Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus - Y Bumed Senedd
Public Accounts Committee - Fifth Senedd06/07/2020
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Gareth Bennett AS|
|Jenny Rathbone AS|
|Nick Ramsay AS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Rhianon Passmore AS|
|Rhun ap Iorwerth AS||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Delyth Jewell|
|Substitute for Delyth Jewell|
|Vikki Howells AS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Adrian Crompton||Archwilydd Cyffredinol Cymru|
|Auditor General for Wales|
|Alastair McQuaid||Archwilio Cymru|
|Andrew Jeffreys||Cyfarwyddwr y Trysorlys, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director, Treasury, Welsh Government|
|Andrew Slade||Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol, Grŵp yr Economi, Sgiliau a Chyfoeth Naturiol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director General, Economy, Skills and Natural Resources Group, Welsh Government|
|David Richards||Cyfarwyddwr Llywodraethu, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director of Governance, Welsh Government|
|Dr Andrew Goodall||Prif Weithredwr GIG Cymru a Chyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol Iechyd a Gwasanaethau Cymdeithasol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Chief Executive of NHS Wales and Director General of Health and Social Services, Welsh Government|
|Gawain Evans||Cyfarwyddwr Cyllid, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director of Finance, Welsh Government|
|Matthew Mortlock||Archwilio Cymru|
|Mike Usher||Archwilio Cymru|
|Shan Morgan||Ysgrifennydd Parhaol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Permanent Secretary, Welsh Government|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Claire Griffiths||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Tom Lewis-White||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 drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:26.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 13:26.
Can I welcome Members to this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee? Apologies have been received from Delyth Jewell, and Rhun ap Iorwerth has kindly agreed to substitute. So, welcome to today's meeting, Rhun, and thanks.
Do Members have any declarations of interest they'd like to make at the start of the meeting? No.
Okay, as we've just heard, simultaneous translation is available from Welsh into English, and please remember microphones will be operated remotely, so you don't need to operate them yourselves, though you do have to unmute if asked.
Item 2, then, and our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to the Public Accounts Committee's remit, impacts for the Welsh Government. Can I welcome our witnesses? Would you like to give your name and position for the record? Starting with Shan.
Hello. Shan Morgan, Permanent Secretary for the Welsh Government.
And who else? Andrew.
Andrew Slade, director general, economy, skills and natural resources.
And Andrew—the other Andrew.
Yes, Andrew Goodall, director general for health and social services and NHS Wales chief executive.
I have just realised how many Andrews we've got here. [Laughter.] I'm going to have to be clear, aren't I, when I'm directing the discussion. And Andrew Jeffreys.
Yes. Andrew Jeffreys, the third Andrew, and director of Welsh Treasury.
Is there anyone else there? Yes. David.
David Richards, director of governance and ethics.
And last but not least.
Gawain Evans, director of finance.
I think that's covered everyone. I'm looking over the tiles to try and just make sure I'm not missing people. Okay, great. As you'll expect, we've got a large volume of questions, and I'd like to ask both Members and witnesses if you could be succinct, to enable us to cover the widest range of issues. And, as usual, Permanent Secretary, if you don't mind, I'll write to you on any areas that we're unable to reach in today's meeting.
Okay, the first questions are from me. With regard to the civil service and the well-being of staff, could you provide us with an update on the number of Welsh Government staff self-isolating and recording as sick with COVID-19 symptoms? Shan.
Thank you. Thank you, Chair. This is obviously something that we keep a very close eye on. All the Welsh Government staff have to confirm to our HR people if they're isolating or absent for any reason connected with COVID-19, and we track this on a very regular basis, monitor it to identify the impact of the virus on our staff and on the availability of our workforce. The latest figures that I have show that we've got seven people who have been self-isolating for seven days, we have 62 who have been self-isolating because of a serious health condition, 15 people who are shielding on—sorry, 13 people shielding on NHS advice, and three who are currently absent with COVID symptoms and, very sadly, one member of our staff has died. We're obviously very proactive in offering staff all the support we can for their safety and well-being throughout this crisis. There is a very wide programme of communication with staff to help tackle issues like isolation and loneliness as well, so our senior leaders are in very regular contact with team managers. And I've been launching a lessons learnt exercise across the whole organisation to look at the challenges of remote working and to make sure that we are identifying and applying best practice in that, because it's all so novel.
Chair, I wonder if I could emphasise one thing at this stage, though, right from the point, which is to underline that this public health emergency hasn't gone away. The Welsh Government is still very much in crisis mode in dealing with it, and most of our staff—something like 85 per cent according to a recent survey—are engaged in work that is related to COVID-19, either on some kind of direct response or on the supporting measures, and we are certainly a very long way from anything that will start to look like business as usual. We're doing everything that we can to learn the lessons as we go along, but the emergency response is obviously our top priority, and I must say that I do think that the response from the staff in Welsh Government has been really magnificent. My focus now is on maintaining their resilience and—[Interruption.]
Shan, I was going to ask you about that, but you've just touched on it, so with regard to the staff survey, how has that worked out and what sort of responses have you had with regard to the support that staff feel that they've had over the last few months?
We took part in a—it was called a pulse survey, run by the whole of the civil service, in May, so we were able to benchmark ourselves against the UK civil service as a whole. I think if I can just sort of frame it, there were enormous challenges for the organisation in moving practically overnight to a situation where over 95 per cent of our staff are now working entirely from home. We've given out, as I was saying, a lot of guidance and advice on safe working with help from our trade union side colleagues. We've been putting a lot of effort into making sure that people have the right essential equipment, including specialist chairs, and obviously I'm very conscious that the Welsh Government has to be an exemplar in observing the regulations and guidance.
So, the survey: we got a response of about half of the Welsh Government workforce, and that is very significantly high—one of the highest for any of the organisations that responded—so we're confident that it's a pretty representative sample of our staff views. The main findings were that most staff—90 per cent—felt very or fairly well supported by their line manager and by their team—94 per cent by their team—and that, I think, reflects the effort we've put into making sure that there's been a lot of regular communications across the whole organisation. We found that a high proportion—91 per cent—reported that they were very or fairly confident in how senior leaders have handled the impact of the crisis, and that's higher than the civil service average, which was around 86 per cent. Most staff, around 84 per cent, said their work had changed to some extent, and 41 per cent reported a very significant impact on their workload as a result of COVID-19; 94 per cent of our senior civil service staff reported that their work had changed, and I think you would expect that. As I said, almost everybody is now working remotely—so, about 99 per cent of people. Only 1 per cent are working on site; they're doing things like handling crisis co-ordination in our emergency co-ordination centre Wales. And then, there were some variable responses that we're looking at very closely on the well-being of staff coming out of this survey. About 13 per cent of respondents reported that they felt that their well-being was poor; 43 per cent said it was good; and then there was a whole range in between.
Shan, you've just mentioned, you said, I think, that 1 per cent are working on site and you've said before that Welsh Government has redeployed staff across the public service. Could you expand a little bit on this and tell us how you're working to build capacity and skills?
Yes, certainly. I think it's fair to say, as that survey reinforced, there's absolutely no part of the organisation that's been untouched by this crisis. We have redeployed staff internally very comprehensively to the crisis response. Our overriding priority has obviously been responding to COVID-19, whether that's direct health response, or economic and community support measures—all of that. So, as I said, 85 per cent are currently engaged in that. And that happened very, very quickly; people really switched over incredibly fast.
Our senior decision-making body, ExCo, the executive committee, has really refocused its attention on looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the running of the Welsh Government, and where to redeploy our resources to make sure that we are constantly deploying the right resources to the right place. So, we've moved some of our most experienced staff to crisis work, such as the health service response; PPE obviously; the shielding initiatives; support for vulnerable people; testing, surveillance and tracing; as well as support to businesses. So, we've really shifted people around within the organisation; we've created some completely new teams such as the track and trace policy team, who are working very closely together with Public Health Wales and the wider public service. Some of our medically qualified colleagues have gone out to support the NHS, and colleagues in Cadw, for example, have been helping with the delivery of front-line services to support businesses and jobs. And a lot of staff have moved roles to support the ECCW and to provide that essential liaison in the field with our first responders.
