Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus

Public Accounts Committee

22/06/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Delyth Jewell MS
Gareth Bennett MS
Jenny Rathbone MS
Nick Ramsay MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Rhianon Passmore MS
Vikki Howells MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Adrian Crompton Archwilydd Cyffredinol Cymru
Auditor General for Wales
Claire Bennett Cyfarwyddwr Cymunedau a Threchu Tlodi, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director of Communities and Tackling Poverty, Welsh Government
Emma Williams Cyfarwyddwr Tai ac Adfywio, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director of Housing and Regeneration, Welsh Government
Matthew Mortlock Archwilio Cymru
Audit Wales
Reg Kilpatrick Cyfarwyddwr Llywodraeth Leol, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director of Local Government, Welsh Government
Tracey Burke Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol, Grŵp Addysg a Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director General, Education and Public Services Group, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Claire Griffiths Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Fay Bowen Clerc
Clerk
Tom Lewis-White Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:30.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:30.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Can I welcome Members to this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee? No apologies have been received and we have no substitutions. Are there any Members who need to make a declaration of interest at the start of the meeting? No. Okay. And I know that you all know how to indicate if you wish to speak: just wave your hand. As usual, microphones will be remotely operated, so we don't need to do that ourselves.

Before we proceed with today's agenda-ed business, this has, of course, been a very sad week with the passing of our friend and colleague Mohammad Asghar, and I know Members would like to pay tribute to him today.

Born in Peshawar in what was then British India in 1945, Oscar lived through the partition of India and probably saw more of the harsh side of life at an early age than most of us will see. He once told me that his brothers were in the Pakistan airforce, but Oscar's life took him in a very different direction, to Wales and into politics.

He did, of course, have the distinction of being the first ethnic minority Member of the Senedd. He was a fighter himself and he fought hard for causes and people he believed in. We will always remember Oscar's kindness to Senedd staff. He was always ready to share his biscuits, his tea—he made sure everyone had a cup of tea—and he was always the first to ask how we all were. His kindness extended outside of work and if we were ever lucky to see Oscar outside of the office, he would greet us with his beaming smile and be delighted to see us.

If you were ever fortunate to travel on business with Oscar sitting next to you on the plane, it was always an interesting experience, given he was qualified as a pilot and given he had many stories to tell. I remember flying to the Isle of Man with him a couple of years ago, and Oscar was keen to tell us that the pilot was approaching the landing too quickly. It was possibly something I didn't want to know at the time, but it was certainly interesting in retrospect. His passion for aviation was always brought to the forefront when the Public Accounts Committee would undertake work to look at Cardiff Airport. It was a subject he enjoyed talking about and drawing from his own experiences.

As a qualified accountant, Oscar relished the Public Accounts Committee's annual scrutiny of the accounts of various public bodies. His expertise ensured that the committee was analytic in its approach, leaving no stone unturned, particularly when it came to analysing the finer details of the Welsh Government's accounts.

Oscar was one of the longest serving members of the committee—well, certainly, the longest serving member during my time as Chair of the committee—and he built up a wealth of experience over that time that will be sorely missed, along with him. He'll be fondly remembered as part of the essence of the Public Accounts Committee. He took the role very seriously and he would have been pleased that we're proceeding with the committee today, that we're remembering him but we're also getting on with the job in hand. 

Can I finally say, personally, over the years, Oscar became a good friend to me, my wife Jen, and was delighted when our son, James, came along? He even played a key role at my wedding. I will personally miss him dearly, but I'm pleased that he passed away at home, in the job he loved and surrounded by his beloved family. Rest in peace, Oscar. Our thoughts are with Firdaus and Natasha and the rest of the family at this time. Jenny Rathbone. 

Thank you. I was on the Public Accounts Committee in the last Assembly as well as in this one, so I feel I knew Oscar pretty well. We were like chalk and cheese on many political issues. I can recall the many conversations I had with Oscar on the merits of commuting from Newport to the Senedd using a combination of the train and a portable bike rather than sitting in a traffic jam on the M4. Oscar was an enthusiastic airline pilot, rather than a bicyclist, but nevertheless he took my suggestions in the spirit of tolerance that he showed towards everyone on all subjects.

There were some things that we did agree on, and that was religious tolerance. As a devout Muslim, Mohammad famously reached out to the Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities, which was incredibly important in the context of Oscar's childhood, and the upheavals that occurred on the day of Indian independence in 1947, which led to the formation of Pakistan.

He was also an enthusiastic person when it came to Holocaust Memorial Day, so I'm pleased to be wearing the badge today, and this was something that he regarded as very, very important too.

My fondest memory of him is Oscar in his cap, which is a wonderful sight, and I happen to have a photograph of him in that guise. So, we miss you, Oscar, and may you rest in peace.

13:35

Thank you. Without Oscar, our world will be a poorer and less bright place. To his close family, we offer our deepest commiserations and our very kindest thoughts. Oscar will be sorely missed here within the Public Accounts Committee. His kindness, humanity and humility will always remain an example to us all, and his interjections will be forever sorely missed. His chivalrous company within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will be also very sadly missed.

So, I want to take this opportunity to say 'thank you, Oscar', for the light and laughter that you cascaded all around you. We miss you and we were privileged to know you and privileged to have called you a friend. Thank you. 

Thank you, Chair. As a member of staff at the Commission, it was my pleasure to work with Oscar from the point he was first elected to the Senedd, and I recall that when I was appointed to this role, as auditor general, he was the very first Member to contact me to congratulate me, and it is that kindness, that good humour, generosity of spirit, that I will treasure in my memories of Oscar. In the last couple of years, it's been my pleasure again to work with him as an assiduous, conscientious, committed Member of this Public Accounts Committee. And I'd like to place on record on behalf of everybody at Audit Wales our sadness at the news of his passing and our condolences to Oscar's family. All our thoughts are with them at this very sad time.

Thank you, Chair. I'm really glad to have an opportunity on behalf of my colleagues to extend my sympathies to you, to the members of this committee, and to the clerking team, to Fay, Claire, and Lowri, and to Audit Wales colleagues for the loss of your friend and colleague. Obviously, he was not a colleague of mine, nor a friend, but he wasn't a stranger either. I'd come into contact with Mohammad Asghar very, very many times over the years and always found him to be courteous, generous and kind. That's a word that seems to have come up in most people's tributes to him just now, and that was based on formal scrutiny sessions such as these, but also informally through just milling around the building at Tŷ Hywel, getting a coffee or some food, or perhaps at a Senedd event.

And when I heard the terrible news last week, two instances came to my mind immediately: the first was a very informal one one lunchtime in Tŷ Hywel where I really needed some help and he was the first to step in and was very kind to me; and the second was actually at this committee, Chair. As you know, these are challenging sessions, and rightly so, and I was particularly nervous at the start of one session and had sort of tripped over my words on the first question and forgotten half of the second question, and I remember apologising to you, Chair, and to the committee members, saying that I was a bit nervous and that I would settle down. And I remember looking over to my left and seeing Mr Asghar sort of nodding his head towards me, smiling by way of encouragement, and it was such a kind gesture, Chair, and one you can see that I haven't forgotten. So, those are my memories, Chair, and, again, on behalf of my colleagues, our best wishes to you, the members of the committee and the team, and, of course, his wife and daughter. Thank you.

13:40

Thanks, Tracey. As we try to comprehend the news, our thoughts of course turn to commemorating Oscar and also to extending our sympathies to his family. So, may I ask that members of the committee and our witnesses observe a minute silence in tribute to Mohammad Asghar, the Member of the Senedd for South Wales East.

