Y Pwyllgor Cyllid

Finance Committee

13/10/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Mike Hedges MS
Peredur Owen Griffiths MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Peter Fox MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

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

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Ben Harris Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Georgina Owen Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Leanne Hatcher Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Mike Lewis Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Owain Davies Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Owain Roberts Clerc
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 yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:31.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:31.

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

Wel, bore da, a chroeso i chi gyd i'r cyfarfod y bore ma—falch o'ch gweld chi gyd. Mae'r cyfarfod yma yn cael ei ddarlledu yn fyw ar Senedd.tv, a bydd Cofnod y Trafodion yn cael ei gyhoeddi yn y ffordd arferol. Ar wahân i addasiadau gweithdrefnol sy'n ymwneud â chynnal trafodion o bell, mae holl ofynion eraill y Rheolau Sefydlog ar gyfer y pwyllgor yn parhau.

Dŷn ni wedi cael un ymddiheuriad gan Rhianon Passmore. Oes gan unrhyw un unrhyw fuddiannau i'w nodi neu ddatgan? Gwych. Ac mae'r cyfieithu ar y pryd yn gweithio, dwi'n meddwl. Ydy. Da iawn. Gwych.

Good morning, and welcome to this meeting of the Finance Committee; I'm very pleased to see you all. This meeting is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, and the Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from procedural adaptations relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for the committee remain in place.

We've received one apology this morning from Rhianon Passmore. Do Members have any declarations of interest? Excellent. And the interpretation is working, I believe. It is. Excellent. 

2. Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru—Craffu ar Adroddiad Blynyddol a Chyfrifon 2020-21, ac Amcangyfrif 2022-23: Sesiwn dystiolaeth
2. Public Services Ombudsman for Wales—Scrutiny of Annual Report and Accounts 2020-21, and Estimate 2022-23: Evidence session

Wel, diolch yn fawr iawn i chi am ddod atom ni y bore ma, ac, i'r ombwdsmon—

Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning, and, ombudsman,

—welcome this morning. Would you and your team state your names and roles for the Record, please?

Bore da, Cadeirydd. Fy enw i ydy Nick Bennett, a fi ydy'r Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru ar hyn o bryd. A dwi efo Chris Vinestock a Katrin Shaw y bore ma. 

Good morning, Chair. My name is Nick Bennett, and I am the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales at the moment. And I'm joined by Chris Vinestock and Katrin Shaw this morning. 

Gwych. Gwych. Diolch yn fawr. Wel, diolch yn fawr iawn i chi. 

Excellent. Excellent. Thank you. Well, thank you very much.

Thank you very much for coming, and thank you for giving us advance notice of your intention to put a supplementary budget in. We won't be scrutinising that today, but thank you; it's noted that we've received that.

So, today we'll be scrutinising your annual report and accounts and the estimate for the financial year. So, we'll all have a turn asking you some questions and going through that. And we're here for about an hour and a half this morning, hopefully, so, hopefully, we'll drill into some detail and go through your reports and accounts.

Obviously, you're the ombudsman until next year. So, thank you very much for all the hard work that you've done for your term and for this extra year this year as well. I think it's your last appearance here today, so it's good to see that. I wanted to start this morning by looking at your financial and operational performance for last year, for 2020-21. I'd like to understand what the impact of the pandemic is on your costs and savings, and what the net impact on the outturn was for 2021.

Right. Thank you, Chairman. Well, I can assure you this is my last appearance as Public Services Ombudsman for Wales; I think I said something similar last year when we met virtually, but—. So, thank you very much for voting to extend my term until next March; that's greatly appreciated. I want to thank the committee as well for the ongoing support that we have received from this committee, and also, of course, the great work that was done in terms of extending our powers, which came into effect just before the pandemic, though I'm very pleased to say we have been able to use those powers successfully despite that. Clearly, the year in question for this annual report was a challenging one for us, but it was far more challenging, if we're honest, for those people at the front line, particularly in terms of social care, health services and so forth. So, I think it should be appropriate that we note our respect for the great amount of work that has been done by bodies in our jurisdiction during that year in question.

But I want to thank the staff of the office as well for the fantastic way that they came together and made sure that we were able to respond and were able to sustain services throughout the pandemic. We did see a reduction, the first reduction, in the number of complaints coming to us about public services—I think the first reduction in about 10 years—though it was interesting to note that code of conduct complaints went up 47 per cent. So, for those of you with an interest in local government, and I think for all of us who have seen the new celebrity status for Jackie Weaver because of one incident in eastern Cheshire, well, there have been many, many more incidents in town, community and local authorities across Wales during this period. But we were able to respond; we were agile. I'm very, very grateful for the work of the management team, and certainly my two colleagues here, Chris and Katrin, in being able to make sure that we were working virtually almost immediately, and that, having had this lag, this slight lag, in terms of the number of public service complaints coming into the office, we used that time, as a team, to get rid of the backlog.

So, at the end of March, for this year in question, we only had 11 cases that were over 12 months old. That does, of course, mean that one of our key performance indicators does not look very good—it's only 50 per cent, in terms of the rate of closures that were done within 12 months. But, of course, that's a perverse incentive. If we hadn't closed the backlog, then that figure would have been much, much higher. So, we preferred to actually clear the backlog, get as much justice done as possible, so that we could clear the decks for this new year. And I'm very, very glad that we did, because I think we are now in a position where, thanks to this committee, we've never had as many powers as we've had in the past, but also I think we are now feeling the reverberations from the pandemic.

Since the end of the last financial year, we are experiencing increases in volumes of 70 per cent, week on week, month on month, so far, and we're now half way through the financial year. So, that's the basis on which we've pitched the estimate, and also it's one of the reasons for the supplementary. But I want to put it on the record how grateful I am to the staff—they've responded fantastically, they are working hard. Clearly, I have an accountability as accounting officer to you and the rest of the committee for the public resource that we receive, but I'm sure you would understand that I also have a responsibility, as corporation sole and employer, to the well-being of our staff, particularly front-line staff, who are dealing with these aftershocks. So, that's very much the spirit in which we've submitted both documents.

09:35

Thank you very much. Reading through the documents, especially the narrative part of the annual report, there seem to be a few inconsistencies in some of the figures that you're quoting. In one part, I think it said that there was a decrease of 11.1 per cent in complaints, and then elsewhere a reduction of 16 per cent. And again, a small inconsistency on new local authority complaints—in one place it's 793, and in another place it's 791. What assurances can you give us that the data is accurate, because you're basing your estimate and everything on that? And what action will you do to sort that out for the future, as it were?

Well, I hope we don't have to take any action to sort it out for the future, because I'm sure—. I'm looking nervously over here to Chris to make sure that I'm not misleading the committee in any way, but I think it was a 16 per cent reduction in the number of public service complaints coming to the office, but then an 11 per cent reduction in case load for the year. Is that correct, Chris?

