Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus
Public Accounts Committee08/02/2021
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Darren Millar MS|
|Delyth Jewell MS|
|Gareth Bennett MS|
|Jenny Rathbone MS|
|Nick Ramsay MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Rhianon Passmore MS|
|Vikki Howells MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Adrian Crompton||Archwilydd Cyffredinol Cymru|
|Auditor General for Wales|
|Andrew Slade||Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol, Grŵp yr Economi, Sgiliau ac Adnoddau Naturiol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director General, Economy, Skills and Natural Resources Group, Welsh Government|
|Matthew Mortlock||Archwilio Cymru|
|Sioned Evans||Cyfarwyddwr, Busnes a Rhanbarthau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director, Business and Regions, Welsh Government|
|Steve Davies||Cyfarwyddwr, Cyfarwyddiaeth Addysg, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director, Education Directorate, Welsh Government|
|Tracey Burke||Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol, y Grŵp Addysg a Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director General, Education and Public Services Group, Welsh Government|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Claire Griffiths||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:23.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:23.
Good morning. Can I welcome members of the committee to this morning's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee? No apologies have been received. Do any Members have any declarations of interest they'd like to make? No. Okay.
Item 2, then, and we've got a few papers to note. First of all, the auditor general published his report 'Doing it Differently, Doing it Right?' in January 2021. This report focuses on how NHS bodies in Wales have been governed during the COVID-19 crisis. I believe this is the first of two publications that provide an all-Wales summary of the auditor general's 2020 structured assessment work at NHS bodies. Adrian, did you want to comment at all on this paper?
Thank you, Nick. Very briefly, yes. It's a report looking at how NHS bodies have adjusted their governance over the last year. Essentially, it's a very positive assessment. We've seen NHS bodies adapting their governance procedures to retain efficient oversight, keeping a focus on essential business as well as COVID-related risks, and using technology to maintain openness and transparency in meetings as well. So, a positive assessment. We hope to see much of that good practice maintained post pandemic.
Great. Thanks. The report doesn't contain any recommendations, but it does highlight opportunities for the future and areas of future progress. So, if Members are happy to note that, then that paper is noted. Okay.
Moving on to our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to the Public Account Committee's remit. Tracey Burke has written with additional information following the session on 30 November last year when we discussed the impact of COVID-19 on education and local government. The response has been taken into consideration when the briefing was formed today, so we'll be able to raise some of these issues with Tracey. Are Members happy to note that letter? Good.
We've also received a letter from the Welsh Government on the ongoing issue of Cardiff Airport, following the evidence session held on 16 November. The response has been taken into consideration, as with the previous report, so we'll be able to ask questions during our evidence session. Are Members happy to note that letter? Good. And we'll discuss that in our private session later as well.
And finally, ensuring value for money from rural development grants made without competition—again, a letter from the Welsh Government from 1 February. That was the session from 5 October, and my letter of 3 November. Auditor general, did you want to comment on this item?
Thanks, Nick. Just one specific point, just to manage Members' expectations. It's in respect of point 9. Unless the Welsh Government were to specifically commission us to do some further audit work around the new grants regime, it would simply be wrapped up into our more general audit of accounts work across the whole of the Welsh Government. The materiality level that we apply to that audit means that we'd never get anywhere near the scope or coverage of the current audit regime for EU funds. So, just to manage your expectations about our potential role in audit of the future scheme that is put in place. What I'd like to see is the Welsh Government putting in place its own proportionate monitoring and evaluation of arrangements for any successor grant schemes, and obviously to learn lessons from misuse that we have previously highlighted. Thanks, Nick.
Sounds like a reasonable way forward. I understand what you're saying. Are Members happy to agree with that approach, and note the paper? Yes.
Moving on to our evidence sessions and item 3, reflections on the fifth Assembly/Senedd. Can I welcome Andrew Slade and your official to the meeting? Would you like to give your own name and position for the Record of Proceedings?
Morning, Chair, and morning, committee. I'm Andrew Slade, director general for economy, skills and natural resources. My colleague Sioned Evans, who is director of business and regions, is with me, because I think one of the things we might want to talk about today is support for business through the pandemic. But Sioned might like to wave and say hello to the committee.
Good morning—bore da. Sioned Evans, director of business and regions.
Bore da, both. Andrew, before we go into the questions, did you want to make a brief opening statement?
Chair, thank you. I won't detain you for too long. I sent you a very short paper at the tail end of last week—I'm sorry that wasn't with you a little bit sooner; it's been a rather busy period, as you know. But I just wanted you to have some background information as a committee, particularly as you're bringing your various lines of inquiry to an end as the Senedd draws towards a close, and to give you a bit of a flavour, in overview terms, of what we've been doing, both on EU transition and, of course, through the pandemic. I think there are four or five things I'll just touch on very briefly.
The first is just to record my thanks to colleagues across the group for the sheer hard work and commitment they've shown over these last few years. A huge range of activity goes on across the group—many, many areas of business, both operational and in terms of policy making, and then all the corporate support work, the finance and HR and communications work that underpins that. Our brief across the group, as you know, is a very wide-ranging one. We've got a lot of waterfront to cover: transport and revolutionising our systems in Wales, all the work that we do with businesses and the economy, our work on climate change, our groundbreaking work—indeed, world-leading work—on waste and recycling, what we've been doing on broadband, through to the support that we provide to post-16 education, science and research and so on. So, there's just a huge amount of activity that goes on day to day, and masses that has been achieved across the group in pursuit of the Government's agenda and in support of Ministers. We directly support 10 Ministers and the First Minister. In Whitehall terms, we shadow more than nine departments. So, there's a lot of ground for us to cover.
The second area is what's set out in the paper I sent you, which is what we've been doing in the context of COVID. The group has responded magnificently to the challenges of the pandemic over the last year, keeping the economy afloat, keeping our transport system afloat, working with our further education and higher education institutions to look after students and help those institutions through the pandemic, all the work that we've done on gingering up the supply chain to supply personal protective equipment for our health and social care providers and for others who need it, all the work that we've done with tens of thousands of businesses, including in relation to business guidance through the pandemic, and in many, many other areas of work, and all of that with 97 per cent of the group operating from home throughout the pandemic.
The third area is Brexit, a major preoccupation for my group, particularly on the policy and operational side. We had to prepare for the end of our membership of the European Union, and then again for the end of the transition period. Lots and lots of legislation was put in place to have us ready for that moment, lots of new systems and processes put in place, policy design work and a lot of contingency planning to help us over the hump, both of the first major change and then, of course, just in the last few weeks, the second change as we've left the transitional arrangements with the European Union.
The fourth area that is of interest to the committee—and you as a committee and I have worked on this together over the course of the last few years—is the work that we've done around our governance and control arrangements across the group, building on work that had been done previously. There's a lot that's happened to get us mobilised and organised as a group in terms of our management meetings, the way that we work through our agendas, making sure that we have control arrangements down through the organisation, training and development down and through the group, good communications and following up on the recommendations of internal audit, of Audit Wales and, of course, yourselves. I've been very pleased with the way that the group has responded to those points, and I think and I hope—we can perhaps pick this up during the course of this session—that you will have seen some benefits in that regard over the last few years.
And then, finally, just the team spirit across the group, and I mentioned that in my letter to you, Chair. There's a good sense of engagement throughout the group. Just in the last few weeks, we've run the latest version of the staff survey that applies to all civil servants across the United Kingdom. Our staff engagement scores have gone up very considerably, and we're now up about eight or nine points against where we were before. Our leadership and management of change scores have gone up, and although people are obviously struggling with the effects of the pandemic and also with the very considerable workloads that they've had to face over this last year in particular, morale has held up very well, and that team spirit and sense of common purpose is there. So, just to close my opening remarks as I began them with a set of thanks to everybody across ESNR, who have made such a major contribution over these recent years. I think that will do by way of openers. I don't know whether you want me to say a little bit about the future now, or whether you want to come back to that later in the session.
Thanks for that, Andrew. We've got some questions on the future, so if you want to incorporate that into your answers later. So, moving on to the questions. The first one is from me. The committee has undertaken inquiries about a range of areas within your portfolio, as you're no doubt aware, and its resulting reports have made a series of recommendations, all but a few of which you accepted. How helpful have the committee's inquiries been in driving improvement and performance, and how do you assess the effectiveness of the actions taken in response to our recommendations?
I think your recommendations are very helpful. It's very rare for us not to accept them, Chair, as you know, and when we do not accept them in the terms in which they're described, it's not because we don't agree with the point of principle, it's because we're trying to find a way to operationalise that. So, I think back to some of the work that we did with you on Pinewood, where you made a number of recommendations about structural surveys. We completely accepted the point of principle, it was how we made that work effectively within the property team in a way that was, as I say, operationalisable. So, the recommendations are very important.
You are the apex and the pinnacle of the scrutiny and control arrangements for the work that I do and that the group does. As I've mentioned, we have internal checks and processes, management processes, then we have our internal audit services, then we have Audit Wales come and look at us externally, and they, in turn, feed views through to you. But you as a committee are also able to undertake your own inquiries. So, I suppose, in part, as accounting officer, one of the things that you do as a committee is provide me with that very top level of assurance. That's a matter of scrutinising me. It means that I need to make sure that appropriate measures are put in place, and it provides often a deep dive into an area which, in turn, forces me as accounting officer to make sure that we've got everything in order. So, there's a value to that. There's a value to the fact that you as a committee are able to look across the breadth of Welsh Government's activities, so that you are able between you to bring out some common themes. So, I think back to discussions we've had around record keeping, or around transparency in the way that we operate, or in respect of showing that line of sight in project management terms, from the idea through to how it actually comes to pass on the ground. Those lessons can then be disseminated, and we do that regularly through the group, and I'll say a bit more about that in a moment. But I think it's important to say to you that the work that you do gives us material that we then use across the group to improve the way that we operate.
Now, you asked about how we actually check on that and follow through, and I think I've mentioned some of these points before, but it's worth just summarising them again for you, Chair. The first thing is that we spend a lot of time communicating out across the group to team leaders, to heads of division—and that's members and directors, members of the senior civil service—on key findings of yourselves, and work that we do in preparation for your inquiries. And we not only share those findings across the group, but we share them more widely across Welsh Government. We have a finance and governance committee, which is part of my ESNR governance structure, where all of these issues are addressed, and those discussions in turn feed into our group audit and risk committee, and that's where we on a regular basis check up with our own non-execs, as well as with colleagues from Audit Wales and internal audit services, how we're doing against the recommendations that you've put in place. So, there is a range of checking mechanisms as well as a unit within the centre of my group who work very hard on monitoring what's going on across the group and give me regular reports. So, we have a range of mechanisms in place to make sure that we're following up on the things that we've committed to doing, and to make sure that we're disseminating the lessons that you are coming up with and we are coming up with, working with you as a committee, for the benefit of the wider organisation.
