|Caroline Jones AC|
|Dawn Bowden AC|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AC|
|John Griffiths AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
|Gareth Morgan||Cynghorwyr Hawliau Lles Cymru|
|Welfare Rights Advisers Cymru|
|Matthew Kennedy||Sefydliad Tai Siartredig Cymru|
|Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru|
|Rachel Cable||Oxfam Cymru|
|Sam Lister||Sefydliad Tai Siartredig Cymru|
|Chartered Institute of Housing Wales|
|Samia Mohamed||Oxfam Cymru|
|Susan Lloyd Selby||Ymddiriedolaeth Trussell|
|The Trussell Trust|
|Will Atkinson||Cartrefi Cymunedol Cymru|
|Community Housing Cymru|
|Yan Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
|2. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau||2. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest|
|3. Ymchwiliad i Fudd-daliadau yng Nghymru—Opsiynau i'w Cyflawni'n Well: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 3||3. Inquiry into Benefits in Wales—Options for Better Delivery: Evidence Session 3|
|4. Ymchwiliad i Fudd-daliadau yng Nghymru—Opsiynau i'w Cyflawni'n Well: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 4||4. Inquiry into Benefits in Wales—Options for Better Delivery: Evidence Session 4|
|5. Ymchwiliad i Fudd-daliadau yng Nghymru—Opsiynau i'w Cyflawni'n Well: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 5||5. Inquiry into Benefits in Wales—Options for Better Delivery: Evidence Session 5|
|6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod||6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public for the Remainder of the Meeting|
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.
Dechreuodd rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod am 10:06.
The public part of the meeting began at 10:06.
Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. We are now in public session and item 2 on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We've received one apology from Leanne Wood.
Item 3 on our agenda today is our inquiry into benefits in Wales—options for better delivery. I'm very pleased to welcome Susan Lloyd-Selby of the Trussell Trust and Gareth Morgan of Welfare Rights Advisers Cymru. Welcome, both. Thank you for coming along to give evidence to the committee this morning.
Perhaps I might begin with questions on the benefits and risks of devolution. And, firstly, how could Wales benefit if some powers over social security were devolved and what, in your view, would be the main risks? Who would like to being? Susan.
Yes, I'm happy to start. First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and talk about such an important issue, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I start by talking to you about some of the people I spend my time with in Wales.
The Trussell Trust, as you know, provides support to a network of food banks. Last year, those food banks provided 113,000 three-day emergency food parcels to people in Wales; 41,000 of those were to children. I sat a few weeks ago with a mum who had not eaten properly for three days before she asked somebody for help, and they referred her to a food bank. I sat with an older gentleman, who’d worked all his life, and for various reasons was struggling financially, and while he was waiting for his food bank parcel to be packed, he very quietly asked me, 'Do you have any washing powder, because I haven’t been able to wash my clothes for a long time?' And whatever our views on this issue, I think we can all agree that it’s not acceptable for people in Wales to be living in those circumstances in the twenty-first century. So, we very much welcome Welsh Government’s decision to consider all the options that might be able to address those issues.
The benefits system was designed to protect people from being swept away by poverty, but currently too often it’s pushing people into poverty. So, we do think the Government should improve benefits to reduce poverty, particularly ensuring that people receive enough benefit income to live a decent life, ensuring that people are treated with dignity, and we think that’s something that’s missing from the current approach, and ensuring that payments are secure and regular.
So, in terms of the detail of your question, Chair, we do think that the devolution of social security provides Welsh Government with an opportunity to ensure that welfare benefits are administered with compassion and dignity, and to introduce measures to ensure that benefit payments cover at least the basic cost of living. We think that’s the best way to reduce the need for food banks. So, we’re proposing six key principles that we think Welsh Government could use to lead the devolution of welfare benefits in Wales: dignity; valuing the lived experience of people who are claiming and receiving benefits; maximising income; learning and evolving through the process with the lived experience of claimants being at the heart of that process; strengthening statutory support; and investing to save.
Clearly, there are risks, and the key risk is that powers are devolved without sufficient funding to deliver that in line with the principles that Welsh Government wishes to follow. And there's a need to consider the complexities of the issue. Scottish Government is clearly struggling to deliver all of its ambitions in a timely manner. It hasn't been a case of simply lifting the current system and putting it into a devolved context. So, it is a case of balancing the potential benefits to individuals, who might otherwise find themselves in poverty, against the complexity and the cost of the system, and the costings are key.
Okay, thanks for that, Susan, and thanks for putting that very important context of human beings and what they're suffering in terms of the way that matters currently exist in terms of the benefit system and the way it's administered. Gareth, what would you add?
Thank you for inviting us, I should say first of all. And I would agree entirely with what Susan said. Our members who are based in local authorities, housing associations, third sector organisations and other places are all recognising, and have recognised for many years, that we have a benefit system that provides too little. It doesn't meet or recognise what people's needs are and it does it badly. So, we are entirely in favour of anything that can improve that, whether that be devolution or not. But we also have to recognise that there is a balance involved, and, in our opinion, much of the risk may be much larger than the potential benefits from devolving and changing some of them. History shows, I think, very few examples of changes to the benefit system that deliver more than was expected, and very, very many examples where they deliver far less. And that's the case in the UK, where politicians, policy makers and administrators have all got a great deal of experience in running benefit systems, which isn't the case for us in Wales, of course.
There may be areas where we can identify—cherry-picking, if you like—where devolution of benefits could, with some certainty, work. That would be ideal, but I think that would be very difficult. We have, I think, as an organisation, talked about potential for devolution and changes for many years and have come to the conclusion that there are other better things that could be done in Wales than taking on that kind of chalice of controlling and being responsible for and taking the blame for change.
Thank you, Chair. Just a small supplementary to those opening remarks—one just for Gareth to think about. Of course, we've just heard the announcement on the Scottish Government's decision to provide additional payments for beyond the two children restriction that the UK Government have done with families. That additional payment will clearly—that's additional top-up money. That will have a direct beneficial impact on all those families affected, and we know what the analysis is saying about those families being at the sharp end of being driven into poverty. So, I accept what you're saying about the issue of 'beware the dangers', but what the Scots have done, albeit not resolving issues overnight, is to take over some of the powers where they can add something.
But I wanted to ask you about the issues about the two individuals you talked about. If there was some form of devolution, either over the administration to Wales so we can better fit it with our policies, or, actually, money, then what would have resolved the issue for that young mother who came in who hadn't eaten for three days or the man who couldn't even afford washing powder to wash his clothes? And I agree with you, it's utterly appalling in this day and age that we're in that situation, but what would devolution of powers have done to do that?
Yes, thank you. So, in terms of the increase in food bank use that we saw last year in Wales, it was stark—for the first time moving into six figures. And we want to close our food banks. And the only significant change that we've seen in Wales over the last 12 years that's really driven that increased demand has been the roll-out of universal credit—in particular, the five-week wait for a first payment. In many instances, it's actually higher than that; it's longer than that because of some of the complexities that people are experiencing in trying to access that benefit. So, that waiting period is a driver of financial crisis. And, clearly, in Scotland, and also in Northern Ireland—devolved Governments have been able to introduce measures to mitigate that impact. We think that that has the potential to lift a significant number of people away from, anchor them away from the financial crisis that drives them through the door of a food bank in the first instance.
One of the issues that we've considered previously, including our visit to Scotland, is the dichotomy between issues around, opinions or views, or evidence around the current benefit system, and the separate matter of the permanent structural devolution of powers here, where Governments change here, London, Edinburgh—policies change. Even the same party in different Governments over decades can have conflicting policies. So, we're talking, in 10, 20 years' time, we may have very liberal systems in London, and very liberal systems in—. You just don't know what's coming down the road. So, this is more about whether the principle, not just the short-term policy goal—.Yes, we might do this in this Government, but the next Government might change it in Wales, and the one after that might revert or change. Even the Trussell Trust, and the great work—. You opened your first trust, I remember, in 2004, with the aim of having a trust in every town—the first one in Wales in 2009. But we just don't have the data for what happened in high unemployment in the 1970s and 1980s, or the recession in the early 1980s and early 1990s, when, presumably, families and individuals were in food poverty, putting it politely.
So, separating the short-term policy goals, which we understand, from the long-term structural devolution, the question is: why would permanent devolution of these powers, given that Governments change, would be better than having this administered on an England and Wales basis in London?
We don't think that devolving the administration of some welfare benefits will address all of the drivers for food bank use. We're calling for structural change that will benefit people across the UK, and that's why we would agree with you that this is about taking the longer term view about what structural changes need to be made to the welfare benefit system to ensure that people have enough money in their pockets to mitigate the impact. And I take your point about the longer term view, and, clearly, it's important that the Welsh Government should consider all of those issues in making a decision.
One of our concerns is that it's estimated that by the time universal credit is fully rolled out in Wales, 400,000 people will be relying on that benefit. And we are concerned about the potential impact that that will have if no changes are made, because of the fact that where universal credit has been fully rolled out across the UK, where that benefit has been fully rolled out for 12 months or more, we've seen a 52 per cent increase in people coming through the door of a food bank. Now, that's a 52 per cent increase in people who are in absolute financial crisis, who don't have enough money in their pockets for food. And so, yes, this is about fundamental structural change to the system to anchor people away from that financial crisis, but there are longer term issues that clearly need to be considered. This is a very complex issue. But there are also, potentially, as we've seen in Scotland, the possibility of introducing some measures that will mitigate some of those drivers.
My question—. I fully appreciate the issues you're raising, but those are short-term policy issues, and we're talking about what's happening in 10, 50, 100 years' time if we devolve here. Who knows, in 10 years' time, you might have a complete reverse. You might have a Scottish Government doing the opposite, and a UK Government doing what Scotland's currently doing, or if it's devolved to Wales, you might have a very generous or a very restrictive scheme in Wales—you just don't know. So, it's not so much about the current policy, which changes even within Governments, it's about why we should have long-term structural devolution over these areas, and how that will benefit people generally, given that policies and Governments change.