We've also had people coming into the organisation, for which we are extremely grateful. Some of our arm's-length bodies have contributed staff with specific skills and experience and I'm particularly grateful to the Wales Audit Office, Natural Resources Wales, the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, Estyn and others for the contributions that they've made to maximising the capacity of the Welsh Government to respond effectively to the crisis.
We've also benefited from a number of staff being loaned to us from other parts of the UK Government, including the Office for National Statistics, the Intellectual Property Office and Companies House—they've been contributing their expertise on some of the urgent crisis-related activity. We're doing some limited external recruitment, for example, to increase our legal capacity. We've extended some of our colleagues who were employed on temporary contracts, and basically, we are keeping all of the options constantly under review to make sure that we've got the right people in the right place.
I guess one thing I'll end with is: despite the challenges and the great sadness caused by this pandemic, there are undoubtedly some benefits in terms of strengthening cross-sector relationships, skills and capability, and strengthening relationships with many of our partners and stakeholders who are all looking to contribute to tackling this crisis.
Diolch, Shan. I want to bring in some other Members now. Jenny Rathbone, did you just indicate that you wanted a supplementary? I'll bring Jenny in and then Rhianon Passmore.
Yes. I just wanted to pick up on the results of the staff survey. I think you said 94 per cent of senior staff had said that the pandemic had had an impact on their way of working, and that's unsurprising. But, I think you said that 41 per cent of staff only said it had impacted on their way of working, which means the other 59 per cent are presumably not thinking it's impacted on their way of working. I wonder what that tells us about our ability to continue to work very differently going forward, if those people feel they can do their work from home or from some remote location near to where they live and still be just as effective in the delivery of their work.
I think I can correct that, because I must have put across a confusing message when I summarised that bit of the report. In fact, most staff—84 per cent of all of our staff—said their work had changed to some extent; and it was 41 per cent—the figure that you quoted—who reported having a very large impact from the crisis. Because I agree with you, it would be extraordinary if the whole organisation were not pulling together behind the crisis response.
Thanks, Jenny. Rhianon Passmore.
Thank you very much, Chair. In regard to this data that you've just given us, before I go on to my line of questioning, that seems a huge impact—very understandably so—in terms of working practices, and the point that you made that this crisis is still ongoing and will continue to be ongoing with the pressures that we face in terms of European exit. So, I would just like to underscore this question, really, and seek your answer: have we got the capacity in Welsh Government to deal with these very important national emergencies?
Well, we have an impressive, capable workforce, and then within the limits available to us we have to prioritise and reprioritise absolutely ruthlessly. I'm very conscious that there are a number of staff who have been working at very high intensity and for very long hours to deal with the impact of the virus. So, in those kinds of areas, we're making sure that staff work only for fairly short deployments—for example, working in the crisis co-ordination team. We are giving very strong messages to staff about how to manage their own resilience.
I think it's our job as leaders within the organisation to make sure that we are focusing ruthlessly on what the most important things are. That is what ExCo is doing when we meet to reprioritise our resources, and we've been stripping out any that we don't think are right, and those people who fulfil, for example, central co-ordination functions, they've all shifted across. So, people in our corporate functions have paused or reprofiled their standard work to move on to emergency work. I think we've been very creative. There are some things that we've paused. I think the First Minister mentioned on Friday that the work on the justice commission report has been paused. We've paused some things like a series of network events and conferences.
So, we continue to reprioritise ruthlessly, to make sure that we—you know, we have to have the capability to deal with this, and we have to make sure that the organisation is resilient. It's not easy, but that's our job as the senior leadership of the organisation.
Okay, thank you very much for that. In regard to the First Minister's comments around stop-start relations with UK Government in terms of communication and the lack of a systemic infrastructure in terms of inter-governmental meetings, especially at this time, and in regard also to the tragic news with Broughton and the 1,400 jobs lost and the anticipated 1,500 supply chain jobs lost to Wales off the back of that, and the huge importance of the aviation sectoral support, which is still at this moment in limbo, can you address the questioning around the impact that that has had in terms of lack of communication with UK Ministers on the delivery and timing of the Welsh Government's responses to COVID-19?
Well, I think, just to put it in context, the starting point for our Ministers has always been that this crisis is best managed on a four-nation approach. The First Minister has always been very clear about that. He's also been very clear that he would like to see, as you said, really, regular timing, predictable engagement throughout this whole period. And he has, as you said, expressed some concerns about the extent to which that hasn't always been the case.
What I can comment on is my experience of engagement at official level, and I think that has been very, very good. I think we've strengthened the relationships that we had already intensified through preparations for a 'no deal' Brexit last year and earlier this year. And I think we've got, across most parts of the UK Government, at official level, very good interaction and also very close working with the other devolved administrations, which I think is an important element as well. All of that has given us a good basis for sharing information.
And I would say I've been very struck by the quality of the communications between health officials. NHS chief execs and the chief medical officers meet on a very, very regular basis and give open and transparent information about what's happening. I meet with my Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts on a very regular basis with the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care in England. So, I think those kinds of contacts have been very good and we need to make sure that they continue.
So—[Inaudible.] With regard, then, to the officials' contacts and, obviously, the mention of Secretary of State contact—at that level, there seems to be sufficient co-operation, but there is, obviously, from what you've said, work around the inter-governmental processes moving forward.
Can I move on, then, with regard to what was stated by the director general of economy, skills and resources, who told this committee that he would have appreciated more notice of planned UK Government policy decisions? So, what does this mean in practice—not having that notice in terms of our hugely important responses to COVID-19?
I think it depends on what the measures are, obviously, but where there are examples of planned UK Government policy decisions that are announced quickly—. And I get it, it's only fair to say that this is a very fast-moving situation that we are in, with a lot of uncertainties, but where there are differences in timings, it can cause real-world problems, particularly, of course, at the border. So, the issue of social distancing rules changing from 2m to 1m—that has implications for the trains running between England and Wales, which is why our Ministers have called for closer working and more regular information sharing to give us time to work with our partners to make sure that they're properly prepared. So, as officials, our aim is, obviously, to strengthen all the relationships that we have to try and achieve that.
Okay, thank you. And, obviously, that's very important. What information on funding and consequentials is required from the UK Government before Welsh Government officials begin to develop proposals? What is it that would be required for this to be more satisfactory?
Okay. I will outline some initial thoughts and then I'll, if I may, invite one of the Andrews, Andrew Jeffreys, to come in, as he is the director of the Treasury, and he will be able to give you a little more detail, if you're happy with that.
I guess the first thing to say is that officials always develop policy taking into account the priorities and circumstances here in Wales, alongside the funding that's been allocated through our budget process. And as you'll know, a very important principle of the devolution settlement is that funding received from the UK Government is not ring-fenced for specific purposes; it's for us in Wales to decide what matters most for Wales. So, in the current situation, consequential funding is being added to the fighting fund, if you like, that we've established to support public services and the economy throughout this whole crisis. Sometimes we do follow UK Government measures if they are right for Wales, and that often requires a very rapid development of policy. An example of that is the non-domestic rates relief and business support measures that were drawn up in response to the pandemic. Obviously, options for delivering those had to be drawn up very quickly indeed.
At the time of the supplementary budget, we had confirmed consequentials of £1.856 billion, and they were added to our budget as part of the UK Government main estimates on 4 May. Obviously, since then, you'll be aware that there have been a number of further UK Government announcements, and the overall total of expected consequentials currently stands at around £2.3 billion. But we're still expecting the Treasury to publish its block grant transparency tables very soon, and they will show the detail of allocations across all three devolved nations. But if I may, I'll ask Andrew Jeffreys to add his perspective on how that is working.