09:40

And then the second lot of data in terms of local government complaints, we normally have this issue, so it's not a new one for us, in terms of that there's a variance between the number of complaints that we receive within a year and then the number of complaints that we close within a year. Those are different sets of data. Is that the correct answer there, Chris?

It is. I think the other matter—. And we can certainly check the figures, but there are different types of complaints, and code of conduct complaints and service complaints. And for some parts of the report, we combine those; in other parts, we present them separately. So, I think, with that, and what Nick says, I appreciate that sometimes there can be almost too many numbers, but we're trying to make sure that we present as full a picture as we can, taking account of the different things that we measure and the need to measure incoming complaints and also the complaints that we complete and close.

Right, thank you. Obviously, you talked about KPIs and your performance against them, and you talked about that particular one, the 47 per cent. Those with the timeliness in dealing in casework, which are all but two of—. I'll start again. The KPIs that deal with timeliness in dealing with casework—all but two of them were missed. And why are targets not being provided for subsequent years in the annual report as has been done previously? So, you normally give us targets and they're not there this time around. So, could you explain that?

Well, you know, hands up. The issue is that we know on timeliness that we've struggled because of increased volumes coming to the office. I can give you an assurance though, in terms of, certainly, the timeliness target for one year. It's only 50 per cent this year. That is significantly down. The reason why it's down, though, is that we've got rid of the backlog. So, we had a significant cohort of work that was just over 12 months old. What we've also done is to make sure—and not every scheme can say this—that we've got nothing older than one year. So, certainly, there's no necessity for us to have a timeliness target for 18 months or two years or whatever. So, that backlog—we're trying to keep it as tight as possible so that, if things do go over, it tends to be marginal.

Currently, and I think we've provided this in terms of the estimates paper, you'll see that that indicator on 12 months has gone up from 50 per cent back to about 82 per cent, so that is reflective of where we are. And despite the 70 per cent increase in volumes that we've had since 1 April, we're continuing to close at that rate. So, I think that's important. I think there's no proposal from us to change those indicators currently. So, what is there for this financial year, I would intend to be consistent with for the following financial year. But, clearly, this is my last year; our corporate plan comes to an end as well. It's for the next ombudsman to look at their corporate plan and also perhaps a variation in indicators for the next three years and for the rest of their seven-year term.

Just to add to that, I think this is the first time where we've had our annual report and accounts and the estimates scrutinised by the same committee at the same meeting and what we've tried to do is avoid too much overlap and duplication. In the estimates paper, we have included the current year's KPI targets.

Perhaps the other thing, just to add, is that, like everyone else, I think, when we were facing the pressures of the pandemic, we didn't know quite what the future held and how long COVID would be with us. We didn't feel comfortable changing targets with that uncertainty, so we stuck with those original targets—the targets don't make allowance for COVID. And, of course, we faced our own pressures, as every organisation did, but I guess we also had to rely on health boards and local authorities and GP practices to be able to provide input to our complaints service so that we could handle complaints ourselves. So, I think those KPIs reflect partly our performance, but partly the fact that we're dependent on public bodies in Wales and their ability to interact with us, which was particularly difficult in the early part of the pandemic.

09:45

Thank you. I'd like to understand how the additional costs for specific areas of expenditure arose from the new Act compared to the budget, specifically the staff costs, which are around 10 per cent higher than budgeted, so the outturn was £305,000 against the budget of £278,000.

Well, I'm very pleased that we were able to actually do some work on those additional powers, because certainly the last Finance Committee worked very hard. I think your predecessor had to go through 300 amendments to get that legislation through. So, delighted when it arrived on the statute book in 2019.

We were about to launch the consultation on our first own initiative on 13 March 2020. Clearly, that was delayed. It was Friday 13 March, just before the first lockdown. I’m pleased to say that we’ve undertaken that work. We launched the own initiative on homelessness last week. It did find examples of systemic maladministration, but also, it’s important to say, examples of good practice within the local authorities, and has made other recommendations that I hope will be taken up by the Local Government and Housing Committee, and could be used by the Senedd to hold the Government to account, and I hope by the Government when it comes to reviewing homelessness legislation.

I feel particularly proud of that work, because not only was it our first own initiative, but I feel that we’ve given a voice to the voiceless, given the plight of the homeless, generally. Typically, I think life expectancy for a homeless person is 46 for a man, and 43 for a woman. Obviously, all this emphasis during the year in question—the most important thing anybody could have in terms of private and public health was a front door. So, to be able to look at the issues affecting people that were at risk of losing their front door—I couldn't think of a more relevant issue. So, delighted that that work has now been done, and I hope it will influence future policy from the Government, and that it will be of use to the Assembly.

I'm also delighted that we were able to use complaints standards powers. I’ve always been clear—we’ve seen this increase, year upon year upon year—my ambition was to see less maladministration in Wales, not more, and it’s nice, particularly given what we’ve seen some public sector organisations go through, to actually provide them with some support rather than just judgment. So, these powers, I think, were timely from that perspective.

There were a series of training events held around Wales on a virtual basis which we calculate were worth at least £90,000. So, nearly all local authorities, health boards and soon, housing associations, will receive complaints standards training. This is a value, I hope, because 14 per cent of the complaints that we receive are about bad complaint handling from these public bodies. Well, there have been years where we’ve had more complaints about complaint handling in some health boards than we’ve had about waiting lists or surgery or other procedures. So, this is an own goal, and I feel passionate about this—surely, now is the time. We know the massive pressures that the health boards and local authorities have been under. We’ve been able to give them significant support. I think that’s excellent value for money and I hope, over time, it will lead to a longer term decrease in complaints coming to us—certainly fewer complaints that are premature— because people feel more comfortable in dealing with those public authorities themselves, and they will be more responsive to the public, and we will certainly see a significant reduction in complaints about complaint handling.

I'm assuming that you know, Nick, that the problem with complaint handling is that people are frightened of saying anything that could be perceived as admitting liability, and their lawyers are jumping on top of them and saying, 'Don't say anything. Don't admit to anything. It causes a problem if we end up having to fight this in court.' And I think that there needs to be some understanding that most people aren't looking to make money out of a problem—they just want to put it right for the next person, and I think that that hasn't got through to the senior management in health services. It hasn't got through to health lawyers, who are very defensive and say, 'Don't admit to anything. Don't apologise for anything that could cause us a problem if it goes to court.'

09:50

Well, Chair, I think that has certainly, I'm sure, been a factor in the past, but we should remember we've had fresh legislation in terms of the duty of candour, which demands that people, their culture, particularly in terms of health, doesn't take that type of defensive attitude. But I think you're right, Mike: a lot of the people who come to us, they're not looking for compensation. We awarded—I think it says—£62,000 worth, and alternative legal resolution is something that we have to assess in case we're judicially reviewed. We are not there to be providing financial compensation, but we are there to make sure there are systemic improvements.