Okay, thanks for that, Andrew. I'm going to bring in other Members now and, firstly, Gareth Bennett.
Thanks, Chair, and thanks, Andrew, for your comments. It's good that you find the work of the committee helpful, as you just described it. I just wanted to ask a couple of questions about the Welsh Government's financial support packages and grants, and the issue of transparency, which we regard on the committee as being a bit of a recurring theme throughout the period. We did write to you in January 2020 asking that the Welsh Government undertake more work to review its approach to releasing financial information to ensure that this is as transparent as possible. Have you completed the review and, if so, are you able to share the outcomes now? How will Welsh Government promote transparency in future and thereby facilitate more effective scrutiny?
I think the answer to that, Mr Bennett, is that we're always trying to find ways to be more transparent about our grant information. The main issue—as you and I have discussed in the past—is commercial confidentiality. Sometimes, that is a matter that cannot be breached for a very considerable amount of time. In other respects, it is very often a matter of immediate timing, so it may be that we can't publish something today, but we may be able to do so in a few months' time or in a year's time, or so on. And we've worked across our grant mechanisms, whether that's European Union funded money in the past, or work that we're seeing out now, or our domestic schemes, to try and make information as freely available as possible and also in the review work and evaluation work that we do to make sure that those finding findings are shared as well. I think I would probably characterise the review with a small 'r' rather than a capital 'R', partly because, as I say, that's work that's ongoing all of the time, but also, equally, the pandemic has put a range of pressures on us, so we've been trying to work within the context of dealing with COVID-19. I might bring Sioned in in just a moment, just to talk a little bit about what we've done with the economic recovery fund, and some of the other support measures that we put in place through the pandemic, because she and the team have done a lot of work in that area.
I suppose, just lastly, one of the things that we've done by way of a bit of innovation just in the last couple of years with you is, on occasion, offer a private session with you for briefing as a committee on areas where we can't make matters public because they are commercially confidential or there's a very particular set of sensitives. We try not to overuse that, because I firmly believe that scrutiny should be held in public as far as is humanly possible. But, in the interests of helping the committee with its inquiries and its deliberations, we have offered that, and I think—but it's for you to tell me—that you as a committee have found those occasions useful, even if it's just to get a little bit under the bonnet of things that we're working on. So, as I say, not to overuse that mechanism, but from time to time there are things that we may just simply not be able to share more widely because of the sensitivity, and it gives us an opportunity just to brief you and then you're in a position to form a view. If I may, Chair and Mr Bennett, I'll bring Sioned in at this point.
Thank you, Andrew, and thank you, committee. So, as well as providing support to individual businesses over the last year, we've been primarily focused on the economic resilience fund, and one of the decisions that was taken quite early on was to be as open and transparent with that funding as possible. In that sense, in terms of media updates and in terms of the information we publish, including the Economic Intelligence Wales report that was undertaken in December 2020, we have shared as much information as possible, not just about the quantum of the money that's involved, but also around the number of businesses that are supported and, importantly, the number of jobs that are protected both for the current period and for the future. So, in terms of the fund itself, as soon as we're able to release information, we do, and we do regularly update the data that we are able to publish to make sure that, if we are presenting information at a point in time, that is then updated so that everyone who needs to have the information, or anyone who's interested in the information, can have the very latest detail.
Thanks for those responses. I think commercial confidentiality—. Obviously, we have to bear that in mind, but sometimes there has been a suspicion that it's used as a pretext for not releasing full information. I'm only saying now and again, but we do sometimes have this thing of, 'Oh, commercial confidentiality', and sometimes people think, 'Well, how is it relevant in this case?'
In terms of the private sessions, I think they can be helpful, so thank you for doing them, although, as you said, scrutiny needs to be as public as it can be. But certainly they have been helpful from time to time, the private briefings that we've had.
Could I just ask a question about the convention centre? The permanent secretary told the committee that the Welsh Government had given £1 million towards the convention centre, but later on there was a figure of £2.5 million to fund capital budget charges. Could you just clarify what the level of Welsh Government funding for the convention centre is at the moment? Thanks.
I think on that one, Chair, if I may, I'll drop you a little line after this session just to make sure that I'm not adding further confusion to the figures. The general position of the International Convention Centre Wales is that we, as with everybody else, are working our way through the pandemic, and we think the prospects for the convention centre are strong down the track, but just at the moment we're not in a position to run events in the way that ordinarily we would wish to do. But I'll come back to you, if I may, and swiftly, so that you're not hanging around for that, with just a clarification of the financial position.
Okay, thanks very much. Thanks, Chair.
And I think, Mr Bennett, on your point about commercial confidentiality, I think that is entirely fair, and it is good for the committee to keep on pushing us in these areas. We try very hard as a team not to put blanket labels on things because, as you point out, there are areas where things are genuinely very sensitive, and others where it may be a matter of general convenience to use that label. So, we do look at that carefully. We don't always get that judgment right, but I think it is entirely proper for you to continue to test us on that, and for us to continue to find ways to be as open as we can about the work that we're doing while protecting the core interests of the businesses that we're working with.
Diolch. Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. Thinking about the main challenges for the areas within your portfolio, director general, following the trade agreement between the UK Government and the EU, what are the related implications for your team, since you previously told us here in this committee about the pressures faced by staff with responsibility for both Brexit and the economic response to COVID?
As you know very well, Ms Howells, EU transition is my specialist subject so you must cut me off if I'm saying too much. I'll give you a very quick overview, and then you might want to come back on some of the points. I think it is fair to say—and I say this in the note that I sent through to you last week—that the ESNR group is one of the bits of Welsh Government business that is most affected by EU transition, because a lot of the areas, of the operation of the economy and the protections around the economy, whether that's in terms of social and employment protections or environmental protections, fall within my group's purview. So, we are very significantly affected. Within the cross-Government arrangements that we have following through on EU transition, I chair the implementation board for the whole of Welsh Government in respect of following through on EU transition.
Lots and lots of legislation is the first thing to say, both to get us just to this point but also in the months and years to come. On borders, there's an operational side, so we've been working with ports and, of course, with UK Government on what's been happening there. On the whole, across the UK and out into the continent and into Ireland, the last set of figures I saw suggested that traffic and freight flows were up to about 80 per cent of what they were pre EU exit. In Wales, that number is down a bit. So, across the north Wales and south Wales ports, it's between 50 per cent and 70 per cent, depending on which day you do the assessment, and there is some evidence to suggest that people who would normally have come through the land link through Wales are not doing that and are either using the link through Scotland or taking ferries straight through to mainland Europe, and that's something that we're watching quite closely.
There's then all the work around infrastructure. So, apart from all the borders and customs work that is put in place by UK Government, we will need to put in place over the coming months border control posts to pick up the animal and plant health and food safety dimensions of imports and exports. So, that will require us to put some very considerable infrastructure in place both in north-west and south-west Wales to meet the new set of checks coming in.
We have now acquired over 4,000 new functions for Welsh Government as a result of powers flowing back from Brussels, so we're in the process of working our way through those. Not all of those are of the same degree of heft or importance—some are fairly administrative in their nature, some are clutches of powers that come together in groupings, but there's a lot of very significant stuff there, which includes, for the first time in our history through devolution and, indeed, for the UK since the early 1970s, rights of policy initiative in a number of areas, including in respect of the environment, land management, chemicals safety, pesticides, what we do in relation to certain water-related measures, recycling and waste, and so on, and also what we do around procurement, what we do about environmental justice, and so on. So, these are all big areas that will need to be followed through on.
And then, just generally, we're going to deal with the impacts on the economy. We've all read the reports in the press in recent weeks in relation to different sectors experiencing difficulties. The unusual thing about the trade and co-operation agreement is that it's one of the first free trade agreements in history that actually puts more barriers in place to trade rather than the other way round, because that's the nature of extricating ourselves from the previous single market and common customs area arrangement. So, we are just working our way through all of that, and the big unknowns are what the medium and longer term impacts will be on the economy.
The contingency arrangements, by and large, we've spent a lot of time planning for those, a lot of time working with logistics company and supermarkets and others on stockpiling of material in the run-up to Christmas and beyond. By and large, those measures, working with other partners—public and private sector—seem to have been successful. But as I think I mentioned in my note to you, we know that a number of lorries are going back onto the continent empty, so stuff may well be coming in, but we can't hang on to those freight vehicles, so they, in many cases, are going back either not with anything on board at all or not full. All of that places big strains on a team who are already dealing with COVID responsibilities and a range of other things.
We do our best to reprioritise work wherever we can, working with Ministers on that. We are in the process of bringing in one or two additional people, so some additional resource, including at the senior level. We continue to have discussions with Ministers about what's the appropriate size and shape of the Welsh Government civil service for the future, and wherever possible we're trying to do things in a smart way. But there's no doubt about it, there's a lot of additional work brought to bear by, or through, EU exit.
Thanks, Vikki. Before we go on, Andrew, this infrastructure investment that is required at Holyhead and in the west, what sort of ballpark figure estimate have you made of that?
We're in discussions with the UK Treasury and with Customs and Excise on that, so I can't give you a definitive figure, but we're talking tens of millions of pounds worth of expenditure, both in the north and in the south, by the time we're done.
That wouldn't just fall on the Welsh Government coffers, then?
No. Our argument has been to UK Treasury—. And I think that they have accepted this—I haven't heard the very latest in terms of the discussions that are ongoing. I think that that principle is accepted and that we will get the money for that from UK Government. That will be very important for us to make these border control posts happen, because we don't carry that money in our own financial settlement or in our reserves.
Yes, okay. Before I bring in—. Well, actually, I was going to bring in Jenny Rathbone next anyway. Jenny.
Thank you. In your paper, you talk about all these new powers and responsibilities and that they may offer opportunities to achieve outcomes in line with Welsh Government ambitions. Given all the difficulties that have been caused by all these non-tariff barriers, particularly to the shellfish industry but also to the dairy industry, could you just tell us a little bit more about the possible ways in which we could exploit the situation that we're now in, in terms of maybe doing more processing of the products that we produce, so that they're less subject to delays at borders?
As you have mentioned before, and we've discussed, there is an opportunity for us to add more value in the supply chain and to pick up some of the issues that you've just raised, including in relation to shellfish. The difficulty there in the past has been the value of the product compared with the cost of putting in place some of those processing facilities, and that in turn requires one to have an increased demand at the UK level. So, there is a range of things that you need to do to help with some of those issues.