Thanks. Shan's said most of what needs to be said, I think. Probably just to add, we wouldn't want to give the impression that Welsh Government officials are waiting for UK Government to announce measures and then scurrying to replicate those measures after the fact. We have developed our own interventions and responses to the crisis, sometimes very similar to UK Government measures, sometimes very different.
I suppose the key point, though, is our ability to implement things is constrained by the available resources, and this year it's been particularly dramatic in terms of some of the changes in funding available, and I think Shan's touched on what the rest of the year might hold. We know we've got about £1.9 billion, we know the Treasury have announced measures that will give us a consequential of about £400 million on top of that, but it's still very early on in the financial year and there is still scope for things to change quite a bit in the remainder of the year.
So, one of the things we're hoping happens this week is, when the Chancellor makes his statement on Wednesday, that we'll learn a bit more about what our budget looks like for the remainder of this year and that some of the uncertainties, perhaps, that we are carrying at the moment will be resolved or have a higher degree of confidence about what funding's going to be available for the rest of this year to deal with all the things that are still to come in this financial—
Okay, and I realise that some of this is difficult to respond to. With regard to the £1 billion pupil catch-up money from the UK Government for primary school catch-up, how will any consequential be used in Wales and when will the block grant transparency tables be published? Have you any advance notice of when that timescale is?
Do you want me to answer that, Shan?
So, on the transparency report, that's due to be published alongside when the main estimates are finalised, so I think we should see that in the next week or two. On the measures announced in relation to the £1 billion for school catch-up in England, that's a good illustration, actually, of some of the difficulties of sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of some of these announcements. So, the new money was around about £800 million in total for those measures, and that's spread across two financial years, so covering the academic year 2020-1, but covering two financial years. So, we're expecting about £45 million from those measures in total, but the split across the two years is still not perfectly clear at this stage. We think the majority will be in the current financial year, but all the detail there is still to be revealed.
Thank you, Chair.
Thanks, Rhianon. Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Gadeirydd. Os caf innau ofyn ychydig o gwestiynau ar feysydd tebyg i'r rhai mae Rhianon wedi bod yn mynd ar eu holau nhw rŵan, rydych chi mewn sefyllfa anarferol, mewn ffordd, gan eich bod chi'n atebol i Brif Weinidog Cymru a'r Cabinet a hefyd yn atebol i bennaeth y gwasanaeth sifil Prydeinig. Beth ydy'ch rôl chi wedi bod, felly, mewn trio creu gwell perthynas rhwng Llywodraeth Prydain a Llywodraeth Cymru, o ystyried y problemau mae Prif Weinidog Cymru a Gweinidogion eraill wedi pwyntio atyn nhw, sydd wedi codi dros y misoedd diwethaf?
Thank you very much, Chair. If I could ask a few questions on similar areas to those that Rhianon has pursued, you are in an unusual situation, in a way, given that you're accountable to the First Minister of Wales and the Cabinet and also accountable to the head of the civil service in the UK. So, what has your role been in trying to create a better relationship between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, given the problems that the First Minister and other Ministers in Wales have pointed to, which have arisen in the past couple of months?
Can I say, perhaps to preface my response to that question, that I'm part of the senior civil service of the UK civil service, and I was appointed to this job through an open selection process run by Cabinet Office, which uses a formal civil service recruitment process? I have a five-year contract that makes clear that my role is to support the First Minister and the Welsh Government, and my Scottish counterpart has a very similar contract, obviously. The First Minister at the time, Carwyn Jones, was fully involved in that recruitment, and consulted during the selection process, and actually approved the final appointment. So, for all practical purposes, I am accountable to the First Minister. I agree my objectives directly with him every year. He contributes feedback on my performance to the head of the UK civil service, and my loyalties clearly lie very firmly with the First Minister and the Welsh Government. I just wanted to say that, to make absolutely clear the framework within which I operate.
I think part of my role in this job is to be a voice for Wales at a senior level in the UK civil service. So, I attend, remotely now, a weekly meeting of all of the permanent secretaries of the UK civil service, and I can contribute to that a perspective for Wales, and usually my Scottish counterpart is there as well; if she's not, I can contribute a perspective for her. So, I do see it very much as a part of my role in all of the meetings that I go to at my level to put across the importance of proper engagement with the devolved administrations, and I can assure you I do that on a very, very regular basis.
I was very pleased, actually, when recently the Cabinet Office in London I think recognised the importance of engaging with the devolved administrations by inviting me personally to join the civil service board, which is the top, if you like, corporate decision-making group for the whole of the UK civil service. So, I think there is a recognition. I have opportunities through the meetings I take part in, and through that group, to put across the importance of considering devolved administration views, and obviously my Scottish and Northern Ireland counterparts do exactly the same.
Rhowch syniad i ni, felly, o le mae pethau yn mynd o'i le, ac yn arwain at sefyllfa lle mae Prif Weinidog Cymru yn beirniadu yn gyhoeddus y diffyg cyswllt sydd wedi bod ar y lefel uchaf efo Llywodraeth y Deyrnas Unedig. A allwn ni gymryd bod Prif Weinidog Cymru wedi gofyn am gael cyfarfod efo Prif Weinidog y Deyrnas Unedig a bod Prif Weinidog y Deyrnas Unedig wedi gwrthod y cyfarfod?
Could you give us an idea, therefore, of where things might be going wrong, and leading to a situation where the First Minister of Wales criticises publicly a lack of engagement that there's been at the highest level with the UK Government? Could we take it that the First Minister of Wales has asked for a meeting with the UK Prime Minister, and that the UK Prime Minister has refused to have such a meeting?
I'm not aware of that request, or it being turned down. I know that the First Minister, as you would expect, does have contacts with the UK Prime Minister as well as with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and with his devolved counterparts. I think the message that the First Minister has given a number of times is not concerned about a complete lack of engagement; it's the predictability and regularity of engagement that he has expressed concerns about.
He specifically said there had been no meetings for the last two or three weeks, I think he said last Friday. I was just wondering if he'd actually asked for a meeting within that last two or three weeks, and you're not able to tell us that that request went in. What about when meetings that Welsh Government think should take place—? I can think of several issues or occasions when the health Minister has said, 'Oh, this has happened, I wasn't given prior warning of this, we weren't told that this was going to happen'. Do you know why those important either transfers of information, communication or meetings weren't held at those times when Welsh Government thought it would be rather important that they did take place?
I don't think I can speculate on the reasons why. All I can do is both echo the experience that my Ministers feel, and explain the experience that I and other officials have. I think that the contacts at official level are programmed on a more regular basis. I mentioned just now that I attend a weekly meeting of 'Wednesday morning colleagues'. There are a few other regularly programmed meetings for officials, but I know the concern that the First Minister has expressed is about predictability of contacts at his level. But I'm afraid I really can't speculate on why that is. I can reassure you that I do, on a regular basis, put across very clearly to my colleagues at official level in the UK Government the importance of engaging with the devolved administrations.
There have been a number of public breakdowns, I guess, in communication, where there has been clear disagreement; I can think of decisions on telling personal protective equipment suppliers in England not to supply Welsh care homes, for example. Another obvious one was on Roche, the pharmaceutical company deciding not to supply Welsh Government as Welsh Government had understood was going to be the case. Perhaps commenting on Roche in particular, how have officials tried to make sure that there is a better understanding about what drove those breakdowns in communication, or what drove disagreement on issues such as Roche, and how you've tried to move forward from that in a more positive way?
I'll give you my perspective and then perhaps I could invite Dr Andrew Goodall to come in, because he was obviously very closely involved in that. How do we put across Welsh views and interests? I mentioned earlier on that there are very good contacts at official level between health professionals, as I would describe them, so between Dr Goodall and his counterparts from England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Similarly, I have a regular meeting with my counterparts and with the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care. So, at one of the meetings I had with him, I was able to put across very directly the concerns that we had about that. I think that's the value of those very direct and open contacts that we're having.