Can I chip in there, if I may? It’s an area that I’ve, kind of, looked at quite a lot in my day job, because we do a lot of modelling around benefits and tax impacts, and trying to look ahead five and 10 years. But one of the problems, I think, about devolution is the fact you can’t devolve simple, separate silos of things. So, the benefit system is incredibly complex, and even when you try and treat it as a separate piece of legislation and administration, it doesn’t work on its own—it impacts into a huge number of other areas of social welfare, into housing and health. And one of the problems that I think exists is it’s tempting, at a very top-level policy area, to treat it as if it’s something discrete and separate. But when you have to then actually operate it at a person-to-institution level, you see the complexities. We have got, within the UK Government, 20 years’ experience, I suppose, of trying to become more joined up. And the complexity of the way in which support systems are introduced and changed still manages to create new disconnects and contradictions and unforeseen consequences. And I think if there were to be two different administrations with, perhaps, very different political aims and priorities, that could only make things worse.
You’re entirely correct when you talk about things changing over time. I met with some old colleagues a couple of weeks ago at a National Association of Welfare Rights and Advisers meeting, and we sat there and said, ‘Would you have thought 20 years ago that you would have looked back on Thatcher and the Fowler reforms as being the good old days in benefits terms?’ And yet, we are having to do that—stuff that we considered at the time to be entirely unacceptable and outrageous is now what we’d love to see restored to provide support for people. Things do change and you have to recognise that they change, not just politicly, but also that the structures and the needs that they have to meet will have to change with them. And whatever system is introduced or devolved, that flexibility and that understanding of the complexities need to be addressed very early on.
If I may, just to add—
I think this also cuts to, perhaps, the wider ambitions the Welsh Government has around devolution. I absolutely take the argument about the potential for change. I suppose one of the considerations is where those decisions are best made for the people of Wales—whether they’re best made in Westminster or whether they’re best made in Wales. And I do think that, notwithstanding the issue around the complexity, the cost, and all of these things need careful consideration—and, clearly, Welsh Government is taking that approach—there are some unique issues in Wales. If we look at things like child poverty levels, for example, if we look at the economy, there are some unique challenges. I suppose the question for this committee and Welsh Government is: where does the decision making best sit in relation to those specific Welsh issues—in the longer term, not just in the shorter term? And I don’t think It’s for me or for my organisation to answer those questions, but, clearly, that’s an issue that I’m sure this committee and Welsh Government will want to consider, in terms of the longer term view.
Thank you. I was going to pick this up a bit later, but I think that the way that your contributions have panned out, it would fit now. I’ve got a great deal of sympathy, actually, with Mark’s position on this about, if we’re going to move down this road, it’s got to be structural change for the better, regardless of which party of which political colour is in control. Because I think there is no doubt that what’s driven this inquiry at the moment is the opposition to the introduction of universal credit and the impact that we’ve seen on people in our constituencies. And I totally relate to the tales that you were telling earlier on—I see that all the time coming through my office. And I think the point you’re trying to make—. So, this is really what I wanted to explore a bit further, because I think the point that you were trying to make, Susan, is really a point about subsidiarity, isn’t it? It’s making the decision at the point at which it has the most impact. So, what I was wondering, and taking on board Gareth's point that it doesn't come without its dangers, is if we were going to go down this road, would a starting point for this be that we should be looking to devolve benefits in those areas of provision that are already devolved—so, things like housing benefit, for example. Housing is a devolved issue. Some of the benefits associated with education—you know, education is a devolved issue. So, would you think that that would have some logic and that if we were going to move towards devolution of benefit that that would be a good starting point?
I think you'd have a great deal of problems, given the structure of universal credit, in removing housing support from it. Housing benefit has been a local authority responsibility since its introduction, and local authorities have a tremendous amount of experience in it, but the way in which universal credit has taken housing on board, putting to one side the fact that support for mortgage interest has turned into being a loan and therefore is an entirely kind of separate issue, the operation of things like the work allowances and the tapers would mean that universal credit would have to be redesigned to take account of the loss of housing support, with the operation of it, then, still presumably as a part of it in England. You're creating two entirely separate benefit systems, which would be core for working-age support. I can agree that the housing element of universal credit is not operating very successfully, but I think to pull it out would just remove the entirety of the underpinnings of universal credit itself, and you're talking, then, about creating a new system or reverting back to an old one.
Yes, thank you, Chair. Can I just flip this entirely on its head, and I'd like to ask Gareth a question? Bearing in mind where we currently are, with a lot of discussions going on about how devolved administrations, devolved Governments, work with the UK Government—a personal opinion from your long look over this, and it's actually picking up on Mark's point about how Governments can fluctuate—isn't it time that the UK Government, whichever political hue it is, actually engaged with devolved Governments on the social security and benefits and welfare system? It's a retained issue—I acknowledge that—but the impacts are so significant on a range of other complex, myriad policy areas, that surely it's paramount that at the top table of Ministers they should be saying, 'We're thinking of doing this; how would it affect you? Do you think it's right?' Now, I'm stripping away the politics for the moment, because there are wholly different political approaches with welfare and social security, but surely what you're saying is arguing for that at that top level.
You're entirely right. I mean, I think one of the great things that we've seen, looking at what Scotland has done, is that their willingness to genuinely consult with people within Scotland, with organisations and so forth, and to listen to them, is terrific. I've spent a lot of time in various—what are now called—stakeholder meetings with the DWP over the years, and it does seem that they pay lip service to consultation and to listening to people's opinions and suggestions, but I've never seen any evidence that what is said at those meetings has any effect whatsoever on the administration or on the policy, and I'm fairly confident that the same is true of their relations with the devolved administrations. The DWP's relationship with local authorities who administer housing benefit on their behalf and other kinds of schemes has always been one way, where they have told local authorities what to do and closed their ears to what local authorities say. So, yes, the UK Government ought to be listening and consulting and considering other people's opinions, but that doesn't seem to be the way that it works.
It's useful to get a flavour that you think, in Scotland, the way that they've involved people with lived experience of the benefits system has been beneficial and is very appropriate and useful. Okay. I'm afraid time is moving on very rapidly. Caroline, would you like to come in at this stage?
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Looking at the current devolution settlement, what do you think Welsh Government could do within the current settlement to make the social security system work better for the people of Wales?
So, we do think that there's more that Welsh Government can do. Thank you for the question. We think, even within the current settlement and the current arrangements, that Welsh Government could be pressing DWP to use their existing ability to extend the take-up of, for example, flexibilities in universal credit payments. We know that, in Scotland, where changes have been made the take-up has been much higher, and the same in Northern Ireland. So, for example, now, in Wales, somebody would only be considered to be what's called a tier 2 vulnerability—in other words, not likely to need an alternative payment arrangement, not needing that flexibility—if they'd just left prison, if they've got a history of rent arrears or a history of homelessness, and we think that that criteria could be extended and used more flexibly now and that Welsh Government has existing levers within its power to address that issue.
We'd like to see local statutory crisis support bolstered through the discretionary assistance fund. We held a national conference in Wales a few weeks ago and not a single food bank in the room had either heard of the discretionary assistance fund or understood that it was a source of funding that might be able to help some of the people that they're supporting. We think that fund needs more investment. So, I think the average emergency assistance payment in Wales in 2017-18 was something like—was it £48 or £58? Whereas in Scotland it was £86.
We think that there's the option to design and develop a system of top-up payments for people, particularly those people who are at risk of falling into severe food insecurity. We think that discretionary housing payments could be used more flexibly to address that issue, and particularly we think there's an opportunity now within the existing structural system to encourage or enable more joined-up solutions. I was looking at something that's happened in North Lanarkshire where the council has built a referral pathway in which the council's Scottish welfare fund team perform income and eligibility assessments for a grant before a food bank voucher is issued. And we certainly think there's more scope if there's more investment in the discretionary assistance fund to look at those referral pathways and to include a crisis criterion. In other words, if you're waiting for your first universal credit payment, then we think that it would be very helpful if people could access the DAF through that route.
People focus, I'm afraid, on money. That's always the thing to focus on. I think that there are ways in which Welsh Government could—without even involving the DWP—create a much better take-up of benefits. We know from our very crude estimates that probably about almost £0.5 billion a year of means-tested benefits alone go unclaimed in Wales. The rates of take-up of benefits like pension credit are appalling. Were Welsh Government to invest in helping people to receive the benefits to which they are entitled through improving advice and information services, through running take-up campaigns, perhaps even through introducing a statutory duty on local authorities to provide, or to at least enable, the provision of those kinds of advice things, then an enormous amount of Westminster outside-Barnett money could come into Wales. And people who are on benefits spend their money very locally and they spend it immediately. So, it's not something that wouldn't go straight into the local economy. So, there's a huge opportunity there for a relatively small investment to provide a very good, sound business case for return.
And there are other areas. We noted in our note, for example, kinship care. Care support for children within the benefits system is limited. You know that the provision of care is incredibly expensive and hard to find for many people, but under the current system, kinship care, where grandparents and other relatives look after children, is not recognised. Welsh Government has the power to do that, and were it to recognise kinship care, then suddenly that would open up the benefits system elements of providing help with care costs to registered carers, and you would have another flood of both money and support and improvement in things like access to employment come in. There's a lot that could be done with the existing powers that Welsh Government has—a bit of innovation, a bit of investment could pay very, very quick and very large returns.
Thank you. Last week, the Bevan Foundation told the committee that the current means-tested benefits offered by the Welsh Government, such as council tax reduction, free school meals and many others, need to be more integrated and coherent—which you touched on briefly—before more powers could be devolved. So, do you agree with this?
I think it depends on what you call 'integration'. The whole of the social support system has depended for years on passporting, where somebody who's found in need for one area automatically gets help with other areas, and that kind of integration can be very useful. What we don't want to see is something where aligning things like the means tests for different needs results in some people who were previously becoming entitled losing their entitlement to that support. And, of course, aligning it in other ways has, again, the budgetary implications that need to be thought through. But, yes, the one thing that would be terrific, if it could be done, is to have an easy-to-understand, common, consistent way of assessing people's needs and means. It's my nightmare in my day job that, one day, I'll wake up and somebody will have invented a fair and easy-to-understand benefits system, and then I'm out of work because nobody needs my advice and intervention any more. [Laughter.]