I think one of the things that I'm keeping a pretty close eye on, along with the team, is just how many sectors have been affected over the last few weeks. To some extent, we could see issues coming for agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and so on, but it is quite interesting to note what's happened in respect of, for example, the arts and musicians. I appreciate that in the pandemic nobody's travelling very far, but rights of movement of individuals is going to be an issue in the future.
What do we do about the fashion industry, who are also reporting problems? And quite large-spread chunks of the manufacturing sector, anywhere, basically, as you've just pointed out, in respect of non-tariff barriers, where you've got any product or component travelling backwards and forwards fairly frequently across what had previously been—. Well, they haven't been boundaries, have they? They've been nation states within the single market and the customs area. Anywhere where you have that additional friction causes problems—delays or extra cost—and it's working our way through all of that.
The right policy initiatives, though, do give us the potential to tailor policies and approaches at the Welsh level, particularly where we've got devolved competence, but also, I would argue, to help influence what's happening at the UK level in respect of reserved matters, so trade, what we do around the internal market. We've got new legislation there, but how we make some of that an operational reality is something that we need to continue to work on and form our own view about how best to proceed and how best to engage with UK Government.
So, there are areas where we can do new thinking. We'll need to put the appropriate amount of effort and resource into that. For example, if you want to do procurement in a different way, we've got to be very clear what happens in international terms as well as what's happening at the UK level. But there are some big areas where we can choose to do things in a different way going forward, provided those are consistent with our international treaty obligations.
Okay. So, do you think there are lots of opportunities for import substitution? Personal protective equipment is an obvious one, where we were totally exposed when the pandemic broke out.
Yes, there are opportunities for import substitution, and I think on PPE, we've done a lot to stimulate the supply chain. One of the things that we are going to need to reflect on—one of those future challenges that I've touched on earlier—is how we deal with pandemics. It's COVID at the moment. We already know that there are variants of COVID circulating. Viruses mutate—that's what they do. We can continue to expect issues in that area over the coming months and years.
As others have pointed out, including in the media, in the last 20 years we've had SARS and we've had MERS and we've had a range of other issues. Part of the thinking that we need to do for the future is how we're going to operate in the context of future disease threats. And that has bearings on our transport system, how we do education, the world of work and so on. So, I think there are opportunities to do things in a different way, and there will undoubtedly be market opportunities for some, but that is not in any way, shape or form to underestimate the challenges associated with coming away from the customs union and the single market.
Okay. I'll come back to you later on procurement.
Did you have any further questions, Jenny?
I did on procurement, but I'm happy to wait until a bit later on.
Okay. Moving on then to Cardiff Airport, and Darren Millar.
Sorry, Chair—I've had my hand up for a while.
I didn't know if you could see me or not. Very briefly then, because I know you want to move on, but not underestimating the magnitude of what's just been said, in terms of future pandemic preparedness and the whole massive area around contingency planning, new systems and processes around EU transition and exit. So, my simple question really is: does that mean, inevitably, that we will be looking at a much, much bigger Welsh civil service in the future?
I don't think so, necessarily. I think part of this is about the role of Welsh Government for the future and what we do in terms of policy and operational work and how we work with arm's-length bodies and other partners. But it is undoubtedly the case that we are in a new world with a new set of responsibilities that fall to us. We aren't getting any additional money for Welsh Government, so all of this is within some very significant financial constraints, and the First Minister has been very clear that we can't be treating Welsh Government any differently than we would from other bits of the public service. And, actually, that's an important point, because as the First Minister regularly says, how can we make better use of the wider public service across Wales as a 'team Wales' approach to tackle some of these issues and more permeability between different parts of the public sector? So, there are a range of things for us to go at over this coming period, but plenty to do.
And finally then, if I may indulge the Chair, does that mean then that there is real concern, in terms of the capacity of the current level of workload within the Welsh civil service?
We are always looking at how we prioritise things to make sure that we're focused on the things that are most urgent and most important. That goes on on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. One of the things that the pandemic has brought to the fore is just how quickly we can mobilise people, particularly now we're operating remotely. We might want to talk a little bit about this later on, but one of the levelling factors, one of the really good factors about working remotely, has been it doesn't matter where you are across Wales, or further afield, you're contributing on a level playing field with everybody else in a way that we're doing right now. You don't have to be based somewhere particular. And that has meant that contributions can come in from wherever across our different sites and where people are based.
So, there are ways and means of us doing things in a different way. But, we've acquired a load of additional functions through devolution over the course of the last 20 years. We're a smaller civil service than we were at the outset, and certainly, at our peak. We just need to find new ways of doing things and new approaches, and bringing in additional capacity, where we can. But that resource position is a tricky one. We can't—
Okay. I'm going to move things on, Andrew, because we need to make some progress, and I want to move on to the airport. So, Darren Millar.
Thank you, Chair. Can you provide us with an update on the financial performance of Cardiff Airport at the moment, Mr Slade? I notice that we haven't had a set of financial statements published on the Companies House website as yet; I assume that they've not been deposited for the financial year end, 31 March—or the airport's year end, 31 March—presumably because of the pandemic. And, obviously, I've seen some of the updated figures on loans in your letter to the committee Chair of, I think it was 1 February. It would help, I think, if we could just have a current picture.
I don't think there's much I can give you by way of financial data beyond what you got in the letter. And, as you say, in due course, the pandemic has certainly had a bearing, as you rightly point out, Mr Millar. The normal financial reporting information will be available to everybody, including through Companies House.
We're in an extraordinarily difficult situation globally, and you've got some of the figures in the letter. I mean, the original loss of revenue to the aviation sector in the early part of last year was deemed to be about £30 billion to £40 billion. By the tail end of 2020, that figure was up above the £350 billion mark, and this is something that is affecting everybody globally. Right now, the airport is effectively operating on the basis of Welsh Government support, plus the work that the company has done, very successfully, to cut costs: making use of furlough and other provisions. A very tricky set of issues to address for the future.
The problem at the moment is that making any sort of decision about the future of an airport in the middle of a pandemic is incredibly difficult. UK Government have made some money available for English airports recently. We're still trying to get to the bottom of what that funding actually comprises and how it's focused, and, indeed, what we will get in terms of consequentials from that money. But we're all at it, across the world, trying to prop up our airports and our aviation systems through the pandemic, as we are with public transport, buses and trains, and, indeed, as we are with the wider economy, through the various measures, at both UK and Welsh Government level.
Thank you for that. You mention, in your letter, that the current total amount of the loans drawn down by Cardiff Airport, as of 1 February, appears to be £54.6 million, which is obviously quite a significant sum—
Yes, it is.
—especially given the significant loans that it was being given, even before the pandemic, on an annual basis, with constant extensions and significant grace periods on interest. I mean, is that the current picture, or is that the picture, as at the time that you previously attended the Public Accounts Committee back in November?
That's, I think, the updated position. I think Simon wrote to you, the director for economic infrastructure, and the plan certainly was that he would give you the updated position, against the loans agreed in principle. As you say, the draw-down is, I think, over £50 million. And you're right, we've had a sequence of loans put in place, and then we've had the issues to do with the pandemic to deal with.
It's not all gloomy. I can't remember, I saw Simon's letter last week, but I think he closes on some of the discussions that Cardiff have had, and, indeed, agreements reached with other airlines, to operate out of Cardiff Airport. So, there is demand, and we expect that to return once things get moving again. It's very helpful that we've got to a position now with mass testing and testing arrangements for passengers and so on. That agreement has been reached more widely. But it is an extraordinarily difficult time for airports everywhere.
Can you assure us that this committee will receive regular updates on the significant loans that are being given to Cardiff Airport, given that it's pretty significant public money? And what can you tell us about the way in which these loans are structured, Mr Slade? Because we've always been told that these loans have been given on a commercial basis, but I'm yet to find another business in Wales that appears to get such significant loans from the Welsh Government, with massive periods where they don't have to pay any interest on those loans.
On the second point, I can assure you that we do work on the market operator principle—we have to, otherwise the provisions we put in place wouldn't have been agreed by the European Commission, where relevant.
Can you give us another example of a significant Government loan without interest being charged for a number of years that the Welsh Government has made?
There is a sequence of loan arrangements put in place by ourselves and by other lending parties. We can write to you more generally with some of the other loan arrangements that are in place across the public service. But we wouldn't be allowed to support the airport without that market operator principle firmly in place. One of the interesting things going forward is what the new state aid or subsidy control regimen will be now that we've left the European Union. That is something on which we're having discussions with the UK Government.
On your first point, absolutely, we will keep you updated. I think it's fair to say the committee has been very interested in the airport throughout my time as director general, and I don't imagine that's going to change. A core part of that involves us keeping you regularly updated and we're very happy to do that.
So, how frequent will they be—quarterly, six-monthly, annually? Or is it just every time we ask?
I think probably we can do it for you on a six-monthly basis, if that would help. I think anything more frequent than that is probably not going to be terribly useful. But I'm very happy for you to come up with a schedule that you think will be most helpful for you as a committee.
I think six-monthly sounds perfectly reasonable. On top of those other loans that I just mentioned up to 1 February totalling £54.6 million—that's from the £72 million, I think, that the airport can draw down—you've also made an emergency loan facility available to the airport as a result of the pandemic for £4.8 million. Has that been sufficient to support the airport through the pandemic, or is it clear as to which pots are being drawn down? How do you make sure that that is used for pandemic purposes and the other stuff is used for non-pandemic purposes? Are you monitoring that?
Yes, and that's part of the—. We have our Holdco arrangement, and then we have a series of arrangements that run in respect of the policy and operational teams within the transport directorate, the economic infrastructure directorate, looking at the performance of the airport, and we work very closely with the company's management. To your question about is it enough, I think, going back to what I said a few minutes ago, the combination of our emergency support, plus the action taken by the management to reduce costs, is what's keeping the airport going at the moment through this extraordinarily difficult time. I can't and don't wish to sugar-coat the level of pressure that airports everywhere are under through this pandemic.
Is it likely to need a further extension to the current loan facilities?
I can't give you a view on that at the moment. We're in discussions with the airport on a regular basis and Ministers will want to say a bit more in the future about a longer term strategy for the airport as well.
I was going to say—I mean, one of the things that this committee's been told in the past, of course, is that the master plan for the airport is being refreshed. When is that likely to be completed, that piece of work? And given that there's likely to be a price tag attached to any further investment at the airport, when is it likely that you'll be making decisions, Mr Slade—or the Welsh Government will be making decisions?