Cynhaliwyd munud o dawelwch.

A minute's silence was held.

2. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a'i effaith ar faterion sy'n ymwneud â chylch gwaith y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus: COVID-19: effeithiau ar Grwp Addysg a Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Llywodraeth Cymru
2. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to the Public Accounts Committee’s remit: COVID-19: impacts for the Welsh Government's Education and Public Services Group

Okay, moving on to our agenda-ed business today and item 2: our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to our remit. We have an evidence session to discuss that with the Welsh Government's education and public services group. Can I welcome our witnesses to today's meeting? Would you like to give your name and position for the Record of Proceedings?

Thank you, Chair. I'll start. I'm Tracey Burke. I'm the director general for education and public services. I'll pass over to my colleagues. So, I can see Reg. Reg, do you want to introduce yourself?

Good afternoon, everybody. I'm Reg Kilpatrick, and I'm director of the local government directorate and I'm also responsible for our civil contingencies response.

Emma, would you like to introduce yourself, and then Claire?

Good afternoon. Emma Williams—director for housing and regeneration.

Okay. For some reason everything froze there. I'm not quite sure why—I think that was my side of the Zoom equation. There we are.

Okay, if I start with the first questions, and by way of a brief introduction, how would you sum up the scale of the challenge that the group has faced over the past three months? 

Chair, it's very hard to sum up the scale of the challenge—I think it's been like no other experience in my working life, and one I really never hope to repeat. I think managing through an emergency is tough, but this just hasn't been a standard emergency in terms of its scale, its complexity and the pace and the uncertainty. So, a huge tribute to my colleagues who've worked so hard and just so many hours without question or complaint to help us address some of the impacts of the pandemic. I think, really, it's been a widespread challenge right across the group. It has impacted on so many areas because we've had to move resources, we've had challenges with funding, and these are all on top of the normal leadership and management challenges. So, huge scale, Chair—huge complexity and a huge amount of work I suppose is how I'd sum it up.

Thanks, Tracey. And looking across the group, how have you gone about prioritising your activity and budgets and how much room for manoeuvre have you had?

Well, the scale of the challenge I've outlined, Chair, will reveal that actually it's been very difficult. We had to review all of our budgets, and we began with an initial review of our revenue budgets to figure out what was needed in terms of protecting life and limb—what were the statutory functions that we absolutely needed to do to keep the lights on, and what was legally committed. And then, through that exercise, we also looked at what activities would need funding for restart activities. That money was freed up and we released that into a central reserve then. And we then bid in for additional funding. So, our headroom was reduced, I suppose our room for manoeuvre was reduced by releasing those funds, but we have been able to bid in for additional budget in some areas. I think in my group, I released about £400 million across the group, but then we reallocated about £600 million from the central reserve, obviously for different priorities. I won't go into that, because I think that everything's detailed in the supplementary budget. 

13:45

And we've heard previously how staffing resources are being moved—you've just mentioned that £600 million—how resources are being moved within and between different parts of the Welsh Government. Overall, has that had a positive or a negative impact on your group and resources available?

I think it's probably had a mixed impact, Chair. We've obviously lost some staff to emergency response work—the emergency co-ordination centre, or ECCW, as we call it—and to the immediate COVID-19 project team, but both of those teams are in my group because I've got responsibility for that emergency co-ordination response. So, actually, I have, in a sense, gained staff overall, but I've lost them from core policy areas into that emergency response.

Thanks. How sustainable is the current position? Are there areas where you're simply going to have to prioritise staff and resources for other reasons? For example, aspects of the legislative programme, and the EU transition impact.

I think there's no hiding from the fact that we are under intense pressures, really. Even without the staff movements I've outlined, many staff are in the same posts but they're actually doing very different work—much more COVID-related work. We had a recent survey, which was 2,500 staff, and I think about just over 80 per cent of them said that their work had changed to some extent. So, people are working on different things and that has meant prioritisation.

You just mentioned the legislative programme. Well, Ministers have been working with us very closely to look at how we can slim down the legislative programme. I think Ministers have already made some statements or been in contact with some committees—for example, on the local government and elections Bill—where we are slimming things down. So, yes, we are prioritising, but it's not easy. I think it's something that we're constantly reappraising.

Thank you, Chair. You've mentioned the intense pressure and the virement of staff. So, how have you adapted your governance arrangements at a group level to reflect also the challenges of remote working and also, as you've already inferred, the pace of decision making?

I'll start with the remote working, because I think that seemed to be a huge challenge. I think it's fair to say that the last two weeks of March felt the most difficult, because we had half of the group in the office and half of the group working remotely, and we just weren't geared up for that. Then, we were all working remotely, and that took a little bit of adjusting to, as I'm sure it will have done for everybody. But I have to say, it's settled down really quickly, and remote working has worked remarkably well, I think, once we were over the initial shock of it. There are a lot of challenges for people with individual circumstances, people, certainly like myself, who've got caring responsibilities. It is challenging, but it has really settled.

Governance wise, our processes and procedures have remained more or less the same. I've stepped things up so I have more frequent meetings. I have a weekly governance and assurance meeting now. Then, I'd say that I have more oversight on things. It's not necessarily because I need to from an accounting officer perspective, but because I want to see things more. So, after an initial period, I think things have really settled into place, but just more frequent meetings and a bit more oversight, really.

Okay, thank you. The Welsh Government has put arrangements in place to document key decisions, but we have heard that, obviously, compromises have had to be made when it comes to its usual policy appraisal. What assessments around value for money and the other principles set out in the 'Managing Welsh Public Money' document have been possible for some of the key decisions within your portfolio, and what arrangements are you putting in place to assess value for money?

13:50

As I say, I think a lot of it has actually stayed the same, given that we had a couple of weeks towards the end of March where things felt much more difficult, but, actually, things have settled. But, you know, we have been working at much greater pace on some decisions than we would normally. I think we were all a little concerned that, because we were working in extremis, I suppose, we might be less thorough than normal.

But thinking back over the last few months, and I was doing this last week, sort of trying to think, in preparation for committee, about how I felt it had all gone over the last couple of months. I can actually only think of a few occasions where I've felt that we'd have really benefited from more time, or more opportunity made, maybe, to engage with people. But in those cases, we've tended to put a break into the decisions, so, we've time-limited them for, you know, perhaps some 12 weeks, three months. To your point around value for money, that break would allow us, then, to review before making any further commitments.

But my other reflection last week, as I say, thinking generally through things, was that, in my group, although we've had to move really quickly, we've tended to use established mechanisms to get funding out. So, through tested mechanisms such as out through our local authorities through the childcare offer or the discretionary assistance fund. So, we've been able to rely on those tested mechanisms, maybe unlike other areas, where they've not only had to do new things, but they've had to do them in new ways.

So, with regard to areas of interest around scrutiny, obviously, and challenge around decision making, you would say that, by going through those accepted in-situ mechanisms—for those areas, anyway, at least—they give you that level of assurance. I suppose it's testing an ability, with the new way of working, to be able to scrutinise and challenge some very large spends in terms of decision making. So, would that be your response, or—?

Yes, I think so. The scrutiny and challenge has remained in place. As I said, I think there was an intense period towards the end of March where I felt that things were much more difficult and it was more difficult to keep on track of things. Because we were in that moment from going in our established way of working into what, I suppose, is this sort of temporary new normal that we're all in at the moment. So, there was a frenetic couple of weeks, but generally, I think the processes have remained in place and we've set them up; we've got an additional decision-making process that we go through and risk assessment for COVID-related spending, but everything else has stayed. The one thing that actually hasn't has been our audit and risk assurance committee meeting—that didn't take place. But I've continued to meet with the chair of our internal audit and risk assurance committee, and the meetings, actually, are now taking place again at the beginning of next month.

