Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb a Chyfiawnder Cymdeithasol

Equality and Social Justice Committee

20/10/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Altaf Hussain MS
Jane Dodds MS
Jenny Rathbone MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Ken Skates MS
Sarah Murphy MS
Sioned Williams MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Jane Hutt MS Y Gweinidog Cyfiawnder Cymdeithasol
Minister for Social Justice
Maureen Howell Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Dyfodol Llewyrchus, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Prosperous Futures, Welsh Government
Paul Neave Pennaeth Cyngor Lles Cymdeithasol a Pholisi'r Adran Gwaith a Phensiynau, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Social Welfare Advice and Department for Work and Pensions Policy, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Alun Davidson Clerc
Clerk
Claire Fiddes Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Sam Mason Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Yan Thomas Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

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 09:02.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:02.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Bore da. Siẁd mae? I'd like to welcome Members and members of the public to the meeting of the Equality and Social Justice Committee. In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health, but the meeting is bilingual, and it's being broadcast live on Senedd.tv. I haven't received any apologies, and I just wondered if there are any declarations of interest. Sioned.

I just wanted to say that, since the last meeting, I'm now a member of a credit union. So, I don't know if I need to declare that.

Fine. Thank you very much. And finally, if I drop out of this meeting for any reason, I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.22, that Sarah Murphy will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin the meeting. 

2. Dyled a'r pandemig—sesiwn graffu gyda'r Gweinidog Cyfiawnder Cymdeithasol
2. Debt and the pandemic—scrutiny session with the Minister for Social Justice

I'd now like to welcome the Minister, Jane Hutt—the Minister for Social Justice, and I wonder if you'd like to introduce your officials.

Thank you very much, Chair. 

Bore da i chi i gyd.

Good morning to you all.

I'm delighted to welcome Maureen Howell and Paul Neave. Maureen is responsible, particularly in my portfolio, for tacking poverty, and Paul Neave for advice services.

Thank you very much, Minister, and thank you very much for making yourself available this morning, because I appreciate you’ve got a very busy diary. In your written evidence you make clear that the end of furlough and the cut of £20 a week in universal credit means that you think it’s likely there’s going to be an uptake of more debt advice services over the next few months. What assessment have your officials made that the current level of funding awarded through the single advice fund is sufficient to manage the likely increased demand?

Well, thank you very much, Chair. As I said in my written evidence, we’ve got very clear evidence from the reports, and I think you've taken evidence yourself from the Bevan Foundation, the Trussell Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Resolution Foundation about not just the impact of COVID-19, but all those reports showing that levels of poverty, as I said, are expected to rise as a result of the ending of the £20 a week universal credit.

So, we've always had a long-standing commitment to supporting advice services, which is critically important to ensure that we can reach out to those who are most vulnerable. And actually, way back in 2014, we did increase our funding for advice services. This was as a result—particularly a direct response to UK Government's austerity measures. Cuts to legal aid—the huge impact that's had in terms of advice giving. So, we increased our funding at that stage from £4 million to £6 million a year for advice services. And then, as many of you will recall, in 2020, we introduced a single advice fund, providing, then, grants of over £9 million. But, as a result of the pandemic, and recognition of increased need for debt advice particularly, we made over £10 million of funding available. I think what's important is that the single advice fund, which was all set up before the pandemic and before further cuts to welfare and universal credit, has proved itself to be very robust in terms of a co-ordinated framework of social welfare advice services across Wales. Importantly, there's not just one issue that people may come forward with in terms of advice needs and social welfare problems, and, of course, people don't always have one debt problem. So, the continuing demand for access to services has meant that we've had to respond. 

Now, I would say that I did welcome the transfer of a share of the UK financial levy for debt advice services. That has given us more levers to commission debt advice services in Wales and to integrate them alongside the single advice fund. But I do call on the UK Government to recognise that the decisions that they've been making are going to increase debt. We need to have appropriate levels of funding made available through our share of the UK financial levy, and I hope the committee will support that call for the provision of debt advice services in particular, because that's where we know we're going to be facing much greater need in the coming weeks and months.

09:05

Well, I'm sure we all agree that it's vital that people have accurate and the best information available on how to help them get out of the debt crisis they may fall into. One of the pieces of information we've had from our evidence taking is that the affordable credit providers argue that there are a lot of people who use debt relief orders and individual voluntary arrangements. They're forced into them when there are actually much better options for them. So, they'll be forced into them, even if they've only got a debt of £5,000, which is perfectly possible to clear over time. And so, I wondered if you think the single advice fund is fully equipped to ensure that people aren't going down those routes, which are, obviously, convenient for debt collectors, but not for the individual.

