Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd


Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Caroline Jones
Dawn Bowden
Delyth Jewell
Huw Irranca-Davies
John Griffiths Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Mark Isherwood

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Ansley Workman Cyfarwyddwr, RNIB Cymru
Director, RNIB Cymru
Catherine Fookes Cyfarwyddwr, Rhwydwaith Cydraddoldeb Menywod Cymru
Director, Women’s Equality Network Wales
Cerys Furlong Prif Weithredwr, Chwarae Teg
Chief Executive, Chwarae Teg
Claire Thomas Swyddog Polisi ac Ymchwil, Sefydliad Bevan
Policy and Research Officer, Bevan Foundation
Dr Steffan Evans Swyddog Polisi ac Ymchwil, Sefydliad Bevan
Policy and Research Officer, Bevan Foundation
Gwennan Hardy Uwch-swyddog Polisi, Cyngor ar Bopeth Cymru
Senior Policy Officer, Citizens Advice Cymru
Megan Thomas Swyddog Polisi, Anabledd Cymru
Policy Officer, Disability Wales
Miranda Evans Swyddog Polisi a Rhaglenni, Anabledd Cymru
Policy and Programmes Officer, Disability Wales
Nathan Owen Rheolwr Polisi a Materion Cyhoeddus, RNIB Cymru
Policy and Public Affairs Manager, RNIB Cymru
Rachel Cable Pennaeth Oxfam Cymru
Head of Oxfam Cymru
Robert Visintainer Rheolwr Prosiectau, Men’s Sheds Cymru
Project Manager, Men’s Sheds Cymru
Zoe Richards Prif Weithredwr, Anabledd Dysgu Cymru
Chief Executive, Learning Disability Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Hannah Johnson Ymchwilydd
Naomi Stocks Clerc

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 14:00.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 14:00. 

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Let me welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. 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 last Friday. 

This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all the 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 simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. I would remind all participants that the microphones will be controlled centrally, so not to turn them on or off individually, although there will be a prompt to accept to unmute. 

Are there any declarations of interest from members of the committee, please? No. Okay. A couple of further matters: if, for any reason, I drop out of the meeting because of problems with technology, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden, Member of the Senedd, will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin.

I would also like at this stage to record the committee's sadness at the recent loss of Mohammad Asghar, known as Oscar, who was a member of this committee between January and June of 2019, and we're grateful for Oscar's contribution to the committee, and, of course, his general contribution to the Assembly. I know that the committee would like to put on record our condolences to his family. 

2. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a'i Effaith: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Anabledd
2. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact: Evidence Session on Disability

Item 2, then, is our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact, and we now have an evidence session on the impact on people with disabilities. And I'm very pleased to welcome Miranda Evans, policy and programmes officer for Disability Wales; Megan Thomas, policy officer for Disability Wales; Zoe Richards, chief executive of Learning Disability Wales; Ansley Workman, director of the Royal National Institute of Blind People Cymru; and Nathan Owen, policy and public affairs manager for RNIB Cymru. Welcome to you all. We would invite you all to make opening statements, five minutes per organisation, to highlight the main priorities you would like to raise with committee in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities. And the remainder of the time will then be for Members' questions, and of course responses from our witnesses. 

Okay. So, would Disability Wales like to go first, please?

Hi, everybody. Miranda Evans going first. Thank you for this opportunity to give evidence. Can you hear me okay? 

Yes. Lovely. So, first of all, then—we need to go through this quite quickly, so our main points that we want to hit home on are, since the pandemic—. So, we had to move quite quickly, and we obviously appreciate the urgency of the matters that Welsh Government had to deal with at that time. We felt quite concerned about the Coronavirus Act 2020 coming into force, suspending local authorities' duties under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, solely based on the fact that many were at risk of losing essential support at a time when it was probably needed even more, and having other people make a judgment about what is essential and what's not in terms of personal care. And we still remain concerned about that, and we welcome the revocation of the suspension of those duties for further discussion later on. 

The next big issue that came into effect was quite horrific, really, I suppose—the letters that came out of surgeries: 'Do not attempt to resuscitate.' A blanket policy that was made about those with life-limiting health conditions and impairments. Letters were sent to disabled people, older people, asking them to sign their lives away, basically, and to suggest that they did not need treatment if they would come into contact with COVID-19. We were horrified by that, along with our counterparts, including Learning Disability Wales. Signatures were gathered and we are pleased to say that we did have a response to that. And letters were sent out to local health boards encouraging—well, telling people to avoid blanket policies and not to make those decisions about whose life is worth living and whose is not. Obviously, it was a massive human rights issue, and we felt the need to speak out about that at the time, and we are pleased with the result. 

Another big issue was the shielding—so, the shielding scheme that came in. We welcomed the scheme. However, there were issues, some teething issues, around who received those letters. There are still issues now about people who haven't received letters, even though they live with certain conditions that make them at risk of COVID. So, there have been different issues around that that we can explore further. 

We did feel that Welsh Government were slow to involve and consult with our organisations and those representing disabled people. So, that's something that we would like to explore going forward. Again, we've pushed for meetings with Welsh Government, and we're pleased to say that this Friday there is a meeting taking place involving our organisation to look at the shielding scheme beyond 16 August.

The definition of 'vulnerable' has caused great concern. The blanket definition was applied to those living with different health conditions. From a social model point of view, we would never use the term 'vulnerable' to apply to disabled people. You're only vulnerable when you find yourself in a situation without access to services and support that create your vulnerability. So, we would prefer the 'at risk' definition, as opposed to 'vulnerable' as a blanket definition, in line with the social model of disability, as opposed to the medical model.

We've been alerted to scams that are taking place during the pandemic period. Citizens Advice have actually announced their statistics recently: 45 per cent of disabled adults have been targeted by scams and they include online, e-mail, telephone, texts and post. So, we're really quite concerned about that, but that's an increasing issue. Meg. Over to Megan. 


Hi, everyone. So, another issue that's been raised often by our members is shopping. So, for example, queues and queue jumping. So, people who can't stand in queues for a very long time and people who may not be able to stand in queues for a long time but without a shielding letter they can't get ahead of the queue and they can't skip it. And then, also, inaccessibility within shops themselves. So, especially amongst our members who use wheelchairs, we have found that, if people cannot reach high shelves due to social distancing and certain policies, then it's difficult to get someone to come and help you, or the measures that are put in place to control queues have been blocking off wheelchair-accessible features, like dips in a kerb. And it's also very difficult to get online delivery if you're not shielding, although that has improved.

And the people in isolation have been a major issue that's come up repeatedly. The legislation is already a major problem faced by disabled people and this has exacerbated that, especially amongst people who live alone and amongst people who are shielding while living alone. And digital isolation is also a huge issue for us. It's caused a lot of problems for people not having access to things like smartphones, laptops, tablets and reliable broadband connection, especially if those people are living in poverty or if they are older. 

And then also speaking of technology, working from home, which is a very highly requested reasonable adjustment, which many employers previously thought was undoable, is something that has been given more attention, and is allowing some disabled people the ability to adjust their work to their impairment-related restrictions, which is really positive and has opened up the door to online doctors' consultations or consultations by phone, which have been very useful. Back to Miranda. 

Considering easing restrictions now, so a little focus is happening currently—. A big issue that we want to highlight is access to toilets, public toilets for disabled people—accessible public toilets. We feel there is an urgent need to come to a resolution around that, otherwise it will inhibit disabled people's ability to get out and about along with other people. So, that, obviously needs addressing as soon as possible, involving our representative organisations in those discussions. Staff training is another big area, so looking at the recovery planning, local planning strategies, ensuring that service providers and planners are aware of disabled people's issues in relation to access, across the different impairment groups, is fundamental.


Miranda, if that's okay, we're running up against our time constraints—

Yes, that's fine.

Okay, Miranda, thank you very much. And over to Zoe, then, from Learning Disability Wales. Zoe.

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting us to give evidence here today. We've submitted a paper on behalf of the learning disability consortium in Wales, which includes All Wales People First, all-Wales parents and carers forum, Learning Disability Wales, Down's Syndrome Association Wales, Mencap Cymru and Cymorth Cymru, and we also endorse the points already made by Miranda. I've highlighted three priority areas to talk about today, the first being accessible information; the second, loneliness and isolation; and the third, a little more future planning around employment for people with a learning disability.

So, if I start with accessible information. I think COVID has been a time where everybody's business is in the daily news. Everybody needs to have an understanding or an interpretation of the news that they receive on a daily basis, and for people with a learning disability, there has been huge confusion and a lack of understanding about what they should be doing. There's been a lack of understating around what rules are rules for people who live in the UK, and what rules are rules for people who live in Wales, where people get their information, and just how they interpret that information as well.

Regularly, we support a version of accessible communication called 'easy read', and we have seen that lots of the prime documents that have come out have come out without having an 'easy read' version in the first instance, and we've had to wait for those versions. And often, by the time they are produced, they're then out-of-date because the changes in rules are moving so quickly. And that's left people with a learning disability really not understanding what they are able to do and what they should do, and whether they're safe.

The biggest example of a lack of information has been around the shielding letter and Welsh Government producing shielding guidance in 'easy read', but not the letter in 'easy read', therefore the instructions on how to get food boxes and how to obtain support from the local community has not been there. There's been an assumption, I suppose, that people with a learning disability have someone who cares for them and can take care of that, and for many, they've been totally isolated. And for some, they're not living at their home address. So, they may have moved for safety concerns back to live with parents, carers, family or friends, and they've not, therefore, been eligible if they're shielding to access any of the supermarket slots because they have a direct correlation with your home address.

The next point is around isolation and loneliness, and for people with a learning disability, we have very low numbers—only 6 per cent of people are in employment, and that is one of the main socialisation areas for people with a learning disability, I suppose, or whatever daytime activity they are involved in, whether that's a day service or an individualised package of services et cetera, and those services have, overnight, disappeared.

People's support services as well have been delivered in a very different way, and therefore the sense of loneliness and isolation that people with a learning disability already felt before COVID has been completely impacted. So, particularly for those advocacy services—they've been delivered in a very different way. People are used to meeting up in groups, and people are used to meeting on a regular basis. That regular contact is really important for people with a learning disability, and that has disappeared overnight, almost.

And then the third point I wanted to raise was around employment. Employment for people with a learning disability is very low in Wales and in the UK as whole. We recognise that unemployment levels are going to soar as we come out of COVID, and for people with a learning disability, that means that they might find themselves at the bottom of the pile, of the employment pile, again, and, for us, it's vitally important that we have targeted programmes in Wales. That includes a national job coaching scheme and other schemes that are specifically ring-fenced for disabled people to ensure that they have equitable opportunity within the new employment landscape in Wales.


Okay. Well, thank you very much for that. Thank you very much for the timeliness of your presentation as well. Ansley, would you like to go next on behalf of RNIB Cymru, please?

Okay, great, thank you. Nathan and I are going to do a bit of a double act as well here. We recognise many of the issues that have already been spoken about, but what we've seen is that COVID-19 has really exacerbated the inequality issues faced by blind and partially sighted people in Wales, and we saw that starkly at the beginning of the crisis in the provision of public health messaging, which was inaccessible.

We have provided guidance to Welsh Government and the NHS comms teams and Public Health Wales and we're actually really pleased with the response, but what this has really shown are much wider issues about accessible communication and it not being standard practice for the public sector. It's much more reactive and relies on organisations like us to raise it. So, it's a really important issue.

But, obviously, the crisis created new challenges. And it has been mentioned, but social distancing, it's nearly impossible for blind and partially sighted people, because it's inherently visual—such as markings on the ground—and guide dogs, for example, are not trained to keep distance. And we don't yet have any official guidance on how to be guided safely. The impact particularly has been seen, as has been mentioned before, around access to groceries. So, this was one of our biggest challenges in the early part of the crisis, but it still continues.

So, the particular issue facing blind and partially sighted people is not being able to leave their homes because they're concerned and may not be able to social distance, and they're unable to access online shops. Many people are not in the extremely vulnerable group, but, situationally, COVID-19 has made them very vulnerable. There are many people with sight loss who also just do not have access to digital technology.

