Y Pwyllgor Llywodraeth Leol a Thai
Local Government and Housing Committee13/07/2023
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Carolyn Thomas AS|
|Jayne Bryant AS|
|Joel James AS|
|John Griffiths AS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Luke Fletcher AS|
|Sam Rowlands AS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Elaina Chamberlain||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Lisa James||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Rebecca Evans AS||Y Gweinidog Cyllid a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Minister for Finance and Local Government|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Angharad Era||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
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 09:01.
The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:01.
Okay, may I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Local Government and Housing Committee? And in welcoming committee members, I'd particularly like to welcome Luke Fletcher, as this is Luke's first meeting on this committee. Croeso.
And in doing so as well, I'd very much like to thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for his contributions to the committee over the past two years. Mabon obviously has stood down for Luke to replace—. Well, not to allow Luke to replace him, but that's the new arrangement, and we'd very much like to thank Mabon, because his commitment and his contribution were very marked on this committee, and I'd like to recognise that.
So, diolch yn fawr i Mabon y bore yma.
So, thank you very much to Mabon this morning.
This meeting is, of course, being held in hybrid format, and, in fact, one of our Members, Carolyn Thomas, is joining us remotely. Aside from the adaptations relating to conducting proceedings in a hybrid format, all other Standing Order requirements remain in place, and the public items of the meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, and a Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation is available. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
Then we will move on to item 2 on our agenda today, diversity in local government and evidence from the Minister for Finance and Local Government. Minister, would you like to introduce your officials for the record, please?
Yes, I'll ask officials to introduce themselves, Chair.
Bore da. I'm Lisa James. I'm the deputy director for local government policy.
And I'm Elaina Chamberlain and I work in the same division.
Okay. Thank you all for coming in to give evidence today. Perhaps I might begin, Minister, with just a general question, really, as to whether you think there has been enough progress to increase the diversity of candidates and elected councillors in Wales, and really just to provide an update on the Government's diversity in democracy programme.
Well, I'd certainly begin by saying that there has been an awful lot of progress in recent years, particularly since the diversity in democracy programme came into place, and, of course, we made some significant changes through the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021.
So, some examples, really, where we've been improving diversity and democracy include extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds for Senedd and local government elections, and also providing local authorities with the flexibility to hold their meetings in hybrid or virtual format, as well as enabling job-share agreements in executives within local authorities. And obviously, we've got our access to elected office fund well. So, I think all of those things are very much working together to open up democracy to people. That's not to say there's not an awful lot more that we need to be doing as well, both as Government, but then I think there are roles for political parties and for wider partners as well.
So, we've made great strides. We've been the first in the UK to do lots of these things; I know there are lots of calls across the border in England now to take the approach that we have to hybrid meetings, for example. So, we are showing what can be done, but I'm absolutely not complacent, and there's definitely more to do.
We'll come on to some of those issues in due course, Minister. One thing we've heard about in taking evidence for this inquiry is the electoral system that we have, and electoral systems that we might have, and particularly, of course, single transferable vote, because that's an option for local authorities in Wales. In fact, I think your colleague, the Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, stated, I think in Plenary recently, that it's obviously a choice for local authorities, but one that I think Welsh Government would be favourably inclined towards. We heard, though, Minister, that no local authority in Wales at the moment apparently is thinking seriously, shall we say, about making that switch to STV. So, could I ask you to what extent you think the electoral system is significant and important in terms of achieving diversity, and to what extent you'd like to see local authorities in Wales make that move to single transferrable vote?
I think the fact that we have given councils the option to move to STV is a really exciting opportunity for councils. I think it is for them now to consider that properly. But I think what we can do, as Welsh Government, is ensure that councils have all of the information and advice that they need to have that discussion in the appropriate way, and also to ensure that we do have the proper rules in place should any council decide that this is something that they wanted to pursue.
So, we have recently consulted on draft rules for STV and we will be shortly publishing a summary of that consultation, and perhaps I’ll ask one of the team to say a little bit more about that. I think that the responses have been largely positive of the rules that we’ve put in place. So, whether or not that will give councils a bit more confidence in the system and maybe make them want to engage with it a bit more—. Though we have yet to see that.
Councils that do want to change to STV for the local government elections in 2027 would need, obviously, to consult locally and pass a resolution with a two-thirds majority of all of the seats on the council before 15 November 2024. So, if this is something that councils are interested in, I think that now is the time really for them to start that engagement and proper, thorough discussion, but maybe the team wants to say a bit more.
Just before your officials come in, Minister, do you detect any signs then that any local authorities in Wales are considering that change?
So, I haven't had any discussions with any local authorities that have approached me about it. Perhaps officials might want to say a bit more about their engagement as well.
Thanks, Minister. So, as the Minister said, the consultation is closed and our colleagues in the elections division are looking at the responses with a view to making the regulations later on this year when there’s an appropriate slot to make the regs. We have had some—I would call them more informal inquiries at official level from councils that have been taking papers or exploring this change informally. So, where we’ve been asked questions, we have provided support to those councils and I think we’ve got really good relationships with the elections teams and the democratic services officers in councils. So, there’s always an information flow back and forth between us and support for anyone who is interested, or where their members are asking questions.
Are those conversations then on an official level in terms of the local authorities around technical matters or does it extend to the political leadership of the authority?
Well, I would imagine that officers are asking questions because their members have asked them questions. We haven't asked officers particularly whether that's the case. But, quite often, officers will prepare information papers through their research processes for members as well, so, we've certainly had inquiries along those lines from a number of councils.