Now, I think the value of this again, and I would certainly—and we do this, we try and practice what we preach. If you are providing services on a non-market basis, how do you know that you're reaching the citizen and that you're getting some proper feedback? That's what complaint standards give us. So, in the past, what we've always received are the worst complaints, the most intractable, where people really are at their wits' end. They've been through the complaints procedure, most times, with a public body. They've really had enough; they're very frustrated. They come to us, they're at their wits' end. What we will now be receiving is a much bigger picture—open data in terms of the performance of local authorities, health boards, housing associations. Now, I would encourage leaders in the public sector to use that. You know, it's free consultancy in terms of how do you rank, how are you performing in terms of what the average or the mean, or the mode is, of those different public sectors. And, within those services, are there any red-light issues here? So, that would be the value, that there's prevention in there and that it is feedback in a way, I guess. And I'm not advocating privatisation or non-public sector approaches to service provision, but I'm saying it is a way of measuring the user's voice, and that should be of value. And what we want to see is that this is taken up by chief executives and that boards and councils are making sure, in terms of scrutiny, that executives are held to account in terms of their performance when it comes to dealing with the public.

Thank you for that. Specifically, then, with regards to the 10 per cent higher costs effective against the budget, what was the reason for that?

I thought we were 10 per cent lower.

Which—? Can you just clarify, Chair?

The outturn was £305,000 against the budget of £278,000—the staff costs.

The—. I think the answer, Chair, is the staff costs were obviously estimated at the start of the year. There were a number of changes during the year, and particularly our investment in the own-initiative work, and one of the things we found was that it was perhaps more difficult to get data that would support the investigation than we'd originally thought, and, obviously, recognised that local authorities were under their own pressures; we didn't want to add to those. So, we did incur additional staff costs as part of the own-initiative investigation—actually gathering homelessness data from local authorities and looking into individual case records.

It was more about how existing staff were used. So, we actually had to move some staff from their normal casework to support the own-initiative investigation work, to try and make sure we weren't putting an undue pressure on local authorities in our data gathering.

Thank you. I'm just wondering why you've provided information on unit cost in real terms only, therefore not following the recommendation of the fifth Senedd's Finance Committee, that you should be reporting figures on a cash basis as well. I don't know if there's a comment you'd like to make about that.

Well, I think the comment that is most relevant is that we do feel that perhaps unit-cost measurement worked very well for us up to 2019, because we were a reactive service, and I think in terms of giving assurance to this committee, and other stakeholders, it was very easy to measure in terms of, 'Right, we're responding to the public: how much casework is coming in, what are our costs, divide one by the other, you come up with the unit cost.' And we were able to demonstrate ongoing efficiency year after year. One of the complications for us currently—and it's a logical point, given what I've said about hoping to have less maladministration and better complaint handling from public sector—is that we are now carrying costs in terms of an improvement team, and trying to influence public bodies so that there will be fewer complaints coming to us in the future. So, inevitably, that measure is a broken one, because we would hope, in a sense, that if complaint standards work, unit costs would go up, rather than down. 

09:55

Sorry, if I may, Chair. What we want to try and do is make sure that unit costs are actually meaningful and that they tell a story, and, as Nick said, I think the move to have the additional powers complicates matters because it isn't sensible or logical just to take the costs of the office and divide it by complaints case load.

Just on the specific question about cash versus real-terms value, our view is that if you want to look at the period of time—and I think we go back to 2013-14—it is more meaningful to take inflation out of the calculation, so that the figures are comparable. The accounts do include the cash figures, but we've brought everything up to today's prices, so that they are comparable over the number of years of the unit costs. So, I think our intention was to address the previous recommendations of the committee by making sure that the unit costs were as meaningful and represented as possible. You will have seen there are some changes in the way that we're presenting them for the future, but we've presented them in both the previous way and the new way in this annual report.

Have you done any analysis, then, on your new methodology, and looking back at your old figures and seeing what the trends are—applying new methodology to historical data to see what it gives us?

On page 87 of the report we've got the new approach using the old data, and it shows the pattern for total cases—that's complaints and inquiries—and also for complaints only, which is—. Obviously, the complaints are what actually creates the majority of our work and is where we devote the majority of our time.

Okay. Right. Where are we? You didn't conduct a staff survey in 2020-21. What sort of actions were you taking to—? You talked about your staff, and you're doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. What did you do to help your staff's well-being and make sure that, during the course of the year, people were supported and that sort of thing? So, could you talk us through the people, if you like?

Yes, yes; very happy to do so. I think we introduced staff surveys back in 2015. We tend to do them every two years. We didn't conduct a specific one—the usual, if you like—because of the unusual circumstances that we were in. We have surveyed staff on a number of questions, but the emphasis has been very much on mental health, coping, support and IT, which has been vital in terms of us all remaining connected. But there have been a number of other initiatives and, once it was legal to do so, a summer garden party and other issues. But I'll ask Katrin, perhaps, to expand.

Yes, absolutely, thank you. We have got a system. We've had mental health first aiders; I'm part of that group by pure fortune, really. Just before lockdown, in the autumn, we trained a group of individuals to support staff, so that really came into its own. But rather than doing the general staff survey, as Nick has said, what we did was ask managers to regularly check in with staff, speak to them, 'What do they need?' We've equipped them with the IT they need, the kit to work comfortably and productively at home, and really to have that network around them to help them, because there was no doubt there were real difficulties at the start of the first lockdown. It did affect our productivity. Staff were struggling, as with everyone, really, with home schooling and caring responsibilities. So, we very much took a flexible approach. We said, 'You can work whenever you feel you can', and we got rid of our core bands for the flexi period, which really went down well and was welcomed, because it meant people could do what they could at a time when they could. Everybody really welcomed that.

Also, we faced real difficulties, as Chris alluded to earlier, where we weren't getting the information we needed from the public bodies, so we had to step back there. But what it did give was an opportunity for our staff to really focus on the cases that we needed to close, some of the older cases. We had to stop some of our investigations from about March to July, because, of course, the pressure on public bodies was very intense, particularly GP services, health bodies. But, again, it gave us a bit of a breather and an opportunity for our staff to really focus on those older cases, which we cleared, as Nick said.

Also, we've had social events, lots of opportunities for people to speak to our new human resources business partner. She did a survey of how people would like to return, now things are getting back to normal. We've also had individual meetings; we got a coach in to speak to staff about their well-being, what their priorities were. So, we tried to provide a suite of support, and as I say, those mental health first aiders within the office have been fantastic, really, in providing that network for people. I think that that was really welcomed by staff and it went down well. We saw the benefits as we came out of the lockdown in the autumn; then, we were able to really knuckle down and push those cases through. Productivity was down, but everybody pulled together and we were able to get the information we needed from the public bodies.

We also face huge challenges with our advisers for health cases. We rely on the clinical advisers to give us support on our cases—that's peer review. Of course, they weren't in a position to assist us at the critical time up until the autumn. But that helped us as well; when things started easing, we got back in the stride of getting the information we needed so that we could progress cases.

