|Dawn Bowden AM|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AM|
|John Griffiths AM||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AM|
|Mark Isherwood AM|
|Catherine Fookes||Cyfarwyddwr, Rhwydwaith Cydraddoldeb Menywod Cymru|
|Director, Women’s Equality Network Wales|
|Elan Closs Stephens||Comisiynydd Etholiadol, y Comisiwn Etholiadol yng Nghymru|
|Electoral Commissioner, Electoral Commission in Wales|
|Ian Westley||Bwrdd Cydlynu Etholiadol Cymru|
|Wales Electoral Coordination Board|
|Lyn Cadwallader||Prif Weithredwr Un Llais Cymru|
|Chief Executive, One Voice Wales|
|Mark Galbraith||Swyddog Polisi Cymru, Cymdeithas Clercod Cynghorau Lleol|
|Wales Policy Officer, The Society of Local Council Clerks|
|Rhydian Thomas||Pennaeth y Comisiwn Etholiadol, y Comisiwn Etholiadol yng Nghymru|
|Head of Electoral Commission, Electoral Commission in Wales|
|Rhys George||Cadeirydd, Cymdeithas Gweinyddwyr Etholiadol Cymru|
|Chair, Association of Electoral Administrators Wales|
|Rob Smith||Prif Weithredwr, Cymdeithas Clercod Cynghorau Lleol|
|Chief Executive, The Society of Local Council Clerks|
|Robert Robinson||Ysgrifennydd Cymdeithas Cynghorau Lleol Gogledd a Chanolbarth Cymru|
|Secretary to the North and Mid Wales Association of Local Councils|
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Jennifer Cottle||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Stephen Davies||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Yan Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau||1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest|
|2. Bil Llywodraeth Leol ac Etholiadau (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 9||2. Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill: Evidence Session 9|
|3. Bil Llywodraeth Leol ac Etholiadau (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 10||3. Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill: Evidence Session 10|
|4. Bil Llywodraeth Leol ac Etholiadau (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 11||4. Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill: Evidence Session 11|
|5. Papurau i’w Nodi||5. Papers to Note|
|6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill Cyfarfod Heddiw ac ar gyfer Eitem 1 y Cyfarfod ar 23 Ionawr||6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of Today's Meeting and Item 1 of the Meeting on 23 January|
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.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:02.
The meeting began at 09:02.
Okay, may I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? The first item on our agenda this morning is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We've received one apology from Caroline Jones. Leanne Wood is unable to join us until around 09:30, but she will be with us around that time. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
We will move on to item 2, which is the our ninth evidence session with regard to the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. I'm very pleased to welcome here this morning: Elan Closs Stephens, electoral commissioner with the Electoral Commission in Wales; Rhydian Thomas, head of the electoral commission, Electoral Commission in Wales; Rhys George, chair of the Association of Electoral Administrators Wales; and Ian Westley for the Wales Electoral Coordination Board. So, welcome to you all. Thanks for coming along to give evidence this morning. Perhaps I might begin with a general question, which is whether you support and welcome the general principles of the Bill?
Diolch yn fawr. Thank you very much, Mr Chairman, and thank you for your welcome. I'm going to just kick off with a few words in Welsh, and then I'll change.
Fel rydych chi'n gwybod, Mr Cadeirydd, mae'r comisiwn wedi gweithio yn ddyfal ac yn frwdfrydig iawn efo'r Cynulliad ac efo Comisiwn y Cynulliad ar y ddeddfwriaeth sydd yn mynd drwodd ar hyn o bryd—yn wir, y ddeddfwriaeth dwi'n credu sy'n dod i rym heddiw, os ydw i'n deall yn iawn. Llongyfarchiadau mawr i bawb ar hynny. Ac wrth gwrs, rydym ni hefyd wedi gweithio gyda Llywodraeth Cymru a phawb arall ar y Mesur hwn, ac rydym ni'n barod iawn i gydweithio i'r dyfodol. Fel mater o egwyddor, mae'r comisiwn yn galw yn gyson am ddiwygio etholiadau, ac rydym ni bob amser yn barod i gydweithio i sicrhau bod y trefniadau yn hwylusach ac yn fwy modern.
As you know, Mr Chairman, the commission has worked very hard and very enthusiastically with the Assembly and with the Assembly Commission on the legislation that is currently passing—indeed, the legislation that I believe comes into force today, if I understand things correctly. So, I'd like to congratulate everyone involved on that. And of course, we have worked with the Welsh Government and everyone else on this particular Bill, and we are very prepared to continue collaborating into the future. As a matter of principle, the commission constantly calls for the reform of elections and we are always willing to collaborate to ensure that arrangements are easier and more modern.
So, the commission believes that electoral modernisation is necessary and welcomes all aspects of the Bill that deal with that modernisation. Electoral law is very complex and is outdated. It's an accretion, really, of modifications over time, and really requires complete simplification; but this is a step in the right direction.
There are three elements, I think, that we would like to say are very important to us in the aspects of this Bill, having given it a broad welcome in terms of the electoral processes. One is that we do not confuse voters, candidates, campaigners and electoral administrators with too much diversification. We've worked very, very hard over the past few years to support a Wales Electoral Coordination Board—and Ian, of course, is the representative of that board—to seek to ensure that returning officers and electoral registration officers work together. Such a board exists in Scotland, by statute, and has considerable powers. We've done it voluntarily in Wales, and we have tried to have a consistent approach to elections. So our first point is consistency.
The second one is on the franchise for local government elections, the new franchise. We would like to underline the need for adequate time for any change to be embedded and for proper training to be undertaken. All primary and secondary legislation needed to support change should be clear six months before the electoral registration is due to begin the annual canvass. That is, before the summer of 2021.
And then thirdly, I would look at resources. Welsh Government should perhaps consider providing adequate resources to returning officers, electoral registration officers and local authorities, to ensure that changes can be implemented.
So, to finish: consistency, timeliness and resources. But I would like to stress again that we are in favour of modernisation and we stand ready as a commission, and with Rhydian at the office in Wales, to support you in any way we can.
Diolch yn fawr, Elan. Obviously, we will come on to matters that will relate to the three priorities that you've identified as we go through the course of this session. I will now turn to Huw Irranca-Davies.
Thank you, Chair. I'm going to touch on some of the points that you've raised already, and the first one is the question of the legislative programme and whether we have adequate time, not only with the primary legislation but also secondary regulations as well, to put everything in place. Are you confident, from your perspective, that, albeit with the provisos that you mentioned in your opening remarks, we have the time to put everything in place?
Ultimately, the legislative timetable is a matter for Welsh Government. But from the representations they made to us—in terms of meetings with the commission, and also the Welsh Government are advisers on the Wales Electoral Coordination Board—I think they're confident that they can meet that timeline. There is an advantage in that lots of this work in being done, in some ways, already in terms of the Senedd elections, relating to franchise, public awareness and the like, so we'll be able to learn from that. But generally, I think we feel that it's achievable that all primary legislation and secondary legislation will be in place six months ahead of next year's canvass. And that's obviously very, very important in terms of the work that will need to be done in that six-month period.
Okay. You mentioned in your opening remarks that you'd want this clear six months before the annual canvass. So, based on what the Government is telling you, you can also be reasonably confident that this can be delivered with that clear six months as well.
Based on the representations made to us, 'Yes'—Ian may want to add something.
Certainly, from my point of view, in terms of administration of electoral events, if we were certain of that six month clear period beforehand, we'd be confident that we could deliver within that time frame. But I would emphasise, respectfully, that I think the six months is a minimum period for us to be safe in that confidence of delivery. I don't know whether Rhys might want to offer a comment in that regard.
We'd certainly agree with Ian's comments from the co-ordination board and the commission. It is essential that we do have a six month clear run into any implementation changes to allow enough practical administrative time to deliver what's needed. Anything less than that and the risks start to increase rapidly.
Okay, that's quite clear. You feel that six months is the minimum. Government is saying, 'We can give you the six months.' You say, 'Well, it's the minimum; we can deliver it within that.' Okay. What are the risks if you don't have that six months?
I think we need the six months to ensure that all the legislation that is passed and all the new rules that are put into place are very clear in our guidance. Our guidance needs to be published well in advance, and that will need to be done. We will need to manage a public awareness campaign and the messages attached to that public awareness campaign—plan around that. And talk in partnership with all of those groups out there that we'd want to see working with these newly enfranchised groups. And also, time for colleagues within the local authorities in Wales to plan. Electoral events, generally, are planned up to a year in advance. So, it's having that six months of almost certainty ahead of an electoral event, that we know exactly what's coming up and we do what we need to do to ensure that it's an effective event that voters can have absolute trust in.
We've looked at the regulatory impact assessment, and the resource included within there is approximately accurate. We'll provide some more accurate costs closer to the time. It doesn't include costs relating to the evaluation of pilot schemes. You've seen the clauses relating to pilots, and we'd like to play a part in that. There's nothing about the commission's role in that. And it doesn't include any additional work that will come in with regard to the potential change in voting system. But the costs that have been included in the regulatory impact assessment are reasonably accurate. We don't have those built into our budget to date, because we haven't provided a budget for that financial year. By that time, we will be accountable to the National Assembly for Wales and we will provide a comprehensive budget that includes all of the relevant resources broken down to the Llywydd's committee, as it will be then. But we've had the relevant discussions with the relevant officials, and that's something that we'll be planning towards.
Can I offer a comment on resources? I do support what Rhydian has just said, from our point of view, which would be in the delivery and planning. But there are some issues in the Bill that would depend, actually, on how that panned out as to whether or not additional resources might be necessary. So, I'm thinking there in terms of the duty to promote awareness, which would be an additional activity arising from the Bill. And perhaps another example I would turn to would be the decision on the different voting systems, which would have additional impacts on local electoral services teams in local authorities. So, consideration would need to be given in that regard to resourcing how best to deal with that particular challenge.
So, you might be coming back in discussions to Government to say, on the basis of those two areas, there might be further discussions you're going to need to have with Government Ministers.
Yes. And I would like those further discussions, if possible as well, to consider how best to deal with issues like public awareness, because clearly there is experience—in my own authority, we've already picked up the gauntlet and led in that regard with fora with our young people, with some success. So, we've started to do that. However, whether that could be rolled out across the country is a different matter. And an issue that Elan touched on, which was: the purpose of creating the electoral co-ordination board in Wales was one of a consistent approach. Certainly, in my experience of planning electoral events, consistency is of paramount importance. So, there is a danger there, I think, of perhaps 22 local authorities leading their own public awareness campaigns in a slightly different manner, which could be overcome perhaps with a national framework, at least, for public awareness. So, resource implications perhaps for Welsh Government, perhaps for the commission, and perhaps for individual local authorities in that regard. So, I would welcome a round-table discussion at the time, depending on how things pan out. Again, Rhys might have a view.
Just speaking for administrators, Welsh authorities, their election teams, they're very small teams. Their main focus, of course, is delivering and administering electoral events, and maintaining the canvass. We do all we can to encourage promotion, and we utilise heavily resources and materials provided by the Electoral Commission to help us in that regard. But there is finite resource, it's finite capacity, and, if additional promotion activities are required, then they have to be properly resourced, and, as Ian was saying, it has to be a consistent approach.