Yes, okay. Minister, are you considering anything else, given that that time frame that you outlined is quite short really, isn't it, in terms of local authorities potentially making a decision to adopt STV? Would you be considering events bringing local authorities together for a day to set out what's involved in making the change and the issues and so on, or anything of that nature?
Officials intend to do some work with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, looking at what further guidance might be appropriate for councils in this situation. Do you want to say a bit more about that, Lisa?
The Electoral Commission will publish guidance as well around the regulations to support councils in their choices. There is also something called the Wales electoral co-ordination board, which brings together administrators, returning officers and the Electoral Commission. The optional STV development and the regulations are part of the discussions around that board as well. So, there are fora where discussions are live, if you like, around the STV option.
I think it's our role, really, to make sure that councils have the information and advice that they would need about the process and the support available to them, rather than trying to necessarily influence the decision that the council comes to, because of course we've left that now as a choice that the council can make, although I think lots of us have got views that the more proportional systems are better and can deliver better diversity in democracy, although there are questions then, I suppose, about the optimal size of wards. We saw in the work that we did ahead of the last local authority elections that, actually, lots of people are very passionate about single-member wards, and that is a bit more difficult, then, obviously, in terms of proportionality.
Thank you very much. We'll move on, then, to Luke Fletcher and some further questions.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. If I could focus on the access to elected office fund, I was wondering if you might be able to tell us more about the evaluation of the pilot of the fund and any potential for developing the fund in the future.
We published the evaluation of the working of the fund on Tuesday of this week, and it did conclude that the arrangements that we've put in place were very much welcomed and that there was very clear support that the fund should be continued in future. But, obviously, like any evaluation, it does give us lots of lessons to learn for the future as well, and one of the things that came through strongly was really the time period for which we provide support. The support is there from the moment the person becomes the candidate and through the election period. I think that some people would have preferred earlier support. It is more difficult, then, before people become candidates to use this particular form, but I think that there are things we can do to support people earlier on in that journey as well.
Another thing that came through clearly, I think, and it's been something that we're thinking about in terms of extending the fund, is that, actually, this fund was there to support disabled people. Lots of the support provided was very practical to overcome some of those practical challenges that disabled people face. But we also want to extend this fund to people with other protected characteristics. One of the challenges there is that, perhaps, the same kind of physical support isn't what other people with protected characteristics want. Work with the LGBTQ+ community, for example, says that one of the main things that prevents them from standing is the abuse that people get when they put themselves forward for election. That was something of real concern to that community. The access to elected office fund providing financial support to overcome barriers just doesn't meet that need. So, I think there is a lot more we need to do in that other space, really, of tackling abuse and building up resilience.
We are thinking about what the future of the fund and the wider package of support looks like, but I think it has been really successful. We were able to support six people through that—well, more than 20 were supported, but six actually became town and community councillors. And one of the things that we also learned through the evaluation was the importance of the fund in creating a network—a network of disabled people who are passionate about politics wanting to represent their communities, able to support one another, but then also able to tell us, really, what the key barriers were. So, I think, overall, it has been really positive. We can talk through some of the recommendations, if you like, but I realise I've given a very long answer already, so I do want to give other people the chance to jump in.
No problem at all. The more thorough the better. I'm just wondering, in terms of extending the funding, has any thought been given to socioeconomic backgrounds as well? From a personal perspective, having come from a low-income household myself, standing for election costs money, so I actually found that I went into debt standing for election. So, I was just wondering, has there been any sort of thought around that element of it? Because that, in itself, is quite cross-cutting as well. It'll cover a lot of the protected characteristics just by virtue of the number of those protected characteristics also experiencing poverty.
Yes, absolutely. Our thinking around the socioeconomic characteristic is very early, but we're hoping to commission some research to look at the issues relating to people from socioeconomic backgrounds. I think, as the Minister said, one of the big challenges is the pipeline of candidates coming from different backgrounds, because some of our evidence to date indicates that there are some things that you can attribute to people who tend to put themselves forward. For example, they may come from families where political activism is the family pattern, so there have been relatives who have been in politics, or they may come through a university background or a trade union background. We're really interested in how we can build the pipeline of people who come from different backgrounds.
That links to what the Minister was saying about the support for the pipeline being available earlier, not just during what we call the regulated period—that's when the candidate has signed on the dotted line and handed in the nomination form. There are some technical challenges around that period because of the electoral law in relation to candidates' funding as well. We had to make regulations to exclude any support that candidates got from the access to elected office fund from the total that candidates are able to spend on their campaign. It's definitely an area we're interested in, and I think, Minister, the drop-in session that you held with Members was really interesting and informative. We're doing a lot of evidence gathering as well as academic research with trying to gather people's life experiences from either standing as candidates or deciding not to stand. We've done a number of workshops as well as the drop-in session. So, it's definitely something that we want to pursue going forward.
We're legislating as well to ensure that the access to elected office fund continues, which I think is important. That was part of the White Paper that we published a while back.
Thank you for that. Obviously, it's early days at the moment, but any sort of expansion would have potential cost implications. What have been the cost implications for the pilot as it stands at the moment?
Elaina, do you want to look at the cost implications?