10:00

With all the things that you've done, have you then started reviewing how effective those practices were, and are there any that you'll possibly keep going now that you've learned from the experience—'That's what we're going to stop, and that's what we're going to continue'?

Yes. We're definitely continuing the mental health first aiders. They are not there to provide, obviously, any medical assistance or anything, but they're very much just touching base. Also, we've got a counselling service that we've established over many years—that's definitely continuing, and really of benefit to the staff who need it. I think we would like to, when we can, get more people back in the office—that sense of belonging. Particularly for our front-line staff, it's very difficult. They're taking phone calls at home in the front room, which is difficult. They can be very challenging calls, and they miss that opportunity just to have that debrief with managers after a difficult call. So, we're definitely going to try and have a bit more of a network there.

Do you—and I'm probably aiming this more at the level of Nick and you here than the staff who are dealing with it—end up having lots of abuse on social media?

We've all had our share. I won't complain to any of you, because I think it's a common part of public life, isn't it? I can't remember who said, 'Scrutiny has never been so high, deference has never been so low.' Why is it people feel that they can say some things on social media or through electronic devices that they wouldn't dare say to your face? So, it's been a real issue for me on occasion, but I know many, many people get worse. Seven years in, I could have had a lot worse. But I would like to provide you with more assurance, though, in terms of what we've received back from staff, because, particularly—. It comes with the territory if you get Twitter abuse and you're the ombudsman, but for somebody on the front line that is getting this in our office, we have a duty of care.

We managed to sustain silver FairPlay/Chwarae Teg employer status in April. We wanted gold—we really wanted gold badly. When we first got silver, no-one had had gold, and we were really—. We got platinum in one or two categories, and Chris was very disappointed. I was actually relieved. I think to be able to sustain silver when you're up against this was very good. But in terms of feedback, 95 per cent of staff felt that they have regular and effective communication, 96 per cent of staff said that their working relationships are positive, 96 per cent said that they receive constructive feedback, 100 per cent have a regular review of their performance, and 98 per cent understand their personal contribution to the organisation's broader objectives. And, on the last staff survey that we did, 99 per cent of staff said that they were proud to work for the organisation. The other 1 per cent weren't sure, but it wasn't a 'no'. But these are investigators; they only respond if they're absolutely convinced.

We did a lot of work pre pandemic in terms of a shared values-based culture to really try to support people, because of the nature of the work and the fact that, inevitably, it's not a comfortable space—either you're finding maladministration against a healthcare or social care provider, or you're disappointing somebody who does feel wronged, very wronged. It is an act of leadership; you have to make a decision, based on the evidence, and uphold a fair and impartial view. And that's not always a popular place to be, not just for me but for the whole organisation. Togetherness and positivity are some of the values that we try to emphasise, and I think it's sustained us through those 18 months. As I said, there are always issues when you're working with people, and we'll never get to a utopia where there's absolute perfect happiness, but I think under the circumstances, given the pressures that people are under and the nature of the work, then it's as positive as it could be.

10:05

Thank you, Chair. If I could just follow on that theme a little bit, I think it was really interesting to know what you've been doing around staff and, Nick, those latest stats. I think it enforces now the need for a survey to just find out the lessons learned and what actually was the net effect on the workforce, really, of this. And on that theme a little bit, perhaps you could give us a flavour of the net effect of the pandemic on your resources available for 2020-21. How did that play out, and how did that reflect through the capacity of staff, capacity due to, perhaps, illness or caring or through being ill at home and not being able to work? What was the net effect, do you believe, of the pandemic? 

I think broadly a real hit in terms of efficiency early on. We were all in a state of national shock, really, in terms of what we could and couldn't do, but we were able to recover fast, make sure that we had a good level of IT networks. We did delay some level of investigative work, and I think GP surgeries, for example, were an area that we didn't investigate early on. We are grateful for the fact that bodies in jurisdiction did allow us to continue to investigate after the initial shock. That hasn't happened everywhere in the UK. So, it's a reflection on bodies in jurisdiction as well as us, to be fair.

It's been so worrying; I think, at one point, one in 15 staff had caught COVID—with homeworking. We were trying to make sure everything was COVID safe. That compares to a rate of, I think, one in 65 at the time. There are a small number of staff who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, and obviously that's been of greatest concern, and it's reflective of more broad sadness throughout society. Obviously, our hearts go out to them, and we tried to support them as much as we could. But, the counterintuitive point that I never would have dreamt of predicting is that our sickness level has gone down during the course of the pandemic. It's as if people—. There are efficiencies. Who really wants to spend 40 minutes a day on the M4 when you could be working straight after breakfast? That is an efficiency. There have been positive environmental issues there, again, I'm sure. So, there have been some gains, and flexibility, I think, increasingly. 

I'm sure none of us wants to have a culture of presenteeism like back in the day—'They'll see if your car isn't in the car park by 9 o'clock' and, 'They're going off early' or whatever else. The fact that you're in doesn't mean to say you're doing anything. Surely, we've got to move towards a culture that focuses on outcomes rather than inputs. And I think that works for well-being and it works for better services and to treat people as informed adults that are there for a reason: they believe in social justice, they want to deliver justice, but they want to have some greater control over their lives. So, I think this has helped us move that conversation on.

10:10

Thank you. I absolutely agree with that. I don't think there should be any organisation—certainly no public organisation—that isn't outcome focused for their staff, if they truly believe in the well-being of their staff. It's balancing that change, though, against the well-being of the staff, because it won't fit for everybody; we understand that. But thanks for that insight.

Just to move a little bit on to staff pay, I wouldn't mind exploring out a little bit around the median gender pay gap. Because in the annual report, it states that the pay gap had reduced positively from 21 per cent in 2019 down to 5 per cent in March 2020, and yet the annual report then reports separately a median gender pay gap of 11 per cent for 2019-20, and 5 per cent for 2020-21. So, could you help me understand what was the movement in the median gender pay gap for 2021, and what do you think led to that change?

I think the median and the mean have certainly reduced. Katrin, is that correct?

Yes, they have. The median has reduced. We're obviously a relatively small organisation and we did have two female members of staff join us at relatively high-level salaries, so that affects—obviously, the figures shift, then, with quite a small change. But that said, we also have improved the average—the mean, shall I say. That's come down from 23 per cent to 17 per cent, so obviously we've got more to do there. We have 18 male members of staff; we're a very female-heavy workforce. The majority of the workforce on the front line in lower-paid roles are female, although we have made some shift as well, because we've had some men join us in those front-line roles.

