The Assembly’s scrutiny of government finance is a vital part of its role in holding government to account. In September and October 2012 a series of financial scrutiny training sessions were arranged for Assembly Members (AMs) and their support staff following requests for such training. These sessions were timed to coincide with the Assembly’s consideration of the Welsh Government’s budget for 2013-14.
Angela Scott, Head of CIPFA in Scotland, was at that time, serving as expert advisor to the Assembly’s Finance Committee, and as a result of the extremely positive response to this work, it was decided that she be procured to develop and deliver these sessions, in conjunction with Assembly officials.
The aim of these sessions was to increase the understanding of the general principles of effective financial scrutiny, and to aid in developing a common approach to the scrutiny and consideration of the budget. Sessions were also run for Assembly Commission staff involved in supporting the scrutiny of the budget across the Assembly’s committees.
Feedback from these session was extremely positive, with AMs and their staff requesting further training be arranged to explore the issues in greater depth.
Following on from the positive feedback from these initial sessions, consideration was given to developing a further programme of training. External developments aided in taking this decision.
In November 2012, the Silk Commission concluded its deliberations on relation to Part 1 of its remit in relation to fiscal powers, and recommended that the Assembly be given tax raising and borrowing powers. The Commission recognised the need for enhanced capability within the Assembly in the event that such powers are devolved, as this would entail scrutiny of revenue raising and borrowing powers, in addition to spending plans. The report commented that:
…the National Assembly Commission may wish to consider building up capacity and expertise for financial scrutiny through the training of Members and through the research and committee support that Members receive.
In early 2013, the Hansard Society reported on the experience of new AMs, and showed that 71 per cent of new Members identified financial scrutiny as an area where they would benefit from further training. The report recommended that:
…the Assembly should prioritise financial scrutiny training in its future programmes and look at what additional support might be given to Members and committees to help them with the technical aspects of scrutiny.
Developing the programme
Given these developments and the level of interest shown in further training to support financial scrutiny from the initial sessions, it was decided to procure a full programme of training covering all aspects of financial scrutiny of relevance to Assembly business. CIPFA won the contract for this programme and are again working together with Assembly officials to develop and deliver this training. It is currently planned to run five sessions over the next 18 months, covering areas relating to financial scrutiny in the context of: the budget process, Committee inquiries, in-year and end-year monitoring, legislation, and financial considerations in policy development.
It is likely that further sessions will be developed following the UK Government’s response to the Silk Commission’s recommendations, dealing with areas of relevance in the event of devolution of fiscal powers. Thus, each module aims to centre on a particular stage in the financial cycle, and to increase the understanding of the context in Wales, how this relates to the UK framework, the systems and processes in place, and to impart the technical knowhow to enable AMs and their staff to conduct effective financial scrutiny in these areas.
Leading the way
To our knowledge, this is the first comprehensive programme developed for training in financial scrutiny in the parliamentary context. In previous years, Assembly officials have run seminars for AMs and their staff in relation to the processes and technical aspects required for budget scrutiny, but never before has such an overarching approach been taken. Since the initial pilot sessions were conducted, both the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly have expressed an interest in what we are doing. Thus, the Assembly is leading the way in capacity building for financial scrutiny.
“When anyone is elected or recruited into a job that requires a range of skills, it’s important to have training and professional development in place,” said Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler AM.
“Understanding the technical complexities of the public finance system, particularly in relation to holding the government to account in times of tightening budgets, is absolutely crucial in any parliamentary setting and I am pleased to see that we are leading the field by developing skills for legislators in this area.
“It is standard good practice to train a workforce, and it is no different for Assembly Members. It’s done in all leading organisations, where you try to review and improve your work and respond to change”.
Further details of the modules on offer can be obtained from the Members’ Liaison and Professional Development team.
Article by Dr Ellie Roy, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.