Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd


Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Dawn Bowden
Delyth Jewell
Huw Irranca-Davies
John Griffiths Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Mark Isherwood

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Chris Vinestock Prif Swyddog Gweithredu a Chyfarwyddwr Gwella, Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Chief Operating Officer and Director of Improvement, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
Katrin Shaw Prif Gynghorydd Cyfreithiol a Chyfarwyddwr Archwiliadau, Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Chief Legal Adviser and Director of Investigations, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
Nick Bennett Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Chloe Davies Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Osian Bowyer Ymchwilydd
Yan Thomas Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

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 14:45.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 14:45. 

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Okay. May I welcome everyone to this virtual meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, the first public meeting of the autumn term for us? And in accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, which was published last Thursday. This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. I would remind all participants that microphones will be controlled centrally, so don't turn them off or on individually, but accept the prompt to unmute from the sound engineer each time you are called to speak. Okay. Are there any declarations of interest? No. One other matter from me, then, before we proceed: if, for any reason, I were to drop out of the meeting due to technological failure or otherwise, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin.

2. Craffu ar Adroddiad Blynyddol Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru ar gyfer 2019/20
2. Scrutiny of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales Annual Report 2019/20

Okay, then, we're on to item 2 on our agenda today, scrutiny of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales's annual report 2019 to 2020. I'm very pleased to welcome Nick Bennett, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales; Chris Vinestock, chief operating officer and director of improvement; and Katrin Shaw, chief legal adviser and director of investigations. So, welcome to you all, and if it's okay, I'll move straight into questions with one or two initial questions before other Members come in with their questions. Firstly, then, housing associations. Complaints have risen by around 20 per cent during the year that this annual report covers. To what extent are you concerned about that and are there any signs of wider systemic issues within that sector?

Well, thank you, John, and I haven't declared any interests, but, of course, before I was ombudsman, I was employed as the chief executive of Community Housing Cymru, which did represent all the housing associations in Wales. I should also mention that this is my last year as ombudsman, so I'd like to thank you as a committee, I'd like to thank staff who've helped deliver our activity during the course of the year, and also pay some tribute to public servants in Wales, because in this annual report we can demonstrate that complaints are down and that also maladministration and service failure are down, which I think is appropriate, given some of the significant sacrifices that public servants have made over the last six months.

Heading on to housing in particular, I do feel that the time is right for us to move forward and perhaps look at complaints standards for the housing association sector in Wales. As you know, these are new powers that have been awarded to my office as a result of the Act last year. I think that an increase of 20 per cent compared to last year is significant. I don't think there's a systemic issue as such, but I think some of the larger associations tend to struggle a bit more in resolving complaints than the more community-facing smaller housing associations in Wales. And looking at the data, we can see some of the stock transfer organisations: Tai Calon, they saw a 200 per cent increase in their complaints last year. Though, as Disraeli said, that's the difficulty with statistics. That's an increase from two to six, so the numbers aren't huge. But a huge increase, again, for a stock transfer organisation in north Wales, Cartrefi Conwy: 140 per cent increase, up from five to 12.

I have discussed this with some of the larger organisations in Wales, including Pobl, which I think is the biggest, and their view was that, actually, some of the more difficult-to-resolve complaints were on the increase and that they would benefit from having a complaints standards approach, because, first of all, it would lead to training and improvement for their workforce, but, secondly, it might give a fairer picture for them, because the number of complaints we see is a very small number of the complaints that the sector receives overall. So, I think most of those bodies see the benefit of being open and transparent and giving the whole picture, rather than just the more difficult complaints that happen to come to us.

Though I should say as well, I had a session with Bangor law school—it was virtual, it was in July—and then Cheshire and North Wales Law Society—we had a webinar in late July—and at that meeting there was some evidence from independent academic research that there is still an issue with some housing associations having overly complex complaint processes in place. So, perhaps, again, that's another reason why we should look very seriously at complaints standards for the housing association sector this year.


Yes, okay. Thank you. I don't know, do any of the other witnesses wish to add anything to that, or is that a complete answer? No, okay. So, it's interesting then that the numbers aren't great, as you say, Nick, but the percentage increases obviously don't sound good. So, what would you say that larger organisations can learn from the smaller ones then? Is it something about the scale of the operation and how close to the ground they are in terms of the staffing arrangement?

I think that is certainly part of it and I think you will have had a culture in the community associations that has been much more community focused perhaps. Now, again, I must emphasise for the larger organisations this is not a huge disparity, but I think, by their very nature, if you're a much bigger organisation, it's difficult to be that community facing. But there are things that can be done in terms of empowering front-line staff and ensuring that there's a more community-facing ethos and culture in some of those larger organisations. So, I would hope that, through adopting a complaints standards approach, we could help imbue that culture across the sector.

But, as I say, it's not a huge problem anywhere. We have found that our ability to resolve complaints with the sector has been generally positive, and I think Katrin might have an example of one success that I think is in the annual report.

Thank you. One example of a resolution in the annual report is a good example, I think, of how housing associations are quite keen to resolve matters at an early stage with us, avoiding the need for lengthy and costly investigation. So, we had an elderly resident of a housing association come to us, there was an issue in relation to a roof repair charging scheme that was causing quite a lot of distress and worry for the residents. After our intervention, it was resolved satisfactorily and, actually, as I say, there was no need for us to then undertake what could have been quite a lengthy investigation. I think that is generally indicative that the good housing associations are very ready to resolve when we become involved and suggest options for settlement.

Of the number of complaints we had last year, we only did a couple of formal, lengthy investigations, one which still is open. But mainly, they are matters that are either resolved at an early stage or perhaps are premature, because the matter hasn't gone through to the relevant body yet.


