Back to the Future Generations Commissioner: Scrutiny in the Sixth Senedd

Published 09/06/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

For the first time since the Well-being of Future Generations Act came into force in 2015, a Senedd Committee has specific responsibility for scrutinising its implementation. The responsible Equality and Social Justice (ESJ) Committee recently conducted its first annual scrutiny of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe.

Shaped by the 5th Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) inquiry into barriers to implementation and the Commissioner’s most recent annual report, the Committee’s report highlights to the wider Senedd issues that merit further consideration by Members in their scrutiny of the Welsh Government. It found concerns over the ”implementation gap” between policy and practice, a complex governance landscape and questions over long term funding, all of which must be addressed to realise the Act’s full potential.

Seven years on, the “implementation gap” remains

The Auditor General for Wales has expressed concern about the Welsh Government’s implementation of the Act:

…repeatedly, examples where we’re seeing decisions taken by the Welsh Government that are not entirely congruent with the spirit of the Act. So, some examples of very good practice, but it’s a large organisation with a vast array of policy responsibilities within it, and genuinely to get the whole of that machinery operating in a way that is internally joined up enough to make a reality of the Act, I think, is a huge challenge.

The “implementation gap” between policy and practice has been a recurring theme throughout scrutiny of the Act and the Commissioner, and by multiple actors including Senedd Committees and the Auditor General for Wales. The situation has improved somewhat with the Commissioner noting a marked change in political commitment and leadership. However, the ESJ Committee concluded a complex governance landscape coupled with patchy and inconsistent application by public bodies and decision makers across Wales is preventing full realisation of the Act’s potential.

The Committee also found that more needs to be done to improve the Welsh Government’s implementation of the Act, and to ensure this is done consistently in both policy and practice. 43% of requests for support from public bodies to the Commissioner’s office come from the Welsh Government. These include advice on policy development, legislation and participation in meetings. The Committee called for this reliance to reduce, and for the Welsh Government to redouble its efforts to embed knowledge and understanding of the Act across the Civil Service.

The Commissioner uses her strongest powers

The Commissioner is entering the final year of her seven year tenure – which she marked by launching a Section 20 review, the strongest use of her powers, into how the machinery of the Welsh Government implements the Act. This is only the second time she has utilised these powers, the first being in 2020 when she reviewed the procurement practices of nine public bodies in Wales, including the Welsh Government.

The decision to undertake the most recent review was informed by a range of evidence, including the Future Generations, Audit Wales and PAC reports, all of which highlighted barriers and areas for improvement associated with implementation of the Act within the Welsh Government. The review is guided by a steering group, and aims to report in November this year. It will explore how the Welsh Government is ensuring its processes, people and culture, and public sector leadership further its well-being objectives, and acts in accordance with the sustainable development principle. The terms of reference outline further details of the review.

Including more public bodies

In its report, PAC recommended the Welsh Government should review the public bodies subject to the Act, in part to take into account those new bodies created since the Act came into force. The review is currently underway, and due to conclude by summer 2022. Despite the Commissioner’s concerns during the scrutiny session that there may have been 74 additional bodies within the scope of the review, the Welsh Government estimated there will be fewer than ten additional public bodies subject to the Act following the review.

However, even the inclusion of ten new bodies will result in additional reporting, monitoring and auditing requirements and associated financial and resourcing implications, particularly for the Commissioner. This raises questions about how much funding the Commissioner receives, and whether it is sufficient to fulfil her role.

Concerns over the Commissioner’s funding

Ahead of the draft budget last year, the Commissioner sought additional resources from the Welsh Government. Setting out her position she said:

If this increase is not agreed, my baseline funding will mean that I will have to reject even more requests for advice and assistance and cut back almost entirely the advice I give on policy as I focus my limited resources to my core duties to promote the sustainable development principle in general and monitor and assess the extent to which well-being objectives are being met.

She told the Welsh Government that without additional funding she would have to “cease the provision of advice and support to public bodies including Welsh Government which will have a hugely damaging impact on implementing the WFG Act”.

While the Welsh Government declined to increase the Commissioner’s budget, it gave her a temporary increase to the level of financial reserves she was able to carry over into 2022-23. But questions remain about longer term funding, particularly in comparison to the funding of other Commissioners. The Committee recommended the Senedd’s Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee undertakes a review to explore the issue in further detail.

Complicating an already complex landscape

The Future Generations Report recommended the Welsh Government should stop “complicating an already complex landscape” of governance arrangements that exist in Wales. This view was echoed by PAC, which concluded the:

…complex and bureaucratic landscape of partnership bodies and plethora of legislative and reporting requirements has made it difficult for public bodies to adopt this Act and has, at times, actively disincentivised it.

The Commissioner expressed particular concern at the establishment of the newest layer of governance, Corporate Joint Committees (CJCs), and how these will interact with Public Services Boards, Regional Partnership Boards and others. The Committee echoed this view, and called for the Welsh Government to provide greater leadership and clarity on this.

Next steps

It is clear that achieving the transformative change heralded by the Act is a huge challenge for public bodies across Wales, particularly for the Welsh Government. A thorough and consistent programme of Senedd scrutiny of the Act and the Commissioner will be key in tracking if and how implementation is improving. Consideration of the Act will need to be a “golden thread”, weaving through all aspects of the Senedd’s work, from policy inquiries to scrutiny of the draft budget and legislation. The message from the ESJ Committee is clear:

The Commissioner’s unique role is internationally admired and recognised as a world first. It is vital therefore that we in Wales capitalise upon this international renown and use the role and office to its maximum potential.

The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report on 15 June. You can watch the debate live via Senedd TV.

Article by Chloe Corbyn, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament