Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd
Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd11/03/2021
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Dawn Bowden MS|
|Delyth Jewell MS|
|Huw Irranca-Davies MS|
|John Griffiths MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Laura Anne Jones MS|
|Mandy Jones MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Alyson Francis||Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr yr Is-adran Gymunedau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Deputy Director of Communities Division, Welsh Government|
|Emma Williams||Cyfarwyddwr Tai ac Adfywio, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director of Housing & Regeneration, Welsh Government|
|Hannah Blythyn MS||Y Dirprwy Weinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Jane Hutt MS||Y Dirprwy Weinidog a’r Prif Chwip|
|Deputy Minister and Chief Whip|
|Julie James MS||Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Reg Kilpatrick||Cyfarwyddwr Cyffredinol Cydgysylltu Argyfwng Covid-19, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director General, Covid Crisis Coordination, Welsh Government|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Chloe Davies||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:00.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 13:00.
Okay, I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. This is in fact the committee's final public meeting of this fifth Senedd and, at this stage, I would like to put on record my thanks to the current committee members and the previous committee members over the duration of this fifth Senedd. Also, I very much thank our clerking team and research team. They have really, really served us so well during this fifth Assembly, and I would very much like to put that on the record, and I know my fellow committee members, current and past, would very much agree with that.
In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, published on Monday of this week. The meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv with all participants joining via video conference, and a Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual and has simultaneous translation from Welsh to English.
Just to remind all participants, microphones will be controlled centrally, so there's no need to turn them on or off individually. When called to speak, a participant will then have their microphone turned on centrally. Are there any declarations of interest? No. If for any reason I drop out of proceedings—temporarily, hopefully—the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin.
Okay, item 2 on our agenda today is the committee's inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to committee’s remit, and we now have an evidence session with the Minister for Housing and Local Government and the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government. So, I'm very pleased to welcome Julie James and Hannah Blythyn to committee, together with their officials, Emma Williams, who is director of housing and regeneration, and Reg Kilpatrick, who is director general of COVID crisis co-ordination with the Welsh Government. If it's okay with you, Ministers, we'll move straight to questions. The first couple of questions are from me, and they're on funding support for local government, and firstly, really, whether you could expand on the additional allocation of funding to local government for COVID-19 in that final budget for the coming financial year, just to set out, perhaps, what the essential purposes of that funding are.
Certainly, Chair, and thank you for that. Yes, we're really pleased to say that the final budget had £206.6 million in it for the continuation of what's become known as the hardship fund for local government. So, that continues to support both increased expenditure because of the pandemic and loss of income because of the pandemic. That includes things like support for free school meals, homelessness support, additional school cleaning, additional enforcement, excess deaths, self-isolation payments, increasing payments for adult social care, care home testing and statutory sick pay. So, you'll see that there's a wide range of flexible things that local authorities can claim. It continues on a claims-based approach.
The system is well understood now by local authorities. We've been operating it, unfortunately, for nearly a full year. Officials are, though, discussing lessons learned and bringing together the guidance that has been developed over the past year, alongside local government. It is co-produced with local government officers, through the Welsh treasurers group and the Welsh Local Government Association, so that we can get the guidance to be fit for purpose and reflect all the things we've learnt over the most extraordinary year that's gone by. Can I just note, as I've said every time I've mentioned local government in this, my incredible pride and thanks to all of the people who've gone the extra mile, extra five miles, extra 10 miles in local government—often unsung heroes who are admin or back-office or one of those sorts of terms normally, but without whom we would simply not have been able to rise to the challenge as we have?
Thank you for that, Minister. I think, as Chair of the committee, I would like to add my voice and the committee members' voices to those thanks for local government in Wales during this pandemic. It has been a huge challenge to everybody in Wales, and all organisations in Wales, and local authorities have been at the very forefront of that. It's been so heartening to hear of the strong partnerships that have developed to get us through this crisis, and hopefully they will stand us in good stead moving forward, as well. Minister, is it possible for you at this stage to say anything about those lessons learned that you referred to? Obviously, as you say, the work is ongoing. Is it possible at this stage to give us a flavour of the headlines?
Yes, absolutely. They're all about the practical examples of how the claims process has worked, what evidence has been asked for, how that's checked by officials in my department, the speed at which we're able to process it and so on. So, it's all about streamlining both the claims process to make it as light as it's possible to be, while still, of course, protecting public finances, and to make sure that the processes, procedures and guidance on our side allow that claim to be processed as quickly as possible. Of course, during the course of the pandemic, we've had claims put in that have been refused because they haven't met the criteria. So, working with local authorities to understand what caused that, what we can do to help, and so on, has been important.
Another example is the social care sector—making sure that we work with both the private sector care home providers and local authorities themselves in understanding how those claims should work, and again making sure we've got the right balance between the light-touch approach and making sure we've got all the evidence to show that it's a good and efficient and effective use of public funding. And just to say, Chair, that, of course, we have done all of this in the public sector in Wales; no private consultants costing thousands of pounds a day have been used. Nobody's been outsourced or anything else. We've done this by knowing and trusting that our public services can step up to the plate, both because we've supported them in previous years and because we've got a good partnership with them through the partnership council, formally, and through a lot of other informal arrangements that have really have stood us in good stead as we've stepped up to the challenge of a generation, really.
Okay, Minister. I think Reg Kilpatrick wanted to come in at this stage. Reg.
Thank you, Chair. From an official level, I think that there are two key issues that the Minister touched on. One of which is to understand what the problems are that we are trying to deal with in local government, so not just taking a view that we think we know best, but actually getting out there—my team and officials—and really understanding what the issues are. That enables us to brief Ministers so much more effectively. The second is about co-producing the solutions. So, the approach that the Minister has described, about being simple and about being streamlined, we worked that up with local government so that they could understand why we were putting various things in place and we could understand their real need for simplicity and pace in getting the money out and approving the grant. So, there are some really valuable lessons for us as officials as well. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Minister, I wonder if you could tell the committee why that additional allocation for the next financial year is specifically for the first six months and what that means for local authorities?
Yes, absolutely. There are three strands to the answer to that. First of all, we wanted to give them certainty, in order to be able to continue to employ the people that they are employing, particularly in test, trace and protect, and other areas where the service has increased in order to step up to the challenge of the pandemic. So, we wanted to give them some certainty. Secondly, we wanted them to be able to set their budgets with a longer term eye, and not worry about short-term problems with the pandemic. And thirdly, of course, we have no idea how long the pandemic will still be with us. So, six months seemed like a good compromise for that. Then, obviously, the incoming Government will be able to look to see what further support is needed after the first six months.
So, it was to strike that balance between allowing the certainty to ensure that good staff didn't start to leave towards the end of the financial year because they thought that the money wouldn't be forthcoming, as against—. I mean, frankly, who knows how long we will still be in this situation or whether we face a third or fourth or fifth wave of this? So, it was just the learning, really, for what the necessary certainty was for local government to be able to plan ahead.
In terms of that forward look, Minister, is it possible to say anything very much at this stage in terms of funding for local government, hopefully, beyond the pandemic, whenever that might be? Obviously, so much resource is going in to meeting the short-term challenge from the UK Government and via the UK Government, Welsh Government, in many respects. It's going to be very difficult, isn't it, to find enough funding for everything that needs to be done as we move beyond the short-term challenges and the books have to be balanced, as it's often described. Are you working with local government in a forward look for those challenges?
Yes, absolutely. I'm sure that Reg will be able to say a little bit more about the detail of this work, but we've been working very closely with individual local authorities all of the way through the pandemic, both to understand the challenges that they face and to make sure that they are resilient in the face of those challenges. I'm very pleased to say that that has been a co-operative and co-productive working relationship. So, we don't have any local authorities that we are worried about collapsing or anything of that sort. We have been able to do that.
In this financial year, which is not the year that we are currently talking about, I'm very pleased to have been able to put enough money into the hardship fund to make sure that local authorities have had the shortfall in council tax and non-domestic rate collection made up for, and that's been distributed already. The hardship fund has, of course, been able to cover off things like loss of income from car parking and leisure trusts and all the other things that local authorities have income for. In particular, we have been able to shore up the social care sector via that route. So, it has been a big learning experience, but they have been resilient throughout.
The settlement going forward next year—the ordinary settlement, if I can call it that, as opposed to the £206.6 million that we are talking about here—is, of course, a very generous settlement. It's the most generous settlement, apart from this year, that they have had in 10 years. It has been widely welcomed by local authorities. There's quite a disparate range in terms of the settlement, but the three authorities at the lowest end are still at 2 per cent and over, which is what the planning assumption was. So, none of them should have been taken by surprise by that. That is the planning assumption that they were given in the first place.
So, we are confident that they are resilient as it is possible to be. They still face the challenges of 10 years of austerity. The folly of having described some services as 'back-office services', as we did during the Conservative austerity years, only to find that those are the very ones that we most rely on when a pandemic hits, cannot be underlined too much. We have worked regionally with the local authorities as well, to make sure that we are not all just trying to poach the same staff and moving them round and round Wales. So, we've got regional pools of, for example, environmental health officers and enforcement officers and so on, which are able to lend what's called mutual aid to authorities in their region to make sure that each authority is as resilient as possible. There has been a very large amount of mutual aid, going forward, around the whole of Wales. Authorities have co-operated well with each other, both in their regions and across Wales, in order to provide that kind of support during what have been very tricky situations in some regions, particularly with resilience for social care, for example, being a real worry over a number of months.
But, I am pleased to say that we have weathered that storm because we have been able to do it so co-productively. So, going forward, they have been able to make good plans for the future. But, of course, we have been able to put this resilience in place for them to be sure to be able to meet the pandemic response at the same time.
Okay. Did you say that Reg would come in here, Minister?
Reg, did you want to add anything to any of that?