Ministers will have more to say on that in the coming weeks. The only caveat I would put on all of this is the point I was making to you earlier about the degree to which anyone can take really long-term decisions when we're in the middle of the pandemic. Every single airport across the world, I think, without exception, whether it's the 86 per cent of the world's airports that are publicly funded, or the balance that are self-sustaining in private sector terms, is wrestling with these challenges, and I don't think anybody can really say with certainty, 'This thing will happen by that date' at the moment, because we just don't know. But Ministers will have more to say on those matters before long.
You say 'in coming weeks'; does that mean that the work on the master plan has been completed, then?
All the work on the master plan has already happened, but, again, some components are dependent on our expectations around business and when it comes back into the future and so on. So, it's those areas where, inevitably, there's going to have to be a little bit more flexibility about what happens going forward.
And just one final question on the loans, if I may, before I ask a little bit about the EU stuff. So, £54.6 million drawn down to date, there's obviously interest accruing on that as well, yes? So, what is the total outstanding, including interest, given that repayments haven't started?
I don't know. I wouldn't wish to give you a figure that was confused or incorrect. Simon, I think, set out the latest position, but I'm happy to go back and ask him if there's further information that we can give the committee now.
Thanks very much for that. You've already hinted at the fact that Brexit obviously changes, potentially, the arrangements that can kick in in terms of support for Cardiff international airport going forward. Can you tell us to what extent you feel that they've changed at the moment? What discussions are taking place between Welsh Government and UK Government counterparts on the extra support that could potentially be made available, given the fact that we've been set free from some of the EU rules on these things?
We're in, as your question suggests, slightly uncharted territory on all of this. We've moved out from under the general block exemption regulation for most of what we do or have been doing in state-aid terms. That process of law at the European Union's end had reduced the amount of traffic between ourselves and the Commission in a helpful way, so that we were just having to notify a smaller handful of interventions to the Commission through the United Kingdom Government. The UK Government has basically published an interim position, which, in many respects, is similar to some of the provisions that applied before, and that's not surprising, because those are written into the trade and co-operation agreement. One of the things that will have a bearing on our state aid and our procurement rules and so on, going forward, will be commitments that are signed up to at a national level in the context of international treaties, whether it's the TCA in the European sense, or other free trade agreements with other partners around the world. The principles about how the new regimen should work are, again, very familiar. I think I'm right in saying that the UK Government has proposed a lifting of the de minimis arrangement from around about the €200,000 over three years per company rate to around £350,000. There's a little bit more room for manoeuvre there, but that's not, as you know, necessarily particularly relevant in the context of the airport. Discussions with the UK Government are ongoing. We're taking legal advice on what we can do in the current climate and we will need to work our way through, in a measured way, all of this while we're working towards a new set of subsidy control arrangements for the United Kingdom for the future.
One final question, if I may, Chair, and that's just on Anglesey Airport at Valley. Can you tell us to what extent that features in the Welsh Government's plans and, in particular, whether there are any proposals to reinstate the north-south air link that's obviously seen significant reduction in traffic because of the pandemic and then was put on the shelf for a period? Is that something that you're looking to reinstate, or do you think that, perhaps, given the way that people are now working, it may no longer be necessary, particularly given that a large proportion of those who were using the service were public sector employees?
That's a very fair question. We have certainly found, in the past, a very considerable value from some of these public service obligation routes, not least the one up to Valley. As you point out, Mr Millar, the pandemic has basically put that one on ice for the moment. It is part of our considerations for the future in that wider sense. But back to the point I was making 20 minutes ago, the world of work—you've just touched on it—is changing. There are potential changes afoot in relation to education in the longer run, as well, so there is a range of factors that will be brought to bear on whether that's a sustainable proposition going forward. But those discussions are certainly happening. They're in the mix.
And any developments at Anglesey Airport, at Valley there? Anything proposed in terms of investment?
Nothing new to announce beyond what's already been said in the past.
Okay. Thank you.
Rhianon, a very, very quick question on this, and a quick answer, because I'm mindful we've only got about 20 minutes left and we've still got a lot of questions.
In regard to transparency, actually, in regard to the airport support scheme, we're very well aware that £100 million has been given to English airports. Have we had any news in regard to anything further than the lack of transparency, really, I suppose, from the UK Government around the fact that this had already been included in some sort of previous COVID guarantee that we know nothing of? Is there anything to come further in terms of Cardiff Airport?
There's nothing new on that, Ms Passmore. We don't know quite how this £100 million is formulated and exactly what it's for. The UK Government say, 'Well, you've had your general COVID money.' Until we see more detailed figures, we can't really say whether we've had our proper consequential as a result. So, it is a bit shrouded in mystery, I think it's fair to say. We are working hard with colleagues at the other end of the M4 to try and get to the bottom of all this.
Okay. Thank you.
Thanks, director general. Can we move on now to Jenny Rathbone?
Thanks very much. I just want to go back to procurement. Specifically, in September, you told the committee you were going to publish the findings of the independent review of the procurement exercise on Job Support Wales, and I wondered when you were going to publish that.
JSW, yes. So, what do I know about JSW this week? I know that there's a meeting happening between my team and legal services this week to look at the cross-checks with internal audit's report, so my expectation is that the publication will happen in the next few weeks, certainly before the end of the financial year. So, it's a few weeks away. We very deliberately wanted to make sure that internal audit had gone across it all completely, and that what we were saying was entirely fair to all the parties concerned. There's obviously a fairly high degree of sensitivity around it. But that will be out very shortly.
Okay. So, based on the draft you've already seen, how do you think it's going to enhance the Government's procurement processes and improve the narrative required to ensure that we're making correct decisions?
That's a fair point. In relation to the specific procurements, the problem in relation to employability and that procurement related to the adult provision rather than the youth provision. I think we're reasonably comfortable about the processes we've got in place there. For the adult provision, we've gone for a mixture of procured solutions and grant-based solutions. We've spent a lot of time working our way through that, including picking up the interim lessons learned coming out of the review. At its heart, I think the issue with the JSW procurement was around how things were recorded, in particular how qualitative assessments of a panel were recorded, the degree to which those findings were set out and how they were set out, and that is a key area for us to learn from for the future. That would be my main takeaway from that work, but you'll be able to see that in a bit more detail very shortly.
Okay. I just want to look more broadly at procurement over the last five years, because the future generations commissioner was quite critical of the way in which we haven't got joined-up thinking and we've got to much silo working going on. We've talked long and hard for at least five years about improving public procurement so more of what we need is being procured locally. What can you tell us about the pace of change that's required to ensure that that happens? Because it seems we're still taking baby steps, rather than a wholesale approach to doing things differently.
A lot has happened and continues to happen through the previous or existing framework. That allowed a number of factors to be brought to bear in procurement terms, and we've seen some of that used very successfully through the pandemic. We know that a number of areas—local authorities and, indeed, what happens at the national level—in respect of procurement of food and drink and so on have been exemplary, so there are lots of areas where we have made progress.
There's the forthcoming revision to the Wales procurement statement. I think that's a matter of a few weeks away. We also now have to take into account the fact that we've left the European Union. You will be aware there is a UK Government Green Paper on procurement reform and procurement for the future, and we're talking to our stakeholders around that area, about that Green Paper as well, so that we have a joined-up Wales response to what the UK Government are proposing, and working out what we want to do in the Welsh Government context. So, there are plenty of opportunities ahead, but I would wish to underscore the progress that has been made through this recent period. Lots has happened, including in relation to training and how we make better use of the rules that are in place at the moment.
And then, Ministers have placed a real premium on the work of developing the foundational economy, which links very closely to procurement. I entirely accept the point that we could be more joined-up around that work, and that's something that Ministers have pushed hard on. Sioned has been very heavily involved in developing some of the pilot work around the foundational economy. So, again, there's an opportunity there. But a lot is going on, I think, across—
Okay. Well, there really is an economic imperative to ensure that we don't have money leaking out of Wales that we could be using to employ people locally. So, Sioned, how much pressure are you putting on local authorities to really modernise their procurement processes so that they are thinking about the opportunities for their local economy?
We are working really closely with local authorities. I think, in the last year, the relationships we've built up with local authorities have strengthened our ability to have the conversations that we need to have. There's a recognition, as you say, Ms Rathbone, around the amount of money that is being lost to Wales in terms of some of our historic procurement practices. One of the things we're really keen to make sure we do is build upon the good work that's happened through the pandemic in terms of how manufacturing in particular has responded to the crisis, and how they have sometimes swapped what they do—they've changed, they've become flexible, and they've demonstrated actually how agile the economy is in Wales if focused on something that obviously has an end reward. Businesses are obviously in business in order to add to the economy, and the work we're doing is really to see how we can not just change procurement practices, but also some of the thinking around this, so that we can continue to drive best value rather than the cheapest, lowest price, which tends to be the easy fallback position, particularly when resources are constrained. I think, through that education piece, and that development of confidence in procurement especially, they have been really, really helpful and will help us to match the demand with what we can supply in Wales, and also to support manufacturers in Wales to go for the high-value type activities that we need.
We've seen through the pandemic a focus on PPE, for example—very much masks, visors, that sort of activity, which was really important at the time and it was excellent to see how businesses and industry have responded. But actually there is some higher-value type equipment that NHS Wales, for example, could equally source from Wales if we got all of the ducks in a row in terms of our businesses and manufacturers, and some security around the purchasing. So, I think there's the potential to do something really quite special on the back of the pandemic, but particularly if we are more minded to retain some of the increased risk profile that we've been able to take moving forward, which we were enabled to do. So, I think that's quite exciting.
So, have you set yourselves a milestone for, say, the next 12 months or the next two years so that we can actually track the progress that you're making? These are all very fine words, but, as I say, we've been talking about this for over five years.
The work we're doing on the foundational economy at the moment has got a delivery plan. I'd be happy to share some of that information with the committee as a follow-up to this if you'd like further detail around that.
Okay, we need to move things on, because time is getting short. Rhianon Passmore.
You told the committee in June 2020 that the performance in delivering financial assistance for businesses during the pandemic from concept and design to operation and delivery has been very impressive across the piece, both within local authorities and within Welsh Government. So, do you believe this level of performance has continued since that session? What has your monitoring and evaluation shown? And can you provide some headline figures in relation to the delivery and outcomes of these really important support schemes? I'm happy to repeat parts of that again.
I'll have a go, and then I'll invite Sioned, who's leading all of this work and has done a fantastic job with the team in this area. So, as to your first point, and mindful the Chair's requested I keep things short, yes, I do feel things have continued to operate in a really successful and impressive way. We've now got £1.7 billion or thereabouts out there in businesses and bank accounts supporting businesses in a package of support that is the most generous across the UK, and I think, overall, it now exceeds £2 billion. We sought to plug gaps in the UK Government arrangements. We have worked hard to keep the economy afloat through the most extraordinary time. Short of, heaven forfend, a wartime situation, the combination of COVID and EU exit is the two biggest challenges we've faced probably since the end of the second war. A lot of work has been done to iterate the packages of support that have been put in place. We've put very effective mechanisms around the funds both to help to design them and shape them, bring them back, get them tested and challenged, and so on, as well as in their delivery. We've learned from each round of operationalising the funds so that we do the next round better and in a slicker way, but also in the process to strengthen controls through registration of businesses, and so on.