May I just say—? On a positive note as well, we're all aware that the ultimate aim of this is to enfranchise as many people—new people—as possible, to make them aware of the fact that they've got a vote, to help them decide that they're going to use that vote and so extend the participation of the public. And I would assume that every candidate in elections—whether local government, or Assembly, or general elections—would welcome any activity to that end.
Thank you. I'll return in a moment to some of the aspects of this duty to promote and raising awareness. But, before we leave the issue of extending the franchise itself, you've noted to the committee that you've got some experience of work in Scotland on this matter—on extending the franchise to 14 to 17-year-olds. What do you think the lessons are, then, based on that experience, for Wales?
Well, obviously, over the last two years with, first of all, the work that Professor Laura McAllister did for the commission, and then, with the original constitutional Bill going through, our awareness that the local government Bill was on the horizon, we've been taking a huge interest in Scotland's experience. But also we've been bringing that experience back to Wales. We brought a youthful member of the team, we brought the Scotland office of the commission, to our Wales advisory board, to the APP—the Assembly parliamentary parties committee—and to the electoral co-ordination board. I think there are several lessons that, actually, have been collated and that Rhydian might want to elaborate on as well.
But there are two things that struck me: (1) there were sensitivities—there is no doubt that some directors of education were sensitive about the way in which discussion of politics took place in schools, and especially perhaps because it was a binary 'yes/no' referendum, which is slightly different, I think, to thinking about a local government issue. On the advantage side for Scotland, they did have an existential question. So, when the 16-year-olds were enfranchised, this was a massive decision, which was publicised on all sorts of television channels, radio— discussion everywhere. So, I think that the challenge for us will be to make these elections as exciting as possible and as inclusive as possible for young people, in the absence, I presume, of an existential question in the near future. So, I think there were difficulties for Scotland, and advantages for Scotland. The one thing they did say was that it doesn't matter how much preparation you do—and a lot of it was done in advance, consistently—unless you remind young people, and I'm sure that it's not just young people, all of us, in good time, perhaps a month or so before the election, you're in danger of them having forgotten the good work that's taken place a year previously. So, it must be refreshed, and refreshed in good time.
So, could I just ask then—? One of the discussions that—. It's been rejected in terms of the Assembly elections, as you know, but it was the idea of actually putting in place a national structure for mock elections, in the way that they do in some of the Scandinavian countries, for the Assembly election. Now, clearly, in terms of raising awareness, there's nothing more aware than actually being in your school where you're going through a mock election and similar debates, similar issues, in a timely manner. What do you think of that, in terms of local government elections? Because one of the things that we often come across—not just with young people, but with people of all ages—is they don't understand what local government does, they don't understand what the Assembly does. They sort of get an idea that UK Parliament does big, important matters, and shouts at each other a lot. So, what would be the practical ways, if not mock elections, that you could help, based on the experience in Scotland?
I think you've touched a very important matter. It's not just the election and whether one debate is more adequate than the other and the excitement of that; it's actually what a local government does. And I believe that Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthenshire I believe, do have discussions based on, if you have x amount of money—this is the budget—where are you going to spend it? And that sort of breadth of education, I think, would be something that you might wish to consider. It's beyond our remit as such, but, obviously, the more people know about what local government does the better, and the better the participation, possibly.
I think the only thing I'd add to Elan is that, from our perspective, the key thing is working in partnership. In terms of Scotland, we've had members of Scottish parties down to talk to our political parties. We've had the convener of the electoral management board in Scotland down to talk to our electoral co-ordination board; we've had a young person down to talk too. So, it's learning from what they've learnt since 2014 from their experiences in Scotland. And I think that's what we're also doing in Wales in terms of talking to—. You talk about school elections and all of these different ideas. I think it's important to go out and talk to young people and see what they think. What do they need? What will they need ahead of 2022 and 2021 in order to take part in these types of elections? And the only way we can do that—the Electoral Commission doesn't have that type of knowledge; it's been a long time since I was that age—is we've got to go out and actually talk to these groups that represent these young people, and the other groups that are included in the franchise, and even all of us, about what they need and how we can provide that through ourselves and through colleagues in local authorities.
I wonder if you've got any more thoughts on this from your perspective, because, if, as you've acknowledged, even in an existential question for Scotland such as, 'Should we be independent or not?', that has still—even more perhaps—exacerbated the sensitives around to what extent should you expose young people to politicians, et cetera—.
Well, I just touched on earlier—if I can speak with the hat that goes with my day job on for a minute—that, in Pembrokeshire on 12 April last year, we held what we called a 'democracy champions' event, and the way that event was structured we did that in partnership with the commission, with the university that we're doing some academic research with, and we based that event around only four questions, and the questions were to young people from the age of 14. And all of our secondary schools and a private school attended as well. So, our secondary sector was represented in total. And the four questions were: 'Do you think the voting age should be lowered to 16 for Welsh elections?' 'Do you know how to register to vote?' Do you think young people's voices are heard in Welsh politics? And, 'Are you confident you know how to vote?'
So, perhaps the last question might lead into your specific question about mock election events. And we had some practical exercises set up on the day. The participation, from my point of view, was excellent. I felt actually that the young people were very well tuned into what this meant. Many of them had an awareness of the proposals in the Bill and were very much looking forward to it. So, I think, from the age of 14 onwards, they certainly shouldn't be underestimated. The message that we brought from that exercise was a great deal of awareness and an expectation, actually, that they will be voting in the next Welsh Government elections. Whether or not that experience could be further developed with some more practical exercises—my feeling is that it could, and I would endorse what Rhydian said: I think, if there was an opportunity to work collectively on developing a programme, what better place to start with that public awareness than with the people who would be voting for the first time? And I think we'd be pushing on an open door based on this experience.
There is a report that was prepared from that, which I'd be happy to circulate to you, if that was of interest to you.
It would be of interest, Ian, yes—we'd be very grateful to receive that. Just before you go on, Huw, Mark would like to come in at this point.
Just on this issue—bore da; good morning—throughout my time in the Assembly, I notice it's the same schools, over 17 years, that invite politicians to go back every year to talk or answer questions from young people, and it's the same schools that don't. It's the same schools that invite the Assembly outreach service to go in and help young people understand, through interactive activities, how politics works in Wales, and it's the same schools that don't. And my concern is that simply making this compulsory could risk just generating tick-box approaches, rather than the sort of engagement we get in those schools where you have staff who are already enthused about sharing this knowledge and engagement with their young people. This whole debate began because, as we know, in the early Assembly elections, and since, around four in five young people didn't engage or vote for any party in the Welsh general election. And, as you indicate, unlike the Scottish referendum, when there was massive attention in the Scottish media, the UK media—you couldn't move for getting more information or debate around that issue—local government never gets much attention in the media. Isn't this a huge burden to place on schools, and is the expectation perhaps too much of schools to fill that gap when others aren't doing it, especially at a time of huge curriculum pressure and change?
Well, as I understand, there is no compulsion in this Bill on local authorities to enable all schools—it's still a voluntary method. I think you touch on something that is even wider, of wider concern to us all, really, when you talk about it's possibly the same schools that engage. The same is true of all age groups; there are people who find themselves outside the system. And it's a constant challenge to all of us, I think, to try to engage those people with either local government—how it works—or with the Assembly franchise, and just the voting process itself. I think it's wider than the 16-year-olds, and it's wider than schools. But, on the other hand, it think we all agree that if you catch a youngster when they're young enough and they've enjoyed the process of voting they are more likely, from our research, to keep on voting than if they hadn't done so at the age of 18 or 21.
And what we are trying to do is to develop education resources for schools to use to make it easier for them. We're meeting at the end of this month with a whole load of interested groups who are working with young people in developing education resources for schools. And it's not just about schools, of course—there's a group of young people out there who aren't in formal education, and we need to find ways of getting to that group as well. But we're in the process of working on the relevant resources that will make it easier for teachers and educators to get these messages across to young people.
The second point I'd make is that we have the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, which is a board of senior leaders, public sector leaders, in Wales to talk about elections. But, of course, these people are local authority chief executives—Ian is in Pembrokeshire, and others from across the country—and they have access and links to schools in their areas. So, I think there is some work that we can do at that board to actually ensure that it's not just the same old schools, put it in that way, that have these types of discussions and have you out there to talk to the pupils—it's all schools and also it's those groups within the local authority area that include young people outside of formal education as well that get these messages put across to them. But I accept the issue on resource and time—it is a challenge, but I think it's something that we have to face up to.
Just as a final point, if I may, if I could pick up on the point that you made about compulsion and time and other pressures that schools have. The event that I referred to, if we can learn from the experience from that, there was no compulsion in that—it was an open invitation—and all of the county council's schools participated, they all sent a teacher, they all sent maybe six to eight pupils, and one of Pembrokeshire's private schools did that on a voluntary basis as well. And I think, actually, that there's more value in putting an invitation out and seeing how people respond to that than there would be in compelling them to attend. I think there's quite an important issue in that for me. And, certainly, on the basis of that day, the teachers did what they could to include the event in a wider educational package. So, picking up on what Rhydian said there, I think there's scope for us all perhaps to work on in that regard to make this an inclusive part of the education offer. It could be argued, 'What is more important than the young people having a voice in local Welsh politics as a starting point?' That seemed to be a very popular opportunity for the young people and for their teachers.
Yes. You touched on the issue of resource constraints around this, but I'm interested in your proposal around extending the duty to promote to the newly enfranchised people through the electoral registration officers. Could you expand on that? Because is that part of your thinking on this, that if there's somebody in each local authority that has that duty, then I assume they need to be thinking through these things?
I mean, from our perspective, if you have an individual in the authority, an independent individual within the authority, who is responsible for the maintenance of the register by law, then that person should also have some form of responsibility, at least, for promoting electoral registration. That seems sensible to us. We welcome the provision within the Bill currently that talks about the local authority also having a duty to promote, because I think it's massively important that the ERO, the electoral registration officer, works with the authority and there's a balance there in terms of what they do. But we do think that it's important that individuals like Ian who have that important duty of maintaining the register also have an additional bit of work in terms of promoting electoral registration locally through the authority.
How meaningful would their role be? Would they be the person who would actually then speak to the education department, speak to the youth services department, if there still is one, et cetera, to say, 'Right, we want to see your plan of engagement and promotion on this'?
That's where, I think, there would be resource implications, and picking up on Rhys's point a few minutes ago—I'm sure this is a message that you'll hear from all sectors of local government at the minute—most electoral services teams are very small. As an example, in Pembrokeshire, our core staff is three. There are two others that we regularly call on for election events. So, to be able to do work to that extent would be a challenge in terms of resources. But to endorse what Rhydian has said, it seems a natural place to start. So, there would be resource implications, and it would be irresponsible of us to pitch up today and pretend that there wouldn't be. We'd rather say that from the outset. But there's a clear link, there's a clear responsibility, and the comment that I made earlier on—whilst I'm in favour of that link and responsibility, I'm also strongly of a view that the whole process would be more effective if there was a national framework that we could all operate to, and that would introduce consistency. And, certainly, in my experience of planning and working with electoral events, consistency should never be underestimated. It makes the planning process far easier if the country is operating as one rather than differently.
And I think in terms of public awareness and some of the other issues that appear in the Bill, particularly, perhaps, the issue on the potential for different voting methods, consistency in that regard would really be of benefit to the administrative community.
