentrated on the impact coronavirus will have on businesses and the general public mood, particularly given panic buying which has resulted in empty shelves and denying people access to basic staples. What was the Welsh Government doing to ensure supplies keep moving and can reach the most vulnerable? He also asked for an update on intensive care capacity.
The First Minister noted that crises bring out the good and bad in people. On a positive note, he said Wales was somewhat ready because of No Deal Brexit planning and some of the measures that would have/will be used for that have been introduced for coronavirus.
“….we are working closely with our local authority colleagues and our colleagues in the third sector to make sure that we put a bit of a system around the offers of help that we know are there in Wales so people know where to go to access the help that can be made available to them. We will be meeting tomorrow with representatives of those sectors and with community councils as well.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford
He added there was “surge capacity” in the Welsh NHS to double the number of intensive care beds to around 280 (from 138) if needed. That may not be enough though and alternatives are being considered; one of the reasons routine operations has been cancelled is to free up equipment for intensive care.
Coronavirus: Government extends business rate relief
As part of what’s described as emergency support for businesses, the Welsh Government has announced:
- Retail, leisure and hospitality businesses with a rateable value of £51,000 or less will receive 100% business rate relief.
- Pubs with a rateable value of between £51,000-£100,000 will have a £5,000 cut to their business rate bill.
- £100 million in grants for small businesses will be made available with details to be announced at a later date.
It comes after the UK Prime Minister advised the public to avoid visiting pubs, clubs, theatres and any crowded place as part of “social distancing” measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
There has been criticism of the move as it’s suggested businesses can’t claim business interruption insurance because a UK Government order officially closing them down hasn’t been issued.
Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower) said “every penny” of additional money from the UK Government relating to the pandemic would be used to support businesses in Wales, though she called for the UK Government to “provide a very significant support package for vulnerable businesses and their employees.”
Three health boards remain in the red despite a marginal cut to deficits
The Betsi Cadwaladr, Hywel Dda and Swansea Bay health boards racked up a combined £92.1 million budget deficit for the 2019-20 financial year.
The Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Dr Andrew Goodall, told the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee that he was “very disappointed” at the financial performance of those health boards, but added that, “Eight out of eleven of our organisations will break even and seven out of eleven organisations have approved plans.”
The total health board deficit is £5.1 million lower than 2018-19.
Councils to be given greater control over bus services via new law
Why is the Bus Services Bill needed?
The Welsh Government provides £90 million annually to support bus services – including the cost of free bus passes and concessionary fares – with £25 million making up the Bus Services Support Grant which subsidises socially-necessary bus routes.
The number of bus journeys has been in a gradual decline, with 29 million fewer journeys over the last ten years. A number of reasons have been given for this including traffic congestion (which makes bus travel less attractive as it takes more time), confusing ticketing schemes and cuts to local authority bus grants as a result of austerity meaning more routes are withdrawn or cut back.
As bus services are often provided on a commercial basis since the deregulation of bus services under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, there’s little incentive for bus companies to run “unprofitable” services.
The Bill is a direct result of a white paper published towards the end of 2018, which suggested re-regulating buses by giving councils more power to plan and deliver bus services.
The Lowdown: 3 Key Proposals in the Bill
- Council powers regarding bus partnerships will be extended
While councils are already allowed to establish Quality Partnership Schemes (QPS) – which set minimum service standards for bus companies in return for investment and facilities from a council – the Bill will make it a bit easier for a single council or multiple councils to enter into them and set more detailed and specific ground rules.
Each council would need to be satisfied that bus operators can improve service quality, reduce traffic congestion and/or noise and air pollution and increase passenger figures. Councils can also specify minimum service frequencies, timings and requirements for passenger information and integrated ticketing (i.e. switching from bus to train).
- Councils will be able to franchise bus services
As well as a partnership, councils will be able to enter into a Quality Contract Scheme, which would allow councils to specify what bus services are provided in a particular area and open the contracts to competitive tenders – similarly to how bus services are run in Greater London.
Each franchise proposal would need to be audited independently. Councils/local transport authorities will also have their general powers to request specific information about bus services (i.e. passenger numbers, revenues) extended.
- Councils will be able to run their own bus services
At the moment two local authorities – Cardiff and Newport – own companies which run local bus services. In the Bill, every council would be able to do so directly, repealing part of the Transport Act 1985 which banned councils from running buses unless they were already operating them before the Act came into force. The aim is to allow councils to step in to run socially-necessary services by themselves if commercial bus companies don’t tender to run them.
