How can poverty be reduced in Wales? A National Assembly for Wales committee has been looking at poverty in Wales, and suggesting how the Welsh Government can do more to help people struggling to get by

In Wales, more than one in five people live in poverty.

‘Poverty’ is considered to be when a household’s income is below 60 per cent of the UK median.

In the past 20 years, the percentage of people in poverty in Wales has only dropped slightly, but in other areas of the UK with high poverty, like north-east England, the level of poverty has dropped more than in Wales.

Since the early 2000s, the level of poverty in Wales has not reduced at all.

As members of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, we were very worried about these statistics, so we decided to investigate why Wales has some of the highest levels of poverty in the UK, and why this hasn’t changed over for a long time.

Victoria Winckler, Bevan Foundation, speaking to the Committee on 13 November 2014
“I think that [there is] a particular gap around hearing the voices of people in poverty" - Victoria Winckler, Bevan Foundation

Last November, we asked lots of organisations, like Oxfam and Save the Children to tell us what they thought the Welsh Government should be doing differently to help people in poverty. We also visited some interesting projects, such as the Blaenau Gwent Food Bank, an RNIB advice service in north Wales, Remploy in Wrexham, as well as the Changing Lives project in Swansea.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas visiting Chwarae Teg in Llanelli, where he asked participants about the impacts of poverty, particularly destitution and extreme poverty, on different groups of people.

Assembly Member Janet Finch-Saunders visited the RNIB in north Wales, where the Committee was looking at poverty and inequality. Participants were asked about a range of issues, from their lived experiences of poverty to recommendations for improvements.

We spoke directly with people living in poverty to hear about their experiences and asked them what would help them.

Because of what people told us, we made some conclusions and had some ideas about how the lives of people struggling with money could be improved.

The Committee held an event in November 2014, inviting participants to discuss the problems caused by poverty in Wales today

The Committee's recommendations for reducing poverty in Wales

We are deeply concerned about the Welsh Government’s lack of progress in reducing poverty, especially as it has spent a lot of money on programmes to do this.

We think that this is partly because these programmes are too focussed on the results of poverty (like encouraging people to eat healthier food), rather than the root causes (like the creation of secure jobs).

As levels of poverty in Wales have been the same since the early 2000s, we think that something needs to change. Other regions with high poverty in England are successfully reducing their levels of poverty, and we are worried that Wales is being left behind.

We know that the main ways of reducing poverty are through tax and benefits, which the Welsh Government doesn’t control. But we think that it could do more with the powers it already has.

Michael Trickey, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, speaking to the Committee on 13 November 2014
“If there was a strong independent poverty alliance in Wales, then there would be people who could make the case to businesses, as well as to Government" - Michael Trickey, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

So, we recommend that the Welsh Government speak to more people, like charities, businesses and academics, as well as people actually experiencing poverty, to help them come up with ideas for change. We think that a single group representing these people and organisations should be formed by the government, so that the government’s progress on reducing poverty is scrutinised better.

People told us that part of the problem with the government’s approach is that it doesn’t have a good understanding of poverty, and who is living in it. Some organisations suggested that a new definition of poverty would help, such as ‘when a person doesn’t have enough resources (money) to meet their minimum needs (which means having a safe home, with proper heating and enough food).’

Adrian Curtis, Trussell Trust, speaking to the Committee on 19 November 2014

“About 79,000 people were referred to Trussell Trust food banks in Wales last year, which was around 122% more than the previous year ... around half of them were referred because the welfare system had, in some way, let them down— either there was a delay in their claim being processed or a sudden change to the level of payments they were receiving” - Adrian Curtis, Trussell Trust

We agreed with this, and we think that the Welsh Government should make a commitment to make sure every person in Wales has a home, warmth and food.

Kate Bennett, Equality and Human Rights Commission, speaking to the Committee on 13 November 2014
“Our big message is ‘let’s look at who the people [in poverty] are, not necessarily only at where they are’” - Kate Bennett, Equality And Human Rights Commission

During our research, people told us that the government (including councils) tends to treat people in poverty all the same. But we know that people live in poverty for many reasons- some people are poor because they can’t work due to a disability or because they’re retired and only collecting a small pension, and some people are poor because there are not enough jobs in their area. We know that single parents, who are mainly women, are most likely to be poor.

A lot of this information isn’t collected by the Welsh Government, so we recommend that it does some research to find out exactly who is living in poverty, and the best ways of helping them out, based on their circumstances.

“The evidence on income poverty in Wales is really weak” - Victoria Winckler, Bevan Foundation

We also found out that over half of people in poverty are actually living in working households, but they get paid badly or don’t have guaranteed hours. We think that this is the main problem with the current approach, and that only a major, long-term change in the Welsh Government’s economic plan will reduce poverty.

People told us that low-paid jobs like caring, retail or hospitality should be better quality, which means secure contracts, good employment packages and decent pay, as well as childcare and flexible hours for people with children or other dependent people.

We recommend that the Welsh Government uses its influence, where it can, to improve the quality of these low-paid jobs. This could be done by changing the way councils buy care packages for older people, for example, or by requiring businesses who get money from the Welsh Government to treat their staff better.

We also think that the main scheme that helps people on benefits into work in Wales, which is called the Work Programme, should be controlled by the Welsh Government so it can be better tailored to different groups of people in different areas.

“We find issues around zero-hour contract working and irregular forms of employment to be a particular problem because people lack that stability of employment that family budgets need in order to be able to budget on a week-by-week basis” - Adrian Curtis, Trussell Trust

We heard about advice services that help people to claim the benefits they’re entitled to, which lots of people find very useful. The Welsh Government gives money to these organisations, like Shelter and Citizens Advice, but we are worried that the way they are funded is changing, and that they might not be accessible to some groups of people. We think that the Welsh Government should ensure that everyone living in poverty can access advice about how to increase their income through benefits. Pension Credit should be prioritised, as lots of people in Wales who are entitled to this benefit do not claim it.

Crisis payments are available for people if they can’t afford to pay for urgent expenses or emergencies. These payments have changed in recent years, and only certain people can apply for them. As a result, people are not aware that they could claim these payments, so applications have dropped, along with the funding. We don’t think that there is a lack of need, but we heard that the application process makes it difficult to access the fund. We think that more people should be eligible for crisis payments, and the application process should be easier.

Victoria Goodban, Oxfam Cymru, speaking to the Committee on 3 December 2014
“The discretionary assistance fund was underspent by about £2.5 million last year, so we have an increasing need around the destitution of asylum seekers and people with no recourse to public funds. It should not be acceptable in a western country that we are forcing people to live literally in absolute destitution; it is an abuse of their human rights" - Victoria Goodban, Oxfam Cymru

Chair's note

I hope these conclusions reflect what people told us during this piece of work. We will await the Welsh Government’s reply to our report, but will continue examining this issue in the meantime.

After this, we are planning to look specifically at the effectiveness of Welsh Government programmes to tackle poverty such as Communities First and Flying Start. Following this, we will do some further work about why over half of those living in poverty live in working households.

Christine Chapman AM, Chair of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee

Photos from the Trussell Trust

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