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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

16/07/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

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

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Andrew Morgan Arweinydd Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Welsh Local Government Association Leader
Dr Chris Llewelyn Prif Weithredwr, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Chief Executive, Welsh Local Government Association
Emlyn Dole Arweinydd Grŵp Plaid Cymru Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Welsh Local Government Association Plaid Cymru Group Leader
Hugh Evans Arweinydd Grŵp Annibynnol Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Welsh Local Government Association Independent Group Leader
Peter Fox Arweinydd Grŵp Ceidwadol, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Welsh Local Government Association Conservative Group Leader

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Osian Bowyer Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Yan Thomas Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

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

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

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod am 11:02.

The committee met by video-conference.

The public part of the meeting began at 11:02. 

3. Cyflwyniadau, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
3. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Okay. Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. Our next item on our agenda today is item 3, which is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest: we haven't received any apologies.

In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, published last Monday.

This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. A record of proceedings will be published as usual. Apart from the procedural adaptation related to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available.

I'll just remind all participants that microphones will be controlled centrally, so there's no need to turn them on or off individually, but there will be a prompt on your screen to unmute from the sound engineer each time that you're called to speak. So, you just need to click on that prompt.

Are there any declarations of interest, please? No. One other matter before we move on—if, for any reason, I drop out of proceedings due to technological problems or anything else, Dawn Bowden MS will take over as temporary chair while I attempt to rejoin.

4. Ymchwiliad i Effaith COVID-19: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Lywodraeth Leol
4. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact: Evidence Session on Local Government

Okay. Item 4, then, on our agenda today is our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact, and this particular evidence session relates to the impact on local government. I'm very pleased to be joined today by Councillor Andrew Morgan, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Councillor Emlyn Dole, Plaid group leader at the WLGA, Councillor Peter Fox, Conservative group leader, Hugh Evans, independent group leader, and Chris Llewelyn, chief executive for the WLGA. So, welcome to you all, and perhaps I could initially invite Councillor Morgan, as leader of the WLGA, to make an opening statement of up to five minutes to highlight the main priorities he would like to raise with the committee in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on local government. We will then turn to Members for questions. Andrew.

11:05

Okay. Thank you, Chair, and thanks for the opportunity to address Members on COVID this morning. First of all, I'd like to say that, across the local government family, all 22 authorities, I think, have responded absolutely magnificently in terms of the way that the new pressures, the new things that come up almost on a daily basis—the way we've had to respond and be nimble and change the way we work.

Clearly, an awful lot of our staff have been affected by COVID, either by the shielding operation, potentially members of their own family being symptomatic or even being diagnosed. In terms of our staff resources, those have been significantly impacted at a time when we've tried to keep a lot of the services running, so we've done a lot of work from home across all local authorities, trying to maintain what we can, but at a time in particular when we've had to introduce lots of new services.

The amount of work that local authorities have done in the background with shielding, for example—we only had a few days' notice for that. So, I was at the meeting on the Wednesday before shielding was announced. Council leaders were briefed, then, when I returned from that meeting, and, very quickly, local authorities, in the space of, probably, 72 hours had to then look at how we would work with the voluntary sector to provide the additional support. Because, while the shielding operation and the food box scheme were run at an all-Wales level, clearly, there were an awful lot of people who were vulnerable who needed additional support, especially with bus services and other transport being suspended, and, clearly, they couldn't then get to supermarkets. So, there's been a huge amount of work in the background there.

Very quickly, on that same day, on the Wednesday, we discussed schools closing on the Friday. This was a meeting I was in with the First Minister and others. So, again, we came back, fed back to leaders that not only were schools going to be ordered to close on the Friday, but, by the following Monday, we had to then have a system of emergency childcare provision in place across Wales. So, again, very quickly adapting, looking at the numbers.

The 22 local authorities have worked very closely together in terms of our directors. There's a whole raft of weekly meetings between all the directors, whether it's transport, whether it's our education officials. So, the working relationship between local authorities, I would say, has never been better. Certainly, as council leaders, I have to say that I think we have really worked closely together. Certainly, in the initial stages, we were meeting practically every day via Zoom or Teams calls where we were sharing information, sharing the latest updates. In particular, we would have very quickly called meetings with Welsh Government Ministers. As time went on, then, we moved into more of an organised pattern, where we met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That is subsequently now stood down to a Friday meeting of all council leaders with Ministers, but a lot of the spokespersons or other council leaders will have individual meetings and then feed back at well.

I have to say the cross-party working on this has been really important in terms of sharing what each local authority is doing, because there isn't a plan—I have to say that, while we do emergency planning exercises, both at a Welsh Government and at the local government level, there isn't a plan where one size fits all. So, actually, learning what is working in other areas, what we can do, has been really important.

The fact that we had to administrate the business support grants—well over £600 million was paid out; a significant amount of that was paid out in the first week to 10 days. I think, without our finance officers working from home, and many of them working extended hours, a lot of businesses, quite frankly, would have gone through if they hadn't had those payments. I know, as local government, we've had feedback from a number of business sectors to welcome the way that we've been able to administrate that. And also I think the close working we've had with Ministers, where we've been able to influence both officials and Ministers in understanding that, especially with the business grants, there have been lots of gaps. So, where there has been an extensive support network, there have been a lot of gaps where businesses haven't had support, and we've been able to flag this up, and then there have been some amendments to future rounds of funding. I think that without that local knowledge—and, clearly, civil servants and Ministers then have to take on board some of what is happening on the ground and what council leaders have been feeding back—without that happening, I think the situation would have been a lot worse. So, it has been important to use the local intelligence, feeding that back.

We've also got the civil contingency arrangements, so they've been working well, right throughout the pandemic, feeding back in as well with us in terms of what major announcements, major decisions, we have to make. But I have to say that the biggest pressure, probably, right now is around the financial pressures, and that's something we'll probably come on to later on. We welcome the support from Welsh Government in terms of the increased cost pressures, but our concern is that the cost pressures are reducing, but they will probably continue for quite some time, and the lost income is an unknown. So, while we've had funding announced—significant funding of £78 million for the first quarter—many of those services that rely on fee income may be significantly impacted for quite some time to come. So, if I was to mention leisure services, those services may not return to normal for maybe in excess of another 12 months. So there are significant cost pressures facing local authorities across the board, and we are working now closely with Ministers again to highlight those pressures and highlight those concerns. Because what we don't want to do is to see any local authority coming close to the brink this financial year, and in particular, we wouldn't want to see then council tax being significantly increased on families next year, making up our shortfall. So again, the WLGA's been lobbying strongly with partners in Northern Ireland and in Scotland and England to the Westminster Government, pressing for additional funding to support local government across the board. So, that just gives a snapshot of some of the work we've been undertaking. Thanks. 

11:10

Okay, Andrew, thanks very much for that. Perhaps I'll begin with just a couple of questions, and then other Members, I'm sure, will come in with their questions. From what you say, then, Andrew, it seems to have reinforced what we heard from Julie James as the local government Minister: that communication on digital platforms between Welsh Government—Julie and her officials—and local government in Wales has been effective, and in fact perhaps has been significantly better than it had been hitherto. I guess you could argue that it needed to be, given the urgency of the situation around the pandemic, but from what you've said, that does seem to have been the case. But also, of course, there's the third sector and independent agencies in terms of the effectiveness of communication and co-ordination of response. So, would you say that that's been as effective as it needed to be as well?

On all of this, when we look back in the coming months and in a few years' time, I'm sure we could all reflect and say we could have done things differently, or with better knowledge. But what I would say is that I think the close working with the third sector has been key to a lot of this, in particular the shielding exercise that I referred to earlier. So, again, when I was in the meeting on that Wednesday in the First Minister's office with senior officials because the Prime Minister was due to announce the shielding operation coming into effect, Ruth from the WCVA was in that meeting with me, and we discussed the key role that the voluntary sector would play in part of this. Since then, what I would say is that I have also joined the COVID-19 core group, which is on a Wednesday morning with the Welsh Government Cabinet, and Ruth also attends that on behalf of the voluntary sector on a four-weekly cycle to give an update.

So, I would say we're doing a huge amount of new work with the voluntary sector, and I'm sure there would be even more we could do if we had more time to plan. But what I would say is that I think the voluntary sector has adapted very well, and we've also been able to share resources, not just in terms of finance, but in terms of people power. So, local authorities have had hundreds and hundreds of people registering to volunteer. In my own authority, for example, we had far more volunteers—well over 1,000 volunteers registered in the first two weeks. We only actually used about 500 of those volunteers with our council staff to support individuals, but what we were able to do is to then pass on those details to other third sector organisations and charities, because many of them were struggling. Some of the normal volunteer base was actually caught up in the shielding exercise themselves, because many of the volunteers are retired individuals.

