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Politics

Benefits system ‘failing Wales’

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A REPORT from a Welsh Assembly Committee states the benefits system is too complex and does not treat people with dignity, fairness and compassion.
An inquiry held by the National Assembly for Wales’ Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee heard the benefits system is failing some people on the lowest incomes and is causing wider problems for our communities – in areas from mental health, to local government to poverty.
The UK Government’s programme of welfare reform is one of the most important political issues to affect Wales since devolution.
By 2023, one-third of Welsh households will receive Universal Credit, and the Committee heard particular concerns that long waits for the first payment and monthly, rather than fortnightly, payments were causing numerous problems.
The Committee’s report – Benefits in Wales: Options for a better delivery – contains 17 recommendations for Welsh Government. These include changes within the current devolution settlement, as well as exploring the devolution of housing-related benefits and the assessment process for disability and sickness benefits.
Included in the Committee’s report are recommendations to address these issues. They call for the Welsh Government to ensure that Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) payments are made available as an immediate action. DAF payments are non-repayable emergency grants for people on low-income in Wales and could ease the pressure on households as they wait for their Universal Credit payments.
Welsh Government should also seek payment flexibilities, so people can opt for more frequent payments, direct payments to the landlord, or to split payments between couples.
The complex system is not working at its best and could do more to help people on the lowest incomes, says John Griffiths AM, Chair of the Equality Local Government and Communities Committee;
“The current system is not working for far too many people. We repeatedly hear that benefits are not enough to cover basic and essential household costs, and the system does not treat people with dignity, fairness or compassion. The human cost of these failures is unacceptable, in one of the world’s largest national economies.
“Whilst recommending that Welsh Government explore opportunities to devolve more control of benefits to Wales, our recommendations emphasise what can be done now, within the current settlement, and in the longer term. We believe they set out a clear framework for positive change, which will reduce poverty and inequality at an individual and household level, improve well-being and the economy at a community and national level.
“Almost half of the Welsh population receive some kind of benefit, but the social security system is largely non-devolved. The system plays a vital role in the Welsh economy, for individual households and also the wider Welsh purse.”
Alone, among Wales’ principal political parties, Plaid Cymru supports the devolution of welfare benefits’ administration to Wales.
And a report published by the Wales Governance Centre outlines how Wales could be financially better off if it followed the same model over welfare as Scotland.
The report says that if a fiscal framework agreement similar to the one negotiated by the Scottish Government had been agreed by the Welsh and UK governments and had powers over S-benefits been devolved to Wales in 2018-19, the Welsh Treasury “would have been cumulatively better off by £700 million by the end of 2023-24.”
The Wales Governance Centre estimates we could be generating surpluses of over £200 million by the middle of the next decade if Wales had the same deal as Scotland. There would also be the indirect savings to the NHS and Housing Associations who have had to pick up the tab from Westminster’s shambolic handling of the welfare system.

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Politics

WG rejects UK’s EU Withdrawal Bill

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ON MONDAY, January 20, the Welsh Government published its assessment of the UK government’s Political Declaration, which accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and its priorities for our future trade, and broader relationship with the EU.
The assessment argues that, while the Welsh Government accepts that we will now leave the EU, changes to the direction of travel indicated in the Political Declaration are necessary to better protect the economic, social and environmental interests of Wales and the whole UK.
Counsel General and Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles said: “The UK government will soon begin negotiations with the EU on a permanent long-term agreement. This agreement is of vital importance to Wales. It will determine the basis of our future trade, and our broader relationship with the EU, for decades to come. The stakes could not be higher.
“The evidence is clear that the further the UK moves away from economic integration with the EU the greater the economic damage. The EU has been and will continue to be our most important trading partner and many businesses depend on integrated supply chains across the EU, which require frictionless trade.
“Given the overwhelming importance of the EU to our economy, the UK must prioritise continued barrier-free access to these markets over trade arrangements with other countries.
“We will continue to challenge an approach to the negotiations which prioritises the ‘freedom’ of the UK to diverge from EU regulatory standards above the well-being of the people of Wales. Such an approach would be deeply flawed and could result in lost jobs and lost investment in Wales. We need an agreement with the EU which reflects the interests of Wales and the United Kingdom.
“The UK government claims it wants to maintain high standards and we will hold them to their word. We will, therefore, oppose any agenda of deregulation, which will damage consumers’ interests in the long run.
“We reject a vision of Britain where the economy is based on a low-wage, low job security, low regulation model, which would lead to growing inequality. We need a strong, innovative outward-looking UK economy underpinned by mutual respect for the responsibilities of all governments of the Union.”
The Counsel General also stressed that the Welsh Government, like many other observers and the EU negotiators themselves did not believe it possible to achieve the right agreement in only a few months of negotiations.
He said: “We will continue to argue that the UK government should not close the door on an extension beyond the arbitrary deadline of December 2020. The priority must be achieving the best deal, not the quickest one”.
The Minister’s statement got short shrift from Conservative leader in the Senedd, Paul Davies, who responded: “Wales voted to LEAVE the EU. It’s as simple as that. Rather than engaging in political posturing, the Welsh Labour Government should respect the Welsh people’s wishes and get behind the withdrawal bill.”
Mr Davies’ remark received a tart response from former Welsh Government Cabinet Minister, Alun Davies, who enquired via Twitter: “So you would give any elected government a carte blanche to deliver its programme? And you’re a leader of the opposition?!”