But also, we've mentioned FairPlay Employer from Chwarae Teg and the work we've done with them. We've engaged with them to provide training for some of the women in the office who perhaps need a bit more confidence in going for those development roles, trying to get them to think, 'Yes, I can go for that next step of development' and really encourage them. Those courses have been really well received by those who've attended them. So, I think we'll be looking now, through our performance review and development process—we do them annually and interims are coming up now—to see who needs that encouragement and development, to try and encourage the females to move up. But as I say, small shifts in the numbers can have an impact, but all for the good, because we've had a positive shift there.

Thanks for that. It's helpful to get an understanding of how that was moving. Did you want me to move on to—? Perhaps if I could move this on into looking at the estimate for 2022-23. I wouldn't mind exploring out how the increase of over 5 per cent in the budget takes sufficient regard of the statement of principles. I wonder if you've got any position on that.

We have certainly tried to apply the statement of principles. This can be challenging in the context that we do go from year to year. It's an annual process that we're going through and we try to take a long-term view, but as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long term, we're all dead. We've got to go with the here and now. But we've certainly tried to avoid slavishly just following trends within the Welsh block. We've got a budget coming up, we don't know precisely what the block trend will be for this year, but I think over the last six or seven years, the block has increased by some 53 per cent. Our budget has gone up by 30 per cent, so there has been a lag there. We have had some increases that were above the Welsh block, for example when we received the new powers. There was a significant uplift then to pay for the improvement team. But our approach has been a cautious one, so you'll see that 5 per cent is really stepped between the—it's a mezzanine approach, if you like—between the supplementary budget and then the estimates, where, despite the fact that we are experiencing complaint growth of 70 per cent, I think to be looking at 5 per cent there is a careful, cautious figure. We are very aware that this is public money, but our emphasis is very much reflective of where we are in terms of risk.

The two bright red issues on our risk register are cyber security—which I think it would be for virtually every organisation that appears before you currently—but even more so with the emphasis on remote working and also, as an organisation, when 85 per cent of your investigations are health related, the amount of personal data we have, cyber security is something we cannot take a risk on. The other issue, then, is really around staff resources and coping with those complaint volumes, so, again, the risk register has had much more impact, and the principles as well, rather than simply looking at trends within public expenditure.

10:15

Okay, well, thanks for that. I'm going to push on a little bit more around some of that budgetary stuff. Could you give me an understanding of why we have an overspend of 2.2 per cent for 2021-22, given that you report that nearly 80 per cent of the costs are related to staff? So, where does the 2.2 per cent overspend—how does that reconcile?

Chris, do you want to take this issue?

Yes, I think, Chair, that relates to the current year, and it's our forecast. The reason we were open with you, Chair, about the supplementary budget is because actually we're looking at years in isolation—in fact, we're looking at three years all at once in a way, but they are linked.

There are two main issues that are pressures this year. One is that, at the time we set our budget, which I guess was this time last year, we were in an environment where there was an expectation of public sector pay freezes. I'm a bit uncertain what's going to happen now, but our staff are tied to the local government pay award—that is part of their contract, so it's not a local choice—and at the moment, there's a 1.75 per cent pay award that has been offered. It's been rejected by the trade unions initially, but I think they're balloting members. I haven't yet seen the outcome of those ballots of members, but at the very least, it seems that the pay award will be 1.75 per cent. So, that is what we're forecasting in the current year, and obviously, in an organisation where most of the costs are staff, once you have a pay award that was unanticipated, that is a significant increase in our costs for the year. So, that's the first thing.

The second thing is—and it picks up on the issues with the risk register, and the cyber security and IT risks—we have commissioned our external IT support providers to do some work to assess our systems. They came back with a number of recommendations that were around performance, resilience and security, and particularly with our reliance on IT, as we've moved to paperless working, but also with our reliance on homeworking and the risks—we're aware of other public bodies that have been the victims of cyber attack that have very substantial costs in terms of lost time and rebuilding systems—so the other part of the 2.2 per cent that we're forecasting for this year is around IT costs. I can say a little bit more about that if you want, but it's essentially about resilience, performance and cyber security.

Thanks for that. I know, Nick, you talked a little bit just now about the need for an increase of 5 per cent. I wonder how we explain that 5 per cent is really necessary to meet the projected increase in case load for 2022-23. I know it's increased by 20 per cent. Five per cent, is that the figure you really need? Is that what you really believe that the casework is driving, that that's what it's going to need?

10:20

We've tried to model this on actual staff numbers, actual IT needs. As I said, we haven't slavishly followed trends in the Welsh block, because there's an expectation from this committee and its predecessor that we look at the principles. That's fine. I don't have a problem with that at all. If our growth in budget had reflected the growth in the Welsh block, we would have a budget of £6 million, not £5.3 million. So, we have taken a small 'c' conservative approach to where we are. As Chris has explained, we were anticipating a different environment in terms of wage settlements a year ago to where we are, but we're fortunate in that we do have the supplementary system, and I think as long as there's that good faith with the committee that, clearly, when we make an estimate it's done in good faith and on the most recent data, and, you know, if there is a shock in the system that we are able to come back at that point.

So, I think this is a realistic budget for us at this time, but we've seen such volatility. It's really, really difficult to make accurate predictions, as I hope you'd understand. Was it Henry Kissinger asking Zhou Enlai, 'What was the impact of the French revolution?' 'It's still too early to tell.' And going from year to year in terms of the level of volatility that we're facing, a number of other issues that aren't just directly related to COVID, but the other impacts that that will have in terms of perhaps delayed treatments and other issues going forward, it's very, very difficult for us to be absolutely precise, but where we need to be clear, I think, is that in requesting both the supplementary and the actual estimates, this uplift will again ensure that we're asking for less than the growth in the Welsh block.

However, I think it's a signal of confidence in the office. I think we have to be absolutely watertight when it comes to cyber security, given what can happen in terms of ransomware and personal data, and all those issues. But also, I think it would allow us to give a signal back to staff in terms of well-being and all the rest of it that there is additional resource on the way, and it's for the front line. That's where we want to spend it: on the front line to cope. But it is made very much with the proviso that if we were to see, you know, a dramatic increase subsequently then, clearly, arrangements are in place for a further supplementary, but we don't think that's necessary at the current time. Is that a fair summary?

I think that's right, and I guess just to add what to Nick has said and put some figures on it, as you said, the increase in complaints that we're facing at the moment is 20 per cent. The increase in staff: we're looking for two extra staff next year, which is roughly a 2.7 per cent increase in staff. I hope that that demonstrates that as well as recognising the pressures on the office—and we feel we do need more resources—we're not simply saying 20 per cent more budget or 20 per cent more staff. It is trying to make sure that we are managing the work as efficiently as possible, that we have high expectations of our staff, and that we support them to perform.

Can I come in for just a second? You know when you were talking about the 1.75 per cent pay award that we're talking about—how does that compare with the assumption that you made in the 2021-22 budget?

The 2021-22 budget, we assumed zero. We anticipated that if it was a public sector pay freeze, or more or less, that that would probably be something we could manage. If it was 0.5 per cent or 0.25 per cent or nil—and at the time we set the budget that seemed likely—we thought we would manage it, but what we actually anticipated was zero.