I very much welcome that question and that observation from the evidence that you've had, because there's no question that bad debt advice can be worse to a person than no advice at all. What's important about the single advice fund is that we—. All assistance, advice and debt services, all Members here will know of them and I'm sure have connected with their local Citizens Advice in many ways and on many occasions. What's important is that Citizens Advice is actually accredited to the Welsh Government's information and advice quality framework, so we can be absolutely confident that Citizens Advice and the single advice fund is the appropriate and accredited route to debt advice—so, impartial advice delivered in the best interests of the person seeking advice.

Our Citizens Advice, not only are they accredited with the information advice quality framework, but also they're regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, so it's vital that we make sure that that's the route that people go to, because those debt advisers for the single advice fund help people to make an informed decision about which debt solution that they should, or could be prepared and prefer to go to. That could be a debt management plan, a debt relief Order. I do very strongly agree that there are significant problems with the individual voluntary arrangements for something—they're not something that our single advice fund services refer many clients into. They're very rarely the best solution for a client, and I think, also, there can be very high fees charged for IVAs of attractive commercial proposition profit-making firms. They're heavily marketed, of course, often online and there are need generators, and they're often unregulated. So, it is a complex area, but I think the single advice fund is the route for us, and for you, hopefully, to see that we can maximise public awareness. It's got to be regulated debt advice, particularly free debt advice, and that's of course what we get through the single advice fund—impartial and also covering all aspects of the needs.

09:10

Okay, well, there's obviously a job of work for everybody who interfaces with the public to ensure that people are getting the right advice that best suits them. Can I bring Altaf Hussain in at this point?

Thank you. Good morning, Minister. According to the committee briefing, a 2018 report commissioned by the Money Advice Service, now part of the Money and Pensions Services, showed that a full-time debt adviser will receive an average of 84 disclosures of addiction each year. Now, my question is—as chair of a charity that responds to the challenge of drug and alcohol abuse, I appreciate how much of a challenge this is—how will the Government ensure that debt advisers and others meeting those who disclose such addictions are given the correct information to signpost people for help?

Well, Altaf Hussain, you are obviously very aware of this through being chair of that drug and alcohol charity, and I'm sure that evidence from that charity is going to be very valuable to this committee, because our single advice fund advisers know that this can be an issue affecting many people who seek help. In fact, we've got evidence that people who are working in the debt advice field will encounter many clients who disclose an addiction issue, it could be gambling, it could be drug or alcohol problems and needs. It's actually getting people to come for that advice, as you know and as you say, is what's so important. So, that's about how do we ensure that our advisers are skilled and experienced, that they know how to handle this, that they've got the right tools with addictions that they can refer to specialist support. I think what's important in Wales, for our single advice fund services, is they work closely with an organisation called Action Against Gambling Harms, and they do training. They train advisers and, indeed, volunteers, because we know we have volunteers in Citizens Advice, and sometimes they are not revealed, are they, these addictions, so it's actually vitally important that our advisers do receive that training. The evidence we've got is that single advice fund advisers are receiving that training and are delivering that bespoke advice. It's identifying it, isn't it, and you need training for that.

Absolutely. Do you, in the feedback you get on how your grant's used, get any statistics around the numbers of clients who've disclosed addiction?

Well, I think, just in terms of an example of numbers, and I can bring Paul Neave in if there's anything more to say, but we've got evidence that a full-time debt adviser will encounter seven clients who disclose an addiction issue in a typical month. That's a large number, isn't it? But, if there's any more evidence, now the committee has raised this, we can see if there are any more. But, I think that statistic is telling in itself, isn't it—seven clients in a typical month?

09:15

I was just going to support the Minister's comment that, yes, we fund between 25 to 30 debt advisers, via the Citizens Advice debt advisers, via the single advice fund, and each one of them typically is coming across people—seven each month. But we can get more actual data from our providers, if that would be helpful.

Okay, because it's clear that, if we're not looking at the underlying causes of people getting into debt, addiction is obviously going to consume them, unless we give them support to help with that. 

Lastly, Minister, I just wanted to ask you about the very challenging situation with energy prices going up by up to six times on the commercial market. And Ofgem's chief executive has made it clear that there are going to be further price rises next April. National Energy Action is indicating this could mean another 1.5 million falling into fuel poverty. Specifically on those who are having to get their heating off-grid, I just wondered what the announcement yesterday by the Prime Minister about the money available for heat pumps—. Could it be used to rapidly improve the cost of heating homes for those who are most in need?

Thank you very much, Chair. I think, in a sense, the announcement yesterday is going to, perhaps, reach out. I haven't got any more detail yet, as you can imagine, on what it will mean and how many in Wales. I think, actually, your question is really important in terms of the vast majority and numbers of people who could be facing fuel poverty this winter, in terms of the circumstances we're in. And this is where I work very closely with Julie James as Minister for Climate Change, because we have to get that message over. She's meeting regularly with Ofgem to ensure that domestic energy suppliers do support vulnerable and low-income households struggling with their household energy bills. And, in fact, she's written—we've written together—to the UK Government about the impact energy prices are having on lower income households. We have also called on the UK Government to work with Ofgem, of course, to ensure energy suppliers honour the voluntary agreement to support lower income households, and also called on the UK Government to postpone the increase to the domestic energy tariff cap for those with low incomes. And it's actually very important we work with the third sector here, and I'm sure you're meeting or have met with those who are involved in this area in terms of tackling fuel poverty. We're meeting with energy suppliers and the third sector to implement the cold weather resilience plan to make sure that they're delivering on that, and we do expect that plan to be published by the end of November. 