Only two things, Minister, one of which is we work closely with you, as chair of the finance sub-group, with local authority finance colleagues and finance leaders. So, we have a constant dialogue with them about the pressures and the priorities on the normal settlement. And I think we need to begin that discussion as soon as we hit the new financial year, where we look ahead and see how we can move from where we are at the moment, which is a very, very strange and unusual financial position, back into some sort of normality, as the Minister says, during the autumn. So, we have that at a political level, which is a very powerful and useful group. We also replicate that with the Society of Welsh Treasurers and the WLGA. So, we are in constant dialogue about the pressures.
I think, as the Minister says, we have a fairly stable local government sector at the moment on the back of two good settlements. But we can't underestimate the impact of, for example, the local taxation in non-domestic rates and council tax, and how that reaches a new post-COVID equilibrium and what challenges that will bring for local authority budgets. But we will be working very closely to assess the impacts and work out how we mitigate those risks pretty much from now onwards.
Okay, thank you. Thank you, Reg. Thank you, Minister. Okay, over to Mandy Jones.
Thank you, Chair. Could the Deputy Minister expand on the use and the impact of the £5.3 million allocated in July from the Transforming Towns programme to support town centres during the pandemic?
I think the host unmuted me and I unmuted at the same time, but hopefully you can hear me now.
Thank you. Thanks, Mandy, for that question. So, the £5.3 million you referred to was actually to support COVID adaptations in our town centres, and we were able to do that by working with local authority partners to repurpose and reallocate money from existing funding streams in order to provide an urgent response to the pandemic. So, funding was allocated for a range of things, like outdoor seating, canopies, awnings, marquees, greening with planters to create barriers for social distancing, green infrastructure, in the context of enhanced public safety and people needing to social distance when they were going into the town centre.
It might be helpful if I just provide a couple of specific examples. I think that helps to—[Inaudible.]—and visualise how that has worked in practice. In Swansea in particular, we were able to support some 200 businesses—sorry, over 200 businesses applied for the grant, and I know that one particular business, I think, Nomad Bar and Kitchen—. So, it was about creating outdoor space for them to be able to continue to function in those circumstances. So, whether that was awning, outdoor seating—. Rhondda Cynon Taf provided some grants for businesses to help them with social distancing measures in town centres. Ceredigion worked with Aberystwyth and the town council and the business improvement district on, I think, the same thing, to create a kind of a cafe quarter for people to sit outside at a safe social distance.
I think one of the things that's quite important to say with this money is that it was, obviously, aimed at responding to that immediate challenge of how are we to repurpose the space in town centres and things and to deal with the challenges of COVID-19, but, also, I think, what you can see from some of those examples is they've been put in a way that perhaps offers a way you can actually use space in the future too, in a way that enhances the experience and provides more reasons to drive people into towns. We know, in the future, that needs to be a mixed offer, and it's about the experience as well as just popping to the shops and things.
I think, just on that, we know that the pandemic has accelerated those trends that were already there. So, I think that fund is just in response to that and it's on top of the additional funding from the Transforming Towns agenda, but also money that we were able to invest across Government, whether that's through active travel, which also helped with greening and safe walkways and things, or the money from the Valleys taskforce as well. So, it's actually how we bring all that together to support town centres in what we know is an incredibly challenging time.
Anybody else? Okay. I'd like to talk about the vaccine roll-out and TTP now. With the rapid roll-out of the vaccine programme and the reduction in coronavirus cases, how will the TTP service change? And what role does the Minister anticipate local authorities playing in any future continuation of the TTP service?
Thank you, Chair. I think I've been unmuted, have I? Yes. Thank you, Mandy, for that question. It's a very important question and one that we really want to get across to the public as well, which is, of course, that test, trace and protect is the front line of our national effort to detect and control the spread of the virus, and that will continue to be the case for the absolute foreseeable future—as far into the distance as we can currently look. Even with the roll-out of the vaccine programme, there's still a significant number of uncertainties around the trajectory of the pandemic, particularly with regard to the various variants that everyone will have heard about, and their increased transmission rates and so on. We hope that they're not more virulent. Fortunately, the one that's currently prevalent in Wales doesn't seem to be more virulent, but there's a constant fear that one of them will be. So, that test, trace, protect ethos is very much at the centre of the ongoing approach.
You'll know that our approach in Wales has always been to work in close partnership with health boards and local authorities to build on the expertise and knowledge that they already had in this kind of contact tracing. Environmental health officers always have done this job. If there's an outbreak of food poisoning, and so on, they were already very familiar and had the skills to do it. So, we've been really effective in doing that. All local authorities have worked with determination and commitment to build a contact tracing workforce of 2,500 people, including 2,000 contact tracers and advisors across Wales.
The majority of those are based in local authorities and they've worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. They've done really well. Our success rates are incredible—in the 99 percentile at the moment, but always above the ninetieth percentile. Even in the most trying and the most virulent of the peaks of the pandemic, we have done exceptionally well with our contact tracing. Since June, we've reached 99.6 per cent of people—that's 167,226 people. It's important to grasp the sheer scale of what we've been able to do here, and that we've done it with our public authorities. It's really quite an achievement.
So, we're going to continue the current approach and maintain the majority of the contact tracing until the end of September with the new budgetary arrangements in place. And then, of course, whoever the incoming Government is will have to reconsider that as part of their regular review of the arrangements. We've put £60 million specifically in to support contact tracing until the end of September. Almost all of that—apart from a very small amount, which stays with us—goes out to health boards and local authorities.
We've been particularly keen to hang on to the workforce and not lose their expertise elsewhere, which is why we were keen to say that we would support it past the new budget settlement. Of course, we're also having a new self-isolation support scheme administered by local authorities in conjunction with TTP. The whole point of that scheme, of course, is to make sure that people who are asked to self-isolate by TTP—. This is actually very important as the pandemic wanes, so the fewer people there are that are doing this, the more important it is for them to self-isolate. I can't emphasise that enough as a public message. So, putting the self-isolation support schemes in place to make sure that people can self-support and they're not having to choose between doing the right thing and being able to feed their family is a really important part of this. So, we're really pleased to have been able to do that as well. We've extended the eligibility in the light of learning, alongside our partners, and I'm really pleased with that as well. So, yes, absolutely, Mandy, it's been a pivotal part of our ability to fight the pandemic and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
Can I just ask a tiny supplementary on top of that, Minister? What about those people who will fall through the cracks, like people who haven't got the TTP app on their phone, older people who haven't got mobile phones and things like that? What's happening in that regard?
Actually, most people aren't contacted through the app—most people are actually contacted direct by the contact tracing team. So, what happens is that the initial case is identified, and then that person is interviewed and they get the contacts from there, and then they ring out around all the contacts. So, we do have people coming through the app, and I'm delighted that we've been able to adapt the app so that the self-isolation payment can be claimed through it, but, actually, the paper-based system—the person-on-the-phone-based system—is the one that's been most extensively used in Wales.
Thank you so much for that. Thank you.
Okay. Thanks, Mandy. Thanks, Minister. We'll move on to services now, and I think, Huw, you have some questions.
Yes. Thank you, Chair. Minister, I wonder if we could turn to the issue of local authority social services, which we know have been under considerable pressure for some time, but not least during the pandemic. If you particularly look at the increasing trend for placements of children and the increasing costs that come with that, within services for children within care as well, and within placements, what does the future outlook look like? Now, I know we're limiting how far we can look ahead at the moment, but I think the committee would be interested in your take in what it looks like generally and what it looks like beyond, if you like, 12 months ahead, with any degree of certainty.
Yes. Thank you, Huw. Obviously, the major policy driver for children's social services lies with my colleague Julie Morgan, and she's responsible for the overarching policy. In terms of that, obviously we're looking to reduce the increase in the numbers of looked-after children and to make sure that we reduce the number of children in care, the number of children placed out of county, the number of children placed out of Wales, and the number of children removed from parents with a learning disability. So, those are the planks that we've been looking at for specific reduction. Obviously, that's about putting a team around the family, making sure that everybody is able to stay with their family or in their particular placements as much as possible. But those policy initiatives are for my colleague Julie Morgan.
In terms of the support to local government in order to be able to perform that function, then I'm really pleased to say that we've been able to invest £8.5 million of COVID reserve moneys specifically for this. That includes £2.5 million—just under £2.5 million—to relieve court case backlogs and support revocations from care; £2.2 million for local authorities to develop the family group conferencing, on which a lot of this is predicated; £1 million in the COVID hardship fund for care leavers specifically; £50,000 for training for foster carers about children with complex needs, to assist them to be able to keep up the foster placements; £320,000 to launch Foster Wales; and £1.6 million to help divert cases from the child protection register. So, you'll see that we've been able to work again in co-production with local government to understand what they need, to put in place the financial support necessary for them to carry out the policy agenda that my colleague Julie Morgan is the primary lead for.
And, Minister, I think we've noticed the additional funding from a lot of different avenues that have been put within this broad area, and that's very welcome because of the increasing demands and costs that come with the provision within it. But, even if we go back to October 2009, we note that the Wales fiscal analysis, in a briefing paper, noted in that year that the spend on children and family social services had gone up from 28.7 per cent in 2009-10 to 35 per cent. Even if you take one aspect of that, like looked-after children, where we try relentlessly to safely reduce the numbers who are being put out of county, et cetera, et cetera, and reduce those costs, the overall spend seems to be growing on family and children's social services. So, I think the concern would be, even with the good work going on with different Ministers, is whether we are going to be able to sustain this investment in the long term.