I see. Okay, Katrin, thanks very much. If we move on, then, I had a question as well, Nick, about Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, because of the number of complaints that have been referred to you and the fact that they continue to rise. Indeed, I think that Betsi Cadwaladr now accounts for 30 per cent of all new complaints—

—with regard to all of the health boards. So, what would you say about that particular situation?

I think, first of all, it's regrettable that those numbers have gone up, and not just for this year—for the last three years in a row. I remember they did go down in 2016-17. I praised them at the time and I'd had some feedback from residents of north Wales who were not happy about me saying anything positive, but I think credit where it's due, we did see a reduction for a brief period. It is of concern to me that those numbers continue to grow. However, I should point out that whilst the numbers are up, from our investigations, maladministration and service failure are down from 41 per cent to 31 per cent. So, that is a very good indicator.

However, I think there is a broader challenge to Betsi Cadwaladr. If other improvement health bodies can reduce their complaint numbers by 35 per cent, as Swansea Bay have done this year, why can't they? I think there's a broader challenge for us as an office and for the Welsh Government, if I may say so, as well. As I was saying, this is my last year as ombudsman. In my first year, Keith Evans produced his report, 'Using the Gift of Complaints'. He was commissioned by the Government and he made a number of recommendations about improving complaint handling within the NHS, improving Putting Things Right, improving the availability of data. Seven years on, we still haven't seen the full actioning of those recommendations. I will be writing to the Minister for Health and Social Services about this matter, but I know that there was a nervousness from within Government that if we had complaints standards powers, my office would somehow attempt to undermine Putting Things Right and other health regulations that have been agreed in the Senedd and have been agreed within Cabinet and by Ministers. That is not the case. I want to make sure that there is less maladministration, less service failure, and that these large health boards are actually complying with regulations that have been laid before the Senedd rather than undermining them. So, I know it's a difficult picture at the moment with the pandemic, but this has been six, almost seven years now where we haven't seen the full actioning of those recommendations. It's as if the gift hasn't been fully accepted, and we'll be missing a huge opportunity to improve health board cultures if we can't use our complaints standards powers and the other associated recommendations that were made to health boards and to the health system to improve data, openness, transparency and the general complaints culture of the health service.

Thank you. Good afternoon, Nick. On the Betsi theme, I remember a few years ago when there was an improvement in the figures, the culture of management had changed with the new incomers and there was a lot more early intervention and prevention, round-table meetings with individual complainants and their representatives to seek ways of dealing with the complaint. Of course, now we don't have a complaints process, we have a concerns process, which inevitably produces a standardised letter saying that you can always contact the ombudsman at the bottom. What role do you think that a restoration and formalisation of those humanised early intervention processes could play in addressing this problem?

Well, I meet with the chief executive and sometimes the chair as well on an annual basis, of that health board. I'm obviously keen to meet the new chief executive, who I think will be starting the role in January, to discuss some of these specific problems. I think some of it with Betsi is reputational, if I'm honest, because of the number of years that it's been in special measures. So, I think people are more likely still, perhaps, to complain there than in other areas, but we've got clear evidence that where you do take a more patient-centred, early intervention approach, it brings the numbers down. So, we would have preferred to have seen that happen over the last three years, but, as I say, where that hasn't happened, where people have still felt dissatisfied with the health board's response, we have then investigated and I'm pleased to say that the one positive indicator for Betsi Cadwaladr out of all this is the fact that we found failings in only 31 per cent of cases, compared to 41 per cent the year before. Perhaps that says something good about services, but I think the overall number coming in says something bigger about reputation and perhaps about complaint handling itself, which still takes up too much of the number of health complaints that we receive.

Again, in terms of the complaints standards approach, we think doing more to—. It seems to be counterintuitive that, on occasion, we receive more health complaints about complaint handling than we do about surgery or we do about waiting lists. So, surely, this is one area, despite the constraints that do exist on health boards under significant pressure, where we could make some real inroads.


Okay. Thanks for that. We'll move on, then, to Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Prynhawn da. 

Thank you, Chair. Good afternoon.

Prynhawn da, Delyth.

Good afternoon, Delyth.

Helo. Mae cynnydd wedi bod yn y nifer o gwynion yn erbyn GPs neu feddygon teulu a hefyd eu meddygfeydd nhw. Ydy hynny'n rhywbeth sy'n peri pryder i chi neu ydych chi'n meddwl bod hyn yn rhywbeth fydd yn dda achos y bydd yn arwain at welliannau yn dod mewn?

There has been an increase in the number of complaints against GPs and also their practices. Is that a cause for concern, or do you believe that that is something that will be positive, ultimately, because it might lead to improvements?

Dwi ddim yn gor-boeni oherwydd mae'r ffigurau yn dal i fod yn weddol isel a hefyd rydym ni wedi eu dadansoddi nhw a dydyn ni ddim yn gweld bod yna glwstwr drwg yn unrhyw fan. Dwi'n meddwl mai'r mwyaf rydym ni wedi gweld ydy pedwar mewn dwy feddygfa. Mae'r mwyafrif ohonyn nhw, ledled Cymru, wedi cael un neu ddau a dydy hi ddim yn wir ychwaith i ddweud eu bod nhw wedi cael eu canoli yn y gogledd nac yn y gorllewin. Maen nhw ledled y wlad. Ond, buaswn i'n licio gweld y ffigurau yna'n dod i lawr ac, eto, unrhyw beth rydym ni'n gallu ei wneud o safbwynt y pwerau newydd i helpu hynny i ddigwydd, buaswn i'n hapus i'w wneud. Dwi ddim yn siŵr os oes gan Chris—.

I'm not overly concerned, because the figures are still relatively low and we have analysed them and we haven't seen that there are clusters in any particular area. I think the most we've seen is four in two surgeries. The majority of them, spread across Wales, have had one or two and it's not true to say either that they are localised in the north or in the west. They're across Wales. I would like to see those figures coming down and, again, anything that we can do from the point of view of the new powers to help that to happen, we would be happy to do that. I don't know whether Chris has anything to add.

