Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb a Chyfiawnder Cymdeithasol
Equality and Social Justice Committee30/01/2023
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Altaf Hussain AS|
|Jane Dodds AS|
|Jenny Rathbone AS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Ken Skates AS|
|Sarah Murphy AS|
|Sioned Williams AS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Dr Steffan Evans||Swyddog Polisi ac Ymchwil, Sefydliad Bevan|
|Policy and Research Officer, Bevan Foundation|
|Luke Young||Cyfarwyddwr Cynorthwyol, Cyngor ar Bopeth|
|Assistant Director, Citizens Advice|
|Peter Tutton||Pennaeth Polisi, Ymchwil a Materion Cyhoeddus, StepChange|
|Head of Policy, Research and Public Affairs, StepChange|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Angharad Roche||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Gareth David Thomas||Ymchwilydd|
|Rachael Davies||Ail Glerc|
|Sam Mason||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 14:30.
The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.
The meeting began at 14:30.
Good afternoon. Prynhawn da. Welcome to the Equality and Social Justice Committee. This afternoon, we'll be doing follow-up work on the debt inquiry that we did back in 2021. I have no apologies for this afternoon's meeting; all members are present. Are there any declarations of interest? Sarah.
Yes. I'm a member of the Bevan Foundation.
Similarly, I have been a member of the Bevan Foundation. I'm not currently, but I'm certainly a supporter of the Bevan Foundation.
So, with no further ado, I'd like to welcome our witnesses today: Peter Tutton from StepChange, Luke Young from Citizens Advice, and Steffan Evans from the Bevan Foundation. Welcome to you. Thank you very much, StepChange and Citizens Advice, for your written evidence. I'm just about to find my script, which is here. Could you just briefly summarise—? Sorry, Sioned, did you want to—?
Sorry, Chair. I'm also a member of the Bevan Foundation.
Okay. Sorry, apologies I didn't see you earlier.
So, if you could briefly just tell us what the latest impact of the cost-of-living pressures are, highlighting any particular groups that you think are worst affected. I know this is included in your written evidence, but I think it's really a question of reflecting on how things have changed in the last 12 months or so. I don't know whether, Peter Tutton, you'd like to go first, just as you're online. Welcome, Peter Tutton, of StepChange.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you, committee, for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here. Apologies I can't be with you in person and I'm dialling in. But, thanks for having me. I'll see what I can do to help you.
So, what's happened? It's been a bit funny over the last year. So, certainly, we can see that the cost-of-living increases are having an impact. So, we started recording towards the end of last year the proportion of clients saying that the cost-of-living increases were significant, and that was about 9 per cent if you go back to the end of 2021. We're up to sort of 22 per cent and rising now. So, clearly, more and more people are being drawn to debt advice specifically because of the cost of living.
In terms of who we're seeing, generally speaking it's a continuity from both COVID and also the decade before that debt is still largely about people who have less financial resilience, people who are on lower incomes, disproportionately people like single parents, women in general are disproportionate in our client loads, people with responsibility for children, and renters in particular. So, about two thirds of our clients are renters, which is almost the other way around to the overall tenure occupancy. And, particularly, private sector tenants have become increasingly prominent in our case loads over the last decade, but that seems to be accelerating a bit with the cost-of-living crisis.
In addition, over half our clients—. It's a regulatory requirement for us, as we're regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, to look and see whether our clients have additional needs because of vulnerable circumstances, and over half our clients fit into that category. That typically means people who are experiencing some degree of mental ill health or physical ill health or physical disabilities.
So, debt is really about at the moment, and has been largely about, people on low incomes, maybe more distant from the labour market, low financial resilience, not much in the way of assets to fall back on, and perhaps extra living costs like childcare and so on, and now, of course, things like fuel costs as well.
That all said, one of the things that we have seen over the past year is we're starting to see an increase in households who haven't necessarily had financial difficulties before. So, with many of the people we see, those financial difficulties can repeat because the underlying income vulnerabilities and financial resilience vulnerabilities don't change. But, we're seeing more people, which is one of the things we saw with COVID, who hadn't been in this situation before. Over half our clients are in some form of employment—many of them are low income whilst being in employment—and about 40 per cent are in full-time employment, and that's grown a bit, and the cost of living is certainly putting more people who are higher up the income scale under pressure. So, one of the things we've seen with our existing clients on debt solutions, who are paying their debts over a period of time, over the year we've seen quite a lot of those people having to reduce those payments or ask for payment holidays because of the cost of living. But, at the same time, we're seeing new people come in who actually have got more money. So, in a sense, the cost of living is doing two things. It's pushing people who are already vulnerable to debt further into a place where they're more likely to be negative-budget clients, who are really going to struggle to keep up with the essentials and, perhaps even after debt advice, struggle to keep up with the essentials. But, also, it's pushing up-the-income-scale people who are vulnerable to debt and it's bringing households that, before the cost-of-living crisis, as you might expect, were not vulnerable to debt and did not need debt advice, to debt advice.
What we're not seeing over 2021 is a huge spike yet in debt advice demand. So, I think we said last time I gave evidence to you, about COVID, that one of the oddities of COVID was that debt advice demand actually dropped, for a number of reasons that we understand better now than we did then. We have seen a steady increase in debt advice demand over 2022, and certainly in early January this year we've had some high numbers. So, we had days in January that were higher than any day last year in client demand.
So, we're not yet seeing the explosive increase in client demand that we saw, for instance, in 2008-09 following that recession, but, typically, there is a lag between people falling into difficulty and seeking debt advice. So, about half our clients say that they've been struggling with their debts and worrying about their finances for a year or more before seeking debt advice. There are a number of barriers to people seeking help, and there are a number of ways that people try and manage their financial difficulties before coming to debt advice, most worryingly by juggling bills and borrowing, which can make the harm of debt worse when they actually do come to debt advice in the end.
Thank you for that comprehensive reply. I don't want you to repeat the same information, but I think what it would be useful to know is really what impact it's having on debt levels, because, as Mr Tutton said, if people are borrowing money, then we're into a very dangerous situation that it's very difficult to emerge from. Steffan, do you want to go first?
Yes, thanks. So, we've got some brand new data I can share with you today. So, the reason we didn't share written evidence was that we had a poll go to the field two weeks ago today, with YouGov. So, we had the results through last Friday, and we're launching the report on Thursday, so we'll share a written copy with you once that's written up. But I've taken the time to go through the data on debt, and what we're seeing maybe feeds into what Peter was saying there that the headline levels of debt, actually, seem pretty stable in terms of the proportion of people who are reporting back they're in debt. So, this is the third survey in a row. So, there was one towards the tail end of 2021, one in summer 2022, and then this one where, in terms of the proportion of people saying that they're in debt, it hasn't really changed much in our survey. So, 13 per cent of people were saying that they were in more than one month’s worth of arrears, and 28 per cent of people were saying that they'd borrowed money over the last three months to manage the cost of living. So, that does suggest maybe that those extra payments we've seen, that extra support, has stabilised in terms of the sheer number of people. But, of course, what that doesn't tell us is that, for those in debt, has the nature of that debt changed. Have they gone deeper into debt, et cetera?
What we do know from it and what we've been breaking down is that there are groups that are at far, far greater risk of living in debt—many of the ones that Peter’s already mentioned. I think one that really jumped out at me was that over half of people on universal credit borrowed money at some point in the last three months. That was one of the things that came out of the survey. And, interestingly, 10 per cent of people on universal credit reported that they’d had a loan from the Government—so, a kind of budget advance, or something like that. They're quite unique in terms of that being a source of debt as well. Although, of course, friends and family, credit cards, et cetera, are bigger sources. In terms of the other groups, renters and disabled people feature very, very prominently, and households with children. And we definitely do see a skewing towards younger working adults. So, adults under 50 seem to be more likely, in our survey responses, to report that they've either fallen behind on a bill, or that they've borrowed money, than adults over 50. So, that's kind of a headline finding.
Carers as well are a group that we've got some data on for the first time, and, again, they seem to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, a group that's more likely to fall into debt. So, that link between groups that were most likely to live in poverty, most likely to struggle with debt before, are absolutely the groups of people where we're seeing huge proportions of them reporting that they're in debt.
Thank you. We'll come back to the detail on this in a moment. So, the Citizens Advice graph, which tells more than 1,000 words, really highlights the impact of the removal of some of the Welsh Government support. So, I wondered if you could just briefly summarise how you think that is going to impact on the sort of work your organisation is doing, Luke Young.
Of course, Chair. As Members will have seen the graph, which does tell the story, we are in a situation where the choices that the Welsh Government made last winter and this winter have better protected people in Wales this winter. The UK Government and Welsh Government support have helped a large group of people with direct funding and direct payments over the last few months. For lots of those groups who were eligible, that has kept them afloat this winter. We're now looking, though, at a situation where the Wales fuel support scheme will not be in the next budget, and UK Government support will reduce alongside the energy guarantee, alongside rising prices. And so, what our modelling shows is that we see rising expenses on households and not enough income to cover it. One of the key things we've seen in the last year, just to add to the conversation around debt, is that the average energy debt for Citizens Advice clients in Wales rose last year from £1,114 to £1,419. Now, some of that extra pressure on those particular households will have been covered by Government support, but, with everything else, as both my colleagues have said, things are going in the wrong direction. And so, we worry that, in a few months' time, we will be seeing lots more people for crisis debt support.
Okay. Can I bring in Jane Dodds, who wanted to follow up?
Ie, diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd. Roeddwn i jest eisiau gofyn am y graff. Roeddet ti'n sôn am y graff roedd Citizens Advice wedi ei roi yn yr adroddiad, ac un peth dwi eisiau sôn amdano yw ei bod hi'n edrych fel bod y council tax arrears—felly, beth mae pobl yn talu yn dreth gyngor—yn mynd i fyny a hynny yw'r un uchaf. Ac mae gen i ddiddordeb jest i wybod yn union sut mae'n gweithio efo awdurdodau lleol, achos roeddwn i'n deall nad ydyn nhw'n rhoi pwysau ar bobl oedd â dyled trethi cyngor. Felly, ydy e'n iawn ichi jest sôn tipyn bach am hynny, os yw hynny'n iawn, Cadeirydd? Diolch.