So, I think it has been a very impressive package of work. We had Economic Intelligence Wales in—I think Sioned mentioned that earlier on—to do some initial evaluation work alongside our core checks, and Sioned might want to say a little bit about that in terms of the number of businesses supported and jobs we think have been protected, but also what the overall impact is. The real evaluative work I think will have to happen a bit later on when we're out of the heat of the pandemic and can get a slightly cooler look at it all. But, in terms of keeping the economy going at an extraordinary time, I think we have done a very successful job of that, and I think the vast majority of businesses, certainly in the feedback I've seen, have been very grateful. If I may, I'll bring Sioned in at this point.
Thank you, Andrew. I think what would be easier for the committee—I can run through loads of figures for you; as you can imagine, we've got all sorts of stats on this—and what would be really helpful for you, perhaps, is to see all this mapped out, as we've got it at the moment, for every single round, because I think it tells a really compelling story. One of the things, building on what Andrew just said, the last time, is that in responding really quickly to this, we had a £500 million grant potential in that first round, £100 million through the Development Bank of Wales, and I think this is probably an opportunity to really thank those partners we've worked with. I know we've touched upon it before, but none of this would've been possible without the relationships with the local authorities and the Development Bank of Wales. In that first £500 million, £100 million of that was the COVID business loans through the development bank. They'd approved their first loan within three days of that grant going live, and the speed at which we've been able to get the money out has been incredible. So, £92 million of that fund was spent protecting 16,000 jobs, and those sorts of figures are repeated across the piece.
Because we were really impressed by what the Development Bank of Wales had done in terms of how they'd processed these, we went into the bank and talked to them about their processes and their pod process, which is what we brought back to the Welsh Government then in order to build the framework for our own delivery. And that means we're now on our fourth iteration of ERF, maybe the fifth—I'm losing track of this year—and, actually, we are now, in the current round, actually banging through those really, really quickly with a very, very experienced, if tired, team of people who are making sure that we are ticking all the boxes around catching any potential fraud. We're working very closely with our head of fraud on that basis. We have a challenge team that's involved. The pods are managed and led by a senior reporting officer. At one point, we were having daily meetings for six, seven, eight weeks in order to make sure that we were on track with everything.
So, I'm really confident, from that point of view, that we have been building on the experience we've received every single time, and I think, as to some of the questions that were raised earlier around how we protect ourselves for the future, I'm really confident that what we've managed to established through need in this year will hold us in really good stead for relationships in terms of getting grants out in the future that don't have to be under an emergency situation. But, now we have a framework in there that otherwise could have taken us months, if not years, to have gone through the normal processes with. But it's been forced through and, so far, all the feedback has been really—
And on that very positive note, I need to move things on, if that's okay, Rhianon. So, Delyth Jewell, you need to ask your questions.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Sioned, dwi'n meddwl bydd hyn yn gwestiwn i chi hefyd. Mae rhai pryderon wedi cael eu codi ynghylch y risg o dwyllo, neu fraud, yn ymwneud â chefnogaeth ariannol o ran COVID. Faint o dwyllo mae eich prosesau wedi ei ddarganfod, ac, os yw hynny wedi cael ei ddarganfod, ydych chi wedi adennill unrhyw arian? A oes unrhyw arian wedi dod nôl oherwydd hynna?
Thanks, Chair. I think this will be a question for you as well, Sioned. Some concerns have been raised about the risk of fraud relating to financial support in terms of COVID. So, how much fraud have your processes discovered, and, where fraud has been discovered, have you recovered any funding? Has any funding been recovered because of that?
Diolch yn fawr iawn am y cwestiwn yna. Oes, mae yna ddigon o fraud. Dwi'n gweithio'n agos gyda Steve Tooby, sydd yn bennaeth ar yr adran fraud gyda ni yn y Llywodraeth. Mae e wedi bod yn hapus iawn gyda'r gwaith sydd wedi digwydd hyd yn hyn. Mae yna bobl yn trial ein twyllo ni. Rŷm ni'n cael ffurflenni, ceisiadau i mewn, sydd ddim yn—. Ambell waith, mae pobl jest yn trial, ambell waith mae pobl wir yn gwybod eu bod nhw'n gwneud pethau, ac ambell waith mae pobl yn rhoi mwy nag un cais i mewn. Mae'r prosesau sydd gyda ni ar hyn o bryd yn dal lan yn dda yn erbyn hwnna. Fe fydd yna rai yn mynd trwyddo. Fe fydd yna rai yn mynd trwyddo. Beth dŷn ni'n trial gwneud ydy dal y rhan fwyaf o'r rheini, ond eto rŷn ni'n cadw llygad barcud ar y rheini er mwyn gwneud yn siŵr y gallwn ni fod yn glir gyda phawb wedyn i ddangos beth rŷm ni wedi'i wneud amdano fe.
Thanks for that question. Yes, there is plenty of fraud. I work closely with Steve Tooby, who is the head of the fraud department within the Government. He has been very happy with the work that's gone on so far. There are people trying to defraud us. We have forms and we do have applications coming in that aren't—. Some people are just trying to do that and they really know they're doing, and some people put in more than one application. The processes that we have are holding up very well. There will be some going through. What we're trying to do is to try and catch most of them, but we are keeping an eagle eye on those to ensure that it's then clear to everyone what we have done about that.
Diolch am hynny. Yr unig gwestiwn arall oedd gen i—. Mae Llywodraeth San Steffan wedi cyflwyno hotline—dwi ddim yn siŵr beth ydy hotline yn Gymraeg—er mwyn i bobl allu adrodd lle maen nhw'n ymwybodol bod fraud wedi digwydd. Ydych chi wedi meddwl gwneud rhywbeth tebyg ac, os nad ydych chi, beth oedd eich rhesymeg dros beidio gwneud?
Thank you for that. The only other question I have—. The Westminster Government has introduced a hotline—I'm not sure what a 'hotline' is in Welsh—so that people can report cases of suspected fraud. Have you thought about doing something similar, and, if not, what was your rationale for that?
Wel, i ddweud y gwir, dim ond y bore yma welais i hynna. Fe wnaeth rhywun roi'r wybodaeth hynny i mi. Dwi'n meddwl bod hwnna o ddiddordeb mawr i ni fel Llywodraeth, felly fe allwn ni edrych mewn i hwnna. Dwi ddim yn gwybod beth yw'r ateb, y canlyniad, o hwnna, ond heddiw oedd y tro cyntaf i fi weld hwnna, a dwi'n meddwl ei fod yn syniad da iawn.
Well, to tell you the truth, it was only this morning that I saw that. I only got that information this morning. I think it is of great interest to us as a Government and so we can look into it. I don't know what the outcome of that will be, but today's the first time I've seen it and I think it's a very good idea.
Ocê. Diolch. Dwi'n ymwybodol o'r amser, so fe wnaf fi ei adael e yn fanna.
Okay, thank you very much. I'm aware of the time, so I'll leave it there.
If I may, just to add, like Sioned, we've been picking up on what UK Government colleagues are doing. We do have a fraud hotline for all of Welsh Government, which is led by the aforementioned Steve Tooby, so we do have a mechanism right now that allows people to get in touch directly with Welsh Government in a confidential way in respect of fraud. But that slightly separate question about whether we should have something more dedicated that you and Sioned have just been discussing, I think, is something that we'll take away and consider.
Right, thank you.
Vikki Howells. Oh, no Vikki Howells. Back to you, Rhianon. Oh, no—there's Vikki.
Thank you, Chair. I've got some questions around what lessons you've identified from the pandemic about the Welsh Government's financial support for business. Considering the new trading relationship between the UK and the EU and the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the economy, how will you use those lessons to maximise the impact of the resources that are at your disposal?
Okay. A high-speed response, Ms Howells, and then I'll bring Sioned in if I have missed anything key. First of all, we've learned a lot of lessons through the pandemic. Second, the spirit of partnership that has pervaded the whole COVID programme of work is one that we will definitely want to keep going. Sioned mentioned working with local authorities. That work has been really good and really encouraging and allows us to bring to bear the full range of expertise and capability and capacity across Wales, along with other parts of the public sector. We've got much more swift and effective at joining up across Government, including within my own group. We have put mechanisms in place that allow the relevant people to come together quickly. Sioned mentioned this rapid response approach, which got all of the key interests in the room. We had a challenge function sat alongside that, so it was—you've heard me talk a little bit about this before—the blue team working up the proposition, and the red team was coming in and challenging and saying, 'Ah yes, but what if that happens or this happens?' so that the blue team was refining its proposition all the way through, and we had a range of other checks in place, and I think we want to carry on doing those sorts of things. It provides a strengthened overall assessment of what you're doing, as well as speeding up some of the activity that we do. We've made very effective use of the ICT, the information technology, to allow us to do things in a different way. There's much more that we can do there, I think, in terms of remote working, and we'll want to learn more on that front. And we have worked very well, as I say, with partners—fantastic work done by the development bank, which I can't praise too highly—along with the work that teams have been doing magnificently within Welsh Government and across the local authorities. Those have been my top points. Sioned, have I missed anything very obvious?
No, Andrew, I think you've covered it all, other than to say the economy has always been a marathon rather than a sprint. That's the mindset we have around this, about how we can make sure that what we have can stretch for the longer term, for as long as possible, in terms of where the horizon is, to make sure that we support the economy in the best way possible.
Good. Thanks, Vikki. Rhianon Passmore.
Thank you, Chair. In regard to the introductory session in January 2018—that seems like a very long time ago now, doesn't it—
It certainly does.
—you noted the importance, very much, of leadership and culture in promoting equality and diversity. So, in regard to this session, how have you put that into practice, briefly, and how would you rate—it's very difficult to do, but it's part of your job—how would you rate your achievements to date in improving and promoting equality and diversity within the leadership group and across the Welsh Government? A long question.
