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

Alyson Francis Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr yr Is-adran Cymunedau, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director of Communities Division, Welsh Government
Claire Bennett Cyfarwyddwr Cymunedau a Threchu Tlodi, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Communities and Tackling Poverty, Welsh Government
Emma Williams Cyfarwyddwr Tai ac Adfywio, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Housing and Regeneration, Welsh Government
Jane Hutt Y Dirprwy Weinidog a’r Prif Chwip
Deputy Minister and Chief Whip
Julie James Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
Minister for Housing and Local Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Chloe Davies Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Hannah Johnson Ymchwilydd
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Manon Huws Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Osian Bowyer Ymchwilydd
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:30.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:30. 

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

I 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 Thursday. This meeting, however, is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. 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. This 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 do not turn them on or off individually, but accept the prompt to unmute from the sound engineer each time you are called to speak. Okay. Are there any declarations of interest? No. One further matter, then, before we go to item 2, and that is that if, for any reason, I drop out of this meeting, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin.

2. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a’i Effaith ar Faterion sy’n Ymwneud â Chylch Gwaith y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth gyda’r Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
2. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact on Matters Relating to the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s Remit: Evidence Session with the Minister for Housing and Local Government

Item 2, then, is our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to this committee's remit, and an evidence session with the Minister for Housing and Local Government. So, we will take evidence from the Minister and perhaps her officials on the impact of COVID-19 on matters relating to housing and local government. Minister, would you like to introduce your officials, or would they like to introduce themselves for the record?

I think they can introduce themselves, Chair, if that's okay.

Hello. Emma Williams, director of housing and regeneration.

Claire Bennett, director of communities and tackling poverty.

Thank you, Emma, and thank you, Claire. Okay, Minister, perhaps I might begin, then, with one or two initial questions on council tax receipts. First of all, on the short-, medium- and long-term impact on local authority budgets and budget planning resulting from the diminishing local tax receipt collection, I think there's been quite a lot of concern as to the effect this might have on local authorities and their financial capacity and circumstances. What would be your take on matters at this stage and, indeed, looking forward, Minister?

Thank you, Chair. So, we've been working very hard with local authorities right through the entire pandemic, attempting to understand a range of issues that affect their finances, one of which is obviously council tax take, also national non-domestic rate takes, both in terms of people's ability to pay—so, our understanding of how much money we want to put into the council tax relief fund, for example, as people experience diminished financial security and become eligible for that fund—and also in terms of, generally, people's ability to pay and their ability to plan. So, we've made a series of arrangements with local authorities to keep an eye on that. We deliberately haven't advertised anything to do with the ability of local authorities to change the payment systems or anything else, because we want to ensure that people who can pay do continue to pay, for obvious reasons. But, at the same time, we've been very generous in helping them deal with anyone who experiences difficulty in paying, delaying those payments or moving them to the other end of the year. You will be aware, Chair, that council tax is paid over 10 months generally, not 12, so there's some leeway with payment terms and so on.

At this point in time, we are still tracking with local authorities where they are in terms of receipts, as against expected receipts, and we're not yet in a position to be able to say quite what the impact is, but we have been working very hard with them and our treasurers on understanding that. These matters are not actually in my portfolio, they're in the portfolio of my colleague the Minister for finance, but just to say that we have worked very carefully and closely all the way through across the Government, regardless of portfolio, to understand the overarching issues for local authorities—council tax being one very important one, of course, but not the only element in terms of understanding where they are.


So, in terms of that council tax reduction scheme, then, Minister, are you able to tell us what sort of allocation might be made in terms of additional funds as part of the overall package for local government?

Right at the moment, I'm not sure that we actually know the absolute answer to that. What we're doing is monitoring the number of people who make claims. We're currently guaranteeing that local authorities will have all of the funding from the Government to enable them to fulfil those claims, and we're just keeping a weather eye on how much that is as the pandemic unfolds, because, depending on what's happening in this very week that we're now commencing with the UK Government and different furlough schemes, different support for various businesses and so on, we will have a different take on how many people are likely to be eligible, whether they're able to claim benefits or whatever to help them out. So, I'm afraid, John, it's really difficult to say.