It hasn't happened. And people have tried to do it. Universal credit was an attempt to do that and, in its early design stages, it was very broadly welcomed. It's the reality, I think, of having to move from a philosophical view of the benefits system to the day-to-day nitty-gritty of the administration with all the rules that have to go into place that creates the complexities. We deal with people who are on the edge all the time. They are really, really on the edge. And our worry is that the risks of change are unaffordable. You can afford to take risks if you've got something to fall back on, if you've got resources, if you've got savings, but if you haven't then what you know now is often seen as being better than what might happen in the future, regardless of the opportunities, because you just can't afford to take the risk of change.
Thank you. Susan has answered the discretionary assistant fund question that I've got, but, on discretionary housing payments, could these be used in more innovative ways?
DHPs are there to help people to pay for their housing, and they are there to compensate, to a very small extent, for the enormous cuts in housing support that the last UK Government introduced. I would love to see the need for them go and for housing support to be at least put back to where it was, insufficient though that was. They need flexibility, and they need, crudely, again, more money put into the budget. The needs for using DHPs are there, and some local authorities are better at using them than others, but there is insufficient resource, again, for the needs that they're meant to support now, let alone additional ones.
I would just add, if I may, that we agree that there is an argument for alignment. We also recognise the potential possibilities around ensuring that any devolution around administration of welfare benefits mirrors the powers that Welsh Government currently has, but there is also an immediate issue, and this is fundamentally about a significant percentage of the population of Wales not having enough money in their pockets. I agree with Gareth that there is an issue around just making sure that people have enough money for the basics. We previously called for the household income threshold, for example, for free school meals and universal credit to be increased from £7,000 to £14,000 to ensure that people on low incomes aren't losing out. And we think that there are a number of other areas where devolving the administration would potentially give Welsh Government the opportunity to address some of those issues.
Thank you, Chair. And, on that particular point, I'm getting a sense, I think, from what Gareth is saying, that you're not wholly sold on the devolution of benefits in quite the way that it's been devolved in Scotland. But there seems to be some kind of recognition that things could be done to improve both the claimant experience and the amount of money in the claimant's pocket. So, are you saying that that really is the kind of area that we should concentrate on at the moment? Is there a case, for instance, for devolution of assessments? Because, certainly, when we spoke to Scotland, they were talking about how they had completely rewritten the assessment process. They do it very differently and it's very much client centred. They've worked with the users of the system to come up with a process that is much more user friendly. Is there stuff around that, do you think, that we ought to be perhaps looking at?
Yes. We think that devolving the administration of some of the welfare benefits would potentially give Welsh Government the opportunity to address both those issues, critically ensuring that the lived experience of people is front and centre through the process. Because, if we're looking at fundamental structural change to a finite pot of money, then it makes sense to ensure that people who, quite rightly, have a need to access welfare benefits are at the heart of that process, and to explore the way that funding can be used more flexibly to better meet need. Yes, we think there's an opportunity to do both. And we do recognise the complexities that Scottish Government has been grappling with, but, clearly, there have been significant gains for individual beneficiaries in Scotland as a result of the approach that Scottish Government has been able to take.
We wouldn't want to devolve the whole of the administration. What we would like to see devolved is, if you like, the front end of it, the human-facing end of it. And that could be done relatively easily, because all benefits administration consists of a number of elements: getting the data, doing the assessments, doing the administrative payments and so forth. And, certainly, getting the data could be made so much better and so much more human. And, if Welsh Government chose to do an integrated approach where you were getting the data not just for silo by silo by silo, but you had a person-to-organisation interface that covered the information you needed for social care, for education, in one relationship, one agency, then they could simply pass the data that was collected on for the administration side of things and the payment side of things back into the huge and smoothly working IT systems that the DWP tell us that they have operating and in development. But, yes, the real issue for the person involved, often, with the benefit system, is that interaction with the agency and the dreadful way in which it works and—
The humanity. Not just the humanity, but it's also the appalling IT and the requirements that are put on people for when they go, where they go, and how they go. So, devolving that would be hugely welcome.
Yes. It's just—. I always look for the counter argument. We're looking at the risks to Wales, potentially, of some areas of devolution, but the risk to the UK Government with that, wouldn't it be that, 'Yes, we know what those devious Welsh are up to here; they're looking at putting a more compassionate face on the human interactions, which means they are seeking to circumvent, somehow, the harsh edges of the welfare state'?
It would be a shame if they thought that, wouldn't it? For some benefits, the regulatory ones, the means-tested benefits, it's simply elements of data, so there's no way, really, of bending those. The more discretionary ones around disability support and so forth may be affected by a more human approach, and I think that would be to the benefit of everybody involved.
Well, it was really my final question, which was whether—? If the UK Government retains the universal credit system, would there be—? Do think it would be possible for us to just have aspects of it that we could maybe tweak? I think in Scotland they call it the Scottish choices, don't they, where there are aspects of it that can be topped up, can be tweaked. Do you think that's doable for us or does that overcomplicate and make even more complex an already very complex system?
Technically, you would have to have an agreement with the UK Government, for example, about the treatment of any top-up payments—it would be pointless to give somebody some extra money in Wales that is then treated as income under the universal credit system and reduces that benefit again. We've seen that with some other kind of areas, where the interaction between benefits can be very odd. It's quite possible to give people extra money, for example, and make them worse off.
They would need to have an agreement that they were treated—
But, again, it's a matter of negotiation there. But, yes, I mean, the last thing in the world we would say is that we would reject any idea of people getting extra help with their needs—we would welcome it; it's just how it's done and, I suppose, whether it impacts on other areas of social welfare support within Wales.
The tweaking, Dawn—I think Scottish Choices is about universal credit, isn't it, you know, fortnightly payments that get around the waiting time issue that you mentioned, Susan; the housing element being paid directly to the landlord, for example; split payments where there are issues between the partners in the house, and so on. How valuable would that be if those flexibilities were introduced in Wales?
Well, I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear me say that we would very much welcome those flexibilities. And, coming back to the very first question you asked us about the potential risks for Welsh Government, we do recognise that this is complex. Scottish Government has talked about the complexity of trying to manage two systems, and, effectively, individuals being also within two systems, one devolved and one not devolved. So, we do understand that, but I suppose one of the questions to consider is: what are the risks of making no changes? I keep coming back to that figure: 400,000 people in Wales. And I recognise your point, Mr Isherwood, about the longer term issues here around changes in Government, changes in policy, and all of these things have to be weighed up. Our position is clear. A 15 per cent increase in food banks last year in Wales—we don't see that situation getting any better unless there are changes, and where are those changes going to be best made?
Okay. Could I just ask one last question, because I'm afraid time is defeating us? And that is that, if there was devolution to Wales, some people think that the focus should be more on the amount of money that benefit recipients receive, others think it's more about the quality of the services, the experience of the system. I know it's very tempting to say that the focus has to be on both, but, in terms of the relative importance of each, what would you say?
I don't think there is any reason why the two should be separated. A better claimant experience, where people are treated fairly, helped to understand what they're entitled to and supported in claiming it, should be of benefit both to the claimant emotionally and humanly, but it would also get the more money from the current benefit rules. So, I wouldn't want to separate those two out at all. I'm sorry if I should.
I would say, very briefly, I do agree, but I also think that if you ensure that those people who are claiming benefits have a voice and are part of the process not just of designing a system, but also of monitoring that and evaluating it as it goes forward, I think it's inevitable that that will clearly identify the need for there to be more money in the system, and for money to be used more flexibly.
Okay. Well, thank you very much, both of you, for coming in to give evidence to the committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Thank you very much.
The committee is going to break very briefly until 10:55. When we resume, I will begin the questions, Caroline will stick with the current situation and perhaps others may come in as and when. Is that okay? Okay. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:49 a 10:55.
The meeting adjourned between 10:49 and 10:55.
Okay. We move on, then, to our fourth evidence session with regard to our inquiry into benefits in Wales and options for better delivery, and I'm very pleased to welcome Will Atkinson, Community Housing Cymru, Sam Lister, Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru, and Matthew Kennedy, also of the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru. Thank you all very much for coming along to give evidence to committee this morning.
Perhaps I might begin with a general question, really, about the main benefits and risks if some powers over social security were devolved to Wales. What would you say the main benefits and risks are?
I think, if we just start from our principles, from where we've built that up, I think there are two sides, aren't there? There's the devolving the power side and then there's the benefit, the social security, side itself. The actual aims and objectives of those two things aren't necessarily always the same, and that's where the risks come from. So, we would think about this in terms of flows in and out of Wales in terms of income, and obviously what you want to do as Welsh politicians is make sure that you get the maximum, the best outcome in terms of benefits, net benefits—and I mean benefits broadly, and not the actual allotments themselves.
So, Wales is 4.7 per cent of the population of the UK, and its tax base isn't as strong. So, if you look at HMRC allocations, then something like—. So, wealth taxes, 2.9 per cent of wealth taxes are allocated for Wales, according to HMRC. So that means that the risks fall—. If you're then going to cover that, make that difference up, then it's going to fall on regressive taxes much more—so, things like VAT, betting, alcohol duties. So, I think the main thing is to make sure that the benefits you get from the system at the moment, which are the—.
Do you mean the—[Inaudible.]—the way that taxation and benefits policy works in the UK is to benefit of Wales?
Yes, making the burden fall on the broadest shoulders.
Yes. So, are you saying, then, really, Sam, that what you wouldn't—? Are you're worried, then, that that social union, as it's described, the fact that people generally in the UK buy into that system of redistributive policy around the tax and benefits system—? That this might undermine that UK-wide social union if there was devolution to Wales—is that one of your fears, or—?
Possibly. I think you've identified the right question—what are the risks? And you want to be able to look at minimising that. I think all three of us are broadly in agreement that we think the way that Scotland has approached this is quite a good model. They seem to have identified—there seems to be a logic to the areas that they've identified that have been devolved, and they've also minimised some of that risk. So, for example, we quite like the top-up system in help with eligible rents. So, the bulk of the money still comes from Westminster, but you can top up the remainder. So, if Westminster comes up with another hare-brained scheme about how to save money on eligible rents, the risk is only in the bit that they've kind of taken away, and then that burden doesn't fall heavily on your tax base, and it's more evenly spread.