But, certainly, a national framework in terms of promotion and making sure that we do extend this franchise in a meaningful way, but also, EROs with the responsibility—you're all saying that's logical, but it has to come with some discussion, then, around the resources needed to make that work.
Because, of course, it has to be ongoing; it can't be a one-off event. It's something that has to be built on and continues to develop, because you have to keep encouraging, as we all know, young people to continue to engage, and also, as Elan said, making that promotion at the right time where it relates, then, to an electoral event, otherwise they lose interest.
Okay, Huw, thanks for that. If we get back to voting systems, which we've touched on, and you've already mentioned consistency several times—would you like to expand on your concerns with regard to sections 5 to 10 and this possibility of local authorities having different systems of election?
Well, I suppose the first thing to say, from a democratic point of view, is that it is for the Minister and the Assembly to decide on the voting system, and if you decide that local authorities should have the right to develop different electoral processes, then that is your right and we will support you in whatever method you decide to do.
I would just like to remind you once again that about three years ago, we gathered together a group of regional returning officers—senior lead returning officers—the Welsh Government, the Cabinet Office, and we brought together a group of EROs as well, with Rhys, and we developed what's called an electoral co-ordination board, and the whole idea—. I think Rhydian, when I first become commissioner, insisted that I visited what was then in Falkirk, the chief electoral officer for Scotland, and looked at a system that actually, by statute, was a co-ordinated system, even to how they purchased paper, what colour the ballot papers were—all the little details that you think are irrelevant but which can cause the system to collapse if care isn't taken.
So, we decided that, since there was no such statute in Wales, we would work on a voluntary basis, and I think we've been supported. The local government Minister has been to address the electoral co-ordination board, the Presiding Officer has been—you know, we've engaged with the Assembly generally. So, I think, speaking just as a commissioner, from the commission's point of view, we would be disappointed, I think, if all that work in co-ordinating activity was to be somewhat undermined by different systems happening in different counties, in particular when we think about promotion and about telling people not only to register, but saying, 'Put your cross', 'Take time to vote' or 'Put a number'—so, bringing two messages out. As I said at the beginning, it is not insurmountable. I'm sure it can be done, but it would be, in my view, simpler if there was one methodology.
I think all I'd add to that—Elan's right—is: what's the impact of this change on the voter? How will the voter react to this type of electoral system change? If we were to have a situation in Wales where one authority out of the 22, or even four authorities, five authorities, were to adopt single transferable vote in disparate parts of the country, how do we communicate that to the voter? How do we run a public awareness campaign if it's only four authorities? If it's one authority, do we expect the local authority to run the campaign on STV? That's the key thing: how does the elector take part in the system? There will be other questions. How do parties campaign? If there are only one or two authorities that run on STV, how do you effectively campaign on that when there's that lack of consistency? How do we as a commission provide guidance? Are we expected to provide two sets of guidance to political parties and candidates, two sets of guidance to returning officers across the country, run two separate campaigns? Ultimately, how does that roll down to the voter and what's the impact? Will they be able to make a judgment on what's going on and have authority and confidence in their vote? It is doable. We're not saying it's not doable. Voters are able to do these things, but we need to be able to ensure that the messaging they get is informative, is clear, and it's obviously going to be a challenge.
Okay. Thanks for that, that's fine. On the same topic, in terms of international experience and countries like New Zealand, for example, have you had a look at that international experience, and are there any obvious lessons from those countries?
We don't have the detail. We've only looked into it briefly, but we do have contact with electoral commissions from around the world, so we would definitely raise this and discuss this with the New Zealand electoral commission at a future point if we were moving forward with this type of provision. We do know there's a level of public involvement in that decision in New Zealand. If there's a resolution by the local authority to move forward and have a single transferrable vote or a proportional system, then I think 5 per cent of the public can oppose that, and that results in a poll of some kind—slightly different to what we have here, but we'd need to probably look into that in some more detail and provide some additional evidence if that were required.
Okay. From what you've said, Rhydian, and all of you, really, if there were to be an introduction of this possibility of local authorities having different electoral systems, it would obviously involve quite a lot of work by the commission in trying to raise awareness and make sure that different electors were aware of the particular systems in their areas. So, obviously that has resource implications, which you've touched upon. Is there anything you'd like to add in terms of those resource implications for you?
Could I add a comment that it, perhaps, goes a little bit beyond resource implications for ourselves and it's, perhaps, resource implications for other groups that are involved in the process? Rhydian has touched on impacts on the voter, and he's covered that off, the potential for confusion in just how to cast a vote, for example. I feel an impact on us is the potential increased risk in administrative procedures, because dealing with two types of anything as opposed to one type increases the risk for confusion. But I think also we shouldn't look beyond the impacts that this proposal may have on political candidates, their agents and, indeed, the parties, because we all get involved in varying degrees leading up to an electoral event with candidates, agents and parties, and we work very closely with them.
So, again, my view here as an administrator is that there would be two things to cover off as opposed to one and, as Rhydian said, that isn't impossible, but I suppose it would be a question of weighing up the advantages as opposed to the potential disadvantages and risks. And certainly, as an electoral administrator, we do benefit considerably from the guidance that we receive from the Electoral Commission. As Rhydian has already touched on there, that guidance would become significantly more complicated and, in fact, duplicated in many areas because you're touching on two voting systems as opposed to one. And then, in receipt of that guidance, we then have to use that, interpret it and pass that on to the candidates, agents and, indeed, the parties.
One other issue that I don't think I could overlook, really, is the impact that this could have on elected members in local government elections. And what I'm thinking of there is the increased desire and momentum towards collaborative and regional working. I just wonder what the impacts—there might be none—could be of elected members sitting side by side on a corporate joint committee who have been elected through a different process. I haven't actually thought that through in any detail, other than to put a question mark in my mind as to how that might work in the minds of the elected members and the people that they represent.
That's interesting. Thanks very much for that. Huw, do you want to come in at this point?
Yes, thank you, Chair. I don't want to be too provocative, but clearly your message to the Minister is, 'Look, this halfway house of a voluntary area-by-area approach to differences electorally is just wrong-headed; either just go for STV or leave it alone.' [Laughter.] I'm not declaring where I stand on STV either, because—.
Could I put it in a slightly different way? I suspect that we're all, in this room, engaged in trying to get the trust of the electorate in the system. I think it's up to you to decide whether a simple model, understood by all, increases that trust or decreases that trust. So, really, as I've said, we will work with you, wherever you land.
Well, there you are, Huw. Worth a try. [Laughter.]
Before we move on, again, in terms of these matters and resource implications, are you content that the regulatory impact assessment adequately addresses issues of resource, if these provisions were to come about?
I think the regulatory impact assessment really only focuses on the resource implications for the next elections. From the commission's perspective, it talks about forms and the redesign of forms and the process around that and also public awareness. In that sense, I think it's okay. We will provide detailed costs closer to the time, clearly. But what it doesn't include is all of this that we've just discussed now relating to potential electoral system change, which, of course, won't be in place for 2022, or indeed the evaluation of pilots and everything around pilots. It doesn't include that element, in terms of costs for the commission, at least.
Thank you, Chair. I wonder if you could expand on your proposal to amend section 13 of the Bill, which makes new rules under section 36A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to require that Welsh Ministers must consult you as the Electoral Commission on regulations relating to the conduct of elections.
The commission has a unique role and expertise that allows us to give independent advice to Governments, Parliaments and Assemblies across the UK for a number of years. That's what we do; we provide advice and feedback of the independent kind on electoral policy, on conduct rules and all of these different areas. I think we'd want to see that process continuing in Wales to ensure that there is an independent voice and there is independent advice to these types of potentially complex electoral matters. We know that the Welsh Government understand that, they hear that and they probably want the same as us, but it's just how it appears in the Bill itself, really.
Yes, I think so.
I'll just start with a supplementary related to that in terms of the context of the conduct of local elections. Over the years on a number of occasions, allegations and concerns have been raised with me about the conduct of returning officers during elections. There doesn't appear to be a means for addressing that other than through a local authority's internal complaints processes. This Bill elsewhere includes proposals for the performance management of local authority chief executives in their capacity as local authority chief executives. But how do you feel we could or should address the apparent need for performance management of returning officers in the context of their conduct of local elections, not a disciplinary process, but in terms of understanding and development alongside the role of performance management as chief executives?
There are standards in place for the monitoring of returning officers and electoral registration officers. The commission has a statutory role currently to monitor the performance of these individuals, and we can make a judgment call at the end of a canvass period or at the end of an election that explains whether they meet the standards over certain areas, or if they don't meet the standards on certain areas, then that's then public. I think it is potentially viable that standards relating to electoral registration, certainly, that currently are laid at Westminster would be laid before the Assembly for Welsh elections, and that's something that we'd want to work towards.
So, there is a process in place where we can evaluate and monitor the work of these officers. If you were to want more than that, that's something that you would need to consider as an Assembly and we would feed into that process.
I wonder if I could offer a view from the other side of the fence. As a serving returning officer, I certainly feel that the performance standards and the role that the Electoral Commission have in making sure that we adhere to those standards are very robust. And I'm under no illusions when I'm performing the role of returning officer that I will be held to account as a consequence of being expected to meet those standards. It's a very robust arrangement as it stands.
For example, for parliamentary elections, if returning officers don't meet the standard, there is a mechanism there to remove the fee. So, there is a form of penalty attached to that. I realise this might be a moot point in terms of what we're discussing here because of some of the proposals that have been put forward, but there is a structure in place.
There are also, Rhydian, I think it would be fair to say, opportunities to provide additional support to returning officers if it's deemed necessary as a consequence of consideration of performance against performance standards.
And perhaps this is an opportune time to say that one of the benefits of the electoral co-ordination board has been the development of what we call a buddy scheme, or a mentoring scheme, so that new returning officers or new chief executives who have never been a returning officer in their previous post can be mentored and supported in their first elections by a knowledgeable and experienced RO. So, all of that is in place. And of course, when the report on that election is finally published, we will be here answerable to you and to the commission of the Assembly on whether the standards have been met, and what we're doing about it.
Okay. When allegations were made about a returning officer involving themselves in the political content of local authority candidates' campaigns, none of the agencies seemed able to take that on board, and had simply recommended referral to another, another and another, and ultimately, there was no resolution.
But, moving on to the next set of questions, the commission notes that section 17 of the Bill could provide Welsh Ministers with the power to change the ordinary day of election at short notice, and the commission states that the Bill should include a similar time constraint to that included in the Representation of the People Act 1983, to allow sufficient time for candidates, parties and electoral administrators to plan for the election. What amendments do you believe are required to the Bill to address this?
We would want some form of provision to be included in the Bill to ensure that an election can be called at short notice, which we see in other pieces of legislation. Again, going back to the impact on the voter, we want everyone to be able to take part in an election in as effective a way as possible, and that means an election being planned properly, which can take, as colleagues will say—and I'm sure colleagues will have views on this—a year in advance of proper planning; a public awareness campaign to be run, especially if there is some form of systemic change in terms of the electoral system, explaining to voters properly how to take part in the system, and for parties, indeed, to be able to properly plan a campaign on the ground.
We've seen recently elections that have been called at short notice, and it's achievable, but we weren't able to run a full public awareness campaign for those types of elections; I'm sure there were challenges for yourselves and for your political parties in terms of running those campaigns. So, it's just, I think, a measure that is common sense to ensure that that type, or any type of electoral event in Wales isn't able to be called at short notice, which disadvantages, I think, voters in Wales.