The pilot wasn't an expensive pilot. There were limited numbers of people who went through the process, but it's good, and it allowed us to test the system. I think altogether it was less than £50,000 to provide support and to put the infrastructure in place, so it wasn't an expensive thing. In fact, in some ways, we wouldn't mind if it breached the budget, because in these terms, it would be successful. So, yes, I think the Ministers were prepared to fund whatever was required for people, because the question is do you say, 'Well, we'll only fund 20 per cent of what you need'. Sometimes it's not helpful at all, because if they need 100 per cent of something, they need 100 per cent of something. But it wasn't an expensive one. It didn't use all the budget that was made available.
Disability Wales administered the fund for us, and I think that they're very much seen as a trusted organisation within the sector. As well as being able to support people to access physical support to be a candidate, they were also able to provide lots of information, advice and support as well, which I think has a lot of value in its own way as well.
So, those limited numbers of people who took part in the pilot, then, it was about 17 people, wasn't it?
There were 21 altogether—19 in the local government arena, and then six who had support. Most of them had support even though they weren't successful in getting a seat, but six were successful.
It wasn't limited, so as many who wanted to access it and were eligible would have been able to.
In previous sessions, there were concerns raised around awareness of the fund, so given that there were only 21, there's an argument to be made that there's greater awareness needed. What sort of assessment has happened around how we can actually increase awareness? I imagine there's a bit of work for us in terms of our own political parties to do, but is there any additional support that the Government might consider in raising that awareness? Local authorities obviously play a role here as well.
That came through really strongly in the evaluation, that people just didn't know. It was a new fund, to be fair, so people didn't know that it existed. Word of mouth was really important, which, again, is why that network is important. But, yes, there's definitely more we can do next time now that we've got people who've been successful.
We've been doing some social media work generally about councillors to highlight the role that councillors play and the good impact that it can have both for the community but also on the life of the person who stands as a councillor. So, I think that we could potentially tie that into the fund for future rounds as well. But, yes, that's definitely a fair criticism, and it came through very strongly in the evaluation.
Can I just ask a quick question in relation to this, Chair?
Yes, go on, Sam.
Sorry to cut across, Luke. Are there any plans to consider the number of people with those protected characteristics who choose not to stand for election again, versus those without those protected characteristics? Because, obviously, we're seeing at the moment, at UK parliamentary level, for example, a number of people choosing not to continue to stand for all sorts of different reasons. I was just wondering whether that disproportionately affects people who this type of fund is trying to support. So, is there a piece of work that you're looking to do, not just at the front end of getting people elected, but also the back end, as it were, to encourage them to stand again that's going to be helpful for them?
I think that's a really important point, because the purpose is not just to encourage people to stand once; it's to hopefully sustain their interest and involvement in the political system. The WLGA do an exit survey of councillors at the end of each electoral session. So, that's one source of information, and we do look at that as well; the WLGA share that information with us. At the end of the last session, we also did a councillor survey of outgoing councillors, and that did identify a number of issues in relation to people standing down because of bullying and inappropriate behaviours. We can certainly cross-check that with protected characteristics, because that was collected as part of the data. In particular—not this election, but the previous election—we did look at gender, because there were a number of cases where, in particular, young women or women with families had either stood for one term or stood down during the term. Some of our work around that has resulted in the duty in the 2021 Act on political group leaders to promote high standards of conduct.
Chair, I have a further question on that, but I'm conscious that there are other opportunities to come in on that later.
Thanks very much. I'll just bring in, first of all, Carolyn Thomas, and then Joel James.
I just want to ask you some questions regarding the candidate survey and data—just regarding the data collected and the robustness of it. The response rate in 2022 was 12 per cent, but ranged from 40 per cent in one authority to just 1 per cent in another. So, I was wondering, Minister, what you could do to improve the response rate and whether you've considered setting minimum targets to local authorities in relation to improving the response rates, or even making them compulsory to complete. I know one witness actually suggested that they are made compulsory. People could return them when they return the application form as well, and that way, the data could be improved. So, your thoughts on this, please.
I do find it disappointing that we have seen a decrease recently in the number of candidates who are completing the candidate survey, because it is a really important source of information for us, not least in terms of understanding diversity in democracy. We were the first part of the UK to run the candidate survey, in 2012, and I think that we can still make some changes to make it more useful for us, and more successful, but also I think more valuable for councillors as well. So, I intend to make some changes to the way that the survey operates in future by removing the requirement for the format and the questions to be set out in regulations. So, that means that the survey can be reviewed more easily and changes made more quickly, and, again, that was in the recent White Paper.
It's worth us thinking, really, about why we understand that people are reluctant to fill in the survey. I think we've all, as candidates, been through election periods where we're being surveyed all the time by a wide range of organisations who just want to know our opinion on various things, so yet another survey when candidates are in the middle of an election probably is unwelcome. And also there's the point that lots of people are standing again as councillors, so I think that there is an assumption that they've provided the data once, maybe many years ago, we don't need the data again, but we do want the candidates to fill them in. And obviously, when you're in the middle of an election, you've got other things on your mind. You want to be concentrating on the campaign rather than on surveys, and, of course, leaving it until after the election—. Well, if you're not successful, I think the last thing that you want to do, again, is to be filling in surveys about the election. So, all of those things I think mean that we have to think about how we can better engage.
I think that, in future, we can make the survey into two parts. So, we can have one national part, those national questions that will help us with diversity, but then, potentially, a local part of the survey as well that can help get local information of importance to the local authority. That, again, might give us a chance to refresh this. And again, I think there's an important role for political parties to do to emphasise to their candidates that, actually, it's important that you provide this information so that we can help the Government understand the questions and the challenges around diversity. And also, again, working with returning officers. So, when returning officers meet with candidates or at candidate briefings, they could say, 'Fill in this form while you're here', and then we'll get a better response rate there as well. So, I think there's a lot more we can do.
