Is public awareness an issue for the Future Generations Bill? by Liz Silversmith

The Future Generations Bill passed with high hopes, but will it deliver without raising decent public awareness?

The Well-being of Future Generations Bill (FG Bill) has now passed and will shortly become an Act [for more detail on its aims, see my first article on it being introduced here]. It culminated during a fractious period between Welsh Government and the opposition as arguments ensued over the final debate on the Gender-based Violence, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence Bill (VAW Bill), which was scheduled for the same day. Perhaps if they were further apart and attentions not as divided, the FG Bill may have turned out differently. Plaid Cymru withheld their support for the VAW Bill until they were promised education provision in teaching healthy relationships.

The two Bills followed similar problems in passing through the Assembly, in that the intentions behind them are broadly and warmly supported by all parties, but the particular mechanisms to achieve them and strength of wording disputed. It echoes common criticism of the Welsh Government that it is well meaning in policy but not necessarily ‘strong’ or ‘ambitious’ enough to achieve its aims.

The Welsh Government is also criticised for passing ‘framework Bills’, rather than say Bills that change something significantly where outcomes are clearly demonstrable. But the VAW Bill also demonstrates the difficult tight rope a devolved government has to tread, where all of its interventions have to complement law at a UK level.

So possibly due to not wanting to waste political capital, or possibly due to simply supporting the Bill, the FG Bill passed with support from Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, but without the Welsh Conservatives. The most significant change from the Minister was the addition of a seventh goal: ‘A Globally Responsible Wales’. This complements his move to add ‘climate change’ as a concern, as is the promise the Minister has recently made to include statutory climate change targets in the Environment Bill.

However the Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach raised a good point about Public Service Boards. She proposed to remove them entirely and Plaid Cymru supported this, arguing that the current Local Service Boards have been “significantly ineffective at delivering change on the ground”. The Liberal Democrats pointed out that the whole Bill’s efficacy and delivery is reliant upon these so would not support it and, obviously, Labour would not either.  The Minister, Carl Sargeant, did admit that the boards are inconsistent, but seemed to have faith that the Public Services Minister would hold the reformed PSBs to account. But how many people have actually heard of, let alone contributed to, a Local Service Board? The criticisms of a lack of accountability are fairly strong, unless PSBs are given a drastically higher profile.

It was interesting that the wellbeing goals and the appointment of the FG Commissioner will now be subject to the Assembly’s approval, so a future government cannot just change direction on a whim without a majority approval. However PSBs will be under a lot of pressure, especially considering the expectations set up by the initial public ‘The Wales We Want’ conversation. If this results in merely a report and merely advice, will the public get a true say in their local wellbeing plans? Another unanswered question is how local government reform will affect PSBs; it would perhaps be sensible to take the opportunity of the upcoming local authority mergers to promote and improve PSBs to something that looks very different from LSBs. Carl Sargeant stated that Cardiff’s LSB is a ‘good example’. As a politically active resident in Cardiff, I took the opportunity of investigating what Cardiff LSB has been up to – I have to say, it doesn’t look that impressive right now… let’s hope that for future generations’ sake, the website will at least get updated.

Liz Silversmith does political monitoring at @newsdirectwales and political commentary as @lizsilversmith. Her background is in working for Welsh MPs in Parliament and Welsh AMs in Cardiff, as well as running campaigns. She currently coordinates the housing campaign Let Down in Wales.