What I can say, though, is that we've worked very closely with the treasurers at all times to be able to understand where they are right now, and that's a very moving feast as we go through. Right this second, we're experiencing no difficulty in assisting them with the current claims level. Trying to predict it—there are a number of things that we do to try and predict it, but, obviously, all of those are predictions, so we're just doing our best to keep ahead of it. We are very reliant on the Welsh society of treasurers, and they have worked very closely with us all the way through to help us understand where we are, both with the council tax relief scheme and with council tax collection overall.

Okay. I do understand it's a very fluid picture, and I'm sure we'll be updated as matters proceed. We'll move on, then, to Mark Isherwood.

Thank you. Good afternoon. Moving on to questions around local authority reserves, as you'll be aware, the Wales Audit Office found during 2019-20, pre COVID, that councils were in very different positions in terms of the levels of reserves and track record of spending within their agreed budgets. Some councils were better placed than others to—quote—

'weather a financial challenge such as the pandemic...most clearly illustrated by the varying levels of usable...reserves held by councils, their track record of spending within their agreed budgets...and, linked to this, the extent to which their usable revenue reserves have been increasing or decreasing in recent years.'

What concerns, if any, do you have about these varying levels of usable reserves and how they might be used?

So, Mark, obviously, very different councils have very different levels of reserves for all the reasons you've just outlined from the auditor's report and a number of other issues. We also have councils that are very differentially reliant on things like council tax collection, fees and charges and so on. So, what we've done is we've established the hardship fund on an actual expenditure, actual claims base. It's not formula driven; we haven't got a sum of money and then sent it out according to the revenue support grant formula. We've been working with each individual council to understand how they're affected, and, obviously, how they're affected is differential depending on what their reserves look like and why their particular resilience is as it is.

So, to give you an example, Monmouthshire has a much higher percentage of its ordinary income coming from council tax collection than, say, Blaenau Gwent does, so they're very differentially affected by their ability to both collect that tax and to charge fees and charges. So their claims pattern will look very different to Blaenau Gwent, because they'll be much more heavily reliant, for very obvious reasons—not intended as a criticism in any way—they're more reliant on fees and charges than, say, Blaenau Gwent is. So, we've been working on an individual basis with them, right across the piece, and that does take into account things like usable reserves, but actually it also takes into account things like whether what they could have expected to receive by way of fees and charges is very impacted or not.

That very much depends on the pattern of services; so, some authorities, for example, have outsourced leisure services, and others have insourced leisure services, from which they would have expected to get an income, and so it's very differential in terms of the impact. I'm afraid it's really hard to answer those questions in generalities. Each council has presented very differently, but we've managed it in that individual way with them, and we've been able to do that at least once a week, quite frequently many times more often than that, with all the leaders. Similarly, there's a meeting of all the chief execs, and my officials meet with all of the treasurers very, very regularly to keep abreast of all of that. 


Thank you. It would appear from the figures there's quite a variation, particularly in per capita reserves. Some councils, like Flintshire, where I live, are also low, alongside Monmouthshire, compared to some of the others, one of which you've mentioned. Clearly, some reserves are earmarked for other things, and some of those things are pretty much fixed cost, but some are still discretionary projects. So, to what extent would you encourage local authorities, or not, to repurpose some of their reserves where it's possible to do so, and to what extent do you believe there might be risks associated with using reserves to meet additional costs associated with the pandemic?

Again, we've been working individually with them to understand what the issues might be. For example, some of those reserves will have been earmarked for capital spend over the year, and now we know that they will not be able to spend the capital on that particular project in this particular financial year, for all the reasons associated with the pandemic—the construction was delayed or slowed, or there were other reasons why they couldn't do whatever it is. So obviously we're looking to repurpose some of those. We're also looking to reprofile some of them, because some of the expenditure will have to move year, and so on.