Have you got more data, Chris?

Efallai bod gan Chris mwy o ddata ynglŷn â'r cwynion yma a fydd yn gallu rhoi gwell syniad ichi o beth sy'n digwydd.

Perhaps Chris has more data on this with regard to these complaints and he can give you a better idea of what's happening. 

Yes, thank you. Obviously, we're always concerned when complaints have gone up, but I think they are still small numbers. There were, more or less, 180 complaints last year, which is a very small number in the context of the number of GPs and the number of GP-patient interactions. We have been looking at them and, as Nick said, there is no very obvious pattern in terms of geography. There are no surgeries or practices that appear a disproportionate number of times; it's a fairly even spread. And in terms of the subjects of the complaints, again, they're fairly spread, but predominantly they're about diagnosis and about treatment, which I guess is what you would expect. There isn't a particular pattern around other things like prescriptions, but they're always a small number and they're sometimes the people who are most difficult for us to deal with in the office, the people who are de-registered from GP lists because of their behaviour. That's a small number, but sometimes it takes up a disproportionate amount of time. So, it is something we're looking at, but there isn't a huge pattern and it's still relatively small numbers. 

Okay. Thank you very much for that. Diolch.

Mae'r cwestiwn arall sydd gen i yn ymwneud â rhywbeth, Nick, rydych chi newydd gyfeirio ato fe mewn cwestiwn blaenorol. Mae nifer fawr o'r cwynion rydych chi'n gorfod delio â nhw yn ymwneud â'r ffordd y mae cyrff cyhoeddus yn ymdrin â chwynion, sydd bach, bron, yn meta, mewn ffordd. Pam ydych chi'n meddwl bod yna gymaint—? Mae hyn yn rhywbeth sydd wedi bod yn wir dros nifer o flynyddoedd, fel rydym ni'n ei deall hi. Pam ydych chi'n meddwl bod cymaint o'r cwynion yn ymwneud â'r ffordd y mae cyrff yn ymdrin â chwynion, ac a oes yna unrhyw wellhad diwylliannol wedi bod, eich bod chi wedi'i weld? A oes yna unrhyw le lle rydych chi'n meddwl bydd hyn yn gwella, neu ydy hyn jest yn rhywbeth sy'n ymwneud â'r ffordd mae pobl yn tueddu i gwyno achos eu bod nhw'n anhapus gyda rhywbeth yn y lle cyntaf?

The other question I have involves something that you just referred to, Nick, in a previous question. A number of the complaints that you have to deal with involve how public bodies deal with complaints, which is almost a little meta, in a way. Why do you believe that there are so many—? This is something that has been true over a number of years, as I understand it. Why do you believe that so many of the complaints involve the way that public bodies handle complaints, and has there been any cultural improvement, as you've seen it? Is there anywhere where you think that there has been improvement, or is it just to do with the way that people tend to complain because they were discontent with something in the first instance?


Diolch am y cwestiwn, Delyth. Un o'r rhesymau roeddwn i eisiau cael y pwerau dros yr awdurdod safonau, sy'n swnio'n grand iawn, ond, wrth gwrs, dwi'n cofio ni'n defnyddio hyn gyda Mark Drakeford achos roeddwn i'n gweithio efo fo flynyddoedd yn ôl—. Pwy bynnag oedd wedi ysgrifennu'r lein 'dŵr clir coch', clear red water—ddim eisiau gweld gwasanaeth—. Wel, os nad ydyn ni am weld gwasanaeth—a cwestiwn gwleidyddol ydy hwnna, wrth gwrs—gweld cystadleuaeth pan mae'n dod i wasanaethau cyhoeddus, mae'n bwysig bod llais pawb yn cael ei glywed. Ac roeddwn i yn teimlo bod hyn yn ffordd o sicrhau bod yr unigolyn yn gallu cael ei glywed heb droi at ryw fath o fecanwaith yn y farchnad, os leiciwch chi, sy'n amlwg ddim yn mynd i ddigwydd os yw unrhyw un o ddifrif am ddŵr coch clir. 

Felly, dŷn ni wedi gweld hynny yn cael effaith mewn rhai ardaloedd. Roeddwn i'n sôn yn gynharach am rai o'r cymdeithasau tai bychan. Dwi'n meddwl bod hwnna wedi bod yn ffactor mawr iddyn nhw, y ffaith eu bod nhw'n dod o'r gymuned, gyda'r cysylltiad cryf yna, a hefyd y ffaith bod eu byrddau nhw—. Dwi'n meddwl bod hynny yn rhywbeth hollbwysig. Dwi'n swnio fel pe bawn i'n gwneud fy hen swydd i rŵan, ond y gwir yw, beth oedd yn iach, roeddwn i'n teimlo, am eu llywodraethu nhw oedd y ffaith bod traean o'r byrddau fel arfer â thenantiaid arnyn nhw, felly roedden nhw'n rhan o'r broses lywodraethu, ac mae hwnna wedyn yn rhoi grym yn ôl i'r defnyddwyr. Dydy hynny ddim yn digwydd ymhob gwasanaeth cyhoeddus, wrth gwrs. So, mae yna her yn fanna, ond dwi'n meddwl bod yna rywbeth i'w adeiladu arno pan mae'n dod i'r cymdeithasau bach. 