So, while we think, absolutely, it's really important to safeguard the extremely vulnerable, we really believe that that definition has to be widened to take into account people who have been situationally vulnerable. An example of the way that this can be done: RNIB in England has actually brokered a scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that people with sight loss can actually access shopping slots. So, these are the immediate concerns that we have, but I'd like to pass to Nathan, who will cover a few of the ongoing issues. 

Thank you, Chair. Thanks, Ansley, and thanks for the opportunity to speak to the committee today. So, the biggest issue that we see facing blind and partially sighted people as we move out of lockdown are the changes to street layouts and public spaces. With social distancing likely to be in place for the foreseeable, this is going to be a long-term issue. So, obviously, the intention of the changes to the streets is to enable social distancing and to encourage a shift towards more active travel, which is obviously a necessary and positive step, but making these changes absent of proper equality considerations is making public spaces completely inaccessible to blind and partially sighted people. 

So, in recent weeks, since the Welsh Government called for expressions of interest from local authorities, we've been seeing a number of temporary, quick-fix changes being made. A local example here in Cardiff is the widening of Castle Street using cones, which are completely undetectable for a cane user; as Ansley mentioned, guide dogs aren't trained to navigate cones. And then signs were placed on the pavement, which creates additional obstacles, and encourage greater use of shared space between cyclists and pedestrians, which is really problematic for blind people, and increases the risk of collisions and confrontations.

And then, more recently, with the opening of non-essential retail, we're seeing painted white lines on pavements to mark out queues and one-way systems, which, again, are obviously not detectable for somebody with sight loss. These things create additional barriers for blind and partially sighted people that are having a real effect on their independence and mobility. I've got a quote here from one of our campaigners, who's from Caerphilly. She's a lady in her early 30s, and she told us that she's feeling really anxious and forgotten about in her local town, feeling like she's gone back 10 years to when she first lost her eyesight. She said, in the last 10 years, she's really gained in confidence and independence, but it's gotten to a point now where she just can't even navigate her local town. She said, 'Everywhere I turn, I'm faced with a barrier, which sounds great in theory, but, in practice, it's just making me feel like I'm being left behind by society', which I'm sure you'll all agree is not where we want to be. And then, in the longer term recovery strategy, councils are now putting forward plans to introduce new cycling infrastructure, one-way systems, spill-out areas outside bars and restaurants, and alterations to public transport infrastructure, and these changes are being made, obviously, very quickly, as the situation needs, but the speed of implementation without proper equality and accessibility considerations risks making public areas effectively a no-go zone for blind and partially sighted people.

So, as an organisation, we've been raising this issue since early May. RNIB and our colleagues at Guide Dogs produced a guidance document with recommendations for how to make streets accessible. We've sent this to every local authority in Wales and to Welsh Government, and I'd just like to thank Mark Isherwood for helping us to circulate that.

We're also calling on the Welsh Government to make public awareness of the challenges of social distancing a key focus for Government comms moving forward. So, on the one hand, we've been pleased, because the Welsh Government created a safer spaces guidance document earlier this month, which explicitly set out the expectation that the needs of blind and partially sighted people have to be considered, but we're not seeing this translate to a material change on the ground. The need for expediency often means that guidance just isn't being undertaken, so—. Yes, as I said, it's not always translating.

So, just to summarise: whilst we're completely supportive of the shift to active, sustainable travel, and appreciate the need to make change at pace, if accessibility isn't built in from the forefront, then, as I say, public places are effectively going to be a no-go for blind and partially sighted people, and, effectively, will exclude them from society, and, as some of my colleagues today on this call today have said, loneliness and isolation are real issues in this community, and this is likely to be further exacerbated.

So, a survey that we conducted in April and May found that two thirds of respondents reported that they're feeling more isolated now than pre lockdown.


Okay, Nathan. Okay. Well, thanks very much for that, and thank you all very much for your presentations. We'll move into questions from Members, then. Perhaps I might begin with a question on the effectiveness of Welsh Government's actions to date, in terms of responding to these unequal impacts on people with disabilities in Wales arising from COVID-19. What are the headlines for you—if I could put it in that way—in terms of that Welsh Government response? What has been equal to the challenge, and what has not? Miranda.

Thank you. I'd like to say that it's been very good in terms of communication with—. We have the disability equality forum; we're having two weekly meetings, with access to Ministers and senior officials, so we're having that ongoing dialogue throughout the lockdown, and we're communicating over various issues and we're having that involvement. Obviously, it can go a lot further, which is what we've been calling for in terms of shielding. We want to have more involvement in terms of that very issue and the scheme itself.

But, apart from that, on the whole, we have had that access, which has been really encouraging, and we just want to continue that access and that dialogue as we go through, easing out of lockdown.

I think that it's been a similar situation for us. We've had regular weekly meetings with policy officials around learning disability and the Improving Lives programme within Welsh Government. They've been extremely reactive to what we've put forward and I think as we look at the mechanisms by which we'll measure—and equality being one of the mechanisms by which we'll measure—how we come out of lockdown, it's important—. We were delighted to see that that was one of the measurements that they included in how we will move out of lockdown. However, it's really important for us that there are people, disabled voices, able to scrutinise that and be part of that process of challenge and scrutiny, and I think that's been something that has been difficult for the learning disability community. Consultation with people with a learning disability takes time, and we've not had time to react to what is coming out of Welsh Government, and it's very, very difficult to find mechanisms to ensure that the voice of learning disability is within that.


Yes, thank you. I think we would echo the sentiments of our colleagues. We've found the Disability Equality Forum, which is chaired by Deputy Minister Jane Hutt, to be a very useful two-way communication channel. We've been really pleased with the ongoing communication with the Government on that front, and, as Ansley said earlier, we were pleased at the quick response from organisations like Public Health Wales and NHS Direct around adding accessibility functionality and improving their communications, but that is kept with the caveat that it is reactive and shines light on the fact that this isn't standard practice—so, mixed in that regard. On the more negative front, we asked for explicit guidance on how a blind person can socially distance and be guided safely, I think back in March, and we still haven't had any response to that query. We'd also, I think, be keen to push for an accessibility lead at the Welsh Government to be that accountability mechanism to ensure that these kinds of communications are accessible moving forward. We'd also like more work to be done to raise public awareness of the challenges that social distancing poses to disabled people, and we'd like this to be a communications focus moving forward.

Okay. Well, thank you very much for that, Nathan. All of your responses, really, lead us nicely into Mark Isherwood's questions around engagement. So, over to you, Mark.

Great. Thank you. No matter how many times we do this over recent days, weeks and months, I still keep making mistakes over the muting.

You all touch on the importance of engaging with disabled people in order to get things right from the beginning, or, more to the point, are worried—some of the problems that you all identified. In terms of shopping, Nathan knows that I submitted a question to Welsh Government a few months ago, asking about access to supermarkets or home deliveries for blind people or partially sighted people, and the response came back that, if they're not on the shielding list, they don't get the extra help. We raised this in committee with Jane Hutt and she said she'd take it away, and I'd be interested to know from all of you whether there's been any positive development since Jane Hutt said that she'd take that away and see if something could be done about it.

Zoe knows that I had an online meeting with a self-advocacy group for adults with learning disabilities in north Wales, and they raised several issues very much endorsing what Zoe said about the need to communicate with them and to understand the barriers—including the communication barriers—that they are engaging or tackling or living with. Even what the 'new normal' means was put to me—what does that actually mean for people? Because we're using a new language that most people struggle with. So, how do you feel we can address the problems that were put to us in the letter that Members have received this morning? 'We're writing to you as part of our campaign to raise awareness about the daily challenges that people who have visual impairment or are disabled face.' It talks about the hate crime that they have suffered. 'As we prepare for a new way of life as lockdown restrictions are eased, people and businesses need to become adaptable. We feel that the easing of lockdown restrictions and the adaptability have not been thoroughly thought through, and have prioritised the needs of able-bodied people.' And, as Nathan indicated, we've had to raise the issue of shared spaces with local authorities.

So, at the core of all of this—and I've touched on a few of the many points you've raised with me and others—is how we ensure this test, effectively, of the public sector equality duty and social model of disability can be a learning experience, and how we can better embed the voice of disabled people at the beginning in identifying the barriers so that the measures put in places incorporate that, avoid avoidable problems and get things right from the beginning, rather than, I think—the term Nathan used—reactively.

Okay. Who'd like to go first answering that—Ansley?

Okay, thank you, Mark. I think that we've got to approach this in a kind of multifaceted way to make sure that we get it right. If I can just give you an example: at the moment, all of the sight-loss sector in Wales are in constant contact with people with sight loss. With RNIB, for example, there are 3,500 people in Wales who are members, and we are contacting them—we started with the most vulnerable—and we continue to contact them, as do other VI sector members. So, the actual community—the VI sector—can contact a lot of people, and there are lots of groups going. So, that's one method.

I think that one of the other ways is the way that we communicate and we ask people and give people information. A really good example of that is that, one of the things that RNIB did is that we actually put out a lot of advertisements on the radio stations that we know that the majority of older people with sight loss would be accessing—so, using different routes rather than just the standard routes that we might do. We'd also suggest things like, 'Where do a lot of older people with sight loss go?', and it might be GPs, for example; using these other ways to contact people. But also to be providing much more videos and audio, rather than just written information, even if it was in a kind of bigger format. We found for ourselves, when we put out quite a bit of public health messaging—for example, about attendance at eye clinics, interviews with consultant ophthalmologists and Optometry Wales—they got a really large amount of hits when we put them out on social media, as opposed to that written form, because you don't know what everybody's accessible format is. That seems to be working a lot better.


Thank you. I fully support everything that Ansley has said. The Equality Act 2010 places a public sector equality duty for the public sector to involve disabled people. This is nothing new. This has been happening for some time. But, it's the enforcement of that duty that often fails, and the ability to carry out—the duty to carry out—equality impact assessments on strategies that are being developed by public bodies, service deliverers. Again, this is nothing new. These organisations have a duty to do these things, and it should be happening. So, I suppose it's how we enforce that and remind people—remind organisations—of their duties under the Equality Act to involve and consult and to carry out equality impact assessments.

Thank you very much, Miranda. Nathan, did I see your hand as well? Yes. Nathan, you're muted at the moment. 

Sorry, my own microphone was muted. Yes, I would just like to completely echo everything that Miranda just said. That was going to be one of my points: that public bodies have a duty to undertake an equality impact assessment, but this is often not given the time and emphasis that it deserves. There need to be comprehensive equality impact assessments, with authentic engagement with disabled people that captures and records their views and concerns and then presents clear mitigations as to how these would be resolved. Often, these are very generic and are very high level and don't get to the crux of the issue. So, I would echo Miranda's sentiments that there needs to be a stronger accountability for this, and maybe that's something that should be led by the Welsh Government.

In response to Mark Isherwood's question around the shopping issue, to date we have had no firm action from the Government on the issue of shopping for anybody outside of the shielding group. The response has been that anybody who is not extremely vulnerable under the 'shielding' definition should contact their local authority for volunteer support, which we believe isn't really a long-term solution and goes against the social model of disability because, in effect, people have had the means by which they lead an independent life taken away from them. So, we have been in discussions with a civil servant in the Welsh Government about RNIB's direct referral scheme, which we've brokered with DEFRA. But, currently, the demand is lower because we have obviously been in lockdown for three months. But, you know, if, in the winter, we need another lockdown, social distancing isn't going anywhere, so we would like to see that scheme put in place.  

Hi. Yes, it touches on points that have already been made, but just that—. I spoke earlier about the principles to evaluate changes to the restrictions that were announced when the First Minister put them out, and the final principle was, 'Does the measure have a high, positive equality impact?' and it's about building in the scrutiny around that. How do we know that that's happening? Who is part of that process monitoring, and how are disabled people involved in that measuring process?