And a good one, and a challenging one as well, because we have made progress, I think, in all of those areas, but probably not as much as I would have liked to have done, and partly that's because we've had COVID and we've had Brexit and all those sorts of things to deal with. But, if you look at the staff survey data, which is our most reliable internal metric, our leadership and change scores as a team have gone up, our visibility as senior leaders has gone up, and that's been helped, I think—ironically, isn't it, it's sort of counterintuitive that the pandemic, where we're driven to the four corners of the country to work from home, should actually allow us, in a number of respects, to engage more effectively with one another. And that kind of levelling factor has been very important. So, it doesn't really matter whether you're in Cardiff or you're up in a rural location—as long as you've got broadband that's fit for purpose, you can get engaged in the work. Our staff engagement scores have gone up very significantly as well over this period. So, that's all encouraging.
I think the culture of the group feels like it's improving all the time in the sense that we're inclusive and we are looking out for one another and we are trying to find new ways of communicating with one another and learning lessons and practicing our learning development work. Sioned might want to say a bit more about that; she's been very heavily involved, certainly recently, with our economy, skills and natural resources for the future work as one of our senior sponsors for that. When you're not recruiting many people and you're not promoting many people, because of strictures around money and the fact that we're in an emergency situation, your ability to bring lots of new people into the system, which will have a bearing on your diversity of employment, is obviously restricted. So, I think there's a way for us to go yet, still, within the group, although the most recent modest round of recruitment of new deputy directors, which is in train at the moment, I think will help us on that front at the senior leadership level. And I just think generally that that team spirit that we've seen through the EU exit work and over the last year through COVID is something that I'm proud of. And that's not about me or things I've done; it's about how the team have responded.
Okay. We are pretty much—well, completely—out of time. Sioned, did you just want to say a few words before—?
I was just going to add quickly, Chair, just to what Andrew said, just about learning and development. One of the things we really are focusing on through the ESNR for the future is about mental health and resilience, and I think that's really important for the staff. And Andrew is very, very encouraging and supportive of that. So, I think that's really important for us in terms of our long-term resilience as a directorate.
And can I just add, Chair, if I may—? I'd like to thank the whole of the leadership team for the work that you've been carrying out on behalf of your staff and also for Wales. I've been highly impressed. Thank you.
Yes. I should say thanks for being with us today. I appreciate that these are pressured times, so you've got a lot of things to deal with, but we've always appreciated you coming before the committee. If you could provide some responses—I know that Darren Millar asked you for some details on the airport earlier, and other Members asked some questions as well, so, if you could provide that information, that would be great. We'll send you a copy of the transcript to finalise before it's published, but thanks for being with us today.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.
Thank you to the committee and my best wishes to you all, and stay safe and well.
Good—good advice. Okay, I propose that we take a five-minute break before the next session.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:39 a 10:46.
The meeting adjourned between 10:39 and 10:46.
Welcome back to this morning's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, continuing our reflections on the fifth Assembly/Senedd with the directors general. Can I welcome Tracey Burke and her officials to today's meeting? Would you like to give your name and position for the Record of Proceedings?
Bore da, and thank you, Chair. I'm Tracey Burke. I'm the director general for education and public services. I'm joined by my colleague, Steve, who'll introduce himself now.
I'm Steve Davies, director for the education directorate.
Good, thanks. Tracey, before we go into questions, did you want to make a very brief opening statement?
Yes, thank you very much, Chair. I really appreciate it, and the clerk did say that you may offer us that, so I've just got a couple of notes here, if that's okay just to refer to them.
Yes, I was just going to reflect over the last five years, and, first and foremost, to put on record my acknowledgement of the contribution of my predecessor, Owen Evans. I took over from him in November 2017. When I think back about, I suppose, the achievements over the last three years since I've been director general, I think I'd put them around the three elements of the job, really—so, policy and delivery, being the leader of my group and, also, of course, being the accounting officer, which is primarily why I'm here today.
On policy and delivery, I'm sure you won't want me to run through a list of things that we've achieved, so I won't do that, and that's the terrain for Ministers, really, in any event. But, as leader of the group, I think this is an area where I have achieved a lot. I've really focused on staff engagement, communications, learning and development, and that's been borne out by my staff survey results, where I've seen an increase year on year. So, I've really tried to build a culture based on strong values, about being collaborative and colleagues being generous with their knowledge and expertise. And, then, finally, as accounting officer, I've placed a really high priority on risk, as you would expect, both from my own time, but also in terms of my approach with the group. So, I've strengthened our governance. I've had a very sharp focus on audit, and have actually welcomed audit, both internal and external, and have had an almost zero tolerance to audit recommendations—I think, Chair, I only have one or two overdue for this committee; a few more for Audit Wales's work, but no more than a handful, and those, in the main, have been delayed because of COVID.
Despite COVID, I think I've managed to keep all of my management disciplines in place throughout and even enhanced them in some areas. But I think the main achievement would be to put in place my recognition of the efforts of my colleagues in response to COVID, Chair. I'm sure the committee will have their own views on how we've performed, and I think, when there's time to draw breath and look back, there are bound to be things we could have done better. But I'm extremely proud of what the teams have done, their adaptability, their willingness to change their roles at short notice to respond to COVID, the relentless work they've done week in, week out, weekend after weekend. Many of them have had very little leave and they've shown tremendous resilience and commitment, and, like everybody, have been going through the same restrictions and uncertainty as everybody through the pandemic. So, I think that's really—. I'd just like to make that acknowledgement.
In terms of the future challenges—the clerk did say that you might want to know about that—I think really there are many, but there's only one, really, and that's responding to COVID, both in the short term and obviously in the longer term. So, I'll leave it there, Chair. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Great, thanks. At the introductory session in January 2018, you told the committee the span of the role was wide, and you noted at the time you reported to three Cabinet Secretaries and three Ministers—so, a lot on your plate. How much of a challenge has that been since that time?
Well, they're very broad roles, the director general roles in the Welsh Government, and, I have to say, in the Scottish Government as well. They're quite different to the Whitehall director general roles, which—. Obviously, because of the scale of the UK Government, the director general is a much narrower role, so I think, compared to that, they are a much wider range of responsibilities. I think it's got its advantages, personally. I think it enables, for us, much greater join-up across policy areas, but it does mean that, sometimes, I'm working quite a lot on one Minister's agenda, and maybe my work is not so visible for another Minister. So, I have to really have quite a sharp radar to figure out where I need to spend my time, and just balance the different aspects of it, Chair.
And how do you view the Welsh Government's senior management structure? Does it remain fit for purpose, particularly as we go through the pandemic?
So, obviously, the structure's changed quite a bit over the years. I think, certainly when I became a senior civil servant, I think we had—I can't remember, actually, the exact figure, but it was directors reporting directly to the Permanent Secretary, and there was quite a large number of those. So, the move to have directors general, I think, has worked, in that, as I say, it's enabled that join-up.
Whilst I'm sure the committee will have views on whether or not we still have silos in our organisation, from an internal perspective, it's immeasurably better in terms of breaking down those barriers. But we have been stretched during the pandemic, and the Permanent Secretary has made a temporary director general appointment to Reg Kilpatrick, one of my colleagues, who's become the director general for COVID co-ordination. So, I think we have seen that we have needed some extra firepower, I suppose, during the pandemic in the senior structure.
Good, okay. I'm going to bring in other Members now, and Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. 'Prosperity for All' is a cross-cutting agenda, isn't it, and you told the committee previously that one of the challenges of your role was around the join-up required to deliver on 'Prosperity for All', which you described as a huge agenda. So, reflecting on your time in post and recognising the challenges faced during the last year in dealing with the pandemic, how would you rate your achievements in meeting that challenge of 'Prosperity for All' and how have you driven delivery of the programme?
Gosh. That's—. How do I rate my achievements in delivering against it? So, it's been a very, very wide-ranging agenda, 'Prosperity for All', and I think it really challenged us as an organisation, because, whilst there were a lot of individual commitments in there, it was based around outcomes, and therefore it required different parts of the Welsh Government to come together to deliver against those outcomes—so, a lot more join-up across the organisation. So, to do that, the Permanent Secretary set up a cross-Government delivery board, which, obviously, I sat on, to try and make sure that we had that join-up.
So, for my own part, I have kept really close management and control over our delivery of 'Prosperity for All'. So, I use a business planning system, which, actually, has just rolled out across the Welsh Government, where every single commitment for 'Prosperity for All' is within that planning tool, and I look at that every month. We have a risk rating, a RAG status—red, amber, green—I review that every month, and it's linked to my risk register, but I also work very closely with my directors on that.
But, obviously, some of 'Prosperity for All' was affected by the pandemic, and the First Minister then put in place his continuity plan, which was sort of a reduced and more focused package of things to deliver on before the end of this term.
Diolch, Vikki. Rhianon Passmore.
Thank you very much, Tracey, for what you've already told us, and some of this question goes to some of what you've already inferred, and, obviously, you've mentioned the past year's unprecedented pandemic, and seismic challenges around Brexit. However, the job of work has to be done. You noted the recommendations of this committee, which we made relating to the breadth of the subjects within your portfolio, and you reflected on what you described then as the common shortcomings, and these included issues around commercial activities, which have never been more important; core project management; a lack of clarity over roles and responsibility; information sharing; and, of course, transparency. So, how effective have you been in addressing those issues, and how have you built skills and improved governance across the EPS group since you took up your role? And do you have any evidence of the changes being effective?
Gosh, I seem to have had a lot to say for myself in that session, really, and I think—
You have referred to some of this already.
Yes. As I say, I think it's—. I think it reflected on—. Before I started, I read all of the Public Accounts Committee's and auditor general's reports related to the group, and I think those things that you listed out were common themes throughout it, really. How successful have I been on that? Well, as I say, I've put in place very strong management practices—well, I would like to say they're very strong management practices. And I suppose maybe one way of judging that is what hasn't happened, really, rather than what has happened, because I think there have been few, if any, real surprises for me in delivery issues. And I—. Sorry, you asked about evidence. I think—you know, I have internal audit regularly reviewing my portfolio, and I've had substantial audit assurance from the vast majority of my internal audit reports. So I think that gives me some assurance or some evidence from that.
In terms of what I've been actually trying to do about it, I explained some of that a little bit earlier, but we've put in place new procedures for a programme of project management. So, each major project has a senior responsible officer, and they have to complete a risk assessment. That risk assessment is reviewed by a panel, and then that panel reports and I see those reports, and it enables me on a quarterly basis to see the risk levels of those projects and where we are, really—so, as I say, quite a firm hand on those kinds of things. I think it's because I feel very, very accountable for that money. Obviously, things can still go wrong and maybe will go wrong, but those are some of the things that I've been doing—hopefully—and some of the evidence.
Thank you, Chair.
Did you have another question, Rhianon, or are you done with that?
There is one more question, if that's within my ambit.
Yes—I've got you down for two.