Cyngor Ceredigion flynyddoedd yn ôl—roeddwn i'n methu coelio'r ffaith bod cyngor mor fach yn gyfrifol am tua thraean o'r cwynion roedden ni'n ffeindio yn erbyn llywodraeth leol yng Nghymru. Dŷn ni wedi gweithio efo nhw ac maen nhw wedi derbyn y cyngor, ac mae'r ymateb wedi bod yn bositif iawn, ac rydyn ni wedi gweld eu ffigurau nhw yn dod i lawr i lefel iach iawn sy'n adlewyrchu eu poblogaeth nhw. So, mae hwnna'n eithaf positif ac, wrth gwrs, dwi wedi bod yn falch iawn bob tro dwi wedi gweld ffigurau rhai o'r byrddau iechyd yn dod i lawr, a dwi'n gwybod bod rhai o'r byrddau yna wedi gwneud lot o waith o safbwynt gwerthoedd y bwrdd a thrio apelio mwy at y prif resymau maen nhw yna—trio sicrhau bod hwnna yn rhywbeth sy'n rhan bwysig sy'n rhedeg trwy'r diwylliant a'r ffordd maen nhw'n cyfathrebu â staff.

Ond mae yna resymau penodol hefyd yn y gwasanaeth iechyd pam fod hwnna'n dal i ddigwydd, a dyna pam fuaswn i'n leicio gweld mwy o weithredu pan mae'n dod i adroddiad Keith Evans o rai blynyddoedd yn ôl, a dwi'n meddwl bod gan Katrin dystiolaeth i brofi'r pwynt yna. 

Thank you for the question, Delyth. One of the reasons that I wanted to have the powers for the standards authority, which sounds very grand, but I remember using this with Mark Drakeford when I worked with him years ago—. So, somebody mentioned clear red water—they didn't want to see the service—. Well, if we don't want to see a service—but that's a political issue, of course—want to see competition when it comes to public services, it's important that everybody's voice is heard. And I felt that this was a way of ensuring that the individual was able to be heard without having to turn to some kind of mechanism in the marketplace, if you will, which is what will happen if somebody is serious about that clear red water.

So, we have seen that having an impact in some areas. I mentioned earlier some of the smaller housing associations. I think that has been a major factor, in that they come from the community, they have those strong links locally, and the fact that their boards—. I think this is vital. I sound as if I'm speaking from the point of view of my old post, but what was good about their governance was that a third of the board usually had tenants on them, so they were part of the governance process, and that empowers the consumer. That doesn't happen in every public service, of course. So, there is a challenge there, but I think that's something to build upon when it comes to these smaller associations. 

But Ceredigion council years ago—I couldn't believe the fact that such a small council was responsible for a third of the complaints that we received against local authorities in Wales. We've worked with them, they've accepted the advice, and the response has been very positive, and we have seen their figures coming down to a very healthy level that reflects their population. So, that's quite positive and, of course, I've been very pleased every time I've seen the figures in some of the health boards coming down. I know that some of those boards have done a great deal of work in terms of their corporate values and appealing more to the main reasons that they're there—to ensure that that is something that is at the heart of their culture and the way that they communicate with their staff.

But there are specific reasons in the health service why that still happens, and that's why we'd like to see more action being taken when it comes to Keith Evans's report from a few years ago, and I think Katrin has evidence to point to that. 

Katrin, are you on mute? 

Sori—diolch, roeddwn i jest yn aros am unmute fanna. Jest i adio, rili, at beth mae Nick wedi dweud, ynglŷn â'r ddeddfwriaeth Putting Things Right—yn aml mae rhaid inni gynnal y gŵyn achos nad yw'r cyrff iechyd wedi cwrdd â'r timescales yn y ddeddfwriaeth, ac mae patrwm fanna. Ond yn gyffredinol, roeddwn i yn croesawu y Putting Things Right regulations, achos mae system dda yn y regulations. Os bydd byrddau iechyd yn cwrdd â'r rheolau yn y regulations yna, rwy'n meddwl bod system dda yn y regs yna. 

Fel mae Nick wedi dweud, mae tystiolaeth dda gyda ni ers pan oeddem ni'n gweithio'n glòs gyda'r byrddau iechyd a chynghorau dros Gymru ynglŷn â phrosesau cwynion. Rŷn ni yn gweld y diwylliant yn gwella yn y sector hwnnw. 

Sorry, I was just waiting for the prompt to unmute there. Jest to add, really, to what Nick has said with regard to the Putting Things Right legislation—very often we have to look into the complaint because the timeline for the health board to meet the timescale has elapsed, and there is a pattern there. But in general terms, we did welcome the Putting Things Right regulations because there is a good system in those regulations. And if the health boards were to meet the requirements in those regulations, we feel that there would then be a good system in place as a result of those regulations. 

As Nick has said, we have good evidence since the time we were working closely with the health boards and the councils the length and breadth of Wales with regard to complaints processes. We do see the culture improving in that sector. 

Okay, thank you very much. We will move on to Dawn Bowden, then. 

Thank you, John. Welcome, everybody, nice to see you all. I just want a couple of questions around the code of conduct complaints. In particular, can I first of all focus on the complaints coming in from the town and community councils during the 2019-20 year? Does that reflect a wider trend of improving standards of conduct in that sector, or is that a bit of an outlier? What's your take on that?


I don't think it's an outlier, but I don't think either it's an indicator of improving standards of public life. I think it's an improving reduction in vexatiousness. 

Because town and community councils have normally accounted for a significant cohort, or a significant amount of the cohort of complaints that we get about code. Some of them don't know—. They have not been worthy of investigation, and some of the classics, perhaps, for committee members who haven't heard these before, but my personal favourite was, 'He was clicking his biro in an aggressive manner'—[Laughter.]—which we didn't investigate, funnily enough. And given the fact that we look at code, and we look at public service complaints, I think you as a committee would be outraged if we were ever to look at that issue when we've got very serious issues to do with people's health, social services and other issues as well. 

Funnily enough, there seems to be a converse relationship, I would say, between spatial powers and people's ability of getting on with each other. The fewer powers you have across the—. Inevitably, you're going to get with 735 town and community councils across Wales—relatively limited powers, but they tend to be places where personal rivalries flare up, almost as a—. You could argue some of them don't have enough to do, or, from their limited powers, they're indulging in other things—

You can say that; we couldn't possibly comment. [Laughter.]