Okay, Zoe, thank you very much. We turn to Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. A few of you have mentioned that there were some issues with the communications that were made from the Government to people who were shielding because of having disabilities. I wonder—and I know some of the points you've already made about the communications not always being an 'easy read' and also that there was an assumption that there might be someone else there who could help with some issues—whether you could tell us in a little bit more detail, please, what support you think the Government did get right in terms of the support and the communications given to people shielding, and also what lessons you think need to be learned if we do have a second peak.

I think shielding has been very difficult for people with a learning disability. There is real confusion over who is shielding and who is vulnerable—which group you fit into. There has been, for many people with a learning disability, a lack of understanding of why they're on the shielding list, if they are, and if they're not on the shielding list why they're not, if they have significant, I suppose, multiple medical issues.

For many people with a learning disability, when lockdown was announced, they moved from their homes—sometimes their homes—to live with family members, to stay with friends, and that was primarily because they may have been staying in a house where others were shielding and that impacted on them as well, or their situation of shielding impacted on other people. So, if they were living in a house with three of four other people with a learning disability and some of the others were not shielding, it meant that that had an impact on the quality of life and being able to exercise for the other people, et cetera. So, people moved home with parents to shield, people moved to friends, et cetera, and then they were totally unable to access any of the support mechanisms such as shopping slots—all of those things—because it was only directed to a person's address.

Not having an 'easy read' information letter was a huge problem. The letter is quite significant. It has a lot of information. It has too much information for people with a learning disability to take in, and it has many options as well. For example, there were the telephone numbers for 22 local authorities at the end, and when you see all of those numbers and all of that information all bundled in together, that's really difficult to navigate. 

Some people were shocked at receiving shielding letters and were unable to get medical appointments to talk through why they might have received a shielding letter. Other people who didn't understand the letter, and therefore thought it was another letter about services coming through the door, totally disregarded their shielding letter and found themselves in situations where they weren't sticking to the rules and being out and about and being victims of hate crime, really, because they really didn't understand what the lockdown rules meant to them. 

So, there are significant issues for people with a learning disability. There was an assumption that everybody would have someone to guide them through that process of shielding. We know that a large proportion of people with a learning disability in Wales now live quite independently, so they wouldn't have been able to access that. Many people employ PAs out of direct payments, et cetera, and didn't really understand whether they could still support them if they were shielding—if those PAs could come into the house or not. So, support almost disappeared overnight. Some have been, kind of, I suppose almost at the point of getting in trouble because they are an employer as a recipient of direct payments and they've not been able to navigate that system and there hasn't been support for them to navigate that system while they're shielding.

So, we've had some reports of, again, issues with the shielding letters, of them going to the wrong houses, of them not being addressed properly. Also, we've had reports of them being very difficult for disabled people to get hold of. So, one of our members had to get her sister to, essentially, badger her GP into getting a letter. They make people become very reliant—people end up becoming quite reliant on their partners—and it's very, very, to echo what Zoe said, difficult to live independently for people who are shielding.

There's also an issue that shielding letters have almost come to be used as proof of disability, especially when it comes to employers and accessing certain support services, and that has become quite a big issue for a lot of disabled people across Wales.

And there are also, of course, people who are shielding being immediately classed as vulnerable—immediately classed as a vulnerable person—and it's taken quite a lot of agency away from people, and it's further adding to a lot of issues with isolation.


I think there are a couple of routes that could actually be used in the future that are there but need to be improved. So, in 2013, we introduced—Welsh Government introduced—the all-Wales standards for accessible communication and information for people with sensory loss, and that put a requirement to record people's communication preference and to therefore communicate in that way from then on. And that has now been implemented for GPs as well. So, if you consider, when you're talking about shielding, that a lot of that information comes from health, it comes from GPs, then, if we actually implement that system that is already in place and make sure that is done, then we should have a big jump forward in being able to provide people with information that they need. So, I think that's one of the major things that can be done.

The second one is about the disability registers as well. These will not capture everybody, but if local authorities have a duty to keep those up to date and for them to be managed, then they are a very, very good resource, in terms of being able to contact quite a big proportion of people with disabilities through our local authority registers. But we know that is not the case at the moment and that they're not in a great state.

Okay, Ansley, thank you very much for that. Let me just bring in Dawn Bowden at this point. Dawn.

Thank you, Chair. Just picking up on the shielding issue, I just wanted to ask all of you, really, in terms of your organisations, whether you're getting feedback around the sort of things that I find in my postbag. I'm getting lots of people contacting me, saying that they are getting wrong information or misinformation from their GPs around shielding. I find that quite difficult to understand, but it is quite clear that some people are being given the wrong information by some GPs. Now, I just wonder whether that is something that is common, whether you're getting that kind of information. Because, if that is happening, we need to get to the root of why that is happening and whether the GPs are not being given correct information to impart to their patients, particularly the kind of people that you're seeking to represent I'm talking about.

I don't have an answer exactly to your question, Dawn, but I think it does speak to—. There are information data practices within the NHS that definitely do need to be updated. As Ansley mentioned, those standards were introduced in 2013, and some research that we've done has shown that there's been very little progress made against those standards in the last seven years. Blind and partially sighted people tell us often that it's not uncommon for them to have to ask a family member, a friend, or, if they live alone, sometimes a neighbour or a stranger to read a letter for them, which may have, you know, really personal information on it. So, I think, yes, in answer to your question, I think we can definitely say there is a problem there.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Thank you all for your presentations, during which we heard that issues faced by people with disabilities are challenging during ordinary times and that they're greatly heightened during lockdown. A lot of support has been withdrawn, as Ansley has said, from those who need it most. Regarding social distancing, again, I'd like to highlight what Ansley has said: this has been almost impossible for those 121,000 people in Wales living with sight loss. Sixty-six per cent of those people now feel less independent. So, my question really is: how are we going to restore our people's faith who are living with disabilities, restore their confidence as lockdown measures are lifted, with particular regard to social distancing? Thank you.


Hiya. Thank you. Thank you, Caroline. I think in terms of the social services and well-being Act, we would urge Government to bring that back in its entirety really, so that the duties apply back to the local authorities, to avoid any confusion, uncertainty and potential breaches of human rights. Far better to fully reinstate the Act than to minimise local authorities' duties like it has been during the pandemic, to avoid people having those quite severe cuts to their community care packages and loss of access to vital services, including personal assistants. So, we would urge Government to relook at that and to reinstate the Act in its entirety.

Obviously, we totally agree with Miranda, but there's also some external-facing work that we would like to see happen, because as we come out of lockdown and businesses are opening, we'd really like to see Welsh Government being able to support these businesses to open in a way that is accessible to all. That's really, really important to start to give that guidance and that support, and also it needs a lot of training. For example, if you're looking at the test, trace and protect system coming into place, the tracers need to understand the different issues going on in people's lives and different disabilities. So, as an organisation, we're doing a lot of that and developing a lot of resources, but there's only so much that organisations can do. We need Government backing to make sure that, as we restart the economy, the businesses and the streets are accessible to all of our community, and I think that is a really important ask.

And also, the second thing, to go back to what Nathan mentioned earlier, is about some kind of well-being social distancing campaign and awareness raising that social distancing—people are not being rude if they walk past you or they don't know the right place to go. It's actually for different reasons; they may not be able to easily social distance. So, that kind of awareness of other people, I think, is very, very important as we go forward.

Sure. Okay, Ansley, thank you very much. Okay, Caroline?

Yes, thanks, John. I think, to a degree, you've probably covered quite a bit of the area that I was going to ask about, because what I wanted to get from all of you was: what do you think, in practical terms—? Because you've all talked about identifying a number of the issues that have been really challenging for people with disabilities, how they've had to overcome them and how you've had to battle through with Welsh Government to get things changed and so on. So, what would you be saying, if we were sat down now and saying, 'What practical things can Welsh Government do through the rest of the pandemic and beyond in the short, medium and long term?' What would the key practical things that would be the greatest help be? You've talked about embedding learning, you've talked about the involvement of disability groups, you've talked about campaigning around awareness of social distancing for people with sight loss and so on. So, all of those things, I guess, would come into it, but if you could, kind of, try to set that out in very practical terms, short, medium, long term, what would you be looking for?

Thank you. So, just to start us off, really, I've already mentioned this to start with, but to continue the active involvement of disabled people and their organisations in exploring the possible solutions to the barriers that we're confronted with on various different subjects—whether that's access to public transport, public toilets, shopping, social care, all of the issues that impact on disabled people's lives—is to have that active dialogue to understand people's lives and have those personal stories really, and have disabled people leading the way on the possible solutions, rather than making decisions without disabled people at the table.

Also, just to talk about—. We're campaigning for the introduction of the UN convention on the rights of disabled people within Welsh law in Wales. That's an ongoing campaign that we have as an organisation. Long term, we would love to see that embedded within Welsh law, like in the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 that has been. So, that's another point.

And the social model of disability is to continue to actively promote what that means in practice, how it looks and how it reflects within our society, as opposed to the medical model that we're trying to move away from in some respects.


To add on to what Miranda was saying, some things more in the shorter term that we'd love to see would be that work programmes and support services, and people getting back into employment, would be also directed towards disabled people as well. We've heard concerns from some members that they're only being directed towards younger people, and as disabled people are less likely to be able to get back into work, we'd like to see them expanded. And also, just think around training and ensuring that people are better trained in how to support disabled people, especially in our public services.

Also, just to ensure that we are maintaining some of the positive benefits that have come out of the lockdown, and the things that have helped disabled people, for example, having online doctors' consultations, as consultations over the phone have been of massive benefit to a lot of people; also, the availability of working from home has really helped some disabled people; and more priority online slots. We'd like to see those kinds of services being maintained as well. 

Yes, echoing a lot of the points that have already been said, but from our perspective, we feel that the priority in the short term has to be making public spaces as accessible as they can be, and building in equality and accessibility at the earliest stages of planning and not de-prioritising that in the interest of expediency. So, practically, this means a robust equality impact assessment with authentic engagement from disabled people and blind people to capture their views and concerns, and then give clear mitigations as to how those are going to be solved. And communicating those changes well in advance in a range of accessible formats, so that people know what to expect before they leave the house, and coupling this with a public awareness campaign about the challenges that social distancing poses would go a long way to help the situation that's currently being faced by disabled people.

We'd also like some clear official guidance from the Welsh Government on how to social distance and be guided safely because, obviously, until the very recent announcement about being able to join households, unless you had somebody living with you who could be a guide, you've effectively not been able to have a sighted guide for the entire lockdown period if you are blind and that's your usual mode of navigation. 

And then, the mid to long term, as we've discussed, is about the Welsh Government overseeing a significant change in the way the public sector communicates, and holding them more robustly to account for accessible formats as standard practice.

Sorry, before Ansley comes in, can I just ask Nathan—well, both of you, actually, because it was a question for RNIB? You talked in your presentations and you talked in your paper about the difficulty with social distancing for people with sight loss, people who are blind, partially sighted, and so on, and you talked about guide dogs not being trained. Now, it seems as though social distancing is probably going to be with us for some considerable time, probably at least until we get a vaccination, however long that might be. Are there discussions going on with organisations that are training guide dogs about how this could be brought into the training programme, and whether it is possible to train dogs to help in this way? I don't know—perhaps you can explain. 

Okay. Shall I bring Ansley in at this point? Ansley. 

Thanks, Dawn, for that question about guide dogs. Unfortunately, I can't give you an answer today, and I think we're too early into the pandemic to know what will be happening in the future, but certainly it is a question that I could ask Guide Dogs and get them to get in touch with you, Dawn. 

Yes. Okay. Thank you. The only other issue that I was going to raise that hadn't been quite addressed is that for RNIB, certainly, we still see shopping as a priority to get sorted out for blind and partially sighted people to access priority slots. People have found ways around this, which has been great, but again, it's not sustainable. As we see people starting, for example, to go back to work, maybe a lot of volunteers won't be volunteering, and certainly we are hearing that, if people are asking neighbours or friends, they're saying, 'I don't want to ask them too often. I only ask for a few items because I don't want them to feel as if they're under pressure.' So it still is quite an issue, so that really still needs to be addressed.

The other one would be really to look at the appointment of an accessibility lead in Welsh Government. We understand that the Cabinet Office in Westminster has just done so, about two or three weeks ago. So, unfortunately, Wales isn't leading by example there, but I think it would make a big difference to all of the issues that we're talking about here.