And just to understand, you're talking about case loads. In your estimate for 2022-23, it's lower than you set out in the budget for 2021-22. What's the cost implication of that and the impact of the resources you're asking for?

10:25

Sorry, Chair, you're referring to the case numbers for—

The projected case load for 2021-22 in your estimate is lower than set out in the budget for 2021—. Sorry. The projected case load for 2021-22 set out in your estimate for 2022-23 is lower than set out for 2021-22. So, what's the cost implication of that?

I think it's always difficult to project and predict. What we've done for the purpose of the estimate is we haven't anticipated that it will be a 20 per cent increase, although that is what we're facing at the moment. We're predicting 10 per cent. Our estimate is based on that assumption, so that is the level of workload that we are expecting. It doesn't have any implications in terms of staffing in the current year; we're not looking for additional staff in the current year. What we are, though, is identifying the need for two further staff for next year, and that equates to what we anticipate will be a 10 per cent increase overall this year, and repeated again next year.

Yes, thanks, Peredur, that was useful to hear that. Just coming back to—. So, we've got your projection of a 5 per cent increase. Is that based on any firm evidence, or is it pretty sort of—I wouldn't say 'plucked out of the air'. Excuse me for being challenging like this, but you know. So, is that pretty accurate? Is it based on good evidence or is it sort of pretty, well, you think that will do it?

It's based on the best evidence that we have at the current time, and to misquote Groucho Marx, if the evidence changes, then so will our supplementary. But I can give you an assurance that it's based upon actual costs. So, you know, 80 per cent of what we're looking for here is staff related, so we can be very, very precise in terms of those numbers. Clearly, though, there are ongoing issues, and there are some issues that are not in there in terms of additional national insurance for future years that should come through Treasury at the right time. But I think we've factored in every relevant cost that we can, so that these are real numbers and that we have again tried to use those principles. So, this is, I hope, grounded in an acknowledgement that there are significant pressures on the public sector at the current time and that we're not just thinking, 'There's been extra money from the Treasury, so we're just going to go after some of it.' I hope you can feel that it's reflective of the significant pressures that we're under.

Thanks for that. I'll park that one now, but I wouldn't mind just looking into a couple of specific changes in costs, and to explore out some of the staffing levels a little bit more, because you're suggesting they need to rise—we just heard that—and there's a breakdown of the increase in staff costs of £222,000. How does that play out? What's that in numbers of staff? Is that two staff, or—?

It is two extra staff, and the remaining costs are our estimates—and they are estimates—of pay awards. So, the one is the 1.75 per cent estimate of pay award for the current year, and we have included in the estimate a further 1.5 per cent pay award for next financial year. Of course, both of those are things that we don't control. Our staff, as I said, are connected to the local government pay award, so we're not part of that negotiating body, so I guess that can change, but that is the best estimate we have. So, it's the two pay awards and two extra staff—front-line staff.

So, could you help me understand that a bit more? So, as front-line staff with oncosts, what are they? How much is it? So, front-line staff, what does that work out at, for those staff?

The breakdown—. We do have a breakdown, which is quite useful. So, pay award 1, £70,000; pay award 2, £60,000; casework staff plus additional employment costs, £92,000. So, total, £222,000. I hope that demonstrates that this is worked out to the pound.

10:30

—staff there for the £92,000? Where will they fit into your complement of staff?

They will be investigation officers managing complaints investigations.

Sorry, undertaking complaints investigations, not managing them. [Laughter.] 

We've got quite a flat structure. Most of our staff are investigation officers. These will be two further investigation officers, undertaking their own complaints investigations and—

And is that assuming that the 20 per cent rise in casework is continuing for the whole of the next year?

It's assuming that, actually, the overall increase for the year is 10 per cent. In other words, that complaints will fall in the second half of this year and will stay at—

So, it's a rise to start with and then it drops off towards the second half, and then, into the following year, that flatlines.

There will be 10 per cent, continuing at the 10 per cent annual increase.

And one final point from me, you'll be glad to know, I just wondered how the estimate reflects the improvement areas identified in your annual report, such as increasing oral complaints and making potential complainants more aware of the ombudsman's role.

Well, in terms of awareness of the ombudsman's role, I'm pleased to say that we have seen an improvement in that over the last few years. I think we had some independent research and awareness had increased from 35 per cent of the population to 48 per cent, which is great. Obviously, I'd like it to be higher. As a north Walian—I know that you don't represent north Wales—but as a native north Walian, it was highest in the north at 50 per cent, so my mother will be proud. And then, in terms of outreach work, we need to make sure, on an ongoing basis, that, in terms of equality and other issues, we're not just serving those that happen to be aware of us. So, I hope that that is reflected in terms of the homelessness work and that, for so many people who might be going through a homelessness assessment or a review process, do they know what their rights are? Do they know that they can come to us if there is maladministration? I think the answer is pretty much, 'No, they don't', so I hope that my successor, I would very much hope, will want to exercise those powers so that we can give a voice to the voiceless.

And again, one of the examples in terms of justice and people not knowing—and it's a great example—again as a north Walian, sometimes there's this north Walian thing isn't there, you know, 'Cardiff: what does Cardiff know about north Wales?' Well, I'm from Llangefni. You empowered me to have own-initiative powers, Scandinavian powers that have been in existence since 1807, so it might've taken me five years, but, together, we closed a 200-year gap in terms of good practice. Now, when we exercised those powers, looking at one specific case, there was a complainant in north Wales with prostate cancer, and they should've been treated in 62 days. The complainant realised that they weren't going to get treatment for 166 days, went private, came to us, we investigated, we upheld and we made sure that they got a redress payment for the private treatment of about £8,000. But because of the powers you've given my office, we were able to ask a question that we couldn't legally ask before: 'Who else is on the list?' Sixteen men in north Wales were on that list, eight of them treated in England, none of them monitored and none of them receiving the harm review that they were entitled to. But also perhaps most worrying for me is they were probably unaware of what their rights were and what those reviews should've looked like. I feel very passionate that we've been able to do that. That is a qualitative element. Clearly, the Finance Committee is going to look at numbers, but I hope, in terms of broader value for money, social justice and empowering people to the extent that we could be empowering people who are not aware of what power or rights they have, then that will drive further improvement in public services, and we will continue to try and reach out to those people who need public services the most. But, at the moment, the level of advertising we'd want to do—when you're facing 70 per cent increases, week on week, month on month, I think we might park that for the time being.

Can I talk about efficiencies? You get a lot of spurious complaints. I've got a prediction now, from about now until next April, that you'll have lots of councillor complaints—you'll have lots of potential candidates and councillor complaints. You have that spike every time there's a council election. How are you going to be able to efficiently deal with those complaints very quickly, throw out those that are outside your jurisdiction, and also just say, 'This is just people trying to make political trouble to try and benefit their own election'?