So, I think we'll have to perhaps seek advice from the Minister for Climate Change about what she perceives and what we feel the heat pump announcement could mean. But I think, in terms of timing, we're into, 'What can we do now in terms of the rising fuel costs in the coming weeks and months?'

Okay. Thank you. Obviously, we're short of time, but clearly this is something we're going to need to come back to as it's a critical issue. Can I now—

Sorry, Jenny, Sioned and I just had some quick follow-up questions.

No, that's okay. 

Sioned, wyt ti eisiau mynd?

Sioned, do you want to go first?

Diolch, Jane. I just wanted to refer the Minister to some of the evidence we had from the engagement panel, talking there about—it was extremely worrying—Victorian levels of poverty due to the fuel crisis, and there was one thing I just wanted to pick up on about the energy advice projects. We had evidence saying that these are funded almost seasonally, and that they go from six months to six months, and that means sometimes that people at the end of spring are getting redundancy notices, and all that expertise walks with them out the door. So, I was wondering if there was anything that you could tell us about, given the current circumstance, whether there is any work being done in order to make those energy advice projects specifically more long term and more sustainable in order to retain that expertise. 

09:20

Thanks very much, Sioned, because this is crucially important. I'm responsible for the third sector as well, so it's very key that we make sure that it's sustainable, the support and advice that's being given. We have got a new plan to tackle fuel poverty, which was actually published in March, and we're also, of course, investing in the Warm Homes programme in Wales, and that's energy efficient measures for lower income households—more important than ever. But I certainly will come back to you on the question of sustaining that support and grant aid to those organisations in the third sector, unless Maureen or Paul can help me on this point, because we need to make sure, particularly now, that we are sustaining that support for the most needy households as we move into the winter. But I think both the fuel poverty plan and Warm Homes programme recognise that this has got to be sustainable, and it actually does help—particularly the Warm Homes programme—people get funding back, because of the energy efficiency, into their pockets, let alone sustaining the warmth in their homes.

I know we haven't got much time, but shall we come back to you on that point?

Yes. Let's just pick up the point that Jane Dodds wanted to ask.

Thank you. Good morning, Minister. Thank you for joining us. It's just a real quick question. We're facing a perfect storm this winter, with the poorest families going to be significantly affected by what will be a trio of terrible things happening, and these will be families already in debt, already in significant poverty. We've got the NI leap next year, we've got the universal credit cuts—

I can. And we've got fuel poverty, which is what I wanted to hang this question on. Could I ask the Minister and perhaps her team to send us through something that shows a strategy, perhaps, or something around what you're doing to look at the picture overall? These three things will hit the poorest of families significantly, and I just wonder if it's something you could take away and just feed back to us as a committee in writing, so that then we've got an opportunity to then take that to some of the agencies that we're working with and taking evidence from. Thank you, Chair. 

Yes, thank you, Jane. That could result in a very long answer to that question, but I think you're absolutely right: we are working on this now. For example, just quickly to say we are reinstating our income maximisation plan, which was very successful in terms of the child poverty income maximisation plan, because we need to make sure everyone is taking up all of the entitlements that they have. That's where the single advice fund is so important. So, it's all the agencies working together, but also funding that we can get out of the door in terms of tackling food poverty—and I made the announcements a few weeks ago—and fuel poverty. But we're also addressing this in terms of ways in which we can have a package, albeit one-off, on the £25 million household income funding.

Okay. Thank you, Minister. We'll look forward to that information. If we can now move on to a different area. Ken, do you want to start us off, please?

Thanks, Chair. Thank you. Good morning, Minister. Lovely to see you. I'm going to just begin with a question about the impact of the pandemic on different groups, and then colleagues will come in with questions of their own as well on this theme. We all know that the pandemic is affecting different groups in different ways, but with specific regard to tackling debt that's been mounting up during the pandemic, have you tailored your policies to meet the needs of different demographic groups? Also, do you believe that you have sufficient disaggregated data to be able to tailor your policies? And also, do you have the capacity and the ability to be able to gather that disaggregated data, given that this has been a pandemic that was never foreseen, never planned for, and therefore it can be difficult to gather data quite rapidly?