Okay. And you've mentioned your weekly governance oversight meetings. Can you give some specific examples in terms of how you sought to maintain lines of communication beyond the silo of Welsh Government and working in the spirit of co-production—you've mentioned local government previously—but across the piece, how would you respond to that?

Well, funnily enough, I'm sure that colleagues might agree. I think communications have actually been more frequent than ever, which I just don't think I would have ever thought that I was saying. I mean, different; in some ways, a little bit less formal, but absolutely more frequent. I mean, in the first couple of weeks, it was very hard to see how we were going to meet with stakeholders, as we would normally, in lockdown, but, obviously, this technology has just transformed things in a way that, I have to say, I couldn't have foreseen. And suddenly, everything became possible again.

So, we've continued to meet with stakeholders throughout, and at the early stage of the crisis, with battle-rhythm bird tables, implementation groups, et cetera. But we then realised that, actually, there was no reason why we couldn't maintain meeting with our existing fora, and we've continued and will continue to do that. So, I think I can provide assurance to you on that it's been, probably, better than ever, really.

13:55

Thank you. And, obviously, there are legacy issues there, but I won't go into those now. The Permanent Secretary has also shared details of the Welsh Government's wider COVID-19 governance arrangements, and those are, obviously, areas around collective operational action in a civil contingency planning space. Can you tell us a little bit more about how these arrangements have been mobilised to support the COVID-19 response and the extent, really, to which other partnership working arrangements, such as PSBs—public services boards—have continued to operate as usual, or not?

Yes, fine. Actually, if it's okay with you, Reg Kilpatrick who's my colleague here, actually oversees all of those arrangements, so it would seem like he's in a better place to provide assurance to you on that. Reg, would you be okay to pick that up?

Thank you, Tracey. Thank you, Chair. Yes, I think it's fair to say that we have had two years of practice for mobilising our civil contingencies arrangements as a result of Brexit. So, when COVID emerged at very short notice at the end of January, beginning of February, we were in a very good place to put in place the civil contingencies arrangements across the public sector. We have very strong relationships throughout the year and throughout non-emergency times with the local resilience fora, and we work very closely with them to do planning for events such as this. Once those events actually begin to emerge, along with a range of local partners such as police, local government, health, ambulance, Natural Resources Wales and others, we will establish the strategic co-ordinating groups. Those groups bring together the leaders of all of the really key public service agencies that are required to come together in dealing with COVID. They're very powerful partnerships.

I have sat on one for two months, and the Welsh Government has a liaison officer in each one of those groups so that we can do two things, really: we can understand what is happening locally, where are the risks and where are the opportunities. And I may come back to those later in this answer, but certainly where are the risks; where are the things that the Welsh Government need to spot and to respond to. So, two things, really: personal protective equipment was an issue that ran right through the strategic co-ordinating groups, and those groups were absolutely key to working with local government in order to deal with that issue. Care homes are the second issue, which, thankfully, has not been running so hot lately, but, again, helping us as a Government to understand what the risks are and what the action is that we need to take collectively to deal with that.

Those groups also provide a set of information that enables us as a Government, and Ministers, to plan our policies really effectively and to provide us with the evidence on which we can take really well-founded decisions about what we do next.

So, both partnerships are in place. They're beginning to morph now from strategic co-ordinating groups that are mainly focused on the response to an emergency to recovery co-ordinating groups that are beginning to think about how those organisations try and return to some sort of normality.

Your question also asked about the position of—[Inaudible.]—PSBs throughout the crisis. In many ways, those partnerships—[Inaudible.]—organisations are focused so much on dealing with COVID and the position of the strategic co-ordinating groups with such powerful partnerships that some of these other things, such as PSBs probably didn't meet—certainly our Welsh Government colleagues who sit on each of the PSBs weren't engaged at all. However, now, as those groups re-emerge, they will become really key to recovery and our engagement with them will become even more important.

Thank you, Chair. I've got some questions around local government finance for you. Firstly, the Welsh Local Government Association told the health committee that it had identified a budget deficit of £173 million for an initial period of just three months. So, looking at the local authority hardship fund of £188.5 million, is it reasonable for us to assume that that's really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the financial support that local government will require?

14:00

Well, yes, I suppose that's the multimillion pound question, really, isn't it? There's no doubt that COVID has really, really stretched the finances of local government, because it's added to their costs—they've had to do new things—but also it's reduced their income that they would normally have had available to them. But I think also it's stalled their ability to make some of the planned changes that they were going to make in order to release savings. So, that's where we've put a lot of support in place to try to respond to the impacts of those pressures.

I think you mentioned the £188 million. I think £110 million of that was this single fund to support local authorities, and they're able to claim additional costs across a number of service areas that they've been experiencing then. We didn't do that on a formula basis; we did it on an actuals basis, so that if there was any differing impact in different local authorities, we could respond to that. We're starting to get a better idea now, as claims come in, as to how that's going, and then the remainder of the money, the £78 million, was the loss of income, which I've just mentioned. That's been a concern from very early on, but it also remains a little bit uncertain as to what the extent of that will be going forward. How long will income be lost for? Will it simply just be deferred?

So I think both of them, the response and the loss of income, have both got a lot of uncertainties, which I think makes your tip of the iceberg question quite difficult to answer. But what I will say is that we're working really closely with local government, with their treasurers, on budget pressures, to make sure that we're got a shared understanding of the money. We're literally meeting them a few times a week on this.

Are there other elements of the financial packages that Welsh Government has already announced that you consider will help to plug that gap that the WLGA has identified, at least in the short term?

Well, those are the two main areas: the overall hardship fund and then loss of income. We did put out some cash-flow assistance at the start of the crisis. We brought forward their payments; May and June's payments, we brought them forward into April to give them cash flow to support businesses through the business rates grant schemes, and they've been reimbursed for that. So, we eased their cash flow. The only other things that I can think of, apart from maybe quite small, specific grants, is that we did some work around the bus grants, and also we've relaxed some conditions as well around some specific grants, so we've given local authorities a bit of a longer period of delivery with a bit more flex in the use, and in particular we did that with the cyber security grant, for example.

Thank you. As we move to the next phases, really, of how we respond to coronavirus, I know that the ongoing possible costs of the test, track and protect strategy are something that concerns local government significantly. So what is your group's involvement in that strategy, and how much of the £57 million funding identified for that work is expected to flow through to local government for those purposes?

On test, trace and protect, the test and the trace parts of that are led by health colleagues in the Welsh Government, but my group's been leading on the protect strand. In fact, Claire Bennett, who's joining us today, leads on the protect strand, along with partners in local government and the third sector. It's a joint endeavour. That protect strand is about what support people need who've been contacted and maybe then need to self-isolate, so they've been looking at what sort of services might they need, and actually the sorts of things that have already been done by the third sector volunteers and local authorities will be the sorts of things that will be provided to that group of people. And then they're looking at more complex things, really, about what barriers there are to people safely self-isolating at home, et cetera.