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Politics

Voting age lowered in Wales

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A BILL to introduce a new name and lower voting age for Senedd elections became law last week.
The Bill which will introduce a new name for the National Assembly and extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Welsh General Election become an Act of the Assembly on Wednesday, January 15, when it received Royal Assent.
After Royal Assent the Bill was officially transferred to the National Assembly’s Chief Executive and Clerk, Manon Antoniazzi by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
The handing over of the Bill to the Assembly Clerk in the Senedd Siambr marked a historic step which saw the Bill become an Act.
Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, Elin Jones AM, Chief Executive and Clerk of the Assembly, Manon Antoniazzi and First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
Llywydd of the Assembly, Elin Jones AM, announced the status of the new Senedd and Election (Wales) Act at the start of the day’s Plenary meeting.
However, the contents of the Act – which introduces a new name Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament and extends the voting franchise to foreign nationals and 16 and 17-year-olds – will not come into force until early May 2020.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales says; “I am honoured to mark this significant chapter in the story of our Assembly with the passing of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill into an Act of the Assembly.
“In May we will have a new name, which will reflect our status as a mature legislature, and we will see the biggest extension to the franchise since 1969 – notably giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the Welsh General Election for the first time in 2021.
“It is a moment of great pride to watch our Assembly evolve in order to continue to be at its best to serve the people of Wales.”

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Politics

Tackling hidden homelessness

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A MAJOR new campaign to tackle hidden homelessness by raising awareness that “homelessness doesn’t always live on the streets” has been launched by the Welsh Government.
The campaign aims to bring to light the problem of hidden homelessness and is targeted at young people who may be at risk of or already experiencing homelessness. The campaign also advises the public on what to do if they’re concerned about someone they know.
Research suggests people overwhelmingly connect homelessness with rough sleeping only – which is not the case for most young people experiencing homelessness.
Even if someone has a roof over their head, they can still be homeless. They could be sofa surfing at a friends’ place or staying somewhere temporarily like a hostel, night shelter or bed & breakfast. It might be they are living in very poor conditions or somewhere that’s not suitable for them or their family.
To help identify people who could be homeless, there are several signs that people can look out for:
• They may be having difficulties with their relationships with their parents and close family members;
• They may be reluctant to go home – spending lots of their time outside; in public places that offer shelter and connection to wifi – for example, train stations and cafes; staying late at their education setting or jobs;
• They may be keeping belongings with them and have problems with keeping clothes clean;
• They might be asking for help with money and using food banks;
• They may have lost their job;
• They may be experiencing physical or mental health problems.
Those experiencing hidden homelessness are more likely to be at risk of exploitation, particularly young people. For example, they might be targeted by people who want to pressurise them into sex or unwaged labour in exchange for a roof over their head.
The campaign is designed to ensure that young people get the help and support they need as soon as possible, preventing homelessness from happening in the first place.
Launching the initiative Housing Minister Julie James, said: “Many people think homelessness is only about rough sleeping – it is not. Many young people experiencing, or at risk of homelessness don’t recognise themselves as homeless.
“If you don’t have a place to call home it is likely that you are experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’.
“We know young people often don’t know where to seek advice and support – so that’s why we’re launching this new campaign.
“So if you think you’re experiencing hidden homelessness or you’re at risk of it then get help now. It’s never too late or too early to get help.”
The Welsh Government funds Shelter Cymru to provide independent housing advice and support. The service also links people to partner organisations who can provide support services based on the needs of individuals.
Shelter Cymru Director Jon Puzey said: “We know the earlier and more often someone experiences homelessness, the more likely they are to develop complex issues that might mean they become homeless repeatedly throughout their adult life. That’s why it’s so important that we make it a priority to prevent youth homelessness.
“It’s fantastic that the Welsh Government is taking this so seriously and helping us to reach more young people. With this joint campaign, we are making sure that young people know that Shelter Cymru is here to help them.”

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