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Why now is the time to establish a Welsh Benefits System

September 16th 2020

On September the 16th, the Welsh Parliament will hold a debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report – Benefits in Wales.

Steffan Evans sets out why the need to implement one of the committee’s recommendations, establishing a Welsh Benefits System has never been greater.

Family on sofa

A lot has changed since the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee tabled its report ‘Benefits in Wales – options for better delivery’ last October. As a result of the Coronavirus and the economic impact of the measures put into place to control its spread the number of people claiming out of work benefits in Wales has doubled since the report was published. Whilst this changing landscape has undoubtedly had an impact on many of the Committee’s recommendations the case for adopting some of its recommendations has been strengthened by the experiences of the last six months, none more so than its recommendation to establish a Welsh Benefits System.

The last six months has demonstrated just how much power the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities have to support families trapped in poverty. Measures such as the provision of cash in lieu of Free School Meals and the decision of the Welsh Government to continue this support over the summer holidays as well as its significant additional investment into the Disretionary Assistance Fund have benefitted thousands of families across Wales. Yet establishing a Welsh Benefits System could ensure that even more families benefit from this support.

Why should we establish a Welsh Benefits System?

Over the past 18 months the Bevan Foundation has been researching how the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities provide support to low income families through means tested support schemes. To date the Bevan Foundation has published five reports outlining its findings with a final report set to be published shortly. These reports have identified four major shortcomings with the way that support is currently provided.

  • Despite most schemes having broadly similar goals, there is significant variation in the eligibility criteria. This makes it difficult for people to know what they are eligible for and it also makes it difficult for those administering the schemes to passport families from one to another.
  • The wide range of organisations which are responsible for the various schemes mean that families must submit multiple applications to access all the support they are entitled to.
  • Some schemes are of limited value, and therefore do not provide people with sufficient assistance to make a real difference to their lives.
  • There are gaps in the support that is available, be this as a result of discretionary schemes that were originally designed to provide support as a last resort being increasingly being relied on to keep families afloat on a long term basis or that for some living costs there is simply no support at all available.

Establishing a Welsh Benefits System would provide the Welsh Government with an opportunity to address many of these issues be designing a holistic system that sought to provide more consistent and better quality support.

What would a Welsh Benefits System look like?

A Welsh Benefits System would offer cash or in-kind services that reach the people who need them, are easy to access, are efficiently and consistently administered and, crucially, lifting people out of poverty. The key features of our proposed Welsh Benefits System are:

  • It focuses on households on low incomes, defined as being eligible for Universal Credit, and uses this criterion across all schemes.
  • It provides cash or in-kind help that is sufficient to make a real difference to households’ incomes or costs.
  • It has a single point of access for several benefits, using online, phone or postal methods.
  • It is based on eligibility for and an entitlement to assistance, not discretion.
  • Applicants are treated with dignity and respect.

This new system could mostly be established within the powers already devolved to the Welsh Parliament. It does not require potentially protracted negotiations with the UK Government to acquire new powers nor does it come with the financial risks that could accompany any budgetary devolution. It can therefore be implemented quickly by the Welsh Government and local authorities.

Whilst the impact of Coronavirus on staff resources may prevent the Welsh Government and local authorities from taking action to establish a system in full before the spring, there are some actions that could be taken now that could improve the lives of thousands of families this winter.

Chief amongst these measures would be the sharing of best practice between local authorities. Through our research we have found excellent examples of local authorities streamlining application processes to ensure families get all the support they are entitled to. Other local authorities, however, are still requiring families to fill in long and detailed application forms to access Free School Meals and the Pupil Development Grant – Access, two schemes with almost identical eligibility criteria. Resolving some of the barriers that are preventing some local authorities following more innovative approaches may in fact be easy to achieve, once they become aware of how other authorities operate. It is vital we take action now ahead of what is set to be the most difficult winter in decades.

The full final report of the Bevan Foundation’s work on the Welsh Benefit System, with our recommendations will be published on Thursday.

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

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