So, we've been working closely to make sure that we've been helping. I know a number of local authorities have supported food banks where maybe their drivers haven't had access to vehicles, et cetera. So, I'd say there's been a step change in that relationship and the support between third sector, voluntary sector and ourselves, but I would hope that, probably, at the end of this, in the coming months, we can evaluate where we are, and that might be part of what we need to do going forward—to look at what good things have come out of this, and how do we continue that going forward.

Yes, sure. Okay. We'll come on to some of those particular aspects in terms of the future in due course, Andrew. One further question from me before we move on to other Members, and that's about the challenges, really, in conducting local government business during the pandemic, and particular issues such as rural connectivity. To what extent has that been a major challenge and were you able to deal with those challenges effectively?

11:15

Could I suggest that one of the other leaders might be best placed to discuss the rural aspects? I don't know if Peter, Hugh or Emlyn could come in on this point, please.

[Inaudible.] Sorry, I forgot the unmute bit. Good to see you all. Thank you very much for having us in this morning. I just want to echo everything that Andrew said in his last points to you. The relationships we've had have been strengthened, the communication has been great, it's been fast, timely, we can make decisions swiftly, and alter where those decisions haven't been right. And I think that was really important. 

It has been challenging. It's new territory for all of us in local authorities in trying to respond to this. Obviously, initially, it was very much leaders meeting directly every day, working with their senior officers, whereas many elected members then really had to sit back because they weren't key workers. They had to stay at home and, in those very early days, we hadn't got the platforms like Teams and Zoom up and running, so we had a lot of conference-type calls. I think several members did search for what their place was in the pandemic, other than liaising within their communities and trying to help the voluntary sector and the volunteer base to identify those people who needed support. In Monmouthshire, we have areas where connectivity isn't so strong, and I think there were individuals who probably felt marginalised from council-type business because they couldn't connect, perhaps, in the way they are now. I think things have improved. I think it's great, actually, that through adversity comes opportunity, and the speed of change that we've had to adhere to has given us this opportunity we're using now. So it has been challenging, but I think we'll embrace so much of what we've learned now and it will alter the shape of local government and how we operate, going forward. 

Thank you, Chair. Just really what Peter just said. I think it's fair to say, to put it politely, that co-production has been a challenge right from the very start on this, it really has, with very little time to plan. The ability to co-produce and to use the expertise and the knowledge we've got to deliver locally, and to do that quickly, needed better, really, co-production from day one, and that's been a disappointment, beside the stuff that has really worked. 

As far as the challenges, the first one is around that, really: very little time to plan, but you can't change that. The other one is the uncertainty around the costs and income recovery, with little or no choice, really, to commit spend or to cut different income streams. I'm really still waiting for the clarity around what makes that future planning viable, because it could become very difficult and very precarious very quickly. And clarity on messaging is the other one, between the UK and Welsh Governments. That's been there as well, that mix up on the messaging from both Governments. That was, and still is, a difficulty and a challenge. 

Okay, Emlyn. Thank you very much. We'll move on now to Delyth Jewell. 

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Bore da i chi i gyd. Roeddwn i eisiau gofyn ichi beth ydych chi i gyd yn meddwl yw'r effaith hirdymor sydd wedi bod ar y sector gofal oherwydd y feirws. Mae yna ddau begwn i hyn: ar yr un llaw, mae cefnogaeth ac ymwybyddiaeth y cyhoedd o bwysigrwydd y sector wedi cynyddu cymaint, ac efallai rydym ni wedi gweld prawf o wydnwch y sector, ond ar y llaw arall, rydym ni hefyd wedi cael lot fwy o ymwybyddiaeth o ba mor fregus yn ariannol mae sefyllfa'r sector. Felly, o ystyried y ddau begwn hynny, beth ydych chi'n meddwl bydd yr effaith hirdymor ar y sector, a beth yw'r sialensiau rydych chi'n eu gweld? Pwy bynnag sydd eisiau mynd yn gyntaf.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, everyone. I wanted to ask you about what you think the long-term impact has been on the care sector because of the virus. There are two poles to this: on the one hand, the support for and public awareness of the importance of the sector has increased so much, and maybe we've seen proof of the resilience of the sector, but on the other hand, we have had a lot more awareness of how fragile financially the sector is. So, in considering both poles of that situation, what do you think the long-term impact will be on the sector and what are the challenges that you see in that sector? Whoever wants to go first.

11:20

First of all, I'm going to say that I think the social care sector, both the in-house provided by local authorities and the independent care sector have been superb throughout this, and we shouldn't get away from the fact that without their continued dedication and support, the pressure on the NHS would have been on a scale we've never seen before. And that's providing home care support, because if we had had to reduce packages of support to individuals at home because of staff maybe fearful of coming into work, et cetera, or staff in care homes, then ultimately the pressure of residents going back into hospital would have been huge and something we wouldn't have coped with.

In terms of the financial situation of the care sector, we welcome the first tranche of funding that's been available for providing support to care homes where they, unfortunately, have now reduced numbers, either through the now 28-day period before people can go into a home, coming out of hospital, or, sadly, where there have been deaths, either COVID related or non-COVID related in homes, and then the number of clients in those homes has reduced, which impacts significantly on the financial model and viability of those homes. So, the funding that's in place now has been welcomed. I think almost £40 million has been paid out in the first quarter. We are in discussions with the Welsh Government and the sector about another tranche of funding for the next three to four months, to continue supporting those homes. They have a number now of empty beds and, as I say, those being taken into the homes is vastly reduced; there's a time lag now with that.

But one of the concerns we do have is about making sure that the independent care homes, in particular—that if they do go under and they are not financially viable, well, clearly, we will lose that capacity for the future, whether it's COVID-related or not. Because we know that the market and the system was under pressure before COVID came about anyway. We are in discussions and Huw David and myself and others have been meeting with Julie Morgan and Vaughan Gething about discussing the support that's needed. So, the immediate short-term help is welcomed, but long term, post the winter period, we will need to seriously consider how we keep that market viable.

And it may well be that—. We've had discussions about the prices we currently pay per client in homes; there's a lot of disparity between different places in Wales. And the other thing is the size of the homes; you've got some small homes that may not be economically viable under the current pricing system. However, they are fundamentally needed in terms of the care placements in that locality. So, we do need to have a fundamental review of that, and that's something to be welcomed.

The other area that we have raised—it's something that I know has been discussed, and I'm sure council leaders will support this—is that our care sector staff are paid less than similar roles in the health service. So, while they were recruiting staff in the health service during the height of the pandemic, we were mindful and worried that we would lose some of our own staff to that sector. But I have to say, in the main, our staff have been very loyal and have stuck with our services. That is, again, an area that—they are amongst some of the lowest paid, I think. Even though we do pay even above the living wage, it's still low in comparison to the other sectors for what they actually do. In particular, where we've had significant deaths in some of our care homes, the commitment and what those staff have gone through, I think that they do need to be recognised and valued more. So, I think that is something that we would always welcome a further discussion on: how do we make social care more viable and, in particular, how do we get the recruitment into social care. That has come with us paying more, I think, to those staff and valuing them.

Diolch. I agree with what you said. 

Emlyn, rydych chi'n—.

Emlyn, you are—.

Sorry, John.

Emlyn, roeddech chi'n awyddus i ddod mewn.

Emlyn, you were keen to come in. 

Diolch yn fawr. Roeddwn i'n mynd i gadarnhau beth mae Andrew wedi'i ddweud eisoes ynglŷn â sut mae'r sector annibynnol yn mynd i edrych yn y dyfodol wrth ein bod ni'n symud ymlaen, ac mae hwnna'n her gwbl amlwg ac mae Andrew wedi amlinellu hynny'n berffaith. Ond beth oeddwn i'n mynd i ychwanegu—beth wnaeth Andrew ychwanegu ar y diwedd—oedd y ffordd rŷm ni'n edrych ar y sector nawr, edrych ar y career paths yna oddi fewn y sector. Achos nawr rwy'n meddwl, wyneb yn wyneb â'r ffordd maen nhw wedi ymateb i'r her, ac ymateb yn rhagorol, mae'n amlwg bod yna fodd nawr i ni—nid 'gwerthu' yw'r gair cywir—ond gwerthu hwn fel career path positif iawn i bobl, lle rŷm ni'n ei gydnabod e yn broffesiwn—gofal—lle rŷm ni'n rhoi o fewn y proffesiwn y gallu i symud ymlaen ac i ddatblygu o ran cyraeddiadau ac o ran y posibilrwydd o gael cydnabyddiaeth academaidd yn ogystal yn y cyd-destun yna. Ac, fel y mae Andrew wedi'i ddweud yn glir iawn, mae angen y cydraddoldeb clir yna nawr rhwng health a social care o ran y gweithlu, o ran eu tâl, ac o ran cydnabyddiaeth o werth y proffesiwn. Mae yna le amlwg i ddatblygu hynny nawr yn wyneb y ffordd rhagorol maen nhw wedi gweithredu yn ystod y pandemig. 