How much will the Bus Services Bill cost?
The Bill is expected to cost £199.3 million over 15 years. The vast majority of that (£166.3 million) is made up of a mix of Welsh Government guidance and support. Compliance – which will fall mainly on bus operators – will cost £33 million over 15 years.
In terms of the benefits, they’re expected to total £312 million over the 15-year period. Councils that run their own bus services could generate an extra £124 million, while there’s expected to be an economic benefit of £132 million due to improved bus services and passenger numbers. Improved information is worth £37.5 million, while improved partnership working is worth £18 million.
Committee supports widening political education and job-sharing but STV unlikely to be imposed on councils
Stage 1 Report: Local Government & Elections Bill (pdf)
Published: 13th March 2020
A full summary of what’s included in the first draft of the Bill is available here.
“People have busy lives and taking on the role of a councillor can be difficult to juggle on top of work and family life. This is why we believe that job-sharing for councillors could be an interesting way of opening up the prospect of standing for election to more people. If we are serious about improving diversity on local councils then we must make it easier for people to stand for election and get involved.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)
- Political education should be rolled-out nationally in schools
The Electoral Commission noted that changes to the right to vote in local/Welsh elections (votes from 16, voting rights for foreign residents) would require a separate Welsh electoral register alongside one for UK elections.
Despite evidence received that 16 and 17-year olds turned out at a rate of 75% during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – and this led to “maintained engagement” in politics – the Committee wasn’t aware of any evidence to support this claim.
Electoral Reform Society Cymru said the “drive” to get this age group to vote had to be led nationally, not by councils – a stance supported by the WLGA. The Committee recommended that the Bill is amended to include a roll-out of political education in all schools, starting from at least 14-years-old.
Amendments extending the right to vote in the next scheduled local elections (2022) to eligible prisoners will be tabled by the government.
In terms of general public engagement, there was a mixed response to making webcasting of all public meetings mandatory. Some councils and representatives argued only the most important meetings should be webcast, while others argued the cost of webcasting can be brought down by using platforms like Youtube. The possibility of an all-Wales webcasting contract was raised by the WLGA.
- The Welsh Government should engage with councils on switching to single transferable vote
As it stands, the Bill will allow individual councils to choose whether to continue to use first-past-the-post to elect councillors or switch to single transferable vote/STV (where councillors are elected by ranking preferences).
The majority of people who responded called for one system to be used across Wales in order to reduce complexity and confusion – though the Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), argued that the Bill was an example of devolving power to local government.
The Committee dodged recommending that STV is mandated for all councils, acknowledging the “little appetite” amongst councils to switch to STV – but this will result in slow change. They, therefore, recommended the Welsh Government starts engagement with councils with weight given to the benefits STV might bring in terms of increasing diversity.
Councils were also generally opposed to relaxing restrictions on council employees being able to stand for election to the council they work for, believing it would increase employer-employee tensions and lead to conflicts of interest.
To help deal with increasing harassment of politicians, the Committee recommended that regulations are amended so councillors no longer have to publish their full home address (extended to community councillors).
- The Bill should be amended to allow all councillors to job-share
Job-sharing for executive/cabinet members of councils has been available for some time – most famously used at Swansea Council. Executive salaries are split accordingly.
While there were concerns raised that job-sharing would end up being seen as “just something for women or just something for people from diverse backgrounds”, the Committee supported amending the Bill to allow job-sharing for backbench councillors – particularly committee chairs – and to enable councillors to stand on a joint-ticket.
- There’s broad support for joint-working between councils and council mergers remaining voluntary
Many councils already work on a joint or regional basis and there was broad support to put this on a legal footing. However, the Bill would allow the Welsh Government to create a joint committee through regulations with the WLGA arguing it should remain voluntary.
The Committee concluded that joint-working arrangements shouldn’t overcomplicate the current plethora of partnerships and regional bodies. They also agreed with the WLGA that joint-working should be voluntary – though they didn’t think the Bill should necessarily be amended to support this view.
In the case of council mergers, the Bill ensures it’s wholly voluntary and the Minister said she would be “very keen to support” any councils thinking of merging. The Committee believes this voluntary approach to mergers was an appropriate solution to a long-argued point that Wales has too many councils.