Thank you, Ansley. I'll bring you in in a minute, Nathan; I was just going to ask Zoe if you had anything to add in terms of actions that are required, Zoe. 

I think all of those things that you spoke about, Dawn, scrutiny of what's being delivered, impact assessments, but also something that Ansley mentioned earlier, that widespread public awareness campaign. People with a learning disability are going to, like everybody else, have to navigate a whole new world, and that is more difficult sometimes for people with a learning disability, and that level of patience of service providers and public service providers is going to be really important in supporting people within the community, and to ensure that they're safe to access their community. Because for people with a learning disability, they've really struggled with feeling safe whilst following the rules and being in receipt of judgmental actions from others. 

Thank you, yes. I just wanted to pick up on Dawn's point around the training of guide dogs. Obviously, we're not the best organisation to be speaking to; our colleagues at Guide Dogs would be the experts to speak to on that. But there are practical steps that can be taken that would improve the situation from the perspective of a blind person navigating: things like tactile paving; clearly colour co-ordinated barriers that start at the floor and come up to about waist height, which wouldn't be a trip hazard but would be detectable, replacing the painted white line that we're seeing now; and train stewards at welcome points. I know that in Cardiff they're planning on introducing welcome points around the centre. If the people manning those points were trained in how to guide somebody, or disability awareness, that would be a real benefit, and as I said, maps and guides that people could have access to in advance to plan their journeys would also be beneficial. So, there are steps that councils can take, and there are also experts, accessibility consultants, that they might consider working with, which is what we would suggest as an organisation.

Yes, I see. Okay. Do any of our witnesses have anything they'd like to briefly add to anything that they've said up to now before we—? Yes, Miranda. 

Thank you, John. I'd just like to echo our support for a public awareness campaign. That would be a fantastic idea, just to hit home, really, for us all to be kind and courteous to fellow people shopping, and to understand that not all impairments are visual and so obvious. So, just to have that bit of empathy and for people to be alert if people require assistance, really. But never judge—never to make that judgment. I think that campaign would most definitely need to be developed in partnership with our organisations, including disabled people, to make sure that it is pitched the right way and comes from a social model approach.

Okay, Miranda, thanks very much. Megan, did I see your hand raised?

I was going to echo what Miranda just said.

Okay, thank you very much. Okay. Well, thank you all for giving evidence to the committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr. 

Okay. We have a short break now, then, as a committee until 3.15 p.m. See you then. 

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 15:00 a 15:14.

The meeting adjourned between 15:00 and 15:14.

3. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a'i Effaith: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Aelwydydd Incwm Isel
3. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact: Evidence Session on Low-income Households

Welcome back to the committee, then, for our meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee today, continuing our evidence taking on the impact of COVID-19 on our committee's areas of responsibility. 

Item 3 on our agenda today is in respect of COVID-19 and its impact on low-income households in Wales. I'm very pleased to welcome Steffan Evans, policy and research officer for the Bevan Foundation, together with his colleague, Claire Thomas, who is the policy and research officer; Rachel Cable, head of Oxfam Cymru and  Gwennan Hardy, senior policy officer for Citizens Advice Cymru. Welcome to you all. In terms of your initial presentations, I wonder if we might ask you, Rachel, to begin, on behalf of Oxfam Cymru. Diolch yn fawr. 


Thank you, Chair. Good afternoon. Thanks very much for having me. I'll today be talking with my Oxfam Cymru hat on, but I'm going to be drawing on quite a lot of the discussions we've been having at Wales's anti-poverty coalition. The coalition has addressed quite a broad range of issues throughout this period, which won't come as a big surprise to you, but one of the things I want to focus on in these opening comments is carers in particular. And then, I'm sure, we'll be touching on other specific groups, perhaps, as we go through the session. 

I listened in to some of the previous session just now, and one of the themes appearing I think is this issue of the coronavirus exacerbating existing inequalities. We know that history tells us that, when a crisis strikes, it's always those on the breadline who are least able to cope—they're the least resilient; they're the least able to cope with the loss of vital income when they get sick or when businesses close and we see job cuts and so on. And really, sadly, wherever they are in the world, it is women who are hit the hardest by poverty. 

We've talked a lot about carers through this crisis; lots of us have been standing on our doorsteps on Thursdays clapping. And, as carers, it's women who've been finding themselves on the front line, placing their own health at risk. Women make up the vast majority of people working in the NHS and in social care, and are also shouldering the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work at home as well, not just in the surge of sick relatives, but in looking after the children who, of course, have been at home for some months now. 

A lot of carers are already trapped in poverty and now have a huge number of extraordinary new pressures on them. I think it's right to congratulate the Welsh Government, actually, on moving quite swiftly on some areas and to bring in a range of measures to help people through this. For example, bringing in childcare assistance for some critical workers; workplace regulations on social distancing; we had an agreement about social landlords not taking eviction action; and delivering food boxes and so on. But it isn't enough, and I think we need to go quite a bit further in order that we make sure that this doesn't make inequality worse. 

Carers have been undervalued for far too long. We've heard the First Minister talk about this quite a bit and I think we need to use this as an opportunity to change things, actually. We need our carers to be focusing on caring, not worrying about paying their bills and putting food on the table. My concern is that, because of existing inequalities, women are going to be locked into both income poverty and time poverty and are going to be further restricted in helping us to work out what some of the solutions are to these problems. There was some work published by UNESCO last month that gave us a global picture where, around the world, 87 per cent of students were at home at that time, and it was women having to fill that gap of doing unpaid work, domestic work, the schooling and, increasingly, having to forgo paid work in order to fulfil those duties. 

We know that, before this crisis hit, those people providing care for people with additional needs—39 per cent of those people in the UK said that they were struggling to make ends meet, and this figure rises to 53 per cent, when you look at those who are in receipt of carers' allowance. And it isn't just unpaid carers I think we need to be concerned about. Historically, we've talked about paid work as the best defence against poverty, but that just isn't true if you work in the paid care sector. Providing paid care—it's associated with being on low incomes, having poor working conditions and, often, a lack of agency. Lots of our care workers, historically, have been on zero-hours contracts, and there have been welcomed moves to try to address that. We conducted some research during this crisis that showed that 69 per cent of people in Wales think that our care workers are paid too little, which I don’t think is a big surprise, probably, to any of us.

But these poor pay and conditions have quite an impact on not just the workers but on their families as well. Before the coronavirus hit, we had examples of care workers telling us stories about using food banks, not having enough money to fix their boiler, and we had one example of someone who hadn't had hot water or heating for three years, because they couldn't afford to get the boiler fixed. The coronavirus is exacerbating this issue.

Obviously, there is going to be a data lag, so we don't have the full picture yet, but I think what we're seeing already is that we are going to be faced with some pretty scary issues to tackle in the coming months and years ahead of us. So, look, some good progress has been made to help address some of these immediate effects, but a lot of them are sticking plasters to some much bigger problems that we need to be talking about. So, I'll leave it there for now, because I know that we're pressed for time, but I'm happy to take any questions later on. Thank you, Chair.


Thank you very much, Rachel. Would either Claire or Steffan like to go next for the Bevan Foundation? Steffan.

Prynhawn da. Diolch yn fawr am y gwahoddiad.

Good afternoon. Thank you very much for the invitation.

I'll be going first on behalf of the Bevan Foundation, focusing specifically on poverty, and then I'll hand over to Claire who leads our work on migration and integration.

So, in terms of poverty itself, as I'm sure you're aware, and as Rachel touched on there, poverty was a big problem anyway in Wales. As we were going into lockdown, the latest poverty data was released, which showed that 700,000 people were living in poverty already in Wales, and we don’t think that the underlying causes of poverty have actually changed that much during the pandemic.

So, the underlying issues are that work doesn’t provide people with enough money, that the social security system doesn't provide an adequate safety net, and that living costs are too expensive, particularly housing costs, in relation to all these other issues. What the pandemic has done, though, is exacerbate those existing issues. So, if we think about work, we've seen a huge increase in the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits and people have seen their hours of work cut. Particularly concerning is around furlough—that, if you're in the lowest paid jobs, you're less likely to have had your incomes topped up to the full 100 per cent by your employer. So, all of that is exacerbating that issue.

Around the social security system, there have been really welcome moves both at a UK and at a Welsh level, but we've still got issues around the benefit cap, there are still people not eligible for free school meals in Wales despite being on universal credit, because there's the extra income criteria. We've seen food prices and energy prices all go up because people have, obviously, been at home more, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report with Save the Children a couple of weeks ago that showed that 70 per cent of families who had children and were receiving universal credit had cut back on essentials. So, it really shows how it's biting hardest for some of those who are on the lowest pay and on the lowest incomes.

In terms of going forward, we think that there is probably something to do in terms of trying to bank some of the wins. So, thinking at UK level in terms of the increase in the universal credit base allowance—if we're able to get that on a long-term footing, that would be something very, very positive. And at a Welsh level, rolling out free school meals over the summer holidays has been something that is massively positive, and if we could keep that in the longer term as well, that would be great.

But I think that there's also a need to go beyond that. So, in the immediate term, what else could we do with the benefit system? And also thinking about work—how can Welsh Government try and get more money through its procurement contracts, for example, to get fairer work? What more can we do in terms of when we build back better? We hear a lot about that. Can we invest in social housing maybe, to get more affordable housing through that?

So, that's a bit of whistle-stop tour, and I'm sure we'll come back more when we come to questions, but I'll hand over to Claire. 

Thank you, Chair, and thank you for inviting us. So, for the last 18 months, the Bevan Foundation has been working on a project looking at migration and integration in Wales. Just after lockdown, we published a report, 'Shared ground: integrating migrants in Wales'. It identifies some significant issues for migrant groups in Wales, particularly around integration, with many people facing isolated lives. We saw that employment can be a good way of integrating, but often, migrants find themselves in very low-paid, insecure forms of employment. And we found that, when seeking support, some face discrimination and they simply don't know what their rights are. What we identified in the report then, we feel, could actually get a lot worse as a result of coronavirus. So, we know that migrants are working in these sectors that have been particularly affected by coronavirus. As Steffan said, they're in low-paid jobs; they're less likely to have had their incomes topped up; less likely to receive sick pay. And unfortunately for some, if they've been made unemployed or are facing unemployment, if they don't have recourse to public funding, that could be an additional pressure. And obviously, we see other impacts: lots of migrants living in crowded accommodation, unsuitable accommodation, and sometimes, that accommodation is also linked to their employment, so if they lose their employment, they lose that accommodation as well.

Just looking more widely, we think that coronavirus and lockdown has really, sort of, disrupted those drivers of integration. So, for many, attending groups, being in employment and attending education were really those drivers of integration. That's all been disrupted. So, the English for speakers of other languages classes, although many of them are online now, it's sort of like we've taken a step back three months and it's very difficult to restart those processes.

Finally, there are real concerns, I think, for EU migrants going forward because, obviously, before lockdown, there were lots of activities around the EU settlement scheme. Although that's gone to online formats, we've lost that face-to-face contact, which I think was really important, particularly around—not just the EUSS scheme, but advisers meeting up and talking to people face to face about some of those issues around employment, education and housing. So, I think migrants particularly face real vulnerabilities as a result. 


Okay. Thank you very much, Claire. And finally for our initial presentations, then, Gwennan Hardy for Citizens Advice Cymru.

Thank you and thanks for the invitation to give evidence today. So, I'm going to focus on just a statement on the impact that coronavirus has had on people's finances. It's something that we're seeing every day at Citizens Advice Cymru.

Since the lockdown was first announced, we've helped more than 30,000 people across Wales. We've seen a significant increase in demand for advice on employment and benefits issues in particular. In April, we commissioned a survey that suggested that four in 10 households in Wales had seen their income drop as a result of the crisis, and despite interventions from both UK and Welsh Governments, our advisers are continuing to highlight cases where people are falling through gaps in support, or struggling to cope financially at the moment. 