For me, I think the critical words there are 'at short notice', and everything that we've said on every other question that you've asked so far really is about reducing risk as a consequence of proper time to plan. And it stands to reason, I think, that the more reasonable the planning time is, the better chances that we have of planning for and delivering an effective event. I suppose the most recent, practical example I can give you is that, at the time, or maybe a few weeks before the last general election was called, we were in the process of planning for the police and crime commissioner's election on 7 May this year. So, that went on the backburner while we hurriedly started planning to deliver the general election. But it's about reducing risk, I think, so the more time available to plan, the fewer the risks are associated with any aspect of the delivery.
I'd just concur with Ian's comments, really. As we mentioned, we've just had a short-notice parliamentary election, which has occurred during the winter period, and also, while the electoral registration officers were conducting and finalising their canvass. It is not an ideal period to be undertaking an election. And, in terms of the planning of it, it needs to be thought out clearly and carefully and thought for proper administration.
Okay, thank you. Moving on to the provision in the Bill that amends or relates to duties on Welsh Ministers to consult on changes to the ordinary day of election, I would be grateful if the commission could expand on its statement or its note that there's no duty to consult directly with the commission, only with such other persons as considered appropriate, and what, if any amendments you feel might be required in that context.
Very similar to my answer on section 13. We would, as an independent body that has a level of expertise in these areas, hope, or indeed expect, that Government would consult with us on issues that relate to any electoral matter, and that includes moving the date of an election. So, it's just to be able to ensure that we're able to provide independent, accurate advice at that time, alongside other partners, because I think it would be important for us to be able to do that. And that's been the process and procedure over recent years in the other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK.
Which bodies do you believe, if any, should be named in the Bill for this?
Well, we will focus, in this instance, on ourselves. The commission has been named as a body that should be consulted previously in all types of different pieces of electoral legislation; we think that should continue. Clearly, we have an electoral co-ordination board, as Elan mentioned; it's not statutory, as the Electoral Management Board is in Scotland. But I think, as we've included in our written response, some of the key points from our written response, we think that all areas of electoral policy put forward by Welsh Government—and, indeed, the Assembly—should be put to the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, because that is the board of senior electoral leaders in Wales, and they should be provided with the opportunity to give their views on these types of changes.
Are you all in agreement that this should state a duty to consult with the commission and such other bodies?
Absolutely. I think, as electoral administrators, we would take great comfort from that, actually.
Okay, thank you. The Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, in its evidence, said that it would require significant pre-planning and significant resources, including staffing premises and IT and security, to deliver the potential benefits of an all-Wales database. What do you think are the practical challenges associated with the provision for an all-Wales database, particularly around security and data protection?
I'd like my colleagues to talk about the risk and so on, but could I, on a more positive note, talk a little bit about the advantages? This is a modernisation of the electoral system, and one that I think could deliver considerable benefits. For example, it would provide us with information on whether people are voting in two areas in the same election—something that we are not really able to trace adequately at the moment. It would also—. We've all heard evidence from local authorities, which are under quite severe financial strains, about the duplication of registration. And I think, Rhys, I'm right in saying that, in one or two areas, it was even up to about 50 per cent of people who were registering themselves who were already registered. Now, potentially, an all-Wales modernised system could bounce back to you, saying, 'You are already registered', rather than having to go through all of this. And, clearly, there are risks in any IT system—I'm sure we'll come to that.
There are also some benefits, I think, in relation to checking the permissibility of donations and loans—whether you are registered in that election and whether you have the right to make a donation. Just think—all of that can be checked as well. So there are benefits to modernisation, but I'm sure that, like all systems that come online, for example, there are obvious challenges, which all online systems share.
And I think it's a building block in terms of the modernisation of electoral registration, and indeed of wider electoral policy. We saw individual electoral registration introduced in 2014, which allowed individuals to register as individuals—moving on from the household system, which was the first building block in the modernisation system. This is, in many ways, the second. We've heard about potential pilot schemes that Welsh Government would like to run, whether it's being able to vote in any polling station in Wales, whether it's e-voting—electronic voting. I think you would need some form of national database, national register, in place, to be able to enable those types of systems to be operated, even at a pilot level.
So, I think it's an important project. It is a big project—it's a massive infrastructure project, and there are risks attached to it, whether it's risks related to the data held within this big bank, where that would be held, or the security. And clearly, in this day and age, when there's a lot of discussion around hacking and other things, the security of the data and of the system would be massively important. And these are discussions that we will need to have with a load of different partners—whether it's the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, Welsh Government, the Assembly, all of those interested groups, as well as with returning officers in Wales. But I think it's something that we do welcome—we welcome the fact that it's included in the Bill. It shows that we in Wales are at the forefront of modernisation in many ways. We're not hearing this type of thing talked about in other parts of the UK, but we all have to realise that there are risks and challenges attached to this type of project as well.
Yes, it's on the point of, not data protection so much, but registration and duplication of registration. It seems to me that this would have to be done on a UK-wide basis, because, quite often, multiple registrations are potentially related to students, so they may be in university in Cardiff, they may live in Manchester or whatever, so it would have to be UK wide. The system that we've got at the moment is very simple—it's very, very simple to register online. Would it not be quite a simple process? And I'm not an IT expert and I don't know whether any of you are either, but the way to avoid that duplication would be to have a unique identifier, like a national insurance number. So, if you registered, not just your name and your address, but your national insurance number as well, if you then registered somewhere else, it would throw up that actually this national insurance number is registered somewhere else.
You do already need your national insurance number to register—
That's a very good question.
Yes, and that unique identifier has been introduced as a result of individual electoral registration being introduced so that the checks can be made. We've made this recommendation to the Cabinet Office on a number of different occasions, that some form of mechanism needs to be included on the portal, as it currently stands, where you put your details in, as you mention, and it pings up and tells you, 'You don't need to register; you're already there.' So, it's something we believe can be done, but I think with a national register of this kind, I think it would be probably simpler to spot those duplicate registrations, but, yes, it's—
Not necessarily, no. I think we would need to be very careful, and colleagues from local authorities would probably add to this, in terms of the divergence between the local government register that is used in Wales for Welsh elections and the parliamentary register, but it wouldn't necessarily need to be UK wide.
I'd simply concur with Rhydian's comments. We, as the Association of Electoral Administrators, have long asked the Cabinet Office and the UK Government for a look-up service because of the volume of duplicate registrations we get for large elections. They did look into it and said to us, basically, that it was too expensive an infrastructure project for them to progress with, and it was basically 'back-burnered'. So, I suppose it's not to underestimate the cost of undertaking these types of exercises, but if there's enough will, and the technology is there, the Government's got to be willing to progress it and to put the funding into it.
Just to say, there are a number of modernisation ideas that have been put forward by us, by the Law Society, and by a number of people, including the Pickles report as well. And, to be honest, over the past few years, there have been more pressing issues than electoral reform, but we will certainly be pressing on with the recommendations that have been made.
Personally, although I'm registered to vote in Flintshire, Cardiff Council, very kindly, regularly send me reminders to register to vote here—the latest one even threatening me with a fine if I didn't, and the form didn't give me an opt-out option. So, yes, much work to do.
What do you think are the practical issues regarding the provision for the automatic registration of electors, and what role, if any, do you envisage for the commission in developing those?
From the perspective of the practical implications, I think there are challenges. We've talked about the divergence between local government registers and parliamentary registers already. There are challenges in ensuring that these changes just relate to the local government register and that any information and data that are received only result in updates to the local government register because, obviously, the parliamentary register is slightly different.
There are challenges relating to when someone is already on the register, knowing that someone is already registered to vote, and also what type of data set can be used—whether we can rely on one data set, or a combination of different data sets. By data sets, I mean whether it is information from the DVLA as to when an individual gets their provisional licence, or from the DWP on national insurance numbers, and sharing that type of information with other bodies like electoral registration officers to ensure that there's an automatic process of registration—once a young person, for instance, gets their NI number, then they are registered to vote at the same time. So, there are considerations there, and there are clear technical and infrastructure considerations that we need to consider as well.
It's a question that's been asked for a number of years. These types of data sets do exist. Why don't we use them more, especially when there are challenges with the registration of young people? Now that group is extending to 16 and 17-year-olds, and we need to see how we can better involve them in the process. I think that automatic registration is one way of doing it, and we need to probably look at it in some greater detail with colleagues. I'm not sure if colleagues from—.
I wonder, Rhydian, on a practical or administrative level—. I think that the introduction of individual electoral registration brought with it the principle that the responsibility to register rested with individuals, whereas this particular proposal maybe implies a responsibility or a duty on the electoral registration officer. If that is the case, and I suspect that it will be, it seems inevitable that there's also a resource implication to consider. So, again, I think that some further detail and some more thought in that regard would be useful.
Thank you. We've had some witnesses say to us that they're a bit concerned about one of the proposals, which is allowing council officers to stand for election without having to resign first. Can I just have your thoughts and views on that, and whether you have got any concerns about any potential unintended consequences of that, or whether you think that it's perfectly reasonable?
I'm happy to kick off on that, as a council officer. There are two aspects of it for me, actually. I welcome the fact that it gives more people an opportunity to stand for election. So, that can only be a positive. However, I think that there are some real practical implications that need thinking through, and I have been churning those over in my mind.
So, the challenge to remain impartial, and the comments regarding complaints that you've received in the past about returning officers, imagine a situation where you could find an immediate colleague pitched up against a serving councillor in a local government election. That would take some managing leading up to the process, for obvious reasons, but actually it wouldn't finish there. It could, depending on who won, take some managing after the event as well.
Now, none of that is insurmountable, but I suspect that it might not have been as given as thorough consideration as, in my view, it needs to be. I think that it would also—
This proposal doesn't exclude those, from memory, though I'd just like to check now—. This proposal doesn't exclude those in politically restricted posts either, does it?
Yes, I think that it does.
The question is: what is a politically sensitive post?
But even so, even if an officer is not in a politically restricted post, he could be in a post where he has a particularly high profile within the organisation, particularly involving working relations with existing and serving members, and could suddenly find him- or herself pitched in a contest against one of those sitting members. So, there are sensitivities that I think that we shouldn't be blind to, is the point that I'm raising. It could deliver, I think, some very difficult situations and circumstances to manage. That, in itself, shouldn't be perhaps the deciding factor in a decision for or against the proposal, but they are significant, in my view, to warrant very careful consideration.
I think that the tricky element is—. We've been supportive of this since the report that we published in 2015 on standing for election. We think that it's a positive thing, enables a wider choice for the electorate and enables a greater level of candidates, a greater number of candidates to stand. The tricky thing will be deciding which of these posts will need to stand down on nomination, and which will need to stand down on election. That is sensitive. We've suggested, as part of a report on this area, a framework of questions that could be used as a tool in determining that. But, clearly, it would be a matter for Welsh Government, presumably working with local authorities as well, to set that type of framework in place. We would provide guidance to candidates and agents, and we would try and make it as clear as we possibly could as to who can stand and what they would need to do. But there are a few hurdles to jump before we get to that point. But we are supportive of the proposal.
It just occurs to me that there might be some additional protections it would need to be built in for employees faced with this situation if they were not successful and then had to go back to work. We already know about some of the tensions between staff and elected members. Those additional protections for staff would probably need to be built into that as well. Okay, thank you for those comments.