Thank you very much. I was going to confirm what Andrew said earlier about the independent sector and how it's going to look in the future as we move forward. That's a very obvious challenge and Andrew outlined that. But what I wanted to add was the way in which we look at the sector now, and look at the career paths in that sector, because I think now, side by side with the way they have responded to that challenge, and responded very well to that, it's evident that—I don't think 'sell' is the right word—but we need to sell this as a very positive career path for people, where we recognise it as a profession—the care profession—where we put within the profession the ability to move forward and develop a career in terms of attainment and in terms of the possibility of having academic recognition in that context. And, as Andrew said very clearly, we need very clear parity between health and social care in terms of the workforce, in terms of their remuneration and the recognition of the value of the profession. We need to develop that, obviously, in the face of the superb way in which they have responded during this pandemic. 

11:25

Diolch. Mae gen i un cwestiwn arall. Roeddwn i jest eisiau siecio os oedd rhywun arall eisiau dod i mewn ar hynny cyn i fi symud ymlaen. 

Thank you. I have one more question, but I just wanted to check whether anyone else wants to come in on that before I move on.

Did anyone else want to say anything else on that before I ask one further question? No. You just—. Okay—you agree with that. 

Diolch. O ystyried—. So, gan edrych ar ongl arall o'r un sector, beth ydych chi'n meddwl bydd ac sydd wedi bod effaith y ddeddfwriaeth, y Coronavirus Act 2020, a oedd wedi gorfod dod i mewn ar frys? Dros dro, roedd hwnna wedi cymryd i ffwrdd rhai o gyfrifoldebau llywodraeth leol dros ofal a chefnogaeth pobl fregus, felly beth ydych chi—? Eto, yn amlwg roedd hyn wedi gorfod dod mewn ar frys oherwydd y pandemig, ond beth ydych chi'n meddwl oedd effaith hwnna, ac oes yna bryderon gyda chi ynglŷn â'r effaith roedd hwnna wedi ei chael? Eto, unrhyw un—

Thank you very much. Looking at another angle of the same sector, what do you think of the impact of the legislation, the Coronavirus Act 2020, which was implemented urgently? Temporarily, that took away some of local authorities' responsibility in terms of the care and support of vulnerable people. So, evidently, this had to be introduced urgently because of the pandemic, but what do you think the impact of that was and do you have any concerns about the impact that that did have? Again, anyone—

Whoever wants to come in first.

Okay, thank you. I'll just say that I appreciate the concerns that are raised, and I know a number of Assembly Members raised this with me in a lot of the discussion at the start of the pandemic. My understanding is that I don't think any local authority actually had to use those powers in terms of reducing care packages, but what we did do—. Because the early suggestion was that if the virus did spread through the population in the way that some of the suggestions were being made, local authorities were asked to model for, at any one time, in excess of 20 per cent of our staff being off work. In the end, our staff numbers were significantly less, but what we did look at is—and I know a number of authorities have done this piece of work, my own authority included—. We had to look at what care packages we would have to suspend to make sure that the limited staff we had available would be targeted to those in the most need, because, otherwise, those in the most need, if they lost or didn't provide that level of support, if they didn't have family and loved ones to support them, then ultimately they could have ended up going back into hospital settings.

I'm not aware of any local authority that actually needed to use those powers. I think I'm right in saying that in the end we didn't have to. But I think it was the right thing to do. I appreciate that people were really concerned at the time that this would be a blanket sweeping position for local authorities to stop the support that was needed, but I think it was done with the right intention. It was discussions with Ministers, as I say, that, if we lose 20 per cent of our workforce, then, for example, you can't operate care homes with 20 per cent of your workforce not in. Now, that goes for the independent sector as well. So, straight away, we may have been forced into a position where we would have had to provide additional staffing into that care home setting.

So, across—. If I give an example of Cwm Taf Morgannwg, my own area, we have 86 care and residential settings. So, if we had 20 per cent of the staff off and they were struggling, we would have had to have asked some of our homecare staff to backfill those positions to support the care homes. That would have meant that some packages would have had to have been removed. We would have done that regrettably and we would have done it very carefully, but it was the lesser of two evils. So, I think that the intention was right. It hasn't had to be used, and I would hope that, when we get out of the other side of this, and, if we get past the winter without a second wave, then that COVID legislation could be repealed and therefore that measure wouldn't be needed any longer. But I think it was the right thing to do at the time. While it is a difficult and tough choice to have to say to somebody, 'We're removing your care package', it would have been very much on the basis that others would have been at a much higher risk. 

Well, thanks, Andrew. I think it's useful to add that explanation in terms of the practicalities involved. Mark Isherwood—Mark, I think you wanted to come in at this point.

Thank you, yes. I have this week been contacted by recipients of third sector day-care services in one particular authority. The provider had also contacted me previously to that. They moved their services online because of COVID, and the council then cut the funding to a point where they could no longer provide those services, so people have been pushed into social care places in consequence.

11:30

Mark, I don't know about the others, but I'm having difficulty in hearing you properly. Some of it's coming through, but it's a little bit—it's breaking up.

I'll sit close to the screen. I've been approached by service users of a charity, and the charity itself, that was commissioned to provide day-care services for a particular cohort of disabled people. This is pushing those people into crisis, because the council stopped funding when they moved on to online services because of COVID. That is therefore putting greater pressure on statutory care and support services. Technically, under the coronavirus Act easements, the council could do that, but the reality is they've shot themselves in the foot. I've also had lots of cases in the same council—where other councils have been very sensible, very flexible, very proactive in responding to critical childcare arrangements for key workers and vulnerable children, where the council instead said even the parents of vulnerable children must be deemed to be key workers in order to access the services, it takes weeks to get them to change their tack.

And again, finally, in terms of business grants, when the discretionary criteria were changed for self-catering businesses, most councils I work with obviously were faced with a big challenge, but they responded very flexibly, they applied sensible discretion, and, in every case I represented, those councils granted grants to every legitimate business, whether or not they met the discretionary criteria. But one council wrote to me this month, stating that, unless they meet all three criteria, they can't have the funds—[Inaudible.]—what the Welsh Government says.

But, in terms of care and those broader issues that were mentioned by Andrew at the beginning, how is your co-productive approach enabling those authorities that perhaps don't quite get it to understand better so that the services they provide meet the standards that the rest of you have been able to meet, despite the problems you are all facing?

Okay. There's quite a lot there. Who would like to begin an answer? Andrew, please.

If I just respond on the approach about the care, this comes back to part of the discussion—. I said that, certainly during the height of the pandemic, council leaders were meeting either daily or three times a week and we were discussing a lot of this. So, for example, where one local authority was pretty close to the point of having to use those powers in terms of reducing care packages, we had a discussion with them. And also our directors meet on a regular basis—so, the directors of social services, directors of education—discussing about how the hubs were working and about vulnerable families, because, clearly, we had big concerns as local authorities around children who are looked after and children who may be at risk, with family or with guardian, parenting/guardian cases, so we try to share that information as much as possible.

The one thing I would say is that it is difficult for the one-size-fits-all, and that very much comes down to staff resources. I can tell you, in my own authority, we're under significant pressure right now around children's services, because, during the period, children within the system have not been able to maybe go to foster parents or other settings. So, we've actually got significant pressure in our system, and I know that's been replicated in several other local authorities. So, the level of staff I have available to provide support to families for respite, for example, is under pressure, because I'm using staff to support those other vulnerable children in the system.

So, it may be that, council to council, it is a different picture, and that's not actually because we want to do it differently, or it's not because we're not discussing and trying to come up with a uniform picture. On occasions, there are some specific areas where we just can't do it across the board, because of the circumstances we find ourselves in. But I think that conversation between the directors of social services, directors of education and the council leaders has helped us and steered us, I think, during the time when, as I say, a couple of councils came very close to having to use those regs to reduce care packages and to change the way we've done things.

Sorry, some of the other points I couldn't quite make out in the call, but I think it was mainly around care, I think, if I can cover that.

Could I add something, Chair?

I'm aware of the concerns that Mark raised with individual authorities, and we've had some discussion and things like the—. Following discussions with Mark, we circulated the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Disability Wales guidance on the high street and other issues.