I see. So, you might support partial devolution, but not all benefits being devolved.
Not immediately. I think the other thing is as well, there are risks—there aren't just the financial risks, but there are risks around the administration of benefits—
Yes, the cost of the administration, but just getting the administration right. And I think what they're doing in Scotland, I'm quite impressed with. So, the biggest element that they're devolving in Scotland is the disability benefits. That's by far the biggest chunk. And what they're doing is they're just taking them wholescale, and saying, 'We're not going to change them; we're just going to get the administration right.' So, changes in administration—it's always very tempting to think that you can do it better yourself, but universal credit, tax credit—. I was just telling these two guys, I did a select committee 20 years ago in Westminster about the administration of housing benefit by local authorities, and everybody was saying then, 'Wouldn't it be better if DWP took a hold of all of that?' So, just assuming that it's going to be better just because you're closer to it—I don't think that necessarily follows.
No. Okay. Will, is there anything you would want to add at this stage?
I think I agree that the top-up model is the safest way to proceed, because it's maximum benefit for minimum risk to the Welsh Treasury. With housing, particularly, I think we have carved a very different path in Wales compared to England in terms of investment in social rent housing through the social housing grants. I think the issue there is that then Welsh Government don't reap any of the benefits of the reduction in the housing benefit bill that comes as a result of that through people having access to social rent housing instead of having to live in the private rented sector, where their housing benefit may well be higher, particularly once, hopefully, benefits are unfrozen next year when the local housing allowance rates return to where they should be. The amount of money then coming through housing benefit into the private rented sector will increase.
So, I think that there, having that model of being able to top up that eligible rent—so, whether that's being able to add on some extra money on top of what the LHA rates are—would certainly have a huge impact on poverty, ending the need for people to engage in terrible situations like sex for rent and those kinds of things. I think we can reflect on where we already essentially have the powers for eligible rent devolved. So, in social rent, Welsh Government sets the rent formula for local authorities and for housing associations, and that agreement with Westminster is that housing benefit, or the housing element of universal credit, will pay that rent and service charge. Obviously, there's the bedroom tax and there's the benefit cap that come into play on that, but the general agreement is that they will pay that. And that's been very successful. So, I think that's an element where we do already have some powers over eligible rent.
Yes, I wanted to just come back on Sam's earlier point. You might not have the figures in front of you, Sam, and if not, possibly, we can get them, because I was interested in your point about the fact that the wealth tax from Wales is only about 2.9 per cent, which I think we did know. So, that means that it's huge in England by comparison, clearly. One of the things that we picked up when we spoke to colleagues in Scotland about what was happening is that anything over and above that they do they have to meet from their block grant. They benefit more from the Barnett formula than Wales does, as you know—hugely more than we do—so, topping up from their block grant is clearly far more affordable for them than it potentially would be for us without the kind of regressive taxes that you're talking about.
So, how would you suggest we might address that might address that? Because from my perspective, I don't want to see us devolve things for the sake of devolving things. I want things to be devolved so that they're better. If we've got a very tight pot and we've got no latitude to actually do anything with devolution of benefits, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of point in doing it, frankly. All three of you—how would you think that we would be able to do this, maybe not completely in the way that Scotland has done it and go as far as they've done it, but how would we do this to be able to put more money in people's pockets, and therefore the economy, when we have such a low tax base?
It's not always necessarily increased net expenditure. If you look at areas like the local housing allowance rates, we did a piece of research back in 2017 that showed that, in some areas of Wales, people living in shared accommodation were having to top up their weekly rent by up to £12 a week, which is a huge amount of money. Those people then end up having access to the discretionary housing payments through local authorities.
That is a very, very inefficient way of essentially alleviating poverty, because the system is discretionary, so there's an inequality in the way that it's administered by local authorities, but also having that system administered outside of housing benefits or universal credit adds another layer of bureaucracy. So, that could be an example of instead of spending X amount on DHP alleviating the risk of homelessness, you could top up that very specific LHA rate to make housing more affordable for that very specific group.
There are other areas of spend-to-save as well, particularly in homelessness prevention, where just that little bit more money coming through housing benefit or universal credit would hopefully prevent a much, much larger public service spend through the NHS, through local authority housing options further down the line. But I certainly agree, particularly when it comes to things like topping up disability benefits in a big way, that could be considerably expensive.
And the new benefits they've introduced, of course, in Scotland. They've had to pay for all that themselves, haven't they?
Yes. That's a big part of why we're fans of the top-up kind of level. So, you maximise the money that comes from Westminster. On the top-up, I've done educated guesses on restoring the LHA rates to the thirtieth percentile and fully funding the bedroom tax. So, in 2017, Welsh spending on HB was £991 million, so just short of £1 billion, and spending on bedroom tax, if topped up, would be about £22 million, and £7 million to restore the LHA rates. So, you're considerably minimising the risk if you do it that way.
There are other ways that you can minimise the risk. What are the risks? The risks are you're not in control of the economic cycle and obviously benefit expenditure goes up when we hit a downturn. So, if you wanted to reduce that risk even further, you could say, 'What we're going to do is we're going to top up pension-age HB because that covers less risk.' Or, you can narrowly define what it is that you're topping up.
Yes, absolutely. As I was saying earlier you can also target things like making sure that people under 35 are eligible for the one-bedroom rate rather than having to have the shared accommodation rate, because that's driving a lot of homelessness. So, I think that the £7 million to bring LHA rates back up to that level is almost a worst-case scenario. That's if you bring them all back up to that level. But, if you target it—. And that's what the top up would give you the ability to do is specifically target certain areas where you know there's an evidence base that that will reduce homelessness or reduce poverty.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. Good morning. Looking at the current devolution settlement, what do you think the Welsh Government could do within the current settlement, such as increasing take-up, to make the social security system work better for the people of Wales?
I think, in effect, it's some of the stuff we've already said around using existing powers around top-up. I think there are also lots of learning from Scotland we can draw upon. We have a good example here where they've gone fairly well along the road in terms of the benefits system. But I think it's urging caution that that is very much in the early stages, that now is a good opportunity to learn, but, clearly, there are also challenges in terms of—you know, we've touched already on administration, actually delivering things right. But, ultimately, it's about principles and actually having a well-defined constitution underpinning the welfare system around fairness and respect. That sort of stuff feels like a really good way to go. Actually being able to address that in practice, I think, is where it's yet to be seen—if that would be achievable in the long run.
The Welsh Government, and local authorities on their behalf, already administer quite a large raft of benefits, whether it's the discretionary assistance fund, pupil depravation grant, free school meals—these are the Welsh benefits system. Although they’re not necessarily seen as a cash payment—. Free prescriptions is, essentially, a welfare benefit that’s delivered by Welsh Government. And I think it’s about trying to link those together a bit more. So, in some areas, it can depend on the skill of a welfare adviser whether or not that individual manages to maximise what they’re eligible for from Welsh Government.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that those benefits are centralised in any way, but that there is more of a single route of access to be able to know what are you eligible for and how do you go about claiming them. And I think a good example would be council tax reduction through local authorities. It used to be that you go into a local authority, you claim your housing benefit, and at the same time, they will sign you up for council tax reduction, and that was very nicely streamlined. But, since universal credit came in, that’s breaking that link then, and you’re not claiming housing benefit through the local authority.
You may not have any interaction with them, and that can lead to people then not claiming council tax reduction they’re eligible for. That can then lead to things like, maybe, not claiming free school meals that their children might be eligible for. So, that can have a huge impact on a family's budget, just simply because of that break then between most people going into their local authority to claim housing benefit and now not doing that anymore. So, it’s about how do we pull all of this together and streamline it so that people are actually getting what they’re already eligible for.
You mentioned the discretionary assistance fund. So, do you think that that could be used in a more innovative way?
I think the general use of the discretionary assistance fund, in terms of what it funds, is correct—it’s a hardship fund, essentially. I think that what we hear is that the administration is not necessarily as slick as it could be. It being a hardship fund, and one element of it actually being a crisis fund, it needs to move as quickly as possible. One element of it is essentially helping people in disaster situations or emergency situations—say their house has burned down or something similar. So, I think there are lessons to be learned there about the administration of that benefit. And that then can test the future if we have further devolution. And I think one thing we’ve looked at is if, say, discretionary housing payments were devolved from Westminster, they could possibly be merged with the discretionary assistance fund and used as a general housing top-up, essentially, from Welsh Government.
Just to add to that, the Welsh Government evaluated the DAF back in 2015, so some of these issues are around administration and that sort of thing have been known since then. The picture hasn't really improved that much—it feels like there's still an onus on us to act on that evidence, but also to utilise the delivery partners through the DAF better. So, they're a good point of contact for people and could be a way in which to ensure people are claiming the full amount they're entailed to or are aware of other forms of support they could receive at that point in time.
Caroline, just before you go in, can I just bring Mark in at this point?
Especially where we've seen DHPs returned by some local authorities on occasion to Westminster because they've not used them, despite evident need. In Scotland we heard that they've successfully gone for the low-hanging fruit so far. The more complex stuff is to come. And we heard from some members of their social security scrutiny committee concern that there had been insufficient modelling of cost-benefit or invest-to-save modelling—which is, basically, I think, what you're come at us from—which needs to precede introduction and implementation of polices. We also heard from the evidence earlier that it's not so much administration as the assessment processes. So, theoretically, you could devolve assessment processes for certain benefits, particularly disability related, without, necessarily, taking on board the cost and burden of the admin assistance. But the main issue—. I think the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru has previously called for local authorities to effectively hot-desk in Jobcentre Pluses, for the reason you describe, so that there's a single point of access, effectively, in the same way as Remploy does, and others. Some local authorities, I believe, do that, but others not, and I wonder if you could expand on that—where the original universal support framework that was signed up to by local authorities was predicated upon the assumption that local authorities themselves would be in direct contact with applicants.
Community Housing Cymru certainly made the same call for that integration to happen and, essentially, in some areas, it does happen voluntarily and it works fantastically, bringing together the local authority and the jobcentre. What we're doing with Westminster is essentially trying to push for them to have a tick box on the universal credit form where it will then share the data with the local authority, so we get rid of that issue. But that is one of a raft of problems that we're having in terms of trying to open up universal credit for data sharing, because the whole point of universal credit is personal information freedom, essentially, and being able to control that data. So, that's causing those problems.