There are two main issues that we want to bring to the committee's attention today. The first is that it's likely that the income drops that people are facing at the moment are going to translate into long-term financial problems for some through no fault of their own. We know that major life changes and particularly income shocks are a driver of financial distress, and for that reason, we're concerned that more people in Wales are going to be pulled into poverty or pulled into debt as a result of this pandemic. So, the Money and Pensions Service has predicted that the number of people needing help with that is going to increase by over 60 per cent, and the peak won't be until towards the end of 2021. It's a long-term problem that we need to face.

And this group is going to need support, but crucially, they also need better legal protections from some of the worst impacts of debt and financial difficulty. Welsh Government has a crucial role to play in that. There are a couple of examples that particularly affect our clients. The first is around rent arrears: we know that people who rent their homes have been particularly hard hit by this crisis, and typically, they're likely to be poorly equipped to weather that storm just in terms of the levels of savings that they have. They're also at risk of some of the worst impacts if they fall behind on rent and have to leave their homes or face being threatened with homelessness. 

And during this crisis, we've seen that people with mortgages have been offered payment holidays, but we haven't seen equivalent support for renters to help them stay in their homes. So, whilst the pause on evictions and the extension of the notice period for tenants is really welcome, there is a risk, we're concerned that it has pushed problems further down the road. We'd like to see some targeted support for people in private rented accommodation. 

Another example is around council tax. So, prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was the most common debt issue amongst people coming to Citizens Advice Cymru, and one of the reasons for this is that council tax debts can be enforced in a way that escalates financial problems. So, people can be made liable for their full annual bill if they miss one payment and fees and charges can be added during the enforcement process, which adds to their debt. All of that means that someone who misses a payment of £160 could see the amount that they owe escalate to more than £2,000 in a matter of weeks. We've actually seen really good progress on this issue in Wales over the past few years, including the publication of a council tax protocol for Wales. I think we're concerned that there hasn't been an evaluation yet of the impact that that has had, and, as it's voluntary, it's not necessarily going to give the consistency of approach that we need to make sure that people who are in council tax arrears are protected. So, we'd like Welsh Government to work with local authorities to collect council tax arrears in a way that's affordable and provides people with a route out of problem debt.

Just quickly, the second big issue that we want to raise is people's access to the benefits system during this time. We have seen some positive changes to the UK benefits system since the outbreak began, but we're still concerned that not everyone is getting financial support that is timely and that enables them to avoid hardship or avoid building up debt, and there are lots of factors that contribute to that, and lots of the levers to solve them do sit with the UK Government at the moment. But there are areas where we think Welsh Government holds the powers to make a difference, and one of those is take-up.

So, even prior to the pandemic, not everyone in Wales was claiming all the support they were entitled to. We commissioned some research in April that found that one in four people in Wales said that they had delayed or decided not to claim a benefit, even though they thought they might be entitled, and awareness of benefits administered in Wales, like the council tax reduction scheme, can be particularly low. I think there's a risk during lockdown as well that, for people who have difficulty accessing benefits, some of those problems have got worse, particularly if they lack access to IT or they're less confident finding information online. So, it means some of those groups may be facing long periods without an income if they have those delays to getting benefits. So, just on that second point, we want to see Welsh Government taking proactive steps to make sure people are taking up their entitlements at this time. And that's it from me.


Diolch yn fawr, Gwen. Okay, let me bring Huw Irranca-Davies in at this point with an initial question. Huw.

Thank you, Chair, and thank you, all, for your presentations opening. Before we go on to other questions, can I just ask (1) for your thoughts, Steffan, and possibly Gwen as well, on how worried we should be that those who were already facing real issues of poverty have actually been forced to, in some ways, behave dangerously during this, because they've been under pressure by, perhaps, employers who say, 'I know what the advice is, but you're going to have to come into work', or, alternatively, because of low income, have had to bite the bullet and go into work? And I'm talking here not just about people who were perhaps furloughed and then had a call from bosses, but even people who potentially were shielding and then felt under pressure to go in, or felt under pressure themselves financially to go in on top of what they're receiving, because I've certainly come across this. Should we be worried?

Yes. So, I think you're absolutely right that that should be a concern, in terms of—. We've seen—. There's plenty of data showing that people in low-income jobs are less able to work from home, so, in a way, there's been the double whammy for people in that kind of income group. So, either they've been forced into work and, as you've said, been at greater risk—. And key workers as well; when we think of—. There's been a lot for—. A lot of carers themselves, as Rachel mentioned, are on low pay; people in jobs like cleaners, for example, have been absolutely vital in terms of the services they've been providing, and are on low pay themselves.

On the flipside then, as I mentioned, they're also the people who are in the income group that is most likely to have been furloughed or laid off, and are the least likely to have their furlough payment topped up to the full 100 per cent. So, there's kind of a double whammy there hitting that income group, which is impacting their health, but also financially and then therefore their health down the line as well. So, yes, absolutely, I think you're correct to highlight that as a real, real concern.

Okay. Could I ask, if nobody else, none of—[Inaudible.] Oh, sorry. Gwen, yes.

I just really quickly wanted to say there's a risk as well, if we see a second spike or if we see local lockdowns, that the schemes that did exist aren't going to be there anymore or maybe aren't flexible enough to be able to support people, so I think some of those pressures might be even greater further down the line.

Can I just add that that's a particular concern, I think, for migrant groups as well, where they don't have the—? They can't fall back on, say, universal credit and things like that. So, I think that's a real, particular concern—that they just don't have any options other than to work.


No. Okay, Claire. Thank you very much. Could I just ask a general question, really, in terms of the Welsh Government's response to these issues? To what extent do you think Welsh Government should and could do more, and is there anything in particular, over and above what you've already said, that you'd like to highlight in terms of what Welsh Government ought to do? Rachel.

Thanks, Chair. The Welsh Government has been, and I think still is, very much in crisis-response mode, understandably, and is making very fast decisions. I think something we have welcomed as a sector is a regular dialogue with officials, which has meant that we've been able to talk to them in real time as policies are being assessed and altered. So, an example of that, or two examples: one is cash in lieu of free school meals—we had quite an active dialogue with officials over that—and also changes to the discretionary assistance fund.

One of my concerns though, having said all of that, is how slow the wheels of Government sometimes are to move. Look, if I was in financial crisis today, I would not put the phrase 'discretionary assistance fund' into Google. There is a real issue with the accessibility of the fund—not enough people know about it, not enough people are able to apply for it. We have raised this with officials repeatedly over this period, and I'm hoping that that's going to improve somewhat. Some of the changes to the DAF have been welcome—there's increased flexibility in who can successfully receive the funding. But I am still really concerned that we're not—that that fund isn't being used perhaps to the extent that it might be.

And also there are—. Again, I suspect, because fast decisions are being made, I'm worried that decisions are being made now that will impact in the future. So, the school holiday enrichment programme isn't going to run this year. And I understand what the financial and practical pressures are, however, it's been a hugely successful programme, and I'm very concerned that we're going to lose that in future years. If we want to talk about working upstream, not just doing poverty mitigation but prevention work, schemes like that have to be part of the response. So, I'm worried that we're going to lose things like that in the kind of quick, knee-jerk reaction phase that we're in.

Okay, Rachel, thank you very much for that. Steffan.

Yes, thanks. To echo what Rachel said, firstly, in terms of there have been a lot of really welcome steps. So, you know, where we've got to with free school meals—that 17 local authorities now are providing cash as an option is something massively positive, and over the summer holidays. But I think what the period has highlighted as well is some of the work we've been working on prior to this, and I know the committee's looked at before, about the Welsh benefits system.

So, all of these different schemes that Welsh Government run to support families—you know, they provide a massive amount of support; we've seen more and more people relying on them over this period to top up what they're getting through the UK system. And we think now is the chance, really, to try and pull these together and be a bit more cohesive about what we're trying to do with them, and also to think about what are the weaknesses within those, so that we can get to grips with them. You've already heard from Gwen about people taking up these schemes—you know, people having information about them. There are also issues, as I mentioned, about free school meals. There's still—. The income criteria still rule out a lot of families, and we're worried that's going to become more pronounced, and there are issues in terms of how these supports are provided. So, we published a report this morning looking at the children element of that work, but, that kind of broader work we've been doing, we think there's a real need to pick up and take that forward, in addition then to the emergency stuff and then the stuff around work and housing as well.

Yes. Just to pick up on—. The Welsh Government has done a lot in terms of expanding the community cohesion sector, and working with migrant groups particularly around the promotion of the EU settlement scheme, which, in addition to that, has been working with migrant communities around access to support and housing, et cetera. But I think, as Rachel and Steffan have said, it's about also their awareness of what schemes are available to them, and I think this is a real issue for migrant communities, as (a) they don't know their rights, and, as we found in the report that we wrote, a lot of people do face discrimination because either the front-line services don't know their rights either, or they're just unhelpful in terms of how they support migrant groups. And I think that's a real concern. Again, this recourse to public funding—obviously, if you are in the position that you don't have recourse to public funding, I don't think there's enough support around how we support those people, but also messages around being able to apply to have that recourse to public funding changed as well. I don't think there's enough messaging around that to help those migrant groups access some of the benefits they are entitled to.


Okay, Claire, thank you for that. Okay. Okay, we will move on, then, to Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. You've all talked about how this crisis is exacerbating poverty, and a lot of these schemes and interventions by Government are time limited. So, what I'd like to ask is if you think the Welsh Government has done enough to help people on the lowest incomes to make sure that they don't fall into greater financial hardship. I know, Rachel, you actually tackled this question head on in your presentation—you did say it isn't enough, so I don't know if you want to add more to that, or whether anyone else would like to talk about this. The people who are at greatest risk during the pandemic, it's because, in parts, of the fact that a lot of the interventions to help them are about to come to an end that they face this cliff edge—is there more the Welsh Government could have done, and could do now?

Diolch, Delyth. You'd expect me to say Welsh Government hasn't done enough, right? But, look, the headline poverty figure in Wales has been about the same for more than a decade now; I don't think this is a story of success, actually. I want to be talking about much longer term interventions. There are important sticking plasters that we need to deal with today, because there are people today who don't have enough money in their pockets—enough money to put food on for dinner this evening. But I think we need to be much more ambitious in our thinking. I think, somehow, sometimes, we can almost accept—there's this kind of narrative that we accept that Wales is a poor country. Well, I don't think that it has to be that way, and I think we need to be much more ambitious in making sure that, at the next election, tackling poverty is at the heart of every single political party's manifesto, because it's just not acceptable that—. I don't know what today's figure is, but the figure just before lockdown was that 23 per cent of the population are living in poverty—it was 24 per cent for the period just before that—and, frankly, it's not acceptable. The UN special rapporteur on poverty, when he was here two years ago, said the same message—this isn't inevitable; there are things that Welsh Government and UK Government need to do.

So, I think we do need to concentrate on the immediate issues, but I want us to be having a much longer conversation about how we help those in the most—in those lowest income groups. And those people need to have more cash in their pockets. And I think Steffan really neatly articulated what we need to do to do that. We've got to change work—people need to have high-quality work; this isn't just about numbers of people in jobs, but people need good pay, and good terms and conditions, and that package. And we need to improve our social security system. And without doing those two things, I'm afraid we're not going to make any progress.

Diolch. In terms of adding on to that, in terms of what I've said already, so that's why we think—. Talking about the Welsh benefits system, that's why it's really important that we look to increase the number of people who are able to get support from it. So, our view is that, if you're eligible for universal credit, the state has deemed you to be in need of support, so why are we putting further arbitrary benchmarks to prevent people from getting access to extra support? So, I think that's something that, fundamentally, we need to consider, in terms of all the support schemes we run. But also, thinking longer term—so, one of the real concerns we've got with this crisis is that unemployment is going to rocket, and it's going to be a challenge to get that down. So, what can we do around further education? Further education has been really hit hard during austerity over the last decades. Is there more we can do to help fund learners to continue in further education so to provide people help with their living costs, so that, if they lose their job, or if they're still 16 now and facing quite a daunting labour market to enter into, we can give people the assurance that they've got something to live off to go and requalify, reskill, so that they're then able to go back and make a real contribution to the labour market further down the line? That's just one example. Council tax is another one. I know it's one that comes up all the time, but it's absolutely something that, if we're serious about solving these problems—we absolutely need to go to the root of some of these issues. So, those are just a couple of examples I think of things that we could really do and are within Welsh Government's gift as well. 