We've also got a number of other problems associated. For example, we've recently been once again experiencing heavy rainfall, so we have a number of councils who are affected by flood management. We've activated our overarching Bellwin schemes earlier in the year, so we have some councils who are coming up to the limits of that, and so on. So, I'm afraid, Mark, it's really individual to each council, so until you go through with each council exactly where they are and what they intend the reserves to be used for, and where they are in terms of resilience, it's very hard to say. But I will say this: we have been saying that the reserves are meant for a rainy day, and if this isn't a rainy day, I don't know when we're going to get one. 

Finally, if I may, on a related question, which reserves may have an impact on or not as we go forward, I understand that local authorities have now received, or will receive imminently, the full income lost from quarter 1 expenditure from Welsh Government, but the concern has now moved on to quarter 2. What is the current position with regard to reimbursements to local authorities, not just in agreement, but physically, of their quarter 1 and quarter 2 lost income funding?

So, we pay them quarterly, as you say, but we also monitor it on a monthly basis, Mark. So, we go through with each council on a monthly basis what their claims are, whether we think those claims are in with the scheme or not, if they're not, why they're not, and what needs to happen in order to either get them into the scheme or cover the expenditure off in some other way. We're up to date with those payments and I'm not getting any pushback from the leaders at the moment that we're not up to date with those payments. Obviously, as we now go into what's clearly a second wave of the pandemic, we will have to regroup and see where we are in terms of additional expenditure and so on. The quarter 2 claims are due to be paid on 10 November, and as far as I know, we're on track to do that. But as I say, we monitor them on a monthly basis to make sure that we know what's coming and we know where the councils are. We also monitor cash flow for the councils. So, we paid upfront the rate support grants this year and councils had £535 million upfront from that.

So, we made sure that there wasn't a cash flow problem straight away by upfronting some of those payments so that there isn't an issue with them having to pay and then claim it back, because they've had advanced payment in order to be able to do just that. And, as I say, I cannot emphasise enough that we wanted to do this on actuals, because you'll know as well as I do that there's constant arguments about how the formula works and how it pans out differently in some areas, so we deliberately have moved it to actuals so that we can address the actual issues on the ground. I'm afraid, as we move into the rainy season in October, we will have councils also affected by flooding at the same time, and we'll be trying to manage both crises simultaneously. So, we need to be very sure that we're able to monitor both the cash flow and the claims.

Sorry, I'm being reminded that the 10 November date is the date that claims are due in, not the date they're due to be paid. Just to correct that, Chair. 


Diolch, Gadeirydd. Good afternoon, all. My questions are on non-domestic rating. We know that non-domestic rates form a large chunk of the core revenue funding that the Welsh Government allocates local government and, as we're aware, businesses are struggling to remain open at the moment. They cannot trade as previously they did, because of social distancing measures. So what I'd really like to know is: who will bear the ultimate risk? Additional flexibility has been provided in England to local authorities through a collection fund, in order to cope with the taxation loss, and this will give councils a chance to recover income over a longer period of time. So, really, what I'd like to know also is: would such a fund be good for Wales, basically, even though it would require a rapid legislative amendment? Do you think, Minister, this would work well for Wales also? Diolch yn fawr. Thank you.

Again, as I said, Chair, this isn't my portfolio, strictly speaking; this is my colleague Rebecca Evans's portfolio, but we've been working very closely together on this. At the moment, we are simply monitoring the situation for local authorities and, as I said, working overall with them to understand the impact overall on their finances. It's not, at this point in the year, clear to us yet what the NNDR position will be, for all kinds of obvious reasons. So, we're very aware, for example, that some big retailers are clearly struggling and there have been redundancy notices, and so on—Debenhams is the obvious one that everybody will have been aware of early in the year. Now, Debenhams is a store that was already struggling, and the pandemic has made that considerably worse. So, we're having to deal with what we know will be a reduced take from some of the stores, and we're in conversation of course with the big retailers across Wales about where they are in terms of what they're likely to be able to bear. But, at this point in time, Caroline, we're okay, we're on top of it, and we're working well with our local authorities. That situation may change as we go into the autumn and, Chair, we'll have to come back and update the committee accordingly. As we stand right now, we're all right, but it's a very moving feast, so I wouldn't want you to take that as me thinking that it's going to be fine until the end of this financial year. We're just not yet in a position to know that. 