Yes, thank you very much. I just wanted to ask about the graph. You talked about the Citizens Advice graph in the report. One of the things that I wanted to talk about is the fact that it appears that the council tax arrears—so, the amount that people pay in council tax—is the highest increase. And I was interested in hearing more about exactly how it works with local authorities, because I understood that they weren't putting pressure on people who are in arrears with regard to their council tax. So, could you just take us through that graph a little bit, please, if that's okay, Chair?
Of course. With council tax, what we have seen in Wales is, as a debt, it has competed with energy to be the top debt issue that we see amongst our clients in Wales. That's a slightly different story to England, it's worth saying. In England, our client base reported having energy debt as the top debt issue. And, in lots of local authority areas across Wales, energy debt and council tax debt have been competing for the top debt issue.
Now, I understand what the Member says—and the graph points to what we model will happen in the coming months—but, actually, reflecting on the experience of the past year, council tax has been the biggest debt overall; it's remained high. There's been an increase in individuals who are disabled, who have a long-term health condition, coming to our services reporting council tax. Now, obviously, that is a difficult situation to marry up with the idea that local authorities are showing great reams of forbearance for people in that situation. So, I think there is more to do there, and I know that it's something that the Senedd and the Government are exploring. But our experience is that, in the pandemic, the issues around council tax debt kind of dropped off a bit for a number of reasons. But then, alongside the removal of the uplift in universal credit in September 2021, the debt needs, particularly around council tax, have started to increase and to rise back to levels that we've seen previously. So, my takeaway from that is that there is always more to do. We would like to see local authorities having more forbearance with people in the coming months. The Minister gave a steer last week in committee saying that the Welsh Government will scrap the rule that allows people to be eligible for a full year's council tax bill if they miss one payment. I think that is a step forward, but actually there is action that could probably be taken now, We have a council tax protocol in Wales. We'd like to see that on a statutory footing. We don't think that it's being followed at the level it should be.
Okay, thank you for that. I know that, Altaf Hussain, you wanted to follow up on the response of public bodies.
Thank you, Chair, and good afternoon. Firstly, are there any particular recommendations in the committee's report on debt and the pandemic that we should follow up with the Minister, and what outcomes would you like to see from this? Now, coming to the question, in its previous work, the committee heard concerns about the enforcement approaches that local authorities take when people are in debt. Have there been any changes on the ground since the committee's report, and are you aware of any progress in reviewing the council tax protocol? How would you describe the current picture, where people have fallen behind in their payments to local authorities, and has it worsened?
Thank you. Should we start with Luke Young, just picking up on your previous remarks?
Dealing with the council tax protocol itself first, I think it does need to be reviewed to see if it can be strengthened and put on a statutory basis. We did research with individuals in council tax debt last year that was quite instructive, really, and lots of the experiences relayed to us were of services that felt, at times, uncaring, that felt pressurised, that felt that, actually, there was only one way to deal with debt, and that was paying the full bill or going to court. Obviously, that's a situation that we feel, for people in debt and for anyone struggling, is not the best situation, because you're not going to help them to move forward. So, we would like to see the council tax protocol reviewed and strengthened, absolutely. Chair, I just want to check. We'll probably talk about recommendations for Government later. I'm just aware that the Member asked—
Yes, we can come back to that. Shall we just stick with council tax for now? The committee want to know if there's been any change of attitude by particular local authorities who may have been employing aggressive bailiffs who weren't compliant with the protocol. So, if there's anything that either Luke or the Bevan Foundation, or indeed StepChange, want to tell us on that.
Yes. I guess one concern—. Luke and Peter might know more specifically about council tax in terms of what's going on on the ground. That's part of the problem: a lot of this is anecdotal rather than hard evidence. I think there is a concern that, because there is so much pressure on local authorities at the moment across the board—an area like homelessness is another example—a lot of good wishes and plans to move towards more preventative action is currently coming up against the sheer workload that they're seeing of people in crisis, and obviously, it's absolutely right that the focus is on crisis. But that is preventing, across the board, I think, the shift that we may want to see, and actually a lot of the local authorities themselves are wanting to be doing as well. So, I'm mindful that that is a climate that has made it maybe more difficult for some of those actions to be taken forward than we may have wished to see, following the publication of the last report.
Okay. Jane, is that on this specific point, because I know that Peter wants to come in?
Yes. If you let Peter go first, sorry—I think he had his hand up.
Okay, Peter Tutton, would you like to come in?
Thank you, that's very kind. So, on bailiffs, like Luke on council tax, we're quite keen on the idea of not just council tax but all public sector creditors having broader statutory principles about how debt management is done. So, the UK Government Cabinet Office consulted on that a while ago, a couple of years ago. We have some statutory principles—a very small group of public sector debt management practices that are covered by a thing called the Digital Economy Act 2017, where there are data-sharing powers. But, that should be expanded. So, that's one thing. The protocols that I remember back in the day, the original Citizens Advice protocol, having been involved in that—they're really good at setting out the framework, but unless there's some sort of bite to them and how they apply, they're not necessarily effective.
On bailiffs, something that has happened since the last time I gave evidence to you is that we now have this organisation called the Enforcement Conduct Board, which had a launch event hosted in the Senedd not that long ago. That's something that, again, we've been very closely involved with, as have colleagues from Citizens Advice, in drafting a framework. Now, this isn't the statutory bailiff regulation that we really want and that we think is needed, but it is an independent oversight body that has been given a strong mandate and some funding by the industry that we think can make a difference. So, I think what our ask of colleagues would be now is how Government and local authorities can support that body to get on top of the conduct of bailiffs and ensure that, on things like affordability, dealing with people who are vulnerable, looking at particular practices, looking at the way—. The Ministry of Justice have just put out some data showing the fees that bailiffs charge, and there is supposed to be a smaller fee to settle things by phone or letter than a larger enforcement fee, but that hasn't worked as they'd hoped and more is going to doorstep enforcement than they thought would. So, there's a great need for this body to get stuck into practices in the bailiff sector and make them better.
One of the things that would really help there would be a commitment from public sector creditors, including local authorities, to only work with bailiffs that agree to sign up and follow ECB's standards when they start producing those standards. And I think that would be a very good leap forward. There would then be some tangible control, albeit not on a statutory basis, but some tangible control and oversight of bailiffs that can be looked at, can be monitored and can be improved.
Thank you for that specific steer. Jane Dodds, did you want to come back in?
Na, mae'n iawn.
No, it's fine.
Okay. Da iawn. Okay. Altaf Hussain, back to you.
Thanks very much. Thank you. Yes, it needs reform and we need to have the legislation for it. Is there any scope for the Welsh Government to introduce measures to write off debts owed by people to public bodies, and what lessons can be learned from the tenancy hardship grant that operated during the pandemic? And, if there is scope, is there a risk that merely writing off debt will simply imply that it does not matter how many people fall into debt and how often, and that this would send the wrong signal about personal responsibility?
Who wants to come in on that? Luke, and then I'll come to Steffan.
This is one of the fascinating things, and I think it's worth explaining. We've done lots of research with the people who come in and access our services. We did a load of work around council tax debt specifically last year. But, regardless of the debt, in every type of research, group or interaction that we have with a front-line adviser and someone needing help and support, the overwhelming message is always that people want to pay their debts, that people want to pay their way. The issue is often that the system doesn't allow it. The system squeezes out—there's no sense of fairness, there is extra pressure to pay in one go, there is a worry hanging over their heads of enforcement. And I think, actually, there are some big structural things that need to change. It's why you might have heard me—and Citizens Advice—say before that I'm generally not a fan of council tax. I think it's a wholly regressive tax, and the whole system needs an overhaul. But, I think there are things in the current Welsh Government's current reform to look at how you get a system that is fairer for people and introduces an element of fairness and compassion.
On the issue itself of debt write-offs, I think, right now, what we need to be doing is making sure that people have enough day-to-day money and that they're not falling into lots of hardship. If support is going to them to keep them in a warm home, putting food on the table, which lots of this money is currently doing, then I think that's probably the immediate priority. I'm not sure that we would go as far as saying, 'Write off a whole load of debt right now'. Is there a better way, right now, that we can use that money?
Okay. Steffan Evans.
Yes. Well, to start off maybe on the tenancy hardship grant specifically, I think there seems to be, from the conversations we've had, two specific lessons from that. So, first, I think the way that the scheme was conceived probably targeted a group, in mind, that didn't actually exist, knowing what we know now. So, I think the scheme was really designed for maybe young professionals, freelancers who were paying their rent, who'd lost their job temporarily through COVID and now had their job back, but they had built up these rent arrears. But actually, what we've learnt since, anecdotally, anyway, is that a lot of tenants and landlords came to arrangements. Landlords couldn't evict someone during that point in time anyway, and they knew that they had a good tenant, who'd got their job back, so why would they evict them, because they were not going to find someone else? So, there were a lot of informal arrangements that came about that meant that the demand for that scheme, as it was originally set up, wasn't there. The scheme was eventually broadened out, partly as a response to some of the recommendations by this committee. The feedback we've had on that from local authorities is that the bureaucracy involved in trying to satisfy the requirements to get access to that funding was such that very, very few people actually met it, and therefore, what they tended to do with people with rent arrears was go to use other funds such as discretionary housing payments, to use those instead, which meant that the scheme then wasn't being used.
On that as well, the use of DHPs to pay off rent arrears is something that still happens, so that's an example of paying off debt that we have within our system. And actually, it's a necessary element as well, because a lot of people will see their place on the social housing waiting list and then they'll see themselves further down that list unless they clear historic debt arrears. So, that's an example of where we've got that in the system, and it's actually necessary, because without it, people are going to be going without access to housing.
More broadly, I think there is a question—from the point the Member was making—at both ends there. So, first, the cost of trying to enforce some of these debts that we know people haven't got the money to pay back, is arguably not a very good use of it. So, we know that, on council tax arrears, for example, data here suggests that about 18 per cent of people on universal credit reported in our most recent survey that they were in arrears on their council tax. How many of those are you going to be in a position to claw that money back from? How many of those actually should be on the council tax reduction scheme in the first place? So, is it really good use of public funds to be going after that money in the first place?