Some of the points that Andrew was making—the reality is that nobody could plan in advance for this crisis because nobody expected events to unfold as they have, and there's a strong element of making the best of an imperfect solution. So, for much of the—for the early part of the crisis, what we had was Government setting the strategy nationally, and then local authorities trying to deliver that strategy locally, based on the circumstances they faced and the capacity that they had.

So, as has been highlighted, it's been very challenging for local authorities, but in every instance, everybody—be they central Government or local government—is doing the best that they can in challenging circumstances. One of the advantages of the way that we've used digital technology has been an immediacy of communications. So, very often, when problems have been highlighted, because leaders were in contact on an almost daily basis, because they're in contact with the Government and with Ministers, then they can address those issues relatively quickly.

As Andrew has said as well, there's been a really good relationship with the voluntary sector and community groups, which is why then, in terms of care packages, the provisions that have been available haven't had to be used because authorities have developed workarounds, they've been in contact with their service users, they've also been in contact with the voluntary and community groups in their areas, and, because they are so rooted in their communities, they've been able to come up with ad hoc solutions that meet their immediate circumstances. But one of the consequences has been that things have varied from authority to authority, and, depending on the particular service areas, some authorities may exceed provision compared with others, but every authority is doing the best that they can in challenging circumstances. 

11:35

Okay, Chris. We've got a lot of ground to cover and we're going to have to move on, but I think Huw, briefly, on the same issues. Huw Irranca-Davies.

Yes. Thank you, John. I just wanted to ask perhaps Chris, maybe Andrew—. Chris, you just referred to the workarounds that have meant that this provision hasn't been needed to be used. Andrew said to his knowledge it hadn't been used either, despite the fears—the original, in-principle fears—that this could disproportionately affect certain groups of people, particularly the older and disabled people. In which case, could I ask: going forward and anticipating that we're a long way from being out of this predicament yet, do you see this having to be used? Is there any necessity for it remaining in place or we will be able to continue doing ad hoc workarounds to be used?

Yes. Sorry. I think that individual authorities will have their own perspective, but I think, collectively, we would hope that we don't have to use this provision going forward, and that we can continue to adopt this ad hoc, if you like, approach. Authorities have gained experience over the last three or four months in terms of the way they do things in every aspect of provision. They now have a really good understanding of the provision that's available and how they can work with the voluntary sector and with their community groups. What might have a difference—. At the outset, authorities streamlined their provision, developed an essential services model and delivered their key services and closed other services down, redeployed staff and so on. With the increasing easement and recovery and opening up of services, that puts additional pressures on authorities, in terms of their capacity having to be used in different ways. So, that could be a factor, but I know that authorities will do everything that they can to continue as they have done over recent months. 

Okay, Chris, thanks for that. We will have to move on. Caroline Jones.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Good morning, everyone. Bore da. My question is on schools returning full time in September,  and I'd like to ask you what you see as the main challenges for schools, staff, pupils, parents and the local education authority. My question is: will schools be ready, because there's an awful lot of consideration that's needed here? I wonder what sort of forward planning there is for children, for example, with special needs, children with autism, children with physical disabilities, and the transport provided for children, but, in particular, children with the needs that I've just outlined. Because children with autism, you know, can't relate to change very easily. Obviously, the classroom situations and the travelling to and fro—everything is going to be different now. I wonder what preparation, really, you've made or considered for all children, but in particular these children. Thank you.

11:40

Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Caroline, for the question. It's a long list, as far as answering it goes. Around your main point about the vulnerable and the medically vulnerable, my answer would be to that one that we've already prioritised that group of people during the pandemic itself. Nothing changes in the return in September—they get that prioritisation and that stays as it has right through the last three months.

But, across the piece, the challenges are pretty huge, actually. The obvious one is on cleaning—you know, that cleaning during school hours has given, as you've said, the pupils, parents and staff a higher degree of confidence, but there's a need to maintain that level of provision, and how we do that is a huge challenge. Clarity is going to be required on what the acceptable level of provision around that will be and how the resources and the cost implications are going to be met around that level of challenge on cleaning.

On the medically vulnerable and the shielding, again, clarity needs to be set regarding the return expectations for these groups. That will have a significant impact on staffing levels and for expectations around the learning and support offer available across the schools. 

School transport is massive. I mean, Carmarthenshire is 65 per cent rural. It's a hugely complex area. Understanding that—the logistical issues within our authority and within all local authorities—is going to be key as to what kind of offer you can make around school transport as we return.

For catering, again, clear guidance on the expectations regarding catering—we're going to need that. If 2m or 1m social distancing applies, there's a limit to what catering arrangements you can put in place around that. An increased volume of children is going to need increased sittings, and that takes into consideration the cleaning as well. What we've done already, in the past three weeks, is that it was food packs only—you'd bring them from home—because we couldn't start on the catering. That needs to be considered.

Around the contact and the bubbles, again, it's clear and unambiguous advice that we need around the limited contact in the bubble—that needs to be set very clearly—and clarity about how you achieve that, especially specifically, maybe, for key stage 4 and key stage 5 pupils, and consideration for those learners who are taking practical subjects. They need access to specialist equipment in labs and resources. How does that work? We need clarity around that.

Again, the learning offer—a clear plan that allows the schools to be able to plan and deliver for the specific needs of individual learners and supports their skills deficit. And consideration for the impact on the particular groups of learners who have special and additional needs, as you've said, Caroline—the additional learning needs, or ALN, education other than at school and those attending Welsh-medium schools but who don't speak Welsh at home, as well. There's that, and that needs to take account of the fact that some children have demonstrated resilience and have thrived in the family units, and how that applies when we come back in September.

But, the main one, Caroline, and I have to underline this, is that there's little time—only a week and a half—for teachers to plan as they then go off for a summer break, because our local authority staff, who've gone above and beyond, and I have to commend them one and all for their commitment, they also need a break, but now they're spending their summer period trying to make sure that all is ready with the week and a half that we've had. And it's the unknown—it's how we maintain blended learning, for instance, and how we do that if another, second spike comes along. Understanding and implementing the new guidance that came on 13 July, with just a week of school remaining, is a huge challenge. Understanding and addressing the lost learning—although there is £29 million additional funding for that, and that's welcome, is that going to be sufficient to meet all those needs? I don't think it is, actually.  And, as is always said, it's about the need to ensure strategic overview of the key stages 4 and 5 challenge as far as grouping students is concerned and mitigating to reduce the risks you've spoken about.

Specific areas—I've already mentioned provision, additional costs, PPE, hygiene products, cleaning, catering, transport, providing assurance to parents and carers that the schools have done all they can to reduce risks, and managing expectations, and, of course, all of that with the huge cost implications. The challenge is huge—massive.

11:45

I think Peter Fox wanted to add to that answer. Peter.

Thank you. I won't reiterate everything Emlyn's said. He's caught it really well. I suppose the biggest, biggest challenge has been, as Emlyn pointed out, only a week's real notice of what was going to happen in September. I'm hearing huge frustrations from staff. Saying that, they've been brilliant across Wales, and they will do all they can to make things ready. I'm absolutely confident in that, and we welcome the announcement on return to education in September. As we speak, our staff are flat out, whilst they're still operating their check-in process for this last week. But there are extreme anxieties too within staff communities, trying to get everything fixed before, in theory, they go off tomorrow. I don't think many of them will actually go off tomorrow. Lots of people will be dedicating some of their own holidays now to getting things right. 

The most vulnerable are going to be at the forefront of all of our minds, and we need to make sure that—. Well, it goes without saying—that will happen. We have massive challenges around school transport in areas like Monmouthshire, and all authorities actually, because if you're going to have to adhere to current and social distancing on coaches, you would basically need four times the amount of buses to get your kids to school, and that is absolutely impossible. So, then, you're going to break the law by not being able to get those children eligible to school to school. So, I hope that, over this summer break, our authorities will be working on ways to get children to school safely, but I'm sure that will require a relaxing of social distances on buses as well and other mitigating ways to manage that. I can't see how we can get all of the children to school in the way we are expecting them to unless we can have some deep thinking around transport, and I know that's happening as we speak. Thank you, John.

Okay, thanks for that, Peter. We must move on, but I think Hugh Evans wanted to come in briefly. Hugh.

Thank you, Chair. Well, Emlyn's covered most of the challenges, but, having said that, they have opened for three weeks, and I think that's given staff the opportunity to consider the eventualities of a more longer term opening and created a bit of confidence in the school environment. 