09:25

Well, thank you very much, and good morning, Ken. That is such a critically important question, and I think that's one of the things, again, that the single advice fund has enabled us to do—to get evidence and to target; to get evidence of their reach and also to target those most vulnerable households who need their advice, and particularly in terms of tackling debt. So, actually, what we've been able to do through the single advice fund is it's there for the providers to proactively target those groups of people who may have a need because of their specific characteristics, and we've got ways in which now we can get the information back in terms of reaching out to clients with protected characteristics as well. We've got an advice and access partner service delivery model, and that's proved to be very successful, because there's specialist advice that has to reach out to particular groups of people. Just to give you one example, 82 per cent of people accessing single advice fund services during the pandemic identified themselves a having a protected characteristic, because obviously, with the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethic people and on disabled people, we needed to make sure we had that reach. So, as to advice services now, for example, Cardiff and the Vale are working with Race Council Cymru and Women Connect First in Cardiff, reaching out to black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

I think the point about data is crucial. So, we're already moving forward to implement one of the recommendations of the socioeconomic group of the COVID-19 black, Asian and minority ethnic advisory group. We're now moving forward with our race disparity unit and disability unit in the equalities data unit. So, we are going to have better disaggregated data, but also qualitative data, because we need to know whether these services are reaching out in the right way. That's why you need these grass-roots organisations.

I mentioned Cardiff and the Vale, but it will be in every part of Wales that we need to have that specialist reach. Those marginalised communities often don't know, and they still need to get them to know, about their local Citizens Advice, and sometimes there's a route through, perhaps through going to a foodbank, for example, where Citizens Advice often have stalls and advisers. In other gatherings, RSLs are very good at this as well, with their outreach to their tenants, as well as local authorities.

Yes, thank you very much. Just a really quick question following on from that theme. We heard from Chwarae Teg that one of the particular groups that has been affected significantly by being in debt is those victims of domestic abuse. So, I just really wondered what you were doing as Minister, and what your department's doing, to particularly support those victims. Thank you.

Well, again, thank you, Jane, for that question, because violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence is in my portfolio as well, so I've got all of the responsibilities to make sure that we're working within my portfolio to tackle these issues. Chwarae Teg, obviously, has given you their evidence, but we know that financial abuse, which is often and mainly a form of coercive control, is experienced by the vast majority of victims, and that could be depriving access to money, to bank accounts, controlling or limiting spending—we have all of that evidence. So, this is where we've actually increased the funding allocation to third sector specialist VAWDASV organisations by 4 per cent, so that they can respond to increased demand. Once people and victims can reach out and find that specialist support, they can work to support them in terms of debt advice, and, of course, this can also be in the community, not just if they, for example, are perhaps victims who have come into a refuge. So, it's very much a key point for the access partners in the single advice fund that they know that they've got to reach out.

Again, it's a bit like the question from Altaf and others earlier on about gambling and identifying the signs, and also the fact that during the lockdown, we know that people couldn't get out—they were locked in as well—and home was not, as we said, always a place of safety. So, we've actually got our—. You know, probably many of you remember our coercive control campaign, 'This is Not Love. This is Control'. We were raising awareness of financial abuse in that campaign, but also, again, trying to promote the 'Live Fear Free: This is control' campaign and the 24-hour advice service. So, it's really important that we incorporate this understanding, knowledge and skill and enable our advice services and our specialist services, because it's getting to people before they even know about the specialist services that is so important. And when they are being controlled, they cannot even, in this way, often access those services.

09:30

Okay, I'm going to bring in Sioned in a minute, but I just want to remind Members that we're halfway through the time allocated, and we've still got three other areas to—. Sioned.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Jest yn gyflym iawn, Weinidog, jest yn cyffwrdd mewn ffordd â phwynt sy'n dod mas o gwestiwn Ken a chwestiwn Jane yn fanna. Fe wnaethom ni gael tystiolaeth gan Chwarae Teg oedd yn sôn am y cwestiwn yma o ddata, bod angen am ddata wedi'i ddadgyfuno, a'r ffaith bod adnoddau aelwydydd yn cael eu cyfrif yn effeithio ar y data sydd gyda ni o ran menywod, ac mae fe'n cyffwrdd â'r cwestiwn yna o ran camddefnydd ariannol hefyd, onid yw e? Felly, jest eisiau gofyn ydy'r Llywodraeth yn mynd i'r afael â'r cwestiwn yma o, efallai, newid y diffiniad o ran sut rŷm ni'n mesur adnoddau aelwydydd er mwyn casglu'r data hanfodol yna ar effaith dyled ar fenywod.

Thank you, Chair. Just very briefly, Minister, touching upon something that arises from Jane and Ken's questions there. We received evidence from Chwarae Teg that mentioned this issue of data, the need for disaggregated data, and the fact that household resources are counted and that impacts the data that we have in terms of women specifically, and it touches on that question in terms of financial abuse too, doesn't it? So, I'm just wondering whether the Government is tackling this issue in terms of perhaps changing the definition of how we measure the resources of individual households in gathering that data on the effect of debt on women particularly.