In regard to committee inquiries, the committee has made recommendations about engagement and collaboration in its inquiries about subjects in the EPS portfolio. You told the committee in June you had continued to engage partners and stakeholders during the pandemic, facilitated by technology. So, what lessons have you learned from this, what would you do differently in future as a result, and what implications will this have for the EPS group and the way it delivers its programmes, and partner organisations?
Well, it's been quite a revolution, hasn't it, really. I think, at the start, when we first went into lockdown, I was actually wondering what was going to happen, how we were going to work with our partners. I was on the point of, I think, actually trying to cancel some meetings, because I wasn't sure we'd be able to go ahead. But, of course, within days we were all up and running virtually and now, of course, I think we're probably having more engagement than we had previously to the pandemic. Certainly, if I think about—some examples might be local government, where I don't think we've ever had such close and frequent engagement with local government. I think it's been absolutely unprecedented, really, both at a political level and at an officer level, like me.
What have we learned from that? Well, I think it's enabled much more collective discussion, much more real-time discussion. And, certainly, for us, we've been able to have a much greater consistency of messaging, and I think we've been able to get on to things more quickly. Internally, I think it's been a great leveller for people. Geography just doesn't matter anymore, and actually grade as well. We're all equal in our boxes on our Microsoft Teams or Zoom, whatever, and I think people being able to both be in contact with other people and to have an equal voice has helped. I don't think it's all been improvement, though. I think we've definitely lost something in this sort of interaction, so—
Sorry, Tracey, that's very interesting and it's what we've heard commonly previously, and, obviously, there's a legacy issue in terms of engagement moving forward, but what do you think, with hindsight, you'd have done differently—very briefly, if you may?
With the technology, do you think?
In this particular theme, yes.
Yes. So, I think what I would have done—. Gosh, what would I have done differently?
It may be that you don't think you would have.
It's hard to think what we'd have done differently. I think we'd—. Yes, well, I think we didn't have much choice, really, other than to use this technology. I think maybe I might have been a little bit quicker onto it, or, if I'd had a bit more foresight, I suppose, I might have been.
I think what concerns me, I suppose, is what happens after this, when we do get back to normal working—or is this the normal working—and how we'll make a sort of hybrid situation work, so where we've got maybe more people back into a physical workspace, but some people still working online. And I think that's when equity issues come in then, about who's sort of in the room, so to speak. I think the other issue, thinking about what we could have done differently, is I think maybe we could have anticipated the kind of increase of people wanting to access services online, and, obviously, we've moved very quickly to really up our game there, but I think we probably could have done a little bit more on that front.
Okay. Thank you, Chair.
Diolch, Rhianon. Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. How have you assessed and evaluated whether grant funding to local authorities has delivered planned outcomes following the Welsh Government decision to remove the requirement for external financial audit of grant claims by Audit Wales? What have the results shown?
So, the decision to remove the requirement was taken, I think, across a number of grant schemes because it was extremely time-consuming for local authorities and quite costly, and I think that was a very careful decision, which was taken over a number of years, really, to remove that requirement. But, obviously, all of the same grant procedures are still in place, all the same grant controls are still in place, and, obviously, local authorities are high-trust, established organisations who have a responsibility, just like the Welsh Government, to ensure best use of public funds. So, I think we do have assurances across our grant funding, and our most recent local authority grant funding has been around the hardship fund, where we have controls in place there and we pay in arrears and we check the claims. And then the other grant scheme we've had very recently has been the non-domestic rates grant scheme, which is one that we have done with colleagues on the economy side, and we're not having an audit, but we are having an evaluation of that grant scheme.
Thank you. So, how will you obtain assurance then over the operation of the schemes that local authorities have delivered, where they've delivered the Welsh Government support for business during the pandemic?
So, specifically on the support for business, as I say, on that one, we're having an evaluation carried out at the moment, so that's an external evaluation. We've commissioned that. I think it's Economic Intelligence Wales. It was Andrew Slade's team that commissioned the evaluation, because it was looking at the wider business support, business grants, not just the ones that are administered through local authorities. So, that's in process at the moment. I think there's been an initial report on that, which was published before Christmas, and, if it's helpful, we can send that to the committee. But I suppose that's not the same as my assurance. So, I had internal audit do an assurance of our non-domestic rates scheme, and I was very pleased that they came back to give us substantial assurance on that scheme. They looked at were the roles clear, the documentation—. Looking at—. Financial monitoring was covered too, and they found that there was substantial assurance against all of those. So, I think that's how I gain my assurance, really, on that.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. I just wanted to have a look at how successful we've been in tackling poverty through the use of the free school meals. That has been committed to right up to the end of the Easter holidays. One issue in particular concerns me, which is that the data for the last financial year before the pandemic shows that 20 per cent of eligible children didn't take up their entitlement. So, what evaluation have you undertaken to determine how well these schemes are actually serving the people who are most in need?
So, Steve will correct me, but I don't think we've—. We haven't done a formal evaluation of our free school meals provision, certainly not one that I've seen, but I know it's something that we monitor extremely closely. I think we were really keen to see that all of the children who could benefit from free school meals were. We ran a campaign over the summer to raise awareness of the free school meals provision, and we did see an uplift there of pupils—I think it was about 1,000 more pupils; I'll have to ask Steve on the actual figure, sorry, on that. But, in terms of the monitoring, which is the bit that I keep a closer eye on, we have regular meetings with the WLGA, with their catering leads, to make sure that we understand any issues in terms of the monitoring, the financial monitoring as well. We've also benefited—of course, Audit Wales did a review of free school meals, which gave us some pointers about what could be improved, really, in terms of councils' performance there. But, as I say, we did put a campaign out to encourage more people to come forward, and I think—I think—I'm right in saying, Steve, that there is a small gap now. But I think there are about 100,000 pupils now. That is, I think, a significant increase. I think it was about 90,000 earlier in the summer, and I think it's 100,000 pupils now that are eligible.
Well, that may well be the case, but there's been an increase in the number of children who are eligible, obviously, as a result of the pandemic.
Yes, that is also correct. I'm pretty sure—if I can provide you with a note on it, I'm pretty sure that the gap between those currently who are eligible and those who are actually having the provision is about 1,000 pupils, which still needs to resolved, I absolutely agree with you, but, as I say, we're still raising awareness.
Okay. Because in the previous financial year we were talking about one in five of those eligible not taking it up, and these are people living in families where they clearly don't have the money to ensure that their children are necessarily getting decent food. So, Steve, have you got something to add to this?
Yes, I've got some specific figures for you. The most recent data was collected by Data Cymru. They collect a range of figures for local authorities. In the last week of January, there were 106,000 pupils eligible for free school meals, and, of these, 105,000—just over 105,000—are actually in receipt of some sort of free school meal provision. So that, for us, would indicate a very high percentage of those eligible are actually now in receipt. I think the publication and the media coverage that we did jointly with local authorities brought that to sharp attention, and I think some of the evidence from UK-wide media, and involvement of celebrities, has also focused on that. So, I think we've benefited from that by bringing those figures in.
We also carried out a lot of analysis of social media to check where there were concerns regarding access, and we worked closely with the Welsh Local Government Association to address that as well.
Okay. Clearly, this is a complex area and there are lots of cultural issues involved in this. The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales is critical of the Government's reactive approach to this, looking at it in terms of the economic and social, but not holistically in terms of the preventative agenda. And given that your portfolio straddles housing as well as culture, I just wondered how you're looking at this to ensure that we are looking at this holistically in relation to the seven goals of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Well, that's a very big question. Clearly, poverty and increasing poverty is going to be something that we're going to see over the next, gosh, few years, I guess, given the economic changes that have taken place during the pandemic, and the legacy effect of those. Internally, as an Executive, we are looking hard at our poverty measures at the moment to try to make sure that we have a coherence amongst those measures. As you say, it's not simply about food: it's about where children live; it's about, I suppose, the environment in which they are brought up. It's so much more than simply their free school meals. So, we are trying to take a long-term approach to child poverty, and I know you'll have heard the First Minister talking about that quite recently in the Chamber, and our aspirations in that area. But, as I say, it's certainly a long-term agenda and one that I and my group will be playing a very big part in.
Okay, because it's also about how local authorities and schools are making this seen to be their entitlement, rather than some sort of handout. And I just think that this is such an important issue to ensure that every child is getting the nourishment that they need.
Yes, I couldn't agree with you more. There has often been a stigma attached to children who've been receiving free school meals, and I think that, as Steve said, some of the social media and celebrity campaigning is hopefully breaking down some of that stigma. And I know when children are in school, every attempt is made to make sure that children who are in receipt of free school meals are in no way differentiated in the school canteen from those children who are getting a lunch through other private means. We're extremely sensitive to that, and so are our schools. But we've been doing a wide range of other, I suppose, anti-poverty measures in schools—things like increasing the pupil deprivation grant; I think we've doubled that in the last year to support children. It's a huge job, and I can't talk about it in a couple of minutes. It's a massive and very pressing agenda, and one that I know that you feel absolutely passionately about.
Okay. Let's just agree we need to come back to it. I'll hand over to Vikki.
Absolutely, and I'm sure we will.
Vikki, do you want me to start on the wider issue? Yes, okay. I just want to understand how well the Welsh Government is working with schools as we go from one lockdown to another. I was surprised that one local authority in the most recent lockdown wasn't aware of whether all their special schools were open to all their pupils. And it seems to me that if they don't come into the category of vulnerable, I don't know who else does. So, I just wondered what you've been doing with local authorities to ensure that all schools are reaching out to their vulnerable pupils, as well as their key worker children, to ensure that they are in school.
So, as I said earlier, I don't think our engagement with local government has ever been as frequent or as comprehensive as it is now, and Steve and colleagues—. Steve, there was a point where I think you were almost meeting daily, but I know it's probably not quite that now. You are meeting, certainly, a number of times a week with local authority colleagues on these issues, so what's happening before lockdowns, what's happening during, and what's happening as we come out of lockdowns?
We've learnt a great deal as we've gone through the year. When we first—. And you're right; I meet with directors of education on a weekly basis—at least weekly and sometimes twice weekly. We learnt that when we went to hubs and the groups of schools closed and then focused on one hub, that the vulnerable children—
—didn't want to go, because the very nature of vulnerable children is that they want the protection and the support of those who are closest to them. So, when we went into the next lockdown, we were clear that schools would remain open and the staff supporting those vulnerable children would need to be there.