Can I ask you then about election pilot schemes and whether you could elaborate on your comments about the need for a provision in the Bill to place a duty on the Electoral Commission to evaluate pilot schemes and to make the commission a statutory consultee?
Yes. The commission has a duty under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to evaluate and publish an independent report of pilot schemes. Most recently, we evaluated the UK Government's ID pilots that took place in the 2018 and 2019 English local government elections. And we'd like to say, we have expertise internally in terms of doing this, even going back as far as the mid-2000s we undertook that type of work with pilots that were held in England. We have expertise in doing that and we'd want to see it continue.
On the statutory consultee element, going back to the answers I provided earlier on sections 13 and 17, I think, given the expertise that we have within the organisation, we'd expect to really be able to give some form of independent answer on any aspect relating to pilots.
But you would want to go that one step further and make the evaluation of pilots a duty.
Yes. We already do that work in other parts of the country, but we'd want to do it in Wales.
Okay. Can you also then expand a little bit on your comments that you had a substantive concern if guidance on running pilot schemes was to be issued by Ministers, and why you consider it more appropriate for the Electoral Commission to do that?
Well, we think it's important that voters have confidence in the integrity of the election, and I think even if there's a perception of political involvement in the guidance to independent returning officers, I think that's a big risk. The commission already has—. And we're not asking for the commission to do the guidance, just to be very clear. The commission has a role in providing statutory guidance for all other electoral events. We understand that there's an issue here if we are evaluating the pilots, we can't really do the guidance for the pilots, but the guidance does need to be independent. So, we need to have discussions as to how we ensure that that guidance is independent. One potential solution would be for the Wales Electoral Coordination Board to provide the guidance. In Scotland, we've seen the electoral management board providing guidance to returning officers on specific electoral events. That's something we potentially could look at in Wales. But, again, it's something to discuss. It's an important issue, clearly.
So, it's practical independence as well as just the perception, really.
I think we've probably dealt with other matters, and we will probably write after your evidence session today—. We'll write to you following your evidence today, perhaps with some further matters. But thank you very much for coming in to give evidence. It's been very interesting. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr i chi.
Thank you very much.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:13 a 10:20.
The meeting adjourned between 10:13 and 10:20.
Okay, then, we move on to item 3 on our agenda today and our tenth evidence session with regard to the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. I'm very pleased to welcome Lyn Cadwallader, chief executive of One Voice Wales, Robert Robinson, secretary to the North and Mid Wales Association of Local Councils, Rob Smith, chief executive of the Society of Local Council Clerks, and Mark Galbraith, Wales policy officer for the Society of Local Council Clerks. Thanks very much for your coming in to give evidence today and particularly regarding town and community councils in Wales.
Perhaps I might begin by a general question, really, with regard to the general principles of the Bill, and that is whether you support those general principles, and perhaps, in answering that, you might outline how the Bill might impact on community councils in Wales, both positively and negatively. Who would like to begin? Lyn.
Well, first of all, thanks, committee, for inviting us to give evidence on the local government and elections Bill. In terms of general principles, we're pretty pleased in some respects with the direction of travel. There are opportunities here to improve governance and financial management arrangements for community and town councils. There are provisions in here that will strengthen perhaps the capacity and the capability of the community and town council sector.
I'll keep it relatively brief. There is a 'however', then. The 'however' is, obviously, we've been through quite a rigorous independent review during 2018, with 46 well-made recommendations for the sector, and I suppose One Voice Wales members are disappointed that not many of those recommendations have found their way into the Bill provisions as currently presented. So, positive to a point, but, in terms of pace and scale, we would have liked to have seen a lot more provisions within the Bill and a lot broader scale in terms of what's been presented to date.
Yes. Thank you, Chair. We represent the Society of Local Council Clerks and we're pleased to see that the Bill is now being presented through the National Assembly. It's taken a while to get to where we are in terms of the public service reform agenda and it's particularly reassuring, with many elements of the Bill, in terms of the discussions we've been having with Welsh Government colleagues and sector stakeholders over the last five years or so, that some of the things that we've been lobbying for are starting to come through in the Bill. We see the Bill as very much the foundation or the cornerstone of building an ongoing fresh relationship with Welsh Government.
I was particularly pleased with some of the wording in the Bill about recognising the role of the town and community councils as important community partners going forward, Chair. And, of course, being enshrined in what happened in the past—the view about the role of town and community councils, the future status, is changing for the positive, I feel. Whereas in the past we were competing or regarded as perhaps third sector bodies and not part of local government, we are now recognised. And that's actually recognised in the language of the Bill. So, from a society standpoint, not wishing to disagree with anything that my colleague Lyn has said, we're quite pleased to see this Bill now finally coming forward. Thank you.
If I may—
Certainly, the association supports Lyn's view on the fact that we're disappointed as well that a lot of the sections that were talked about in the review have not come forward very, very quickly. Everything seems to be exceedingly slow. It goes so slow that we're all rediscussing the thing again over and over again. We've had similar discussions like today's at previous committees that we've been to over the years. I think the other thing is that—it's not a concern, it's an observation—when you start talking about elections and you start talking about single transferrable votes and so on with political parties, we have seen demonstrated at parliamentary level recently, and in other areas, working down, where the political parties are entrenched. Now, you go to Europe and they all talk to each other, all have a bit of give and they come to a consensus when you haven't got an overall control. That intransigence—. And I'm not aiming at any particular political party, they all seem to be the same, and I think they need to be a little bit more flexible if this is going to work.
Are you referring there to Westminster parties finding it difficult to co-operate at elections and outside or—? Have you looked at the history of the National Assembly forming coalitions? Because it's been a very, very different experience.
I've not got much experience of the National Assembly one, it doesn't come through quite the same, but we certainly see it at county council level.
And it's really those areas where there is a fragmentation of parties, like Powys, for instance—the biggest party is well under a quarter of the overall, and it creates great difficulty when you've got entrenched positions, and, because they're entrenched and won't give an inch, nothing actually happens. But that's just an observation—that's one of those things that could happen through that. But, in general, I think the Bill's well received.
Okay. Thanks for that, Robert. We'll be coming on to some of those other matters in due course. Let me just ask you about the provisions for the extension of the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens legally living in Wales, and, again, just to ask you, really, what you see as potential benefits or problems with regard to that proposed extension. Who would like to begin?
Yes, I can. I think the—. As far as 16 and 17-year-olds voting, I think youngsters today are far more aware of politics around them than people were 20 years ago, far more involved, and I think, with the advent of youth councils—. When they first appeared on the scene, there weren't very many. Now, there's a massive number of councils that I've talked to who've got them and they're well supported, which I think shows the interest.
The other point that was made by our members was that if someone who is—and I'll choose my words carefully—more elderly and not wanting to get involved in politics can vote, why can't a youngster who is 16, can work, can go to the army, not have the same right?
The benefits: well, (1) a more democratic and inclusive elections process. Issues—. We support the extension of the franchise and extending the franchise to foreign citizens. The issue, as we see it, probably a little bit like the Electoral Commission, is how quickly this can be enacted so that there's sufficient timing in advance of the next set of elections, so that there's sufficient time to do proper canvassing.
The other area that we will—and we'll probably come back to this at some point during the proceedings—. We feel that there needs to be a lot more support from central Government around the elections process, particularly around the marketing and campaigning, to highlight the role of community councils, town councils, and the role of community and town councillors. We've seen some marketing and promotion work done prior to previous elections around county councils. The Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales has done some work with the WLGA on this, and we would like to certainly see that extended. I understand from colleagues at Welsh Government that is likely to happen, but I can't stress enough the importance—. If people don't know what the role's about, why would they want to get involved with it? So, I really want to emphasise that.
Look, we're a professional body and so we're always cautious about overlapping into political decisions. But, broadly, our membership and our position is supportive of both items regarding the extension of the right to vote. That's the feel of our membership, but, broadly, a political decision.
No, I think Rob has just made the point, Chair, really. They're positive measures. I think, with the 16 and 17-year-olds, it's part of the school curriculum, so it's been extended there, so they're more politically savvy, if I can use that word, in this day and age than perhaps in yesteryear.
I think, with foreign nationals, again, that's a positive measure. If they've got a lawful right to be in this country, they're paying their taxes, then why not allow them to be able to vote and take part in the democratic process? So, I think both are positive measures, Chair.
Thanks. I wonder if you can tell us the extent to which you agree with the provisions that provide local authorities with the options to choose between first-past-the-post or STV, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of those provisions, please.
The voting systems—of course, everyone's accustomed to the first-past-the-post, simple majority, system, and, of course, looking at introduction of the single transferrable vote, that would be interesting, to see the amount of take-up at principal council level as to whether they, obviously, would look to offer to do this, where you've got a ranking system. Again, with the system that we're accustomed to, it's a simple system and there's a quick result of it whereas, perhaps, with the single transferrable vote, where it's a form of proportional representation, it'll take slightly longer to declare the result.
The one thing that concerns me is elector confusion, potentially. So, if I can use the example of where there might be a combined election at local government level, where you've got principal council elections going on at the same time as a tiny community council election, in the Bill, the option is there for principal councils to choose between the two voting systems, but, for town and community councils, it would still be the current system, the simple majority system. So, I think care would need to be exercised there to educate voters so that obviously they are clear in how they mark up their respective ballot papers. That's the only thing I can see there that could be a bit of a stumbling block in terms of introducing perhaps different systems on a discretionary basis.
Yes. Following on in a similar sort of vein to Mark's comments, really, we're of the opinion that the system appears to be confusing enough as it is for electors— understanding local government and what it's about. They certainly don't know what community and town councils are about. We would prefer that there was just one process at this time, and our preference—. Depending on who we talk to in our membership, in different parts of Wales, some of our members will say, 'Single transferrable vote—we'd be quite comfortable with that happening.' But what they didn't want as an entity, as a national executive, was to have this mix and match so that Powys is different to Ceredigion is different to Monmouthshire, so that the election process across Wales is uniform and consistent. What we would prefer to see as One Voice Wales around where the focus should be for Government is not necessarily about changing electoral systems at this stage. We'd prefer Government to carry out one of the clear recommendations of the independent review, which was around having a clear definition for the role and purpose of community and town councils so that people know the difference between the role of a unitary authority and its members and the role of a community and town council and its members. So—
It hasn't got to be one or the other, though, has it? You could do that as well as change the voting system.
You could, potentially. You could do the voting system, but I think our preference is—. There's a lack of clarity over what local government does and what community and town councils do for the elector, and let's focus on getting people's awareness up and ready so that they know what they're voting for in the first place.
And that's before we even get into what the Senedd is responsible for—and Westminster, of course. I wonder if you can tell us—you've talked about the importance of consistency, and I can see the argument for that. Do you think that proportional representation should be extended to community councils, then?
I agree with what Lyn said on a lot of this. I think one of the big issues, just going back for a minute to the single transferrable vote system, is, if you're going to have a number of councillors covering a larger area, it's against the independent; where you've got a political party with a machine behind them, that actually helps them get elected in this situation. I think also the confusion, as has been pointed out, in having different voting systems in different counties is not a good move. People have difficulty enough understanding it as it is now. It took me nearly three quarters of an hour to explain the single transferrable vote system to quite senior councillors. So, if they can't get their heads round it—
So, the argument is—. Sorry to cut across you. The argument is, then, if county councils introduced a system of STV then the community councils and town councils should as well.