Hi. I just wanted to draw attention to what you said, Delyth, about the kind of deadlines that we're coming up to as well. So, I do think that Welsh Government has been in emergency response mode, which was really needed. Towards the end of the summer, we're going to see a lot of the temporary protections that have been in place lifted, and I think we need to be thinking about what the route into the next stage of the crisis is.

So, in particular, we're really concerned about the pause in evictions, which is going to end towards the end of August. There's a real risk that we'll see a wave of people who are subject to eviction or who may need to move all coming at once. And, firstly, that has implications for public services if there's a massive spike in demand. I think, secondly, for those people, they are going to face additional costs and the disruption to their lives in having to move, at the same time when the crisis is still ongoing, and they may not have security around their job situation or whether their children are going to school, I guess. I think, from our perspective, we really want Welsh Government to do as much as it can to keep people in their homes, particularly people in the private rented sector, to minimise that disruption. 

Thank you. Just looking at migrants, obviously once the furlough scheme and things have ended, which might have protected them, we're on a cliff edge where they're not going to be entitled to some of the benefits that other groups of people—. We haven't explicitly said this, but obviously we support an extension of or getting rid of or suspending the no recourse to public funding, because obviously that will protect a number of people. But there are still issues that we need to think about. For instance, if there are people seeking help, front-line staff need to be able to provide that support and advice and not turn people away because they don't understand rules themselves or they're just not in a position to help them. So, I think that advice really needs to be there for those migrant groups who are looking for that support. 

I think, in the longer term, we do need to think about how we support migrants in the future as well. We know that they're in low-skilled, low-paid jobs and we know that some of them can't use qualifications et cetera, and we need to be thinking about what role they play in the future. And within our report, we've called for an integration strategy, which tries to develop those things on a longer term basis. 

Okay, thank you very much, Claire. Okay, Dawn Bowden. 

Thank you, Chair. Thank you all for the information you've given us so far. I just wanted to take you on to the commencement of the socioeconomic duty, whenever we actually get that. We know we should have seen it by now, but COVID has meant that we've had a bit of a delay. But I wanted to get a sense from you as to whether you felt that, once that is commenced, it does have the potential to reduce inequalities of outcome in the whole raft of areas, so health, education, employment, et cetera. So, we talked a lot about low pay, and that's a given, but what we know that comes with low pay are poor outcomes in every other aspect of life as well, whether it's in health, in education and so on.

So, I'd like to have your views on that, about what you would expect to see in the report that comes out, and what you think needs to be done within the socioeconomic duty to ensure that we get those changed outcomes. I'm particularly interested to hear what you think about how we address the health inequalities, and whether we ought to be looking at different methodology for funding in those areas of very high deprivation and poor health outcomes. 


Hi. So, I think to start off with the socioeconomic duty point, I think what we think is going to be vital is how much teeth it has going forward. So, if public bodies are really buying into the ethos of it, I think it could have a real positive role. If there are going to be public bodies who maybe aren't quite complying in the spirit that we'd want them to be doing, is there something that can drag them back and make them reconsider those actions? That is going to be absolutely vital in terms of getting to grips with the effectiveness of it.

In terms of your point on funding for health equalities and stuff, I think that there's definitely scope to look at stuff like that, but I think it's also worth drawing back in terms of a lot of those issues are fundamentally rooted to the drivers that we've already discussed. So, one of the reasons free schools meals is so important, for example, is that children who bring in packed lunches to school because they can't a afford a school meal—the food is massively unhealthy in relation to what's available for free school meals, and there's a body of evidence by now that highlights that. That's not through ignorance on the parents' behalf—it's through the fact that they can't afford to get that healthy meal. So, I think, absolutely, there's a role to look at funding within those communities to help people when they become—[Inaudible.] We want to really stop those inequalities, and then get into that root cause. As Rachel mentioned earlier—getting cash into people's pockets is absolutely vital to achieve that.

Okay. Anybody else on this? No. Okay. Sorry, Rachel.

Thank you, Chair. Just briefly, I think I'd endorse Steffan's comment, and my concern is the teeth, as Steffan put it, as well. I'd like it to be something that we can use as a sector, like an accountability tool, I suppose. But that comes back to the teeth point. That's what I'm hoping for as well.

Thank you, all, for your presentations, and as already highlighted, we have 700,000 people in Wales living in poverty, and this pandemic will only exacerbate this, when people lose employment, have shorter hours, or are furloughed without full salary. Contracting coronavirus has a higher mortality rate in deprived areas, and people living in deprived areas also have a shorter life expectancy—nine years for men, seven point four years for women. Therefore, what practical actions are there that the Welsh Government can take to help those living in poverty in the short, medium and long term to increase incomes for those who have lost the most during this time?

Thank you. Just going back to something I mentioned at the beginning—I do think there's a piece of work that Welsh Government can do to support people to take up benefits at this time. I think particularly because we've just gone through a crisis where many people may have seen disruptions to their income, they might have had no contact with the benefit system, and they're new to this, and it can be really complex. So, we need to do some work to support those people. I mentioned we did some research looking at people who'd delayed or decided not to claim benefits. The most common reason for delaying claiming a benefit was worry about how they might be treated by officials. So, there is still that stigma there and some concern that we need to overcome. I think we need to understand the kind of mechanisms and the messages that help people to seek out that information and take up benefits.

The second most common reason was the feeling that it would be too much hassle. So, again, there are some practical barriers around the complexity of the benefit system that I think Welsh Government could do more to overcome. Just to mention that, in the past few years, we have seen devolved administrations doing work in this area. So, I think the Northern Ireland administration there conducted and evaluated a take-up campaign, and I know the Scottish Government have developed a take-up strategy for benefits. So, ideally, we'd like to see similar work happening in Wales and happening in a way where solutions can be implemented fairly quickly.

So, to echo some of the stuff that I've already said, I think it's crucial that the actions focus on those three broad causes that have already been discussed. So, around work, what more can Welsh Government do through procurement contracts or some of the support it's given to businesses to embed good employer practices with the way that they treat workers? I think that is a real tool that the Welsh Government has got, even if the legislative power is out of Westminster. As I mentioned on the social security stuff, we think it's vital to draw all the hodgepodge of support together in a Welsh benefits system and to improve the offer available there and use this opportunity to invest in social housing. It's an opportunity to create jobs, it's an opportunity to create more affordable housing and also we can retrofit some existing homes as well in terms of energy efficiency.

I think there is also a role for Welsh Government to really try and lobby about some of the temporary changes being discussed that are going to come to an end. Furlough is the most obvious one. If there are issues still, if certain sectors—hospitality might be an obvious example—even into the autumn might not be back fully up to speed, is there stuff that Welsh Government can do to try and make the case to keep that support going into the longer term? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have called for an increase in the child allowance of universal credit by £20. They think that that could have a real impact on families. So, is there stuff the Welsh Government can do in terms of trying to make the case for that as well?


Thank you. So, again, echoing some of the things I've said—just to pick up on a point made by Gwen, obviously some migrant groups won't have been in a position before that they need to be trying to access benefits, so I think there needs to be, in the short term, a real communication and messaging out to migrant groups around what support they can actually receive. I think there needs to be more work with migrant organisations and community groups, but also consulates as well to try and get those messages directly to those individuals. Obviously, there are some issues such as no recourse to public funding and issues around the asylum system that are retained by the UK Government, but I think there is a case for lobbying, particularly in terms of the furloughing and recourse to public funds, that Welsh Government could do to protect migrant groups within Wales.

In the longer term as well, I think there is a need to try and engage with businesses and employers in a network-type of approach to try and understand the role migrants play within Wales going forward in the longer term and to try and get people working together, to try and get local authorities working with businesses and employers, to try and understand what we can do to improve integration and improve those outcomes for migrant groups. 

Thank you, Chair. I think there's a range of things in the short, medium and long term here. I won't repeat what people have said about benefits, but people do need to be able to understand what is available to them and how they can get it, so I fully endorse that.

I think there has to be some additional money in the social care sector and I know that Welsh Government is doing some thinking about this and I know several Members on the call will have been deeply involved in conversations about a social care levy and so on, but I think we have to revisit that. We need to think about how we can use procurement, for example, to make sure that social care workers are getting the real living wage, and that, further to that, if they are receiving the real living wage, that that isn't eroded by additional travel costs or a requirement for them to fund their own PPE or things like that. So, we need to make sure there are protections in place for that.

We have to, in the medium term, make sure that work is a route out of poverty, because it isn't at the moment—in-work poverty has been rising now for years, and I think the Welsh Government needs to use what we've got at our disposal. So, the Fair Work Commission recommend the introduction of a fair work forum. From what I can see, work on that seems to have stalled through this period. So, I'm hopeful that we can see that up and running again soon.

And I think in the longer term—. The Prime Minister made a speech today—I haven't seen the detail of it, but I understand that he's advocating that we should be investing in construction towards our recovery. But there's other data, like today from the Women's Budget Group, that looks at how we should be investing in a care-led recovery, and I'd certainly be hopeful that the Welsh Government will look at that data that's out today. Their research says that investing in care would create two point seven times as many jobs as the same level of investment in construction. So, I think the Welsh Government needs to think really carefully about where we're targeting our resources in future.

And also, there is a much wider conversation going on about the economy in general. Some of you will have seen Oxfam's economic doughnut model—and I'm very happy to circulate it, if you haven't seen it—but it provides a framework for us to think quite differently, actually, about our economy, and it helps you to reflect on questions like, 'Is GDP the best thing that we should be chasing, or should we be chasing something else?' So, I'm certainly happy to send that, perhaps, to the clerks, and they could share that after the call as well.


Yes, if you would do that, Rachel, that would be appreciated. Thank you.

We move to our final question today, then. Mark Isherwood. Final question for this panel, I mean.

Thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I should declare—and obviously, I'm not alone—that I'm a member of the Bevan Foundation before I ask my questions. Could I first ask a related supplementary to the last point, and then I'll have a very short finishing question?

During lockdown, as the Bevan Foundation knows, you've been churning out reports; one of which, for example, was—if I can find it—about maximising the economic potential of community assets, and that stated, for example, that, to develop local shared wealth, we need to be looking at better community rights and control, and community ownership and reinforce community innovation and regeneration. But also, you published, for example, 'Where next for the Welsh economy?' which included, for example, that major UK and Welsh Government economic stimulus is essential, focusing on issues such as digital connectivity and social infrastructure, and prioritising the worst affected parts of Wales. So, in addition to the support mechanisms that you're talking about, what role do you think that these social entrepreneurial initiatives could take in helping to tackle the underlying problems that exist?

And then, specifically in relation to debt advice, if I may, you might be aware that National Energy Action—NEA, the charity—recently published a short paper, 'The Gathering Storm: Utility Debt and COVID-19', and it found that the pandemic has already had a significant impact on household finances, especially those struggling with the costs of essential services such as energy. They said there's a bigger gathering storm. Following on from your previous comment, how do you respond to their statement that, although it's UK focused, there are things that the Welsh Government can do, including ensuring that debt advice for those who need it most is sufficiently funded across Wales, including speciality advice regarding fuel and water debt, and addressing the impact of the crisis on wider policy making, the policy making including the publication of the new fuel poverty strategy for Wales?

Okay. Do you want to begin, Steffan, in terms of the Bevan Foundation's work?

Yes, sure. I think you're right to highlight that the impact of this crisis, I think, is going to be such that we're going to need a load of different approaches to deal with it. So, absolutely, there needs to be big state investment, in terms of if we're looking at some parts of Wales where 40 per cent of the workforce are either on furlough or have been laid off already. So, you know, there's a limit to what local action can do there; you need real big state intervention and investment in schemes—as you mentioned, digital connectivity and those sorts of things.