In terms of universal support, we made quite a strong call for that to be better used and for, potentially, housing associations to have access to that funding. So, universal support is the Westminster funding, essentially, for a support system that sits around universal credit to help people manage their finances and to claim the benefit, and to make that transition from getting their benefits weekly to a monthly payment. But unfortunately, Westminster made the decision to centralise it all into Citizens Advice, who do a fantastic job. The issue there is that they—. I think they've been underpaid to deliver the contract, and the new contract is purely to help people make that claim, and then once they've made the claim and they've got the first payment in, the support stops, and that's not particularly helpful at all in terms of actually making sure people manage their finances in an ongoing way. So, we're certainly—. As we come to the end of that contract in 2020, we'll be calling again for the bodies that work and have the best relationships with claimants—so it may be a housing association, it may be a third sector body, it may be the local authority—that they are funded to deliver this service, because they are already delivering those services, in many ways.
So, we're about 20 per cent rolled out in Wales in terms of universal credit. We have about 100,000 people on UC. By the end of 2023, we're predicted to have about 0.5 million, but housing associations are already, essentially, doubling their investment in support for UC claimants, because your average universal credit claimant will require double the hours of support and advice compared to someone who's claiming housing benefit. And the resource burden is manageable as it stands, but that is with a fifth of the roll-out. I think we are very concerned around what that will look like once we start to move very large numbers of people onto universal credit. And I know that's not necessarily a point to make around the future of devolution, but I think, in terms of support funding, that's our biggest worry.
The inquiry is technically focused on the principle of long-term structural devolution as opposed to how current policies work, because they might change in the future as governments come and go. But focusing on that, we've heard that the UK Government is introducing an online system where private sector landlords will be able to tick a box to have payments made direct to them. What practical impact do you think that's going to have (a) on addressing concerns over direct payments and (b) on tenant choice?
We already have that system in the social rented sector. We have an online portal that enables us to basically agree to have the rent payment paid directly to the social landlord, and that does help us considerably. The issue with the system is that the system for that payment to come from Westminster into the housing associations' bank accounts is completely broken and leads to, essentially, what we term 'technical rent arrears'. So, someone may end up with six weeks' rent arrears purely because the payment is so late coming from Westminster to the housing association, and actually that person has done everything right; they're fully entitled to that benefit.
That can be managed to some extent by the housing associations because they're large and they have good systems. Private landlords, however—I do have big concerns there around if you're a single property private landlord and you suddenly don't get rent for six weeks and you have a buy-to-let mortgage, you will be much more reticent to let to someone on universal credit in future because the cash flow just does not work through that system. And I think that's certainly one area that needs to be completely fixed before we go forward with anything like that.
That online system of requests by private landlords, it's just a request system. So, it's not that the landlord requests it and it's paid; it still has to fit with the rules around universal credit. So, yes, if there are proven to be two months rent arrears or it fits within the vulnerabilities—the principles the DWP have identified—then they will pay it direct, but it's not an automatic thing. What's different about the social sector—the portal that Will was talking about—is that landlords are given the benefit of the doubt. They're called trusted partners. So, they're given the benefit of the doubt that the evidence that they're presenting about why somebody should go on to direct payment isn't questioned. That will still be questioned, as far as I understand, when a private landlord clicks that button and requests it. It will still go through the process of, 'Do they qualify for direct payments?'
And I think this is an important question in terms of future devolution as well, because if you look at one of the Scottish choices, the ability to select a payment directly to the landlord, that does have—. About half of people, I think, are taking up that offer. The issue is there they share the same system as we have in England and Wales for delivering that payment to the landlord. So, although it's great that the claimants have the option to do that, it's actually causing issues for, particularly, private landlords in Scotland who then have those technical rent arrears built up. So, I think that it's early days to see what the actual evidenced impact is on, particularly, private rented sector landlords, and whether or not they are willing to let to people on universal credit.
It's a catch-22 situation: you want to put in a system that secures someone's finances and makes sure that their home is secured, but then the actual system itself is almost preventing that because the money is stuck in the system, and, actually, the landlord may go to the claimant and say, 'Why haven't I been paid your rent?', and they'll say, 'Well, I ticked a box to say it would go directly to the landlord. I have no control over that whatsoever. There's nothing I can do other than actually come off that system and ask the DWP to give me the money directly and then give it to you'. So, I think, obviously, this is looking long term, but I think it's a reminder of where you can get certain powers from Westminster but, actually, if the underlying mechanisms are still controlled in London, you can almost shoot yourself in the foot, to some extent.
I think, just to add quickly to Will's point, there's issues around communication as well with DWP. We know that there are issues around understanding why there's underpayment, for example, and sanctions—that sort of stuff. So, hand-in-hand with that—. So, it's not as simple as saying, 'The rent will be paid and this is how it will be done'. Actually, the amount needs to be correct, it needs to be accounted for, the date needs to be correct as well and understandable, unpicking what could be actual rent arrears or technical. So, some of that stuff as well needs to be eradicated in the first place.
Final question from me, Chair, for Sam and Matthew, actually, because Will has answered the last question. So, can you expand upon your idea of a federalised benefits system and how you think in practice it would work?
Right. Well, this is just, kind of, exploring ideas of what's the best way of you getting the maximum control over that. So, at the moment—I'm sure everybody's aware—the temptation or the attractiveness, rather, of devolution is you're not at the whim of Westminster coming up with austerity-style cuts. The attractiveness of that is obvious—you can get around that. But devolution isn't just the only way of getting control. You can have systems whereby in more federal structures, you've got co-equal control. Now, we haven't explored that any further—we're just pointing out that it might be something that could be looked at. There's already a model, a system in place, for the four nations to meet and consult at the council of the isles—with Ireland as well—so that might be a basis for doing that.
There's a logic to why you devolve things and there's a logic to why you do some things at a regional level or a local authority level. So, the question is: is it right that control over benefits is still spread across the rest of the UK? If it is, then you've still got that risk unless you've got some way of being able to say to Westminster, 'No, you've got to at least consult us first'. And there are all sorts of—. You could have a system where, on this retained matter, you've all got co-equal say, or it could be a different voting rights system.
At the moment, we're still in the European Union and we do some things higher up because that's where big economic policy control of capital—that's why those decisions are made at the European level. It's thinking about the thing overall and you asking the fundamental questions before you go for whatever you're doing: what is it that we want, what is it that social security is meant to achieve, and what would be the best way of achieving that. How you go about getting those is a different matter altogether. But, yes, we were just pointing that out.
It strikes me, Chair, that there's probably a discussion that we might want to explore as a committee with House of Lords and House of Commons committees on welfare about this idea of a more federal system where you have greater parity and meaningful engagement. It does throw up some interesting conundrums as you run into political discussions around manifestos and so on, but if you actually did have concordats, memorandums of understanding that achieved greater parity and dialogue between the nations and the different administrations, then any party walking into that would be told by the civil service, 'Just to make you aware, before you make some strange offer to the electorate, you're going to need to sit down and discuss this with them'. But, anyway, it's very interesting.
Could I ask you, on the minutiae, a lot of what's flowed out of some of this discussion is what we could currently do further in Wales. What would be your assessment of the nature of the dialogue—with yourselves and others—with Welsh Government? Not just now, but over the last few years, about how we could maximise the impact within our current powers. Do you have those regular discussions? Are those on the table with Welsh Ministers?
They tend to be on an issue-by-issue basis. We've recently been doing a piece of work around if there will be a shortfall in universal credit this year that's caused by the formula for, essentially, how much rent you're eligible for. So, we're discussing with Welsh Government how they can potentially use, or encourage local authorities to use, discretionary housing payments better to plug that gap. I think that's a really good example of where the top-up model would work to potentially alleviate a very specific what actually looks like an accidental welfare cut for a period of time in Wales, whilst it's then sorted out in Westminster. But we do have those discussions about how the existing powers can be used better in a more targeted way.
Just to add to that, Will's right, we certainly do have that dialogue. Looking back, before the housing review, having just recently reported, I understand that we didn't cover things not within the Government's competence. But, clearly, welfare and benefits are hugely linked to things like social housing, building, rent and our ability to build more homes in the future isn't the be-all-and-end-all, certainly, but it is strongly linked, and misses the point, to some extent, then, around that those things matter, when we think about how we build more homes, which is something perhaps we could focus on maybe more strongly.
Have you as a sector—sorry, Chair—or a wider coalition of people out there come together and put a pitch to Welsh Government that says, not just on individual areas, but as a whole, 'We could do things a lot better if we were to do these 20 different adjustments within our current powers'? Has that been done? Is it the time to do it, regardless of wider questions of devolution of additional powers?
I guess 'no', if we answer that, as we haven't come together in that kind of co-ordinated approach, even though we co-ordinate on a range of things to do with things like welfare, for example. But, I guess, through things like the affordable housing review, we have called for systematic changes across things like public sector land, tenant voice, all the things like the long-term sustainability of financing, homes and housing, which definitely is within the Government's competence, because that's the sort of frame within which we were responding. But I take your point, that probably hasn't been done on a whole sector-wide level where we've said, 'These are the key things that matter', and we kind of ignore some of the issues around competence in the interest of saying, 'Where should we want to get to in the future?'
I think, not as a housing sector, but I know that we and CIH are involved in a current study being undertaken by the Bevan Foundation into how Welsh Government's benefits are currently administered. So, I think that will certainly provide that kind of analysis in a much more holistic way than just looking at the housing assistance provided by Welsh Government.
Just on that point, do you think there is a case—? Because you mentioned earlier on about the housing benefit now being taken away from the local authority and that that's impacting on a whole range of other potential benefits as well. Do you think there is a case, even if the whole benefits system doesn't devolve, possibly, for the devolution of assessments, so that we could actually do more, like Scotland has done, in terms of basically how it's delivering that new system of assessing clients, where it has involved the client and the benefit users and so on? What do you think about just the devolution of assessments, possibly?