That's a very pertinent and important question, which I don't think I could give full justice to in a reply today. But I think that because we have agreed to develop this equalities data unit, which includes a race and disability data unit, obviously the issues around household data and what that means, including particularly the circumstances of women and the gender issues, are going to be very important for us to look at. I'll go back to our officials who are developing the equalities data unit and ask for a response on that very point and get back to you, if that's okay, Chair. 

Yes, that's fine. Thank you, Minister. Altaf Hussain just had a further point for your team to consider. 

Thank you, Chair. Digital exclusion for many people in our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is a barrier to accessing advice and navigating application processes for financial support. Now, my question is: what specific steps will the Government take to ensure that the services that it funds and its application processes are developed to address these barriers?

We had a very powerful and positive debate yesterday, didn't we, about eradicating racism and backing the race equality action plan. What's been so important about the way that's been developed is the outreach to the community and grass-roots organisations that actually do work with black, Asian and minority ethnic people who, perhaps, haven't got the confidence or feel that it's not for them, it's not specialist, it's not reaching out. We gave lots of grants to organisations all over Wales to engage them, and that's why I've mentioned, for example, Race Council Cymru working with Cardiff and Vale Citizens Advice. And many of you will know Women Connect—I know Jenny does, and Cardiff Senedd Members—but they actually work outside of Cardiff as well. But also, BAWSO, obviously, and the specialist organisations for victims of domestic abuse, violence against women. They're also located in north Wales as well. So, the specialist services, they are—. Single advice fund providers have to liaise and link with those specialist services who bring them in to assist them to make sure that they have got that outreach. I mean, I'm very encouraged that we did get that feedback on the numbers of people with protected characteristics. I asked that question every month, didn't I, Paul: how many people with protected characteristics are actually accessing the single advice fund? And when I meet with the advice providers, as I do the network, and Citizens Advice Cymru, these are the questions that I ask them, because they need to make clear links with the specialist services, and I hope the race equality action plan will help drive this as well as implement that kind of approach. 

09:35

Okay. We need to move on, but Minister, in your deep dive into this issue, I wonder if you could make sure that application forms are written in plain English and are suitably clear for people whose first language may not be English or Welsh.

Yes. Well, I can see Paul—. Taking that back, Paul, as we—.

All right. Very good. Thank you. I think we now need to move on to the public sector recovery of debt issue. Ken, you were going to ask a question on this.

Yes. Thank you. Obviously—. Oh, I am unmuted—excellent. Obviously, public sector debt is quite considerable as a result of the pandemic, and Citizens Advice and also StepChange called for the Welsh Government to re-emphasise the importance of the council tax protocol in Wales and to evaluate its effectiveness. Are you intending to do this, and what's your view on potentially strengthening the protocol to make it statutory?

Thank you very much for that question. It is obviously the responsibility of the Minister for Finance and Local Government, but I understand that she is undertaking a review and an evaluation of all of the actions that Welsh Government and local authorities are taking, particularly to alleviate pressure on vulnerable people in relation to council tax, and that includes a review of the council tax protocol for Wales. I'm sure you've become aware of this quite clearly, this protocol, because it does actually very clearly set out agreed policies for managing collection and arrears, and it's got minimum standards that authorities are expected to meet when collecting and recovering council tax. So, what's crucial now is that they do review this, to make sure that we can say if there are other interventions that need to take place, to learn how the protocol is actually being implemented to support people to meet council tax liabilities, but I think this is where we need to make sure that people are also aware of their entitlements, the council tax benefit scheme is particularly important, but the protocol is all of the issues about collection and arrears.

Ie. Cwestiwn pellach, mewn ffordd, sy'n gysylltiedig â hynny. Roedd nifer o dystion wedi dweud wrthym ni fod yna arferion gwael gan y beilïaid sy'n casglu ar ran yr awdurdodau lleol, felly jest eisiau holi roeddwn i beth yw eich ymateb chi i'r pryderon yma, i'r dystiolaeth yma. A beth mae Llywodraeth Cymru yn ei wneud i sicrhau bod awdurdodau lleol a'r beilïaid sy'n cael eu cyflogi ganddyn nhw yn casglu dyled mewn ffordd gyfrifol?

Yes. It's a question related to that. A number of witnesses have told us that there was poor practice by the bailiffs collecting on behalf of local authorities, so I just wanted to ask what your response was to those concerns and to that evidence. And what is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that local authorities and the bailiffs employed by them do collect debt responsibly?

Well, that's part of the importance of not just the protocol itself, which is very clear, as I said, about minimum standards and ways in which this support can be given to particularly vulnerable people. I mean, local authorities, it's in their interests to make this work in terms of prevention and early intervention, and they often also have their own advice givers and refer people before it gets too difficult and we end up in this situation about how they recover debt.