We haven't really—. Well, we have thought about making it—. Well, looking at targets for local authorities, but then how would you enforce them, and what would the sanction be if the local authority didn't hit the target in terms of responses? So, I'd rather work positively with candidates and with authorities and returning officers and local constituency parties and so on, rather than make it a bit more of an aggressive thing that we want to do, really.
I think it was considered that how we can we measure the impact of any legislation or encouragement or policies of encouraging people to stand and promoting diversity if we can't collect the data as well on that, on the difference of what's being—[Inaudible.]—people. And I think when applications come forward, because they have to be collected, the applications, for people standing, if they fill in that survey and return it then, you have to return the application form so that would be a good time to actually collect that information. I remember myself as well, with no political background when I stood, and just listening to the evidence-gathering session, when you're first elected as well it can be a bit of a shock. And I think a lot of help and support is needed to help them understand the role as well, because there's some information available when you first stand, but when you're elected as well you're bombarded with quite a lot, and you need quite a bit of hand holding as you go through that process of learning for the first year or so, I think. That was something.
And just while I've got the floor, so to speak, regarding Luke's questions as well regarding hoping to get candidates from diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences as well, that was something that was raised in an evidence session. It's not just about the protected characteristics, but also people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but just life experiences as well—so, trying to ensure that we get candidates with those. Thank you. That's it for my questions. Thank you.
Okay. Thank you. Minister.
So, maybe I'll ask Lisa to say a bit more about the support that we provide to candidates, or that is provided to candidates, immediately after elections, and some of the thinking that we’re doing around mandatory training and perhaps about the code of conduct and so on.
But I think these are all really important points that we need to be considering as we move forward. We definitely haven’t cracked it in terms of the candidate survey. I think the fact that we do have it, and we were the first to have it, is important, but we should explore why people aren’t filling it in and what we can do to make it easier to fill it in, and also let candidates know you don’t have to fill in all of the questions—some personal data candidates might not feel comfortable sharing, but it’s okay to fill in the rest of the form, and that kind of thing. So, just to be clear that we are flexible as well.
Thanks, Minister. I think maybe I'll start just by saying that the quantity of data is really important, but we also collect a considerable amount of qualitative data. So, the stories of candidates' experiences have been very important. So, the work I mentioned earlier around gender, that was based on case studies with councillors who'd either stood for one term or stood down, and led to a change in legislation. We also look at sources of data generated outside of Welsh Government; the WLGA exit survey, for example. So, there's a lot of data, both qualitative and quantitative, and what we try and do is bring it together and triangulate it so we're not entirely reliant solely on the candidates survey, though we would, as the Minister said, hope to improve the response rates, because it is a useful triangulation of all the other data that we collect.
I think in terms of training and support, we'd agree that is so important, because it is, in a way, self-defeating. If we can crack encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds to stand, and then they are elected and not supported, and, as you described, it's a shock to the system, then we haven't done the whole job. So, we've been working with the WLGA around training and support for members and induction training, and in particular the strong focus on the code of conduct, and also with One Voice Wales in that space. We've also recently published the revised statutory guidance falling out of the implementation of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, and that contains a section about training and support for members, and we've really beefed that up in terms of looking at the different needs of members, what they might need, having discussions with members about their support and development and training plans, but also being more proactive in supporting members where they may need targeted support, in particular if they are at the centre of bullying and harassment, whether that be from within the council or from social media or the public or outside. There have been far more terrible examples of that over recent years, with some councillors having to have police protection, and that's been really quite tragic.
So, we've really looked at that part of our guidance, and we also meet regularly with the officers in local government, the heads of democratic services who provide those support services, to share good practice and have discussions about how that support for members can be improved, because it's absolutely key to supporting people to stay in as councillors.
Okay, thank you very much. Luke, did you want to come in?
Yes, please, Chair. You've partly already referred to what I was going to ask about there, because I think the difficulty around encouraging people to stand, especially when they've come from a protected characteristic background, or simply if they're a young woman, is it's difficult when you've got a lot of these stories out there. I'm aware of a number of councillors, not just in my own party, but from outside of my party, who've experienced harassment, stalking, have had the police come to their house to set up security measures. So, I'm just wondering in terms of what work is being done there in the first instance in terms of attacking a lot of that abusive behaviour, although that in itself can be quite challenging, because of the number of individuals that councillors deal with on a daily basis. But I'm also interested to know what sort of work is being done around potentially preventative mental health measures. Again, a lot of this can come as a shock, as Carolyn mentioned, when you first get elected—just the relentless communications that councillors get. That, in itself, again—. We have a number of councillors who are really struggling with their mental health at the moment because of the workload and because of that harassment. So, I'm just really interested to just delve into the mental health aspect of it a bit more.
So, I think that one of the things that we have to remember, which is hard to remember sometimes with so much abuse in politics—. When women or others with protected characteristics are thinking about entering politics—and men are not immune from abuse in politics as well, so, I suppose, when anybody is thinking about entering into politics—the thought of the abuse and the stories of abuse can really put you off. But I think that what we also have to remember and promote is, actually, the incredible amount of good that you can do when you have an elected role. I think we should remind people of that who are interested in politics. It's not all bad. You get to do good in your communities. You get to make decisions based on your own values, and you can make change. I think, sometimes, we forget that, actually, there is plenty of good involved in being an elected member as well. So, promoting some of that, really, I think is important because it's easy just to get caught up in all the negativity of it all.