Okay, thank you, Minister. Okay, Caroline, thank you. Huw Irranca-Davies. 

Thank you, Chair, and good afternoon, Minister. Minister, I wonder if I can ask you to expand on two particular items. One is what expectations you have of local authorities now to deliver on town centre transformation, both in response to COVID but also the challenges that were there before as well. We saw earlier on this year the welcome announcement of, I think it was £90 million of investment in town centres, so how do you see that working? And also, if you could talk a bit about the strategic sites acquisition fund as well. If you start—because what I'm also going to ask you is: what does it mean for those that are not dedicated strategic sites or designated town centres? So, for example, you've got, in my own part of the world, Maesteg, with a population over 20,000, and it falls within this normally, but then you've got the Garw valley and the Ogmore valley, and they also have high streets but a population, spread across a valley, of perhaps around 8,000. So, what does it mean for those sort of communities that we will all have?


So, there are three aspects to this, as you've rightly said, Huw. So, there's what we were trying to do already with our town centres, because you'll be aware—I know only too well—that some of our town centres were already struggling well before the pandemic for all kinds of obvious reasons, and what this has done—and, again, I'm sorry to state the blindingly obvious, but it's just accelerated the issue; it's moved more people more quickly online for shopping and so on and has changed the pattern of the way people behave and so on.

But we already knew that that's where it was going, so we were already working on a number of packages to increase footfall in town centres for social purposes and to make sure that we absolutely optimised all of the accommodation that could be used for residential purposes, above shops and other types of buildings of that sort. What we've tried to do is work out the most strategic of the hubs in order to try and give them a boost. So, not every single town in Wales is going to be one of those strategic market towns or whatever, just in the nature of it. That's not to say that the money isn't available to some extent everywhere that there's a project that's worth supporting, but we want specifically to boost some of our market towns and locally strategically important towns, and we also want to do something about the urban blight that we've got, associated with coming out of the old industrial revolution and into the new.

So, there are several packages on offer: the strategic sites one that you've just mentioned; we've got property development funds; we've got stalled sites funding as well. So, we've been working with local authorities to understand what's in their local development plans in terms of both housing and retail and employment sites and to understand what the issues on those sites are, why aren't they coming forward in the way that you'd expect, and then to try and make funding available in a variety of ways, sometimes to the local authorities, sometimes to small and medium developers through the Development Bank of Wales, sometimes through the social housing grant and so on, to try and bring those sites back into beneficial use because we know that increased footfall, people moving back into our towns and living there and so on, is the way of the world.

So, what we've been doing is we've also then got a set of funds that we were only slightly repurposing, just bringing forward slightly more quickly than we were before, to help businesses adapt to outdoor living, for example. So, you'll be aware, right across Wales, that there are businesses that have applied to the fund and have been able to develop an outdoor space with perhaps a canvas roof over it or whatever to enable them to carry on trading. But we've tried to do that in a sustainable way on the basis that those are not short-term solutions, that these are solutions that may start off looking like a COVID response but might actually end up being the way we live.

So, we've been trying to make sure that we're not putting in short-term, one-off solutions that are there today and gone tomorrow, but actually are part of the overall plan to regenerate our various town centres. And just the last thing I wanted to say on that, Chair, if you don't mind—just because I'm very aware of my own particular constituency in this and yours to some extent—by those, we also mean, of course, suburban shopping centres, because there'll be satellite suburban shopping centres around a city that will be just as strategically important for their local communities, and I'm very frequently asked, 'Oh, when you say a town, do you mean—?', but we do mean that, of course.

Minister, that's really helpful, but if I can ask just a short follow-up on this, because, when we see announcements like the town-centre regeneration funds, the town adaptation fund, in response to COVID, they're really welcomed, but they tend to be focused on the strategic, larger towns, and that could be a market town or it could be in my patch at Bridgend at Pencoed, Porthcawl, whatever, and everybody looks then at their own patch, where you as a Government want to encourage people in Gilfach, the Garw, Ogmore to work closer to home and to also have access to things that don't mean they have to travel far and so on, and they go, 'Yes, but we're slightly smaller. We're not quite a town.' What would your message be to them and to local authorities across Wales if they feel they can't see the big packages that are tailored towards them?