But also, we are going to need communities to build up things as well, so if there are people doing really good things, really innovative things in their communities, we absolutely need to enable them to be able to take that forward, and I think it's about reflecting on what we've learned from the past about what's worked and what hasn't, and my colleague Helen, who's been leading that work—. It's absolutely important to develop that and also think about the unique communities within which most things are based, because obviously a one-size-fits-all is not going to work. There are some parts of Wales, like west Wales and the Valleys, that are likely to have been hit harder by this crisis, and maybe our coastal communities as well, but they're not a homogenous mass. If we talk about the Valleys, each valley has its own unique characteristics. It's about knowing what's going on in those areas.

To touch quickly on the fuel poverty side, the Welsh Government's response to the rural affairs committee's inquiry into fuel poverty was to be welcomed—acknowledging the need to take on board some of the reflections from that committee, so we're hopeful that that's something that could really make a difference there. And that's another obvious thing where, if we talk about big state investments, it meets the green initiative, it helps families have—again, it puts more money into people's pockets, and also there are opportunities there for creating jobs as well.


Okay, thanks, Steffan. Gwen, did you want to add something on the debt issues?

Yes, just quickly, I wanted to reiterate the point I made that we're likely to see an increase in people facing debt problems, and that they don't tend to manifest immediately, so this is going to be a longer term problem. We're particularly worried about fuel poverty, because of the likelihood that it might manifest in the winter when people's fuels are high, and we're going to see more people self-disconnecting. I think I'd echo what Steffan said about the fuel poverty strategy, and particularly that there are ideas in there that could be really effective for helping people in this crisis, but they have become very urgent now, and I think we need work to push those forward as quickly as possible.

Okay, Gwen, thank you very much. Thanks to all our witnesses in this session for their evidence. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.

Okay, committee will break briefly until 16:15.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 16:06 a 16:15.

The meeting adjourned between 16:06 and 16:15.

4. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a'i Effaith: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth ar Rywedd
4. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact: Evidence Session on Gender

This is item 4 on the committee's agenda today, and the impact on gender of COVID-19. I'm very pleased to welcome Catherine Fookes, director, Women's Equality Network Wales; Cerys Furlong, chief executive of Chwarae Teg; and Robert Visintainer, project manager for Men's Sheds Cymru. Welcome to you all. Perhaps we might begin, as we have with all of these sessions, with initial presentations of no more than five minutes from each of our witnesses. Who would like to go first? Cerys.

Thank you, Chair. Thanks for the opportunity to give evidence today. It's great to be on the panel with the others. I'll just start by making a few key messages that hopefully we'll have a chance to expand on in some of our questions and answers.

I think the core of what we want to say today is that thinking about equality and gender equality is even more crucial at a time like this, despite how many—not just in politics and decision making, but in the media and everyday life—can often view it as a 'nice to have' or something that perhaps we come to when we have more time. So, we know that there are challenges for Government in terms of the rapid decision making that they're having to make at the moment, responding very quickly to a crisis that seems to change daily. But, our view is very strong that that doesn't negate the need to do robust equality impact assessments, and there's a way of doing that rapidly that will help create better policy and implementation. So, it can't be overlooked; we see what happens when it is overlooked.

I think it's been really interesting today to listen to the Prime Minister in the UK Government seemingly taking quite a gender-blind approach to the recovery there, talking about, 'build, build, build', which is actually quite a macho statement and prioritises sectors dominated by men and perpetuates the same inequalities that we see time and time again. That's not a trap that we want to fall into in Wales and reinforce the same structural inequalities.

The second point is really that COVID has had a significant impact on men and women, obviously, in different ways. On women, that impact is particularly due to their position in work, in families, and their position at risk of violence and abuse and poverty. All those conditions, of course, existed before COVID-19, but what COVID has really highlighted is that the system was already not working for women and this inequality has just been exacerbated by the current pandemic. 

The third point is that we've got the potential here to tackle some of these entrenched problems as we recover from COVID-19. We've seen and there's been a lot of discussion that western societies have much higher levels of inequality and we've been worst affected by this pandemic. So, it's clear to me that we need to focus on building back to a much more equal Wales, a much more equal society, and that there are many benefits that we could reap from that. Not least, as we've highlighted in committees before, our own research that shows that reaching gender equality in Wales could add £13.6 billion to Wales's economy. 

So, I think there's something to say about the approach that we need to take in responding to coronavirus. We really believe that we need to be taking a feminist approach to the economic recovery, and that's the only way to encourage the transition to an economy that better values what we know is essential to sustaining us. So, a feminist approach is not about valuing women more than men, but it's about looking at the things that men and women do differently, a society that values not just the production of materials but everything that people need to grow and flourish.

So, core to that is really valuing care, and particularly unpaid care, women's work, which we know and we've seen very clearly is absolutely essential not just to the economy but to our health and well-being. We need to invest in state infrastructure, and childcare there, particularly, is essential to men and women being able to access work, in the same way that travel is, but somehow we don't hold childcare up as important as travel infrastructure very often. We believe that we need to expand free or very subsidised childcare, and quickly, to enable people to return to work. Workplaces are beginning to reopen before there is clarity about what the provision of childcare is for many. And there's a real risk there that women will be the last able to access the labour market, and that will continue to grow the gap between men and women and their work experiences.

And then finally, by way of introduction, there's an opportunity to reinforce some really positive behaviours as a result of this pandemic. And on that in particular, I would say we are now holding a committee via Zoom—we're all working from home in ways that most of us would never have thought imaginable, and there's an opportunity here to strengthen that infrastructure for homeworking. There's a real potential that that will give access to the labour market to women, to disabled people, to groups that are otherwise excluded. But to do so is not just about providing laptops and access to Zoom meetings and so on, but it's really about creating a culture and enabling an environment in workplaces that embrace flexible working so that both parents—men and women—can embrace the benefits of homeworking and get a better balance between work and home life.


Okay. Thank you very much, Cerys. Who would like to go next? Catherine.

Good afternoon. Thank you, Chair, for asking me to give evidence on behalf of the Women's Equality Network Wales. Our vision at WEN is a Wales free from gender discrimination, and in my evidence today I'll be drawing on the lived experience of women that we've gleaned from our series of WEN cafes that we've been holding since lockdown began, and also from our manifesto, which we recently published, along with 15 of our member organisations.

As Cerys has so eloquently said, even before the pandemic struck, we faced, as women, many barriers and much inequality, and the pandemic has really thrown that into sharp relief. That's even more so for women who are women of colour, for disabled women, or for women who are at risk, and for those on low incomes. So, we really must act quickly to ensure that we don't roll back all those rights and those small gains in equality that we've made over the last few years.

And our COVID response really focuses on five areas that we want to see women looked after in, if you like. So, we need women to be safe at home. We need women to be safe at work. Thirdly, we need to prioritise women's health. The fourth area is around poverty—we need to keep women out of poverty—and the fifth area that Cerys has highlighted already and that Rachel Cable, I know, talked about, is caring, and that's the fifth area that we think, as a movement and as a network, is incredibly important.

So, taking each one of those in turn, for women to be safe at home, we need to end violence against women for the long term. There's been a huge increase in violence against women during this crisis. Welsh Government has done very well to quickly abolish 'no recourse to public funds' so that migrant women could access refuge and support. But we need that to continue in the long term. We don't want to see 'no recourse to public funds' come back.

In terms of women being safe at work, there are, of course, the issues that have been highlighted, for example, by TUC Wales about adequate PPE—it needs to fit women, and that kind of thing. But, also, we need the risk assessments that have been brought into play for BAME women by the BAME focus group at Government [correction: the First Minister's BAME Covid-19 advisory group]. But we need that to widen up, not just for women at risk in social care and healthcare settings, but also for pregnant women and for all women in different workplaces that are working on the front line.

A really interesting report was launched by the Wales Governance Centre this week on COVID-19 in the Welsh economy, and it shows that the economic disruption caused by coronavirus is being felt most by women, and by women under 25, who've been particularly hard hit. I think around 60 per cent of those women [correction: 39 per cent of women under 25] work in shutdown sectors. And the report also found that women are more likely to be key workers, and yet they are exposed to loss of employment and earnings more so during this crisis. So, it's not just women being safe at work, but it's about women having a job to return to.

In terms of women's health, we were really pleased to see Welsh Government move quickly on providing access to telemedicine for abortions. Again, we would like to see that continue after the crisis. That's something that we feel could go on for the long term.

Fourthly, we need women to be kept out of poverty. I know this was the subject of your last session, but there are particular concerns around BAME women who have been working in front-line roles and who've lost their jobs.

Finally, caring responsibilities: I think that the focus UK Government-wise has been on build, build, build, but it needs to be care, care, care. We can create jobs and we can allow women to go back to work and not, as Cerys suggested, be the last to go back to work, but we can get women back to work if that caring is there. What our participants at WEN cafes have said, and I'm sure we'll come on to this later, is that there are some big issues around getting back to work without the childcare being there.


Hello, everyone, and thank you, Chair—an honour to be asked and be present. We all know that COVID-19 has impacted on so many of us, and probably left no-one unaffected, so I thought what I'd like to do is tell you a bit about the Men's Sheds movement in Wales, where it was, where it is now, what we've been hearing from our network. What we did well in sheds, when they were open, was talk. We've tried to continue that over the phone and online.

Originally set up in Australia 11 years ago, it was developed by the health board to tackle the growing concerns of loneliness and social isolation amongst the male population, and continues to be funded by the Australian federal Government as part of their men's health strategy. In Wales in 2015, there were no men's sheds. Now, in 2020, we're close to 70, with others in development, serving over 1,000 people and their communities in all regions of Wales. Most members of men's sheds are older men, but that's not exclusively so. There are women members and younger men too. They are social groups or enterprises set up in local communities for the benefit of men. They're self-governed, self-supported, sustainable, often with a small committee and their own constitution, generating their own income.

How each shed looks and the activities that take place in them depend on the skills and interests of the group. In common, though, men's sheds are a place to go where you can make friends and build relationships. They encourage men to feel useful and to have a purpose. A kettle and a conversation are always at the heart of a men's shed. For many, the time at the shed is a genuine lifeline, and their time there and the interactions that they have make immeasurable improvements to their lives. It's a place where men feel safe to talk and learn.

And then there was COVID-19 and social distancing. All the sheds in Wales have ceased their usual activities at the start of lockdown. Many did so reluctantly and expecting it only to last a few weeks, but, as time went on, they realised that this was something that would impact so much more. Some sheds have chosen and been able to take part in other community activities, and I'd like to pay tribute to those men that have done that and to the other community groups. But not everyone has been able to do so.

It's been a challenge, even for us with strong friends and family networks. Many men that I've spoken to have lost that vital time away from their home when they would go to the shed, where they would mix with their friends and share the bonds that they'd made. For lots, this was their only regular social interaction. We're worried at Men's Sheds Cymru that the men's network has been damaged, with the fear and uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought. There's been a lack of availability or clarity of information, and this has led, I think, to many returning to a deepened sense of isolation and lack of confidence. It's led to a decline in the mental health and well-being of many.

We will need to work much more and to support and encourage that return to participation in community and social activities, and shedding. We've encouraged people to stay in touch as best they can. We make regular contact, and we've asked others to do so—phone calls, letters, e-mails, social media. But this, too, has highlighted a gap—those who can access information online and those who are just not connected at all. Clear information seems to have been lacking, and those who are able will at least be able to do some research online. But for those who can't, it has just led to more worrying concern.

With many of the conversations I've had, anxiety and uncertainty are common themes, often as a result of now spending prolonged periods on their own. A phone call helps, but it's just not the same as face to face, or, as we say in Men's Sheds, shoulder to shoulder with your friends. Men are known to seek help at a later stage when they need it, rather than earlier on, particularly in terms of health, whether that's physical or mental well-being. We know—you probably all know—in UK and Ireland, men are three or four times more likely to die by suicide than women. Research also tells us that men in less well-off areas are 10 times more likely to die by suicide, as well. Middle-aged men, 40 to 59, experience the highest rates of suicide. Something else I was reading recently and wanted to highlight, is that, after the recession in 2008, there'd been a 30-year steady decline in male suicide, but after that recession it jumped up again. Can we expect the same after COVID-19? Thank you.