Yes, and so, as Reg said, we work through all of the finance issues for local authorities across the piece, including all of the complex big services like social services and education, children's services and so on, through the finance sub-group and alongside policy colleagues from across the Government. So, a very large number of our services, I'm pleased to say, are still delivered in the public sector, through local authorities. So, I have a kind of co-ordinating role in terms of making sure that the settlement and the specific grants are fit for purpose. And we do that through the various partnership council sub-groups that we have in place, and my colleague Ministers come and talk to the partnership council on a rotational basis, and, indeed, we also virtually meet with all the council leaders very regularly, and a positive array of Ministers has appeared in front of the council leaders to discuss some of these issues, Huw. So, we try very much to do all of this in partnership with the local authorities, to understand—. In no way are we doing it to them and they're just doing what we say; we're developing all of this in partnership with them, understanding what the processes are that they have to go through in order to be able to deliver the policy agenda, and then making sure that we put the resources in place to be able to do that.
But there's absolutely no doubt that this is an enormously challenging agenda. You're absolutely right that the number of children in the system has been growing, and there's an increasing number of children with complex needs that require additional support. So, this is very much an ongoing piece of work with local authorities and with Julie Morgan and her department to make sure that we optimise it, really. I'm pleased to say that this work has continued to go on through the pandemic, by the way, and we've developed these other ways of working and contacting people.
One of the things I'd also like to say is that through the free school meals into the holidays and the voucher schemes and the food box schemes that we ran at first, we were, of course, able to keep in touch with families who have otherwise fallen out of touch with social services through a lack of daily contact with education, for example. So, a lot of effort was put in by local authorities to make sure that other services that were reaching out into the community were also picking up those kinds of issues.
Thanks, Minister. I've one other question on a different topic. We're very aware of the work that environmental health and shared regulatory services have been doing during the course of this pandemic, but my observation locally, as a Member for Bridgend and the Rhondda Cynon Taf area, is that that has actually come after years of real pressures on environmental health and regulatory services. So, how they've done it, I really do not know, but they've done it. But I just wonder, are you going to be looking back at this? Are you considering any sort of review of how environmental health and regulatory services work, or even a wholesale review of not just how it's done, but what it looks like going forward?
You're absolutely right, Huw; it's been amazing what we've been able to do. As I say, these were services that were regarded as somehow not quite so front line or back office or admin or whatever you want to call it. As I said in an earlier answer, the folly of thinking of any service in that way is just laid bare, isn't it, by the pandemic. So, yes, absolutely. We've increased core and hypothecated funding in support of local authorities. It's an increase of 3.8 per cent on average, and that's to help them put back some of these functions that have been particularly in the front line of cuts through the austerity years. We've confirmed the continuation of the hardship funding for the meantime so we can keep the services in place. But I've actually also been talking to local authorities for quite some time now about ramping up the local authority apprenticeship schemes.
I'm old enough to remember when almost all of these professionals were trained by local authorities. They'd overtrain them and release them into the private sector in order to get the quality up; I'd like to see a return to that. So, I've been discussing with council leaders for some time about making sure that the recruits that we've taken on are not just minimum wage cannon fodder, but are actually properly paid local authority officers who are on training programmes in order to enable them to progress to being fully qualified environmental health officers, trading standards officers—actually a range of other professionals that the authorities have been forced to lose over time. We're very hopeful that many of the local authorities will take that route and will start up their apprenticeship schemes or increase their apprenticeship schemes where they still exist; many authorities have lost them altogether. In that way, we will be able to start to replace the expertise that's been lost through the 10 years of austerity.
That is really encouraging to hear. Thank you, Minister. Chair, back to you.
Okay. Thank you very much, Huw. Turning to fire and rescue services, Minister, I wonder if you could update the committee on any resource implications as you see them for fire services in terms of their role in responding to the pandemic, and also supporting partner bodies.
I'll pick that one up, if I may, Chair. I'm grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of our fire and rescue services right across Wales during the pandemic. They've stood ready to assist the NHS and other partners throughout the pandemic and actually—. Sorry, I thought I'd frozen for a second there. I was getting that bad message.
That's fine, Minister. Carry on.
At the start of the first wave of the pandemic, I think around 450 firefighters volunteered to drive ambulances, and more recently others came forward to assist with the vaccination programme. I think Members will also be aware that we redeployed some fire and rescue service mass decontamination units to NHS hospitals across Wales, and they served as temporary triage facilities for COVID patients. That said, we actually found, in the end, that there was very little need for the NHS or others to call for assistance from front-line firefighters, so only a small number have been involved, on a local and quite sporadic basis. When you've taken that into consideration, there's been no disruption at all to the service's core work, or any other resource implications from that perspective.
In terms of COVID-related absence within the service, we've had ongoing contact at an official level and a ministerial level with the chairs and the chief officers of each fire and rescue service. Although, obviously, there have been challenges, it's been manageable throughout the pandemic, and they've managed to maintain operational capability. The only thing, perhaps, I might flag is that, obviously, I think Members will know that fire and rescue services also carry out a number of fire safety and prevention roles and projects across Wales. So, obviously, the face-to-face aspect of that has been either restricted or suspended because of the current circumstances. We've been working very closely with them to see how they can deliver them in a different way, and many of them have been looking, actually, at how they can do some fire safety prevention online or on the phone, or if some of their projects can be delivered online with young people and schoolchildren as and when is appropriate.
Okay. Thank you very much for that, Minister. Moving on, then, we touched on transformational change earlier, I think, Minister, didn't we, in talking about a future look. There was work under way before the pandemic, then there's been the experience during the pandemic in terms of the change that's produced and the lessons to be drawn. So, how will the transformative agenda move forward, Minister, in terms of the lessons learned, experience beforehand and work that was under way, but also in terms of necessary investment to allow it to be as strong as we would like?
Absolutely, Chair. The committee will remember that, at Stage 3 of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, we transported the COVID regulations on remote working for local authorities into that Act, in order to enshrine them permanently. That was done in partnership with local authorities, who very much like the new way of working. They were able to transform to that remote way of working very quickly. I have to say I've had cause to reflect over the last year how very lucky we are that the pandemic happened now and not five years ago, when things would have been very different in terms of being able to do that. But, anyway, they were able to do that, and I'm very pleased about that. They are themselves very keen to build in the improvements that have been made. They've got much more used to it, as well, so I'm very pleased that they've embraced that.
They also started looking at long-term recovery quite some time ago. Through the partnership council for Wales meetings, we've had a number of meetings highlighting potential investment to help rebuild communities and places. My colleague Hannah Blythyn has had a lot of conversations about the Transforming Towns agenda, for example, in that forum. We've talked about increasing local job and apprenticeship opportunities, utilising more businesses in the procurement supply chain in order to make the economy locally more resilient. Authorities are really keen to embrace some of those things. We've added £25 million to the hardship fund to support digital transformation of services and the way they undertake day-to-day business, and also another £25 million to support councils with planned savings that they were planning to make but weren't possible due to the pandemic. Those savings are not necessarily cuts in services; they're more efficient ways of working, including IT investment and so on. So, we've been able to help them there.
We've also managed to recruit a local government digital officer, Sam Hall, who I'm very pleased is now in post and is able to work with them to make sure that good practice spreads across Wales. There have been a number of really exciting projects in various local authorities around that, which, in ordinary times, I'd be inviting the committee to come and have a look at, because they're very impressive. I'm sure a virtual meeting the other side of the election would very much be beneficial to the committee, because some of them have been absolutely excellent.
One of them is, for example, the JIGSO3 project, I think it's called, in Torfaen, which is exploring options to expand digital ways for customers to pay for council services, and also exploring the need for digital skills, knowledge and equipment to address digital exclusion as a result of that move. What they're doing is trying to work with their population to understand what the barriers to accessing digital services would be, at the same time as making those digital services come alive so that they can keep pace with their own population—so, a very good one. There are a number of other examples that are really interesting to look at. One that I had the privilege to open is in the Vale of Glamorgan, with a data centre that's been distributed to people's houses, rather than being an in-situ centre that we would have been more familiar with before the pandemic. So, this is a customer service centre, but this time you're just talking to somebody who is in their front room, and you have no idea where they are. It's been really successful there, so I was pleased to open that for them.
And then the Bill itself, of course—and the committee will be very familiar with the Bill—introduces the new regime, the peer-review regime. The whole purpose of that new peer-review regime—and you'll know that the regulations went through the Senedd only yesterday—is to put arrangements in place that allow councils that have got really excellent innovation in place and transformation in service delivery to share that across the piece and to expect the other councils to review their own practice in the light of that. That was the whole purpose of that new regime. So, I'm delighted that the committee helped us get that through the whole system in time for the end of this Senedd term. I know that local government are very appreciative of that as well.
Okay, Minister. Thank you very much. I'm sure our successor committee may want to take up some of the offers of visits, albeit on a virtual basis. Thanks for that. Over to Huw Irranca-Davies again. Huw.
Thank you, Chair. Minister, you'll know that a real focus of this committee for a long time, long before I came onto it, but under the chairmanship of John, has been a real focus on homelessness and on people who are rough-sleeping, and it continues to be, even as we go through to the final parts of this Senedd—and Welsh Government as well has been focused on it. What is your current take on the situation on rough-sleeping in Wales? How is the situation now, compared to, for example, what it was at the start of the pandemic, and do you still have concerns?
Yes, absolutely. I keep saying we've done an incredible thing here in Wales with what we've managed to do for homelessness, but we haven't solved homelessness. Those two things are very different. There's an awful long way to go before we've eradicated or solved homelessness, but we've made several leaps in the right direction, and it's important not to go backwards from there.
We've got around 1,000 individuals a month presenting as homeless across council services in Wales. We've managed to house over 7,000 people. It's an extraordinary number—over 7,000 people, over the course of the pandemic. There's absolutely no doubt that, without that intervention, a number of those—not all of them, but a number of those—would be sleeping rough or be in very precarious sofa surfing, sleeping in their car-type arrangements. So, we absolutely have exposed the true extent of homelessness in this. We always knew that the spot counts weren't picking up women and other people who tend not to sleep at night, and so on, but I think everyone's been surprised by the real extent of it.