I think both Matt and Sam would agree that the biggest issue that claimants have with the system is the assessment process and the administration—even before the actual amount of money that they're getting through the system. So, I think that that would go an awfully long way to restoring some kind of faith in the benefits system. Obviously, there are risks attached there, because obviously it's assuming that Wales will automatically do it better than Westminster has. That probably isn't difficult—[Laughter.]—but it is making that assumption.
But taking the lessons from Scotland where they have involved people and they've simplified the process and they've made it much more user-friendly—somebody's done it before us, haven't they, so—?
Yes, and I think that's something that can be tested, possibly, through benefits that Welsh Government already administer, or that local authorities administer, to sort of start to lay that ground of—. And, obviously, in Scotland, they developed the charter and it's a very person-centred approach to delivering benefit, but I think there is the possibility to actually start looking at what that would look like now, even with our Welsh benefits system, and it's almost whether there's a rebrand or something along those lines of, 'Do we start talking about all of the benefits that Welsh Government delivers, as a Welsh benefits system?' because that's what it is—that it is disparate, but it is Welsh Government-funded benefits that go to people in Wales.
Yes, and in theory, now, actually universal credit could make and should make some of those things easier, because if you've got a system that is based online, then, in theory, anybody, like a local authority, could be given a log-in number and they could assess the—. There's still good sense in the administration of housing costs being done at a local level, because that's where they vary and people, assessors, have the knowledge. So, you could make that case for the housing cost element. You could still have local authority involvement in that. And, actually, that's where a lot of the decisions are going wrong, in the assessment of UC; they've been making silly mistakes that no housing benefit authority would make. So, I don't know whether you've heard of the issue of untidy tenancies—it's basically when you have a couple and then they separate, and, basically, a lot of what's been going on is the Department for Work and Pensions have just been paying half the rent then. And they should have been paying all of it. Now, any local authority administering benefit for the last 30 years would have known straight away what to do there, and those mistakes wouldn't have been made.
So, I don't see why there isn't, for the bits that make sense to have a local or a national input in—. And the obvious elements in universal credit are the housing costs, and the childcare, because childcare varies locally. And, actually, there's a good argument as well that that can help with things like fraud, because if somebody claims in Cardiff, and their claim's been assessed in Warrington, how the hell does somebody from Warrington know, have any good sense about, 'That doesn't seem right for what they're paying in Cardiff there'? Whereas somebody in the local authority could probably just pick up the claim and look at it and think, 'There's something not right about that.'
I think there's a benefit for landlords as well through housing costs being delivered locally. So, we made a very strong call when universal credit was being devised that housing costs should be left out, for many, many reasons, and we've probably been heavily vindicated in that, particularly going into the process now that we're going to see of the DWP moving people on housing benefits, essentially forcefully, on to universal credit, which will start in the coming months. And the biggest issue for landlords there is, under the old system, like Sam said, you could pick up the phone to the local authority and they would share all sorts of information with you on that housing benefit claim, and you could essentially fix any problems for the tenants. You can't do that under universal credit because all of the information is locked down. And, as it stands, when we go into that process of moving people on to universal credit, the only point at which the landlord will know that that person's been moved is when their housing benefits stops and is terminated. And at that point, it's too late to provide any real, meaningful support in the run-up to that change. So, one of the big differences between benefits delivered locally and benefits delivered from Westminster is that data sharing is just all gone, and that causes a lot of issues in terms of targeting support for tenants.
Okay. Thank you all very much, all three of you, for coming in to give evidence to the committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
We move on, then, to our next evidence session, and I'm very pleased to welcome Rachel Cable of Oxfam Cymru, and Samia Mohamed, who is a participant in Oxfam's Skills for Life project. Welcome to you both. Thanks very much for coming along today to give evidence to the committee. Perhaps I might begin, then, with just some questions on the sustainable livelihoods approach, and, firstly, it would be useful, I think, to have an overview of Oxfam's work with the Department for Work and Pensions in Wales, particularly how many jobcentres you are working with and any evidence of impact.
Sure. Morning, everyone. Thanks for having us in today. If I may, Chair, I'd just like to start by flagging a report that I'm sure Members are aware of. This is the United Nations special rapporteur report on poverty, and I just want to couch today's comments within that framework—that, actually, the importance of moving on this agenda is really critical: 24 per cent of people in Wales are living in poverty, and given that we we're one of the richest economies in the world, I would suggest that this is something we need to be moving on.
So, Oxfam's rationale is that a service that best understands the experience of its users is better placed to provide the right service to support people's needs. What Oxfam's been doing in Wales is trying to embed an understanding of poverty and also an understanding of our sustainable livelihoods approach, which I'll explain in a second, into the service of the DWP in Wales. This is all about empowering and equipping staff to do the right thing for those people using the DWP, rather than offering, perhaps, a one-size-fits-all service. Given the introduction of universal credit, the people who are visiting jobcentres are actually a much more diverse group, and, often, employment isn't a realistic outcome in the first instance always. Actually, what we're talking about here is effecting long-term change for the people who need it most.
So, our sustainable livelihoods approach is something that Oxfam uses all around the world, and it's something that's been developed elsewhere, but we've adapted it for use here in Wales. The idea is it looks at people's assets and how those assets interlink together. So, I've got this toolkit, which I'll pass around for you to look at, and it looks at someone's human assets, so their skills and knowledge and things; their social assets; physical assets, housing, transport and so on; their public assets, so access to libraries, community centres and so on; and their financial assets, their income, savings, pension and that kind of thing. We think that if staff in jobcentres have a better understanding of, or a holistic view of people, they're better placed to help them. So, we're training jobcentre staff across Wales. We've currently trained 128 work coaches in all three districts that are in Wales, so south and east Wales, west Wales and north and mid Wales, and we've also provided further training to 45 senior leaders in the DWP.
We are having our work independently evaluated against four outcomes, and, so far, 90 per cent of those staff who've trained have reported an increased awareness of poverty issues and our SLA tools. Eighty per cent of staff we've trained have reported that they're going to use these tools regularly in their work. We've got increased levels of buy-in from other stakeholders who we're working with in the community, and, crucially, 50 per cent of the staff that we've worked with so far are reporting better user outcomes, and that's the bit that I'm interested in—those outcomes.
I will pass this round, and I've only got one copy, so please don't scribble all over it. But we use really simple tools for people, like this. This is called drawing the household, and it just gets people to explore who comes in and out of your house every day, who's knocking on the door. Are there some community workers maybe coming along. Are there debt collectors knocking on the door? It's just to get that holistic picture of people, and we think it's helping work coaches to get a much more rounded view of people to offer the right help at the right time for people.
So, Rachel, is it essentially, then, about cultural change amongst the staff, and so the delivery of the service? Is it in line with Scotland, where they have their principles around aspects such as dignity and respect and so on?
It's very much about culture change for us, Chair, yes. Actually, the next phase of our work with the DWP in Wales is all about embedding this approach into the DNA of the culture, I suppose, of the organisation. We've been concerned historically that jobcentres might have been pushing people into jobs that may not have been the most appropriate for them, and then people fall out of jobs, don't they, in a few weeks' time and then they're back in the system? Actually, if people have the building blocks for fixing other problems first, they're more likely to stay in work for the longer term, so I think it's absolutely about culture, yes.
Well, thanks very much for that. Samia, I wonder if you might be so kind as to share your personal experiences of the benefits system and how things might be improved and made better.
Thank you for having me today. Actually, I can talk of both sides: my experience with universal credit and the other side that's the place I'm working on, my role with Cardiff council to help people to apply for universal credit and help them to sort out issues from the job centre. So, my experience of it is I've been on income support for about two, three months. I was engaged with an Oxfam project, Skills for Life, because I wasn't employed, and they helped me a lot to volunteer in places, and they helped me pay for my childcare costs as well. So I volunteered for about six or seven months with Cardiff council, and then, because the fund has ended for Oxfam, I wasn't able to continue volunteering because of the barrier of childcare costs, and I just started to apply for jobs.
I wasn't on benefits, actually, at that time because my husband was working and we were receiving housing benefit and child tax credit. Then I applied for a job and my husband, for some reason, was not in the household anymore. I had just become single with four children under 16. Because I started a full-time job, my housing benefit was cancelled. Because my childcare costs change from time to time—it depends on the school terms, so when the children are in school I pay more childcare costs, actually, so at that time, I should be able to get the housing allowance that I would be entitled to. But then, when the children are on school holidays, I will be paying fewer childcare costs because I receive the grant of the childcare offer from the Welsh Government for the little one, who's four. So then, in that case, when I pay fewer childcare costs, I will not be eligible for housing benefit.
When I was eligible for housing benefit, they advised me to go and apply for universal credit, and then, to be honest, I didn't want to, because of the experiences I deal with on a daily basis with customers. They have always had negative experiences when they come in and ask to apply for universal credit. Before I apply with the customer I explain exactly what universal credit is. So, I ask them, 'Do you know what universal credit is?' They say, 'No.' So then I start explaining to them that universal credit covers six means-tested benefits, which are this, this and this, and as soon as you apply for universal credit, the benefits you are receiving at the moment, as soon as I submit this claim, will be stopped for five weeks, and then you will receive your first payment, after five weeks. Some customers say, 'No, I don't want to apply for it.' And then I say, 'I'm sorry, you have to, because it's not optional. Your situation will be worse if you don't apply.'
On the other hand, actually, I recognise how the customers' views on universal credit—. They start to talk about it, 'Why is it like this? Why is it such a difficult system?' I explain to them that it will be an online application: 'I will help you, but then later on, you are the one that needs to deal with your account, to log in on a daily basis, or from time to time, because the job centre will speak to you through your account.' Some of the people say, 'I'm sorry, I don't have any knowledge or IT skills; I don't have any skills.' So because of a lack of IT skills, some people are not able to log into their account to see what's going on.