I do welcome the announcement by the Minister on increasing the number of staff. Whether the staff will be available for the beginning of September, I think, is a challenge. But it's been acknowledged that there's a need for increased resource in that short timescale. Staff in Denbighshire local government will not be on holiday over the summer period and will be trying to work out what the best, safest environment is likely to be in those schools.

The point I wanted to make, Chair, was that, from an education perspective, I think it's absolutely the right thing to do, and we'll do all that we can to make it happen. It's not just about the education service on its own making this happen. This looks like the lockdown's been eased, and the consequence of that is there are more movements going to be in the communities. So, in order to support the opening of schools, there does need to be a clearer reporting mechanism to Public Health Wales if an outbreak happens in the community. Because if there isn't more clarity on the information being fed by Public Health Wales and health boards into those communities, there's going to be panic, and I don't think that's been addressed in the actual statement about opening schools. If we could get something on this position, I'd like to understand how Public Health Wales are responding to this announcement on opening schools, because they have a key part to play in making that environment safe as well, and I'm not sure if that's been considered.

11:50

We'll come on, hopefully, to ask around test, trace and protect later, but we have to move on now. Huw Irranca-Davies.

Thank you, John. I'm going to ask a couple of questions here on the hard numbers and the finance, going forward, of local government. Can I just make a very quick observation? That question we always get asked on the doorstep, 'What the hell does local government do?'—if people don't realise now, having seen the response of local government through this crisis, they will never understand what local government and its partners do, including on the day-to-day aspects.

But let me turn to the finance. An observation was made back in April—I think it was by you, Andrew, when you stated that the virus, at that point, was costing local authorities probably around £30 million a month in lost revenue. We've heard from Emlyn and from others here of the wider financial impact and the hit it's having on local government across Wales. What does the picture currently look like across Wales, across the 22 local authorities? Is there massive variation in the way that it's hit different local authorities, or is everybody hit the same? I don't know who wants to respond to that.

Okay, if I comment first, then I'm sure my fellow council leaders would welcome a conversation on this, as well. What I would just say is that the figures we're talking about—. First of all, on lost income, for the first quarter, we've secured £78 million of funding, which has been allocated, and we are now in the process of looking how to draw that down from Welsh Government. That's just lost income, but that is absolute lost income, excluding about £20 million-worth of what we have currently agreed to call deferred income. So, that is income we may see come back in this financial year, but deferred through different services. But if it doesn't come back in this current financial year, and, for example, comes back next year—. So, if I was to give an example of, say, planning applications, if some local authorities see a significant downturn, and it continues during this year and people don't have the confidence to come forward with planning applications and expand, well, if that money comes in next year, after April, then we'll clearly consider that as lost income for this financial year, because those services are heavily reliant on fee income. Similarly with leisure centres, theatres, all those attractions we charge for.

So, we've had the £78 million agreed, which is the first quarter. We've also had over £100 million agreed, which is the increased costs. So, although it's all in the same COVID fund, as it's been established by the Welsh Government, they have two distinct, different areas with different mechanisms for us to draw on that funding. So far, we've been fully funded, just about, for the increased costs. On lost income, as I say, we're in the process now of agreeing the formula of how we can draw that £78 million down.

But on top of that, I have to say that we do have concerns around council tax collection rates. Across the board, there's an average of about a 1.4 per cent to 1.6 per cent drop in council tax collection rates. In some authorities, it's up over 2.5 per cent, and other authorities are down around 1.1 per cent. That will have a significant impact on the end-of-year budget if those collection rates don't improve. Now, a lot of this may well be around deferred income. All local authorities have tried to be as flexible as possible with taxpayers and have deferred, say, the first two months' payments. So, the April and May payments that people normally make, and then for the following 10 months—they defer this so the payments will go up till the end of March in this current financial year. So, they're still making 10 payments, but it's the last 10 months. So, therefore, that income would come back in later on in the year. But our current estimate is that council tax collection could be down in excess of £25 million. There is significant pressure on the council tax reduction scheme, where Welsh Government funds a large proportion of that, but anything over what our allocation is, local authorities pick it up. Local authorities already support the council tax reduction scheme by tens of millions over and above what the Welsh Government puts in, and we are facing significant pressure on that again. Again, this may be short term, as the economy may recover later in the year and we may see that bounce back somewhat, but there's certainly a huge risk with that.

We welcome the payments we've had—the RSG payments—the advance payments from Welsh Government. So, they've significantly helped us with cash flow, but I just have to emphasise that upfront payment of the RSG doesn't help with the lost income and cost pressures. All that that does is help with the short-term cash flow, because as we get to the end of the financial year, if these cost pressures are not dealt with, then there will be a significant risk that local authorities simply run out of money at the end of the financial year. Ministers are acutely aware of that, and they are having discussions on that. Clearly, that's why we're lobbying the UK Government strongly as well, and Welsh Government Ministers, around additional funding.

But there are lots of areas of additional pressure. So, just going back in terms of schools, in September, the increased cleaning regimes—there's a huge amount of extra hours of cleaning to be paid for, and the PPE, over and above what we get from Welsh Government. The cost pressures to local authorities will not go away overnight, while we still have to deal with the threat of this virus. And I would just say that we are working in the background, particularly as local authorities, but with Welsh Government, and trying to get a better position from Public Health Wales about what our plans are going to be for the winter. Because one of our concerns is that, with the winter flu season combined with COVID-19, even if we didn't see a significant surge in cases, the two different coronaviruses at the same time would have a significant impact on us, and potentially would have an impact on staffing. So, again, we'd have significant overtime and backfilling costs around the care sector. So, there is a lot of concern to us.

You mentioned about the Coronavirus Act and about whether that needs to stay in place—my view would be, until this pandemic is fully over, we need to continue to prepare those emergency plans, but they do come at significant costs financially.

11:55

Okay. I think Peter Fox wanted to come in at this stage. Peter.

Yes, thank you. It's going to be extremely difficult, and some authorities are in different positions to be able to manage this. There's great anxiety building for some section 151 officers within our organisations, and senior accountants, as they're trying to balance the budget again, because what budget we set earlier in the year is now blown. So, we've got to reset things and you can't reset things on promises.

We're grateful that our loss of income will be paid for the first quarter. That's really positive, and in an authority like Monmouthshire, that's over £3 million-worth of income lost. We're heavily dependent, as a lower funded authority, on generating other income, but at the moment—it's only an example—we're facing about £10 million-worth of pressures in a small authority like Monmouthshire. Even if we get everything we hope we're going to get and we would expect to get, we're still going to be left with a hole of £4 million. So, if we don't get our income loss funded for the second quarter, or some of our other costs, that is going to put us in a very precarious position indeed.

On council tax collection, we're already forecasting about a £1.25 million shortfall. We're going to be £600,000 overspent on the council tax reduction scheme, and that has been mirrored 22 times in various sizes. So, it's a massive challenge, and we hope that we will see some money coming through shortly. We've had £520,000-worth of actual costs, which doesn't sound a lot in the scale of some authorities, but we've only received at the moment £220,000. That's the only money we've had, even though we've incurred all this cost to date.

Okay. Huw. Huw Irranca. Oh, sorry—Hugh Evans. Okay, Hugh Evans.

12:00

Thank you, Chairman. Yes, well, we're all in the same—. There is a consistency in terms of what the issues are; there's a variance in the figures, obviously, due to the scale of the authority, but what would help is some more clear statements as to when Welsh Government will be able to give us the funding that we need, because we are now in the phase of starting to set the budget for the next financial year. We've all got processes, but our process in Denbighshire is that the heads of service come to the board to advise us on what cuts in their services would look like. Because of the uncertainty and lack of clarity, which is understandable—that's not having a go—I just want to raise the point that we need to have some clarity from the Ministers about the funding now, because we do not want to go down the line where we have either asked for too much cuts, which will be catastrophic, or not enough where we have to go back as the process and starting—. 

So, the uncertainty, on top of the increased pressures, is causing massive problems, and that's what I would like you as AMs to consider, because when you knock on doors you're asked, 'What do local governments do, Huw?', on your election ground; in my neck of the woods, when I knock the doors, some of them ask, 'What does Welsh Government do?' So, in terms of—can you let you us know what the funding situation is as quickly as possible in order for us to provide some stability to officers and service delivery? Thank you. 

That's really helpful in the responses. Could I just ask one short supplementary, because other colleagues from the committee will come in with other questions on the finances? It's simply whether you're happy with the level of engagement? Hugh Evans there mentioned about needing clarity. Everybody says that these are unprecedented times. We're having to act in a very timely manner to take unprecedented reactions to what it's doing to the stresses on the finances. Key to this, critical to this, is really timely engagement with Welsh Government and having the open door. I wonder, Andrew, can you tell us whether you're confident that you have the ear of Ministers to get the clarity, to talk about those emergency responses in finances that will help local government deliver its services going forward?