But there's also a point, I think, that it is true that, actually, the problem with many people at the moment is that their incomes just don't cover their costs—so, the point that Peter made around negative budgets. So, actually, clearing off that debt now will make a difference, because you don't have to service that; it will reduce stress, et cetera, but unless we fundamentally make the system ensure that the core costs cover people's core essentials, then we're always going to end up getting back into this conversation, particularly for those on the lowest incomes.
Okay. We'll come back to the bureaucracy a bit later. Altaf, is there anything further you want to ask?
Yes. Peter, you’ve said that there is a need to scale up alternatives to high-cost credit to help households avoid the harmful credit safety net. What should the Welsh Government be looking to do in this area?
Thank you, yes. So, just to explain that a little bit. What we mean by the credit safety net is we find that people, as I said before, are borrowing to try and keep up with essential household bills and existing credit commitments, which is important. And we did some research last January that found that about 4.5 million people are doing this, and what was important about that was that people who were using credit as a safety net in this way—borrowing more to keep up with essential bills and existing credit—were much more likely to experience harms like poor mental health, affected work and family relationships and cutting back on things like food and heating, so experiencing hardship and various bits of distress.
Now, there are a couple of bits that fit into that, one is about the way that creditors offer forbearance, which we've talked about a bit before—a big part of that is actually about financial services regulation, and the Financial Conduct Authority and I think the UK Regulators Network, at the moment, are working on what regulators can do to help households through the cost of living. And a big part of that is getting earlier engagement with people in financial difficulty, which the credit market is not very good at doing, and getting people to help earlier. So, if we break this cycle of people feeling they have to borrow to keep up with existing credit, that can stop a lot of harm. But the comments that colleagues have made about council tax enforcement and other types of debt, about the right forbearance at the right time, are also important. So, we know that people coming out of debt advice with negative budgets are unable to keep up with essentials, even after advice, and may fall further into debt. But also there are dynamics to that, because with some of those people, their situations recur over time, so there is a need not to try and enforce debt when people are at their weakest points.
In terms of alternative credit, as well as people, there's a very harmful use of credit to try and keep up, particularly with credit commitments. But we also see, after advice and before advice, people who are financially vulnerable—. We all have lumpy expenditure, so there are times in people's life—. We monitor outcomes, we survey our clients after advice, three months, nine months and 15 months after advice, and one of the questions we ask is, 'Were you able to save up enough money to replace a fridge or washing machine, something like that, if it broke down?' Almost no-one says 'yes' 15 months after. So, this idea that people need credit for lumpy things, obviously if you're going to a high-cost lender or you're using a credit card that's going to charge interest and interest and interest, it's going to make it worse.
So, that's the thing about scaling up credit, thinking about what are the bits—. A part of that question of the credit safety net is actually about regulators and changing practices, but once we've done that, there's a bit left, which is about those that are the most financially vulnerable, perhaps even that it's difficult for things like credit unions to lend to them: how are their needs for credit helped? That's what things like the no-interest loan scheme are all about, and there's a need there to link together both the bits of welfare system lending, like advances of universal credit, no-interest loan schemes, scaling that up so that people who need the help can get it. We know that the Treasury have been piloting, and there are NILS pilots going on.
The other side of that is a thing that Luke touched on, I think, about universal credit deductions. One of the problems our clients have at the moment is when people are having debt deductions taken from their benefit, either from overpayments for prior benefits like tax credit or recovery of those loans, the amount that's recovered can be so high that it puts them into negative budgets and itself causes hardship.
So, there's a package of things that Government can do there: supporting the scaling up of alternatives to high-cost credit; supporting third sector lenders to deliver lower cost and, in some cases, no-interest loans; building that and linking that to your other support, like discretionary assistance, so you have a package of things that come together; thinking about forbearance, which we have spoken about, on things like council tax, so people aren't borrowing to keep up with unaffordable debt repayments; and then looking at Westminster Government things on things like deductions from benefits to make sure they're affordable. You really need to do all those things at once to relieve the pressure on households.
Okay, thank you, Peter, for that comprehensive answer. I want to now turn to looking at the specifics of the Welsh Government's draft budget for the next year. Sarah Murphy.
Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you all for being here today. I think some of these parts have already been touched on, so I'm just going to get straight into drilling down into the discretionary assistance fund, if that's okay. So, could you tell us what impact will the wider decisions made around Welsh Government support have on households' need for the discretionary assistance fund, and is prioritising the DAF the best approach to take, do you think? I'll bring—I'm sorry, I can't see if anyone's got their hand up in the room, Chair.
Luke, would you like to come in?
Thank you. With the discretionary assistance fund, we're very happy to see the Welsh Government allocate, I think it's around £18 million extra in the forthcoming budget. We think it's necessary, we think it is about helping the system continue to provide emergency support. I said earlier and in our evidence we note that Citizens Advice, last year, helped just under 27,000 people with debt. When you think that, with the discretionary assistance fund, 30,000 people accessed that over the Christmas period—in December, 30,000 people accessed the discretionary assistance fund, just that month alone—so, there are clearly huge numbers within Wales that are finding that emergency support really, really useful.
I do think, though, it is worth the Welsh Government going further on some of the freedoms that they introduced into the system during the pandemic. So, multiple payments within a one-year period. There's currently a difference, for example, if you're on universal credit, in the number of times you're allowed to access the fund versus if you're not. As we go on, I think actually those differences get in the way of people getting emergency support as they need it.
But the final thing I'd say is, while we welcome the discretionary assistance fund and that extra support, we've still got a gap of this £90 million scheme, which is the Wales fuel support scheme, that is in place this winter that won't be next winter. My message is very simple: you can remove the scheme, but you won't remove the need, particularly at a time when we are seeing rising pressure on households and all of the things that we've already mentioned. So, I think it's very likely, if things go on as predicted, we'll be back in a few months trying to work out how we provide emergency support once again to that group of people.
Related to that is what's not in the budget, which is a sizeable energy efficiency programme. In all honesty, if you wanted to get rid of the Wales fuel support scheme and help people on energy bills, you have to reduce the costs of energy to people, and one way to do that is on energy efficiency. There's not a counter-balance to the removal of that overall scheme, and I think that should worry Senedd Members.
Okay. Sarah, could I just call in Sioned Williams who had a supplementary? Go ahead, Sioned.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. Dwi jest eisiau gofyn yn gyflym ar y gronfa—[Anghlywadwy.]—clywed fi? Dwi jest eisiau gofyn cwestiwn—.
Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to ask very briefly—[Inaudible.] Can you hear me? I wanted to ask a question—.
I think we're having a bit of difficulty at the moment. Ask your question, if you can. Otherwise, we'll have to come back to you. We haven't heard your question, Sioned. Please repeat it.
Ocê, ydych chi'n fy nghlywed i nawr? Ocê. Jest yn gofyn am y gronfa cymorth dewisol, ydych chi'n teimlo bod—? Mae yna lot fawr o bobl wedi gwneud cais am y gronfa, mae yna lot fawr o fuddsoddi yn mynd mewn i'r gronfa nawr yn y gyllideb ddrafft, ydych chi wedi gweld tystiolaeth o'r gronfa a'i heffeithiolrwydd wrth daclo tlodi wedi'u gwerthuso? Oes yna dystiolaeth o fonitro yn digwydd o effeithiolrwydd y gronfa, pwy mae hi'n cyrraedd, ac os yw hynny yn helpu i leihau lefelau o dlodi ac o ddyled?
Okay, can you hear me now? Okay. I wanted to ask about the discretionary assistance fund, do you feel that—? A number of people have made an application for this fund, there's a lot of investment going into the fund now in the draft budget, have you seen evidence of the fund's efficiency in tackling poverty? Has that been evaluated? Has there been any evidence of evaluation of the effectiveness of that fund, who it's reaching, and whether that's helping to reduce levels of poverty and debt?
Rydyn ni'n gwybod bod gan Lywodraeth Cymru beth data ar bwy sy'n derbyn cymorth drwy'r gronfa. Mae'n destun bach o rwystredigaeth weithiau fod y data yna ddim ar gael yn gyhoeddus yn aml—mae'n rhaid gofyn amdano fe—achos byddai hwnna jest yn ddefnyddiol i bobl sy'n gweithio yn y sector i weithio mas y diweddaraf am bwy sy'n cael mynediad at y gronfa, a byddai hwnna'n rhoi gobaith i ni efallai i fynd nôl a rhoi cymorth i bobl. Os ydyn ni'n gwybod bod yna grŵp sy'n ei chael hi'n anodd a ddim yn ei derbyn, fe allem ni hybu mwy yn y cyd-destun yna. A hefyd byddai'n rhoi syniad i ni, o ran y bobl sy'n gweithio yn y maes ymchwil, pe baem ni'n gweld bod cynnydd penodol o fewn rhyw grŵp dros gyfnod mwy diweddar, byddai hwnna'n rhoi cyfle i ni wedyn feddwl beth sy'n digwydd o fewn y grŵp yna. Felly, mae'n sicr mwy y gellid ei wneud o ran rhannu'r data yna.
Does dim dwywaith ei bod yn cael effaith bositif. Rydyn ni'n gwybod os ydyn ni'n gallu osgoi pobl yn gorfod benthyg arian mae'n beth da, ac mae'n sicr yn gynllun sydd yn helpu pobl yn y cyd-destun yna. Ble mae gofid gennym ni, i atgyfnerthu beth roedd Luke yn ei ddweud, yw beth fydd yn digwydd blwyddyn nesaf. Rydyn ni'n gwybod bod y costau mae pobl yn eu hwynebu nawr ddim yn mynd i fod yn dod lawr, ond mae'n ymddangos bod lefel y cymorth, nid jest cynllun Llywodraeth Cymru, ond y cymorth enfawr ar lefel Brydeinig, mae hwnna'n debygol o gael ei dynnu nôl. Beth mae pobl yn mynd i fod yn gwneud pryd hynny? Gallem ni weld hyd yn oed mwy o gynnydd o ran pwysau ar y taliad yma os yw pobl ddim yn cael y cymorth dros y tymor hirach.