10:35

Well, thank you, Mike. Given that we are facing a 70 per cent increase in terms of public service complaints, it's quite daunting to think that there will probably be an increase in code complaints, and some of that will be mischievous or vexatious. When it's councillor on councillor complaints, I'm very happy to tell you—and I have another six months to go—currently within my jurisdiction a vexatious complaint represents a breach of the code. I don't think I've ever exercised that power, so if anybody is minded to be vexatious and mischievous during a time when we are facing pressures because of COVID, because of public services, because of people suffering personal tragedies, I would very much like to use that power in the last six months. So, a general warning to those councillors in our jurisdiction—they are taking a risk if they're going down that route. So, thank you for giving me the opportunity to give them that public warning.

We have looked at our processes. Katrin came up with the public interest test some years ago so that we could be much stricter in terms of vexatiousness, and we've taken other measures as well, Katrin. 

Yes, we have. As Nick was saying, we use that public interest test and really focus the resources on the serious, high-level complaints. But, last year, when we were faced with a 47 per cent increase in code complaints, we had to do something different really and respond. So, we've now moved the assessment and investigation of the code complaints to one specialist team, and that really is looking much better in terms of our targets, but also our ability to move through those cases. So, we are better placed than ever, I think, to deal with this inevitable rise in those complaints. 

I'm very pleased about dealing with the vexatious complaints, and even if it's by people in my own party, they should be dealt with as well. I'm not here to protect people who are engaging in that. 

The other question, of course, is officer on member complaints. I and the whole Labour group had one from a chief legal officer because we didn't like what he was saying. I think that, sometimes, if you can say that councillors are making vexatious ones, can you say exactly the same for council officers, and can there be some disciplinary method to deal with it? One of the weaknesses of the new system we've got in local government—I say 'new'; it was new when I was there—of the cabinet system, is that you have now officers of the council working to the cabinet not to the council. 

I think I should point out that whilst elected members are in my jurisdiction, officers aren't. There have been occasions where I think some officers would prefer to use us as some kind of employment tribunal. That is not our role. And I do take on board what you're saying where, sometimes perhaps, somebody can assert bullying when it's not. And I think people have to be clear there is a difference between scrutiny, challenge and proper governance and bullying. And I think most of us know where that line is. 

You might think some of our questions today have been difficult, but you're paid to have those difficult questions. If we had some of your junior members of staff in here, then that would be entirely different. And there was an organisation that was sending junior members of staff, knowing that Members would be more generous towards them because they weren't at the level of making decisions. So, I think that's something I just wanted to put on the record. 

The other thing is the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2019. Can I just start off by saying that Jocelyn Davies deserves a great deal of credit for the work done on this? Although it was taken through by somebody else, Jocelyn was the driving force behind it, and I'd just like to put that on the record. The question is: the powers, we've got them, and I was very much in favour of having them, but are they bringing efficiencies into the system? Is it making you more efficient by having these powers?

Yes, well, I think, first of all, Chair, I'd like to repeat the thanks that have been expressed to Jocelyn Davies—this shows how long these powers took; it goes back to, I think, 2014—when she was Chair of the Finance Committee, and we went through a Stage 1 pre election, then another Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, Stage 4. So, it was a relay effort, really, over five years. But as I say, these powers do not exist in England or Scotland, in terms of own-initiative. Complaints standards powers originated in Scotland, and they are on the statute book in Stormont, though I think they have to be enacted by the new Executive. So, in terms of the range of powers that the office has, I would say that they are in the vanguard of what good ombudsmanry looks like, across the UK and the world. It's a world-class set of powers.

Now, in terms of efficiencies, early days. But how efficient is it, when you're experiencing increases of 70 per cent, to actually go and investigate services for homeless people that aren't coming to you? I think it's more about social justice in that context. I've alluded to what we did in north Wales in terms of the prostate cancer case. Was that efficient? No, but I think there's a justice to it, and I think it's important in terms of transparency. There have been more recent examples where, perhaps, under the old system—. Katrin mentioned this to me earlier where we've used it, where somebody complained about the ambulance service. The failing was not the ambulance—the ambulance had been perfectly efficient—but the hospital was not. You might like to talk about that, Katrin, as an example.

10:40

Yes. On the own-initiative power, obviously, we have the power to do the very wide homelessness investigation, but also, as Nick was saying, the north Wales case was an example of where we extended an existing investigation. And likewise, we have started a new extension of an investigation to cover the health board as well. Because, clearly, an ambulance waiting outside the hospital for long periods was not the fault of the ambulance service. As Nick was saying, it's delivering justice to far more people, and it gives us far more discretion to really focus the resources. And I think it is more efficient then, rather than us having all these individual complaints coming at us, and so us saying to the body, 'Look, go away, we're making a recommendation, you go and investigate these things'. We can confidently widen our recommendations to really try and drive the improvements. And likewise with oral complaints. We're taking them on the phone much better this year now we've got everything up and running—they're straight on the system, and more efficiencies will come, I'm sure, there as well.

That was one of the reasons I actually supported the Bill. I think that there are a number of people, including many of my constituents, who are much happier saying something than writing it down. In making people do that, you start knocking out about a quarter of the people who don't want to write, don't like writing things, and certainly those who are not computer literate and don't want to send it by e-mail, and those who aren't happy with having to write things out because their view of their writing and spelling would be such that they would be not happy to send it to a public organisation.

Mike, can I just come in for a second? You said there, with regard to the powers, that it's early days to see how that works. Do you think, over time, then, you're going to see a cost avoidance for yourselves?

There are benefits to this being my last session. [Laughter.] I'm sure we will over time, but there is an undertaking that we gave—and I think it's an expectation, if not of the legislation, then the regulatory impact assessment—that we do have a cost-benefit analysis by the fifth year of the powers. So, I think, by 2024, I would hope that there is evidence of those efficiencies. Clearly, there have been a few other things that have affected delivery, and there is an irony in terms of not just the legislation that came from the Finance Committee, but I think all legislation in the run-up to the pandemic, as there was an expectation of a regulatory impact assessment. I doubt any of them had an estimate of the impact of a global pandemic on different trends, but certainly it's going to impact on our data. But I really do think, longer term, the complaints standards powers are important.

It was 11 per cent, the number of complaints that we had about complaint handling itself last year. I would very much hope that they come down. Since September last year, we've provided 174 free training sessions to local authorities, at an estimated value of £87,000. We've had great feedback. We're extending this to health boards as well and, I hope, housing associations. And I think, through doing that, I would hope, by year five, we can evaluate not just the benefits to the office—. It's a small office, in the scheme of things. With the £24 billion level of public expenditure in Wales, it really is a drop in the ocean. But we will have provided complaints standards for 95 per cent of the universe of complaints that we receive. So, if you add up the budgets of local government, the massive and growing budgets of health boards and of housing associations as well, if they can demonstrate better complaints handling then there should be, I would hope, a massive gain for them—an improvement in front-line provision, a greater efficiency and responsiveness to their customers that they can demonstrate, and that that would be of additional value to public service provision in Wales.