Well, we've certainly seen that happen, and then, because of that, you get these tit for tat complaints, and sometimes, then, you get a cluster, a flare up, in certain communities. So, we report to you that we've had 200 complaints, and then it turns out that 50 of them are within one town and community council—

Yes, a lot of them don't make sense. But I'm very grateful—I think a lot's been done. This isn't just down to us. We've been very clear about the public interest test, but we've tried to support other organisations, such as One Voice Wales and the Welsh Local Government Association to improve training that's available for members more generally—more awareness of what's expected of them. And then I think the monitoring officers have been much more ready to get involved. And there was a specific issue I'd like to thank the monitoring officer for Monmouthshire for, because issues were really nipped in the bud in one community council in Monmouthshire last year. If that hadn't happened, maybe we'd be reporting to you and that drop wouldn't have been as significant. 

And this report—this takes us up to the end of March 2020. 

Yes. So, we haven't captured the lockdown stuff yet, because I'm imagining your report in 2020-1 is going to see a significant reduction in complaints, isn't it, because there won't have been an awful lot going on in terms of activity with community councils in particular, I would have thought?

You'd be surprised, actually. There have been still some code complaints. We've seen a reduction when it comes to some public service complaints—health in particular. For the first time in my experience, people withdrawing well-made health complaints because they did not want—. I think the cultural effect, if you remember everybody cheering the NHS and key workers on a Thursday—. For the first time ever, we've had a number of people—they were not prepared to lodge a complaint and wished to withdraw a complaint, given that they'd been out cheering on the Thursday, for understandable reasons. But there's still been some variance in numbers over the months, and there have been times when we thought we were returning to a new normal figure. But, overall, they will be lower. I always wanted to turn the curve and make sure we'd see fewer complaints coming to us, but obviously not like this. 

NHS might be slightly different, because, obviously, NHS was very high profile during COVID, so we may some different figures there. I was thinking more in terms of local authority code of conduct complaints. I would have thought that we'll see a reduction in that because that wouldn't have been highest on the list of people's priorities during COVID, maybe. 

One would think so, but we've been keen as well, I think—. Our approach, and, again, we're grateful to all public authorities here, has been one of—. We didn't have to suspend our service like they did in England when it came to local government complaints and health complaints. We were able to continue, but we could go as fast as bodies in jurisdiction. So, that means some of our key performance indicators won't look as good, perhaps, this year as they did last year, because, obviously, we weren't going to put adverse pressure—we wanted to show empathy, particularly to health boards, but local authorities as well that were struggling. But we had to remind people as well that we've all got to be conscious of the cyd-destun—the context of where we are. For people to be complaining about petty issues to do with the town council, or the fact there's been a delay in the collection of their garden waste, at a time when we have field hospitals established, nurses and doctors, particularly from black, Asian, minority ethnic communities, passing away—. During that context, we were very happy to remind people that a properly made complaint, or what we thought was reasonable on behalf of the complainant, had to be one that suited that particular period, particularly when things were particularly bad during the earlier stages of the pandemic.


Okay. In your report, you do make quite a big play about the importance of training, don't you?

And if we're looking forward now, in terms of where we go from here, what's your thought on the provision in the section 72 of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill around training, about publishing training plans? Do you think that's going to have the desired effect on what it is you're looking for?

I very much hope so. We responded positively; we were pleased that that provision was made. Unfortunately, those perhaps—how do I word this? Unfortunately, you can take a horse to water, you can't make them drink, can you? And I'm afraid that perhaps some of those individuals who need the training most are often the least likely to seek it. So, I don't know what we do about that, but I do think it's important to remember, in terms of overall trends, the standard of public life that does exist in Wales. Because in some years we have 300 complaints, on a really bad year we might get 400 complaints—this year, a significant reduction. But of those that are serious enough for us to investigate, and then make a referral either to a standards committee or an adjudication panel—very low. I think it was five in the year in question. And as I say, that should be celebrated—

But is that low, Nick, because the threshold for that kind of referral—the most serious—is very high?

No, I don't think it is high, I think it's very clear, and I would hope that most—. There's a bell curve distribution here, isn't there? Clearly, given some people out there think I should have been investigating pen clicking—I'm not going to do it. [Laughter.] But I think there is a broad mainstream expectation that most people interested and aware of public life would expect: no bullying, no using your public position for private gain—those types of things. And we take a very, very hard line on that. That's where, if people are on the wrong side of that line, we are going to investigate them, and we will hold them to account. But, 'He unfriended me on Facebook', 'I had a terrible review of my restaurant on TripAdvisor', or 'The way he clicked his pen'—we're not going to be looking at those issues. So, I say, those types of issues, if we get fewer of them, that's a good thing. But the serious issues, I think I'm right in saying—I'm looking over to Katrin—we've had a pretty constant level of serious issues, both before and after we applied the public interest test. I hope that that suggests that people are taking note—you can't come, or you should not be coming, to us with vexatious issues that are not worthy of investigation.

Okay. But about a third of your complaints on the code of conduct have been related to disclosure and registration of interests, and that's quite considerably up on the year prior to that. Does that bother you at all, or is there any particular reason why that would be?

I'll hand over to Katrin in a second, who I think has got some data on this. But, generally, yes, it's always a concern, but we're there to investigate independently. And the fact that people are saying that it's always an issue around those matters—it doesn't always turn out to be the case once we do assess or investigate. So, I'll hand over, but with that note of caution.