Now, we've got absolutely clear guidance going out to local authorities. We've stopped the rationing system that we used to have. They've been told by me repeatedly, 'You deal with the person in front of you, and we'll sort the plumbing out.' A person presenting at a homelessness service needs to have their needs met and sorted. That has not been easy at all. The staff operating those services are to be highly commended for the work that they've done. We have had some people return to the streets—people with very complex needs or who will need many, many, many, many years of working with services in order to overcome some of the issues that they face. But we have got outreach workers to every single one of those. We think we know where every single one of them is, and the numbers are tiny compared to what they used to be.
I know that Swansea, my own constituency, is one of the places that homeless people tend to go, as cities are draws for that, and Swansea has eight people at the moment that they know to be sleeping rough. Normally, by this time of the year, it's about 60. So, it's a huge reduction. But one person on the streets is too many, isn't it, so we've got a lot of work to do to make sure that we can make sure that the wraparound services in particular—it's not just the housing, but the mental health support, the substance abuse support, the relationship breakdown support, all of those things—are in place, and that we don't have LGBTQ+ youngsters leaving home because of relationship breakdown, and so on. It's a great step forward to have put the curriculum in place, with the relationships education on it. The idea is to make sure that people's relationships don't break down in the first place and so they're not sliding into homelessness, but, where those relationships do break down, that we have a sufficient supply of housing necessary to pick those people up, alongside the services they need. So, we've been ramping up the supply side, of course; you'll have heard me talking endlessly—and the Chair's about to tell me to shut up, I'm sure, at any moment—but I can talk for an hour and a half on how great our new modern methods of construction production of housing has been, and you can see from the figures—the ramp-up of councils building houses and the registered social landlords stepping up—how fast we can go when the old restraints on the housing revenue account and so on are removed.
So, I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to step to this challenge. We've worked hard with the industry to understand what the capacity issues are, and I think that we've made a giant leap forward in being able to genuinely think that we could eradicate homelessness over the next five to 10 years, certainly.
You've covered a lot of ground there, Minister, and thank you for that, because this is not one magic bullet answer—never has been—it's enduring, and also quite complex. But could I just ask you, before I go on, to drill down on a couple of details on temporary accommodation and long-term accommodation—? That was quite impressive, what you said there about Swansea, where, typically, at this time of the year there could be 60 people who are sleeping rough on the streets and now it's down to perhaps a tenth of that, but, more significantly, that every individual is known to the services. Now, would that picture be the same across other parts of Wales?
Yes. So, we try very hard with our outreach teams to make sure that we are aware of each individual, and that that individual has been contacted by the truly fantastic outreach workers, I have to say, and they work very hard to establish a relationship with that person. It's no surprise to the committee, I know, because you've been working on it for a long time, that people sleeping rough are often hostile to any kind of authority, difficult to contact, difficult to make relationships with, so the outreach workers, they just make your heart sing when you speak to them about the efforts that they make to contact people, to understand their problems, to try and address them, to try and get the services to them—some tales of people who haven't been in touch with their family for 20 years who are talked into making contact again; some really heartwarming things—but people with severe mental health issues and substance-abuse issues that will take many, many months of intensive work to make sure that the services are there and fit for purpose. And of course, the pandemic has not been great for that, because those people need face-to-face services; they do not need virtual stuff and so on. So, the outreach workers are just heroes in the system, really. And so we've been able to do that, and then, what they're able to do is of course try to get the right accommodation for that person to enable them to sustain.
But there's a huge problem with the temporary accommodation— I'm not going to try and hide that from the committee on any way; it's obvious. We were able to do this because we were able to take advantage of empty hotels and bed-and-breakfast and student accommodation, and now, as that comes back online, then we will have a problem; there's absolutely no doubt about it. So, Emma and her team are making heroic efforts alongside local authority partners across Wales to talk hoteliers into staying with us, to try and persuade them that this is a good set of people to have in their hotel and it's better to be full all the time than it is to take the risk of the tourist market and so on, and we've been able to help individual local authorities bring empty properties back into use or repurpose or buy outright hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation and so on. But there's no doubt that it's a problem and I will honestly share with the committee my real worry that, once the eviction ban is removed, and we don't know yet when that will be—. A written statement—I don't know if the committee's seen it—has gone out saying we're definitely extending it till the end of March. We're currently in the next review, which looks to see whether we extend it past March. I think Delyth asked me that yesterday in oral questions, so we're in that process at the moment. But, at some point, it will end, and then we have a large number of people with huge amounts of arrears. We're going to have to think very innovatively in order to stop a tsunami of people arriving at homeless services with no place to go.
So, again, we have to ramp the supply up, we have to ramp the wraparound services up, we have to work with our private sector landlords to make sure that we have the proper support for people who are in rent arrears and so on. And we will have to think very creatively indeed to make sure that we don't have a massive spike going forward as the economy goes back to normal. So, Emma's team are to be commended for the efforts they're making alongside local authority partners to work in this space, but I make no pretence that this is an easy fix, because it isn't.
Okay, well, that's very honest, and, in being honest, very helpful, because it means this committee or its successor will need to come back and look at this and see in which ways it can help pinpoint the ways going forward to help you and your officials deal with this. But I could see, as you were being honest on that, Emma was at times smiling, at times grimacing, because of the challenge ahead there—not grimacing, that was unfair, Emma, but certainly sympathetic facial movements there.
Can I just turn to one other aspect, away from the temporary accommodation and to the phase 2 homelessness plans? Can you give us an update on how that is going with the phase 2, and how local authorities are getting on with that, being supported by Welsh Government into that suitable, long-term accommodation?
Yes. So, it's going really well, but, again, quite a challenge. So, from a standing start, we had £40 million of capital spending, so you just flood the market with it if you're not careful. So, it's been carefully calibrated. Again, the officials are to be highly commended for what they've been able to do. All our approved schemes are now in progress. We've got 62 more that are currently progressing through. They'll deliver around 500 units of accommodation. We've got £36 million allocated out so far of the £40 million for those. The majority of those are completing now, this year. There's a great one in Bridgend that's been four months start to finish, which I think you're aware of, Huw, which is a great example of what can be done in this sector.
This is a move to a rapid rehousing approach, so we've got an absolutely transformational shift to happen in the whole system, which has been a rationing system up until now. So, there's a massive cultural shift in it, and of course we've just got to get our housing supply up. The stock numbers have got to increase and they've got to build the right kinds of houses. So, we're working with our local authorities to say, 'Look, you've got to do your local housing assessment properly. You've got to understand what the need in your area is, and not build three-bedroomed houses.' That's not what most people want—they want much bigger houses than that, if they live in multigenerational families in the city centres, or much smaller houses than that if they're single people who are experiencing homelessness. So, getting the right house to be built for the right community is a massive part of this piece. So, local authorities—we've been working really hard with them to put those plans in place and to make sure they're building the right accommodation for people coming out of the phase 2 support. So, we're going to be putting in place a new housing support national advisory board—the first meeting is on 25 March—which will have a key role in helping maintain the momentum and taking forward the housing action group recommendations for us, because these things go hand in hand, don't they? We've got to turn the tap off of people arriving at homelessness services, and we've got to make sure that we're not in a rationing situation for social housing or other kinds of community housing going forward.
I'm really optimistic about where we've got to. We've shown that we can do this if we invest in it. The system has turned itself around in a way that I think we would have taken a couple of years to persuade people that this was even possible, and they've just done it because of the pandemic. So, what we've got to do now is grasp that and make sure that we go forward. So, you'll have heard me saying, 'No going back. We are not going to fall back from the giant leap forward', but, of course, this is, as you say, no silver bullet. This is no easy road ahead. But we've made the first of the big strides we need to make, and I'm sure we can keep the momentum up.
Brilliant. Thank you, Minister.
Okay. Thank you, Huw. Thank you, Minister. Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Minister, can I ask what consideration you'll be giving to the responses to the statutory guidance on the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 specifically on expanding the reference to the due-regard element to a right to housing? The reason I'm asking is that, as I understand it, in its current form, it doesn't have all the detail that would be needed by the people who'll be enacting the legislation.
So, we're working hard—. All the guidance is co-produced—so, we co-produce it with the sector and with the local authority officials and ourselves, and the WLGA and a number of other people. So, it's an iterative process, Delyth, and so of course we look back at the submissions; we want it to work for people.
The issue with the adequate right to housing is a simple one, isn't it? I absolutely would love to say to you that any Government in Wales could put a statutory right to adequate housing onto the statute book—of course—but that's the easy bit, isn't it? The hard bit is actually making sure that we have the housing to make sure that people can indeed have an adequate right to housing. There's an ongoing debate, which I'm very aware of and very much part of, about how do you do that, what's the right way round for that to happen. So, my view—and you can see it reflected in the guidance—is that what we do is we put it in the guidance first, we get the supply sorted out, we get the system running towards it, and then we slowly put it, we enshrine it, in legislation as we go along, so that eventually we have a right that each individual can use to say, 'I have a right to adequate housing—where is my adequate housing?' But, if we did that right now, we know that we wouldn't be able to do it. So, you've got to set it up so that the system can be calibrated to get there; so, that's the conversation we're in. And it's an ongoing conversation with different viewpoints and different staging posts along its way, but I think we're all going in the same direction. And the big trick, of course, is to build that housing—build the housing in the right places for the right people at the right time so that it is adequate, and you'll know—and I know you share my commitment—that this has got to be low-carbon renewable housing built with Welsh supply chains, generating the thousands of jobs that it will generate. So, we can do it—and the retrofit is part of this, of course, as well, and making sure that all those houses in the private rented sector are also adequate housing. This isn't just about new build; it's about making sure that existing stock is also adequate.