10:45

Thank you. You've covered part of what I was going to cover. I think that you're absolutely right, but when will we be able to evaluate the impact of the own-initiative investigations? And I was very keen on what you said about prostate cancer—being able to go on all the people, not just the ones who complained, and that was one of the reasons we wanted to bring this in. But when will you be able to start saying that the impact can be—when will we be able to have an evaluation of it and that it is working? And one of the criticisms we had, and we pushed back on, on bringing this in, is that they said that the ombudsman then has got a blank cheque to do anything that he or she wants. I think that was one of the criticisms that was levelled. I'm not sure if it was levelled in public or private, but it was certainly levelled. And how can I reassure those people that that is not the case?

Well, you can sack me for misbehaviour. You can sack me tomorrow if I misbehave. The fact that I've got another six months—I am not de-mob happy now. And also the legislation is specific: on own-initiative, I have to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion of maladministration that would affect a significant cohort of the Welsh population. So, this is not some kind of untrammelled power that can be exercised by any egotist on his own personal issues; it's got to resonate with the public.

So, again, I hope that we can demonstrate—. Why did we go after homelessness? Well, I think I've demonstrated earlier the terrible impact that homelessness still has on justice and on people's outcomes in society generally. It's important in terms of lockdown, when everybody's supposed to stay at home. So, I don't think anybody would question the relevance there. But also I could be judicially reviewed if I was to misuse this power, and, if I was to misbehave in office any time up to 31 March, sack me. And that was the message I was giving back when I started this job as well: it's back me and sack me. Surely, a committee of the Senedd wants more accountability of the Executive, and you have to give some trust. I come back here to you to account. So, if I've been misusing powers, it's going to show up in the audit, you're going to hear about it very, very soon, and I would have to pay the price and take full account for that.

But I did go to a best practice seminar on own-initiative powers, because this question had come up and some nervous Ministers were saying, 'What if you misused the power? What if you were judicially reviewed?' So, as I said, these powers go back to the first ombudsman scheme of Europe, which were created in Sweden in 1807. So, I was able to ask—was it—Elisabeth Rynning, who is the current Swedish ombudsman, 'Have you or your predecessors ever been judicially reviewed for the misuse of own-initiative?', and she said, 'Nick, not since 1807.' So, you know, we've got to take a risk-management approach towards these things, I think.

Nick, as you know, I'm very much in favour of own-initiative and my question was not critical of it; I was just passing on those views that were expressed by, as you described, unnamed Government Ministers at the time.

My final question is: if your budget is not approved or is reduced, are there other efficiency savings that can be made, or what would happen if we reduced it to, say, 3 per cent, 2.5 per cent, 4 per cent? I'm not saying any of those are likely—they were just numbers I plucked out of the top of my head—so please don't take that as me sort of giving you a threat as to what it could be. What would happen if it was reduced down to those sorts of numbers?

Okay. Well, first of all, I should say that, in fairness to those nervous Government Ministers, they did move the financial resolution so that I could have the legislation. So, to be even-handed, it does mean more scrutiny for them, and they did permit that to happen. So, I think that should be acknowledged.

I hope today we've made a case for what is a reasonable uplift of 5 per cent, against huge increases in the Welsh block, but also huge pressures on public services generally. We're not insulated from that. Our priority has to be, first of all, the duty of care that we have to our front-line staff, and, secondly, cyber security, not just in terms of continuing virtual working and proper social distancing, but also ensuring personal data for the thousands of people who contact our office on an annual basis. So, I think there is a real demand there, an immediate demand, in terms of cyber security.

If we were not to receive our request, we will find efficiencies. We might have to look at a redundancy programme. The irony, of course, of going from year to year, is I might find myself then submitting another supplementary for the sum that we would have pay for people's redundancy. So, I think it’s much more positive to pay a supplementary to ensue that we're cyber secure than losing people at a time when we're under pressure.

But I think, more generally, whether it's 5 per cent, 4 per cent or 3 per cent, there is a message here. We've had this groundbreaking legislation from the Finance Committee; I think it’s the first committee legislation that the Senedd ever made. Certainly, outside of Wales, there is a jealousy in other parts of the United Kingdom that we have these powers and we're able to do what we've done with them, and I think it sends a signal, doesn't it? You supported the legislation because you wanted oral complaints. I wanted that clause in the legislation because previously it said that I had discretion. I think I described it as 'feudal'—you know, what kind of system in 2021—? Somebody might come to our office, they've got a literacy issue—it is up to me to decide whether I will or I will not consider their needs. That's not appropriate. So, we've modernised, we've become more progressive, but this has been about increasing access to administrative justice at a time when there's a broader post-pandemic discussion going on about a public inquiry, about people's anger, people's pain, in terms of what they've been through over the last 18 months. Now, you would be sending out a message if we have to draw up the bar a bit in terms of what we look at. There are some schemes in the UK, actually, currently that are under so much pressure, they have a huge backlog—we don’t have that at the moment, and we don't want one—and some of them are only considering the most serious complaints. They've put that bar up. We don't want to do that either. We want to be open, we want to be transparent, we want to be at the service of all the public. Clearly, we can't please all of the people all of the time; you will get spurious, vexatious and lacking merit. But I think there has to be a broader message there that it's a free service that is there to make sure that there's a greater equality of power between the Welsh individual and what can be the huge, daunting public corporation. So, that's where we've been coming from. That's what you and your predecessors have supported. So, that is the emotional rationale, rather than the percentages, be it 4, 5 or 6. So, I hope that explains where we're coming from.

10:50

Okay, thank you. I think that concludes our questions, unless Peter or anybody has any further questions.

Diolch yn fawr iawn ichi am eich amser y bore ma.

Thank you very much for your time this morning.

Thank you so much for your time this morning, and again thank you, Nick, for your term as the ombudsman. Hopefully, you’ll go off into the sunset now, you know, and put your feet up in six months' time, but—. [Laughter.]

Well, thank you very much.

Diolch yn fawr iawn ichi i gyd. Dwi'n ddiolchgar iawn.

Thank you very much. I'm very grateful.

Your work has been great, and thank you for always appearing before us and always answering our questions and having a good, positive impact.

Can I echo that as a past council leader of many years and since left that role? it's been invaluable having the ombudsman's office there to give us that reassurance and that backing. 

That's very much appreciated. Diolch yn fawr iawn ichi—thank you very much.

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o’r cyfarfod ar 18 Hydref 2021
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and the meeting on 18 October 2021

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o’r cyfarfod ar 18 Hydref 2021 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and the meeting on 18 October 2021 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

So, we'll now just go into private. I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, that this committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and the meeting of 18 October. Are you both happy? There we are.

10:55

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:55.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:55.