Last Tuesday in the Senedd, Assembly Members from all Parties took a closer look at the Welsh Government’s budget for the next financial year.
Beyond the big headlines such as additional funding for health and social care services and protecting the schools budget, Welsh Labour is putting forward an ambitious budget for Wales against continued austerity.
As one of your Labour AMs for the region, I have received several queries regarding the Supporting People Programme which provides a lifeline to those who find themselves in a vulnerable position but want to remain independent. I was pleased that Cabinet Secretary for Communities Carl Sergeant confirmed the programme of support was safe with Labour.
Committing to our manifesto pledges, £70 million has been set aside to support the roll-out of our flagship childcare offer with a further £20 million to tackle homelessness through local councils and the Welsh Government itself.
Welsh Labour places fairness and equality at the centre of everything it does. That is why £500,000 in additional funds is being made available to tackle domestic abuse.
Young people have been particularly badly affected by Tory policies. To support learning and helping young people to work, discounted bus travel for 16 – 18 year olds will remain in place until at least 2020.
Regular readers will be familiar with my support for the rural economy and I’m working with Welsh Government and the WLGA to develop positive outcomes that will strengthen the resilience of our communities in the Brexit years ahead.
Technology will revolutionise the way we live and work, and west Wales must not be left behind. I’ll fight for our fair share of funding that delivers faster broadband and new technologies to connect our most isolated homes and businesses.
I’m interested to hear your experience of broadband issues, so please share your experiences with me. Drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d like to start my intervention with a quote from a constituent of mine in Carmarthen:
‘Being a single mother scares me. I had a letter today giving me information as to how much universal credit I’ll be entitled to, and I’m going to be £210 a month worse off. I work 16 hours a week and I’m just about making ends meet now. I dread to think what situation I’m going to be in when I finally get switched to universal credit. For every £1 I earn over my work allowance, I have 65p taken off me. How is this meant to encourage and help people to work?’
That’s just one of the 20,000 people in Pembrokeshire alone who are going to be impacted by changes in universal credit, and whilst it’s true to say that some will be better off, the fact is that because of the insistence on pursuing austerity measures by the UK Government, most will be much worse off. The oddest thing of all about this policy, as has already been suggested, is that it’s being implemented and the way it’s being implemented, in many cases, undermines that financial incentive to work.
Single parents with dependent children are particularly hard hit, receiving £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credit: a massive hit on any family budget. And the UK Government has deliberately staggered the roll-out of universal credit so that we can learn lessons, but in Wigan, four out of five universal credit claimants, or over 80 per cent of people, ended up being in rent arrears. I must ask, if that’s the evidence of the lessons, why are we not pausing to rethink how we can make the system easier for some of the most deprived and vulnerable people in our communities?
More than half of the people in receipt of universal credit are in work. They’re doing the right thing for themselves and for the wider society, but now they’re being penalised. I don’t think anyone’s promoting the fact that we should continue with the present system, which is extremely complex, but the way this system is being introduced is proving to be entirely counterproductive.
A particular problem emanates from this point that money is paid in arrears, and at the moment it’s a 42-day wait for the first payment, and others, you’ve heard, can extend to 60 days in arrears. Around half of universal credit recipients so far have been able to access advance payments, but it’s really difficult for vulnerable people with poor reading and writing skills to prove that they’re in need of money to pay for bills or to pay for food. And the fact that the UK Government thinks that this delay in payment is somehow acceptable and possible for people who often have chaotic lives, I’m afraid just serves to underline how utterly out of touch they are with their constituents. And on top of that, just imagine what it’s like for someone who has an addiction—perhaps to gambling, alcohol or drugs—or people with learning difficulties to manage what might seem a vast amount of money then, arriving to them all at once.
It’s interesting to note that the joint committee on human rights has warned that the roll-out of universal credit benefit could expose women to abuse because the benefit is paid to couples through a joint account. We should be concerned that some men may limit their partners’ access to money and force women to stay in violent relationships.
In the pilot schemes we’ve seen, we’ve seen massive increases in rent arrears, which have implications for social housing landlords and council house landlords. We’ve heard already that a lot of people are now homeless as a result. We’ve seen these massive demand increases at food banks. Many have been driven into the arms of ruthless moneylenders, and they charge extortionate interest rates simply to people who want to feed their children. Let’s not forget that, in Wales, one in three children are living in poverty—a shameful situation in a country that is the fifth-richest country in the world, and where the UK Government will have made £80 billion-worth of tax cuts, including £22 billion-worth of income tax cuts, by 2021. I think it’s time to inject some justice into this system, to rebalance the inequality in this country, and to make sure that everyone is incentivised to contribute and to work.
I am afraid that I disagree with the proposal that control over welfare should be devolved. I don’t think there’s any chance that the UK Government will cough up the cash for welfare while relinquishing administrative control.
One of the main problems with universal credit is that it is paid to households rather than to individuals, and I will focus on that aspect for a few moments. Only one person can be in receipt of the funds on behalf of the household, so there are issues of equality arising immediately from that because it is likely that it’s the male that will receive that money in most cases, not always, of course—not by any means—but in most cases probably. This will increase the financial reliance of women on men and will militate against the fact that men and women are equal. Women’s right to financial independence is a fundamental right—a right that is undermined through universal credit. It’s therefore a significant retrograde step in seeking full equality between men and women—an effort that some of us have been involved with for 40 years and more. The journey towards full equality is painfully slow as it is. And any retrograde step in this regard—and this what this is—should be criticised by this Assembly and, more importantly, we must change it and use the powers that we could have here in order to change that. Benefits should be paid to individuals, and not to households.
One aspect of this causes great concern. Paying the benefit to one person in a household can mean that some women can be held in an abusive relationship. With the man taking the payment, then that man has the power, and if that man is abusive towards his wife or partner then it’s very difficult for the woman. Those in favour of universal credit argue that there is a mechanism to counteract that, but that’s naïve in my view. Half of the women who are abused fail to leave the relationship because of financial abuse. A woman may remain in an abusive relationship because of concerns of serious financial consequences for her if she were to leave.
The money itself can increase abuse. One partner can withhold money from another using financial power in an unacceptable way. Under universal credit, if a couple separate, then one person has to inform the DWP. Well, the person in receipt of the benefit isn’t going to be willing to make that notification, so in most cases, again, it’s the women who will have to do that and will be caught out by the process at times. A new application has to be made, which will take at least five weeks to be processed. For a woman without access to money and possibly childcare responsibilities, time is everything, and making a new application isn’t always a priority when you’re fleeing for your life or are concerned about the safety of your children. If the benefit were to be paid to individuals, then you wouldn’t have to go through that bureaucratic process of registering when couples separate.
Now, of course, if we did have the right to administrate benefits ourselves in Wales, we could change that. We are talking about administration here, not having the right to create new benefits; we’re not talking about funding, but the administration. And having those levers could be a means of creating a fairer system.