On the £57 million, that's largely for the test strand. So, that isn't for the trace and protect strand of the work, but I think health and social services colleagues have been looking at proposals for business appraisals from local authorities on the trace element to figure out the level of funding that might be required for that. But I think it's quite a complicated piece of work; there are a number of assumptions underlying it in terms of the number of redeployed staff that can be used, the shift patterns of tracers, and that sort of thing. But the £57 million won't be for the trace and protect. 

14:05

Just before you go on, Vikki, Jenny Rathbone, did you have a supplementary?

I just wanted to probe a little bit more about the cost of this because, obviously, we've been fortunate in Wales in being able to do this in partnership with local government and public health. So, you say that the £57 million is exclusively for the testing aspect, i.e. the laboratories that we've got to, obviously, make contracts with to do the testing. Is that—? What is absorbing the £57 million?

So, I don't have responsibility for that £57 million; I'd need to be absolutely sure with health colleagues, but my understanding is that that is largely for the test strand, and we're not anticipating that funding for trace and protect. Claire, you were a little bit closer to this than me, can you confirm that is the case? 

Yes, that is the position. When the funding was sought for this programme, colleagues were focused initially on the tests and an anticipated level of demand, and what they're working on at the moment is an updated proposal to go back to star chamber, which is the process for assessing investment from the reserve, with what the updated requirement is, now with an understanding of what contact tracing looks like. One of the things from just literally the meeting before this on the protect strand that has come out is that, actually, doing it for real is where you start to get a much better sense of what the costs associated are, whether that's with the contact tracing process and being able to deal with surge capacity, as we've got with the situation in north Wales at the moment, and also then with some of the particular challenges that individual people or individual communities might face with self-isolation. So, we know what the core offer is, which is very consistent with what was in place during lockdown, but actually we're already starting to see some really particular things that we need to work through to be able to support people to self-isolate safely. So, there'll be an updated proposal with a better understanding of the costs going in. 

Okay. It would be useful to have a note once you're in a position to give us that. 

Thank you, Chair. So, looking at local government finance overall then, what sort of options are you considering to meet any ongoing shortfall, and would capitalisation be one of those? 

Yes, very good question. We're in really regular discussion with local authorities, as I've said, through the Society of Welsh Treasurers, and I think, actually, they were daily meetings at the start of the pandemic and now they're about twice weekly. So, we're constantly talking to them about financial pressures, and I think the options really depend on the resources that we have available and, actually, what the longer term impacts pan out to be as they're continuing to become more evident. There's a range of things, including cost savings, but these are clearly very limited as to what they've been able to achieve cost savings on. We mentioned earlier there might be some deferred income rather than actually lost income, but, of course, that may not plug the gap. Clearly, we're continuing to seek additional funding from the UK Government and, obviously, considering the use of consequentials against any UK Government decisions, but it's an ongoing discussion with local government and with Welsh Ministers.

On the capitalisation, that might be an option, although, Reg, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that would have an impact on the Welsh Government's overall CDEL, wouldn't it? So, there would be ongoing revenue costs for that. 

14:10

That's right, Tracey. It all comes back to borrowing being scored against the public sector borrowing requirements. So, if local authorities borrow, it will count against our borrowing and, of course, you're right: it all needs to be paid back as well. 

Okay, thank you. That's really useful. What's the latest position with the assessment of local authority hardship fund claims for April? And, would you be able to confirm to us the amounts claimed and whether those claims will be met in full, and any breakdown of the basis of those claims? 

Thanks. I know we've had claims in for March and April, and I think we've also had claims in for May, although I'm not sure that they've been assessed yet. I think March and April were around £20 million in total, but, Reg, you may have more detail on that. Or, if you don't, maybe we can provide that. 

Yes. I think it probably would be best if we were to write to the committee. We don't have figures for May yet; Tracey, you're absolutely right. But to give a fully rounded picture, if we were to drop a note in a couple of weeks' time, that I think would provide all the evidence that Ms Howells is asking for. 

Thank you. I think it was about £20 million, wasn't it, for March and April?

It was £19.1 million for March and April. So, about £20 million. And, clearly, most of that would have gone on the services that you would expect. So, education and social care are particular areas where we have had claims and paid money out. 

Thank you. And, in relation to that—so, I don't know if you want to answer that now, or to provide a note on it—I was also going to ask what position the Welsh Government will adopt where councils might still have significant reserves that they could deploy to support, rather than relying on the hardship fund.

Again, a very good point, because our schemes don't take account of local authority reserves, do they, Reg? 

No. The issue with reserves—. It is quite a complicated position across Wales. Different authorities have different levels of reserves for a whole range of different reasons. And those reserves are set out by the councillors when they set and approve their budget. I think our approach also needs to take account of the fact that reserves are set aside for a number of very important purposes. So, for example, matching other funding. Twenty-first century schools is a really good example where we have a large amount of local government reserves set aside for building new schools. There are other financial pressures that would need to be met from reserves, for example, transforming services—really important as we move into the recovery phase—and also for meeting unforeseen circumstances, which all of the financial packages that we have currently extended to local government may not actually cover. 

Okay. Thank you very much. I'm aware of time, so I'll try to be as brief as I can. Have you been working with the local government finance community to monitor and plan for the emerging impact of the current COVID situation?

We've been working really closely with them. As I say, it's been almost daily meetings, certainly initially, with the Society of Welsh Treasurers. And I think that's slipped back now, as I say, to about twice weekly, but obviously we have other discussions with them on specific issues, as we need to, for example, the business rates reliefs or understanding implications around council tax. But there are range of different meetings, including the finance leads, councils' leads, and we meet with them regularly, and Reg and I meet with the local authority chief executives every three weeks, and finance, as you can imagine, is a hot topic at those meetings. And, obviously, at a ministerial level, there are weekly meetings, if not more. So, I think, we're not short of ways of discussing finance with local government.

Thank you. One final question from me, the partnership council for Wales was due to meet on 10 June to discuss the opportunities and priorities for sustainable recovery and longer term transformation in recognition of the fact that local authorities, in many cases, have fundamentally changed the way that they operate as a result of COVID. Could you tell us anything about the key themes that emerged from that discussion? And are there any examples already of where there are service changes that might be here to stay?

14:15

Yes, of course. Both Reg and I were actually at that partnership council a week or so ago. There are very few positives to be found from this pandemic, but service change for the better will, hopefully, certainly be one of them.

The partnership council was focused on moving from response to recovery, but I think we all recognise we're still in response mode at the moment because the virus is, obviously, still with us, still among us. But the partnership council discussed a number of the things that we'd all like to see continued, so some of the—I suppose what you might call 'locking in' some of the transformation in terms of the ways of working and service delivery: so, increased use of digital and the different ways of working; I think everybody's really keen to sustain the environmental improvements that we've seen, and also to try to build on the new engagement that there is with—so, the contribution in communities of volunteers and new engagement with citizens. Homelessness and what we've done there, and are hoping to do again, is another area that was discussed. And I think, really, just to build on the partnership work to date.

But then the work of Audit Wales—the real-time work—will, hopefully, be of real benefit here, because they're, hopefully, going to give us some insights, because they're able to do the pause-and-reflect work that just hasn't been possible just yet, and helping the public sector to understand the benefits and share that learning. And I've already seen a couple of results from that on the Audit Wales blogs. So, hopefully, we'll be able to capture those.

Thank you very much. Turning to education, the Government has repurposed resources from several education-related budgets and introduced various new measures. How have you prioritised the decisions around the allocation of these budgets?