No, not at all. If you're going to have the single transferrable vote system, it should be on all counties, not one here and one there, although the association is still in favour of the system as it stands today. As far as town and community councils are concerned, I don't think there should be any single transferrable vote system at all. I think that should be first-past-the-post and it should be done on a local ward basis.
Even if county councils—
But that undermines your argument about consistency, then, though, doesn't it?
No. Consistency across the county means, wherever you live—
Well, confusion if they find their next-door county is different to them, but I don't think the single transferrable vote system will work for town and community councils. I think that should be really down to local level.
I just think traditionalists, certainly within communities, might argue against switching to STV. There's a broader question, really, about whether it can help remove the apathy associated with people turning out to vote. If they felt that their vote would make a difference by actually changing the system, then of course that's a positive, as far as I can see. So, it could work. But again, looking at the consistency model, I think rather than have a patchwork-quilt option in Wales you need to have universal agreement about what voting system is to be used at local government elections, so everyone is clear about that. So, whilst the traditionalists might say, 'We'd rather stick to what we know and feel comfortable with', I think, looking at voter apathy and getting people to be more interested in what's happening in local government by voting, this could make a positive difference so that they can say that their vote counts for something. Because more often than not, people say, 'Well, my vote won't count for something because—'
And that's the point, isn't it? That's the point of looking at it.
Okay. Thank you very much. I wonder if there are any potential benefits or unintended consequences in terms of the provisions to change the electoral cycle and the ordinary day of the election.
I think that makes perfect sense. In terms of the electoral cycle, if we look at that first, that's harmonising the different sets of elections that are held in Wales to five-year terms, and again that will help remove confusion. In terms of changing the day, that's an interesting one, because traditionally it's a Thursday. There must be some research somewhere, but I haven't seen that in the Bill, about the reason or explanation for wanting to change the day of the week on which the election is held. Is there a particular day where they say perhaps turnout might be better on that day? I'm not so sure. This, perhaps, could be examined through the piloting arrangements that are mentioned in the Bill, potentially, and whether voting can be extended beyond a one-day term, for example, as part of those piloting arrangements. That's worth looking at as a concept. But, for example, voting on a Thursday, if we say we're going to switch it to a Tuesday, is that going to make much of a difference?
That's a fair question. Okay. I wonder, then, if you can expand on the potential benefits and drawbacks of the provisions establishing an all-Wales electoral database and the automatic registration without application, and if there are any implications for community councils, please.
We recognise the purpose of establishing a centralised system. We think that there are benefits in terms of potentially enabling improved accuracy of data around electoral information—so, knowing who's got a legitimate right to vote twice, et cetera. I suppose one of the drawbacks that we would see is maybe a risk around personal data, maybe, and there may be some issues also around the potential loss of local knowledge around unregistered persons. But, generally, we welcome that proposal.
Looking at the different parts of the question—sorry if I've got the order mixed up—thinking about views on having a central database, I think that's a positive. I used to work, in a former life, in electoral registration, so I know all the frustrations about perhaps trying to get people included on the register. And anything, really, that improves that process to enable people to exercise their vote is going to be positive. So, I think having all this on a database, because of the size of the population, is feasible to deliver. I think as well, by having a central database, you're able to look at going out to all the different networks of data, where it's held, and drawing that together so you get a more accurate database.
A bit of a tongue in cheek one here: in terms of any consequences for the town and community council sector, it's not much of a financial advantage, but looking at section 137 limits, of course, that's where you can set thresholds. So, if we've got more people being registered, then that's going to increase that limit in terms of spending—not by a great deal, I appreciate, but nevertheless it's a positive. That's something that perhaps might be an unintended consequence.
You're declaring your interest.
Well, yes. I'd certainly be an advocate for that. And of course, having a central database, it would allow perhaps unique ways of opening up electoral registration and people voting from outside their areas as well. So, I think that would be quite beneficial going forward.
Thank you, Chair. Can I ask for your views on the proposal in the Bill to allow council employees to stand for election without first having to resign their positions?
I think that's positive, primarily because they've got a lot of experience to offer. They've been at the coal face as an officer supporting members, so they know what's required of the role, they know the ins and outs of policy and service development. And I think having, shall we say, the measure taken away—whereby they don't have to stand down before standing—would encourage perhaps more officers to think about the future and whether they wanted to stand as a local member going forward. I think that would give the necessary reassurance and peace of mind, so that if they didn't get elected then of course they could then carry on in their primary role as an officer supporting the council.
It would be interesting, looking at the dynamic—and again, I'm not a politician, I don't want to get into the politics of it—those wanting to throw their hat in obviously might be subscribing to a political party. Keeping their independence as an officer going forward, and perhaps how they serve the council without, obviously, showing any particular bias to any one particular party going forward, and how they are perceived as well by colleagues and members—that's something that could be an unexpected by-product that somebody in that position might have to deal with going forward.
So, that's one of the possibly unintended consequences of the proposal. Are you suggesting, from your point of view, that that's probably more likely to be problematic for somebody who was standing for a political party, rather than as an independent? Is that what you're suggesting?
I think so, yes. That's the point, yes.
Okay. Do you think there's any further provision within the Bill that needs to cover that, or do you think there are sufficient assurances within it as it stands?
If I can follow on from Mark, I agree with what Mark has already said, but we support this—certainly on the basis that a lot of employees live within a local area and, frankly, it's just excluding them from an opportunity. I think what we would like to see, and perhaps this could be in regulation, is that there's clear guidance for the process in terms of politically-restricted posts as opposed to unrestricted posts. And also, some guidance around then how those individuals are dealt with post election, either successful or unsuccessful. Because the example given, if someone declares a political allegiance, and after the event it's another political party that's leading that council, they could find themselves in a difficult—
They need some protections put there. But I think, in principle, it's a good development.
With the proposals to try and encourage more people to stand for councils, which is what this is really about, comes another knock-on effect regarding cost, particularly for smaller town and community councils. A lot of them co-opt, and the reason they co-opt is it's a £2,500 bill every time they have an election. So, the more we bring forward the idea of trying to encourage more people to stand, which as a principle has got to be right, there is the issue of the cost of those elections. And I do wonder whether there ought to be some way of helping town and community councils get over that hump. Because if you're a town or a community council with a £10,000 or £12,000 budget, two by-elections in a year and you've wiped half your budget out.
If you get the 10 signatures, you've haven't got a choice; you've got to do it. So, it's almost an unknown cost at the beginning of the year.
So, support for community councils to enable them to do it, because that shouldn't be the barrier. The point I was just making: democracy is not a cheap option.
Absolutely, but I think cost often is, and that doesn't encourage them to try and support going out and finding the candidates.
I'm just wondering, it was something that Dawn and I were whispering to each other just a moment ago, there are some areas where co-opting is the normal process, in areas where there isn't great political conflict, where there's a consensual approach, unless somebody wants to come forward. In other areas that I know well, every town and community council by-election is contested—every, by and large. Do we have any analysis of—geographically, regionally—who bears the most cost? Is it the Powyses, is it the Rhondda Cynon Taffs, is it the Pembrokeshires? Which community councils get the greatest burden?
From personal experience, if I can answer that question, looking at election fees, at ordinary elections—we have 21 members covering seven wards on Llanelli Rural Council—the fees we are charged for that are in excess of £20,000 to cover that. But because we're defined as a large council, active portfolio services, there's a great deal of interest in what we do. Whereas depending on where you are in Wales, and the point that you were alluding to there, depending on what you do and perhaps the size of the precept that you have, the number of times that the council meets, the number of services it delivers, they will look at being frugal with the management of the budget. And then, what you will get is councils or prospective councils trying to save money for the community by not actually having this thrusted upon them, to pay out for the process of servicing the election. And that's something where we need to see a shift from really, because it's part of the democratic process of getting more people to come forward and stand for election. I appreciate perhaps that's covered in later questions, so sorry if I've actually gone into that now. Sorry, Chair.
Thank you. Just a couple of questions around returning officer fees. You thought that was coming, didn't you? Yes. [Laughter.] So, really, just some of your views on that, and whether you agree with the proposal to move the fees into salary, rather than taking it away as a personal fee.
I raised this point with colleagues prior to Christmas, prior to putting our submission in. First, I think it's right that the personal fees of returning officers are removed from the election costs. And I also agree with the concept that that should be recognised as part of a returning officer's general salary, because primarily the role is given to chief executives of principal councils. It doesn't have to be them, but primarily that's the default position. So, I think chief executives have handsome salaries as it is and, for the role that they undertake, I don't think personal fees should be included. That's the first point.
When I read section 28 of the Bill—. And with your indulgence, Chair, I'd like to read this paragraph out, in terms of making it more clear. When I read this first of all, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this sounds—'. The legal advisers may disagree, but anyway, here goes. So, it's section 28, 'Meeting expenditure of returning officers', and it's paragraph 36C, 'Expenditure by returning officers at local elections in Wales', and subparagraph (2):
'All the expenditure properly incurred by a returning officer in relation to the holding of an election of a community councillor must, in so far as it does not, in cases where there is a scale fixed for the purposes of this section by the council of the county or county borough in which the community is situated (“the principal council”), exceed that scale, be paid by the principal council; and if the principal council so require, any expenditure so incurred must be repaid to them by the community council.'
So, I, just reading that alone, did not deduce that personal fees of returning officers would not be included. I would much rather prefer a simple line underneath that, basically stating the fact that personal fees will not be included as part of election costs.
It is, yes.
You would like to see that paragraph being much clearer; a bit more clarity so that everybody understands. But the principle of not having a personal fee, as opposed to it being part of the salary, is something you all agree with. Is that right?
Yes. I know One Voice Wales have got a particular view on this.
Yes. Very simply, Mark has already, in his previous answer, talked about costs, and ultimately our members feel that the personal fee opportunity to claim expenses is unacceptable, and that the role and the salary should cover—
Incorporate it, yes.
Is there any danger that that could potentially call into question the independence of the returning officer? Because, at the moment, the returning officer is paid to do that in a personal capacity. I know the point you're making; it almost invariably is the chief executive officer. I can't think of any other officer that's ever done that. But whilst they're undertaking that role, theoretically, they're doing it in a personal capacity and receiving a personal fee for it. So, do you have any concerns that that might change the perception of their impartiality in the process?
Not really, because there's a governance in terms of how that person reports back to the court. So, I don't see that as an issue.
Thank you. Good morning. Although One Voice Wales has said that the general power of competence will carry broad appeal across community and town councils, the Auditor General for Wales has warned in his evidence of the potential increase in appropriate projects being commissioned, particularly by community councils, since the sector has,
'limited affordable access to suitably qualified and expert advisers in public law'.
What are your views, therefore, on the potential risks and benefits of making provision for the general power of competence for the local government sector in Wales?
It's all upside, isn't it? Let me deal with the risks first. We've talked about that. As a professional body that delivers training in relation to the qualification that provides a competent clerk to deliver general power of competence, we would focus on that. And the only risks we see are resourcing and the capacity to be able to deliver training and mentoring, and all the rest of it. We've looked hard at the data that we've got, and our experience in England, and we don't have a concern. We think we would cope with it. And in partnership with our colleagues at One Voice Wales, we would create the resource as and when it arose. So we're reasonably flexible in delivery of that.