We know that the Welsh Government has some data on who is in receipt of support through that fund. It is the cause of some frustration sometimes that that data isn't available publicly—we have to ask for it—because that would be useful for those working in the sector to work out the latest in terms of who is accessing the fund, and that would give us an opportunity to go back and offer support to those people. If we know that a group of people are finding it difficult to access that support, we could be promoting it in that sense. It would give us an idea, in terms of those working in research in this area, if we see that there's an increase in a specific group in a recent time, that would give us an opportunity to think then about what's happening within that specific group. Certainly, there's more that could be done in terms of sharing that data.
It is having a positive impact. We know that if we can avoid people having to borrow money then that is a good thing, and it certainly is a scheme that does help people in that specific context. But where there is a concern, just to reinforce what Luke said, is what is happening next year. We know that the costs that people are facing now aren't going to be coming down, but it would appear that the level of support, through not just the Welsh Government scheme, but those huge schemes at a UK level, it's likely that those will be rolled back. What will people do then? We might see a greater increase in terms of pressure on that payment if people don't receive that longer term funding too.
Okay, thank you. Sarah, back to you.
Thank you very much, Chair. Peter, did you want to come in as well on the DAF?
Not much to add by me, other than, generally, discretionary funds are really useful for our clients. I think the point is: are we looking at this in terms of poverty reduction, where I think that discretionary funds are not so good, because what you need to keep people out of poverty is stable, sufficient, ongoing income? But in terms of keeping people out of debt and away from harmful credit, they can play an important role. I think that Steffan's stats in the poverty snapshot show the relatively low take-up, and certainly when we’ve looked at this, the take-up generally of discretionary schemes across the UK is much lower than the take-up of commercial credit for people to manage. So, there’s a job to be done there on getting people to the help. We’re a national charity covering the UK, so the client journey is a bit more difficult for us. So, there are some questions there about client journey, and how we link up with, say, different local authorities to help our clients have a very smooth application process. That’s quite a hard question, but that’s one of the big ones for us, yes.
Okay, that’s great. I think that’s coming in the next section with my other colleagues. Thank you, Peter.
Following on to my next questions, then, both the Bevan Foundation and Citizens Advice have called for allocations for means-tested grants funded by the Welsh Government to be increased in line with inflation from April 2023, as well as the value of the grant. But as we know, there are budgetary constraints, so could I ask which grants, if any, do you think should be prioritised if that were to happen? I’ll come to Steffan first this time.
Yes, thanks. Well, as you said, that’s something that we feel very strongly about. We know that the social security system isn’t enough anyway, so if that system doesn’t catch up with what’s going on with inflation, then that’s going to be an even bigger problem, and that absolutely applies to the support that the Welsh Government provides as well. I think one that we’ve raised a lot over time is EMA; EMA has not increased since 2004-05, so if ever any scheme was overdue an inflation uplift, that is an obvious one. But I think, thinking across the board, really, in terms of—. There are also two conversations, as well. So, some of these schemes that the Welsh Government support obviously put money into public services. So, something like free school meals, for example, the question there isn’t necessarily about the cash value that the parent gets, but whether the cash that local authorities are getting is enough to allow them to buy food of high enough quality. And maybe there are different conversations that can be had around those, because you might have economies of scale, for example, and there might be some cost savings that could be produced at the production end. And I suppose maybe those giving cash directly to people, those are the ones where people will notice the difference immediately in their pockets, so those are the schemes where there’s a need to immediately be looking at the cash value in terms of those supports.
Thank you very much. And Luke, did you want to come in?
Our position is pretty simple, but it doesn’t prioritise as your question would ask, really. We think that all Welsh Government-funded benefits and entitlements should be uprated in line with inflation. The Welsh Government is also making this ask of the UK Government in a number of areas, and we believe that to be the best way forward across the piece.
Thank you very much. If I can ask my last question, then, this is to you, Luke. The budget for the single advice fund has been frozen from 2023 to 2024. To what extent do you share the Minister for Social Justice’s view that this is sufficient?
It’s worth saying for the committee’s information that the single advice fund is largely delivered through Citizens Advice services throughout Wales. We have some partners in that delivery, so it’s worth being upfront about that.
Any level and flat budget is going to mean some really tough pressures on the service, as in other services that you’ll be fully aware of. We are in a time when there are rising budgetary pressures in the local services, but also in terms of our clients and the people that we support, we have an increase in numbers and those cases are becoming more complex.
I think there is a people and organisational aspect to this on the delivery of the single advice fund, which is: our advisers are some of the most brilliant people, but they, like other public sector workers, and like many, many others, have had a few years of going from and dealing with crisis after crisis, whether it has been a financial crisis, whether it has been COVID, and now we’re into a cost-of-living crisis. And there is a pressure on them as well, as individuals, so like other charities have mentioned in Wales previously, there is pressure on whether it is worth them staying in the service or whether they can find a better-paid job elsewhere. The budget that we receive for SAF has to deal with all of those problems and work out how we deliver to a growing group of people right across Wales. So, there is pressure, that's undeniable, but we do have brilliant people in the service, and I hope they stick with us for the time being.
Can I just press you, though? Do you think that it is sufficient, as the Minister says?
We've already said, and I've already said in this session, that we'd like to see Welsh benefits uprated in line with inflation. There are real pressures on people, and I worry about this extra pressure on people after a few years of going from crisis to crisis, where people don't feel particularly valued. I think that Citizens Advice and those in the service get quite a lot of value out of helping people. It's why they do it, and that's why our front-line advisers are so brilliant. But those pressures are going to be there. We don't know the full extent of whether that flat budget will mean jobs going or services being constricted—we're working through that right now—but it is pretty obvious, the same as other bits of Welsh society in the economy, that there's going to be pressure and it will mean that we'll have to do a bit less than we would have wanted to do.
Okay. Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair.
Just before we move on, if I wanted to seek advice from this advice fund today in Cardiff, how long would it take me to actually see somebody?
The single advice fund is specifically funded for those who are most in need of advice, and that's the idea behind the Welsh Government's approach to it. It would depend, in all honesty, as to how you interacted and how you chose to interact. You could very quickly get an answer online—
I don't mean me, but Joe Bloggs in my constituency.
It's always worth a question. In your constituency in particular, you could go into the Cardiff and Vale local office and book in an appointment with an adviser. Typically, we are seeing rising waiting lists across Wales, similarly with other services as well; we're not unaffected by that, with rising pressure. And then you also add in that pressure that I spoke about front-line advisers dealing with more complex cases. So, it's not just a simple thing of, 'Come in and we'll help you with your council tax debt or your energy debt'. Actually, lots of different bits of people's lives are now being frustrated by systems and also the pressure on them in the economy. So, that takes time as well.
The question was, 'Is it sufficient?' So, is my constituent going to get seen if they're being chased by a credit card vulture before they resort to some of the loan sharks?
If it is an emergency case like the one you've explained, we will try to get to them immediately. Our advisers try that, but I can't deny that there are pressures within the system and we do have rising waiting lists.
Okay. Thank you. Jane, I'm sorry, I didn't see you earlier on. Did you want to pick up on that point?
No, that's fine, thank you.
Can I move on to Sioned Williams now?
Diolch, Gadeirydd. Eisiau gofyn ydw i—mae'n rhywbeth rydym ni wedi cyffwrdd arno yn y sesiwn yma ac yn ystod ein sesiynau blaenorol ar gyfer yr adroddiad blaenorol ar ddyled—am bwysigrwydd ei gwneud hi'n haws i aelwydydd wneud cais am gymorth. Dwi eisiau gofyn pa mor bell ydym ni ar y ffordd i gyflawni creu system fudd-daliadau datganoledig integredig. Pa mor effeithiol y mae Llywodraeth Cymru wedi bwrw ymlaen â'r gwaith yma, yn eich barn chi?
Thank you, Chair. I wanted to ask about something we've touched on in this session and during our previous sessions on the previous report on debt, and that's the importance of making it easier for households to apply for support. I wanted to ask how far we are along the road to achieving creating an integrated devolved benefits system. How effective has the Welsh Government been in pressing ahead with this work, in your opinion?
Who wants to—? Steffan.
Yn amlwg, rŷm ni fel Sefydliad Bevan wedi gwneud lot o waith yn y maes hwn. I ddechrau'n gyntaf, efallai, gyda Llywodraeth Cymru, rŷm ni wedi gweld pethau'n camu ymlaen, dwi'n credu, ers y tro diwethaf i'r pwyllgor yma edrych ar y mater yma. Mae yna ymroddiad bellach o fewn Llywodraeth Cymru i fod yn trio symud at ryw fath o system integredig lle mae pawb yn gallu cael popeth yn un man. Ar y foment, mae lot o'r trafodaethau wedi bod ar bethau fel principles a fyddai ynghlwm â rhywbeth fel yna, yn hytrach na'r nitty-gritty o sut byddai hynny'n gweithio'n weithredol. Rŷm ni wedi gweld bod awdurdodau lleol penodol wedi cymryd camau ymlaen hefyd achos eu bod nhw wedi bod yn rhan o'r sgyrsiau yna. So, mae yna newid wedi bod. Rŷm ni'n credu bod yna rwystredigaeth, o bosib—fel wastad—bod pethau'n methu bod yn gynt.