Thank you. Just in relation to the disclosure of interests, often, actually, training is an issue in relation to that sector and that subject area, because sometimes there's confusion on the part of members not understanding when conflicts of interests arise, and what their obligations are. They look at cases very much from the point of view of, 'Well, I'm not biased', instead of looking at it from the public perception point of view. I think we're not particularly concerned about poor behaviour. As Nick was saying, the number of cases that meet the threshold for a referral are quite high, and we've had very few cases that involve serious failings to declare interests.

We have been concerned about the level of equality and respect complaints coming to us. That's still an issue in relation to perhaps a lack of understanding between what is acceptable behaviour in terms of legitimate challenge of officers or clerks and— 


Sorry, Katrin, is that generally, then, the behaviour of members towards officers, towards members of the public? That is generally happening in a business setting, is it? 

It's mixed, really. I think the cases where we would refer for either an Adjudication Panel for Wales hearing or a standards committee hearing are more likely to be cases where a member of the public has not been treated with respect or a member of staff perhaps has been bullied. The ones that we will not entertain, unless they are serious, are the member versus member cases. So, there's a real mix there. But we will look to see where the threshold lies on what is acceptable behaviour. 

Okay, Dawn, thanks very much. We move on to Mark Isherwood, then. You're still muted, Mark. You need to unmute, Mark. 

Right. Thank you. With regard to the target to investigate within six weeks of receiving a public body complaint, we note that figures have improved, but that your office hasn't reached the 80 per cent target it set. In that context, can you expand on the existing pressures on the organisation and any measures taken during the reporting year to improve performance? 

Yes, I can, Mark. Thank you very much for your question. I think there are a number of issues that will affect performance, because we're a people-based organisation. So, we've had a number of issues that will impact upon the way in which we try and satisfy the business pressures that are placed upon us. During the year in question, of course, we still had 41 per cent of the complaints coming in that are health based. They tend to be complex. In the old days, perhaps somebody had one issue that was awry. These days perhaps we have complaints—somebody has had six different comorbidities. So the need for us to be fair, open, transparent and ensure a just outcome means that we might have multiple levels of advice, whereas, in the past, we only needed perhaps one or two.

This sounds an awful pressure to have—we're very pleased; we had new staff in the course of the year, and they are excellent. We're very, very pleased that they joined us, but, inevitably, when you have new people they will not be quite as efficient in those early days until they've been trained. So, that has had an impact on our efficiency.

You'll see, as well, from our sickness figures, we did have a number of people who are on long-term sickness for absolutely, totally valid reasons. We're glad that they're back, we're glad that they're now well enough and had an opportunity to recuperate. But it was just one of those years where a number of people, for example, had operations and other issues. 

Other performance issues—well, obviously COVID will be a factor now. We haven't had to suspend our work, but we can only go as fast as bodies in jurisdiction—. Eighty-five per cent of investigations are health related. So, where a health board comes under tremendous pressure, again if there's a second spike, that will certainly have an impact on our overall performance. 

The roll-out of our new powers—delighted on the progress we've made with complaint standards. But if we could have complaint standards in place now, not just for local government, but for housing and for health as well, then I think that would pay off hugely. Because it would cover 95 per cent of the universe of complaints that we receive. 

I'm glad to say there's a good culture within the office. The last staff survey was excellent. There's active management and support of everyone, which puts an emphasis on well-being. We want everybody to be well and, obviously, given the nature of our work, that's not just about physical wellness—it's about mental well-being as well. But there has to be a performance culture, because our numbers are still high, we are in receipt of significant amounts of public money, and we have to demonstrate to you, as our funders, that we're providing value for money for that service.


Thank you. I should have said the figures were below the 2016-17 level, but have improved and we're moving in the right direction. In addition to the comments you've made—before I move on to my next set of questions—are there any further challenges ahead that you can foresee that might be a barrier to achieving the 80 per cent target?

Yes. I think the main issue there will by timeliness and what we can do in terms of complexity and pressure on health boards in terms of their responses. That does not make for a good KPI there. As I was telling Dawn earlier, though, we have seen a reduction in health complaints within the year. I'm nervous about that reduction going forward. When is the new normal? When do we see an increase, perhaps? Perhaps people have been holding fire a bit there.

I'm so delighted that we went paperless some years ago because that meant we had a level of IT capability whereby everybody was remote working successfully within hours of the lockdown. So, everybody's had remote access. I would say—obviously, some people have struggled during lockdown. That isn't necessarily because of IT; it might have been, obviously, when the schools were closed—childcare issues and other things, as you can imagine. But overall, the response has been a positive one, and it's going to be a challenge for us all, isn't it, in terms of moving forward. We don't want to overthink that, but I'm going to assure you that we've ensured, I think, that we continue to operate successfully.

My message to staff, I'll be absolutely open with you now, is even if some of those KPIs look almost impossible to achieve, please use this opportunity now to reduce caseload, because our caseload figures were up to about 560 some years ago. They're now down to under 400. So, obviously, timeliness is important—we want to meet as many KPIs as we can. But also, if we can just focus on clearing any and every backlog, be as efficient as we can and reduce any cases that are still in the system, then that will equip us to be as fit as we can to face the future in case there's a further spike, which looks increasingly likely, and also, I hope, makes us more adaptive and more ready to meet the needs of people that want to use our service.

Thank you. I also have casework, for example, where you've had to extend the deadline. You've agreed to extend the deadline because the complainant has not received timely responses to their subject access request or information request from the bodies complained against, which they need as evidence for you. So, to what extent could part of the problem be not just the comment you made about health boards, but the bodies complained against, perhaps, not co-operating in the ways they might?