The result of this is that the job centre will lock their account. Their account will be locked because they are not accepting commitments, they are not aware of some letters that will have been sent to them through the account. They come back to us. They go to the job centre, and then the job centre sends them to us in the central library, in the hub, and we tell them clearly, 'This has happened because you didn't access your account, you didn't go to your account and find out what's going on.' And they say, 'I didn't know. I don't know how it works.' So at the same time, at this stage, they will keep losing money because the account is locked and they don't know how to re-access it again. When they go to job centres, they just keep saying, 'The job centre is sending us to you', and then we call the job centre and say, 'What shall we do for this customer?' The solution is not in our hands. Some customers actually don't have the understanding. When they come to us they think that all the solutions are in our hands; they don't know that we are just helping them. So, they start to be a bit frustrated and are tutting, and we understand the customer's situation and that they're a bit frustrated, but that is nothing to do with our side.
And the other thing as well is when they send a customer to us, they say, 'You need to create a new e-mail address and come back to us again so that we can unlock your account.' So, we keep creating new e-mail addresses for the customers and we give them their log-in details and the new e-mail address. Some customers lose them. We've got older customers who come in who are about 60 or 62 and they have a lack of IT skills—they don't know how to log in. Even young people—they are careless actually; they don't like to log in and they say, 'I don't have a computer at home.' Some people don't even have smartphones to log in. Even if they don't have a computer, I ask them, 'Do you have a smartphone, so I can teach you how to log in?', and they say, 'No, I don't have one.' So, a lack of IT skills could be one of the reasons.
For me, from my experience, I'm fine, but the only thing making me worried to go on universal credit is the five weeks. The assessment period is five weeks, so I'm worried that I'm going to be in rent arrears. I've got four children; I don't know how I will survive. Even my salary gets paid monthly, so there will be a monthly payment of my salary and monthly universal credit, which will include my tax credit and the housing benefit. But even with the housing benefit, it's going to be a very little amount actually, because I'm working full-time. So, I said, 'Okay, I'd better give up my housing benefit and not go for universal credit.' So, now, I'm losing my entitlement to go on housing benefit, because I'm worried about the assessment period—the five weeks. So, this is my experience.
Now, I'm suffering sometimes in terms of paying my rent—I pay full rent; I'm a private tenant. Because my landlord doesn't understand that I need my rent. So, I pay sometimes on time and I struggle sometimes, but I'm saying that I can cope at the moment. But later on, I don't know. So, really, I'm paying a very big amount in childcare costs. I pay for three children about £268 a week.
On the other hand, the positive thing for me is that, on universal credit, the childcare costs will be paid—about 85 per cent of the childcare costs. So rather than what I'm having now—70 per cent from tax credit—I'll be having 85 per cent of childcare costs. But if I just go and apply for UC, then I will get 85 per cent of childcare costs and I will lose some benefits maybe or I will lose some elements; maybe it will reduce my child tax credit—it will be reduced, from my understanding, as well. So, these are all my worries, actually, which is that the assessment period is a very long time for me to wait without money with four children—for five weeks.
So, obviously you would say, Samia, that your experience, and indeed the experience of others who are claimants in the benefits system, should be part of the design and the delivery of the benefits system, because obviously it's those with the lived experience who know what the issues are and what improvements need to be made.
Actually, from my point of view, one of the improvements that could be looked at is for the assessment period to be reduced to—I don't know if I can say, two weeks would be maybe at least okay for people to cope with. Two weeks without money is fine; the five weeks will be including the rent. Even to exclude housing benefit, which is the housing element, if it were to be excluded from universal credit, I think everybody would be fine, because all the worries are about the housing benefit, the rent—'How will I be paying my rent?' This is the big amount.
With the other elements, which are child tax credits and other payments, I think people will be able to apply for Government grants, which could be for food banks or DAF—the discretionary assistance fund—or the DHP as well. So, they could cope with the Welsh Government grants for food and other things, like electricity and gas, but for rent, I don't think the grants will cover the rent, which is a big amount. Some people pay £900 a month. It would be a bit hard to get a grant for that much money for the public.
On the other hand, actually, grants are helping, but some people don't know about them. When the customers talk to me, they say, 'I don't know how to bring money in during this period.' I say, 'There are some grants that could help you, such as this, which is a food bank voucher if you struggle or run out of food; DAF, which will help you with a small amount to buy electricity or gas or some food as well, or transport.' They don't know what the Government grants are. So, I explain to them, and they say, 'Okay, is the food bank going to give me food for five weeks?' That's the question. I say, 'I don't know.' 'Will I be able to apply when the food runs out? Will I be able to apply again?' As far as I know, the food bank is for certain times in the year for someone to apply. Even for DAF as well, there are certain times that you can apply. You can apply, I think, twice a year for DAF. I'm not sure, to be honest, because it's money advice; I've had some money advice training, but this is just from my understanding. So, I keep advising the customers of their entitlement to grants. But, to be honest, it's hard.
It's so hard for some customers to have access to their account and have access to the information about universal credit. They're not aware at all. Some customers are not aware. They say, 'I don't know.' I teach some customers how to log in from their phones. They go, after two or three days, they come back again and say, 'Look, I don't know. I don't know how to do it. Can you help me?' We are in a position to help customers with into-work advice services, we are in a position to help them how to get to, how to log in, how to sort out problems if they're stuck. With the job centre, if there are any issues we call the job centre, we sort out the issue, but, sometimes, it's so hard. It's so hard.
Okay, Samina. Rachel, in terms of Scotland and the way that they've incorporated lived experience into the way that they deliver and operate the benefits system, do you think they're on the right lines? Is that what would be useful in Wales?
For me, that voice of lived experience has got to be at the centre of this. I understand from talking to colleagues in Scotland that the experience panels have been warmly welcomed, I think, and that those experience panels have looked at the principles of the system as well as the operational side of things, both of which, my understanding is, have been very useful and people feel as though they've been heard, which is right. And there are different models of hearing those voices. Citizens' assemblies is one option, which I think probably work pretty well. But what's crucial—and I saw earlier on today you heard from the Trussell Trust—there are lots of people who want to share those experiences, because we've got to do something about this. Food banks obviously provide that crucial safety net, but actually we can't—that's not futureproof. That's not a solution to this problem. For me, we've got to be hearing the voices of people who are in job centres, who are using food banks, who are providing services day in, day out, because I think they are a crucial part of us finding the solution.
Okay. Could I ask you as well, Rachel, if powers were devolved, where does the balance lie, do you think, in terms of focus on improving users' experience of the system or increasing the amount of money they receive? I know it doesn't have to be one or the other, but would you say anything about where the balance is best struck?
I don't think that that's an either/or, Chair, if I'm honest. I think we need to address both of those. I think that the principles that the Scotland model are based on are sound—this is the dignity, fairness and respect model—I think that's right, but crucially we have to ensure that the amount of money going into people's pockets is adequate and meets the cost of living. I think it has to do both of those things. I don't think that that's an either/or.
Thank you, Chair. Can I just ask on that? We heard from a previous witness that they thought if you could improve the experience of the individuals sitting at that front end, so that they had the right advice, so that the things that people often miss with means-tested befits, with discretionary payments, are actually bundled up. That in itself could make a significant difference. But will it tackle people living in extreme hardship and in poverty?
I think there are two things there. I have to keep coming back to people have to have enough money in their pockets.
That's what I'm asking you: is there enough money in the system, even if you did that?
That's a good question, and I don’t know the answer. But, crucially, people have to have enough money, and they don’t have enough money at the moment. So, it is not working. But I think the point about—. So, one of the things our project’s doing is empowering and equipping staff to do the right thing for people at the right time. It’s not always right to push people into work, and we’ve talked to some work coaches who we’re working with who said, ‘Actually, sometimes, if you can just get someone to go once a week to a community group, or to go for a walk or to join a course or something'—and, actually, over time, they’re building up skills and networks and that kind of thing—'then, actually, in six months' or a year’s time, they might be in work and they will stay there.' Whereas, if we’re pushing people into work immediately, that’s not always the right thing. And, actually, it can be more damaging, sometimes, than do good. So, I think it’s both. But I think people have to have enough money in their pockets.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Looking at the current devolution settlement, what do think Welsh Government can do, within that devolution settlement, to make the social security system work better for the people of Wales?
So, I think, for me, firstly, given the settlement that we’ve got, we’ve got to start acting immediately, and I think we need to flex the powers that we’ve got to the absolute maximum to help where we are now. So, this is about raising incomes, but also about reducing household expenditure to the point we can. I’m sure the Trussell Trust will have said this earlier, but food is one of those flex budgets, isn’t it? It’s elastic, people can eat less, but they can’t pay less rent or they can’t pay less on their bills, and so on. So, I think we need to flex those powers as much as we possibly can where we are now. And, you know, there are more things Welsh Government can do, for example, on paying the living wage. So, when people actually get into work, they’re earning a decent amount of money and things. So, I think, before a decision is made on devolution, I want the voices of lived experience at the centre of that conversation, so we hear all of those stories.
But I think a careful assessment needs to be made on the devolution question, because, actually, for the person receiving the money at the other end, I’m not sure it particularly matters how the money’s coming to them. But they need the money in their pockets.
So, on that line, do you think the discretionary assistance fund or the discretionary housing payments could be used in a more innovative way?
Good question. I know, in Scotland, this is being looked at now, and my understanding is that, in Scotland, it’s being in used in part to mitigate the bedroom tax. That’s how I understand what’s happening there. But I think the answer to that is, firstly, the pot has to be big enough, doesn’t it? Because if that pot’s not big enough to mitigate those sorts of issues, then I don’t know—. But I think housing costs are a massive driver of poverty. People are struggling to pay rent across the board. So, as I’ve said, there’s the question about raising income, but also about reducing household expenditure. So, if we can balance that, or start to balance that, out, that’s going to help to some extent.
Okay. Thank you. And, last week, the Bevan Foundation told the committee that the current means-tested benefits offered by the Welsh Government—council tax reduction, free school meals and many more—need to be more integrated and coherent. So, I wonder if you can tell me if you think that, before more powers can be devolved to Wales—would you agree with that statement?
It's a good question. Oxfam doesn't take a view, actually, as to whether this policy area should be devolved or not, because of what I've already said. The point about money in people's pockets—I'm not sure it matters, actually, which route the money comes down. But one of the things I think needs some careful assessment is that the benefits system is a complex beast—it's tangled up together, and it's very difficult to isolate bits of the benefits system. So, there are means-tested working-age benefits, contributions-based working-age benefits, means-tested pension-age benefits, contributions-based pension-age benefits, universal benefits, grants—it's very difficult to isolate one of those and devolve it. And I think the policy direction, the original idea behind universal credit actually is sound, to make the system much simpler. It is sound, but it's been in the operationalisation of that where we've, I think, come a bit unstuck. That's where the problems are. So, there does need to be a more coherent approach, but the way in which to do that is to hear these voices right, to hear the experience at the other end of how people are accessing those different benefits.