Well, I think it's fair to say it's been extremely difficult to do that prioritisation. Ministers have been very keen to try to limit the impact of the crisis on children and young people, and so we've been, as you say, repurposing the education spending as best we can. For example, we've taken £3 million-worth of funding from professional learning to deliver the 'stay safe, stay learning' programme to help children with continuity of learning. We've put, I think, £1.5 million into mental health support for children, and, I think, another £3 million for digitally-excluded learners as part of that. But we've had to make savings from existing budgets as well, and release those into the central reserve, and, really, we've tried to focus there on areas where work was unlikely to be delivered as we'd planned because of the pandemic, or where things could be delayed.

Well, on that, I believe, on Monday, you told the WLGA that you were abandoning the school holiday enrichment programme this year—£2.7 million. I would have thought, of all years, it would be a good idea not to abandon this programme, given it's so important for vulnerable children. It's targeted on areas where there are high numbers of free school mealers, and I wondered if you could tell us what was the thinking behind that, given that we're already supposed to be serving our vulnerable children in schools throughout this pandemic.

I don't think that I am in a position to fully answer that, but, as you know, we have taken a decision to continue to pay for free school meals throughout the summer holiday. I don't know, Claire—is there anything more you could say on this?

I can't umute.

Yes, you can, Claire.

Sorry. My apologies. So, yes, as you say, Tracey, Ministers have taken the decision to continue to pay for free school meals through the summer holidays, and that was a decision taken much earlier. Work is ongoing with the play and childcare sector around the options for schemes that could run over the summer holidays, and those conversations also continue with local authorities to see how we can have an offer available in all communities that would be accessible to all families.

14:20

But there aren't final decisions on what the shape of that is yet. 

Okay. But I find it difficult to understand why we're abandoning a programme that had already built up a lot of expertise and that was specifically targeted on some of the most challenged communities. 

I'm afraid that I cannot at this moment provide you with a more detailed answer on that, but, if it's all right with you, we can provide a note after this meeting. 

Okay. All right. Fine. Because, on the provision of free school meals to all children throughout the summer holidays, obviously that's something that the Welsh Government committed to well before England. What assessment are you able to make at this stage about the value for money of that? I would refer you to research that came out last week from Northumbria University, which said that there'd been a spike in the purchase of salty, sugary products—so, crisps and fizzy drinks—and obviously there is a major concern that, instead of getting the nourishing food they were going to get in the school or the enrichment programme, they're instead maybe getting either food of no nutritional value or the money is being spent on something else altogether. 

Thank you. Yes, I can understand why that would be a concern, but actually we've had some—. We've got some different mechanisms for free school meals in terms of how pupils can access those. So, some local authorities are using a grab bag, for example—grab and go—so, we can control the contents for that. But you're right: in other areas, it is a direct payment.

But I think our view was that this decision needed to be taken because, generally, the importance of free school meals is widely understood. This is an extremely long-standing intervention and we also know that there's a lot of evidence that those people with specific protected characteristics and people who have got different disabilities or different ethnic groups are more likely to be receiving free school meals, and so we felt that families would continue to experience hardship, that their circumstances were unlikely to change over the short term and certainly not over the summer holidays, and this, for some children, was the only decent food that they may receive. So, our assessment was that the urgency and the need for support was a strong justification for the intervention. As I say, it's a tried and tested scheme. We do use different methods, depending on local authorities' ways of working. So, it isn't necessarily just to be spent on salty foods, as you said. 

Okay. Before the pandemic arose, there were about 160,000 children in families who were having difficulty being able to afford a healthy diet—of those, 90,000 on free school meals, and, obviously, there's an additional 60,000 who we should worry about, and then, on top of that, there's the massive increase that we've sadly seen in the numbers of unemployed people. So, I just wondered what support you've had from headteachers who are at the coal face to identify people who are newly struggling within their pupil cohorts. 

So, we wouldn't have heard directly from headteachers; those would have been mostly discussions with local authority directors of education, but we are aware that there is likely to be an increased take-up. And, in fact, I think the figures that we saw last week or the week before indicated that the take-up of free school meals has increased significantly from when schools are in full operation. But headteachers are—and local authorities—extremely proactive in this space. But, as I say, we're expecting an increase as a result of increased claims for universal credit, for example.

14:25

All right. Looking ahead, what assessment has the Government done for the additional cost that schools may face in managing the safe return of pupils, particularly in terms of the extra cleaning that's going to be required to ensure that the disease is not present in school premises? I wondered if you'd had any information from local authorities on that.

So, we're currently meeting the current costs for schools—additional costs have been met through the hardship fund—but we've been monitoring the costs through the operation of the hubs and also discussing with local authorities, and, in particular, what the additional cleaning costs might be as the schools and colleges increase, and I think we anticipate that the cleaning costs will potentially double, initially. So, we're looking at that and trying to assess the additional costs for a six-month period at the moment, when we hope that cleaning levels might be able to be reduced to normal levels, but, as you know, nothing is certain. So, that's—

What's the cost been for running these hubs at the moment, which, obviously, are very few of the schools?

I don't have the figure for the cleaning costs of running the hubs, but I'd certainly be happy to provide that and, as I say, I know that we're estimating that the cleaning requirements will double.

Rhianon Passmore, did you have a supplementary? You need to unmute.

Sorry, Chair. Bearing in mind the scale of the amounts of money being utilised, what is the latest indication around the £1 billion in terms of consequentials for Wales in regard to education? And bearing in mind you've mentioned hubs, the critical positioning of local authorities and local education authorities in running hubs, but obviously the reopening of schools, and the comments that have just been made previously, are there plans for any potentiality of a withdrawal of local authorities' reserves? Because their resilience is going to be absolutely imperative, moving forward, in terms of our wider policy portfolio and in regard to the information that we currently have in terms of twenty-first century schools, match funding and transformative change. So, two separate questions—and if we could get a brief response to both of those.

Okay, so the first question was around the £1 billion, I think, and, as far as I know—. Certainly, from discussions on Friday, we were still having discussions to understand what money we might receive as a result of that spending announcement, and I'm afraid I haven't had a chance this morning to catch up with colleagues to find the latest position on that. And then, the use of local government reserves, I think, was the—

Yes, the potential penalisation for prudent local authorities, who must remain resilient as they move forward. Is there any indication around any push in that direction?

For local government to use their reserves? I'm sorry, you just cut in and out a little bit there.

Yes, in that regard—in terms of the promises that have been made.

Yes. We don't have any plans at the moment for local authorities to use their reserves for that action, do we, Reg?

Right. Sorry about that. No, we don't. As I said before, local government have fairly variable reserves, where they—[Inaudible.]—and these are in the main allocated against existing priorities, which could include, for example, twenty-first century schools.

The wider issue potentially about financial resilience—we do know that authorities are dealing with some very significant and unprecedented financial issues. As Tracey says, our discussions with the Society of Welsh Treasurers and the chief executives are ongoing and we're having day-to-day discussions about how they might use that money, and, as I say, the reserves are already allocated to a range of things, including how they might respond to COVID and the recovery phase.

14:30

Of this £1 billion, is it reasonable to assume that it'll be at least 5 per cent of the £1 billion that's been announced by the UK Government?

That would be a reasonable assumption if they say that it is all new money. I think, certainly talking to colleagues on Friday, if it's not all new money then it would be less than that. That's what it essentially depends on, because we only get a consequential if it's new spending and we haven't got underneath all of that yet.

Okay, thank you. Just moving on, I wonder if you could just tell us how the Welsh Government's been working with the various partners in the education field, to ensure that all pupils in all schools are getting equitable support during the lockdown—for example, from the regional consortia as well as the local education authorities? Because, listening to some of my constituents, some schools seem to have been more assiduous than others in setting work and being in touch with pupils to make sure that they're okay. 