I think I'll have to ask Andrew Goodall to explain what happened as a result and what action was taken, because Andrew was very closely involved in making sure that the PPE for Wales was what we needed and when we needed it.
I think we've just had to try to use different mechanisms where they exist—some of those are about existing relationships—but also introduce new mechanisms where necessary. So, in the two examples that you've given about how do we align ourselves around testing principles, the way in which we need to interact and the way we need to rely, as one example at the moment, some of our learning is that we are accessing some of the UK lighthouse laboratory testing activity, for example, which has emerged out of the need to continue to expand both our domestic capacity, but to utilise what's been available across UK Government. And we've been able to make sure that we can interact through agencies like Public Health Wales with their counterparts in Public Health England.
We have, as officials, supported the Minister in regular contact on a very formal basis through the ministerial implementation groups, which have had a number of themes around this area, which have included areas like PPE and testing. I participated in some of those discussions myself that have been part of the mechanisms over these recent weeks or so. And they've also been supplemented by—at the choice of the four health Ministers, representing the four home countries—a need for Ministers to actually interact much more regularly as well, if you like, at an informal level, beyond just those formal structures as well. So, I think we have managed to work through.
PPE, actually, is a really good example where it was necessary for us to really clarify expectations about the supply chain, when I picked up concerns that there were access issues beyond what we were looking to co-ordinate as Welsh Government—to look for the reassurances, from both the Department of Health and also from my colleagues in NHS England, because obviously that supply chain was overseen by them, just to get the reassurances that we were able to access the PPE supplies that we needed. And whilst I know there was noise and concerns, and perhaps feedback from some of the agencies, in practice, I think we were able to work through those, and ultimately have been able to continue to be able to access the supply chain that we actually wanted for PPE in Wales.
But, just in summary, I think it's a combination of using relationships, some of the excellent mechanisms, and then having introduced some new level of contact, but certainly to say where we have concerns.
Okay. We've still got quite a large—. Rhun, had you finished with that line of questioning?
I'll try to come back with a couple of other things later, if there's time, Chair.
Because I realise we're a third of the way through, and we've still got a large number of questions. So, I'd like to move things on. Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. Following on from the previous set of questions, I'd like to ask you some things about working with Welsh Ministers. So, you say that your first concern, at the outset of the pandemic, was how the civil service could support Ministers to respond effectively to the crisis. But with the workload that has inevitably been placed on Ministers, and the need to turn things around in a very short space of time and the amount of advice and support that officials necessarily have had to give, does that mean that COVID has blurred the boundaries between the responsibilities of Ministers and Welsh Government officials?
No. I wouldn't say that at all, actually. I would say that we've taken the same approach during the crisis as we have always done in the past. In other words, Ministers set the policy, they take the significant decisions, and officials provide advice for Ministers to take into account when setting their policy and taking those decisions, and it's for officials, then, to put those decisions into effect. So, we have, if you like, an operating framework in the civil service code and the ministerial code, which set out very clearly our respective roles and—you used the word 'boundaries'—set out, if you like, the boundaries between us.
Now, in this particular crisis, there are a very small number of officials who have had more public prominence than you would usually expect for officials. And I think that's certainly true of the chief medical officer, Frank Atherton, and our NHS Wales chief executive, Dr Andrew Goodall. And I think Ministers rightly feel that, in Wales, as we've seen elsewhere in the UK, the public are actually reassured by getting some direct feedback from the health professionals. But obviously those officials, even though they're in a different and more prominent role, they're very clear that their accountability is to Welsh Government Ministers and that they work under their direction.
Nonetheless, obviously, in this situation, things are very fast moving. Decisions have to be taken much more rapidly than usual, and it was to make sure that I had assurance that the civil service was responding effectively to Ministers' priorities that I set up a new monitoring and decision-making committee, which is called ExCOVID. Now, I mentioned that briefly at the briefing session back in May, and I covered its remit and terms of reference in the letter I sent to the Chair on 1 June. That committee meets every week to focus down on the latest developments, look at new risks, and agree action across the whole of Government.
So, I have to say, I draw a great deal of assurance from the papers and discussions of that committee that the civil service is focusing on the top issues and is working effectively across the Government to respond to the crisis. And as I said, I'm very clear that people are operating in their proper roles despite having to take decisions on a very fast-moving basis.
Okay, thank you very much. And if ministerial aims and policy sometimes conflict with your responsibilities as the principal accounting officer, how would you challenge that? And could you provide us, perhaps, with any practical examples?
We have a process that covers that exact situation. You'll know that my own responsibilities as principal accounting officer are very tightly drawn up and set out in a document that I receive directly from the Treasury. So, where my principal accounting officer responsibilities come into play is if I think a Minister is considering a course of action which I or the additional accounting officers I've appointed feel is not consistent with our duty in relation to the proper use of public money. And, obviously, all expenditure by the Welsh Government has to meet the tests of regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility.
There is, as you'll be aware, a formal process, if necessary, for challenging ministerial aims and policy proposals if I feel that there is a direct conflict with my own accounting officer responsibilities. In that situation I can request a ministerial direction, and that would arise only if we couldn't find a resolution to the situation that was acceptable to both the Minister and to the accounting officer. I have to say, I have not been put in that position since the ministerial direction that you'll remember I requested in relation to payments to NHS consultants. And I reported on that through the proper process to the PAC in February.
I guess, in practice, these kinds of conflicts are relatively rare. Our job as civil servants is to be able to give clear advice to Ministers about how to make sure that we are spending taxpayers' money wisely. And, of course, Ministers themselves are very conscious of the need to do that, that we have very limited resources to spend in Wales, and we need to make sure that we are using those very carefully.
So, there is a process for dealing with a conflict if it were to arise. I have used it once. It was a technical situation, if you like, rather than a conflict between me and the First Minister, but you'll remember that from the detailed hearing that we had with the PAC. And since then, I've not encountered another situation like that.
Thank you very much.
Thanks, Vikki. Gareth Bennett.
Thanks, Chair. Can I ask a couple of questions relating to the role of the Welsh Government's non-executive directors? Because Shan just mentioned ExCOVID, which has been meeting regularly, but that, I believe, is comprised of Welsh Government officials. The Welsh Government board hasn't been meeting routinely during the pandemic crisis, neither has the audit and assurance committee. So, what advice have the non-executive directors been able to give, and what challenge have they been able to provide for the Welsh Government during this crisis?
We have held remote meetings of the Welsh Government board at the standard frequency of six weeks. So, that's enabled the non-exec directors on the board to challenge what we're doing and to give us assurance on all matters in relation to COVID-19 alongside all the other priority areas. We've also got a non-executive director who sits on the finance sub-committee. That has been meeting on a weekly basis during the pandemic and that committee reports to ExCo, the executive committee. So, she's been very closely engaged in that work.
We had also, shortly before the crisis began, introduced challenge sessions led by non-exec directors to give assurance on delivery of key areas of work, which they chose in consultation with all of us, to focus on the First Minister's priorities. In fact, there was only time for one of those meetings to be held and they've subsequently been paused, but we're going to restart them, because we found that a very valuable way of bringing external challenge to scrutinise what we're doing to deliver on key ministerial priorities. So, we're going to be resuming those.
You mentioned ExCOVID, the new committee that I set up, and you're right that there isn't a non-exec director on that board. It does tend to deal with very fast-moving and immediate operational issues rather than the wider strategic issues that traditionally the NEDs have been involved in—through the board at any rate—and I'm conscious that NEDs would have to do an awful lot of work to catch up with some of the operational detail. But I'd certainly be very happy to consider the question of inviting a NED or to invite NEDs in rotation to attend that meeting.