Yes, because there are a lot that are interlinked, aren't there? And it is complex, and it is confusing, because some people need one benefit but not necessarily another, and so on. So, I think it has to be simplified in lots of ways, really.
And I think you've reflected that really well in what you were just saying.
Yes, I think so, Samia. And my last question is to Samia, actually. Have you encountered any issues with accessing benefits that are delivered by the Welsh Government or councils, like free school meals? I know you've answered—you gave quite a good introduction, but is there anything else you'd like to add to your introduction?
Actually, applying for the benefits, it was easy and flexible, and receiving the right benefits was easy as well. I never suffer from thinking that I'm not receiving my entitlement. I was fine with it—I'm still fine with it. Even with the housing benefit, when I call them, they say, 'Look, we're advising you to apply for universal credit because you are losing your entitlement to the housing benefit.' I say, 'Okay', but to be honest I don't apply, because of, as I mentioned earlier, all of the experiences that I hear every day from customers. So, just from my point of view, if the Government could provide more sessions for the public or for the people to teach them more about universal credit—. For me, it's a good system, but, on the other hand, sometimes, people, when they are struggling, it sounds to me that it's a bit difficult a system, and complicated for some people, for people who don't really have the basic skills, as I said—basic IT skills and even English as well.
There is one other thing that I want to mention, if you don't mind: the benefits cap, which is in the universal credit. Before, my understanding was the benefits cap is for people who are not on universal credit, but then it's now included in universal credit, and the amount of UC, of universal credit, for people, which is £1,666.67—. I have a customer coming in every day. She has four children. She has a little child under five. She is on income support. She has been capped a huge amount, and she is struggling to pay the rent. She can't find work because of the little one, because she's worried about the childcare cost as well. So, the universal credit, it's a good system to get people into work. We, as the Into Work Advice Service, help people to get into work by creating their CVs, getting them to some training, adult learning training, which is funded by the Government. But, on the other hand, when I tell them to go and enrol in this training, they say, 'I have a child; I can't. I can't improve my skills. I can't get to this training because nobody will pay for my childcare.' I just say, 'Yes—nothing we can do about it.' But then, with the benefits cap, when a person has a child under five, they can't work. They have a good reason not to work, because nobody will fund their childcare cost. If they find someone, or Government or an organisation can fund them the childcare costs, can pay for them, of course they wouldn't mind working, they wouldn't mind volunteering to improve their skills for work. But, in this situation, the customer I have—I spoke about it—she struggles, really, and she might be homeless any minute. She told me, 'I'm going to be homeless.' She comes every single day to the hub to be helped, and we can't help her. She just gets to go—. The housing benefit, there's a housing option to the—. She gets to everywhere, but no help. Because she has to pay her rent. She has to pay that money she owes.
Yes, I just wanted to pick up on something from your evidence, actually, around some of the possible options for devolution. You've already touched on the living wage as being key to—if people are in employment. Because I see lots of people come through my office that are actually working and still having to access food banks. You know, in-work poverty is a huge, huge issue. So, I think that's a very fair point. But you've also talked about—. In your evidence, you talked about changes to the sanctions system and you talked about whether Welsh Government could look at maybe tweaking or changing some aspects of universal credit. So, I just wanted to get a sense from you about—. Because, from what you were saying right at the beginning of your evidence, I sense that you were talking more about trying to change the culture of DWP rather than advocating a wholesale devolution of benefits. But I just wanted to know if you felt that there was anything specific within the benefits system that would benefit particularly from being devolved. So, for instance, assessments, maybe those elements of benefits that are linked to devolved services—like housing is one. So, just your thoughts on some of those areas, really.
So, I've, of course, been talking to my counterpart in Scotland about how the Scottish Choices model works, and my understanding is that having some of those flexibilities that they've got in that system is certainly being welcomed. I was interested to read the Trussell Trust statistics, actually, that food bank use looks like it's still rising despite them having that further devolved—
In Scotland—despite that devolved power. So, I know that they're doing some more data collection there, so that may become clearer later. But my understanding is, in Scotland—so, they have the power to pay landlords directly, they have the power to increase the frequency of payments and that sort of thing, and I think having that kind of flexibility and empowering, I suppose, staff to do the right thing at the right time for people—. Because it may not always be appropriate to pay landlords directly for an individual; it may not always be appropriate to increase the frequency of payments for someone. But I think empowering DWP staff to be able to make those choices, based on the person sitting in front of them and those circumstances, for me, certainly feels like that could go a long way in the right direction.
So, in terms of Oxfam's position, are you saying that you wouldn't at this stage support the wholesale devolution of benefits?
We wouldn't have—. We don't have a view either way. What we want to make sure is that the people receiving the money are—.
So, your concern is, devolved or non-devolved, the system has to improve in terms of delivery of the benefits.
Yes. Do you have a view on the alternative position, which is not to do with devolution, but actually more meaningful—more parity between the devolved nations and the UK Government on the way that welfare benefits in their entirety—the Welsh element, the Scottish element, the Northern Ireland and the UK elements—are administered? As opposed to devolution down, it should be more meaningful engagement at that level: 'If you give us this flexibility, we can get on with stuff. We'd like to ask for this as well'. Does Oxfam have a view on that? Maybe you don't, same as with the devolution; it's really what would best deliver the outcomes. So, let me ask you on that basis: what would best deliver the outcomes?
So, I think, for me, we'd want to see the evidence that it would deliver better outcomes for people. That's what I would want to see. I would want, you know—. I was looking at some of the challenges that they faced in Scotland. So, they were really simple things about numbers of staff, the size of the civil service and all that stuff. We actually have a tiny civil service compared to Scotland, just on staff numbers and headcount. So, I would want to be certain that whatever model we choose to go forward with is going to help the person getting the money at the other end.
Okay. Well, let me put it this way: at the moment, there is scant little negotiation of the UK benefits and welfare and social security system between devolved nations and the UK Government. The UK Government decides what it's going to do with universal credit, we scream, 'One of the parts of the evidence that you've heard about universal credit is you need to give that flexibility in how it is paid and when it is paid, your own pilot study showed that', and they go, 'We don't care. We're carrying on because of budget constraints'. So, on those sort of things, wouldn't it be better that devolved nations at the front end, where they're hearing from people like Samia, can say, 'Hey, let's be grown up about this. You need to tweak and adjust this'? Sorry. I'm putting you in an unfair position here.
That's okay. That's why I'm here. Again, I don't think we have a view on the particular model, but I would just want to make sure that whatever the model is is tested well enough with the people who are on the front end receiving those benefits, and also, actually, with the staff who are administering them as well, because we're working directly with jobcentre staff, we're hearing quite a lot about those challenges, and what all that looks like. But I would just want to be sure, before any change is made, before we pour a stack of money into something that may not work—I would want the evidence that whatever the new model is it's going to work.
Thank you, Chair. Can I ask you, we're talking about the work you're doing with DWP and you've talked about this cultural change—have you got any sense or indication from them that, in light of the work that you've been doing with them, they might be changing some of their practices, or that the way that they assess claimants could be different? Because, certainly, the evidence that we've been taking would appear to indicate that if we could have our own assessment process, we could do it better.
My sense is, and a lot of this is anecdotal—. Our project is being evaluated, but the final evaluation isn't due until the end of September and, of course, I can share that with you when that's completed. But my sense, anecdotally, is that the culture is changing in the DWP in Wales. What we are hearing from jobcentre managers and things is they do have more flexibility than perhaps a couple of years ago to do the right thing at the right time for people, but I don't have evidence to back that up—that's from conversations that we're having. But, certainly, my sense is, and, again, I don't have the data, there is less use of sanctioning, and those front pages that we were all reading about a couple of years ago, because of that flexibility. And I think there is a commitment, it seems, from the top, to be changing that culture, but I don't have the evidence to back that up.
No, okay. I was just wondering whether that would make the case for us having our own—even if we didn't devolve all the benefits, that we had devolution of the assessment process. I'm just wondering if that might be an option. Do you have a view about aligning benefits and devolving benefits, if you like, that are aligned to those devolved areas? Do you have a view about taking housing benefit, possibly, out of universal credit and keeping it where the service is delivered?
Again, I think if it's alleviating poverty for those people at the other end, if you like, it has to be what works for them. But I'm yet to see evidence either way, actually, as to what's going to work best on that.
Okay. So, you're not hung up on where it's delivered, it's just about, from your point of view, the best experience and the best outcomes for the benefit claimant.
Absolutely, and let's get people into work and work that pays, and you've just alluded to the in-work poverty problem.
Okay. Could I just ask some final couple of questions, if I may? Topping up reserved benefits and creating new benefits such as is happening in Scotland—is that something that you would favour rather than, perhaps, devolving existing benefits?
I think we need to look at the best way of making sure that people have got enough money. Benefits have to meet the costs of living, and if there is a way that we can do that in Wales, then let's explore it, because, ultimately, we know the poverty forecasts are looking really bleak, so if there is a way of doing that, then we should absolutely be exploring it.
Okay. And finally, then, Rachel, do you believe there's any threat to the UK's social union by the devolving of benefits, so the tax and benefits system, the redistributive elements, across the UK? Obviously, in Wales, our socioeconomic circumstances are not what we would wish them to be and we are quite reliant on that redistributive mechanism. Do you fear that devolving benefits might undermine people across the UK and Government, I guess, in terms of their buy-in to the system?
I don't think so. Again, we're not taking a view on the devolution question, so I don't think so.
Okay, that's fine. That's great. Thank you, both, very much for coming in today to give evidence to the committee. Thank you, Samia. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you. [Inaudible.]
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Our next item, then, is a motion to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting under Standing Order 17.42. Is committee content? Yes. Okay, we will move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:20.
The public part of the meeting ended at 12:20.