And then, ensuring, really, that group leaders are creating a good culture within their groups, I think, is really important. We've got moves within our local government and elections Act to ensure that there is that duty on those leaders within groups to have that positive culture within their groups. I think that's important, especially because a survey that we did of councillors showed that around a third of councillors who had experienced abuse had experienced it from another elected member. So, I think that there's definitely work to do in that particular space as well. So, having duties on important people to create good, positive cultures, I think, is important.
I think that the other thing is, as you all know, it's not just the members themselves, or the candidates; it is families and friends that are caught up in this whirlwind. I remember a couple of years back, in one of the sessions that we were running, somebody had said that their daughter had been victimised in school because of a decision of the council. So, when we put these mechanisms in place, we need also to be thinking about how the abuse around being a councillor is something, but that overlaid onto that are other issues and concerns that may be playing on people's minds at the same time. So, I think that it's good just to remember that as well.
I think that that's a particularly important point because I think that, often, in the discourse around this, we do forget about the families. In terms of the councillor who had security measures installed in her house, it's not just her house, it's also her family's house, and obviously the tensions that that can cause itself. I will hand back to you, Chair, but I think that it's a very important point in terms of the effect on families.
Yes. Thanks very much, Luke. We're going to have to move on, but Sam, quickly, on this.
Just a quick point, and you started to touch on it, Minister, about the role of group leaders and their responsibility to ensure that the culture is appropriate within their groups. Obviously, the Act has only been relevant on that part perhaps more formally since last year—no, two years ago now, isn't it? Anyway, whenever it came in. I wonder whether you're confident that, actually, group leaders are being held to account for the behaviour of their groups, because we have seen some pretty abhorrent examples recently of bad behaviour? And are you confident that that part of the Act is being followed appropriately?
Yes, I think so, and I think that also it's not just on group leaders, it's about the local authority more widely. We know that there have been recent examples where the monitoring officer, for example, has brought all councillors together to remind them of their duties and their responsibilities, and I think that that is a positive step that officers can take within councils as well. I think that there's a role for everyone, really, within local authorities, and also to be calling it out. If councillors are seeing inappropriate behaviour towards a colleague, regardless of the political party or no political party, I think it needs to be called out, and the person who is on the receiving end needs to be supported. So, it is about creating the culture. You can legislate so far for this stuff, but, actually, it comes down to what we do as human beings at the end of the day.
Okay—. Sorry, go ahead, Lisa.
I was just also going to mention that, recently, the WLGA have set up a network of chairs of standards committees, which I think is really important, and that's met now a couple of times. We are invited to attend that. The ombudsman also attends, and it's an opportunity for the chairs to discuss issues across standards committees, but also share good practice, because some standards committees are really proactive in this space, including with their community councils. We recently heard about the chair of a standards committee who went to observe a community council meeting and gave them feedback on their behaviour and how they needed to perhaps develop in order to meet the requirements of the code of conduct. So, the group leaders working with the standards committees positively can make a lot of progress, I think, in this space.
Just a couple of other initiatives to let you know about, we're working closely with the WLGA and One Voice Wales to promote training on the code of conduct, including, obviously, the duty on political group leaders, and also working with councils through our statutory guidance to ensure that councillors know where to go to get help should they find themselves the subject of abuse and harassment. I also recently met with the public services ombudsman particularly to discuss the level of complaints within local government and the nature of those complaints. Obviously, bullying and that kind of behaviour were part of that discussion, and we're going to work more closely together on that.
And then I'm also meeting the Jo Cox Foundation to explore whether there are opportunities for us to work together there. Again, we've got, obviously, a very clear shared agenda with them. And then it's the intention to hold an event later this year to bring together a wide range of organisations to discuss what further steps we can take together to combat abuse in politics.
Okay, Minister. Thank you very much. We move on to Joel. Joel James.
Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to touch upon, actually, the Minister's discussions with the public services ombudsman. I know from my time when I was a councillor, and as you alluded to, it can be quite a vicious chamber and complaints go flying back and forth to the ombudsman, but I remember one response once, where the ombudsman basically came back and said, 'Politicians should develop a thicker skin,' and that was the response from the letter. I was just wondering if that's still the office's interpretation, that politicians should develop a thicker skin, or has that changed now?
Well, I'm glad you raised that, because I read the same thing about politicians being expected to have a thicker skin, and then I got straight back to officials and I said, 'What?' We shouldn't be expected to have a thicker skin, because anybody should be able to put themselves forward to be elected, but then, apparently, it is in law that we're supposed to, as elected people, have a thicker skin, which seemed bizarre to me, I have to say, but who am I to say? So, I did have that conversation with the public services ombudsman. What I did take heart from in that meeting, though, was the fact that she is seeing decreasing levels now of complaints about and between councillors, which I think is positive. Did you want to say a bit more on the thicker skin?