So, generally, the engagement right across the educational field has been very close right from the start, and the closing of schools was really one of the first actions that the Government took. And so there's been—from very, very early on, there's been an established ribbon of regular meetings with local authority directors of education, with WLGA, with ADEW, and actually with the other UK devolved administrations, in order for there to be a good flow of information and guidance et cetera. And then we've had good engagement with specific partners at different times—you know, with Qualification Wales when we were considering the summer exam series et cetera. So, I think, generally, the engagement has been very good, but, to your second point, I think that it has been a variable experience for pupils. Some schools, as you say, have been better than others, and one of the things that we're working on at the moment is how that best practice can be shared, and also having discussions about how we can, I suppose, identify and respond to schools that have not been as good. 

Okay. So, the regional consortia as well as the LEAs will be brought in to ensure that all pupils are getting the service they—

Yes, of course. [Inaudible.]—arrangement.

Obviously, there's quite a lot of discussion about the gap in attainment due to poverty widening massively as a result of all this. What impact do you think that the suspension of mainstream education has had on all our pupils, and what do you think is going to be required to put this all back together again?

I think that is just the question that is on all of our minds, really. I think some pupils will have really maintained their education quite well remotely, but, you know, we are fearful, particularly for some vulnerable children who may not have had the same sort of encouragement maybe, or the same opportunities. And that's really why we're very, very keen to have the check-in and catch-up sessions starting next week with every child, not so much for the teachers to really be teaching them anything in those sessions but for teachers to have a chance to catch up with each individual child and just establish where they're at, what their difficulties are in terms of their learning, what they need to do. So, I'd say that's very much on our minds.

Obviously, the next three or four weeks are going to be very important to get some pattern of the likely shape of the way we're going to deliver education come the autumn. What are the contingencies that the Government has put in place on the assumption that we may still be in a situation where people are going to have to maintain a 2m distance?

14:35

So, there's a huge amount of uncertainty, obviously, and the potential return of the virus to quite high levels is never far from anybody's minds. So, I think whatever the operations are, they need to be flexible and we need to adjust to them. That's why we're going for a sort of blended learning model with some face-to-face teaching and some remote teaching, so that we can adjust that depending on where we're at, as you say, with the distancing, the restrictions that are in place, but also the prevalence of the virus. 

Well, a lot of parents are quite grumpy that it's going to be totally impossible for them to support their children in the same way as if they were in school. What is being done to investigate ways of expanding the space in which education can be delivered, both using the playgrounds and the outdoor spaces of schools, and also requisitioning church halls, parks and community centres, so that all children can be back in school five days a week?

So, obviously, that's part of the planning that headteachers have been doing, to look at how they can accommodate children and accommodate them safely. Headteachers have been putting that together as part of their plans, but it's not just about space; it's the availability of the teachers and the practitioners themselves to do that. As I say, schools are putting together their plans at the moment. Really, the summer, these next few weeks, will be really important because there are opportunities for children to be outside and to have a school experience with some of their time outside.

Okay, so you'll be using the learning from the three or four weeks of this summer term to be able to provide a sort of step-up in the provision that's going to be required so that they can all get back to school, yes?

Yes, that's absolutely so. Two purposes, really, for this return: one is to check in with individual students to see how they're doing, and, secondly, to learn from these three weeks so that we can see, over the remainder of this summer term, what it's actually like in operation, so that, for September, we will have much better experience and be able to put more experienced plans in place.

Okay. Some people are arguing that we need to have—as well as having Nightingale hospitals that were very, very quickly commissioned—a Nightingale response to our school system to ensure that our children aren't suffering from this. Is this the level of the ambition of the planning that your staff team are doing?

So, I haven't heard about us creating separate entities for school, but I do have to say that I'm not as close to it as colleagues. I don't have a colleague here from education with me today because I was coming under the auspices of talking about local government and third sector, so I didn't bring an education colleague with me. So, I'm not aware of that scale of planning, but I am aware that individual headteachers are working really hard to look at utilising their own space as flexibly as they can.

Okay, all right. Just lastly, briefly, what sort of—

You were quite right, by the way—you have brought the officials to deal with the issues that we asked you about. We don't expect you to be aware of everything.

No, no, but I'm accountable for it all, so I'll give it a good go. But, some of the detail, as I say, on the holiday enrichment programme and those, I just don't have that detail, I'm afraid. So, I will provide it.

Okay, just lastly, what sort of shortfall are you expecting on the planned expenditure this year on the twenty-first century schools programme, on both its delivery and its development?

So, the twenty-first century schools programme is something that I monitor, actually, quite closely, and it is something generally that we monitor quite closely. It's a programme that's designed so we can scale it up or scale it down. But, having said that, we've continued to progress business cases more or less to the normal bimonthly schedule and the work on our construction sites has remained. I think the vast majority have remained open in one way or another. Obviously, there have been issues for contractors adapting to new ways of working, but they've continued to operate on site. So, it hasn't been a catastrophic impact by any sense, but, nevertheless, we're keeping in really close contact with local authorities very much in case there are any difficulties or any issues with their capital spend in particular.

14:40

After reminding people to unmute, I forgot to unmute myself. Gareth Bennett.

Thanks, Chair. Local government is playing a role in supporting businesses. On the economy, skills and natural resources group, how are you working to facilitate the support?

So, there's been a lot of exceptional, I'd say, joint working with the other group—the economy group—in the Welsh Government. I think, sometimes, they've almost felt like the same team, and that's been particularly around the non-domestic rates grants schemes, on which, although it's an ESNR scheme, we've worked very closely with them to access the details around the non-domestic rates data as the basis for the grants scheme. So, it's been really close working and I think really joined up. But, we meet with ESNR colleagues, and other colleagues, on a range of issues—on business support, on retail, which is, obviously, a very hot topic, and on many other areas.

Thanks. Now, there's also the business improvement districts. The Welsh Government has talked in the past about supporting running costs in the business improvement districts. How much is that fund and where is the funding coming from?

Thanks. Yes. So, BIDs, as we call them—business improvement districts—have got a really key role for us, and we've always been promoting BIDs for many, many years, as I know from my time in economic development. We were concerned that, without some support, they may not continue, and we really want them to continue and be part of our recovery efforts. So, we've offered three months' support, I think it is, to cover running costs, but Emma may have more detail as it's under Emma's area. Emma, to the question, do you know what the overall amount is and which budget we took that from?

[Inaudible.]—for the running costs, and that has been found from within departmental budgets. There wasn't a consequential relating to a similar move in the UK Government. So, we've managed to repurpose funds from within the housing and regeneration budgets in order to meet that cost.

Okay, thanks for that. How much progress has been made as regards developing further guidance about this funding and confirming eligibility details? So, is it easy for people who need to know that they can actually qualify for it?

Yes, we've definitely issued guidance to all of the BIDs, with the criteria to help them access that support, and I think that's—. Is that published guidance, Emma, or was it sent out to individual BIDs?

It was sent out on 28 May. I can provide a copy, if people would like it.

Thank you. On the ball. Thank you.

Now, there's also town-centre support. There was a separate support package for town centres announced in January, before we had the lockdown. That was a £90 million support package at the time. How are you planning to prioritise that and what impact has the COVID-19 crisis had on those plans and on that package?