It's very explicit in the protocol, I understand, that if there are complaints about how enforcement agents—you know, the bailiffs—are being used, that they should be reviewed and responded to, and a pause. Some of us have, as Senedd Members, been involved and engaged directly in intervening in these situations, so, actually, the complaint can be resolved and people can actually get support. So, any allegations of poor practice should be raised straight away with the local authority to ensure that appropriate investigation takes place. I think this review of the protocol is very important and also the evidence that you've got of poor practice must be relayed to the local authorities, so that we can—and I'm sure that you've raised this with them as well—make sure that they understand that this is not what we would expect in terms of that kind of behaviour.

09:40

The Member has asked it, but I'll put it in different wording, really. The Bevan Foundation has suggested that the Welsh Government explore the introduction of a debt prevention duty that applies to all devolved public service bodies. Now, my questions—there are two, but I'll make them one question. Council tax makes up a significant proportion of local government funding, do you agree that they should be allowed to attempt to enforce the collection of what people owe and if they don't, how will you compensate councils for the shortfalls? And the second question is: if you agree with the Bevan Foundation that a debt prevention duty should be placed on public bodies, what message would it send to people who would then believe that their council tax simply does not have to be paid if they don't want to? And overall, what would be the total financial consequences for Welsh local authorities? Thank you.

Thank you. The Bevan Foundation again producing a very important report. I'd like to get some more detail from them about that particular proposal, for example, of a debt prevention duty. I said earlier on in response to questions that prevention and early intervention is in the interests of everyone, including all of those who have the ability to pay their council tax. It's certainly in the interests of local authorities that they can help, assist and intervene to ensure that people can reach out for entitlements and pay their council tax.

But, you know, the Bevan Foundation are saying that debt levels will rise in the coming months, because of the circumstances, the perfect storm, as Jane Dodds mentioned earlier on and others. So, we have really got to—. We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that people can access those debt advice services and so that—. The impact, as you say, Altaf, can be considerable on local authorities in terms of the shortfall of income if council tax is not paid, but we want to reach out and support and help people access the council tax benefit and also have support from the agencies, particularly Citizens Advice and single advice services. So, yes, let's explore. I'm happy to explore more what this means.

I think the issue, really, is we've got a socioeconomic duty now in the Equality Act 2010, which, in many respects, means that local authorities as public bodies will have to look at the impact, socioeconomically, of circumstances for policy in their areas. And many local authorities are intervening in terms of prevention, which is crucial, what Bevan are saying—homelessness prevention, around the whole range of areas—to actually not just support vulnerable people but also to ensure that they are receiving the income that they need.

Okay. Sarah Murphy had some specific initiatives or points that might clarify what we could do. Sarah.

All right, sorry. So, coming in on—. Just to double check, I'm coming in on housing now, the housing debt.

Fabulous. So, yes, Minister, we're going to turn to housing and council tax related debt, because, as we know, Wales is currently in the midst of a housing emergency, which impacts one in three people across the nation. Just to start with the positives, witnesses did welcome the replacement of the tenancy saver loan with the tenancy hardship grant for tenants in the private sector, because it is reducing debt, they told us. But, social renters who are in work are falling between the cracks as the tenancy hardship grant is only in the private rental sector and the discretionary housing payments are only if you receive social security support. So, Minister, do you think this is fair and how is Welsh Government looking to address this?

09:45

Thank you, Sarah, for that question. I'm very pleased to hear—and really on behalf of the Minister for Climate Change as well, in terms of her responsibilities—that the tenancy hardship grant has been welcomed by those who've given evidence, because it is a support package, isn't it, for tenants with rent arrears who are not in receipt of benefits, or tenancies at risk. Of course, the focus on the private rented sector was particularly because, in most cases, of the pressure and the isolation and the vulnerability of private rented sector tenants, as we all know, with higher rents often than social housing tenants, and they are very, very vulnerable.

I think just in terms of the issues between social and private rented, my understanding is that also most social housing providers are committed to no evictions on rent arrears grounds during the pandemic, and are very engaged in repayment plans. You will all know the RSLs and your local authorities—it's in their interests, and ethically and socially they want to assist their tenants through difficulties, and often do, actually. RSLs and local authorities often do actually absorb bad debt, which, I think, back to the previous question, Altaf—that is what local authorities do.

At the moment, the tenancy hardship grant is a priority to prevent immediate risk of homelessness. And also, just to say, in terms of wider support for other tenants and social housing tenants, we've got this early alert scheme where you can review a tenant's finances and offer financial advice, but also the discretionary housing payment, which is a grant that the Welsh Government has topped up by £4.1 million in the light of the UK Government cut to discretionary housing payment and to support tenants. 

It's interesting to know—I don't know if the committee has done a review of the use of discretionary housing payment across all the local authorities. I could probably find out for you, but it is worth seeing how it is being used by local authorities, the discretionary housing payment, because it is a crucial source of support that can be made to tenants. In fact, someone was telling me, maybe one of our officials, yesterday—I think it might have been Paul—that we won't forget the bedroom tax, will we, and what happened there, and what's still happening; you forget. And actually, local authorities were helping out with discretionary housing payments. That is still a horror of UK Government policy, the bedroom tax, for people who were living in their homes and continuing to try and make ends meet.