Well, we can certainly send the committee a note about the case law and the relevant part. I think the key issue, as well, with the complaints process—the ombudsman mentioned this when you met her, Minister—was also working with standards committees, so that flow of information back and forth. It trivialises the issue in some ways, in that it's become known as low-level complaints, member-on-member complaints, but clearly they're not trivial to the people concerned. But, as you mentioned, because of the bar about political debate, and it ties in to human rights and what politicians can and can't say, they don't always meet the bar for investigation by the ombudsman, but the ombudsman is now working with standards committees to refer those back to standards committees, so that there can be some local action on those complaints. So, again, using the new legislation in terms of group leaders, if they're a member of a group, the group leader can discuss the issues with the member. The monitoring officer can call people in and have a discussion about those issues as well. As the Minister mentioned, we saw a recent example of that in one of our authorities, where members were reminded that that higher bar around political debate shouldn't always be taken advantage of in that way. People still need to be civil and behave appropriately to each other. It's not an excuse for bad behaviour.
All right, thank you. Well, if I can, Chair, I just want to have a quick question about the access to elected office fund before moving on. I was keen to know about the analysis of it, about how effective it was, because I know you mentioned that, I think it was about six people had been successful in town and community councils. I've got to declare an interest here: I'm a community councillor as well. But I know that only 22 per cent of them are contested; most of them are elected unopposed. And I was just wondering if we knew more details about, again, the effectiveness of it, in the sense of: were these individuals elected unopposed? Was there a contest? And if there was, or if we had analysed those who did have contested seats and didn't get in, was the help and support sufficient enough, if that makes sense?
I think there's a mixture of contested and non-contested seats, but everybody who went through the application process felt that the support that they'd had was helpful. There were a couple of instances where people didn't have absolutely everything that they needed from day one, which obviously was of concern, and we can build on that. But it was very positive; people felt that because the fund was set up as an advisory service, and an allocations process, an assessment process, people were able to talk to Disability Wales about what might be helpful, might not be helpful, and really, it was tailored around the individual.
So, as far as I'm aware, because we obviously took a step back from the detail of it, which is wholly appropriate, the support and the advisory element of that service was fundamental to any ongoing arrangements that we would put in place. And there's lots of sort of narrative around people's experience in the evaluation.
You've touched on another really important point that I'm keen to make some progress on as well, and that is around the number of uncontested seats. Obviously, that was really of concern at the last elections for the town and community councils, as well as the number of empty seats and the number of town and community councils that found themselves inquorate immediately after the election as well. So, I have set up a democratic health task and finish group for the town and community council sector, to look at what more we can do to engage people more closely with their town and community councils. But then also, I suppose, linked to the work we're talking about today, to create a situation where more people feel that they want to stand for their town and community councils. So, that's a piece of work that we've started, and looking forward to working closely with One Voice Wales and others on that as well.
Brilliant. That's good to hear. I must confess that mine was an uncontested seat as well, so I was quite surprised at that, because it had always been contested before, so I was quite surprised that there were no other candidates. Obviously, I'd like to have taken that it was because they thought I was doing such a good job. [Laughter.] I don't know.
But I wanted to have a quick chat, then, if I can, Chair, about positive action. We've heard from previous evidence sessions about the work that political parties and even local authorities are doing on the ground to try and address, specifically, gender balances, and we've heard about the work that's been happening in Monmouth, as an example. I know, for example, in my own ward, in my own council area, RCT Labour Party did a sort of gender-zipping sort of thing when there were multiple-member wards. I just wanted to know how that could be used going forward as the sharing of best practice, if that makes sense. When we've read the written evidence from charities like Chwarae Teg and that, they've said, 'Well, gender quotas, if we have to introduce them, they're fine for the short term, but they shouldn't be used long term, because if that's the case, then we've not addressed the issue.' And I just wanted to get your ideas about how that sharing of best practice can be done, and is it being done? What sort of engagement have you had, then, from local authorities about adopting that sort of thing?
So, I think there are two things, really. The first is what we can do as Welsh Government, and part of that is around some of the steps that I spoke about in my first answer, so, the hybrid meetings: we know that women often find it easier to attend hybrid meetings if they’ve got childcare commitments and that kind of thing. So, just making it easier for people to be councillors is part of it. But then I think there’s more to do in political parties. So, taking those choices where you zip candidates or where you have an all-women shortlist—all of those things are choices that political parties can choose to make.
I think that it is more difficult in the council sector than it is in the Senedd or Parliament, for example, because we’ve got so many independent candidates, and they sit outside of those party-political processes. How do you impose gender measures on independent candidates? So, that kind of thing, I think, is more challenging. So, I think the kind of things that work perhaps in some parts of our democracy won't necessarily work in local government, just because of the number of independents.
Yes. And I suppose the interesting thing about independents is that, in many councils, they are almost like a political party. They go about recruiting other independents for different wards and everything. So, I often think that they're not really independent, but that's my own view. I think it might be shared by others actually, I don't know.
But with regard to what the Senedd reforms are doing in terms of proportional representation and then also legislating for gender quotas, could you see yourself doing that for a local level? Because I was quite surprised, really, because we talked at the start about how councils can already change the electoral system, and they've had that power for a while, and they don't seem to be clamouring to do it. And I was just wondering, obviously, most councils want to protect the status quo, so, council leadership isn't going to change the voting system if it could see them out of power, and I just wanted to know: is that something that would have to be addressed legislatively then?
In short, yes, it is something that would definitely have to be addressed legislatively in terms of connection to the electoral system. I think, as the Minister said, there are lots of challenges that are different in local democracy to those at the Senedd level, with the independent candidates being one of those. The Minister mentioned as well—. I'm trying to think of how to describe the process of doing the 22 electoral reviews, Minister, and be positive—[Laughter.]