Dŷn ni wedi bod yn gweithio â sawl person arall, Citizens Advice yn un, i gomisiynu cwmni Policy in Practice i wneud darn o waith ymchwil i ni, i edrych ar hwn o ran mecaneg y peth—beth sy'n bosib, beth sy'n bosib pryd. Maen nhw wrthi'n dod â'r gwaith yna i ben ar y foment, a dŷn ni'n gobeithio, erbyn dechrau mis Mawrth, y bydd y gwaith yna'n barod i gael ei rannu. A beth dŷn ni'n ei obeithio y bydd hwnna'n ei ddangos yw pa gamau y dylem ni fod yn eu cymryd nesaf os ydym ni o ddifrif am wneud y systemau yma'n fwy integredig a'i gwneud hi'n haws i bobl gael ateb. Beth dŷn ni wedi bod yn siarad â Policy in Practice amdano yw meddwl am gamau y gallwn ni fod yn eu cymryd nawr, fory, i wneud yn siŵr bod y system yn gweithio'n well, a pha gamau y byddai angen eu cymryd mewn dwy neu dair blynedd—so, pa gamau fyddai angen deddfwriaeth o ran rhannu data, pa gamau fyddai angen newid systemau technegol. Ond mae'r gwaith y maen nhw wedi ei wneud hyd yn hyn yn dangos ei bod hi'n sicr yn mynd i fod yn bosib i gael system lot yn well na'r hyn sydd gyda ni ar hyn o bryd. Felly, fe fyddem ni'n awyddus i weld camau positif, mawr yn cael eu cymryd unwaith bod y gwaith yna mas, achos fe fydd e'n—. Beth rŷn ni'n ei obeithio yw canolbwyntio ffocws pobl ar ble y dylem ni fod yn gwneud y gwaith. Ac felly, mae hwnna'n rhywbeth y byddem ni'n awyddus i weld cynnydd mawr arno yn y dyfodol agos.
We as the Bevan Foundation have done a great deal of work in this field. Starting with the Welsh Government, we have seen things taking a step forward since the last time the committee looked at this issue. There is a commitment within the Welsh Government to moving towards some kind of integrated system where people can access everything in one place. At the moment, there are a great deal of discussions on things such as the principles that would be related to such a system, rather than the nitty-gritty of how it would work in practical terms. We have seen that specific local authorities have taken steps forward too, because they have been part of those conversations. So, there have been steps taken. I think there have been frustrations, possibly—as always—because things haven't happened at greater pace.
We've been working with several other groups, such as Citizens Advice, to commission Policy in Practice to do a piece of work for us, to look at the mechanics of this—what's possible, what's possible when. They're concluding that work now, and we hope that, by the beginning of March, that work will be ready to share. And what we hope that that will show is what steps we should be taking next if we are seriously thinking about making these systems more integrated and making it easier for people to access those systems. What we've been talking to Policy in Practice about is thinking about what steps we can take now, tomorrow, to make sure that the system works better, and what steps we would need to take in two or three years' time—so, what kinds of steps would require legislation in terms of sharing data, what steps would need a change to technical systems. But the work that they've done to date shows that, certainly, it is going to be possible to have a far better system than we currently have. So, we would be eager to see positive, major steps being taken forward when that work comes out, because it will be—. What we're hoping is to focus people's minds on where we should be doing this work. And so, that is something that we would be eager to see great progress on in the near future.
Diolch. Os nad oes rhywun arall yn moyn dod mewn yn fanna, allaf i jest dilyn lan ar hwnna? Dwi'n siŵr, os oes modd rhannu'r adroddiad yna gyda ni fel pwyllgor—.
Thank you. Unless anybody else wants to come in there, can I just follow up on that? I'm sure, if it would be possible to share that report with us as a committee—.
Steffan. And then I'll come to Luke, because he indicated.
Ie, yn sicr, byddwn ni'n rhannu hwnna gyda'r pwyllgor. Dŷn ni hefyd wrthi ar y foment yn trefnu dyddiad i lansio’r gwaith yna; dŷn ni'n meddwl o bosib gwneud rhywbeth ar y cyd â'r grŵp trawsbleidiol ar dlodi hefyd. Felly byddwn ni'n rhannu'r wybodaeth yna hefyd ag Aelodau, achos dwi'n siŵr y bydd hwnna o ddiddordeb i nifer.
Yes, certainly, we will share that with the committee. We're also currently arranging a date to launch that piece of work; we hope to do something on a joint basis with the cross-party group on poverty too. So, we'll be sharing that information with Members, because I'm sure that will be of interest to many.
Okay. Roughly, what timescale?
The start of March.
Okay. Thank you very much. Luke Young.
Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to point out, with local government in Wales, there has been a move forward, really. You'll know that local government has typically been a tax collector rather than organisations that tend to give money out to people. But if we look at the Wales fuel support scheme this winter, quite a few local authorities across Wales have been quite innovative, really, in finding ways to get money out to people who are eligible, via a direct payment. They've managed to use some of the data from the £150 cost-of-living scheme earlier on last year, to use that same data to get to some people who are eligible. So, I think that it is worth noting that there is a shared agenda with this, and there have been some steps forward, and we need to encourage that, I think. What I also worry, on a Wales fuel support scheme basis, is that we are learning about how direct benefit support could work in Wales, right now this winter; I don't want that to be lost alongside the Wales fuel support scheme.
Diolch. O ran hynny, os oes modd i chi efallai ddweud wrthym ni, neu ysgrifennu atom ni, o ran enghreifftiau penodol o awdurdodau lleol sydd wedi bod yn greadigol ac yn effeithiol yn hyn o beth, byddai hynny'n dderbyniol iawn. Hefyd, o ran hynny—a dwi'n gwerthfawrogi bod y gwaith ymchwil yn digwydd ar hyn o bryd—beth yw'r prif rwystrau, dŷch chi'n ei feddwl, o ran datblygu'r system fudd-daliadau yma, o ran awdurdodau lleol a Llywodraeth Cymru? Fe wnaethoch chi, Steffan, sôn yn fras yn fanna am rannu data ac efallai'r systemau IT. Allwch chi jest roi tipyn bach mwy o gig ar yr asgwrn yna i ni?
Thank you. In terms of that, if it would be possible for you to tell us, or to write to us, with regard to specific examples of local authorities that have been creative and effective in this respect, I think that would be well received. And also, in terms of that—and I do accept that the research is ongoing—what are the main barriers, do you think, in terms of developing this benefits system, in terms of local authorities and the Welsh Government? You mentioned briefly there, Steffan, about data sharing and IT systems possibly. Could you perhaps give us a little bit more meat on those bones?
Un o'r pethau mawr, dwi'n credu, yw, yn gyntaf, meini prawf. Mae meini prawf y cynlluniau yma i gyd yn wahanol—wel, ddim i gyd, ond bron â bod i gyd yn wahanol—sy'n meddwl bod angen data gwahanol ar gyfer pob cynllun, ar y cyfan. Felly, un cam o bosib y gallem ni fod yn ei wneud yn y cyfamser—achos mae hwnna'n gam tymor hirach, edrych ar y meini prawf i gael y meini prawf yn yr un man—yw dod lan â system lle o leiaf does dim rhaid i chi rannu'r un data fwy nag unwaith. Dŷn ni'n gofyn lot i bobl i rannu beth yw eu henw nhw, ble maen nhw'n byw, eu cyfeiriad, ac ati. Gallem ni gael hwnna wedi ei adeiladu i mewn i'r system, o bosib, i atal hynna. So, meini prawf yn sicr.
Y broblem o ran rhannu data yw bod yna gymaint o gyrff gwahanol ynghlwm â'r system ar y foment, fod pobl ddim yn hapus i siarad â'i gilydd, a phoeni'n benodol o ran GDPR. Mae yna rai camau dwi'n credu fanna o ran efallai fod yna rôl i Lywodraeth Cymru, jest i wneud i bobl teimlo bach mwy hyderus bod hawl gyda nhw i gymryd data o un man i roi i'r llall. Rŷn ni'n gwybod bod yna rai awdurdodau lleol wedi bod yn gwneud hynny'n barod, felly, 'Rhowch dic yn y blwch os ydych chi'n hapus inni ddefnyddio'ch data am rywbeth arall'. Mewn rhai eraill, mae yna ofid achos eu bod nhw heb gael y caniatâd penodol i wneud hynny, ac os ydych chi gyda thîm awdit, sy'n cymryd diddordeb manwl yn y pethau yma, wedyn mae hwnna'n gallu bod yn stop ar bethau.
Ac wedyn, o ran y dechnoleg, o ran y system gyfrifiadurol, achos bod pethau'n cael eu rhedeg dros sawl gwahanol adran, dyw'r systemau cyfrifiadurol ddim wastad yr un rhai, a dŷn nhw ddim wastad yn siarad â'i gilydd. Mae rhai o'r pethau yna dan gontract, felly byddan nhw efallai angen peth amser i'r contract yna orffen ac ati. Ond y rheini, dwi'n credu, yw'r tri phrif rwystr. Gyda rhai o'r rheini, mae camau tymor byr y gallem ni fod yn eu cymryd i ddod rownd; mae rhai ohonyn nhw yn bethau sydd yn mynd i gymryd bach mwy o amser. Ond y rheini yw'r pethau y bydd angen inni eu datrys i gael system. Dwi'n credu beth sy'n sicr wedi gwella yw, dwi'n credu bod yna gytundeb nawr rhwng pawb ein bod ni'n moyn gweld rhyw fath o system fel hyn. Dydw i ddim yn credu bod lot o bobl yn dadlau bellach ei fod e ddim yn gwneud synnwyr eich bod chi dim ond yn gorfod llenwi un ffurflen i gael popeth sydd angen arnoch chi yng Nghymru. So, mae hwnna'n bositif, ond y rhain yw'r pethau fydd angen inni eu datrys nesaf.
One of the major issues, I think, first of all, is the criteria. So, the criteria of all of these schemes are different—well, not entirely different, but almost entirely different—which means that different data is needed for every scheme, on the whole. So, one step that potentially could be taken in the meantime—because that is a longer term step to take, to look at the criteria to get the criteria in the same place—is to come up with a system where at least you don't have to share the same data more than once. So, we ask people a lot to share what their name is, where they live, their address, and so on. We could get that built into the system, possibly, to avoid that. So, criteria, certainly.
In terms of data, the problem is that there are various different bodies as part of the system at the moment, and people aren't content to speak to each other, because they're concerned about GDPR. Perhaps there's a role for the Welsh Government to provide that confidence that different groups can speak to each other in terms of sharing that data. Some authorities have already done that—a tick box that could be used to say, 'I'm happy for them to share that information'. In other places, there's a worry that they don't have specific permission to do that, and if you have an audit team that can take that detailed view of these things, that can put a stop to that process.