Okay, Robert, thank you. Thank you very much. Perhaps I might begin with an initial question, which is: in terms of the Welsh Government's response to the pandemic and the inequalities involved, what would you say in terms of the Welsh Government's ambition to be a world leader in terms of gender equality? Has that aim, do you think, been reflected in the reaction to the challenges of the pandemic that we've seen up to this point? Cerys.

I would say the desire to be a world leader in gender equality is very welcome, and that's why the gender equality review was established last year, and Catherine and I and many others sit on a group that oversees the implementation of that still. I think there have been some good things in terms of the regular contact that we've had with Welsh Government and specialist organisations, but we can't be complacent. There is an almost default temptation to fall back into old ways of working and patterns of behaviour, and what have those patterns of behaviour and default ways of working usually resulted in? Policy and implementation that tends to reinforce structural inequalities. 

So, we have to work even harder against that tide at times like this when we're doing things quickly, and unless it's at the forefront of our thinking, then we have taken two steps forward and we take two or three steps back as a result of the crisis. 

I think there are some areas where work has been positive, in terms of, for example, the swift removal of no recourse to public funds. We were one of the first UK nations to do that. Also I mentioned earlier around abortion and moving to telemedicine for abortion, but I think there are other areas that we really need a focus on. One of those is that it feels, from some of our members' points of view, that if you can go and get a beer, you can go into a shop, and you can go and, kind of, use the economy, and yet your children, if you're a parent, are still at home and you're trying to juggle all the different responsibilities—that there hasn't been the focus on caring and opening up childcare facilities that there needs to be. There's also a real lack of clarity around how that's going to work for children who are pre-school. One specific case I've heard is that it's very unclear as to whether children, for example, are allowed to move from a state setting to a nursery private setting in the same day. There's also not clarity over the offer in July around whether—. Well, it seems parents have to pay up in advance to the childcare provider, who then gets reimbursed by Welsh Government. That is resulting in big payments going to nurseries, and then people who may already be on a reduced income because they can't go back to work because of caring, then having to—. That money then stays with the nursery. So, there are a lot of areas around caring that need work.


Okay, Catherine, that's great. Did you want to say anything on this, Robert, or not? 

Nothing more than—. You know, it's a good ambition to be a world leader, absolutely, and that's all I'll say for now, if that's okay.

Okay, thanks John. Welcome, everybody; nice to see you all again. I just wanted to talk to you about the immediate and long-term impact on jobs and incomes, and the differences in men's and women's experiences. I know that the Office for National Statistics data has told us that both men and women in low-skilled employment have been really badly affected in terms of the death rates of both men and women, and yet we know that the highest number of women are involved in the care sector and in the hospitality sector, which is the lowest paid and has seen businesses closing down, and so on. So, I just wanted to get a sense from you, really, about the impact that you think that COVID has had, not just on employment generally, but on the way that it's impacted differently on men and women, even maybe in those low-skilled employment positions. 

Thanks for that question, Dawn, and perhaps if I could say a few things. We know that coronavirus is deadly and we know that it's had a disproportionate impact in terms of the rates of death on men. However, for the vast majority of people it's not deadly, but it will have a significant impact on their lives in many, many other ways. And as you've highlighted, women work in sectors that have been particularly affected by forced closures, such as retail, food and drink, and hospitality. The IFS, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has recently published a study that shows that of those who were in paid work before lockdown, mothers are 40 per cent more likely to have lost their jobs or quit as a result of lockdown.

Women, as we know and we've talked about previously, are more likely to work part-time than men; 41 per cent of women in Wales work part-time compared to 12 per cent of men, meaning that they're less likely to access things like sick pay during this time. We've recently been doing some surveys of women during the coronavirus pandemic, and what we've heard really loudly is that women are really fearful for the future, of losing their jobs, particularly if their working situation has already changed—so, if they're already on reduced hours, or on furlough, or taking unpaid leave, and so on. So, they're fearful about long-term job losses and the impact on the sectors in which they work.

We've also seen, and I'm sure many—. I work in a very female-dominated environment, as you would understand, and many of us will have friends and family women going through this now. Many women have already had to make permanent changes to their employment to manage the additional responsibilities of lockdown—so, reducing their hours, going part-time or quitting, and it could take a long—. That's usually for caring responsibility reasons, and it can take a long time to increase women's confidence, but also just their practical ability to get back into the labour market for all the reasons that Catherine's laid out around childcare. 

Thank you, Cerys. Anybody else on—? Yes, Catherine.

Yes, I'd just like to echo what Cerys has said and support it, but also I'd like to raise the really important issue of BAME women, women of colour, and how they are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19, both in terms of their health and their work outcomes. This, again, was raised by the Wales Governance Centre's report that the impact, the economic disruption is felt very keenly by women from a BAME background, and they're more likely to be working in a front-line role. So, we need Welsh Government, in building back better, to think about the economy from a feminist perspective. And I think everything they do needs to look at how we can create jobs for those sectors like BAME women, and disabled women and all those who are on a low income, and make sure it's not just about construction jobs. We need to find—[Inaudible.]


Sure. Okay. Can I just ask you, then, whether you found that there is a difference in terms of the impact depending on age? And I'm thinking now about youth employment or youth unemployment. Certainly, in my constituency, we've seen that the claimant count amongst those aged 16 to 24, during the pandemic, has risen sharply, and that's been predominantly young men. So, are you finding a difference in terms of the age groups? I don't know.

Thank you. Yes, in terms of young women, 39 per cent of all female employees under 25 are working in shutdown sectors. So, I don't have the figures on universal credit for women, but, yes, women more affected.

Only to add to that that I think those groups of young women are more likely to already be in precarious employment, and are probably making decisions now about their long-term ability to go back to work if they're going to have to continue juggling childcare, elder care and looking after people. And I just want to say something about caring, because it's something that I think, in this pandemic, we've been all too quickly to praise and all too slow to pay for. That's something that we've surely got to rectify if we want to enable families to get back to work properly.

Thank you, Dawn. I wonder if I could bring Huw Irranca-Davies in at this stage on some public health aspects. Huw.

Thanks very much, Chair. I wonder if I could ask all of our witnesses here today for their thoughts on what's happened in terms of Government strategies on loneliness and isolation, and whether there is a gender prism that we should be looking through at this, or whether we should be looking at the wider cohort of individuals who are already vulnerable: different ages, different aspects of this—rurality, but you can be lonely and isolated in an urban environment in a tower block. And one of my worries, the longer this has gone on, is that, whilst we've all praised the amazing community responses that have gone up—. Robert was mentioning there some of this locally here. Men's Sheds have been involved in community responses. But I'm just worried that, as once was famously said, 'Any fool can respond to a crisis, it's the daily stuff that grinds you down'. Well, some of the daily stuff is loneliness and isolation. So, I wonder what your response is to whether we're focusing sufficiently on that.

I can, if you'd like me to. Thank you for raising that really important issue, Huw, because I think, in terms of loneliness and isolation, we've got a mental health crisis brewing up here. That's going to be 'the second pandemic', and is how I've heard it described by people like Mind and others. It was raised by one of our members at WEN Wales recently that there is a waiting list of around 3,000 new mothers-to-be at one of our health boards who need mental health support. Because imagine if you've had a baby during this time, you can't get out and you can't get the support that you normally would at mother and baby groups and so on. So, I think this is a big crisis waiting to happen, and we need to be thinking about that now, and putting funds in place and making sure that the mental health support is there for when we come out of lockdown, and even now we should be able to access it via the phone and via new technology.

Okay, yes. To echo what Catherine said there, I think Welsh Government and us, we have done a lot of good work on the loneliness and social isolation agenda. But that is my fear as well: is this the second pandemic, the mental health issues? I am speaking to men who have come to sheds because they were lonely and isolated; they have benefited from doing so; they've grown massively in their well-being, and now this has been knocked back. But what I'm also seeing is it is now impacting on those who we might have considered to be of stronger mental health. This has gone on for so long that this is impacting even more people than pre-COVID-19.

There are waiting lists for services. I can echo what Catherine says there, and I know many men who are on those waiting lists. Again, as I said earlier, men bottle these things up as well. We're notoriously bad at doing that and at asking or seeking help early on in those stages. I think we need to encourage men to talk, we need to encourage people to open up and feel safe and able to do so, but also that when they do, those services and that support is there for them.


Yes. Okay. Thank you very much, Robert. Okay. Caroline.

Diolch, Cadeirydd, and thank you all for your opening remarks. I've got two questions, really. Some employees, who are often key workers, have additional caring responsibilities, so what measures can be taken to ensure that the additional caring responsibilities do not damage long-term career progression? That's my first question.

Thanks for the question, and I think this goes back to some of the points we were making earlier about women's fears for their long-term future in the labour market. We have to be honest about this: child and elder care are still predominantly seen as women's work, and therefore the closure of formal childcare settings and the refocus and the burden of childcare falling directly onto households has had an unequal impact on women.

And I think here, related to the last point, we were talking about loneliness, it's important particularly to recognise single parents, the vast majority of whom are women, and the additional burdens that they're facing. This has the potential to really roll back the years of progress that we've made to enable women to access the labour market. Just to, again, reiterate, how do we not just reinforce these outdated stereotypes, but actually use this crisis to come out better through it?

IFS—the study that I mentioned earlier—has found that mothers are 14 per cent more likely to have been furloughed than fathers. So, we really need to think about that. How do we enable people to come out of furlough and not just stare down the barrel of redundancy, but actually are able to get back into work? And that means thinking now, urgently, about childcare, because people are making long-term decisions about their ability as households, as individual men and women, about whether they'll be able to go back to work at any time in the near future. [Inaudible.]

Okay, Cerys. Thank you. Anybody—either Robert or Catherine—anything to add? No. Okay.

And secondly, what do you think the recovery plan should prioritise, and what action should be taken in the short, medium and long term to reduce gender inequality in the wake of the pandemic? Thank you.

I can try. That's a really big question. I think the recovery plan needs to prioritise, I would say, women, obviously—I'm from the Women's Equality Network. But the reason I say that is going back to the point that Cerys made earlier that if we had gender equality, we would add £76 billion or something [correction: £13.6 billion] to the economy in Wales. So, we need to work on a plan that prioritises keeping women out of poverty, giving them a job to go back to, making sure that women are safe at home. In terms of violence against women, we need to make sure there's sustainable, long-term funding for that. We need women's health inequalities to be ironed out and we need childcare to be prioritised absolutely. One of the ways of wrapping all of that up, I think, is to look and think about making sure that caring responsibilities are better paid and that there's an increase in the real living wage. And also, we need to think about instigating a universal basic income, which would allow all people to receive an income and lift a lot of people out of poverty, and it encourages entrepreneurialism. There are a lot of questions around universal basic income, and it would need to be implemented in a gendered way, but I think this could really help us get through this crisis. 


A couple of points just in addition. We did do a comprehensive review of gender equality for Welsh Government last year: let's get on and implement the recommendations—they're very clear.

To go back to the first point I make, we need to have an eye—a very, very watchful eye—on equality impact assessment decisions that we're making now, otherwise we won't know if there are unintended consequences and—[Inaudible.]—have some concerns about that. We need to rebuild in a way that values care as essential to the economy, so not just an add-on to it and not going back to accepting that unpaid care is something that will just prop up parts of the economy as it has for many years. And linked to that, seeing childcare as essential in accessing work as travel infrastructure. And finally on childcare, we're fast approaching the school holidays and many parents are worried about how they will get through that, let alone how we will transition back into some kind of normality, if we're able to, in the autumn.

And then, the last thing, really, linked to what I was saying about trying to reinforce the positive behaviours that we've learned around homeworking: what can we do to incentivise and support more businesses to transition to a model of flexible working for the long term?

Okay. Thank you again, Cerys. We move on, then, to Mark—. Sorry, Robert. 

Just before you do, Mark, Robert just wanted to come in on the last question. Just before you begin, Mark, Robert just wants to come in on the last question. Robert.