But, in the meantime, NEDs continue to engage with the Welsh Government ARAC and the group ARACs for the Welsh Government. You're absolutely right—there was one ARAC that was scheduled for April that had to be cancelled because of the impact of COVID-19; it was very early days. But we've relaunched them since then. We had a COVID-19-specific meeting of the Welsh Government ARAC on 22 May. That obviously focused on the Welsh Government response to the crisis and looked at the guidance and everything and we had a further standard ARAC meeting on 15 June to discuss the corporate risk register and to receive the annual assurance report from the head of internal audit. We've got further meetings of the ARAC scheduled for later in July, as well as in October, so that the committee can scrutinise the documentation that supports the annual governance statement and, obviously, the signing of the Welsh Government accounts.
And, in the meantime, group ARACs have started to reconvene. They also were initially cancelled because of the impact of COVID-19, but they are now all starting to pick up their normal business again. Two of them were held on 6 May, and ESNR held their ARAC on 14 May, and it's our intention to return now to the regular rhythm of ARAC meetings. And, of course, in the meantime, even if they haven't been meeting, they've been receiving all the key documentation as normal. We have been in regular discussion with the chairs of the group ARACs, and the chairs of the group ARACs obviously sit on the Welsh Government ARAC as well. So, we have re-established those links after a period when we had to just put things on pause because of dealing with the emergency situation. But, even in that paused period, we made sure that they were kept up to date on all of the information that we were producing and all of the guidance that we were giving.
Okay. Thanks for that information. Moving on to something else, the ESNR group and the education and public services group—their approaches diverged somewhat during the crisis, because we've heard in the past that the ESNR group has taken a different approach to what it normally does to policy development. On the other hand, the EPS group has more or less continued as before. So, why have there been different approaches taken by different directorates?
I'll ask, perhaps, Andrew Slade to say a few quick words on this afterwards, but, essentially, the different approaches reflect the very wide range of different activity across the Welsh Government. You mentioned the education and public services group; they have pretty much continued their traditional approach to policy development, and that's because, although they've had to move very quickly, commit new money to COVID-19 issues, by and large, they've been doing that through very well-established communication channels and tested mechanisms, delivery partners—essentially, local authorities—and using existing measures that we have in place. So, they were speeding things up, intensifying action, but basically using the same mechanisms to make things happen. They haven't needed to change that. In other areas—and ESNR, as you said, is one of them—there have been a number of new and very different kinds of policy measures that have been introduced very quickly, and which required a different kind of policy development approach.
So, obviously, the main outcomes we're looking for in that area of work are helping businesses survive this shock of a sudden and significant drop in revenue, and also, secondly, to safeguard the jobs of people that they employed, and I believe very strongly that the economic interventions that they have taken show the creativity and ability of Welsh Government staff and their partners to work at real pace. I think it's been impressive, including, for example, developing the economic resilience fund. But I think, if I may, Chair, I could invite Andrew Slade perhaps to say a little bit more about how that happened.
Yes, sure. Andrew, did you want to add a few words?
Yes. Thanks, Chair. Thank you, Shan. I was casting my mind back to what I said on 8 June, when I appeared before you. I think there are a couple of areas, really. One is it's undoubtedly the case in relation to unlocking our economy, so that—the measures that had to be put in place in order to restrict activity in the cause of tackling coronavirus earlier in the spring, the process of unlocking has thrown up all sorts of quite technical and complicated questions and interactions between policy areas, so we've had to spend quite a bit of time getting our heads around those across Welsh Government, but a lot of those areas of policy have fallen to my group, because they are about different components of the economy. So, there are certain sectors and subsectors with which we probably haven't had vast amounts to do other than in a very general sense previously, and of course, as I say, in the process of helping unlock the economy, we've had to have more detailed discussions and work up policy approaches to particular supply chains, or, as I say, particular sectors and subsectors.
On the development of ERF, I think that the point there is the one that Shan was making about pace. So, it's not that we have created new ways of doing policy per se; it's that we've found ways of moving swiftly, using lessons learned elsewhere, to get the process as robust as it can be, but also delivering swiftly. So, we had cross-Government teams working on the design of the economic resilience fund. We had cross-Government teams double-checking what we were doing, basically in parallel, as we were designing and developing the scheme. We've had regular daily checks, the sort of process of hot and cold reviews on different cases within the grants administration. We've seconded colleagues in from internal audit. We adopted the approach to delivery used by the development bank, which I think Duncan Hamer told you about on 8 June—the sort of pod approach, where you've got a group of people who are doing a multidisciplinary approach to the delivery of the grant, but ensuring checks are made along the way, and that helps you bring new staff on board alongside more experienced members of the team. So, it's things of that sort. And then we had challenge both at ministerial level and at senior official level for what was going on, so that at all points we were applying whatever checks and balances we could. And that, as Shan has said, is a product of circumstance and us wanting to deliver economic solutions in support of the wider economy as swiftly and safely as possible.
Can I just come in there? Thanks, Andrew, for clarifying that. I'm just mindful that the time's moving on—we'll be entering the last half hour soon and we've still got a fair number of questions, so I just want to move things on. Gareth, did you have any further questions?
Well, I'm doing the next bit. If you think it's been covered then move on, by all means.
No, no—you're talking about ministerial directions, yes?
No, if you could ask those, but, if questions can be succinct and answers as well, we'll just get through as much as possible, then.
Okay. Yes, thanks, Chair. Yes, thanks, Andrew. Now, you were saying about obviously we needed to have a swift response because of the problems that were caused to business—you know, you say that job safeguarding was a massive priority, so I understand all that, and you mentioned the phrase 'checks and balances'. Of course, there is an issue that, when you're doing things that swiftly, are you still complying with things like 'Managing Welsh Public Money'—the document—which puts in certain requirements to do with appraisals and analyses? How far have the checks and balances managed to keep those normal checks in place, and was there a case for anyone applying for a ministerial direction in this area, which is what happened with the UK Government and the accounting officer of the UK Government's business department?
Do you want me to start on that, Mr Bennett—shall I, and Shan may want to come in as principal accounting officer, but I'm happy to kick off?
I don't think there's a huge amount that I would add to the evidence I gave to you on 8 June. In relation to the directions, which I think were brought up on that occasion, that were issued in England, in relation to the UK Government, I don't think most of those are relevant to the Wales context. There were a couple in relation to non-domestic rates and the delivery of our support schemes, which—you know, they're very similar; they mirror the arrangements put in place in both England and Scotland.
Our context is very different in Wales; we have far fewer local authorities to deal with, compared with the 300 plus in England. We have a very good knowledge of our business base, we have a very good knowledge of how, when we put interventions into the market place, they are going to perform—that's based on many, many years' experience. On regularity, propriety and on feasibility—the ability to deliver the programmes—we were pretty confident as a team that that could be covered off very swiftly in the Welsh context.
The only question, as I said to you before, was around value for money, and value for money is a subjective judgment, based around what you're trying to achieve. It was our view, given that, as I said on 8 June, the economy was going off a cliff, that, as a means of getting money into businesses swiftly and as safely as possible in order to prop up the economy and keep businesses going, the system associated with non-domestic rates linked to property was a sensible way to proceed at pace, and we put into provision the scheme, through the local authorities, that covers that sort of non-domestic-rates-linked support grant. But we did not feel that a direction was needed for that, and we were satisfied that this was a good use of public money in the extraordinary circumstances that we found ourselves in. I think that's, really, how I would respond to that, but my principal accounting officer may want to add to that.
Can I just add, in general, that I have written to all of our directors to make sure that they understand the importance of giving advice to our Ministers on the proper use of public funds? I wrote also to my accounting officers, and it's something I discuss with them regularly, that we would have to bring to the attention of the Minister any perceived conflict. And really the acid test is basically whether we can defend it against scrutiny by external stakeholders, such as this committee itself. If not, then, ultimately, there would have to be a direction. There is a very clear process. As you know from the Public Accounts Committee hearing on the ministerial direction, there is a clear and, I think, very rigorous process. It's one that gives me personal assurance, and I can confirm that I have not been put into any position of conflict between my responsibilities as principal accounting officer and the aims of Ministers. The directors and the directors general can escalate to me any concerns that they have about any kind of conflict there. And I can confirm that nothing has been escalated to me; none of my additional accounting officers have approached me with concerns.