With regard to the technology and the IT systems, because those things are run via several different departments, IT systems aren't always the same and they can't always communicate with each other. Those are sometimes done under contracts, so it would take some time for those contracts to come to an end. But I think those are the major barriers. There are some short-term steps that we could to take to counteract some of those barriers. Some would take longer, but those are the things that I do think that we need to solve, to get that system. What has emerged is that there is an agreement now between everyone that we do want to see that kind of system. I don't think many people are arguing that it doesn't make sense to have that one single integrated system for everything in Wales. That's a very positive step, but those things that I mentioned do need to be solved.
Sioned, is there anything else you need to ask?
Dwi jest eisiau gofyn cwestiwn cyflym ar bwysigrwydd hyn i StepChange, i Peter. Gwnaethoch chi sôn yn eich tystiolaeth ysgrifenedig i ni am y cylch dieflig yma rhwng dyled a phwysau iechyd meddwl ar bobl, felly ydych chi'n cytuno efallai y byddai cael rhyw system integredig o basbortio fel hyn yn helpu hynny, yn helpu'r bobl yna ffoi o'r cylch dieflig yna? Mae'n ymwneud â phwysigrwydd yr effaith o gael system fel hyn, nid yn unig o ran cael arian ym mhocedi pobl, ond o ran eu hiechyd a'u lles meddyliol nhw.
I wanted to ask a very brief question on the importance of this to StepChange, to Peter. You mentioned in your written evidence about this vicious cycle of people being in debt and the effect of that on their mental health. Do you agree, therefore, that having some kind of integrated system of passporting this would help those people to break that vicious cycle? It's about the importance of having this kind of system, not just in terms of putting money in people's pockets, but also in terms of their well-being and their mental health.
Thank you. The short answer to that question is 'yes'. The slightly longer answer is that what we've seen over the last few years is that, increasingly, support for people in different difficult financial situations is more localised, more discretionary—so, things like the discretionary funds, social tariffs for utility providers, bits and pieces here and there. It's quite hard for people to navigate all of that and it's quite for hard for us as a national charity to be able to—. We're dealing with 300-plus local authorities all with slightly different criteria, so bringing that together and, as Steff has said, having little things like some common eligibility criteria is really important.
We also know that the way that people are referred to help really matters. So, the old style giving people a leaflet, 'Go here to get help', is not very successful; a warm transfer is much more successful. There are some things there about if you join stuff together, then start thinking about the client journey. What I said earlier on about debt is that it takes a year for half our clients to come and seek advice, by which time they're in a terrible state, usually, in terms of their mental health, their physical health, their financial circumstances. So, once we've got people in the advice system, how do we get them all the bits of different help that they need? Referring people around that is actually quite hard at the moment.
We're doing a piece of work, just starting, with Bristol uni on referrals to some specific things like help with problem gambling, gambling addiction and debt advice, and how those two things work together—that help for both, which is much harder than it seems. So, it's this idea of integrating, getting support together, both if you can put things with the same criteria and a similar place to get them, but also build the infrastructure, so that organisations can talk to each other better.
A lot can be done with IT on that. About 70 per cent of our clients access advice through IT. We've recently been involved with the launch of the Breathing Space scheme for debt, which involved working with the insolvency service on them building a system for people to apply to it, and us integrating into it through application programming interfaces. Now, that's quite complicated, and, even with a lot of run-up to it, when it came to the crunch, we found lots of discontinuities in things like data. So, people come to us for a budget; in an ideal world, once they've given us that financial information, that should passport them into all sorts of help, all of the bits of schemes of help across Wales that are available, help with their fuel provider and so on and so forth. We're some way off that at the moment. So, there's a big process of co-design in there in how you make the IT systems work together. If you try and do a great big thing, there's a difficulty of systems costs. So, we reckon that getting ready for Breathing Space probably cost us as a charity well over £1 million, probably more. It is difficult.
But that idea of a co-designed process, that you start working with various agencies, thinking about the client journey at the start, how do we get people to their different sources of help, thinking about making eligibility and information requirements as common as possible so people just have to do it once, and then we can think about how we can use IT to speed that journey up, all these things that can be done—. Now, all of that may not be your priority at the moment, because money is tight and you probably don't want to be spending money in IT that can be supporting people directly. But, looking forward, they're the kinds of things that you might consider.
Thank you. I'd like to move us on at this point to specifically look at the support for households with energy costs, because otherwise we won't reach that. So, we'll come back at the end, Sioned, if you have some more questions. Jane Dodds.
Diolch. Ie, un bach olaf—[Anghlywadwy.]
Thank you. Yes, one final one—[Inaudible.]
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Roedd gen i jest un cwestiwn, i ddweud y gwir, achos roeddwn i eisiau canolbwyntio ar beth sy'n gweithio mewn llefydd eraill ynglŷn â phobl sydd â phroblemau ynglŷn â'u costau ynni nhw. Felly, byddai gen i ddiddordeb glywed gennych chi i gyd, os yw hynny'n iawn, am beth rydych chi wedi'i glywed, neu wedi'i weld, am yr enghreifftiau dros Brydain neu dros y byd sy'n gweithio yn y maes yma, os gwelwch yn dda. Gaf i ddechrau efo Peter, os yw hynny'n iawn, neu Steffan? Peter, wyt ti eisiau mynd yn gyntaf?
Thank you very much. I just had one question; I wanted to focus on what works in other places in terms of people who have problems with energy costs. I'm interested to know, and to hear from all of you, if that's okay, about what you've heard of and what you've seen in terms of examples across the UK or perhaps across the world that work in this area, please. Can I start, perhaps, with Peter, if that's okay, or Steffan? Peter, do you want to go first?
Thank you. Yes, that's a good and difficult question. There's an element to it that is that we're learning by going. As you know, we've had quite a high level of fuel poverty across the UK for quite a long time, which suggests that help isn't working as it might, and that will be made worse by the situation that we're in now. Certainly, the help that's been provided, as people have said before, that Government put forward, has been really significant in supporting households—so, large cash transfers—but that's not sustainable in the long term.
There's a question here about how much and what firms are doing. So, we'll see at the moment that there are a number of things that firms are doing—so, a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about firms putting people onto prepayment meters, and thinking about the alternatives to that. What we see in the energy sector is different firms having different schemes in terms of emergency credit, vouchers for people, prepayment meters. That's a good example of where an approach that is a bit more directive, maybe, from Government and from regulators, as to what firms ought to be providing would be useful. So, it picks up a lot of the things that we have talked about today both in terms of forbearance for debt but also in direct support and how to help people through it, where the energy sector itself is—. Different firms are doing different things, and it's hard to say how it all fits together. Again, it goes to the coherence point. When we get people in difficulty, there are things like fuel banks and stuff like that that we refer clients to, but it's very patchworky, and the referral networks are often quite difficult.
So, to start, the proposal—. People are looking at social tariffs for energy, which was in the autumn statement. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are looking at that. Certainly, in water, we've seen the idea of a social tariff—so, firms having a lower price for people on lower incomes. And then moving the water companies—. All the different water companies starting to get together just common criteria has been helpful and has been quite successful. So, something like that might work in fuel, that we look at and understand how people who don't have the financial ability to adequately heat their homes get a subsidised deal. That raises a bunch of questions about how you pay for that, who pays for it. Is it like the Warm Homes discount—at the margins, regressive? Lots of difficult questions, but there's a way forward there in terms of (1) thinking about tariffs, (2) thinking about the crisis support that firms are providing, and also their forbearance support for people in debt. There's more that can be put together to make that work.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, ac rydych wedi fy atgoffa i am bwysigrwydd prepayment meters hefyd. Rydyn ni wedi clywed gennyt ti, Peter, ynglŷn â hynny. Ond ydy o'n bosib i Luke a Steffan, os ydych chi’n gallu jest siarad hefyd am prepayment meters, ynglŷn â'r holl faes yma? Diolch yn fawr iawn. Steffan, wyt ti eisiau mynd yn gyntaf?
Thank you very much, and you've just reminded me about the importance of prepayment meters also. We've heard from you, Peter, with regard to that. But would it be possible for Luke or Steffan to talk a bit on that, on prepayment meters and this whole area? Thank you very much. Steffan, do you want to go first?
Steffan and then—.
Ie, iawn, gwnaf i fynd yn gyntaf. Dwi'n siŵr bydd gyda Luke fwy o wybodaeth ar prepayment meters, ond, o ran y pwynt ehangach am y gwersi, mae cymaint o wersi i'w dysgu yng Nghymru hefyd. Dwi'n meddwl am beth roedd Luke yn sôn amdano yn gynharach, y gwaith i wneud ein cartrefi ni yn fwy energy efficient. Roedd gwaith Audit Wales—roedd adroddiad pwerus iawn Audit Wales am y Warm Homes Programme, wnaeth ganfod pethau elfennol doedd ddim yn gweithio yn y cynllun yna. Dŷn ni'n dal ddim rili wedi gweld newid eto. Diwedd mis Mawrth blwyddyn ddiwethaf, rwy'n cofio llenwi mewn ymgynghoriad Llywodraeth Cymru ar gynllun newydd Warm Homes Llywodraeth Cymru. Mae hi nawr yn ddiwedd mis Ionawr, blwyddyn yn ddiweddarach, a dŷn ni'n dal ddim, actually, wedi clywed ymateb Llywodraeth Cymru i'r ymgynghoriad yna, heb sôn am beth yw'r cynllun newydd. Felly, mae hwnna—yn amlwg, mae yna wersi rŷn ni wedi eu dysgu yn barod o ran beth rŷn wedi'i geisio yng Nghymru sydd wedi gweithio a ddim wedi gweithio, a byddai fe'n grêt, actually, i'n gweld ni'n rhoi’r gwersi yna i mewn i bethau rŷn ni'n eu gwneud yng Nghymru. So, mae hynny'n rhywbeth rhwydd y gallwn ni fod yn ei wneud, achos mae'r gwersi yna o gyd-destun Cymreig am fel mae ein cynlluniau ni yn gweithio yng Nghymru.