But we take on board that point about the tenancy hardship grant. I think the key thing is that we need to make sure it's taken up by those in the private sector who really need it at the moment.

Okay. We'll come back to that another day. Sarah, you had a couple of other points that we haven't already covered.

Just to emphasise, my question was about what is Welsh Government doing with social renters who are in work. So, what assessment has the Welsh Government made about them? Because they are still also being pushed into debt.

That's crucially important with the loss of universal credit, because many of them will have lost universal credit as well, and I need to share this with the Minister for Climate Change responsible for housing. I've mentioned the early alert scheme. We need to get this publicly out, don't we, all of the routes. The discretionary housing payment is a route for those who are in work as well. I don't think there are any barriers to that, but perhaps I can get some more information specifically for those in work. 

09:50

The Bevan Foundation told us that the discretionary housing payment is only if you receive social security support. So, there absolutely are people that are slipping through the cracks. It would be great if we could have any information that the Welsh Government has about how that is impacting people who aren't able to access either. 

Yes, of course. Minister, you've spoken very highly today of Citizens Advice Cymru, and we also heard evidence from Shelter Cymru, and they also provide excellent free advice and support. They are both calling for the six-month notice period currently in place to be extended until the renting homes Act comes into force. So, is the Welsh Government listening and doing this, and if not, what assessment has been made of what may happen if there is a gap until the Act comes into force?

Our partners, Shelter Cymru, are a crucial and key partner with our Minister and housing officials, and alongside Citizens Advice, as I've said a great deal throughout this scrutiny session. Obviously, we have sought to avoid evictions into homelessness throughout the pandemic period. Under the regulations, as you know, that are currently in place, tenants must be provided with six months' notice before a landlord can make a possession claim. There are exceptions to that, such as instances of anti-social behaviour and domestic violence. Those increased notice periods will remain in place until the end of this year, until 31 December. But those regulations are under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and we have to justify them in terms of the power of the Act. So, any decision to extend would have to be taken in the light of what's happening in terms of the pandemic. The coronavirus Act, and the impact of the pandemic, enabled us to make those provisions. Obviously, we will have to have the test of time, the test of the next few weeks, in terms of the impact and the concerns about the renting homes Act arrangements and timing. 

Again, just to ask, Minister, do you think there's going to be a gap?

This is the Minister for Climate Change's particular area of responsibility. So, I think, at this stage, what I can do is feed back that question and those concerns that have been raised from your evidence to the Minister. 

Thank you. Sarah, can you move on to the issue of the evidence we've had about illegal evictions?

Of course. One of the most alarming pieces of evidence that we heard during our inquiry into housing and debt was Shelter Cymru telling the committee that it dealt with cases of illegal evictions during the pandemic. There were examples of the police assisting in some instances. In follow-up evidence from Shelter Cymru, they told us that, last year, in 2020, there were 14 instances of police assistance/inaction in illegal eviction or harassment that had been highlighted in their casework, with the highest number being in south Wales. And just to highlight, this is only from Shelter Cymru's casework; I'm sure there are many others. Although the number may seem small, it is incredibly distressing for people and, as you've mentioned today, Minister, goes completely against the policies that we've had in place. Unlawful eviction is a criminal offence as well as a civil matter, so what is the Welsh Government doing about this? 

It's of very great concern to hear about this from Shelter Cymru's report in terms of illegal evictions. We are now looking at this very carefully, because, as you say, Sarah, a tenant cannot lawfully be evicted from their home without a court order. It's against the law. A landlord can't take a possession claim through the court before they provide notice to the tenant. We have provided that extra protection to tenants throughout the pandemic who have been threatened with eviction. We're now looking at how we can reinforce that message that a court order is required in order to evict, working with the police and other partners. Tomorrow, for example, I'm meeting with the lead police and crime commissioner in Wales—I meet with them regularly. I'm meeting with Dafydd Llywelyn tomorrow, in his role as chair of the all-Wales policing group. I'm going to be raising these issues with them. But I understand also that Shelter Cymru has now provided examples from all of the police forces in Wales, and are meeting with them to look at how we can reinforce these messages.

It's a huge concern to hear of this, and we clearly need to get on to this, to ensure not only that we understand the allegations, in terms of engagement with this, and the evidence of it, but also that we get a clear message over. This is something that I think Shelter Cymru works very closely on with Citizens Advice. I'm going to, just if we've got a moment, ask Paul to come in here. I know that, in my Citizens Advice service, in the Vale of Glamorgan, Shelter actually runs a surgery in Citizens Advice, two days a week or one day a week, because they work so closely together. But I think we need to pass this back, Paul, this alarming evidence that's come from Shelter Cymru.