Okay, thanks very much.
Thanks Gareth. Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Eisiau gofyn cwestiwn sydyn oeddwn i ynglŷn â phrofi ac olrhain, ac yn benodol, mi gafodd fwrdd trosolwg strategol ei sefydlu o fewn Llywodraeth Cymru ym mis Mai i gydlynu'r profi ac olrhain. Pwy oedd yn gyfrifol am brofi cyn hynny? Beth oedd y mecanwaith o fewn Llywodraeth Cymru? Pam ei bod hi wedi cymryd tan y pwynt yna i sefydlu'r grŵp strategol newydd yma?
I would like to ask a quick question about testing and tracing, and specifically, the strategic overview board that was established within Welsh Government in May to co-ordinate the testing and tracing programme. Who was responsible for testing before that? What was the mechanism within the Welsh Government? Why did it take until that point to establish this new strategic group?
Chair, can I ask my colleague Dr Goodall to give the background to that question, because he's a great deal more knowledgeable than I am?
Yes, sure. Andrew Goodall.
Yes. The testing strategy—and ultimately, when we introduced the test, trace and protect mechanism—has always been with our oversight, through teams. Ultimately, that would rely on my oversight as director general that, I would suggest, separates a little bit off the NHS Wales chief executive role. But the programme board mechanism was in terms of just recognising the further need to ensure that there was even clearer director responsibility, lifting out from some of the existing responsibilities and recognising simply the range of actions that were in place, and I have to say, including all of the various stakeholder mechanisms that have to be through there, from the expert advice that we need to get from Public Health Wales right through to the importance of the TTP approach to make sure that we have local stakeholders as a fundamental part of our response in Wales, and I do think we've ended up with that. But the responsibility and oversight would've been in my director general role, but I've ensured that I've got one of my directors who is particularly able to focus on that as just a key role.
Why wasn't that entrusted to Public Health Wales? I know that they would've been very much involved in the strategic group, but why wouldn't that have just been entrusted to Public Health Wales, given that that is essentially what they would be there to do?
I think that we've been through various phases here, and I do think that Public Health Wales have responded very well in those particularly early phases when we were following through the need for the positive cases that we were seeing through March at that stage; they do have excellent functions and responsibilities that they need to discharge. But I think it's clear to me, as I reflect on their range of responsibilities, that there were some areas that probably went beyond, perhaps, some of their core functions at this stage, particularly when they were interacting with some of the broader stakeholders and some of the policy decisions.
So, a really important document that we received was their health protection plan, for example. That was commissioned by the chief medical officer; that was advice into Government; that was about using their expertise. But we had to translate that into policy judgments and, obviously, most of that document has stuck, but we would've had some areas ourselves where we perhaps have had some different opinions. I don't know, for example, the geographical model that was suggested, we wanted to have a bit more of a focus on the cluster premise, perhaps, rather than some of the suggestions within that report. But, really, it was just recognising that, in terms of our learning around this virus and its development, the policy end of this obviously needed to be owned by Welsh Government and that oversight mechanism. And I think we've been better able to discharge the range of stakeholders around the table, balancing the different responsibilities from local government to the health boards, right through to Public Health Wales, and it was really in response to the launch of the test, trace and protect strategy.
And finally, if I may, there have been a number of private players involved from the commissioning of testing centres to carrying out tests themselves, and the posting out of tests and that kind of thing. What evaluation has been, or is being, presumably carried out within Welsh Government as to the value for money that is being achieved through the use of those private partners and the element of control that Welsh Government has over what is provided by those private providers?
Again, we've been through different phases of this at this stage, and you're right to say that there are different mechanisms in place. There's one example at the moment beyond just even the private perspective: we've been using the military as part of our response around the mobile testing units in Wales, and we've wanted to take a big advantage of those. What we have had is a particular focus on the domestic capacity that's been in place, which is the capacity that is overseen by Public Health Wales, and we've been able to utilise hospital and other lab capacity to make sure that we're able to broker that.
But, clearly, the use of the lighthouse mechanisms, the lighthouse laboratories, across England, that is a UK Government investment. We have wanted to make sure that we can take advantage of that to the benefit of the Welsh population, and we will of course do evaluations of the balance between the domestic capacity that's available alongside what's there. So, we'll continue with those evaluation mechanisms. We do need to make judgments around how we continue to implement test, trace and protect.
And I think one of the things we're particularly concerned to make sure is that, at the moment, I mean, even on today's figures, we've been down to only eight positive cases reported by Public Health Wales. I'm really pleased to say that we've had the first day since 19 March when not a single death has been reported in Wales. So, clearly, we are over that peak and continuing to learn lessons. But we will need to make sure that we're able to use all of those arrangements in terms of the likelihood of the second peak, which is a really practical part of our planning. But I'm very happy to perhaps do a note through to the Chair just on the evaluation mechanisms that will be in place. We can send those through.
Yes. We certainly are very pleased and hope to have many more days without COVID-19 deaths.
You mention lighthouse capacity. Concerns have been raised, though—the Institute of Biomedical Science, for example—about overreliance on lighthouse, and some worries about the loss of control, if you like, through doing the tests through this way. Do you share any of those concerns, or are you satisfied that this isn't undermining control over, potentially, the speed of getting tests back and so on in Wales because of this preferred model?
Yes, I think there is a balance to be brought here, and certainly where we stand at the moment, the balancing of the continuing need to be able to utilise domestic capacity, alongside the routes that allow us to use that more broader UK Government capacity, is one of the reasons why we have had some of the mass testing areas linked through more so on there. I think what was useful for us in Wales, and we saw this deployed with the outbreaks that were reported in north Wales, in the factories, the food processing areas, and also in Merthyr, was, actually, it was our ability to deploy the domestic capacity really quickly that helped us with the turnaround of those results to come through. So, my own view is that if you're over-reliant on one rather than the other, perhaps some of the flexibility and discretion is taken away. But, I think, when we went through those outbreaks, just literally over the last two and a half weeks, we seemed to be able to utilise the balance to good effect.
Yes. Okay. Thank you.
Diolch, Rhun. Can I ask a quick question now on the shielding letters situation? Shan Morgan, can you provide an update on the review by the Information Commissioner's Office into the shielding letters that were sent to incorrect addresses?
Yes, I can give you a quick overview, and, again, if you would like any more detail, I'm sure Andrew Goodall would be able to provide it.
You'll know that up to about 13,000 letters were originally sent to the previous address of shielded people because of a data processing error. That issue was resolved immediately. It was reported by the NHS Wales Informatics Service directly to the Information Commissioner, and they reissued the letters on 14 April.
The Information Commissioner has recently concluded their investigation and they've indicated to us that no regulatory action is required. And, in fact, they welcomed the remedial action that the NHS Wales Informatics Service took in that particular case and the mitigating actions that they put in place to prevent a recurrence. So, it's something that we were obviously concerned about when it happened, but took very swift action, which has been commended by the Information Commissioner's Office.
And following on from that, are you confident that if we were in a similar situation again with regard to the need for these letters to go out, similar errors wouldn't be made in future?
Well, I think this is one of the lessons we keep learning throughout the whole crisis. We are constantly trying to learn lessons as we go along, but I don't know if Andrew Goodall wants to say anything on this specific—
I think I just saw Andrew's hand. Andrew, did you want to say a few words?