Yes, I'll go first. I'm sure that Luke will have more information on prepayment meters, but, on the wider point about lessons, I think there are lessons to be learnt in Wales too. I'm thinking specifically about what Luke was saying earlier, about the work to make our homes more energy efficient. There was the Audit Wales report, a very powerful report, about the Warm Homes Programme, which found fundamental issues with that programme. We haven't seen those changes being made yet. I think it was March of last year that I remember filling in a consultation for the Welsh Government on a new scheme to replace Warm Homes for the Welsh Government. It's now the end of January, a year later, and we still haven't heard the Welsh Government's response to that consultation, not to mention about what the new scheme actually will be. So, there are clearly lessons that we've already learnt in terms of what has and hasn't worked in Wales, and it would be great to see us then putting those lessons into practice in what we're doing here in Wales. That's something that we could easily do in Wales, because those lessons are from a Welsh context about how our schemes work in Wales.
Okay. Luke Young.
Thank you, Chair. Very quickly, on your first point, direct payments to people in crisis are often the best support that someone in crisis can receive. Part of our modelling and part of our evidence shows that, actually, direct payments via the Wales fuel support scheme plus UK Government support has helped people in crisis. I just want us to keep in mind that, actually, good decisions were made in Wales to support people this year, and that is a positive thing.
Moving on to prepayment meters, though, and I know there has been a lot of concern across the Senedd on it, it is very difficult that we're still in a situation where energy companies still have free reign to move people on to prepayment meters. Literally just this morning I was reviewing a case from our local office in Torfaen. A woman came to the service. She has learning difficulties. She has children in that house. She was moved on to a prepayment meter just before Christmas, spent Christmas Eve and part of Christmas Day with no energy, with no heating, because she wasn't given the additional support around the prepayment meter. That's a case that's come across my desk this morning. There will be many, many more of those.
I'll just say this point, though, which is that energy companies in particular have done quite a lot in the past few months to meet with Ministers of all Governments. They've met with them quite a few times. Energy companies, particularly on the public relations side, love to meet with Ministers. The difficulty is that a Minister goes into those meetings with the full intention of moving it forward and getting a ban and making sure that people are not moved onto prepayment meters. However, on the energy company side, booking in a meeting with the Minister can take a few weeks. Booking in a follow-up meeting to see what action has been taken can take a few more weeks. It only takes a few more weeks until we're at the end of winter. At the beginning of January, we modelled that 7,500 more people in Wales by the end of winter will be on prepayment meters. I'm sure there have been lots of meetings, but we haven't seen the action that ends this appalling practice.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Mae hynny'n sioc mawr, onid yw, clywed am hynny. Dwi ddim yn gwybod beth i'w ddweud, i ddweud y gwir. Does gen i ddim cwestiynau—. Mae gen i lawer o gwestiynau, ond dwi'n gwybod bod yr amser yn rhedeg ymlaen, felly gwnaf i aros tan y diwedd, os oes yna amser. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Thank you, Chair. That's a real shock, isn't it, to hear that. I'm not sure what to say about that, to be honest. I don't have any questions—. I have many more questions, but I know that we don't have time to run on, so I will wait until the end, if there's time. Thank you.
I'll just follow up on one, because British Gas sent us all an e-mail recently, claiming that they were monitoring the data on prepayment meters and using it proactively to see whether somebody was self-disconnecting, like the lady you've just been talking about in Torfaen, and then claiming that they, therefore, proactively, took the decision to put the meter back into action. Now, is that a puff? Is it a reality? And what do all the other energy companies do? They do—. If there's a smart meter involved, they can see exactly what usage is going on. So, what creative use of all this data is being made by these very large companies to ensure that vulnerable people are not freezing to death?
I saw the British Gas announcement, and, obviously, that's welcome. But I think it will take us a bit of time to work out whether that is the actual case. I feel—. I do sound quite cynical on this, because I genuinely am. All of our data showed us last year that more people came to Citizens Advice last year for issues with prepayment top-up than they did for the last 10 years combined. Our data was showing this early on. There were calls publicly, early on, for energy companies, the UK Government and for Ofgem to take action. We're now coming towards what will be the end of winter—winter is only a few more months—until we get into the spring period. All that's happened in that time is that thousands of people have been moved on to prepayment meters. They are now—unless they contest it and challenge it, which will be difficult enough—locked into future winters on prepayment meters, which opens up that whole bunch of people to all the issues that we have, that we know about, that, if you're on a prepayment meter, you're probably paying more, if you're on a prepayment meter, you can be very close to being cut off, or, if you're on a prepayment meter, you can be cut off multiple times in any given year. That's just unacceptable.
So, is that a regulatory issue by the enforcement conduct board, or is it legislation that's needed?
This is a place where the UK Government and the energy companies are batting back and forth. The push has to be on UK Government action at this point now. Energy companies—as British Gas have done—have volunteered and offered that they will try to support people. I'm not in a position to say with any confidence that that has happened.
Okay. Thank you. Can I move on to Ken Skates now?
Yes, thank you, Chair. I'm going to ask about wider cost-of-living support for households, and begin by asking both Peter and Luke how effective you think the Welsh Government is in supporting—beyond energy costs—households with the wider cost-of-living pressures?
I suspect that Luke will be better on the detail of this than me. I guess we're coming from a place at the moment, and particularly amongst the most financially vulnerable clients we see, that any support from Government is going to make a difference. One of the things to think about: we have a whole bunch of people we see after advice, that, when we do their budgets, their budgets will have something like a £5 or £10 a month deficit at the end. So, in some cases, some relatively small interventions that change that can make a lot of difference. So, when we look at those clients and we think about the sort of help that's been talked about today coming into people's budgets, it can really make the difference between a prolonged period of not being able to keep up with basics and falling further into debt and being able to keep your head just above water. So, our data doesn't drill down far enough into the specifics of our Welsh clients; we'd have to do some survey data, which we can do, so I'll leave that to Luke. But I think the general point is that that help that you provide for our clients is really important. And help from Government, even small bits of help of Government—. The balance between people being able to manage and not manage is sometimes measured out in pounds per month. Sometimes the deficits are very much bigger than that, but all help will help. That's the key thing.
Thank you, Chair. From our perspective, I think there is a really strong record of Welsh Government Ministers wanting to go further to support people in challenging situations. So, we spoke earlier about the discretionary advice fund and the assistance fund. We've spoken briefly about the council tax reduction scheme in this session, but, actually, that does support quite a large number of people, whether it's free school meals, whether it's keeping EMA in Wales—which, by the way, isn't just about 30 quid to young people; it's about an element of financial independence, so I'd certainly echo the calls to uprate that.
I think there is a good record, but there's always more that can be done, and I've outlined some of those areas where I don't think it's gone far enough. One way to say that there has been action is actually looking at the size of the Wales fuel support scheme, which has grown to a £90 million scheme for this winter. Last year, it was expanded a number of times. I and colleagues elsewhere, in the Bevan Foundation and others as well, called for it to be expanded, and they were difficult decisions that the Government took, and they were big decisions. But the core issue that we have is that we are spending a lot of time and energy on dealing with the effects of crisis and not really getting into a preventative mode of stopping it. And this is the worry: how do we move to a point where we are getting people out of foodbanks and out of warm hubs and into warm homes? And on that point of warm homes, there has to be an element of us upgrading our housing stock. I'd suggest the Welsh Government could be challenged further on how it's going to bring its social housing up to energy A efficiency within the current budget means.
So, I think there is a good record, and because of the decisions that have been made in Wales, people are better supported in Wales this winter. However, as all of our evidence has given you sight of, we're approaching April, UK Government support will start to drop back and there will be £200 less for those—I think it was—290,000 households who've already benefited from the Wales fuel support scheme this winter. There is a gap, and that will need to be filled.
Thank you. It's really interesting what you both said about small amounts of money going a long way in preventing or stopping—or both—people from suffering from crisis point in regard to the cost-of-living crisis. Do you think, though, that the Government has got the right balance in terms of how it's using its financial resource? It can basically make direct interventions—financial support for individuals, for families, for households. It can use financial resource as well for advisory boards, advisory organisations that can provide support to people. Also, it can commission research for itself and get advice for itself, and then it can offer funding for indirect action through other organisations, such as the provision of warm hubs. Do you think it's got the balance right in terms of how it's allocating its financial resources, or should more money be allocated to, say, advisory services or to direct intervention by Government?
Luke, and then Steffan.
The Welsh Government's budget narrative is quite ambitious in its approach. It says the things that we would want to hear, in all honesty, about supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis, and I've outlined some of the areas where that is happening. But I think there is a time and a place for discussion as to when the Government moves from crisis to crisis to becoming more preventative in its approach. You've outlined a number of areas there that are worthy, and particularly, of course I would say, advice services—we try to help people from falling into crisis. Increasingly, though, we're dealing with people who can't afford the basics and are coming to us for crisis support. So, actually, it needs to move further down the line to stop them needing crisis interventions at that point, which is why I raise energy efficiency, because I think it is a public debate that we do need in Wales, around a sizeable, substantial move to making homes energy efficient. There are costs around that—of course there are—and there are big decisions that would need to be made. But I also remember that in the Welsh Government's election manifesto, housing retrofit was a headline pledge, and there were lots of jobs that were involved in it. I think there can be some solutions here that help give people good wages and also tackle poverty. But I think we're not there yet, and the Government, certainly, while it's responding to the current crisis, isn't there where I think it needs to be on preventative measures.
Yes, I was just going to add. I agree with a lot of what Luke said there. I think one of the things we need to challenge ourselves on is actually about how we think about this crisis. We've all mentioned already that the problems aren't going away at the end of March when a lot of the financial support stops. We're talking another year or two, probably, of higher costs. Even if inflation peaks out and inflation stops, costs are going to be that much higher. And maybe part of the problem has been that a lot of the extra support we have seen provided, particularly at the UK level but also at the Welsh level, has been extra one-off payments rather than actually just making, fundamentally, the social security system pay better and work pay better. That is a more longer term footing to be putting this stuff on, because at some point your one-off payments become part of the system. I think all of us have shared concerns today that if these one-off payments stop, if these crisis payments stop, come April, the situation is going to deteriorate significantly. So, I think that is a real challenge that the Welsh Government itself needs to be dealing with here as well in terms of—. The extra support it has provided has been great and it has made a difference, but realistically they now need to be thinking about how we put this on a longer term footing to make the whole system more generous, so that people actually do have enough money to cover all the essentials.