Well, that's always a danger, but given the particular pressures that health boards and local authorities were facing, I think we have a choice as an office: do we simply suspend everything that we do and provide no service at all? I don't think that was acceptable, given that we were publicly funded. And there were other services that we could supply. So, making sure that we could safeguard vulnerable individuals that didn't know where to go. Also to be a bit of a lightning rod for public bodies. So, where people are phoning up wanting to complain about the clicking biro or the fact somebody hasn't picked up their grass cuttings, we wanted to be of use under those circumstances. We could not force, I think, those bodies in jurisdiction or put them under undue pressure, given the pressures they were facing with the pandemic, and I would hope that, as we move forward, we will see, as I say, a greater emphasis on good complaint handling, because of historic reasons. It was six, nearly seven years ago since the Keith Evans report. As I said earlier, I don't think the pandemic can be used as an excuse to not bring about real reform there because of the massive resources that are being made available to the NHS and associated services. I think it's taking up an increasing proportion of the Welsh block year upon year, and as I said earlier, if we have a commitment to clear red water rather than competition, then we have to make sure there is an accountability to the individuals. So, I hope we will see fewer of those cases going forward. 


I had in mind things that perhaps are more significant than grass cutting; I'm thinking of a child safeguarding case, for example, where one would hope that the public bodies being investigated might want to get to the bottom of this. But I won't say anything further because you may be aware and these are private cases. 

I'm not going to talk about individual cases, but my example about grass cutting was actually to support your fact that I would expect people to be focusing on serious cases such as safeguarding, such as health, life and death issues, rather than, 'There's a pile of grass at the bottom of my garden'. I wasn't being facetious.

Great. Thank you very much indeed. I didn't think you were, no. I was trying to make a point. But thank you for that. You published four public interest reports during 2019-20, down from 14 the previous year. I think these covered Flintshire council, Swansea Bay University Health Board, the Student Loans Company and the joint report on Cartrefi Cymru. I'm jumping to the question: can you expand, therefore, on the compliance visits undertaken by your office, the impact of these visits and what you would expect as a result?

Yes, I can. I think there are a number of different issues there, Mark. I think, first of all, the compliance figures in our annual report refer to all compliance for all recommendations that we make, so they're not just about the four public interest reports. I was, of course, glad that we saw a reduction from 14 to four, because I hope again that's indicative of an improvement, that there are fewer serious, systemic or public interest issues that need to be brought to public attention. I have published—I think I was the only ombudsman to ever publish a special report and send it to the Assembly about NHS compliance. So, those compliance figures relate more, I think, to timeliness. If anybody was deliberately avoiding compliance or refusing to comply, then I can assure you I would be issuing a special report. We haven't had to do that; we've seen an improvement in the year, but we've still found a delay. So, when we agreed these recommendations originally, there was an agreed time frame associated with it and then unfortunately that always hasn't been complied with. But I think, Chris, you might have some further data on the compliance issue.

Yes. Thank you. It is something we take very seriously and see as very important, because actually those are the recommendations that have actually helped improve public services for the future. So, it is important. We do have a process for following up compliance and sometimes it is, as Nick said, about timeliness, where public bodies do comply but not quite in the times they originally envisaged. That's obviously disappointing, but in some ways it may not always be a bad thing, because sometimes the changes that actually have the greatest impact are those that actually are hardest to do, particularly if it's involving a lot of people across the health board. So, it's certainly something we're looking at to continue to drive so that compliance is achieved more quickly. At the moment, despite the factors of COVID and delays, the first quarter of the year looks like it's better, with 79 per cent at the moment at the end of quarter 1 of recommendations complied with. It is something we're working on and what I would say is we won't sign off compliance until we're satisfied not just that some action has been taken but that the action taken actually addresses our recommendation and the problem that was found in the complaint. So, in some cases, there will be a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in correspondence, saying, 'Well, we can see you've done what you said, but it doesn't quite address the problem that occurred in this complaint.' Obviously it would be better if it was 100 per cent, but actually we'd rather get it right and make sure that compliance actually makes a difference, rather than just sign it off.


Okay, and, from that, shall we move on to Huw Irranca-Davies?

I was waiting for the prompt, Chair, but I think I—. Can you hear me now?

That's great. Thanks, Chair. Can I ask you first of all—? The complaints-handling procedures that you were intending to bring in, they've been disrupted a little bit by COVID. Can you give us an update on that and how you intend to get that back on track, and by when, and which sectors that will then apply to?

Yes, very happy to do so. First of all, I should thank you all. I know you all had a role to play in scrutinising the legislation that gave my office those powers. They only operate in Scotland, I think I'm right in saying, currently. There has been legislative provision in Northern Ireland, but for that to be enacted would require a further decision from Stormont. So, the only part of the UK that can use these powers now, apart from Scotland, is Wales, so I want to thank you for that. There are other schemes that would love to see these powers being made available in England, and that's not looking immediately likely.

We've done a huge amount of work on local government, first of all, because obviously, 40 per cent of the complaints that we receive are from local authorities. Very grateful to Matt and Tanya, our complaints standards officers; new recruits who've done a great role under the leadership of Claire Beynon in the improvement team—a newly established team. They've been out there, they've engaged with all the local authorities, and are building up the true picture, if you like; rather than just us being the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of complaints that we receive, a massive amount of work was done, which does show that local authority complaints data is incomplete. They have an average of 4.2 complaints per 1,000 people in Wales. The highest level—and I think this is more down to reporting than, actually, levels of satisfaction—is 13.5 complaints per 1,000 people in Carmarthenshire; 0.9 per cent in Torfaen. Overall, of those complaints, 42 per cent were upheld, almost 80 per cent were closed within 20 days, and 5.5 per cent of all complaints from local authorities come to my office.

So, I think now we're starting to build up a picture that allows us to see the full complaints landscape across Wales. We should be agreeing those complaints standards with local government within the next six months, which, given the delays in the pandemic, I think is a great achievement. So, you know, very grateful to all the improvement team for the excellent work that they've done there.