Yes, just briefly. I think two things I'd like to act as a reminder of where we were in March. Firstly was the sheer pace and intensity of the environment we were in to ensure that we were able to take the protective actions that were necessary. I remember having an exchange with the chief statistician at the time, just about the work that was going on here. We've never done this kind of reconciliation exercise at all in the past—to reconcile all of these different multiple databases, right through from hospital records to intensive care to GP records to prescribing to, actually, the local authorities as well. So, it's a rather unique experience that we were having to go through, but with the pace that was necessary to make sure that we could shield individuals. So, if I could just register that; this wasn't just one of those things that we do all of the time. It had never been attempted before, and, in fact, one of the outcomes for the Welsh shielding approach, as a result, we actually have a fuller and more comprehensive database so that GPs didn't have to repeat or duplicate work, and we've obviously allowed the opportunity for GPs and hospital consultants to add patients to this list.
On the learning aspect of this, one of the findings on it was there was simply an individual error that occurred, and I think that's why, to some extent, whatever the remedial actions, the ICO was able to recognise that and the intensity of the situation as well. But we absolutely will use it, looking forward. If we have other unique exercises that we need to do, we always need to make sure that we can do them quickly, but as safely as possible, and there was no personal clinical data or information that was provided as part of the letters.
Okay. Diolch. Jenny Rathbone.
Thank you very much. I just want to ask Shan how we are supporting and funding other organisations with whom we're in partnership, first of all, local authorities. Given the shortness of time, I wondered if we could focus on education, because, obviously, local authorities are responsible for delivering education through schools. How are you able to reassure local authorities that they will have sufficient resources to implement any planned reforms, given that we don't, at the moment, know the shape of education from September?
That's a complex question. I think what I would start by saying is that we are in very regular contact with colleagues in local government. There are very, very regular contacts at ministerial level, obviously, and increasingly intensive contacts at official level as well. So, for example, all four DGs and I have been holding three-weekly meetings with all of the chief executive officers of the local authorities, chaired by the Welsh Local Government Association, and it's precisely these kinds of lessons that we're trying to learn, to have a constantly updated sense of the issues that are of top concern to them, so that we're learning and able to respond rapidly. That, obviously, is in addition to the very close ministerial contacts.
There's a very wide range, as you'll know, of funding available to local authorities, whether it's for homelessness, free school meals or social care, it's very, very wide ranging and complex. In terms of thinking about the future, I think all of that is about strengthening and intensifying the relationships at official level, as well as at ministerial level, and all of that is very much what is in hand. I have to say that it's very clear that we would not be able to deliver the response we need to this crisis without the very full engagement of our colleagues throughout local government. That's very, very clear.
Okay. Given that I'm getting a huge clamour of demand for children to return to full-time education in September, how agile are your officials able to be, given that, obviously, the Minister has to decide exactly what shape education is going to be provided in? But, clearly, it isn't very long between now and early September, when the new school year is due to start, so how confident are you that you have the mechanisms in place to enable local authorities to implement whatever the Minister decides, hopefully by the end of this week?
Well, I think our experience to date has been impressive. I feel very proud of the officials concerned, who have implemented action there. I think there is very close contact between officials, and I guess it goes back to a question earlier on about very, very rapid development of policies in response to huge uncertainty and changing situations. We talked about the difference in approach on policy development. On the education side, we're working with tried and trusted partners to make sure that we are putting the right things in place and learning the lessons of this experience, and obviously education will always continue to be a top priority for Ministers. They are focused very much on making sure that catch-up is available for children who have lost out during this period. And to respond directly to your question, I'm fully confident in the officials that we have working on this policy area. They are doing their absolute utmost to respond in an agile and constructive way to this crisis.
Okay, thank you. Just moving on, then, to the impact that the pandemic has had on our Welsh Government sponsored bodies, organisations like the national library and national museums and Natural Resources Wales, all of whom have seen any of their income just disappear out of the window as a result of the lockdown, so obviously there are considerable challenges for them ahead. I appreciate a small amount of money was given for digitising libraries, to enable the public to continue to be able to access them, but that apart, we're some way off enabling people to be able to operate as they were doing this time last year.
I think it is a difficult situation at the moment for everybody, isn't it? It's very clear that all our sponsored bodies have a combination of tight budgets and the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to generate commercial income, as for local government as well, and a further 2 per cent in-year cut, is certainly having a negative impact on some of our public bodies. We've had to take difficult decisions to try and fund new measures of the sort that Andrew Slade was describing earlier, to deal with the public health issues, but also the economic emergency that's facing us, and the extent of potential job losses. So, our Ministers discussed the implications of budget reductions with the sponsored bodies ahead of the publication of the first supplementary budget, which of course was at the end of May, and through asking some of them to take a small reduction in their grant in aid this year, we were able to reprioritise our budgets and generate more than £1.4 billion altogether towards the economic resilience fund [correction: and through asking some of them to take a small reduction in their grant in aid this year, this contributed to reprioritising our budgets and generating more than £1.74 billion altogether towards business support measures, including the economic resilience fund]. That, of course, is providing an absolutely essential lifeline to many businesses and organisations right across Wales.
It's a very difficult time, and there are tough decisions that have to be taken. We appreciate very much the support that we're seeing from the Welsh Government sponsored bodies, the efforts that they're making to contribute to the response to this pandemic. I do understand their concerns. We recognise them. We will be working closely with the sponsored bodies during the whole of the year ahead to support them in their decision making and to try to manage the budget reduction as much as possible. They have been doing impact assessments of the 2 per cent in-year cut, and I know that some of the impact includes projects being paused or stopped and job losses, but it is an emergency situation that we're in. It's extremely difficult.
One of the concerns raised by Tracey Burke in our earlier conversation with her was that it isn't just about the loss of income and additional cost, it's also the fact that some of the changes that needed to be made in order to realise savings in budgets haven't been able to be realised. In contrast with that, you've been very upfront in saying how pleased you've been about the shared learning experience and, indeed, the speed with which some public bodies have implemented change. I know Andrew Goodall spoke about—you know, it would have taken two years normally to implement video consultations in normal times. How are you going to plan to maintain that pace of change that is going to be necessary if we're going to stay standing, and maintain the momentum of this crisis?
We've been in very regular contact with the sponsored bodies. We've got a virtual meeting of the public leaders forum coming up, with all the chairs and chief executive officers of public bodies coming together. We have been, as you said at the beginning, sharing lessons and I think that this builds upon the new relationship that I think we've established over the last 12 months or so with our public bodies, because now we have much better mechanisms for rapid and much more open communication with them. We've been sharing lessons on things like advice on furloughing arrangements, combating fraud in a crisis, processes to make sure that we are continuing to maintain value for money, lessons on preparation of accounts, resilience of ICT systems—all that.
So, we are sharing what we can with the bodies and, as I said, I am extremely grateful to them for the contribution that they're making to this extraordinary crisis situation that we're in. And I think some of them—you've mentioned the national library—we've shared best practice on joint working across boundaries, which is something that we're seeing very strongly in this situation. The national library very early on seconded their own catering staff and premises to the hospital next door to be used by the NHS, so I think there is some fantastic work going on. As you made clear, there are some hard decisions being made by everybody, but it does feel to me as though everybody is genuinely trying to contribute to the emergency.
Jenny, just before you go on, I've got to point out we're into the last 10 minutes or so now of the session, so the more succinct the questions and answers, the more we'll get through.
Okay. So, you briefly mentioned the short surveys you were doing as part of your work in the emergency co-ordination centre. To what extent do you think the Government has the ability and capacity to take stock of its actions, and use those lessons to inform your policy proposals relating to recovery?
I think that—. Well, the survey that I was talking about earlier was about the experience of our own staff—
Yes. I think this is the short surveys you've been doing in relation to—well, that's what I understood—the crisis response.