In terms of the positives, I'm inclined to leave it to Lyn to comment more, but, broadly speaking, it's been a positive thing in England in our experience at the Society of Local Council Clerks, although uptake and attracting people to councils to resolve to have general power of competence is actually a challenge. Where it's put in place it kind of simplifies things, and genuinely empowers and ignites all kinds of interesting and innovative stuff that goes on at council level. I'll leave Lyn to comment further.
Our view is that, essentially, bringing in GPoC will remove any doubt about how the powers can be used—it provides clarity there. It will provide a lot more flexibility for the community and town council sector in terms of how they precept—that is based on the premise that section 137 is actually removed off the statute book, because that didn't happen when we went through the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, and we thought that section 137 was being repealed to enable community and town councils to precept more widely and more innovatively. That didn't happen, because that was retained on the statute book.
I would like to pick up on the comment you made about the Wales Auditor General saying that the sector hasn't got sufficient legal support. I'd probably disagree with that. There is very good legal support provided, certainly through our organisation, and through the Society of Local Council Clerks. Indeed, we have recourse to five or six solicitors in London, who are specialists in community and town council, and parish council law. The issue is really I think more about the scale of advice that's available if all councils are using this. Because One Voice Wales, as colleagues might know, we are a relatively small staffing team, and there are a lot of community and town councils. So that is the issue, and that was again another issue that was highlighted by the independent remuneration panel, which was about expert advice available to the sector and that there needed to be more provided. And that is an area that we would want to see bolstered through Welsh Government support.
Can I add that I certainly support the idea of section 137 money not being adequate; it needs to be higher if you're going to give people the power of competence, and have any real meaning? I think also it needs to be wider to allow the community councils to do more than what they're doing now. I know that libraries is a massive issue at the moment. Town and community councils don't have the power to run a library, and yet they're all under threat across Wales, and a lot of the communities would like to take them on if they possibly could, but then it comes back to the limit of section 137, enabling them to do that, because that's quite a big community asset within a lot of these towns and villages.
As far as actual competency is concerned, I'm a chartered surveyor, so when I was a clerk, that was quite useful, not because I knew more than anybody else, but you recognised when it was right to go for advice, and that seems to be the key—not the inability to have the advice, but to understand when you've got to go and ask and get somebody involved. So, for example, when we used to have fairly big schemes, where I was before, I would sketch them up and when the council was, in principle, interested in doing it, then we'd go to an outside consultant of some sort, whether it be a building surveyor, an architect or whatever, to come and do it for us. So, I think it's more about project management than it is about having the experience to do it, because you can buy that in, but that needs a section 137 lift to enable councils to do that.
Mark, if I may add to that, local government provide services based on legislative powers, so, they can only do things in accordance with the statute book. At the moment, there are too many restrictions on the legalisation in terms of empowering the town and community council sector. There's been wide-ranging discussion over the last eight to nine years about increasing the capability and the capacity of the sector for it to step up and do more and interact and be more collaborative with principal authorities. But because they've got this limited suite of powers, it's difficult for them to take things on. Robert mentioned libraries. There's another one looking at the provision of health—there's no direct power surrounding health services whereby a local council could get involved in helping to support whatever the health agenda is in their part of the world.
By introducing the power, the benefit of it, I quite clearly see, is it removes the risk of councils acting unlawfully when they're trying to act in the interest of their local community, and that's what we need to keep hold of here; it's about having the trust in developing the sector to use this power wisely going forward. In the past, they've introduced a positive measure on the one hand, and have taken it away with the other. And this power—Robert mentioned the power of well-being where that was restricted by the financial limits of section 137. People just thought, 'Well, what's the point? We can't use it for any specific purpose beyond perhaps the limit set by section 137.'
So, by having this power of first resort, as I like to see it, I think it removes some of the issues that the Wales Audit Office might be identifying with about running the risk of perhaps stepping beyond the mark and working ultra vires, unlawfully. And so, I can only see this as a positive measure to try and meet the expectations that Welsh Government are setting other stakeholders, as well as the Welsh Local Government Association and the principal councils about town and community councils stepping up and supporting them to deliver local services. So, to me, rather than actually rewriting the entire statute book, introducing this simple power is a good way of achieving that end.
Okay, thank you. I'm playing devil's advocate here, we know it isn't based only on the submission by the auditor general to this committee, but also there have been reports, particularly one quite recently, where he highlighted this and evidenced that in detail. I hear what you say about, if you grow responsibility and empower organisations, then generally, people respond positively and become creative and think outside the box and so on, but there are still audit risks associated with that. So, what assurance can you provide that the audit risks identified by the auditor general will be avoided?
This is primarily directed at the town and community council sector and within the power proposed in the Bill, it refers to eligible community councils, and there are three criterion set there for a town and community council to actually start using the power—one of which is having a qualified clerk; then it's having two-years' worth of unaudited accounts and, of course then, two-thirds of the council being elected. This is a well-known formula that's been used in parish and town and community council settings, Robert, in England, in terms of setting general benchmarks then for councils to nominate themselves as eligible councils to use that power.
I think through the combination of—. Looking at the training packages on offer through One Voice Wales and through the society, this is all geared to actually making sure, then, that councils are ready in order to use that power. So, I think, over the course of time—. It's a gradual process, because obviously there's an element of lag whilst councils get to grip with this. Because not all councils are like Llanelli Rural Council, where they have a full-time clerk with a suite of staff to support services. Most councils, perhaps, are smaller and have part-time clerks, but with this power, it will actually open up opportunities for them perhaps to look at clubbing together in informal arrangements to deliver services, whereas at the moment, they are not able to do that in perhaps the consistent way that everyone is looking for, in terms economies of scale and sharing resources. So, overall, I think it's very positive for the sector, and any concerns—. I can understand perhaps the Wales Audit Office expressing concern, but that's based on the current arrangements as they sit now, not with this additional flexibility coming in. I think that quite a lot of this will be deflected from that.
If I may, I had a conversation with a clerk of quite a significant town council in England about exactly this after our original briefing on this. I was talking this through, and her response to that broad question was, 'Well, it just makes everything so much simpler for the clerk and for the council.' So, actually, of course there are always going to be risks, like the audit risks that the auditor general has identified, but, they are probably reduced by having the general power of competence because, as soon as the council activates the general power of competence, pretty much everything that they do is covered by the general power of competence. Whereas, prior to that, you are always searching for a specific piece of legislation or a specific mandate or authority, which you might not always know or might not always have absolutely down pat. So, the general view is that the GPoC simplifies and sets clear boundaries. In response to the auditor general, you don't eliminate risk, but you reduce it from where we are at the moment.
Will this require town and community councils to make greater provision through reserves to offset risk?
'Yes' is the answer to that question—[Inaudible.] And I think that if I had a criticism on reserves, it is that the audit office appears to apply a percentage against the precept as to what you should have in reserves. So, you take a smaller council that might have two years' worth of precept as reserves. But, if they are running public toilets and they get vandalised, it doesn't matter how big they are; it's still going to cost the same money, and suddenly you find that your reserves have all gone. So, I think that there needs to be a little bit more of a central approach as to what are the right reserves for town and community councils to hold. Probably, they need to be allowed to hold, or not be criticised for holding a bit more nowadays than in previous years.
Can I just reiterate in terms of Mark's point? Let's be quite clear, councils have to attain a level of assurance through meeting three criteria: to have a professional clerk, fully qualified and fully competent; councillors fully trained; unqualified audit accounts for a period. So, it is providing assurance. It's not a case of any council just starts using GPoC; they have got to attain these three criteria before that.
Indeed, Lyn. I think that Mark has some further questions on some of the issues around that.
The Society of Local Council Clerks notes the importance of clerks possessing the sector-specific qualification. Why do you believe that it's not already a requirement to hold the necessary qualification, and is there sufficient capacity to deal with a potential increase in requests from clerks to acquire the relevant qualification?
As a professional body, we've advocated, since we came into existence, about professionalising clerks to better inform and properly advise their councils. So, the present position is, from the society's standpoint, that councils should employ a qualified clerk. And indeed, through the programme of training and self-improvement that's being developed through the national training and advisory group—and that's a group, or a think tank if you like, involving Welsh Government officers, Welsh Local Government Association representatives, One Voice Wales, and the Society of Local Council Clerks—it sets the national training strategy for both councillors and clerks.
Basically, the Certificate in Local Council Administration, or CiLCA, qualification, if you like, then gives a clerk all the necessary skills and insight into managing a local council. So, our stance, even though up to this point there has been no legal requirement to hold it, is that we believe that this is a starting point to professionalise the sector. Something that I mentioned earlier, Mark, about increasing capability and capacity—this very much ties into that point about increasing capability and capacity. We would like to see, eventually, people seeing this as a career of choice, going forward, as a clerk representing a council.
Unfortunately, there are many examples at the moment of perhaps somebody meeting down the pub and saying, 'There's a job going. Can you come and service our meetings? It's only a couple of meetings a week and doing this, that and the other.' But when they get in to do the role, they realise it's much bigger than that in terms of looking at the statutory responsibilities that have to be fulfilled, even for smaller councils. I don't know, Lyn, if you want to pick up on that.
I think we need to look at this in the round. Principal authorities in the early 1980s didn't have the level of regulation that they've got around them now. Community and town councils 15 years ago were largely there to be consulted on a planning inquiry, maybe, and not a lot else. That's not the case now. We are seeing, year on year, more duties being placed—the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015—these are duties that are coming through and being placed on the sector. Let's not forget that the auditor general himself has introduced a completely different audit regime for the sector, so we do need SLCC-qualified, we do need sector-specific qualifications because we are different to a unitary authority. We have not a difference of opinion, but there is, certainly from our members, the issue around GPOC where you have, say, for example, a fully qualified barrister, maybe, who's carrying out a town clerk role—how that professional qualification is regarded is a bit of an issue for some of our members, because it's about—. What if that person says, 'Look, I'm not going to go and do the SLCC qualification.' Does that mean we can't ever get GPOC? Well, probably that is the case. But we are very supportive of the SLCC qualification, we see it as a qualification for the sector. We are moving forward as a sector. We're not just dealing with an occasional planning inquiry—we are dealing with community asset transfer and the devolution of services. We're dealing with various other duties under various Acts, and we need competent people to do that and to advise councillors appropriately.
If I can make one last point, if I may, on that, just to bolster what Lyn was saying about SLCC. I've worked in local government all my career—in principal authorities for about 17 years, and, latterly, 18 or 19 years in the local council sector, and I'm a professional chartered secretary, specifying in local government. So, I thought I knew everything about law associated with local government, until I actually stepped into the shoes of becoming a clerk. And what I would say is that there are nuances in legislation and SLCC would address these specific points in terms of a tailored programme looking at the law as it affects town and community councils. Without boring the committee, looking at something as simple as excluding press and public from meetings, what I see quite commonly is officers, who perhaps come down from the principal council and then becoming the clerk, using the wrong legislation. Okay, it's a technical breach of the law. So, they would use the Local Government Act 1972 to exclude, whereas it's the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. And it's about knowing these little things to make sure that you don't fall foul of the law. That's perhaps a timid one to mention, but there are others where having this sector-specific qualification that will address these issues to make sure that clerks are competent and are able to advise the councillors is fundamentally important.
Right. At one point we did also have things like bus shelters, street lights, playgrounds and other things as well, so it wasn't just meaningless planning oversight. But there we are.