So, I'm very happy to look at the guidance; it's an iterative process, as I say, so we're in the process of doing that right now, but the big issue then is to make sure that the partner councils and partner RSLs that are very much part of this piece then, of course, exercise their financial muscle to get the housing out there and on the ground.
Thank you for that, Minister. The other questions I've got, they're less about the housing stock and more about the experiences of tenants. It draws on a lot of what's already been raised. Firstly, could you talk us through—I know that we're short on time, but briefly—the support that has been made available for tenants affected by the pandemic? Do you think that it has been enough, particularly in the private rented sector? And could you tell us how much that support, including tenancy saver loans, has been accessed, please?
Yes, sure. So, we've got an early alert scheme for rent arrears and other household debt in the private rented sector being delivered by Citizens Advice. The scheme is designed to get in early. So, at the first sign of tenants who can't cope, who are struggling to pay their rent, it provides access to advice and support needed to sort out their financial commitments and make sure that they stay in their accommodation and they're able to manage. We've got a dedicated freephone private rented sector debt helpline, which tenants can use to proactively contact confidential advice on how to do that. So, we're very keen to push that, because we want people to come as soon as they've got a problem, and not wait until it's getting into the unmanageable part. So far, the scheme has been contacted by 270 people, and they've had 731 separate issues. That's up to the end of January, from 1 September. So, it's getting out there, but anything you can do to help publicise that is good for us.
In terms of the tenancy saver loans, we have got people applying for that—not as many as I would like, so we're currently doing a deep dive into why that is and what we can do about it and how we can make sure that the people who are eligible for it get out there. We're also doing a piece of work with the credit unions who deliver it for us to make sure that they're not being excessively risk averse in putting the loans out there and so on. So, that's an ongoing piece of work.
We're also doing a little piece of work with registered social landlords and council housing providers—that's 11 of the councils, as you know—to make sure that women coming out of refuges are not denied social housing because they have rent arrears, because that's a feature of women fleeing domestic violence. They also, as you know, flee with no money, and perhaps with debts and so on. So, that letter has either gone out yesterday or is on its way out to local authorities, asking them to be sure that they haven't got policies that adversely affect the ability of a refuge to place a woman in permanent housing.
So, we have a number of schemes going on. Sorry, this is going to stray into the political—it's not the Government at the moment—I think parties need to be looking in their manifestos at issues around what can be done when the tenants have gone over a year's rent arrears. We know that people in minimum wage jobs, or lower than that, even, will never be able to pay back more than a year's rent arrears; you're locking somebody into poverty for the rest of their lives. So, incoming Governments will have to look at ways of mitigating that. I'm sure those ways can be found—I have a number of ideas myself—but we will need to work together to make sure that we don't have a tsunami of homelessness off the back of people with those kinds of rent arrears. And so, I think there are some innovative things that can be done, but those are things that are for manifesto commitments, I fear, as we're—. What are we now? Fifteen days from the end of the Senedd term.
Yes, it's a bit close, isn't it? Thank you for that, Minister, and I also thank you for what you said about support for refuges. I saw that Emma was nodding her head about that letter having been sent out.
Finally from me, Minister, just a couple of questions on evictions. I know we talked about it yesterday and you've referred to that, but it would be remiss of me not to raise it, perhaps. Could you tell us whether evictions will be recommencing after the end of this month? When does the Welsh Government propose that notice periods will return to normal?
It's really difficult to answer that question. We've today confirmed that they are staying to the end of March, because actually we have to review them every three weeks, so we've put a written statement out today saying that they're definitely staying until the end of March. And then, in this next period, we are actively now reviewing whether they need to stay past the end of March. I will say to you, though, that one of the criteria I use is that if we were to allow evictions to take place, where would people who were evicted go? Currently, you're not allowed to bubble with another household other than in circumstances where whatever, so you can't even go and stay with your friend. So, it seems to me that whilst that pertains as the lockdown situation, it would be ill-advised to allow evictions to take place. But those are the kinds of criteria we're looking at. We have come to no conclusion yet, and that will be a matter for the next review period. I do appreciate though that people need more notice than one week to be able to do it, so we will say that as soon as we're able to make sure that we've gone through all of the review processes that we need to go through.
Okay, thank you. I welcome that, Minister. The final question from me: what do you think the impact would be on homelessness and advice services if there were a surge in evictions when they do resume, and what do you think can be done to try to avoid that happening?
I've outlined already a number of things that we are trying to look at to do that, including working with private sector landlords to make sure that we understand what their issues are and whether we can assist them directly as well as the tenant and so on. We've also ramped up some of the advice services, and basically we're working really hard with the NRLA and various other people to understand what the extent of the problem might be, and to try and ramp the services up to meet it. But I cannot pretend that I'm not worried about it; I absolutely am and I know that the officials are as well.
Thank you for everything you're doing with that. Diolch.
Okay. Thank you, Delyth. Thank you, Minister. Dawn Bowden.
Thanks, John. Minister, I just wanted to ask you about benefits support, or it might be the Deputy Minister, actually, on this one. The Welsh Government has provided some £800,000 for a programme of income maximisation initiatives. For what specific initiatives is this money being used, and how many people do you estimate have benefited from it so far?
Okay. That bit's me, actually.
Oh right, okay.
This is split between myself and Hannah; it depends what you're asking. The income maximisation programme is a programme that makes sure that all people who are entitled to benefits access them. So, we have been working with a range of advice agencies, with social services, with team around the family, and various other people, across the Welsh Government and local government, to make sure that everyone who is working with a family that might be entitled to benefits is enabled to signpost them to the right services. In particular, we've been—. I'll just be really quick saying it. I've got loads to say about this, I could tell you it for an hour, and I can see John glaring at me, so I'll just tell you that we're working very hard to make sure that local authorities ensure that somebody who is already on one of the benefits is passported to the other ones. So, if you're on free school meals, you're automatically getting council tax reduction scheme entitlement, you're asked if you need pension credits, you're asked if you need uniform—you know, those sorts of things. It's all about trying to streamline the process, and once you've proved eligibility for one, then you get passported across onto the other, and we know that there are large amounts of benefits not being claimed in Wales, so the whole point is to try and generate knowledge for people to claim the right benefits.
Is there any particular reason why the benefit take-up campaign is only running until 25 March? Is this to do with dissolution, or is this—? I mean, Government just continues, doesn't it? You have to. So, I was just wondering if there was a particular reason for 25 March.
No, it's just the financial year, Dawn. I absolutely think we will continue it afterwards. I mean, whoever the incoming Government is will have the same problem, so it's just the financial year.
Yes. Okay. No, that's fine. Thank you. Thanks, Chair.
Okay. Just on that, Minister, in terms of the benefit take-up campaign then, how long will it run; is there a set period that you've identified? And how will you evaluate the success of the campaign?
It's just running for a month, 1 March to 21 March. We've invested £75,000 in the advertising campaigns and the engagement campaigns. In the first eight days of the campaign, 12,677 people have clicked through to it already. So, that's where we were trying to go with it. It is literally just trying to say to people, 'You may have money that's waiting for you, please click through.' It's a huge range of benefits, John, including, do you remember the old child trust funds? We know that there are hundreds of families in Wales with 18-year-olds who've arrived at their majority and only a few hundred of them have claimed it. So, it's just signposting every single thing that we know is out there that would maximise the families' income, given what they've faced in the pandemic.
Yes. I appreciate, obviously, you can't bind a successor Government, but it's purely the time left to this Government that's resulted in that restricted time frame, really.
Well, it's also the financial year. So, we're trying to get people aware to claim for the next financial year, but then obviously the incoming Government can ramp that up as well.
Yes, okay. The discretionary assistance fund, is that—
That's the Deputy Minister now.
That's the Deputy Minister, okay. Deputy Minister, has the Welsh Government reviewed the effectiveness of that fund and the communication campaigns involved?
Thank you, Chair. We continue to target groups and review the discretionary assistance fund communications, whether that's through regular social media activity or there are weekly meetings that are held with our delivery partner and the partnership management meets with communications too, so it's regularly reviewed and looked at to see how things are working and if there are things that we've missed or if there are things that we need to improve on with the communications further.
I think it would be interesting to know that—. I'm informed that, apparently, the DAF web pages are often ranked within the top two of the highest visited pages on the Welsh Government sites, and sadly, that increased probably—. You know, that reflects the increasing claims and people needing to claim. And I think that that obviously reflects the increasing need, but also I think, anecdotally, it reflects the increasing awareness of that fund being available as a fund of last resort, particularly in the current circumstances. So, just to illuminate, over 34,000 applications were received in January 2021, compared with 20,000 in January 2020. And I think the same, I think 14,000 in January 2019 and just over 7,600 in January 2018. So, you can see how it's increased and I think that's based both on demand, but also more people being aware of the fund being there and available to support people when they need it.
I wonder, you know, we've heard evidence from organisations such as Oxfam Cymru, Minister, in terms of lack of awareness of the fund and it's good to hear that there is progress. Would you have had any contact with those organisations in terms of their concerns and how they might be addressed?
Yes, absolutely. Welsh Government officials who work around the poverty agenda met with Oxfam Cymru initially in March last year—which was the beginning, obviously, of the first lockdown phase of the pandemic—to hear what those concerns are and to see what we could do to respond to them. So, actually, that meeting has not only initiated regular contact with the anti-poverty coalition, which Oxfam chairs, but also, actually, throughout that, we've taken on board these concerns but also worked with other partners, other social partners, such as the Wales TUC, and listened to things that they have to say from their experiences on the ground too and that's always fed into the work that we're doing with the ongoing review of the fund. And that intelligence has enabled us to extend the fund in terms of flexibility and the amount of times that people can claim within any set period as well. So, we recognise the importance of having that regular, ongoing dialogue with Oxfam Cymru and a range of partners to make sure that we can always review and reflect on the fund and see what we need to do to support people.