We are sharing all of our information across the whole structure that we have for reaching out, and particularly through the work of the emergency co-ordination centre for Wales and the engagement that they have with local and regional stakeholders. So, there is a regular flow of communication there, and that will continue and lessons learned will continue throughout the period of this crisis. That's a large part of their work. And you'll be aware of the work of the strategic co-ordination group that's been operating since March. We are engaging very regularly with them, and there is now a structure of recovery co-ordination groups, and I think that's probably what you're referring to. They're responsible for recovery planning, and they're usually chaired by a senior officer of one of the local authorities in the region, to make sure that people with real local and regional knowledge are actively engaged, and we are, obviously, working very, very closely with them. We had a workshop last week, last Wednesday, to provide an opportunity to share best practice and lessons learned, and discuss the role of all of the partnerships involved in our recovery-related work. So, there's a huge amount of regular engagement and communication, and communication of lessons learned, across the whole of Wales.
Okay, thank you.
And Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. The director general of the economy, skills and natural resources group told this committee that he didn't think any administration could cope with the pandemic and its implications for the economy, as well as deliver its programme for government, and deal with Brexit on top of that too. How will you prioritise resources and manage those related risks?
It is a tough time. The compound effect of both preparations for exiting the European Union at the end of this year plus dealing with the coronavirus is uniquely challenging, you're absolutely right. And as I said right at the beginning, there is no part of Welsh Government that has been untouched by it. In fact, some of the preparations we put in hand for a 'no deal' Brexit are obviously providing a very strong platform for work as we head towards our exit from the EU at the end of the year. But you're quite right, it is uniquely challenging.
The First Minister and his Cabinet are obviously in very regular discussion about prioritisation and reprioritisation constantly, to make sure they can direct resources to the most critical areas. And as I said before, I have very, very regular meetings with my top team, to discuss resourcing, where the critical areas are that we need to fill, and that changes over time. And I have a weekly discussion with the First Minister, directly, to talk about where we are putting our resources, and making sure that I have a very, very clear sense of his priorities, and the priorities of his Cabinet. Because I think that is they key to it—we have to prioritise ruthlessly. To be able to do that, as a civil service we have to have a very, very clear understanding of our First Minister's and our Ministers' priorities. But you're quite right, there are difficult decisions. We have a structure for prioritising resources, through the executive committee, which reviews requests for urgent resources on a weekly basis, to make sure that we are constantly revisiting that, as the situation changes. And obviously, within their own groups, the DGs are going through the same kind of process, to identify the most critical gaps, move people around and to request additional resources, if that is what is necessary. But that is the ongoing leadership challenge that we are all facing across the whole of the Welsh Government.
Thank you. And the Counsel General is leading on the Welsh Government's economic recovery plan, to build back better after COVID. What structures have been put in place to support him in that work?
I decided to establish a new recovery and restart directorate, as I call it, headed up by a director, and that is supporting cross-Government work on future recovery. I'm glad you asked it, because it gives me the opportunity to make clear that I have moved our team responsible for work on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 into that group, because I see that as absolutely fundamental to futures planning. By having that team in the new directorate, it means that the principles and the different ways of working set out in the Act are what will underpin the work on our recovery. So, that is the directorate of officials that provide the support for the Counsel General. He himself chairs a continuity and recovery board with officials from across the whole of the Welsh Government. I'm a member of that board, and that supports the development of policy, which then goes forward to the First Minister and Ministers for challenge.
You may have heard that he's also been chairing a group of external experts that provide real external challenge to our ideas on recovery. That group is also supported by the new recovery and restart directorate. And I am setting up, separately, a group that will oversee that work from an officials' point of view, and make sure that we are tracking the operational implementation of the plan to build back better and to deliver the priorities that are set out in the programme for government.
That's very interesting, thank you. And just briefly, then, one final question from me: how is the Welsh Government planning for the easing of lockdown restrictions in terms of your own staff, offices and operations?
Well, if you could see me now, I'm in Cathays Park, which normally has close to 2,500 people. As I said earlier on, now about 1 per cent of our staff are working in the two offices that we have open at the moment, and we are observing very carefully social distancing. I would expect most of our staff to continue working from home for most of the time for the foreseeable future. And thanks to the new IT systems and really excellent laptops that we've got, our staff can do that very successfully.
We're planning at the moment how to adapt our workplaces and our operating procedures to prepare for a very limited return of staff as we start to transition out of lockdown. And, obviously, we're working very closely with our trade union side colleagues to look after the safety of our staff. I would expect no more than about 20 per cent of our staff to return for part of the time in that initial pilot phase, which would start at the end of July and beginning of August, and they'll be people who are carrying out critical functions that need to be done in the building, but also people who, for various different reasons, need to work away from home for part of the time.
We're introducing risk assessments, including, obviously, the risk assessment tool that the Welsh Government's sub-group created to help make sure that black, Asian, and minority ethnic people in the health sector have a very thorough risk assessment of their working environment. So, full risk assessments, full social distancing, and all returning staff will go through a risk assessment process. We have a whole series of processes in place to make sure that we are following best practice, because, as I said earlier, I'm clear that the Welsh Government has to be an exemplar here in the way that we treat all of our staff, and their safety and minimising the risk of virus transmission is what will be at the heart of everything that we do. And then, once we've had that initial limited reopening phase, we'll examine that carefully before we look ahead.
In the meantime, we've learned the lessons from the experience of remote working, and making sure that we are working more flexibly but also safely from home. So, I want to make sure that we're working safely at home and safely in our office environment. And, of course, all of that helps support a dispersed workforce across Wales very effectively as well. So, I really don't think we're going to go back to the packed offices of the past—I'm looking across a load of empty desks here—or travelling for hours to attend one meeting. So, we're very clear that we want to draw out the benefits that we can, including minimising our carbon footprint as a result of cutting back on unnecessary commuting.
There's a lot to think about. We're learning as much best practices as we can, both from other organisations and by listening to our own staff, and then we will test that very, very carefully—all of the arrangements that we've put in place for a limited initial return before we open it up any further.
Diolch, Vikki. And very finally, from me, Permanent Secretary, can you provide us with an update on when you expect to lay the Welsh Government's consolidated accounts for 2019-20, and are you planning to make any changes to those in the light of HM Treasury guidance?
I'm very grateful to Audit Wales for the help and advice they've given us. The auditor general and I agreed a revised plan to move the sign-off of the accounts to the week of 26 October. Obviously, we notified you. That's a change of about nine weeks compared with our original plan, but I can assure you that a huge amount of work is continuing on that. It's one of the things that's next on my list of things to look at—the initial draft—and our accounts preparation is progressing in line with that revised timetable. We meet very regularly with our Audit Wales colleagues to discuss our progress.
In terms of changes, you're right—there's been some updated guidance from Treasury about the requirements for 2019-20, to try and reduce some of the burden on accounts preparation for public bodies. We've circulated that guidance across the Welsh public sector, obviously. We're not proposing major changes to the content of the report. I think the main items that we won't include this year will be the case studies because we haven't been able to do the same exercise in gathering information. The case studies last year were drawn from our Welsh Government staff awards and we haven't been able to hold that this year because of the crisis, obviously.
The other thing is grants, because the grants centre of excellence is one of the central teams that's seen the biggest impact of COVID-19. I will be writing to you shortly, Chair, to suggest that, perhaps, for this year only the grants centre of excellence could prepare a separate interim report on grants, perhaps early in the new year, if that's acceptable to the committee, and that would then outline the work of the team during 2019-20 as well as being able to reflect on the support and guidance that we've given during the crisis. So, that is where we are at the moment.
Great, thank you. We covered a lot of ground there in the end, so thanks for those answers, Permanent Secretary. Can I thank our witnesses, Shan Morgan, Andrew Jeffreys, Andrew Slade, Andrew Goodall and Gawain Evans, for being with us today? I appreciate you've got busy timetables with the pandemic at the moment, so we're grateful to you for taking the time to talk to us. We'll provide you with a transcript of today's proceedings just for you to check for accuracy before publication. I think you'll be escorted back to the virtual lobby now as I'm going to move us into private session so we can discuss today's evidence.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
So, I move Standing Order 17.42 to meet in private for the rest of today's meeting.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:08.
The public part of the meeting ended at 15:08.