Exciting. So, doing that, we learnt a lot about how passionate people were about single-member wards in many parts of Wales. So, gender quotas and first-past-the-post is maybe an equation that doesn't quite add up. And the diversity in democracy programme, which has been running for a while, there's an ongoing commitment to consult about gender quotas for local government. So, what we're working towards in this Senedd term is that consultation. And then it will be for the next Senedd to see whether it would want to address that at a local government level.
Okay. Okay, Joel? Sam.
Thanks, Chair. Just a point on the opportunities around job sharing, and we've heard evidence and people always seem quite excited about this. But then it strikes me, on the other hand, of the 190 cabinet roles in Wales, I believe perhaps only three are using job-sharing opportunities. I'm just wondering why it feels like there's such a gap between the rhetoric of how wonderful it all is versus the reality of job sharing actually taking place in councils.
Well, I would say that it's still early days yet. The opportunity hasn't been there for a long time. But we have seen as many as five councils using it since it's been brought in, at any one time. So, I think that that is certainly positive. I think that, as well, in those experiences, of those five, we've known that there are people who've taken on those executive roles who say that they couldn't have done it otherwise, which I think is positive. It won't be the case that every local authority will do this. It will happen in certain places, depending on the team that the leader has to choose his or her cabinet from. So, I think it's a good start, it's a good tool, and we've had positive feedback from those that have used it.
Do you think part of the challenge of that is what may be seen by some as more watered-down accountability and responsibility?
It shouldn't be, because those members will still have the same scrutiny, the same kind of level of responsibility as any other member of the cabinet. So, that shouldn't be the case. But I appreciate it is still early days, so we need to keep constantly evaluating this and see what the experience is on the ground.
Just before you go on, Sam, how new is it, though, Minister, because it has been a possibility since 2011, hasn't it? And in Swansea they've had it since 2017.
The legislative basis for it is in the 2021 Act, and that came into force with the last set of local government elections in May 2022. So, they've only had the strong legislative basis for it since last May.
Prior to that, then, it was the Measure, was it, that would have enabled it.
No. The Swansea arrangement was more informal by agreement—I'm trying to think of the appropriate word—with the understanding of the independent remuneration panel. And, actually, that arrangement was what informed the development of the 2021 Act.
I think the other thing to maybe mention in this space is that the statutory guidance that I mentioned earlier on that we've just published under the 2021 Act does include some guidance for leaders and cabinets around consideration of diversity in terms of cabinet membership and the leadership of the organisation. And we have, I think, seen an improvement, because I remember the 2017 elections, where we had some councils where there were all-male cabinets; we're not in that situation now. The gender balance varies across Wales in terms of membership of cabinets.
The job-sharing arrangement is there to enable, as the Minister said. It's not something that has to be used; it's part of the totality of the package that's available to support not only gender balance but protected characteristics across the board within cabinets.
Thanks, Chair. Just building on the job-sharing considerations, I know some organisations have called for candidates to be able to job share. I do wonder at what point, then, job sharing becomes a job share and becomes a job share. But there we are. I was just wondering what consideration has been given to the possibility of candidates job sharing.
I'll just hand over to Lisa in a second on that one, but just in terms of our next steps, that really is about looking at how we potentially extend job sharing to non-executive roles, for example committee chairs. So, that's where our focus is at the moment, and that's something that we will need to do some engagement and consultation on. You could get a situation where one of the chairs takes a view on an issue that is different to that of the person they're job sharing with, and how do they cast their casting vote in that circumstance. So, there are definitely some questions that we need to work through on that, but on the wider question I'll turn to Lisa.
Thanks, Minister. You've just reminded me about some very definite wet-towel-wrapped-around-the-head moments with lots of monitoring officers about the guidance for cabinet job sharing that was recently published. We have been talking to officers in local government about, as the Minister said, using the powers for Welsh Ministers in the 2021 Act to extend job-sharing arrangements to other senior roles in local government, such as committee chairs, and the challenges that presents. We're working towards a consultation to be issued on that.
As part of that and the diversity in democracy programme, there is a commitment to consult on job sharing on election as well. There are similar challenges, I think, around that in terms of operation on the ground. There are some immediate concerns, certainly from officers in local government—maybe less so now—in terms of sizes of chambers—just the practicalities about supporting the additional people. There are also some challenges around the way the law is written, because local government law goes back quite a long way. A lot of local government operation is still underpinned by the Local Government Act 1972, which is written in, 'He must do', 'He must say this' in terms of the detailed procedures of local government. We did update all the meeting work when we did hybrid meetings. So, there would be a lot of need to trawl back through that legislation to ensure that the job sharing on election is on a sound legal basis, and similarly in electoral law, which dates back also to 1983, most of what we use to elect candidates in local government elections. So, those are the practicalities, or the ones that have surfaced so far, but there is a commitment to consult on that before the end of this Senedd term.
Just a final point, if I may, Chair. One of the ways in which, as has already been mentioned, diversity could continue to be supported is through the use of hybrid meetings. I've expressed my concerns in the past about a number of councils going to online only. I'm absolutely supportive of hybrid, but maintaining that option of both in-person and virtual is, I think, really important.
We have had evidence in relation to town and community councils in particular around the cost of implementing the legislation. I had a quick look now, and of the town and community councils in Wales, 233 of them have a precept of less than £10,000 a year. So, clearly, implementing what would be a good experience of hybrid being very costly in proportion to their budgets. I'm just interested to know what sort of support you're providing and will continue to provide to town and community councils in particular, to help them to meet the requirements of legislation, because as we know, hybrid working only works really well when it's done properly, not just a phone in the middle of the table to meet the tick-box of the legislation.