Okay, thanks for the point, Huw. If I could say that although we're now addressing you as Assembly Members, I've had two previous meetings this morning, and I've met so far today with four Ministers. We have a weekly meeting, for example, on a Thursday morning with Kirsty Williams to discuss schools and education, and about the impacts and what we need to flag up. We have a Friday morning meeting now, where we've got one meeting a week with all 22 leaders where the Minister for local government joins us to discuss any issues, and also other Ministers will join that meeting on occasion if it's specific. So, for example, I think it was last week or maybe the week before—it was last week, actually—where we wanted a discussion around how we look at stimulating the economy, what sort of things that local government and the public sector can be doing—what are the opportunities? So, we had Jeremy Miles joining us on the call with Julie James last week. I think it's tomorrow that myself and the other group leaders will be meeting with both Julie James and the finance Minister to discuss the pressures. 

I think the access to Ministers we've had has been on a scale that we've never had before, and it's something that we would welcome. It doesn't mean that we always agree on everything, and quite often we'll discuss some of the concerns we have, and Ministers then will come back to us and, where possible, in fairness, they have been flexible. I think having the local government Minister speaking up as a voice for us has been extremely welcomed.

Compared to the Local Government Association, I have to say, in my role as the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, we've got much better contact with Ministers. Clearly, council leaders in England don't have this, so we are able to influence more in Wales, being a smaller country, and that has been helpful. However, a lot of the pressures we face now do come back to funding. So, I appreciate that if the Welsh Government hasn't got the funding, then that is difficult, and it may be they have to make some difficult decisions. I appreciate that the absolute priority throughout has been the health service. The second-largest priority for the Welsh Government has to be local government, because I've made this point many times in my time as leader over the last six years with austerity: local government is, I think, the scaffold that supports the NHS. There are so many areas, when you look at poverty, deprivation, the social care sector—without local government being in a strong position to deliver services, then it impacts heavily on elsewhere. So, those discussions, I think, are positive: they fully understand our position, but what I will say is in the coming weeks and months we will need to see further commitments of funding, but, of course, resources are going to be stretched, so there may have to be some difficult decisions and difficult choices to be made.

12:05

Okay. I think we've touched on council tax to some extent, but perhaps we could just explore the issues a little bit more and turn to Caroline Jones. 

Diolch, Gadeirydd. We've seen that the falling rate of local taxation collection is a significant concern for local authorities, obviously, and a news article by the BBC reported that local authorities have seen a spike in applications for the council tax reduction scheme during the lockdown period. So, what are the implications and if you can prioritise them for local authority finances, actually, following the spike and how may this affect public services and the public in future? Thank you.

Okay, I'll start on this. Just to say that the number of council tax reduction scheme applications coming in has spiked. That is a pressure for all 22 local authorities and at present we are processing them and funding it, but, clearly, without the additional funding coming in because we have a formal allocation to each local authority from Welsh Government, that becomes, in the end, the bill for us to fund. So, we are in discussions with Ministers and that will be something all of us as group leaders tomorrow will be raising with the finance Minister again.

The other pressure just to recognise as well is free school meals. So, the number of families that are now qualifying and have qualified for free school meals has been significant. In my own authority, we've seen in excess of a 10 per cent increase in families qualifying, so that does put a significant extra strain on local authorities. Now, while Welsh Government has put many millions in for free school meals and support through the summer holidays, if these numbers continue into the next term, into September, this will add a pressure to my authority like all other authorities, because, obviously, we are allocated funding, and although it's part of the funding formula, the number of families that qualify for free school meals—it's retrospective and the budget allocation was set before this financial year. So, any in-year pressures we have to accommodate. Now, this could be substantial.

But across the board there are lots and lots of areas—the lost income is the biggest one, probably. Even if a local authority is, for example, outsourcing their leisure services to trusts, there are financial agreements in place between local authorities and those trusts where there are payments made, a revenue support grant as such—well, if they reopen and they see significant downturn in usage or can't run certain facilities like swimming pools or maybe large classes et cetera, or if people are fearful and just stay away from the gyms, then, for that funding model to work, undoubtedly they will be coming back to local authorities asking for more funding. So, our concern is that, even if this pandemic is over, even if we don't see a second wave, the financial impact on local authorities could be here for the long term. We could see another 12 to 18 months of financial pressures.

And what I would say is the scale of financial pressures on local authorities now, without the support we're having—it makes the 10 years of austerity we've had pale into insignificance. The kind of pressures we're facing now of almost £200 million increased costs on lost income in the space of three months—now, that's on a scale that I've never dealt with in six years of being a leader or for the last 12 years being a cabinet member. So, I think all of us should just realise that we're on a point where we're keeping our heads above water and we are still dealing with the pressures and supporting families, but we are very much only just keeping our heads above water right now.

Thank you for that answer, Andrew, but, just quickly, if I may finish with this: how will you deal with council tax debt in the future and the recovery of it? And what should the recovery plan really prioritise, bearing in mind that people have lost their employment, some of them—?

So, in terms of the council tax—. Sorry.

I'm fine, thanks. I was just saying, taking into account people have lost their employment, people have had reduced hours, there's a balance there on what can be recouped, really, in that area. I'm just asking how you will recover this debt. Thank you.

12:10

Okay, thank you. First of all, I would say that all local authorities are trying to be as sympathetic as possible to this problem. Again, if I could use my own authority as an example—I know other authorities that are very similar—we're taking a much softer approach in terms of trying to send out reminders to people for debt payments. So, where they are on council tax arrears, rather than send a reminder out after just four weeks, we've moved that timeline to eight weeks. We've also made clear on the letters, rather than saying, 'If you don't bring your account up to position, we'll take enforcement action' et cetera, it's making clear on all the letters, 'Please contact us to discuss your personal circumstances with us'.

Because some families who've been furloughed and some individuals who are struggling, they've already contacted local authorities and made arrangements, as I say, either to defer the first two months' payments, or they've said could they have a reduced payment for a number of months while they're on furlough, and they're hoping when they go back to work, they can then increase their payments over what they would normally have paid to make up the balance over the remainder of the year.

So, I think it's a flexible approach, because what we don't want to do is to be chasing people for funds that they quite simply haven't got. Because if we put more people on the brink, we could potentially end up with more families who end up in the council tax reduction scheme, end up on free school meals, and long term, it could actually cost us more funding. So, it is that flexible approach, where it's getting the balance right as well.

Thanks very much for that. We'll move on, then, to test, trace and protect, and Dawn Bowden.

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, everybody. I just wanted to talk a little bit about the role of local authorities in test, trace and protect, and what the longer-term implications are for you, both in terms of finances and staff resources and capacity. So, we can perhaps deal with that bit first, and then I also want to move on to talk about what the implications for TTP would be in relation to potential local lockdowns and how much that might be dependent on the success of TTP. Is that the key to determining whether or not we ever need to get into situations where we have to have local lockdowns? Those two particular aspects, really.

Andrew, do you want to start this answer as well? Or Chris, do you want to come in?

I lost part of that question there, sorry. It broke up a little bit. But generally—

Yes, if you could, please. It broke up, sorry.

Okay. I was talking of two aspects of TTP. One was really what the implications for the local authority are in terms of its finances, its staff, its resourcing, and capacity to be able to continue delivering it, with the health board, and how key TTP will be in determining whether or not we need to move into local lockdowns in some areas.

Okay. Thanks, Chair. And thanks for clarifying. So, in terms of the local authority involvement, first of all, I'm going to have to say the local authorities will be key to this, not just in terms of the staff numbers and the support we're providing. I can just give you an example in Cwm Taf Morgannwg—my own area, across Bridgend, Merthyr and RCT. We have around 147 staff, I believe, who are currently engaged in the programme, or are aligned, subject to the numbers of cases each day. But we have plans in place, then, to scale up to 360 staff in the event that we did have another second wave or an outbreak in the winter, et cetera.

We've also got good arrangements in place between local authorities and different health board areas. So, I think—if I'm right in saying—it was Swansea health board that was providing support up to Betsi Cadwaladr. I think it was Cwm Taf and Cardiff and Vale who were providing support initially up to Wrexham, and then subsequently, when we had the further incident then in Merthyr, we realigned our resources to concentrate in our own health board area, and Cardiff and Vale has continued to provide support to Wrexham. But that's including all the local authority staff. So, there is a pressure on us.

