Debate: Stage 4 of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill (12/12/18)

It is a pleasure to speak in the final stage of the Childcare (Funding) Wales Bill. However, this is one of a long succession of Welsh Government-led Bills that have simply just not cut the legislative mustard. Following along the food theme, my colleague Suzy Davies has frequently said that this is a Swiss-cheese piece of legislation—that there are too many holes in what is a framework Bill, outlined in entirely permissive, uncertain terms.

I have looked back at the contributions made throughout every stage of the Childcare (Funding) Wales Bill, and there are persistent themes that keep cropping up. I would hope that this is the last time that we as Assembly Members, scrutinising as opposition and cross-party groups, come across the same concerns in future legislation going forward. We again see before us a sound policy implemented through swiftly created legislation but without the necessary scrutiny mechanisms, through the continual use of secondary legislation. This Bill was at Stage 3 before we even saw a copy of the report of the first year of early implementer authorities. It was also at Stage 3 before the duty to fund the offer was finally applied by the Ministers. Welsh Conservatives wholeheartedly support the policy of funded childcare in Wales. Indeed, we had it within our own manifesto. But there is too much left to secondary legislation and an administrative scheme that is outside of our input or an appropriate level of scrutiny powers.

Furthermore, two key policy areas are left off the face of the Bill, potentially leaving it as an empty vessel. The offer itself, while written all over the explanatory memorandum and promised by the Minister throughout stages 1, 2 and 3, is not here before us. The age of the qualifying child is also absent, again left to promises and the administrative scheme. Essentially, leaving these two important areas off the face of the Bill gives us no clear baseline to start from. We need to start from a point of certainty, even if it is to be amended in years to come. We do not accept the Minister's reasoning that leaving essential elements to secondary legislation would provide more flexibility. Instead, we have argued throughout that there must be a trade-off between flexibility for the Executive and the right for scrutiny by the legislature. Our amendments at Stage 3 would have provided this balance.

The Minster has further stated that this is merely a technical Bill, which should not include wider policy areas. It is not. As drafted and amended, it goes beyond that narrow intention. As I have noted during Stage 2 and Stage 3, the primary purposes of the Bill have been clearly outlined within the explanatory memorandum—to support the Welsh economy and to support a number of additional purposes, including increasing employment and improving the social well-being of children. If this Bill was merely a mechanism for HMRC to assess applications, why say all that in the explanatory memorandum?

Throughout evidence we have heard that the Bill's primary aims could have been further bolstered through a number of necessary amendments, including provision of wrap-around transportation, extending the offer beyond working parents, and to prevent barriers to taking up the offer, such as additional charges. To place these on the face of the Bill would have given parents and childcare providers a clear signal that Welsh Government would be under a duty to enable more families to access the offer. I would have left it there had the review clause to this Bill been sufficiently drafted to include the powers of the legislature so we could review it at a later date. However, nowhere does it say 'independent' or 'to lay before the National Assembly for Wales'.

Now, we know the Minister's commitment to an independent evaluation at Stage 3, but, at the very least, we would have expected that any report should be available for the Assembly, as the legislature, to scrutinise and to approve. It is unclear from the review clause drafted by the Minister whether an independent review would happen under a future Welsh Government in five years' time, as well as the role of our Assembly in designing that review. The Welsh Government needs to answer these questions, not its own, for our constituents to have confidence in its eventual findings. For all of our efforts to ensure that the Bill had a review clause that would have covered the concerns raised by not one committee, but two committees, about the Bill, or at the very least a sunset clause, all of these have been unceremoniously rejected by the Minister. It is, therefore, very disappointing that the National Assembly for Wales—yes, this legislature—has been dismissed yet again.

My colleague Angela Burns warned the Welsh Government during the final Stage of the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Act 2018 that future Assembly Members will view it poorly if credible, consistent and outcome-focused evidence to enable proper scrutiny is not collected. Welsh Conservatives abstained from that Act during Stage 4, purely on the basis that it included a sunset clause. Therefore, we again issue this warning on overuse of skeleton Bills. You have rejected key areas that need to be reviewed, including the operation of the administrative scheme, whether the Act has any effect on increasing employment, in line with its aims, and the capacity of the childcare workforce to deliver this offer. Minister, you are an Assembly Member as well as a—[Interruption.]—as well as being a Minister in this Government. You need to convince your own constituents that you have not just listened to scrutiny as a Minister, but— Llywydd—Deputy—while we are supportive of the offer, and the use of HMRC to assess applications, it is for these reasons that Welsh Conservatives reject the motion. We will not be supporting it. Diolch yn fawr.