Thank you. Steffan, can I just ask you about the campaign to get EMA increased by £5 a week? What do you think will happen? What do you think the Government's going to decide to do?
Well, I've no idea is the truth. I haven't spoken to any of them. It's absolutely something that we want to see, that increase. It's been something we've been pushing for a while. Now, the pushback has been the cost element, and at least it's here in Wales and it's not elsewhere. But, a quote that always stays with me is, I remember talking to a young person—this was before COVID—and his response was, 'Well, it's not really much cop, because by the time you buy all the stuff you really need to at the start of the year, it doesn't leave you with much after that.' And that was before the recent inflationary peaks. We know from what young people are telling us that they knew of friends who had dropped out of education because their family needed someone to be earning an income, rather than actually taking part in that. And the impact that's going to have in the medium to long term on the Welsh economy as well, because if we do go down the decarbonisation route, we're going to need young people with the skills to be doing those jobs, so they're going to need to be in college to learn those skills to do that in the first place. So, I think it's absolutely something that should be fundamental really, in terms of, if we're thinking preventively and something that's crisis related, it ticks both boxes, because it puts more money into the pockets of young people and their families now, but it also provides us with a route for many of those people to have more prosperous futures as well.
Thank you. Just one final question, actually. With regard to the Welsh Government's cross-Government group on eligibility for education food provision, should they be looking at making any additional decisions and taking any additional measures in relation to both primary and secondary schools?
I guess, from our end, unsurprisingly, from the work we've done on free school meals, we are concerned about the position in secondary schools. Part of the reason why we did the work we did around free school meals to start with was the £7,400 income cap. That is incredibly low and, in real terms, that's got lower as well, in terms of what we know has happened with the labour market. So, that is a group we're concerned with. I can see why you would, as a Welsh Government, prioritise getting the provision you've promised to expand in primary schools sorted first, but that doesn't mean to say that we forget about that group. And I think there is reason to be concerned that older children and young people are a group that maybe had a bit of a raw deal. We've seen a lot of action, maybe, taken around the younger children, maybe around pensioners as well—and rightly so, it's not a competition of one against the other—but I do think that those older children and young adults in further education in particular are a group that sometimes are overlooked and haven't had a lot of extra payments going their way recently. So, that's definitely something that we'd like to see revisited.
Thank you. Thanks, Chair.
Thank you. I wanted to follow up on that, because other local authorities in England who have rolled out free school meals in all primary schools have used it as a mechanism for driving up the uptake of what people are entitled to. What evidence is there that any local authority in Wales has used that opportunity to increase the amount of circulation in their local economy?
I am not aware of specific examples, but I know there were a lot of conversations happening around that time. It was something that local authorities were keen to do, and I think they view it as feeding in more broadly into what's going on. But, I think you're right, I think it is something that we could be doing more of, and it is something that I think would be worth investigating, actually, with local authorities themselves to know whether they can provide direct good practice. So, we definitely heard these conversations about people wanting to do that stuff back in August and September, but we haven't had follow-up conversations on that to know actually are these happening in practice.
So, you're not aware of any organisation that's specifically focusing on being able to measure any impact. Because I remember one local authority in London, they increased the uptake of benefits by 50 per cent—a very significant sum of money.
Yes, absolutely, and I think that's something—. One benefit, I think, looking through data recently, where I have seen an increase, is Healthy Start vouchers. That may partly reflect as well that the Welsh Government itself has put some extra money into that, so that might be a good news story there, that people are joining the dots, maybe, between some of this stuff.
So, yes, the challenge always is—has been since COVID—that a lot of the data became quite out of date over COVID, so actually drawing causal links has been challenging, but I think, yes, it's definitely an area worth pursuing and seeing are we seeing those improvements, because absolutely, that's something that we'd want to see.
Okay. Because the Minister for Social Justice has said that 11 of the 22 local authorities are actively passporting certain benefits to social tenants because they use the data they hold on them to ensure that they automatically get that fuel support payment. So, why are the other 11 just thinking, 'Oh, this is nothing to do with us. This is up to the individual'?
That is a question we've wondered ourselves. If 11 can do it, absolutely, we want to see the others. I think one of the things has been this caution, a concern about audit. So, that was one of the reasons why we heard—. It's a few years since, and I don't think it's happening any more, thankfully, but you may remember that we published some work around 2019 on free school meals and pupil development grant access, so the school uniform grant, and we found that lots of local authorities were doing a system where if you've got one, you've got both. We had some that said, 'If you get one, can you please fill in this form?' So, there was a prompt. Most were just given cash payments, but we came across one local authority that required all parents to submit receipts of items that they'd bought before they'd get that cash payment, and the reason that was given at the time was that the guidance from Welsh Government wasn't particularly clear, and therefore, their own internal audit department was a bit officious and had decided that, no, they weren't taking any risks; they didn't want to be—. If something happened, they didn't want to be seen to have not followed the rules. So, historically, those sorts of arguments have been the ones why people can't do more of this kind of automation of that sort of stuff. So, I think there is an element around that that we'd like to see more on.
So, just before I bring you in, Luke, Sioned, you wanted to ask a question.
Jest eisiau dilyn lan ar y pwynt yna, a dweud y gwir, o ran ysgogi'r awdurdodau lleol sydd yn amharod i newid. Rŷch chi wedi awgrymu yn fanna efallai un rheswm am hynny. Mi wnaeth Dr Victoria Winckler o'r Sefydliad Bevan ddweud wrth y Pwyllgor Cyllid ei bod hi'n teimlo bod cael siarter ddim yn mynd i fod yn rhywbeth digon cryf o ran ysgogi'r newid yma—siarter ar fudd-daliadau datganoledig. Felly, a fyddai rhywbeth fel rhoi sail hawliau i hyn yn ysgogi'r awdurdodau lleol yna? Neu rhoi hwnna ar sail statudol, a fyddai hynny yn helpu'r newid, ŷch chi'n teimlo?
I just wanted to follow up on that point, really, about motivating those local authorities that are reluctant to change. You mentioned one possible reason for that. Dr Victoria Winckler from the Bevan Foundation told the Finance Committee that she felt that having a charter wasn't going to be strong enough to create that change—a charter on devolved benefits. So, would something like giving this a rights foundation give local authorities that motivation? Or to put it on a statutory basis, would that help with that change, do you think?
Dwi'n credu byddai'r ddau yn gwneud gwahaniaeth. Os ŷn ni'n clywed wrth awdurdodau lleol eu bod nhw'n dweud, 'Doeddem ni ddim cweit yn siŵr a oes hawl gennym ni i wneud hyn neu beidio,' yna byddai Llywodraeth Cymru jest yn danfon darn allan a dweud, 'Gwrandewch, mae hawl gennych chi i wneud hyn,' byddai hwnna o bosib yn helpu lleihau o ran yr achos unigol, o ran beth sy'n mynd ymlaen. Ond yn amlwg, yn y tymor hir, beth fyddai'n gwneud mwy o synnwyr, dwi'n credu, yw rhoi'r pethau yma ar sail statudol, achos wedyn mae'n amlwg ble ŷn ni'n sefyll. Does dim cwestiynu wedyn amdano, 'Oes hawl gennym ni neu beidio?' So, byddai hwnna o bosib yn helpu'r rhai hynny. Achos fel ŷn ni wedi sôn, rŷn ni wedi clywed am yr 11 yma sydd yn gwneud gwaith positif; pe bai pawb yn gwneud gwaith positif, wedyn gallem ni fod yn poeni llai amdano fe, ond os ŷn ni'n gweld y pethau yma'n digwydd dro ar ôl tro, yna dwi'n credu ei fod e yn codi'r cwestiwn a byddai angen edrych ar bethau statudol.
I think that both things would make a difference. If we hear from local authorities that they say, 'Well, we weren't sure whether we had a right to this or not,' then the Welsh Government would just send an instruction to say, 'Well, listen, you have a right to do that,' that could reduce the number of individual cases that we hear about, in terms of what is going on. But in the longer term, what would make more sense, I think, would be to put these things on a statutory footing, because it's clear then where we stand. There's no question of whether we have a right to do something or not. So, that would possibly help those who are in that position. Because as mentioned, we've heard about these 11 who are doing this positive work in this field; if everybody was doing positive work, then we could be less concerned about the situation, but if we see these things happening time and time again, then I think it does raise that question and we would need to look at the statutory footing.
Chair, I just want to come in on those 11 local authorities. I think it goes back to something that we mentioned earlier. I think what the Minister was talking about is where it is directly related to the Wales fuel support scheme and passporting people over. The core thing behind that is whether that local authority had a voucher system or direct payments for the £150 cost-of-living payment in March/April last year. If they paid by direct payment, then they were able to use similar data for some of those eligible for the Wales fuel support scheme.
So, I think your point is absolutely in the right place as to where it needs to be, as to how do we get those local authorities and all public services working together and passporting people through. I'd just say, going back to earlier, the positive point about local government is: those that were able to went with it, but then there was also another load who missed out because of the way that they gave out that initial £150. I think it's probably worth us having a look at that at some point, although I'm not sure we've got the time for it now.
But just on the benefits charter, I completely agree with the Bevan Foundation's approach to it, really. I think we need to be in a place where we do talk about people having rights to access Welsh benefits, what that means. I'd just add, though, that I think we have to be careful about how this discussion is viewed outside of our Wales-only bubble, because for lots of people, they seem to think that if you say 'Welsh benefits', it means a direct attack, removal, change or upheaval within the UK constitutional structure, and, actually, at its core basis—while there are elements of those that are worthy arguments and worth having—we just want to make things simpler. So, I think that's a challenge for us as well about how we get there.
Okay, thank you very much. We've come to the end of our allotted time. Thank you all very much for your contributions. We will, obviously, send you a transcript of what you said, and please use it as an opportunity to correct anything that we've incorrectly heard. So, thank you very much indeed, and we'll now move on to other items on the agenda.
We've got 10 papers to note. Are Members content to note those 10 papers? I see no disagreement on that.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) a (ix).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi) and (ix).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
So, I'd like to ask Members to agree to now move into private session under Standing Order 17.42 for the remainder of the meeting.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 16:01.
The public part of the meeting ended at 16:01.