The other thing that we worked is it's not good enough for me just to be meeting with the directors of education. The other services and social services that support the children, the vulnerable, are critical as well. So, we've worked very closely with my colleague Albert Heaney, the director of social services, with directors of education and directors of social services in local authorities, to ensure that we get it right in terms of the identification of those pupils who are vulnerable, and then support, if necessary, through online engagement or home visits, but to secure as many of those children as we can coming into the school. Inevitably, some of the vulnerable children have physical conditions that worry their parents, but even then, discussing that with them and the way in which the schools overcome them is critical. So, I'm not saying that 100 per cent of those pupils are in school, but we have a significant number of children now who were not in schools in the spring and the summer, that has increased as we've gone into this term, and indeed, after Christmas, the percentage of pupils, both vulnerable and children of critical workers, has actually increased.
Okay. My point earlier was that the local authority wasn't even aware as to whether special schools were all open, because clearly any child going to a special school is vulnerable.
If you give me the name of the authority after the meeting, I'll look into it, but I find that absolutely amazing, that an authority would not know which of its special schools were not open.
Okay. I'm obviously keen to also hear a bit wider about how you're ensuring that all schools have the imagination to innovate by maximising the use of outdoor space, by taking on extra space in local community halls to ensure that they can offer the maximum number of pupils safely to be in school, without spreading disease.
Steve, do you want to come in on that? I know that discussions are still under way, really, about the return to school, and there are a number of options about how more children might be brought into school.
Yes. In terms of encouraging innovation, we've worked with local authorities, and we have two separate groups of headteachers who work with us on developing the innovative ideas. Tomorrow, for a two-hour workshop, I have the primary heads, and on Wednesday I'll have the secondary heads, and they're looking at what flexibilities can be brought in for the next phase of return. As to the schools who are returning to full provision of foundation phase, all schools in Wales will do that, and we're working with those headteachers to identify how we can bring all of the foundation phase in by using some of the flexible space while those older primary children are not in.
In terms of the next phase, quite clearly, the way we'd want to build on it is bringing the older primary school children back and bringing some secondary school groups back. Both of those options will require us to be innovative in the use of rotas and flexibility of some children in for part of the week, or one week, and another group of children coming in the following week. We've looked to ensure that what is brought in as a solution is not so tight that it actually doesn't allow the flexibility and creativity, but also to ensure that most of the best practice out there is actually being delivered and thought through by schools who have to operate them. So, the group bring through recommendations. We test those recommendations with the unions in terms of how they could work for their members, so we're not putting them in a position in terms of science or health that would not work, and it's basically looking at that bottom-up process of working with those groups of headteachers at the same time as working with councils, the 22 councils across Wales, because as employers, they have to deliver it.
We haven't come up with any significant examples of using external spaces, other spaces, other than a small number of examples where there were public buildings that were very close to the school.
Okay. But I'm thinking, 10 months into this pandemic, we know that there are excellent examples from other countries of using education outdoors much more, particularly with primary schools, and I just wondered how well you think your department has been promoting these different ways of working. This pandemic isn't going to be over any day soon. We are having to think of new ways of working collectively throughout. There's no end to it at the moment.
No. So, we have, through the guidance that we provide. Particularly in the warmer weather, there was extensive use, and plenty of examples of extensive use, of those outdoor spaces. Even in the colder weather, the percentage of time that we're looking for schools to engage their children with, even in the colder weather, but when it's dry, can actually engage them. So, the guidance is clear, for both ventilation and for the benefits of outdoor play and outdoor activity, that they should take place in primary, secondary and special schools. So, there's strong encouragement and there's clear guidance on it.
Okay. So, on a scale of nought to 10, how well do you think you've been promoting outdoor education as a new way of working?
I would say six or seven.
Thanks, Jenny. Delyth, did you want to come in?
I think quite a bit of this has been covered here, but just building quickly on the theme that Jenny was developing there in terms of trying to ensure that inequalities are not compounded by the lockdown. I realise a lot of this has been covered, but Estyn has pointed out that the learning experiences of children varied significantly, particularly in the autumn term, but presumably throughout each of the lockdown periods that we've had. If children are staying at home with parents who, for whatever reason, are able to dedicate more time to helping them with their education, obviously they're going to be less disadvantaged—everyone is going to be disadvantaged, but less disadvantaged—than children whose parents are simply not in a position to be able to do that.
You've said to us in a recent letter that your work with Estyn to implement some of the recommendations that they've made to the Government, particularly again building on what Jenny's been exploring, in terms of supporting vulnerable children—. Could you give us any other detail about whether there are any of the recommendations that you feel you will not be able to actually implement, whether there's a time frame for implementing them, please?
Thank you very much. So, the work Estyn did was work that we asked them to do. We revised their remit to do that work for us, and, actually, the sorts of issues that they've found are the sorts of issues that you as a committee were on and asking us about very early on in the pandemic when we came in for scrutiny. So, issues around the quality of provision, the fact that some learners may get left behind, or be more disadvantaged, as you said, physical and mental health, those sorts of issues. So, we've been—. I suppose there were no surprises from the Estyn recommendation. It was confirmation really, I think, of what we knew, but it means that we have already been working on most of those areas that they are recommending on. So, there's still a long way to go on many of those issues, but there's none of them that we won't be accepting—we're taking them all forward. And I think we'll be formally responding to Estyn imminently, and I'd be more than happy to share that with the committee when we do.
Thanks, Delyth. Darren Millar.
Thank you, Chair. It follows on from that particular issue, actually. We're obviously aware now, here in Wales, of the varied learner experiences, because some kids have been to school, some kids have not been in school, some have had a better learning environment at home than others, some have had access to technology, others haven't—all sorts of different experiences for those learners. And of course, not just, actually, school learners; college learners as well, further education learners, and university learners too, have also had to contend with these. We know that, obviously, the Minister's taken a decision to allow centre-based assessments this year. I think that's the right decision—it's important that people are tested according to the knowledge that they've been able to receive and that's been imparted by their teachers, and everyone's got a different experience of that. But, clearly, there's a need for some standardisation between the different centres in terms of the way that they're assessing, and I know that further work is being done on that. So, can you bring us up to speed on how the Welsh Government's policy of wanting to make sure that no child is disadvantaged in terms of the grades that are being awarded is actually going to be fulfilled? Because there's lots of—. Well, it's pretty unclear at the moment, and I know that a number of the unions are saying, 'Can you give us more guidance? Can you tell us what we need to aim for in order that we can get our learners over these lines, to give them the best possible chance in the future of being able to succeed with their education and their future careers?'
I don't think there's anything, really, that I would disagree with in what you're saying about the assessment of disrupted learning, and some pupils being more disadvantaged from others. I don't think there is a pupil that hasn't had some disruption, which is why I think we did take a decision early in the autumn term, in November, to not go ahead with the traditional exams. And, obviously, we've had to revise that approach since because of the recent lockdown and that really, really significant disruption to face-to-face learning. We published that revised approach last month. We've had a group called the design and delivery advisory group, I think it's called—DDAG—who've been working on this. That's got headteachers, and Qualifications Wales observe those meetings, et cetera. They've been working to put together an assessment framework—so, exactly what those teachers that you've been hearing from, and trade unions, want to see. So, it's an assessment framework that will set out as clearly as possible what the requirements will be, what the evidence will be that pupils will need to demonstrate, and that will vary depending on what level of education they've been able to have. It will set out a timeline for them as well. And that is imminent—that should be out this week, that assessment, so, hopefully they'll have plenty of time. But I should emphasise that we really want teachers to focus on learning and to help pupils catch up on their learning. So, the assessment for the exams will be in that context—for teachers to place more emphasis on the learning, I suppose, and less on the studying for examinations.
It's going to be very difficult, this, though, isn't it? You're talking there, Tracey Burke, about the evidence that people will need to collate to be able to demonstrate that a learner is proficient, but we're already into the middle of February, and we don't know what evidence schools have been able to gather, frankly, to date, or what they may be able to gather in the future. It's going to be difficult to predict, because, as you've already said, this has been a prolonged period now where learners haven't been able to return to the classroom—or most learners haven't been able to return to the classroom. So, given that you're saying this is going to be published this week, how do we know that what's being published this week won't need again to be revised in the weeks ahead? Isn't it just better to leave these decisions now to those centres? They know their children best, they know which ones were on track for certain grades, what the potential of those pupils was, and we need to make sure that those who were going to get an A or going to get a B or going to get a C are actually able to secure those grades, don't we, so that they're not disadvantaged going forward.
I absolutely agree. We do not want those children disadvantaged. But the range of approaches will be very, very wide and very flexible in this assessment framework. And, as I say, we've been working with headteachers to take in that sort of plurality of experience that pupils will have, and I would certainly hope that every teacher would be able to find a form of assessment within that framework to assess their pupils. Steve's a little bit closer to this than me, and you've probably been looking in detail, Steve, at the framework. Steve, would you like to just see if you can provide a bit more assurance on that?
Yes. I think the first assurance should be that the headteachers and senior teachers in colleges and schools have been the ones driving this process and driving the assessment framework. So, they have been very clear on what they see to be acceptable. The other factor is to do with pupil voice and student voice and the students' confidence in this. And that's one of the lessons we learnt from last year's experience—the extent to which parental confidence, pupil confidence in the system and the rigour in the system is balanced. So, as Tracey has said, the framework is out this week. Schools will be engaging with it. Yes, we do need to have some flexibility for what's coming next, but this group are working on a weekly basis, coming together for a half day or a day to actually ensure that the guidance, the framework and the expectations are set and driven by the profession itself.
And, tell me, Steve Davies, will the guidance, will the framework that's being developed set any expectations in terms of the length of the school year? There's been talk, of course, about the possibility of the school year being extended into the summer weeks. Frankly, I think teachers need a break, if there's an opportunity for a break at that point. Goodness knows where we're going to be in terms of the pandemic, but if people aren't allowed to get away for what might be the one thing that they're able to look forward to in terms of a summer holiday, I think it would be a very depressing situation indeed for many school staff who, of course, have still been turning up week in, week out in order to look after the learners in their care that might be key worker children, and things like that. So, can you tell us what expectations there are in terms of the school year that people will still be able to complete? And are we talking about kicking these assessments further down the line, to an extent that they wouldn't necessarily have been, before Christmas, when you were looking at these things?
There are no current plans to extend the year. They have looked at extending the period by a number of weeks for the examination to take place, and there's still discussion across the four nations regarding how that is approached. There are currently no plans to extend the year to enable the assessments to be done at a later date. So, there are no current plans for that.
And learners can be confident that they will still get their grades awarded on the traditional dates, as it were, in the calendar.
Okay, thank you very much.
Thank you very much. I just wanted to ask how the design and delivery group is advising you on how to deal with unconscious bias? There's a huge amount of research that people with protected characteristics are routinely underestimated for their competencies, which are, then, obviously proved wrong when they come to do exams. So, how are these assessments not going to discriminate against people just because the teachers in front of them have unconscious prejudice about how X or Y will do?