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Six things that the Welsh Government could do to help low income families through Covid – 19

March 16th 2020

The outbreak of Covid-19 is a crisis unlike any most of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. Here’s 6 things the Welsh Government could do to help families trapped in poverty.

2B5J48F A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2 virus on black background (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) – COVID 19 virion particle.

The outbreak of Covid-19 is a crisis unlike any most of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. Over the next few weeks and months our public services, our economy and the way we live our lives day to day is likely to change dramatically. Naturally, much of the immediate focus has been on the action that needs to be taken to save lives. This is absolutely the right priority, but many of the steps that we expect to see enacted over the next few days to achieve this are likely to hit some of the poorest in society the hardest.

Families trapped in poverty are set to be hit from multiple angles over coming weeks. Low income workers who are required to enter self-isolation or whose employers are required to shut down for a period could see a fall in their incomes. The closure of key public services such as schools, on the other hand is likely to lead to increased living costs with families missing out on support schemes such as free school meals. At the same time however, other key expenses such as rent, and energy costs will still need to be paid.

Whilst many of the key levers to address these concerns are held at Westminster, there are actions that the Welsh Government could take to ease the pressure. Set out below are some of the actions we believe that the Welsh Government should take to assist families trapped in poverty, through this testing period.

1.    A Free School Meal allowance

With schools expected to be closed for up to 16 weeks, thousands of families are set out to lose access to free school meals. Many families struggle to meet the cost of feeding their children over the 6 weeks of the summer holidays, the closure of schools for a prolonged period is likely to present an even greater challenge.

The Welsh Government should introduce a Free School Meal Allowance – an emergency payment equal to the cost of their child’s free school meal. The easiest way to administer the payment is via local authorities.  They already administer Free School Meals and have significant experience of handling payments to parents e.g. Pupil Development Grant – Access. Arrangements need to be made urgently to support families from day 1 of school closures.

2.    Emergency Food Aid

The Welsh Government should also provide financial support to food aid organisations such as the Trussell Trust to enable them to provide more families with emergency help. With recent panic buying, many supermarkets have run low on essential supplies such as tinned and frozen food.  This combined with all the other pressures that are set to be placed on family’s incomes are likely to mean that food banks will play an increasingly vital role over the next few weeks.

3.    Enhanced Emergency Assistance

The Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) provides grants via the Emergency Assistance Fund, which provides with help with essential costs in the case of an emergency, and the Individual Assistance Payment, which supports people to live independently. The Welsh Government should change the eligibility criteria for the Emergency Assistance Fund to ensure that anyone who is facing financial pressures as a result of the measures put in to control Covid-19 is eligible for support. There is a recent precedent for using DAF in this way, with the fund being used to support families affected by the recent flooding.

4.    Relax Education Maintenance Allowance rules

The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) provides £30 a week for 16 to 18 year olds from low income families who are in full time education. To receive EMA, young people must satisfy attendance requirements. This will not be possible if young people have to self-isolate or if schools and colleges are shut down for extended periods. The Welsh Government should therefore revise attendance requirements for the remainder of the academic year to ensure young people receive the support they desperately need.

5.    A secure home

Many families are likely to struggle with the cost of their housing over the coming months as a result of social distancing, and risk falling into arrears or making an arrears problem worse.

To avoid evictions, the Welsh Government should work with social landlords to ensure that no tenant is evicted from their home due to rent arrears over this period. The Welsh Government should seek to speed up the process of enacting the Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill and the implementation of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 to reduce the ability of private sector landlords to evict tenants, boosting security within the tenure at this crucial time.

The Welsh Government should also enhance Discretionary Housing Payments during this period, providing local authorities with additional resources to ease housing pressures.

6.    Payment holidays

Reducing people’s living costs over the next few months is going to be crucial for hard-pressed households. Some banks already offer mortgage holders with mortgage holidays, but tenants should be able to benefit from flexible payments also. The Welsh Government should work with partners to see whether there are other payment holidays that could be introduced on a temporary basis. Such costs include social housing rent, Council Tax and utilities costs.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation 

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