09:55

What I think we should do, because we are running out of time, is we will send you the evidence we've had—the late evidence, which we only got this morning. We'll send that to you, so you've got it before you have your meeting with the police commissioners. Because clearly, they shouldn't be assisting illegal evictions.

Right. I wondered if we could just move on now, just to cover a couple of other items. Jane Dodds.

Thank you. I think you've answered question 1 that we had in your earlier submissions—thank you, Minister. I want to just use my privilege here to ask you very quickly, do you have a view on debt bonfires, or having that programme or scheme within the Welsh Government? It's okay for you to say you'll come back to us, or to me—that's absolutely fine, because I've leapt on to that one and pushed that one forward. If you had an initial thought, that would be great, but maybe you could send us something in writing on that. Thank you, Minister.

Okay. I did, I think, just quickly say that arrears are often written off, in terms of local authority circumstances. But I'm sure my officials would want me to write back on that point about debt bonfires. Thank you for raising it, Jane.

Yes, happy to go on, because we've got little time. Thank you.

Okay. Sioned, you wanted to come in on the discretionary assistance fund.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Fe wnaethom ni glywed pa mor llwyddiannus roedd yr hyblygrwydd dros dro wedi bod o ran y gronfa cymorth dewisol. Felly, jest eisiau gofyn oeddwn i a ydy'r Llywodraeth yn bwriadu ei fod e ar gael y tu hwnt i ddiwedd mis Mawrth 2022, ac efallai ei wneud e'n barhaol.

Thank you, Chair. We heard about the success of the temporary flexibilities with regard to the discretionary assistance fund. So I just wanted to ask whether the Government intends to make it available beyond the end of March 2022, and perhaps make that flexibility permanent.

Thank you for that question, because I'm absolutely committed to ensuring that those flexibilities remain as long as they're needed for the people of Wales, including looking beyond March 2022. So, you have that assurance that I will be maintaining it. And I would expect and hope that you will be continuing to ask me that question, because it's crucial that we reach out. Going back to the earlier point, I have to say, Chair, we are facing such a difficult time ahead of us, with the end of furlough, the end of universal credit, fuel prices—so I can't see this stopping, if I've got the means to keep it going.

Diolch, Weinidog. Fe gawsom ni dystiolaeth gan Shelter, ond hefyd gan Sefydliad Bevan, yn codi pryderon ynglŷn â pha mor anodd yw hi ar brydiau i gael mynediad i'r gronfa. Fe wnaeth Shelter awgrymu efallai y byddai dull o gyrchu'r cymorth yma sy'n fwy seiliedig ar hawliau yn hytrach na chymhwysedd yn fwy addas, er mwyn atal dyled, achos beth wnaethom ni glywed oedd—yn amlwg, y thema sydd wedi bod gyda ni drwy'r bore—fod angen atal dyled yn hytrach na lliniaru ar ddyled pan fo pobl mewn argyfwng. Felly, dwi jest eisiau gofyn ydych chi wedi rhoi unrhyw ystyriaeth i hynny.

Thank you, Minister. We received evidence from Shelter, and the Bevan Foundation, raising concerns as to how difficult it can be to access the DAF. Shelter suggested that a way of accessing the support that was more rights based rather than qualification for it would be more appropriate, in order to prevent debt, because what we heard was—and it's a theme that's been consistent throughout the morning—that we need to prevent debt rather than alleviate the problem when people are already in crisis. So, I just wanted to ask whether you've given any consideration to that. 

10:00

Thank you for that question, Sioned. I think, in my written evidence, I did lay out the fact that we wanted to review the way that the discretionary assistance fund is delivered, and also we've got a pilot under way for the most vulnerable individuals—it's in the written evidence—just to see how we can ensure that people can reach out and contact the providers who engage with DAF applications. That pilot will help us inform the operating model for the future, but it is, obviously, an emergency fund and we have, as I've said in my evidence, put more money into it, and more people have taken advantage of it, thank goodness, because it's actually about prevention, as you say. But I obviously will keep you well informed as to how we move forward with DAF. It has actually adapted in many ways over the past years. It's been successful. I'm very pleased that it was made available for people experiencing flooding, for example, as well as through the pandemic. And it is going to be a question of how we can make sure that the DAF is there for people in financial crisis, for whatever reason, and that it is accessible, but it is an emergency fund.    

Thank you very much, Minister. We've come to the end of our hour. Obviously, we'll send you the information about the illegal evictions that's been sent to the police, and we'll obviously send you a transcript of your evidence so that you can make sure that it's accurate. And thank you very much for your attendance and that of your advisers. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Diolch. 

Thank you very much. Thank you. 

3. Papurau i'w nodi
3. Papers to note

We've now got three papers to note, which are listed on the agenda. 

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i wahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

And I'd like to suggest that we now move, under Standing Order 17.42, to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting, and to go into private. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:02.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:02.