So, that's a very good question around town centres, because we all know that many towns were struggling in the wake of falling footfall, declining retail sales, and that was before the pandemic. So, I think, where we all live, we've seen the impact and, probably, you are wondering, like I am, which of our local shops will reopen going forward. So, that programme that we'd announced that was around trying to increase footfall, but bringing empty buildings and land back into use—our aspirations there really are unchanged, but we will have to refocus our budget, I think, now around reopening towns in light of COVID. Emma, are you able to say something about how we're prioritising things now?

14:45

Thank you, Tracey. Referring back to a previous question, this is one of the areas where we're working incredibly closely on a cross-Government basis with colleagues in ESNR, land division, planning and so forth. The original £90 million project, as Tracey describes, was around increasing footfall. There's no getting away from the fact that, actually, the impact of COVID-19 means that the changes in, particularly, the retail sector that we were envisaging would take place over the next five years or so have been rapidly accelerated, and so town centres are likely to look very different very, very quickly.

We've established a national town-centre action group, chaired by the Deputy Minister for housing and regeneration. That includes internal membership from across Welsh Government, as well as external membership from local authorities and experts. It met first on 9 June and will meet again in July. So, that's focused on what the actions will be to reinvigorate town centres, and in particular thinking about that through the lens of the lockdown easements that we have in place.

At the moment, we're considering advice to put to Ministers around how we might need to refocus some of the funding in order to support town centres with some of the immediate and interim measures that they need to take in order to facilitate appropriate flow of people through the town centre with non-essential retail opening up. So, that's a very live conversation at the moment with Ministers about how we can utilise some of that funding.

So, one of the most difficult areas—[Inaudible.]—is childcare—

We're having some trouble with your mic, I think, Jenny. Can you use your headphones?

Apologies. I just wanted to ask some questions about childcare, because, obviously the—. Could you give us some sense of the impact of the current situation on childcare providers who, obviously, in the main, have not been able to operate during the lockdown? How much did you think—how many of them are going to survive in order to then be able to deliver that really important service going forward?

Thank you. As you rightly say, large numbers of settings have been closed temporarily, and how many of those will restart is obviously a significant concern for us and for the local authorities, because they underpin the support that they provide in supporting families who then go on to support the economy—integral to all of our policies. The childcare sector has always been a fragile sector and has always had financial vulnerabilities. There are many, many different types of childcare providers, as we know. So, childcare providers can now take on children, so they can reopen. I think the last data that I saw on the childcare settings was that around 200 had confirmed their intention to reopen immediately, and, obviously, others will be increasing over the coming weeks as the demand for childcare increases. But, as I say, there's no escaping that it was a fragile sector before COVID and it certainly will remain so afterwards.

14:50

Well, it's good to know that at least 200 are giving it a stab in terms of reopening, because it's going to have a huge impact on their business model, because they're not able to accept as many children as before. So, I wondered if you have any idea just how many of them are going to be able to get through the period when we've got to have this distancing between children?

I wouldn't like to hazard a guess on that. I don't suppose Claire, who oversees this—Claire, would you have a sense of how many, or what proportion of the childcare sector we think may not open again?

I think it's really difficult to say at this stage, but we've been working really closely with the five umbrella organisations that represent each of the different types of providers, and I think part of what we want to do with them, and also with Care Inspectorate Wales over this period, is just to get a sense of what it actually looks like on the ground now, and what the further issues are that we might want to respond to. I think it's a bit 'crystal ball' to try and guess at this point, but we'll have a better picture in a couple of weeks.

What information do you have about their ability to have secured financial support under the third sector resilience scheme, or under any of the other Welsh Government schemes?

Claire, do you want to carry on? Or I can come in—it's up to you.

I can start briefly. So, in general, a number of organisations have been able to access it, but we are aware there is a group of childcare providers who aren't eligible for the scheme because of they way that they're not incorporated. They're not unique in that—there are other businesses or organisations in that category, so we've been working quite closely again with the representative bodies and across the department and with colleagues in ESNR, actually, around what approaches might be appropriate to try and help those providers. Obviously, they are able to access the furlough scheme, and there are other options available, but not all of them can access the third sector grant.

Okay. So, going toward the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services suggested that the Welsh Government might seem to be able to look at more bespoke support for the childcare sector. Could you give us a sense of the range of options that are being considered?

So—. Go on, Claire.

No, it's okay.

I was only going to say—you may know a bit more than me—that I think, as Claire said, we really need to understand what their issues are, I suppose: what are the reasons why they can't access those existing schemes? And then, actually, it could be a small dedicated scheme, or it could be that we could adjust the criteria of an existing scheme once we understand that better. Is that about right, Claire?

Yes, that is. It's under really active consideration at the moment, as to what approach would be likely to have the most impact and capture most of the organisations who currently can't access that particular scheme.

Okay. Obviously, we're mainly thinking about pre-school provision, but I just wondered if you've got any idea about those who are providing wraparound care, after-school care, holiday provision. It's presumably just impossible to know, is it, at the moment?

They're all represented in the discussions that we have with those organisations, and I think the wraparound care, holiday provision, and being able to confirm that childcare has been reopened has been important for those organisations to start to plan for what they might be able to put in place. We're continuing those discussions with them to see what particular barriers they may face with the continued social distancing and the need to minimise the number of different groups that children are in during the course of the day, to minimise the number of contacts.

Okay. We are now in the last seven minutes or so of the planned session, so if Members can be succinct. Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. I've got some questions on housing and on the discretionary assistance fund. So, could you tell us, please, what impact the virus has had on the Welsh Government's ability to regulate registered social landlords?

I think it has had an impact, there's no doubt about that, and we had to put in place a temporary model very early on, I think in March, similar to other parts of the UK. Under that temporary model, we were only really looking at health and safety and financial resilience, those sorts of issues. We suspended the publication of regulatory judgments and those sorts of issues so that RSLs could actually concentrate on the crisis situation. But we've maintained contact with every RSL throughout the crisis, and, obviously, now that we're in this temporary new normal, we are starting to look at the approach to restarting, which will obviously take account of the news ways that RSLs are working. So, it has had an impact. 

14:55

Thank you. Do you have information on what support landlords in the private rented sector are receiving, both from the Welsh Government and the UK Government and to check that the schemes are working in concert, rather than replicating or—?

We put a lot of information together about the support that's available for landlords, because obviously we don't want them to fall into financial hardship and the consequences that would come from that, and the same with tenants, really. As I said, there's been really a mix of support available to them both—some of the support that the Welsh Government has had and the UK Government mortgage repayment-type holidays. Emma, do you know what the take-up has been on those?

We don't have figures broken down to individual schemes and landlords, but, as Tracey said, it's a really mixed bag, reflecting, actually, the huge variety of landlords that we have in the sector, from small landlords with one or two properties who may face different challenges and may not meet the criteria for some of the business support packages through to more commercial landlords who are able to meet those criteria. But we are maintaining good contact with the sector in order to try and monitor the impact that tenants' ability to pay rent and other factors may have on them.

It's fair to say it's a bit of a mixed bag at the moment, trying to unpick what the different surveys are telling us, but we're triangulating information that we're collecting directly through Rent Smart Wales, but also the sector's representative bodies. The NRLA, the National Residential Landlords Association—it doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily with the N at the front—has undertaken a couple of surveys, but there were some slightly difficult messages in there that we're just trying to work through, and the response rates aren't high, but we're monitoring it very closely. 

Thank you for that. On PPE, could you tell me how you're meeting the costs of PPE supplies for registered social landlords and housing providers? Is that part of the £100 million provision for PPE that was in the supplementary budget, or is it coming from another source? 

