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Why we don’t need a Minister for Poverty

April 8th 2019

With the latest figures showing that one in four people lives in poverty, Victoria Winckler asks if it is time for a Minister dedicated to solving it.

With the latest figures showing one in four people lives in poverty, many organisations are calling for a Welsh Government Minister dedicated to tackling the problem.  Wales famously did have such a role in the past, but the job disappeared after the 2011 Assembly elections. So such a role has precedent. But is it time for a new Minister for Poverty?

We think not.

A Minister for Poverty would very likely make little difference. Poverty is a huge problem that cuts across all groups of people, all parts of Wales and which affects all other portfolios. As we saw previously, the chances of a Minister for Poverty changing the priorities and actions of another Minister – such as the housing or education Minister – are slim indeed.

In place of major change, there is a temptation to establish special programmes.  Almost all Ministers love an announcement and a bit of ribbon-cutting.  The problem with special programmes is that they rarely address the root causes of a problem, and they never do so at sufficient scale.  There is no end of schemes that proudly claim they’ve helped 10,000 people into work or 2,500 people to claim benefits they’re entitled too. But these are a drop in the ocean against the 720,000 people trapped in poverty.

Ministerial portfolios should, instead, be focused on the solutions.

And this is where there IS scope to re-align Welsh Government roles. The solutions to poverty are now clear – they lie in work, in cutting costs, and in a fairer social security system. There should be Ministers with clear responsibility for each of them.

A Minister for Work

Despite the rise of poverty in households where someone is has a job, working remains one of the key solutions. Being in work more than halves the risk of poverty, and almost certainly reduces the depth of poverty.

While the arrangements make slightly more sense than before, responsibility for ‘work’ is spread across several Welsh Government Ministers. The Minister for Economy and Transport’s huge portfolio now includes skills, employability and the Living Wage.  The Minister for Housing and Local Government is responsible for regeneration – which often aims to create jobs – and Fair Work. The Minister for International Relations and the Welsh language covers the tourism industry.

A single Minister for Work could pull together the Welsh Government’s disparate efforts and drive a real focus on creating more jobs, getting more people into them and improving terms and conditions.

A Minister for Housing

Cutting costs is another way of putting more money in low-income families’ pockets. Housing is one the major costs faced by households and all too often pushes people on low incomes into poverty.  But housing costs are more than just rents – they include the costs of heating and lighting, water and council tax.

As a result of the Cabinet reorganisation at the end of last year, there is now a full Ministerial role that includes housing. But responsibility for housing related costs lies elsewhere – fuel poverty is under the Minister for Environment, and council tax is under the Minister for Finance.

Bringing all aspects of housing costs into the same portfolio, along with a relentless drive to cut costs, would be a step forward.

Minister for Social Security

The third major solution to poverty is a fair, effective social security system.  The UK Government has responsibility for almost all pensions and benefits, but its decisions have a significant impact on Welsh and local government responsibilities as our report last year showed.  We also think that the many devolved and local schemes that support low income families should be considered as a ‘Welsh welfare’ system.

A new Minister would be able to have oversight of Universal Credit that will in due course affect around a third of the population, as well as Welsh schemes for low income households. Maybe this is not a full role yet, but it should certainly be a significant element in another role.

These Ministerial changes would be a start, but are not enough.

There needs to be a relentless focus on reducing the adverse effects of poverty across all portfolios. One of the top priorities of the health Minister should be reducing health inequalities, and similarly a top priority of the education Minister should be to close the gap in attainment between children on free school meals and their fellow pupils.

We do not need a Minister for Poverty.  But we do need Ministers who are clearly responsible for addressing the root causes of poverty, and who aim to eradicate its pernicious effects across society.

Only in this way will the Welsh Government begin to reduce the headline figures. It will not be easy and it will take time. But it should be done.

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Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. 

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