What the Senedd’s committees said about the draft Welsh Budget 2019-20

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

In what looks set to be an extraordinarily busy week, I’m posting on a Monday. Why? Two major debates and votes are happening tomorrow in the Senedd on the draft budget and the draft Brexit agreement respectively.

While this will be listed as a Finance Committee report, I’ll also summarise the findings of the other Senedd committees.

Finance Committee
Draft Welsh Budget 2019-20 (pdf)
Published: 28th November 2018

Key Findings/Conclusions – “Keep a close eye on how taxes are administered and projected”

  • The Committee was concerned that changes to the personal income tax allowance made at a Westminster level will have a disproportionate effect on Welsh income tax (due to a higher proportion of low earners).
  • The Committee was pleased with the progress made towards the introduction of Welsh taxes, but there were concerns about a lack of Wales-specific data and recommend that Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and HMRC work in Wales is given the same priority as their UK work.
  • They support the Welsh Government’s request to extend borrowing powers.
  • The Future Generations Commissioner called for spending on health to be redirected to spending on preventative measures by local government – this was backed by the Committee.
  • Witnesses said the Welsh Government’s narrative on tackling poverty doesn’t follow up with concrete actions within the budget and such measures are often add-ons; the Bevan Foundation’s Victoria Winckler said policies which either don’t benefit everybody or the least wealthy 50% (Help to Buy was mentioned) should be reconsidered.
  • The presentation of the Welsh budget can be improved to provide a better long-term view of funding and to better illustrate how money is being spent on both Wellbeing of Future Generations Act goals and to alleviate poverty.
  • The budget for 2019-20 needs additional flexibility to prepare for Brexit, and the first supplementary budget should clearly outline how Brexit has changed in-year spending plans.

Environment & Rural Affairs Committee (pdf) – “Where’s decarbonisation, Lesley?”

  • The Energy, Environment Rural Affairs Secretary, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), omitted all reference to decarbonisation from her evidence submission – something the Committee said “doesn’t reflect well” on her and requires explanation (to be fair to the Cabinet Secretary, AMs are to vote on carbon target regulations this week).
  • It appears the Secretary only consulted with Natural Resources Wales exclusively and should, in future, explain why there was no wider consultation.
  • The Welsh Government should seek commitments from the UK Government on future funding for farming and the Welsh Government should clarify how much money will be available for new schemes; they were unconvinced this could be done with existing budgets.
  • The Welsh Government should set a clear timetable for the eradication of fuel poverty.
  • The Committee are yet to be persuaded that continued cuts to Natural Resources Wales (£2.7million in the draft budget) aren’t having an impact on its ability to deliver core services; the Welsh Government should set out options for how NRW can raise more of its own money.

Communities & Local Government Committee (pdf) – “Frozen council budgets won’t go far enough”

  • The Committee welcomed the recent announcement that no council will face a cut of greater than 0.5% of their budget, in a reversal from the original plans, but recognises that many councils were still facing real terms cuts.
  • The WLGA said that a “cash flat” settlement isn’t going to address the staff pay pressures facing them now that the public sector pay cap has been lifted; the Welsh Government said decisions on pay and pensions taken at a UK level should be funded at a UK level.
  • Financial issues in schools were said to be “as acute as in social care”; councils may have to lay off teachers in order to fund a pay increase or make cuts elsewhere – they didn’t accept the answer from the Welsh Government that it was a matter for each council.
  • The Welsh Government should commit to providing, as a minimum, similar amounts of money in forthcoming budget to prevent and address homelessness –particularly youth homelessness.

Education, Children & Young People Committee (pdf) – “Be wary of the impact of the teachers’ pay rise”

  • The Committee repeats calls for more details on budget elements relating to children’s rights.
  • The Committee welcomed the broad (cash terms) increase in the education budget and extra money provided to cover additional costs relating to the teachers pay increase, however they want a proper assessment on whether the overall education budget is enough.
  • The Welsh Government should work with local councils to reduce the number of schools holding reserves which are above the statutory threshold, as well as providing assurances that schools holding on to such reserves are doing so for the right reasons.
  • Clarity was required on how much additional money further education colleges will receive as a result of recent negotiations.
  • The Welsh Government should provide adequate money in the final budget to allow HEFCW (the universities funding body) to properly meet its four strategic objectives – which they told the Committee they were currently unable to do.
  • The Welsh Government should use any additional money allocated to them by the UK Government from the sugary drinks levy to tackle childhood obesity.
  • An increase in demand for CAFCASS (family court advice) services hasn’t been properly reflected in the draft budget.

Health & Social Care Committee (pdf) – “Integrating health and social care will be problematic”

  • The Committee has “deep concerns” over whether health and social services can meet the Welsh Government’s “transformative” agenda with their existing budgets and amidst increasing demand.
  • The ambitions of the NHS Finance Act 2014 haven’t been fully realised and the Committee was disappointed that a number of health boards were still struggling to balance their budgets.
  • They welcome additional funding for mental health, but it has to be maintained in future budgets and there was a similar conclusion regarding social care with a number of barriers currently preventing full integration between health and social care.
  • The Committee is concerned that school sport participation levels haven’t changed and Sport Wales’ conclusions conflict with the “positive picture” painted by the Culture Minister, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd). One-year funding streams (as opposed to three-year cycles) for Sport Wales also makes long-term planning difficult.

Culture Committee (pdf) – “Can you create 1 million Welsh-speakers with a frozen budget?”

  • Capital investment in National Museum Wales should be better spread around the country; the Welsh Government have committed to providing additional information on where it’s spent.
  • There’s been no sign yet of a shift away from providing grants to owners of listed buildings despite a move away from this being announced in 2017.
  • The Committee wants to be updated on research undertaken by the Welsh Government into financial support for the hyperlocal news sector.
  • A “cash flat” budget for the Welsh language (£38.5million) is unlikely to allow sufficient progress towards the Welsh Government’s goal of 1 million Welsh-speakers by 2050.
  • The Committee wants a firm date for when a new Welsh Language Bill will be introduced.

Economy & Infrastructure Committee – “The dog ate my homework”

  • At time of publishing, the Economy Committee hadn’t published their report (due to scheduling issues) but the Senedd website says the Committee “raised questions about a lack of transparency around the operation of the £115 million apprenticeships programme. It asks for more detail on why EU Transition Fund money went to big companies, rather than training providers.”
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