No, it's slightly different. Actually, it was one of the issues that came up really early on in the pandemic. It came up initially around the issue of hand sanitisers in hostels and places like that, and there was really swift work done by Emma's team, working with Community Housing Cymru, I think it was, and Swansea University to get production of hand sanitiser under way. We put a little bit of seed money in it, but I have to really acknowledge CHC's work in this area, because they've acted as the hub for a range of different organisations and have taken it further now. They're now sourcing face coverings, and actually we haven't had to put any funding into that at all. 

Okay, thank you for that. Turning to homelessness, the Government has been praised for the fact that so many—well, homelessness has almost been eradicated. What needs to happen to make sure that we don't go back to having people sleeping rough on the street, particularly in terms of prevention, because as we come to the next stage of this crisis, it's very likely that there will be a lot of economic and financial hardship for a lot of people, so more people may be facing a crisis situation? So, what work are you putting in to prevent that from happening?

Thank you. It's very, very much on our minds and I think, once we'd sat back and felt very relieved that rough-sleepers had been provided with some temporary accommodation, it was almost with the next breath that we realised that this wasn't a sustainable situation, and so we started building then what we're now calling phase 2 of our homelessness plan. In brief, Emma, do you want to just say very quickly what we're doing, really, there?

15:00

Thank you, Tracey. Only a minute left, and I could probably go on for hours on this topic alone, I'm afraid. I think it's two-pronged, really; some of it is about move-on and we've had well over 800 individuals and households moved into emergency accommodation. We're very clear that that doesn't mean that we have resolved their homelessness; we have provided them with temporary respite from it, if you like. Phase 2 is focused on: actually, what are the move-on options for those individuals, how do we bring into play every single housing option that we can in order to meet individual needs and match people to the right accommodation? Some of that involves much higher quality temporary medium-term options; it might be about refurbishing buildings, using modern methods of manufacturing or very high-quality modular homes in order to make sure that we've got the right provision.

But also, as you—[Inaudible]—it's about prevention as well. So, the work that we're doing in terms of monitoring what's happening in the private rented sector, being ready for any potential peak in evictions from that sector, and helping to prevent it by helping tenants to maximise their income and be able to pay their rent on an ongoing basis, working with police and communities around anti-social behaviour, and things like that. So, a lot about prevention, a lot about move-on so that we can meet the Minister's very clear request of us that we do everything in our collective power to ensure that people don't have to return to the streets, and that this is a real step change in how we deal with homelessness across the piece.

Thank you. I have a couple more questions, but I'm aware that we're out of time, so I'll just check what the Chair would like us to do.

No, that's fine. Of course, we started a bit late. We started a little bit later because of the tributes, so go for it. 

I'll be as succinct as I can. Could you tell me—again, sticking with homelessness just for a moment—how much of the £35 million from the integrated care fund and the innovative housing programme—how much of that do you think will go into providing more permanent accommodation for people who've been saved from rough sleeping, as opposed to some of the prevention work that you've just been outlining?

I don't know that figure. Emma, are you able to help me out here? 

The honest answer is that there probably isn't a figure. What we've asked local authorities to do is bring forward their plans to give us an outline plan that we can work through by the end of this month. But we've been very clear with them that the funding that was announced, the £20 million that was announced, should be looked at alongside how they utilise all of their existing funding streams. We prioritise the elements that may come forward, being funded through innovative housing or ICF—[Inaudible]—their plans and be alongside other funding. 

Thank you for that. I've just got a few questions on the discretionary assistance fund. We know that an additional £11.2 million has been put into that fund because of the crisis. What kind of levels of demand are you seeing, and in terms of that, does that meet what your expectations were?

I think it's been an interesting picture, actually, with the DAF, because we saw a very sharp spike and then thought that that was going to continue in that way. But then, after that, we had fewer applications than we'd anticipated, but we've since done quite an intensive communications campaign with the Department for Work and Pensions and the local authorities and others, and I know that, actually, we've now seen an increase in demand. I don't have those figures—I'm not sure if Claire will—but we could pop them in a note if Claire doesn't. Claire, do you have those figures? 

I certainly know that last week, we had quite an increase on most emergency payments on a single day—it was on 15 June—and that was almost 2,000. It dropped back then, so by the seventeenth it was back to around 900 awards. And that, as you said, Tracey, was off the back of quite a lot of communication. 

I think the other thing that's come out from our analysis of the data has been that 70 per cent of the people who have received a payment have been people who were already in financial difficulties. So, it's really clear that this crisis has exacerbated their vulnerability, but it means that the increase in demand from a new cohort of people who were facing difficulties as a result of that income or their employment disappearing hasn't come to pass in quite the same way. I think what we're expecting now is a flatter, longer curve. Because, over this period, you've had payment holidays and the furlough scheme, and a number of other mechanisms in place that have provided a degree of protection. And as those disappear, I think our concern would be that then we would start to see more demand from that group.

15:05

Yes, that is a concern. Okay, thank you very much. Diolch.

Thanks, Chair. There are a couple of questions about the Welsh Government's response in terms of support for the third sector. What are you, basically, doing, working with other partners, to keep track of the financial resilience of third sector organisations?

The third sector has been absolutely magnificent during this pandemic, I have to say—so many volunteers, and so many organisations that have stepped up. But I think, a little bit like the childcare sector, there have always been concerns about the financial sustainability of aspects of the third sector. So we've been working really closely with the sorts of bodies like the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Community Foundation Wales, and the Association of Charitable Foundations, to just keep track of the impacts on the sector—both their finances and the types of services that they're providing. And we've got a specific piece of work underway at the moment, at the request of Ministers, looking at the overall health of the third sector, which will then help us to put plans in place with them about the recovery phase.

Thanks for that. That's encouraging that there is a good interaction with the third sector. We know that there's a £24 million response fund that is being provided. Can you tell us any more about how you've decided to focus that, and where you're putting that?

Yes. The £24 million fund is really split in—it's two funds, really: a voluntary services fund and a third sector fund, and they're targeted at slightly different things. Claire, would you be able to just very briefly explain the two funds?

Yes. The voluntary services emergency fund is really about giving organisations support that enables them to undertake activity that helps people during the current crisis. So, it might be additional sort of—increasing their capacity to do things, building in safeguarding measures where they're expanding services. And then, the emergency fund is about helping third sector organisations that are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of their ability to generate fundraising or their trading income. Because, obviously, we've got a range of organisations within that. So those are the two focuses of the two different funds.

Okay, thanks very much. Is there anything else anyone wanted to add in that area, about the third sector? Okay. Thanks very much.

Okay. Well, if no Members have any further questions, can I thank our witnesses, Tracey Burke and your colleagues, for being with us today? That's been really helpful. We will feed that in to our ongoing work on COVID-19. And, clearly, there's a lot of work being done at the moment by you and your colleagues behind the scenes as well. So, thank you for finding the time to come and speak with us today.

Okay. Thank you, Chair. I'm assuming that the clerks will send us a note—we took a couple of actions around some more detailed information, particularly a couple of the education areas, where I wasn't able to give full assurance on those areas.

Yes, we'll let you know about those areas, and if you can send us some follow-up information, that would be great. And thank you for your earlier tribute as well to our colleague.

Okay, my pleasure. Thank you.

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o’r cyfarfod
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

With that, I believe that we go into private session, if I'm right in saying. So, I move Standing Order 17.42 to move into private for the rest of today's business. And I propose that we have a five-minute break as well, if Members are interested.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:10.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 15:10.