So, we've deliberately put small—. It's possible to have quite a small grant and do this. So, what we've been saying to people is, 'Look into the future.' This is all—. This is part of our placemaking approach. So, basically, we're saying to every single community in Wales, big and small, 'What is the nature of your place? What do you want it to be? What's the best way to secure its future? Is there a repurposed shop that could be used for a local employment hub? Is there an unsightly building that you'd like to get together and do something about with our vacant buildings fund or school sites fund?' or whatever, Huw. All communities in Wales should feel that they have something to say about the way they want their community to look going forward, and they should be getting in touch with us to talk about what the best way of making sure they've got the funding in place to do that is.

The other thing is, is we don't want to race—. Not everybody can have the anchor store for the region, but there are lots of independent things that you can do that will still make your place an attractive place to be, a social place, a place that people want to go and do whatever it is that they want to do in that space. You'll know as well as I do that, increasingly, those are social things, centred around cups of coffee and arts and culture, rather than just retail. So, absolutely, we want people to be able to do that, and that's very, very much part of our whole placemaking approach to this. 


That's great. Thanks, Minister. And could I just briefly ask you: how do you see the recovery sub-group of the partnership council playing a role in doing this?

So, we've asked—. We've worked very closely with the Welsh Local Government Association and councils all the way through this pandemic. They've been amazing, actually, and officers at every level in local authorities have absolutely worked so hard and collaboratively and it's been completely apolitical; we've all just pulled together in the right direction. So, the recovery sub-group of the WLGA, which, actually, if you look at its membership, is pretty much the whole WLGA, because everybody's interested in recovery, has been working very hard on a range of shared projects that we can put forward, both that are shovel ready to restart the economy right now in this financial year, but also longer term, over the next five to 10 years—what do those longer term plans look like—in order to reboot our economy for that green housing led, socially just economy that we all want.  

Thank you, Minister. Okay, let me turn to housing, which does bear some relation to the earlier discussion we were having in terms of regeneration, but, in light of our committee's recent report on inequality, I want to also look at those aspects, about how we use your housing policy—how you use housing policy—to tackle inequalities as well. So, let me just ask you, as an opener, what are you doing to increase the supply of social and affordable homes as part of the reconstruction? What has changed in your approach now? 

So, there are a few things that we've done that are pretty radically different. So, the first is, obviously, during the pandemic—. I'm trying to separate out the COVID response from the longer term response, although, inevitably, they're a little bit enmeshed. So, obviously, as part of the response to the pandemic, we've absolutely housed everyone. We had to do that for public health reasons and we're very determined that the people housed during that crisis will stay housed. So, we've been working very hard with our local authorities, invested large sums of money into both what we call phase 1 and phase 2. But can I just emphasise, at that point, that this is not linear? You don't have phase 1, it finishes, you go into phase 2.

Phase 1 means the people who are presenting as homeless to the authorities—and we have a large number of those, weekly, presenting—who need to be sorted out immediately with somewhere safe to go, so that they can be safe for public health reasons, as well as for ordinary humane reasons. And then we have phase 2, which is how to move people who are temporarily housed into longer term, more secure accommodation that's better suited to their longer term purposes. And for some people, that will be supported accommodation, with a range of services around it, and, for others, it will just be a secure permanent home. So, as part of phase 2, we've got over 700 houses being built just with that money, trying to get them up as fast as possible, and we're using all the things that the committee has spoken about many times in the past—modern methods of construction, timber-framed houses, Welsh supply chains—all the things that go with all of that; probably an hour's session, Chair, on its own. But then coupled with that, of course, we've been looking longer term at changing the way, for example, we use public land.