Finally on this then, Minister, obviously, as you mentioned, the pandemic is a major factor in terms of demands on the fund, are you currently confident that there's enough resource to meet demand, given the ongoing alert level 4 restrictions?
I think that the first thing is that I'm pleased that we've done more to not only maintain the extension and the flexibilities of the fund, but also, in the budget, to invest to provide further funding for the discretionary assistance fund of £10.5 million, which enables us to continue to provide that support for the coming months, as we're still in the midst of the pandemic. Like I said, I think that the challenge is that it is a demand-responsive fund, but we are constantly reviewing it, both in terms of within ourselves within Welsh Government, but within that dialogue that we have with partners, in terms of those networks and avenues of communications that are available to get feedback.
Also, it's linking in with the work that Julie touched on previously, in terms of actually how we can work around income maximisation too. So, how we can perhaps support people who are coming to the fund regularly to see if there are other things that they actually are eligible for, which they don't realise that they are entitled to. So, working with the people who are picking up the calls to make sure that people have access to the best and appropriate fund and support that they are eligible for.
Okay. Thank you for that, Minister. That brings us to the end of our questions, but I can see from a communication from one of our clerks that I missed a raised hand from Emma earlier, which I apologise for. Emma, I don't know if that was in the section on homelessness or not, or whether or not it has been dealt with anyway, but if you did want to add anything, please do.
I think that it was the ICF, wasn't it, Emma?
I think that it was on the temporary accommodation issue, and around phase 2, and just to add to the Minister's comments around quality. I think that one of the things that has been really impressive about the phase 2 developments and investment has been that, yes, we have gone from, as the Minister said, a blank page to spending the best part of £40 million in 10 months, but, importantly, we've done it to a very, very high standard. These are not accommodations that are poor quality. They have very high standards. They are dignified homes for people, not short-term temporary measures that don't provide people with the dignity and the security that they need in order to be able to address the other issues in their lives and rebuild their lives. So, I think that that was all that I wanted to add.
Well, thank you very much—
In which case, John, can I add something as well? I neglected to say in answer to Huw, when we were talking about children, that of course we've got the integrated care fund. I mentioned the worries about children placed out of county and out of Wales, and so on. The whole purpose of the integrated care fund is to allow health board regions and local authorities and so on to come together to build the necessary provision in order to prevent those placements, which are both expensive but, much more importantly, are destructive of people's lives and family contacts. So, I should have added that in. Apologies.
Thank you very much. Okay. Well, thank you very much, Ministers and officials, for your evidence to committee today on these vital ongoing matters. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Thank you very much for coming to committee today. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, John. Can I just say that it has been a pleasure to work with your committee? I'm particularly grateful for all the work that you did on all the Bills that I inflicted upon you. So, I'm really, really grateful for your help and support and forbearance during all of that—particularly, John, to you for having pioneered for us the virtual committee Stage 2 arrangements that have stood us in good stead. So, diolch yn fawr. Thank you very much indeed for that.
Thank you very much, Minister. I must say that it did cause our clerks to have some sleepless moments, I think. But, there we have it: it was all overcome in terms of the challenges.
Well, I'm grateful to the clerks as well, who were very helpful in facilitating all of that. So, diolch.
Thank you very much. Okay. Well, the committee will take a short break until 2.30 p.m.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 14:14 a 14:31.
The meeting adjourned between 14:14 and 14:31.
Okay. Welcome back, everyone, to item 3 on our agenda today: the committee's inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters within the committee's remit. I'm very pleased to welcome Jane Hutt MS, Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, together with the Deputy Minister's official, Alyson Francis, who is deputy director of the communities division with the Welsh Government. So, welcome to you both. Minister, shall I go straight to questions, if that's okay?
Thank you very much. I'll begin with equality impact assessments. I think we know, with these assessments, Minister, that, very often, the concern that organisations interested in equality in Wales have is whether or not they actually have an impact in terms of policy and practice on the ground. So, since September 2020, Welsh Government has published these equality impact assessments quite regularly alongside the new measures to deal with the pandemic. So, I think what we'd be interested in hearing is how the analysis contained in those equality impact assessments of these new measures has influenced the content of the measures, and what, if any, targeted mitigation measures have been put in place in response.
Well, thank you very much, Chair. Obviously equality impact assessments, as you can imagine, are the first things that I look for when Cabinet papers are coming forth in terms of all new coronavirus measures, because obviously these would have an impact in terms of the measures, restrictions, and what that means in terms of equality impacts for people with protected characteristics, but also socioeconomic impacts as well. So, actually, if you look at some of the examples that have emerged as a result of that, you can see some examples in the alert levels document that we published just to show the public what an equality impact assessment could mean. So, I'll give you an example: perhaps particularly, we have very, very strongly, and, as all Ministers have said, prioritised children getting back to school, because we've seen the adverse impact in terms of equalities on children and young people, and making sure we've got headroom for them to go back to school.
But childcare's been important. You'll remember a year ago, with the lockdown, we actually did provide free childcare for key workers, but in the discussions and decisions, for example, from December, from that 20 December lockdown, we decided to keep childcare open. And that was a decision, you will recall, and I think we had questions about that, in terms of keeping childcare open—crucially important for working parents particularly, but also the childcare sector itself was able to keep going, and I think Members would recognise the importance of childcare. So, we made that decision very much on an equality impact assessment.
We have had a very strong Faith Communities Forum influence on what we've done in terms of decisions about restrictions and responding to them. If you recall, there was a very great deal of concern when, back in the firebreak, we actually closed places of worship, and there was actually a challenge from some churches, and that was happening not just in Wales, of course. But, actually, we've had a very strong, over the past year, task and finish group drawn from different faiths on the Faith Communities Forum who have such an influence on the decisions that we take and have looked at this very carefully in terms of their equality impacts as well as ours, and so they've remained open. We gave them the responsibility in terms of strict mitigations about how they operate.
I think non-essential retail's been a big issue, hasn't it, in terms of access, particularly for families, and perhaps again a socioeconomic issue. So, we highlight click and collect being allowed for non-essential retail. And I think this has been also very important for people to access perhaps items like phones or computers, who could be left really isolated without them.
So, we've also had, just quickly, other examples of where we've considered children to be able to be exempt from the bubbling numbers, in terms of household mixing, which has always been a big issue with guidance, but also, I think, looking at things like, 'Should playgrounds remain open?' They've remained open in the most recent lockdown, because they're so important for children and young people. So, they've always had an impact on decision making, as they should.
Yes. Could I ask you as well, Minister: in terms of where short-term mitigation measures aren't enough to deal with these adverse impacts, how will the Welsh Government's longer term reconstruction and recovery work address those issues?
Of course, the equality impact assessments are very ongoing. We're always reviewing them. Part of that review—it's not just looking at data—is actually the evidence we get back. So, you know I chair and meet regularly with the Wales Race Forum, the Disability Equality Forum, the refugee coalition and the Faith Communities Forum. They have also given us very clear evidence that feeds into equality impact assessments about the impact of short-term mitigation measures, what could be beneficial, particularly, for example, for disabled people. Do you remember early on that we allowed disabled people to drive, if they could, to access a place for exercise? But this is direct evidence coming from some of the groups that we meet.
So, when we've looked at the recovery, and you know that report, 'COVID-19 Reconstruction: Challenges and Priorities', for building back fairer, equality and human rights were right at the heart of that for all communities. So, that's the lens you have to look through. And we don't know what the future is going to be in terms of the recovery, but a future administration will be continuing to gain that evidence and guidance from those with lived experience of coronavirus and COVID-19—not just the pandemic, but also the restrictions. And I think also, alongside this, we haven't stopped doing all our work on how we can advance equality and human rights, and the research that's been undertaken, as you know, by Swansea and Bangor universities, looking at how we can embed that into policy, but learning from the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19. And, of course, that's very much reflected in our race equality action plan, which is soon to be out for consultation.
Okay. Before we move on, Minister, is there anything you would add in terms of lessons learnt—anything that would illustrate what Welsh Government learnt during the first wave of COVID-19, in terms of these adverse impacts, and then responded and adapted accordingly during the second wave and the alert level 4 lockdown?
Well, I think I've perhaps given some examples already of how we've perhaps tried to mitigate impacts, learning the lessons from all the evidence that we've taken. For example, we undertook that report on the socioeconomic impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic people. So, coming out of that, the stronger issues about housing, as well as issues for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities about access to learning. And, actually, I would say that access to food and support in the community, a great deal has been learnt from not just the first wave but also the first lockdown. So, that has had a bearing on how we've responded in this second lockdown since Christmas, and I've given you some examples.
So, there are examples where, for example, in the Christmas lockdown, if you recall, we said that a single-adult household should also be able to join with another household because we saw evidence, from older people, of isolation. I suppose combating loneliness and isolation has been something that's really come through as a result of lockdown, and then that's led to, of course, all of the focus on mental health and well-being coming through. But it's been critically important that we've looked at this from not just a lived experience but also data in terms of impact on people's lives and communities. And feedback from the third sector as well, because the third sector—the voluntary sector—were very engaged in supporting people and feeding back to us how we could alleviate.
So, I also remember that we looked at difficult things like how could groups come together, back together, in terms of meeting in community centres. They haven't been able to do that in this lockdown, but at each stage, we've made decisions, even through our alert levels, to enable people to meet. Isolation has been a key factor, actually, for everyone with any protected characteristic. And, if you're on a low income as well, you obviously need to be able to ensure that you can have support. I've just had a meeting with Citizens Advice Cymru on how important the single advice fund advice services have been.