First of all, I would have to say that while there is some financial pressure, some local authorities have had to recruit, other local authorities are using their own existing staff like myself, but as we're expected to restart services, we either have to backfill those staff, or potentially look at how we fund this, and it would come at a significant cost going forward. I would say that local authorities are heavily influenced in the way that the test and trace programme is working. Our environmental health officers are used to this sort of work but on a much smaller scale, and I have to say that I've had some difficult and challenging conversations on times with Public Health Wales because I've led on some of the conversations on this with Chris Llewelyn and our local government officers. I think that we have good experience and knowledge in how to do this. Thankfully, that has been fed in with Public Health Wales and the local health board, so it is a three-way approach with us as more of the delivery agents on the front line in terms of the tracing element. But what I would just say is that the cost pressures longer term could be significant. If this is to be the answer until there is a vaccine in terms of catching those flare-ups quickly, tackling them quickly and shutting them down, then this kind of setup with significant numbers of staff will need to remain in place for many, many months.

The one point I would say is what would make our jobs much easier is to make sure that the testing via either Public Health Wales or the local health boards is timely. So, there has been generally improvements in some of our areas. The vast majority of testing comes back within 48 hours, which is helpful, so it means that the job of the tracing element and the contact tracers is easier because the numbers are smaller. Ideally, if it could be done within 24 hours, that is what the target is, but, on occasions, we do have—small numbers, but we do have examples where sometimes for different reasons the tests don't come back for as much as three, or even, on an odd occasion, four days for the localised problems.

But that does make it more difficult for our staff because it means the number of contacts we have to trace is larger, and of course during that time period, on the one hand we are asking people to isolate because we believe that they have the virus or they've taken a test because they believe they have the virus. So, first of all, we're asking people to self-isolate until they get the results, but the difficulty is, especially in some of our communities where we have lower-income families and deprivation, asking somebody to isolate for several days because they think they may have the virus when perhaps it turns out that they don't can be costly. We could have a situation where if there is a delay in the results then some individuals in the community may decide not to isolate because they think, 'Oh, well, I only had mild symptoms'. So, to make sure the system works properly we do need the timely testing, and our staff, I think, have been key then to making sure we do follow up.

And the success rate we've had has been significant. I know that some of the stats have been discussed nationally, but I think we're having a much better contact trace rate in Wales than we are in other devolved nations or in England even, but, in particular, the feedback from the individuals—my understanding from the last meeting we've had across local government, Public Health Wales and health boards is that residents seem to be responding positively. We're having very, very few cases of individuals when they're contacted and told they've come into contact with somebody with a positive result—the vast majority people, the overwhelming majority of people, are listening to the advice and are saying they will self-isolate. 

12:15

Thank you, Andrew. Dawn, I think Emlyn wanted to come in at this stage. Emlyn.

Thank you, Chair. Thank you, Dawn. If I could just add a few points. I return to a point that was made by Huw Irranca, really, in the context of TTP and it's about local authorities' role in public protection, because I think that now, at last, hopefully, has been truly recognised, although the service is under-resourced, and hugely under-resourced. But without that local resource, if I can throw the question back, how would TTP be delivered? I mean, we're into hypotheticals here, but it would probably have entailed a huge recruitment campaign, would have taken a huge amount of time, big delays in roll-out and you wouldn't have had that local response as a part of that—it would probably have been delivered from Cardiff.

Some more points on that: the financial allocations that have been made by Welsh Government are significantly short of what's going to be needed, and that might end up leaving us in a place where we're unable to deliver a full service as the rates increase—hopefully not, but as those rates increase we have to deliver that fuller service and how do we do that. So, that's one point.

The other point I'd like to make is I think there needs to be a discussion around, again, what legislative relaxation there can be on the existing duties already on our public protection team, and around the Food Standards Agency in what they expect in terms of food inspections, for example. Because we won't be able to do everything if Welsh Government expect that robust TTP process to be in place.

So, I'd make the point that Huw's already made, that local government is fundamental as a part of delivering TTP so that we can respond and trace positive cases back in the communities. We've got that local intelligence, and sometimes we're aware of issues on hotspotting, or whatever you call it, before they're alerted through the national database, and that's local knowledge that's absolutely essential to making TTP vibrant and worth doing.

Again, to reiterate Andrew's point on health boards, we started very early working on the health board footprint in Hywel Dda, and that participation between three local authorities and the health board, sitting down together and getting to grips with this, has meant that that rate of tests coming back is probably down nearly now in Hywel Dda to 24 hours, and that's where it needs to get to. I know it said 48, but to make it effective it has to come back in 24 hours—

12:20

We're nearly there. We probably are there now in Hywel Dda terms.

Sorry—I'm done.

No, that's okay. Just quickly then, Chair, if I can, before you move on, just to go back to Andrew's point around this could be with us for some time, I take it that all local authorities are planning for TTP being in place for the foreseeable future. Is that a fair assumption? Yes. Okay, thank you.

Can I just ask Andrew, then, given that that's the case, are you anticipating that Welsh Government will provide funds so that local authorities do not have to spend their own resources on TTP? Andrew.

Yes. They have indicated clearly they have to provide resources to us. We've had a conversation upfront and said, 'Well, it is difficult to fully understand what the cost for TTP would be for local authorities.' Because at present, as I say, we've got a couple of hundred staff from my authority allocated to this, but as we open more and more services up then there will be backfill costs. So, it's difficult at this juncture to say, but what we have flagged up and other council leaders quite rightly have said is that while some are facing costs now because they've had to recruit, others will face significant costs going forward. And TTP—absolutely, the current plan is that we will see this continued right through the winter into early next year. Because even if a vaccine did come online before winter, then in terms of rolling out to the mass population we have to prepare for this to be the long term. So, they are suggesting that—Welsh Government Ministers have said additional funding will be allocated, but I have to say that it's difficult for us to give a figure right now. But we have to stress to Members in the Assembly that we will need significant resources for this. We have to be fully funded. We cannot be expected to provide our day-to-day services and have significant staff allocated to TTP going forward.

Chair, if I can add on that one, just a rough estimate—and I'm sorry it's parochial—but the estimation down here in Carmarthenshire is that it's £1.8 million that's going to be required to resource that TTP team up to March 2021, based on an R number of 1. The mid-term costs are estimated at about nearly £4 million. Again, that's allied to the difficulty to create that flexible workforce that you can scale up at very short notice to respond to a hotspot or to an outbreak very quickly. That's a rough idea of mid-term costs.

Thank you. To respond to Dawn's question around lockdown and future lockdowns, I think that's a really good question, because what there isn't yet is clarity for us in local government of what triggers local lockdowns and what shape they take and how we address those. So, authorities like Anglesey, and in England where we've seen Leicester and different places like that, they've got to think on the hoof a little bit, and I think there's a need for deeper preparedness for all of this. I think if there's a weakness that we're starting to—or rather has perhaps been addressed—but one that was identified is that through strategic co-ordinating groups and things, perhaps there wasn't enough preparedness, enough lessons learned yet, being converted ready for when we do have to address localised spikes. Because they're bound to happen, but what we can't afford to do is shut down the country again if we do have those localised spikes. So, TTP is going to be absolutely fundamental to keep the economy going and keep people safe.

12:25

Thank you, Chair. Quickly, in response to your question, yes, if Welsh Government do not fund TTP, we will have to stop services. We're already stretched, as our officers are working on a regional basis now, and understandably so. But if Welsh Government are not going to fund TTP, we will have to stop services. Who knows what they will be? So, this is really the big game in town, and we expect support and commitment to make our communities safe through TTP. So, that's the answer on that one from me.

Okay, Dawn? Okay. We'll have to write with further questions on the way forward, recovery and how services might evolve given the experience of the pandemic, but there is one further question on test, trace and protect, around schools, which Mark Isherwood has. Mark.

Specifically on schools, you'll be aware that when the hubs—[Inaudible.]

Yes. As you will be aware, when the hubs moved to school reopening over recent weeks, a sample of staff who'd worked at the hubs were tested, but not everybody. How confident are you that the vision for TTP will be sufficiently robust and resourced to ensure the safety of staff and children in schools when schools, as planned, reopen in September?

Who would like to begin an answer on that? Peter Fox. Peter?

Yes, thank you. I didn't hear all of it, Mark, but I got the gist of it. I think we're, across local government, really confident that we are going to be in a good position to safeguard children and the TTP in place will be robust enough, building on some of the earlier conversations about the experience and historic involvement of our environmental health officers and the emerging development of the digital functionality that we have to back up TTP. I think we can be reasonably confident, and, hopefully, very confident that that is robust. What we need also is confidence for those of us who are on the border counties that there is this interface with England, as well, and that the TTP systems talk to each other properly, because we obviously have a lot of children coming in and out of county on the borders. So, I think you can take confidence that we are happy that we're in a good position on this.