The original legislation was very simple in the sense that it only requires the person to hear and be heard, and that can be just a phone. That was partly in recognition, really, that the town and community council sector is so diverse that we just need to be mindful of that. We've done some work through the office of the local government chief digital officer, looking at the digital health of the town and community council sector more widely, and I've provided £150,000 now to fund the delivery of the action plan that flowed from that work, to provide digital support to town and community councils to meet their duties regarding those hybrid meetings. That's a fairly recent development, and it's work that we're doing with One Voice Wales.
I spoke at the One Voice Wales conference—the week before last, now, I think it was—and this exact issue came up in terms of hybrid meetings and town and community councils. There are two particular things that we're looking at at the moment. The first is the democratic health, as I was saying in response to Joel James's question, but then the other is the digital health of the sector as well. So, we have provided some funding and we've done the work through the digital officer's office to understand the challenges in the sector, so we are aware of them and trying to support the sector now to develop.
Minister, I know we've gone a little over time, but if you're able to, could we continue with a couple more questions from Jayne Bryant? Thank you very much.
I didn't see you over there, Jayne. [Laughter.] It took me by surprise.
Good morning, Minister.
We know there are a lot of really good, valuable mentoring programmes around. Do you think that they are sufficiently targeted, though, to help with real change and have that impact to increase diversity in local government?
I think that they definitely have the potential to, and I think that any of us who have been involved in those mentoring schemes have found that the person who we've mentored has gained an awful lot from it. Speaking for myself, I gained an awful lot from it as well. So, I think that there are a wide range of schemes out there available, focused at different protected characteristics, and particularly looking to support women, often young women, to think about this. And then, one of the schemes I was involved in was to support people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. So, there are different schemes, and I think that they are pretty successful in terms of supporting people.
I was just thinking, because we saw that the evaluation of the diversity in democracy scheme highlighted that the mentoring schemes were valuable in the softer barriers, but had little impact on more institutional barriers, such as caring responsibility and balancing employment with councillors' duties. I'm just wondering what more can be done on that, really.
I think this is one of the dangers that we have to be really mindful of in the sense that we're putting an awful lot of effort into supporting people to take that first step into becoming an elected member—so the kind of work that we talked about earlier, the work that we can do through those mentoring schemes—but as soon as that person is elected we need to make sure that the culture and the support is still available for them, which is why the work that we're doing with local authorities and the new measures that we introduced through the last legislation are important. But that's definitely something that we're really mindful of. We can't set people up to fail, if you like, by providing them with support and advice to get somewhere, and then, 'Over to you'; it does have to be longer term, I think.
I think there's also something around political parties. Many of us have stood and lost before we've actually got elected, and I think it's really important to remind and support people. Because political parties go all in for a person—it's an election, and you're all behind everybody—and then, all of a sudden, something's lost and you can easily lose people who have actually gone on a journey once we've tried to encourage them to stand for the first time. So, I think there's still a lot of work to do about supporting people, or understanding, perhaps, if they might feel a bit of trepidation standing again.
I realise the time, Cadeirydd. I think most of my questions around social media have been answered. You mentioned, and in your paper, the event that you'll be having later this year. Perhaps you could keep the committee informed of that event and how it goes.
Yes, definitely. I'm really keen to involve the committee, because I recognise that there's so much lived experience within this committee, but also in the Chamber, from people who have previously been county councillors. We've got people who are still town and community councillors—we need to be capturing that. The drop-in session that we had in one of the dining rooms a little while back was really, really useful, because people came in, talked about their own experiences, their own ideas, and we've captured all of that as part of our work. I think this is definitely something that transcends party politics. I think it's in all our interests for there to be healthy democracy, so I'm very keen to keep working with you.
You mentioned the mentoring schemes. There were more of them previously; I think they've come together, some of them. To represent that, there are some commonalities between different groups, and then to split off to have some targeted work, where necessary. But I think also, on your point about not being elected, there is wider application to a number of these support systems that are put in place. People may go through them, they may decide not to then stand, but they may take up other roles in civic society, or just having more understanding of how things work is helpful to them, so there's a broader application as well. From being elected, as important as it is, there are those broader applications that I think are equally important.
Okay, Jayne? Okay. Thank you very much, Minister, and thank you to your officials as well for coming in to give evidence, and particularly for going beyond our allotted time. You will be sent a transcript of proceedings to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr.
The next item we have is item 3, papers to note. We have a letter from the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip in relation to the provision of sites for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers; a letter from the Finance Committee to the Minister for Finance and Local Government in relation to the Welsh Government's draft budget for this year; a letter from the Minister for Climate Change to the UK Government in relation to the Renters (Reform) Bill; a letter from the Minister for Finance and Local Government to the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee in relation to the Non-Domestic Rating Bill legislative consent motion; additional information from the Welsh Local Government Association following their evidence session on this inquiry into diversity in local government; and finally, a letter from the Finance Committee to the Minister for Finance and Local Government in relation to the draft budget timetable for the next financial year. Is the committee content to note those papers? Yes. Okay. Thank you very much.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).
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.
Item 4 is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting. Is committee content to do so? Yes, I see that you are. Thank you very much. We will move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:11.
The public part of the meeting ended at 10:11.