So, part of this has not just been about learning how we mitigate or respond in terms of the pandemic and restrictions, but then how we should have support measures coming in to help people through the lockdown, protecting them from the virus, as well, and not making decisions that are going to then lead to greater transmission in the community and in households. But very difficult, because we've had big discussions about, 'How do you support extended households, intergenerational families trying to access one computer when children are learning at home?' And that's why the funding that was given last September was very much to help children—1,000 extra teaching and learning assistants in schools. It was actually to try and recompense the impact of lockdown, particularly for the most disadvantaged. Those are just some examples.
Okay, Minister. If we move on to data, then: Welsh Government accepted this committee's recommendation, in our report on the pandemic and its effects; it accepted our recommendation that immediate action should be taken to improve the quality of data recording. Could you tell us what immediate action has been taken to ensure better data gathering practices and how that improved data is being published and shared with public service providers?
Well, I think that was such an important recommendation. We knew that we had a need for better data on equality, so that it could help in terms of informing equality impact assessments, but also to understand risks that were faced by different groups and different protected characteristics, to obviously make it more inclusive. So, what we've certainly done as a Welsh Government is improved the quality of the evidence on ethnicity and coronavirus mortality, for example. We implemented a COVID-19 e-form that's available, including healthcare workers, and that, actually, has helped us to have better recording with our partners in the NHS and social care—better recording of ethnicity and disability data in staff records and wider health records. We could only get that information by that kind of intervention. The chief nursing officer, for example, has written to all nursing directors in health boards to seek feedback on barriers to collecting that kind of data, because that's vital to help us respond appropriately. We now have ethnicity data collected for the social care workforce, for example—that's through annual surveys. Mandatory registration now, as you know, of domiciliary care workers and social care workers does mean that—that's going to be mandatory from April 2021 in terms of residential care settings—that'll enable Social Care Wales to collect much more robust ethnicity data as we go forward.
There is the statistical record, 'Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the Black, Asian and minority ethnic population in Wales', which was published in June 2020. And this has all been because we took proactive action right at the start, back in March, April, when we saw that disproportionate impact and set up the BAME COVID advisory group. So, that statistical report that I've mentioned, from last June, focused on areas where the impact of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted on black, Asian and minority ethnic people in communities.
We've also done a similar report on disabled people in Wales. That was published in—. Actually, it's being published this week—it was published yesterday. And that does the same thing in terms of identifying that data. So, we're actually looking at all these data issues in terms of equality data and setting up an equality data and evidence unit in the Welsh Government, and I think that unit is crucial in terms of not just ethnicity and disability, but all protected characteristics. Much of this also has been taken forward as a result of the impact of Professor Ogbonna's socioeconomic report and the work we're doing in terms of the race equality action plan. So, we're scoping now how this unit will function and, obviously, the next administration will take that forward, but our Cabinet has committed to it.
Could you tell committee, Minister, amongst that progress that you hope and expect to be made, will that include plans to address the lack of data on ethnicity, disability and key worker status in the rapid surveillance data on COVID-19?
This is a Public Health Wales responsibility in terms of publishing that daily surveillance dashboard. It does include data on authorised tests, on testing episodes, positive cases, incidence and deaths due to COVID-19 and vaccinations. That has to be a rapid surveillance in terms of data. So, now, again, having Public Health Wales as a key partner and a very key partner of the BAME advisory group that was set up, recognising, for example, now, that vaccination is crucial, we have to understand that and have the knowledge in terms of ethnicity. So, they've worked with the SAIL Databank. Swansea, of course, as you know, produce a monthly analysis of take-up of vaccination by ethnic group. So, I think that's an example of how we're addressing this. I haven't got information in terms of disability in terms of collection of data around vaccination, but definitely on ethnicity.
Okay, Minister. We'll move on, then, to Huw Irranca-Davies.
Good afternoon, Minister. If I could turn to the public sector equality duty, which we know was paused because of the pandemic primarily, but is it still paused and, if so, when is it going to restart?
It was paused, and that's a question that came from this committee, as a result of coronavirus, because we actually did start working on this last January, 2020. We halted it because of the equality and human rights work as a result of the pandemic. It was also suspended by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in terms of their reporting obligations—EHRC did decide to suspend that for six months. Actually, interestingly, I met this week with the new chair of EHRC and we discussed this—Baroness Falkner. We discussed the issue and agreed that we needed to return to that as quickly as possible over the next few months.
A lot of work had already been done in the Welsh Government by the knowledge and analytical services—KAS—because they were already improving the gathering and publication of data, and I've mentioned some examples of that. Also, there will be other evidence like the results of the research on strengthening equalities and human rights.
Before we had to pause this work, and I recall it well, we had a huge meeting with equality leads from local government, the health service. We came together in mid Wales—we haven't done that for a long time—where there was a huge commitment to this review. When I was meeting with Baroness Falkner yesterday, new to the position of chair of EHRC, I was talking about our Welsh-specific equality duties. We really took the Equality Act 2010 seriously, way back when it came into force, and wanted to have our Welsh-specific equality duties, and, of course, it's very linked to the socioeconomic duty and I was so pleased and thankful to so many in the Senedd who voted to support that on Tuesday.
Thank you, Minister. Just in case I missed it there in what you were saying, did you give us an idea of when the review will actually recommence or if it has recommenced?
My officials say 'the next few months', but, as far as I'm concerned, meeting the chair of EHRC and getting her backing, because it's a joint effort—yesterday, I think I met her, or Tuesday—inevitably it'll be, I would imagine, the next administration who will be monitoring this, but, as far as I'm concerned, the work starts now.
Okay, that's brilliant. I think we can take it from what you're saying that, as far as you're concerned, this is now under way once again, and the election might hamper things a little bit, but it's there, ready to pick up, the moment the new administration comes in. Yes, that's great.
Could you give us an example of how Welsh Government has acted in the spirit of the socioeconomic duty in responding to COVID-19, and in particular in the design of some of the measures?
That's been another factor throughout all of the discussions that we've had and the papers that we've had about the advice we've got. We've looked at the equality impact assessments, but we've also looked through a socioeconomic lens, and, obviously, way back last July, as I said on Tuesday, the First Minister did recognise that, actually, although we had to pause and hold back some legislation, the regulations on the socioeconomic duty were vital not just in terms of our commitment to it—we could enact it, we'd consulted on it—but also because it has been a crucial lens to look through as we've worked through the pandemic and for the recovery. So, we have been able to look at this from all the perspectives I've already mentioned, in terms of low income, disadvantage, socioeconomic issues for black, Asian and minority ethnic people, but also for women, for young people, for older people—intergenerationally—disabled people.
I think one example of what that's already delivered is the recognition that we had to get more access to funds for people, and the discretionary assistance fund, of course, has been that real vehicle, as we all know from constituency experience as well. There's been a huge demand on that fund, so it's been an essential lifeline, and that's a particular socioeconomic intervention, but also the fact that people are turning to the fund for a range of different support needs. But also, I would say, homelessness. The extra money into homelessness has been crucial in terms of the socioeconomic lens. I think it's very important that this has guided our decisions about extending free school meals as well, as a result of that socioeconomic lens, the extra £23.3 million—extending free school meals for the entirety of 2021-22. But that's about reducing poverty and health inequalities.
I've mentioned already the important investment in helping our children recover from the loss of education—the recruit, recover, raise standards. That £29 million was announced last autumn and has directly assisted—. I've had examples, as you have, in talking to teachers and headteachers about how they've been able to focus that funding when schools have been operating, but also, of course, this has been something where we've been able to invest in the kit that children and young people have needed—so, digitally excluded learners, working with local authorities, identifying demand for learners. I've been looking at this very clearly also for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in terms of access to Wi-Fi and infrastructure. Local authorities have had our funding to be able to implement that. So, those are just some examples of how socioeconomic impact has made a difference to decision making.
Huw, if it's okay, we'll move on at this stage because we've got quite a lot yet to cover and not much time left, I'm afraid. Mandy Jones.
Thank you, Chair. Can I just ask you something about mental health relaxations? In its response to the committee, the Welsh Government stated that, following representations from the president of the Welsh Tribunals, mental health relaxations were to remain in place for another six months. Are the relaxations still in place and, if so, what is the timeline for that review?
Yes, on mental health tribunals, the provisions were commenced last March, in fact, and they're reviewed every six months. The First Minister has responsibility. He decided to keep the mental health review tribunal for Wales provisions in force. So, they do allow a tribunal to conduct a hearing with one member, instead of the usual three, and on paper only, conducting some tribunals by telephone under pre-existing rules. So, all of the hearings since March 2020 have been conducted in this way.
Thank you, Minister.
Okay, thanks, Mandy. Dawn.
Thanks, John. Jane, can you tell us a bit more about the six-month pilot helpline for black, Asian and minority ethnic groups that was set up to provide tailored support on employment issues? I just wondered whether that pilot had concluded now and, if so, whether it's been evaluated yet.
Thank you very much, Dawn. This was a recommendation from Emmanuel Ogbonna's socioeconomic report. We used the vehicle of the voluntary sector services emergency fund, and that has been managed by the WCVA. So, they provided funding through that fund for the six-month pilot. Actually, it had a slow start, the helpline, but it's about partnership and getting awareness. The Wales TUC were involved. Actually, as I said earlier on, I've met with the single advice network today, and they've all got to know about it. It's getting the message over. So, six months is quite a short time for a pilot. It's being evaluated, and we're giving more time to the project so that it can move forward. But it needed that range of partners to come on board, like Women Connect First, the Henna Foundation and, as I've mentioned, Wales TUC. So, it is going to be something that we will look at very carefully in terms of its role and functions. It's been run by EYST and it has been very important to those who've accessed it.