They've done their first training session with Newport council. It was done remotely, it was done virtually. They had a series of training sessions organised for the summer across Wales. Obviously, those had to be cancelled, but they're now really getting their hands dirty engaging with those local authorities—well, a  virtually hands-dirty business, if you'll forgive my allusion there. But great progress there.

As I was saying earlier, I think health would be another sector where, if we want to see those cultural improvements across Wales, we need to see the cultural improvements alongside them, and also some of the commitments that have been made in Once for Wales, and I'm just a bit concerned there might be some rowing back. Six years after that report, we still haven't seen the action necessary. We're talking about the Datix system that they have for data; there's a different system in every health board. There's been talk about having a convergence of that across the NHS for six years. So, I think it's time for some action there.

And, of course, we did mention housing; we touched upon housing. I think there is a lot of good practice within the housing sector, but if we could make sure that that is more uniform across the sector, then, again, that would have real benefits for tenants across Wales. So, it's my ambition to see that work completed before I step down. Obviously that is subject to how much business can be done in terms of the pandemic and other issues, but we've done very well to do local government—if that's 40 per cent of the complains we receive. If we could do health and housing, that would be 95 per cent of the universe. I'd be happy at that point. I think that's pretty good progress over what would have been two years. So, we really hope that we can do that.


Okay. Well, that's really helpful because you've certainly given us some idea of timescales, albeit with the difficulties at the moment, the difficult challenges that you're trying to aim that. That's quite clear and quite encouraging as well.

So, let me turn to another area that has been hit a little bit by the COVID challenges that we have at the moment, which is your first own-initiative investigation, which was another area that the committee took a great deal of interest in, and, by the way, we take plaudits for our examinatory work wherever it comes from. [Laughter.] You've set up one already; it's in an area of interest to this committee in terms of compliance with homelessness plans and so on there. Can you tell us how that is going? How do you intend to keep that within the narrow terms of reference set as well, so it doesn't go off all over the place? And, frankly, how are you going to do it with the challenges that you're currently working under?

Okay. Well, clearly, all of us face challenges, particularly if we're seeing the announcement of further lockdowns this afternoon, but some progress has been made. We were very unfortunate; we launched our first own-initiative—and we're very grateful for the scrutiny that the legislation received, but we had the misfortune of launching it on Friday the thirteenth, and then the following week we had lockdown. We were ready to go. But, that specific project was looking at homelessness, and specifically the assessment and review process, because we have significant evidence of a variance in good practice across Wales. It was timely. The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 was passed in 2014. It's seen as good practice, but there was some real variation in terms of the way in which that was being implemented by different local authorities. I'm pleased to say—. Six months on, I think we will do a better job. We intend to relaunch that own-initiative now, looking at assessment and review, but in the context of COVID. The reason I think that will really add value from my office, and, I hope, for future consideration by the committee as well, is that this power was always intended to give voice to the voiceless.

Now, we've seen some fantastic activity in terms of assisting rough-sleepers during the pandemic, but, my word, if at any time there was a service that should be looked at, if people are saying, 'The biggest protection anyone could have from this pandemic was a front door', and therefore if people without a front door are not the most vulnerable, who else should we be looking to help? So, it's very much in that spirit that we hope to relaunch the own-initiative on Wednesday. We'll be doing that at the Chartered Institute of Housing's Welsh conference, which seems appropriate because it'll have a mixed tenure—there'll be housing associations, the local authority and private landlords there. So, we want to really consult with them genuinely. We've got some celebrity endorsement; Michael Sheen has prepared a video—he's supportive of the work.

And I have to say as well, obviously, I'm independent of Government. The legislation emanated from the Senedd and from the Finance Committee; it was not a ministerial gift, but, I have to say, fair play, the housing Minister has been supportive of both the initial proposal and our refinement to include COVID-related matters. So, we hope that this will really add value and provide some longer term insight. And it will be tough short-term, and we might face further delays. But I do think that it has been such a social injustice, and one where we've seen such amazing action and one which still poses a public threat not just to the most vulnerable, but to communities more broadly and business communities more broadly as well, I think there will be a great deal of support for us looking in that area.


Okay, thank you very much. Chair, I have to take your guidance now because we are up against time.

Yes. I think we'll have to write to you, Nick, on a couple of other matters, and thank you very much for giving evidence to the committee last year. And, as you are in your last year, Nick, as you mentioned earlier, thank you for your work over the period of time in office, and also for your engagement with this committee. Obviously, similarly, for Katrin and Chris and all the team. Diolch yn fawr. 

Well, thank you, and I'd like to thank Chris and Katrin for their support, and also wish you all well. Please continue to stay safe. It's been a pleasure and a privilege. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi i gyd.

Diolch yn fawr, Nick, and we will send you a transcript to check for factual accuracy. 

Diolch. Hwyl, rŵan.

Thank you, and goodbye.

3. Papurau i'w Nodi
3. Papers to Note

Okay, then, our next item is item 3, papers to note. We have three papers. The first is correspondence from the Older People's Commissioner for Wales regarding our inquiry into the impact of COVID-19. I'm sure that we'll consider that when we look at the Welsh Government's response to our report. Paper 2 is a letter from the Minister for Housing and Local Government to the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee in relation to the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. Paper 3 is additional information from the Welsh Government relating to the Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill. Is committee content to note those papers? Yes, okay. Thank you very much.

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod ac o'r Cyfarfod ar 28 Medi 2020
4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting and from the Meeting on 28 September 2020


bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o'r cyfarfod ar 28 Medi 2020 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).


that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and from the meeting on 28 September 2020 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 4, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of today's meeting and from the meeting on 28 September. Is committee content so to do? Yes. Okay, thank you very much. So, I propose that we do indeed meet in private for the remainder of today's meeting and for the whole of the meeting on 28 September, and I see that Members are content. We will now proceed, then, in private session, and there will be a short delay of approximately 10 seconds.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:47.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 15:47.