Mark, perhaps we need to move on to other matters at this stage. I'm mindful of the fact that we've got just over 20 minutes left and lots of questions yet to ask.
The bursary scheme—
Mark, shall we move on to Leanne?
By all means, yes.
Thanks. I'll be very brief. I wonder if, on section 46, encouraging participation—I understand that you're not all of one voice on this. Excuse the pun. [Laughter.] But I wonder if you can outline your views and support or otherwise for provisions in section 46.
Well, the provisions are fine for the unitary authorities. We wouldn't wish to see those provisions extend any jurisdiction over community and town councils or other public bodies. What we would prefer to see is those provisions applying to the unitary authorities but then a separate set of provisions where there may be a duty for community and town councils to engage, because we're a separate legal entity—we're a separate bureaucracy. And we would prefer to see that, and then we would prefer to see, as part of that duty, maybe a duty to community plan. And what we mean by that is actually having a discrete role and responsibility for the sector around specific areas around community asset transfer, community engagement at the very local level, working with you, working with the third sector, so that there's planning around things that really matter to local people. That's where I'd prefer to see the focus.
Can I just ask a brief supplementary on this? Is it a problem for planning, in the way you've just described, that community councils don't cover everywhere?
Yes. I think it's—. One of the biggest points I made in my response is that we've been arguing for many years that there should be 100 per cent coverage of Wales of community and town councils, and, in fact, we get support off our unitary authority colleague friends because they say, when they have to do consultations around their services et cetera—. Swansea, for example—the head of democratic services has gone on record on a few occasions actually saying, 'We have problems where there are gaps, where there are—'. Mumbles Community Council, and it is not a neighbouring area, and they have real difficulties then with engagement with the community. But we very much think that legislation—[Inaudible.]
Representing the Rhondda, I'm aware of this problem. I wonder if you can comment on your views about the provision for the publication of councillor addresses for principal councils and if there's any reason why that shouldn't be extended to town and community councils.
We raised this point in our written response. We thought, 'Well, look, the same principles would apply because they are members, all said and done', and in terms of—. There could be issues over privacy and what have you, so we wondered, then, why this was just originally identified for members of principal authorities. But thinking more about it, there are issues, I suppose, perhaps, if they use their council address as their address. I'm thinking about part-time clerks and those councils that don't possess offices. So, perhaps they would use their own home address as the main office mailing address. So, you could get councillor mail coming through to that—thinking about it after we'd written the response. But we do think there should be a level playing field in terms of looking at what's appropriate for members at a principal level and also at town and community council level because they perform similar roles in terms of representing the electorate. So, obviously, they will get this correspondence coming through and there could be issues locally with individuals, perhaps, targeting members. So, we thought, 'Well, if there's somebody, perhaps, experiencing that, then, of course, this could be a way of perhaps alleviating or mitigating against that.'
I think, at principal council level, where you are paid, it has a different level, and I think to publish addresses is correct. When you're talking about volunteers, it's a slightly different matter, particularly if they're going to get bombarded by a whole load of things and they've got their own working life, not just what they're being paid for at county level. So, I think, I agree. I think that having at least an address of contact, even if it's the office address so the clerk can pass it on, is better than actually forcing town and community councillors to put their addresses on. Now, if you look through the websites of town and communities councils, an awful lot of them have the addresses on already, and some don't. But I think to actually impose it on a voluntary position is probably not the right way to go, particularly if you're looking to attract more people to stand for election and then they find they have their address on the website and their family life gets intruded upon, and that would put people off, I think. So, I think it's, to a certain extent, going against trying to encourage more people to stand. Does that make sense?
We think it should be extended to community and town councils. We've had a specific issue several years ago with the Information Commissioner's Office. We think the address should be of the council and not for individual councillors. From MPs down to your good selves and county councillors, there are potential security risks, and we think it should be just one address. I hear what Mark says about part-time clerks, and they're some of the caveats that we include in there. But in terms of our discussions with the Information Commissioner's Office, essentially, if you were to say, 'You have to publish a councillor's address', you might be breaching that individual's human right to privacy. So, we have broached that issue three or four years ago. So, we would say, keep it at a council level, but extend it to community and town councils.
Thank you, Chair. Can you tell us whether you believe the proposed provisions within the Bill, and I'll quote from it now, that
'a reasonable opportunity to make representations about any business to be transacted at the meeting'
is sufficiently robust? So, members of the public participating in the meeting. Do you believe those provisions are sufficiently robust and what would you define as being a reasonable issue that somebody can come and speak to you about?
I think this already happens in England at town and parish level, where they have as part of legislation an opportunity for electors to exercise their right to ask questions about any matter that arises on the agenda. So, I think it's an important step forward in Wales. Quite a number of councils do it already, even though there's no legal requirement to do so. So, I don't see any negatives associated with this.
Having looked at section 55 and read it, I do feel it's strong enough and really provides the necessary checks and balances to make sure that electors have the opportunity to ask any question that they feel is appropriate. Perhaps it would be welcome to have that question in advance so they can prepare. There's no point in the meeting saying, 'We'll have to look that up and come back to you.' Having, perhaps, that open dialogue in advance of the meeting taking place would be helpful in order, then, to let members of the public know what the position is over a particular question and that officers and members can prepare for it. Because I'd hate to see this being introduced and then people becoming disgruntled with it, saying, 'Oh look, they said they'd come back to us on this and they haven't done.' But I think anything that's up on the agenda—I mean, these are obviously a matter of public record anyway—then people should be allowed the opportunity to come along and participate and ask questions, at the appropriate time without actually railroading the meeting over every particular item. So, I think there needs to be an element of control over it, but I think it's a positive two-way interaction and getting people more interested in the affairs of town and community councils.
Thank you for that, and how do you think 'reasonable' is actually defined in the proposals? What would you consider to be reasonable? Reasonable can be—what I might think is reasonable you may not, you know, i'ts a process of—
Mark might want to come back—he's a practising clerk—but our experience is—. Councils allow 15 minutes, 20 minutes, at the beginning of a meeting for issues to be raised. If it's a two-hour meeting, I think that's a reasonable amount of time given the overall length of the meeting.
Yes, that's right.
And in practice, it happens and electors become aware of that and it's accepted. I don't think there are many examples where they're screaming and shouting that that's unreasonable or not long enough; it's just accepted that that's the slot, that's our right.
And that would be the role of the chair, too, to do something about that, in any event, wouldn't it?
I've had two councils in north Wales who've had issues over the last five or six years. We've got a member of the public who uses the ability to ask questions who comes back every month almost asking the same question, being an absolute pain in the neck, disrupting the meeting, and there's very little support for them to do something about that. And I think that's just something that might be worth thinking about, as to how you actually deal with that, because at the moment—. It doesn't happen very often, it's very, very rare and, as you say, it's down to management, but it is something that could happen, and, in general, it's got to be a welcomed provision.
Okay. My final question, Chair, is around section 57 and annual reports and whether you welcome that proposal. And there's also the potential for composite reports. So, just your views and thoughts on that, really.
I'll make this a short and snappy one. We welcome it, but, again, like a scratched record, there needs to be guidance around the production of an annual report and we certainly think there should be some sort of capital support, then, from central Government to enable the establishment of that as custom and practice within the sector—this is something new and something additional. And the reason why we think that it should come from central Government, the support, is that we are finding more and more duties are being placed on community and town councils, and the only way that those duties will be complied with is by increasing the precept. So, we are seeing higher taxation at the local level for compliance with duties that other public bodies in Wales are getting—either direct grant support or revenue support grant support—to enable them to do that. So, there needs to be some support. And this goes back to your point around the Wales auditor, about assurances. You can't just drop things on people and say, 'Get on with it.' In an employment situation, you wouldn't do that, so why do it to this sector?
Okay. Have you been able to make any assessment of what the cost might be of having to do this?
Well, I have seen within the addendum papers some costs highlighted around the production. For a large council with over 20,000 population, the suggested 20 hours, or whatever it was—I think that's a little arbitrary, because I think it depends on what a community and town council is doing.
So, you've got small community councils with relatively small precepts who are doing a huge amount of work within their communities, and writing their annual report might take them some time. Conversely, you might have some large councils that are the complete opposite. So, I just think that, certainly for the transition period, there needs to be some sort of support available for councils, so that once they start doing these, they've got access to some resource to enable them to do it properly.
Thank you, Dawn. Again, we support annual reports as a standard requirement for community councils to complete. After all, they spend public money, so they should be accountable for that, and telling people what they've done with that money. On the point about the composite report, this is something I raised with Welsh Government civil servants. And just thinking of the pragmatics about the job. Potentially, depending on the size of your council, you could end up having three reports to do at any given point during the year. For larger councils, you've got the public services boards reporting mechanism, looking at how you've met the objectives set out in the local well-being plan; you've also got the new section 6 duty under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 on biodiversity; and now, potentially, this. So, this is why, looking at—. It's all very well for me, I'm working full-time and I can spend time on these, but looking at part-time clerks, quite a lot of the elements of the reports would be duplicated, as I see it, coming forward, hence the suggestion on perhaps having one composite report going forward. I appreciate, Chair, that, with the reporting mechanism under the environment Act, it's once every three years, but, again, that can be assimilated in at the point of doing that composite report. And in year 3, it mentions then what's happening in terms of the work they're doing environmentally.
In terms of the costs, I wouldn't disagree with what's been annotated in the supporting papers to the Bill, on page 184 there, table 41, costs to community councils in preparing and publishing their first annual report. I do support One Voice Wales in terms of looking at perhaps any financial support that could be coming forward in terms of central Government grants to facilitate and kick-start this process, but then, obviously, a general weaning off, I think, going forward, because then once they're established—
The only point I'd like to make on these reports is I see loads of these reports flying around, and you lose the will to live 20 or 30 pages in because people don't understand what they're looking at. And I think we really do need to make sure that this is in speak that people can understand easily who are not involved in the sector. I think we very easily get involved in putting words in that people don't understand.
Okay. Thanks for that. I'm afraid we've got seven minutes remaining, so we will have to have brief questions and answers from here on. Mark.
How would placing the appointment of town and community clerks on the same legal footing as that for local authority chief executives impact on the sector?
I think it's a positive measure if they did that, Mark, primarily because there's no reference to the appointment of a clerk at the moment in law. The 1972 Act says you must appoint the proper officer for doing certain things, and then, conversely, also talks about a responsible financial officer as well, under section 151 of the Act. I just think, looking at the point where we are, where you're now legislating for local authorities to say they must appoint a chief executive, I think that having that demarcation to recognise the difference in roles, at different levels, is important for members of the public to understand. There are a number of councils at the moment, at town and community council level, that may call their primary officer a 'chief executive'. And, I think, if that's allowed to continue, then there's going to be obviously confusion about the roles and differences at town and community council level compared to what happens at a principal authority level. And I just think putting it in legislation now, appointing the clerk to the council, gives it the necessary legal footing to help stabilise and promote the profession going forward.
What are your views on extending the duties of leaders of political groups in relation to standards of conduct to community councils, noting that community councils themselves are technically apolitical bodies?
That's exactly what we put in our response. They are technically apolitical bodies, but, I think, as I said, the sector is evolving, it's changing; it has become more political. We see, as an advisory body, political groups within town councils, within larger community councils, and we have to advise accordingly. So, I think this is a good measure.