So, it is the Government's intention to continue the pilot? Obviously, I know it would have to be the new Government, but would it be the intention to continue with this pilot?
It's been given more time to evaluate its impact, to reach out to more partners, so it will be for the next administration.
We want it to work; it's important. But I also have to say that there are other helplines. Bawso has a helpline—
Yes, of course.
—for black women to reach out for domestic abuse, and also Victim Support. So, it's ensuring that all the helplines are reaching the needs that are out there.
Okay. So, can I just ask you, then, about disabled people, Jane, and whether there is any provision for advice to people with disabilities in terms of employment-related concerns?
We have given additional funding, through the single advice fund, to increase the capacity of discrimination advice services. Because there has been a recognition from EHRC, for example, that there is a potential for discrimination in employer conduct—again, the disability equality forum feeding back to us about the impacts of working from home or being on the front line affecting disabled people. So, we are working hard with our partners in order to deliver, to make sure that disabled people are supported. But also I'd say that we've just appointed six disability employment champions and that's something which—. I met with them last week, with Ken Skates, and they're going to have a powerful impact, I think, in terms of recognising disability employment rights across the whole of Wales.
Okay. Thank you, John.
Thank you, Dawn. Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Minister, has a funding model been agreed for violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and what actions do you think could be taken to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the sector, please?
Thank you very much, Delyth. We have worked very closely with all the specialist services. They've received—the sector's received—over £4 million of additional funding to deal with the impact of COVID-19, and we've discussed this at this committee, actually. The sector's now got an extra 67 per cent funding compared with last year. Working very closely with regional co-ordinators, the crucial issue, in terms of the sustainable funding, I wouldn't say it's been paused, but our national adviser Yasmin Khan has been chairing the sustainable funding group, and because the sector's been really so engaged in responding to the needs of women, particularly, facing domestic abuse and sexual violence, they're now moving to a point where they're working with the commissioners' group to establish this sustainable funding route. It's critical for the sustainable funding model that everyone is on board and really now we're looking at an all-Wales VAWDASV commissioners' group, assisting those commissioners with responsibility for violence against women and domestic abuse services. They met—. Actually, they're meeting next week, 18 March, to confirm these arrangements, and I think it's a very strong outcome, actually, from the work that's been going on over the last year.
Ocê, diolch am hwnna. Rwy'n gobeithio bod y cyfieithu'n gweithio. Rôn i'n clywed ar y dechrau bod yna broblem gyda'r—. O, mae'n gweithio. Ocê, gwd.
Rôn i jest eisiau gofyn wedyn am effaith y pandemig ar gymunedau BAME. Fyddech chi'n gallu rhoi diweddariad i ni, plis, ar greu uned o wahaniaethu ar sail hil, neu racial disparity—dwi ddim cweit yn siŵr beth yw hwnna yn Gymraeg. Ond fyddech chi'n gallu rhoi diweddariad i ni ar hwnna, plis?
Thank you for that. I hope the interpretation is working. I heard at the beginning there was a problem. It is working. Excellent.
I just wanted to ask about the impact of the pandemic on BAME communities. Could you give us an update, please, on the creation of racial disparity units? I don't know what that is in Welsh. Could you give us an update on the creation of that unit, please?
Thank you very much, Delyth. This was a strong recommendation that came out of the socioeconomic group, the race disparity unit, and we have agreed to set up a race disparity unit, and, in fact, we're scoping it now; you will see it's very clearly in the race equality action plan that's coming through. But it's also part of this equality evidence unit that we need, because obviously we need race disparity, and that's the starting point. But, obviously, in terms of all the protected characteristics, we're looking towards that as well, but the race disparity unit first.
Diolch am hwnna. Cwestiwn olaf gyda fi: sut ydy'r Llywodraeth yn bwriadu ariannu'r cynllun gweithredu ar gydraddoldeb hiliol, a phryd bydd yr ymgynghoriad ar y cynllun yn cael ei gyhoeddi, os gwelwch yn dda?
Thanks for that. A final question from me: how does the Welsh Government intend to fund the race equality action plan, and when will the consultation on that plan be published, please?
The consultation will start as soon as we've published the plan at the end of March. It is a formidable piece of work, which has been co-constructed by many black, Asian and minority ethnic people, young people, 50 community groups, and 17 community mentors coming in, challenging Welsh Government. We've nearly finished; we've nearly completed the plan, so it's also going to be—. As a result of that consultation, budgetary issues in terms of financial planning will come through it, I'm sure. Because we have seen, I would say—I would say—now, as I've got the opportunity here in this committee, that this has brought forward a number of critical issues in relation to structural and overt racism, and we need to address this as a country, and it's a cross-Government issue as well. It's not—. I've actually met with every Minister in the Welsh Government and they've all produced action plans, and their senior officials. You'll see it in the race equality action plan, when it's published, that everyone has to take responsibility, but I think you will know that the one budgetary allocation that's already been made was the £600,000 allocated to the sport and culture budget for 2021-22, which was a commitment that was made pre our budget that has gone through now, a specific commitment.
But, although the commitment's been made, the important point about this is that it will be co-constructed again. The national museum is bringing together black, Asian and minority ethnic people and experts and specialists in their field to help design improved representation in the cultural sector. So, that's the national museum, the Arts Council of Wales—they've got a steering group. And also the national museum have issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, and they feel they have to have a fundamental review of all their policies. So, this is one example of one part of Government, but you will see from the report similar action plans across the board. But, of course, therefore there will need to be financial consideration of what all of this means to deliver on this plan.
Thank you, Minister.
Okay, and Mandy Jones.
Thank you, Chair. What actions have been and will be taken to ensure that disabled people will not face further issues and long-term inequalities due to the pandemic, Minister?
That's crucial, Mandy, and I think I've mentioned this before in response to questions, that we have a disability equality forum that's met regularly throughout the pandemic. We commissioned that research on the impact of COVID-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and we also saw the need to do the same in terms of the impact on disabled people. So, we have also commissioned research that is ongoing. Obviously, we're anxious to ensure that all of this comes forward to help us, and help the next administration.
Back in September 2019 I published a plan called 'Action on Disability: The right to independent living'. That was addressing inequality experienced by disabled people, so that will be refreshed as a result of the research that's been done and the evidence of the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people. But I've mentioned already, just quickly, the six disability employment champions. That was a direct recommendation of that plan, 'Action on Disability', and it was Ken Skates's department who funded those six disability equality champions. This is about mainstreaming equality, so my little equality budget—you have to get the whole of Government. So, disabled people, investment in employment opportunities—the same with Black, Asian and minority ethnic people—investment in housing, investment in education; it's across the board we have to look at it. And actually, in terms of transport, the new transport strategy, the disability equality forum has been very engaged and feeding back to that strategy discussion as well.
Can you provide an example of how the work of the accessible communications group has influenced Welsh Government communications on the pandemic?
Well, that was, again, an area of policy that we had to—. Last year, as the pandemic and indeed the lockdown were having such an adverse impact on people's lives, we saw the need to have an accessible communications group. It actually met for the first time in June last year, again bringing in specialist expertise. We've got our Keep Wales Safe communications, which have been hugely influenced by the accessible communications group. So, this is about a range of formats in terms of communications: British Sign Language, obviously very clear about that, and we had that good debate a week or so ago, and the BSL interpreter at our press conferences; also, languages to reach people across Wales. It's been fundamental in terms of the vaccination campaign. We've got a whole community engagement group working particularly with those who are perhaps vaccine resistant and reaching out to communities, and, obviously, you've heard Ministers Vaughan Gething and others talking about that. We've got shielding guidance in audio and easy-read formats as a result of feedback. Obviously, what we are doing is a result of feedback from people who are concerned that communications are not accessible. So, that's just some of the progress made as a result of that group.
Yes, I'll come on to that group now for my last question. Has the Welsh Government undertaken any further work with organisations such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People to ensure disabled people are able to safely access things like groceries and, if so, is there any further action to be taken?
RNIB is a very important member of our disability equality forum, and very early on, again, in the lockdown, on the impact of the lockdown on restrictions and access, they had a powerful voice and impact. Of course, that's been about how we ensure that they influence not just us in Welsh Government, but local authorities in terms of management of the town centres, supermarkets. A lot of the feedback that I get from the disability equality forum, and the RNIB as this example, would go to colleagues like Lesley Griffiths, who meets with the supermarkets, but also is to recognise that, actually, this is about strengthening guidance that might already exist. Also, colleagues are looking at the courtesy code that has been offered and agreed, in fact, that we should be looking at a courtesy code in terms of how people live and work together, and recognising the impacts on disabled people. So, it has been a very important impact to have RNIB on our disability equality forum.
Thank you, Minister.
Okay. Well, that brings us to the end of our questions, Minister, so thank you very much for your attendance today and for the attendance of your official also. You will be sent a transcript in the usual way to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr.
Okay, item 4 on our agenda today, then, is papers to note. We have five papers. Paper 1 is a letter from the Minister for Housing and Local Government in relation to the British-Irish Council joint housing and spatial planning work sectors ministerial meeting. Paper 2 is a letter from the same Minister with regard to the same body, but its digital inclusion work sector ministerial meeting. Paper 3 is a letter from the same Minister in relation to the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. Paper 4 is a written submission from the Construction Industry Council Approved Inspectors Register Ltd in relation to the inquiry into fire safety in high-rise blocks in Wales, the Government's White Paper. And paper 5 is the Welsh Government's response to our report on the draft budget for the forthcoming financial year. Is committee content to note those papers? Yes. Thank you very much.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod hwn ac o'r cyfarfod ar 18 Mawrth 2021, yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and from the meeting on 18 March 2021, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Item 5, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and also from the meeting on 18 March. Is committee content with that course of action? Yes, okay. Thank you very much. We will then move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:15.
The public part of the meeting ended at 15:15.