So, you'll know that we established the land division, that we've changed the way that we look at Welsh Government-owned land in Wales. Previously, we used to try and maximise the amount of money we got for that land in order to reinvest it into services. Now, we've changed that to actually maximising the public good, if you like, because it's not necessarily the same as money. For example, all Welsh Government land earmarked for housing now has 50 per cent social housing on it as an absolute basic ask before we even start. And then, on top of that, we've got a number of exemplar sites that we’re looking at, where we're trying to show the whole community in Wales what can be done on a site if you really want to—so, these are carbon-neutral housing, very good green infrastructure, active travel built in to start, good proximity to employment, schooling, hospital, medical et cetera, but also beautiful Welsh-built houses with local supply chains, carbon passive, carbon neutral and so on. So, we've got several of those exemplar sites around Wales as well, where we're looking to work with our small and medium-sized enterprise community in particular to show them what can be done. You don't always have to build that same old house that you've been building for the last 15 years—you can build these.

And then the last piece of that, of course, is that the lenders—we're working with the lenders as well. Lenders can be reluctant to lend on new-fangled housing. So, we want to de-risk that for them by helping our social landlords build these houses so they become commonplace, so then the lenders will come along and be happy to lend in our private sector.

The last piece of that is that we have just renewed the help-to-buy schemes, because not everybody wants social housing—some people want to get their foot on the property ladder and so on. But, of course, we've coupled that with increased asks from the builders of what we expect. So, only this morning, I met with the Home Builders Federation to say that if they build houses to social house standards—which are, of course, higher than private sector housing, which I do wish I could get more people in Wales to understand—then, as the pandemic pans out, and we do think the recession is going to deepen, we will, of course, be able to enable our registered social landlords and our councils to buy those houses off-plan to keep the SME sector going, whereas if they persist in building them to standards that are not good enough for social housing, then they will be themselves cutting themselves off from that route. So, that went over very well this morning—everybody took the point, and we've got a stakeholder group working at what do we mean by social house standards in this regard. So, we're very aware that Welsh Government money levers all kinds of other improvements into other sectors, as well as just the social housing.


Minister, you're touching on, there, aspects of health inequalities as well, and new builds, if you get them right, can deliver all the wide benefits you've talked about, including health. But how do you get the focus right on the older housing stock that we all know that we have, typically in the private rented rector—and we've tried over the years to do so much to drive up the standards there—but even private self-owned accommodation in the older housing stock, if you look in rural areas or in the Valleys, it can be pretty poor in terms of health outcomes as well? So, what do you have—? How do you as a Minister say where you get the balance between focusing on new builds and a clean sheet and actually regeneration and dealing with inequalities that are there within our existing stock, which many people are going to be stuck with for years to come?

Yes, absolutely, Huw. And, again—sorry, Chair, long answers, I know, but they're just complicated things to deal with, so I'll just go as fast as I can. So, we have all the schemes you'll be familiar with—we've got Arbed and Nest and so on. They're all still running. During the pandemic we've had people reluctant to—. So, they all can keep going. So, if all of you can tell your constituents that, actually, that would be really helpful, because we have people saying, 'Oh, is it okay for them to come in and change my boiler?' It absolutely is—they've all been trained to be COVID-safe and so on. But we do have people cancelling Arbed appointments and so on, because they're afraid and they think it's not okay. So, if you could get that message out, that would be good.

So, we've got those schemes still running. But, much more importantly, we've just gone out on the optimised retrofit programme. So, what we're doing there—. And, actually, in Rebecca's recent announcement—Rebecca Evans's recent announcement—we've got more money to put into this now as well. But we're basically going out to our social landlords and we're asking them to come forward with a range of different types of housing across Wales. So, the two examples—extreme examples—I've been using just to make the point are the Victorian stone terracing in the mining towns of the Valleys as against the 1970s cavity-wall ranch type housing you get in a large part of my constituency. Clearly, a retrofit one-size-fits-all will not fit both of those houses. So, what we're asking them to do is to come forward with a range of different houses on which they can trial out a range of different solutions to retrofit to get them up to energy performance certificate A—what will work, what won't and so on. So, we've just done the Welsh housing quality standard with—. We're right in the end—the dying days of that very successful programme. Largely, that's been hugely successful, but we have had some learning from it, and one of the learnings is that if you clad with outside foam old stone buildings, they get condensation, and we've had some issues with that. We're working on solving them, but there have been issues. It's made it really obvious that one size doesn't fit all and Chris Jofeh's group, who work with us, have been very keen to make sure that we do the right thing in the right place.