Okay, thank you very much, Peter. Well, as I say, we have some further questions. Perhaps we could just ask briefly on some of those further questions, because we've got a few minutes left. Dawn, would you like to just get us started on recovery, reconstruction and service transformation? We've touched on it a little bit already, haven't we?

Yes, we have, and I think Andrew covered quite a bit of this, actually. I was looking at some of the positive changes to service delivery through this pandemic. One of the things that has struck me, both with local authorities and with the health boards, in actual fact, has been how agile the public bodies have had to be in response to this, and so I'd be interested to get your take on the positives that you can take from this, in terms of lessons that we can learn for service delivery in the future.

Thank you, chairman, and I welcome the question. While this has been a bit of a challenge and a disaster, it is really important that we hang on to the positives and the opportunities that have arisen as a consequence of this. There are numerous local initiatives that have helped their communities in terms of delivering. But, from a pan-local government perspective, there are three things, I think, that we really need to hold on to and develop, moving forward. The first thing is community resilience. There have been some fantastic practices in our communities, and we mentioned the voluntary sector earlier on and their role in helping us enable communities to look after themselves as being absolutely key. In local government, we're always focused on our communities, but we've seen some fantastic practices that we do not want to lose, and that has to be somewhere in the mix definitely, moving forward. There are some fantastic examples, like Torfaen, Cardiff, Monmouth, where they're using their digital platforms to liaise with volunteers to add to the provision of local government service delivery. I think that's been really important. In Denbighshire, we had so many volunteers wanting to help we couldn't cater for them all, like Andrew was saying earlier on. So, that's something you really need to hang on to, moving forward.

The second point—and I did want to come in, chairman, right at the beginning when someone mentioned remote working from the rural areas in particular—is remote working. I'm really excited by this, even though it has its challenges, because we've always been talking about this but never really got into it. Because of this, we've had to adapt and work on that, and I think this is something that we in local government will have to hang on to now, moving forward. It is the way forward as far as I'm concerned, and the impact of this is quite significant. You will have seen this in the letter we sent to the Minister about the economic stimulus fund. It's one of the thematic issues cropping up out of that, but the positive impact on the environment, the positive impact for possibly having a step change in new members in terms of having people who are working from home, or people who can't attend meetings, giving them the opportunity to stand for election, it ticks the box with the diversity agenda. What an opportunity, and I'd be really disappointed if we didn't try and promote this even further. We're certainly trying to do that in Denbighshire.

That said, there are notspots in rural areas, which is difficult, and I've been one of the leaders in Wales that has suffered the most in terms of trying to connect, because I'm on a hub, but the connection is really poor. The infrastructure needs massive investment, because it is a little bit of a social injustice. There are challenges there that create some insecurity for people living in rural areas, which I think I'd like the Welsh Government to consider.

The third point I think we really need to hang on to, which we've learned from what's happened in the last few months, is how flexible our workforce can be. They've had to refocus and realign their resources into what's needed at the time, and it's been fantastic how they've done that. We've been able to do what's really important, and that's something I don't think we should let go, because seeing officers doing things apart from what they do on a day-to-day basis, giving them an opportunity to expand on their careers, develop their CVs, and creating a more flexible and fluid service delivery is something that's come out of this for me, and something that we really need to hang on to. And if you put those three issues together, one of the agendas that we were facing before this happened was how we were responding and reacting to the climate change agenda, and if you drive those three elements with quite a progressive approach, this will have a significant impact on the climate change agenda. So, by default, the opportunities are really good there. We are definitely doing that in Denbighshire, and I hope we'll be supported by Welsh Government to do that as well. It's an opportunity that's too good to miss.

12:30

Thank you very much, Hugh. It's very useful to have it put as succinctly and clearly as that. Emlyn, you wanted to come in.

Yes, thanks. To give you a practical example, I'm actually talking from my chief executive's suite of offices, because my office is the other side of the building, in another tower, right behind the council chamber, which as we speak is being changed and will be transformed digitally by the time we get back. So, there's one obvious example—I've had to move because that's happening, as I speak, in the council chamber.

Much of what Hugh said was about agile working and the lessons on how we can do things differently. There've been huge savings on travel expenses. The reduction in carbon emissions Hugh's already touched on. Our policy here is that we get carbon neutral by 2030, and we have that plan in place. That has been helped tremendously by the reduction in carbon emissions over this period. We've got robust data to show how the air quality has significantly improved in some of our communities, and that's vital. The social media power, and how that can keep our communities informed efficiently, the ability to transform services quickly when we're given that regulatory support from Welsh Government—all this done at the same time as supporting national policy. Again, we've spoken about the strength of the cross-sector response—health and field hospitals, infection control teams working closely together, the co-ordinated approach to supporting the care markets, et cetera, the business grants and the speed and agility shown in getting those out to businesses, the remote democratic process, as Hugh's mentioned, and the accountabilities developed and strengthened, the frequency of communication—it's all of that.

Again, Hugh has already said about Denbighshire—here in Carmarthenshire, much the same. We don't intend, having delivered these new innovative ways of working, reverting to the old, so we're going to keep on with that and fit the new ideas into our frameworks and ways of working.  

12:35

Thanks very much for that, Emlyn. Is there anything that witnesses would add to what's been said about lessons learned and what we could retain? 

Can I come in, Chair? 

I'm conscious that we're short of time. I think, in terms of the lessons learned on the role of local government in the recovery, if it would be useful, we could provide further evidence to the committee in terms of addressing those two questions more fully than maybe time has allowed today, because I think, as several of the committee members have commented during the course of the session, that local government has really stepped up to the challenge during the course of this crisis, whatever the challenge, from the outset, in terms of the school hubs, the shielding process and latterly, as we've discussed, with contact tracing. Time and time again, I think local government has really risen to the challenge, has revealed itself to be in touch with its communities, and it's been a triumph for localism and subsidiarity. It would be, I think, a shame not to capture all of those successes. So, in terms of the lessons learned, the changes that have taken place and also the role of local government maybe in the recovery, going forward, we can provide more written evidence to the committee if that would be helpful, Chair.  

On that, I wonder if you could also, within that, express local government proposals to accelerate the economic stimulus, which we haven't had the time to cover today, but I'm aware they exist, and also in terms of the five ways of working under the future generations Act and how you can take forward the learning from this to incorporate [Inaudible.] duties with the third sector communities.  

Yes, fine. Can I say that we can circulate the letter and proposals we've put to Welsh Government from the WLGA, which is co-ordinating the 22 authorities, on stimulus? We had a conversation on it, as I said, last week with Ministers. There are further discussions taking place around that. We're very keen that local government should be brought into any stimulus package, going forward. 

And just to say, as well, we welcome the fact that—. I know I've given evidence to another committee a couple of weeks ago around the impact on social care more widely, but we do also welcome the fact that Assembly Members have recognised the role that local government has played during the pandemic, and I did make a point the other day to Ministers that while, undoubtedly, the NHS on the front line has had a fundamental role in terms of people's health, the vast majority—probably around 70 per cent—of the announcements that the Welsh Government has made during the pandemic have actually been implemented by local government, from free school meals, childcare provision, working on the shielding programme—all those areas—down to test and trace. There are lots and lots of areas where many of them haven't made the headlines, haven't made the media, with some of the big announcements, but there are lots and lots of other areas that we could list where we've been working with Welsh Government, changing our services and providing additional, new services. I still get questions from some people—and I know that some of you will laugh—where they will say, 'Why can't we have a council tax reduction now, then, because you've stopped all council services?' First of all, our council services during the height of the pandemic probably still ran at maybe 70 per cent, 80 per cent, 90 per cent, but with a different way of running them. I would say, in my own council, probably around 95 per cent of our services are either running normally or in the new normal, but, actually, we've probably taken on another 20 per cent of services where I've got hundreds of staff working on other schemes, such as test and trace, such as shielding, et cetera. So, the pressure on us has been huge, but I think that has been broadly recognised, I have to say, across party in the Assembly and we have received some positive feedback, and I think that that is something council leaders have welcomed—that the role of local government has been recognised in the pandemic. Thanks.

12:40

Well, thanks very much for that, Andrew, and thanks very much to all our witnesses for giving evidence. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way, and we'll look forward to that further information and we may well write back to you with one or two further questions as well. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting

Cynnig:

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

Motion:

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

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Okay, our next item, item 5, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of today's meeting. Are Members content to do so? Yes. Okay. Thank you very much. We will then move into private session.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:41.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:41.

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