So, that optimised programme is about finding the right technology for each type of house, but it's also about working with our FE colleges, which we're doing as part of the programme, to understand what the skills are that are necessary to fit the technologies, whatever the insulation is, whatever the heat source pump is, whatever it is, to get that to happen; to do the piece of work with the social landlords that means that we can persuade the private sector lenders that this is a proper solution; and then to overskill the population that are fitting it in the public sector so that they're available for the private sector, so that if you are lucky enough to be a homeowner, mortgaged or not, then you will be able to get somebody with the skill to be able to bring your house up to standard.

And then I think whoever the next Government is will have to look very seriously at some behaviour modifiers: whether we should give council tax incentives or whatever to people who do bring their house up to EPC A, because at the moment, inexplicably, the market isn't doing that. So, if you go to the trouble of getting your house to EPC A, it will not command a premium price to the house next door that hasn't, for reasons that are not clear to me, but perhaps we need to help the market do that for us as well with some incentives. We need to do this first bit to understand what the technology and the skills piece looks like in order to get to the next bit, and that's following the recommendations of Chris Jofeh's report that we had done to help us along the line. So, we're working very hard on all of that, and of course, it's a very good way to kick-start the economy as well; it's a good green recovery project. So, the more houses we can get into that, the faster we can go.


Okay. Finally, Minister—thank you very much for that, that's a whole session on its own, but thank you. I want to ask you about the issues that particularly affect black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, which is not just poor-quality housing, but overcrowded housing as well. In the COVID reconstruction, what are we going to do to deal with that issue as well? Because we could be in this for the long haul, but there are issues—as we've touched on before—that were there before this even started. How do we deal with that?

Absolutely, Huw, and really, in the end, the only way to deal with that is to build the social housing that we need. So, we just need to go an awful lot faster with the build on social housing than we've been able to do, and the pandemic has made that even more stark than it was before, and it's enabled us to kick-start it to some extent. And because we've been able to invest over the last three or four years in this new modern method of construction—which you're all familiar with me banging on about, but which is still a pretty new thing—of course, we can now invest in those kinds of local supply chains, local economy, locally built houses, local talent, and get our FE colleges to work alongside us with that.

I hope you've all seen the maps—I've shared them with all colleagues, but I'm happy to re-share them, Chair—of where the factories are across Wales because they're beautifully geographically spread, which is really great as well. We're working with NRW and other timber suppliers to make sure that the supply chain for the timber materials, which most of them are made out of, is there. We're also working with our universities to make sure that we're bringing forward new technologies as fast as possible in terms of—. Several of you have asked me questions about sheep's wool recently: why aren't we using wool in insulation? The answer is, 'We are.' We're very happy to do that. What we need to do, though, is help those kinds of industries to get into—well, sorry, Chair, to name a particular chain—B&Q and builders' merchants near you. When you go down there to buy your insulation, you need to be able to see Welsh sheep's wool and Welsh timber products and Welsh recycled products on those shelves, easy to buy. It shouldn't be something you have to look up especially because you're particularly interested.

So, it's working on all of that. So, my colleague Ken Skates and his department have been working very hard on the supply chains for those industries to make sure that they get out there into the wider marketplace while we show people what's possible to do with that. So the Government de-risks the first 1,000 uses of it and then, after that, it becomes a commonplace material. So, we're working on both ends of that.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Minister, turning to homelessness, can you tell us how many people are in temporary or emergency accommodation at the moment?


I can't tell you, Delyth, an absolute number today, because as I said, we've got new presentations coming all the time, but we're up over 2,200 people since the start of the pandemic. I think it's probably approaching more like 2,500 now, but it's very hard to say a specific number, because daily, we have people presenting themselves as homeless. I'm very keen to say to people—as I said in answer to an earlier question—when we talk about these phase 1, phase 2, this is not a linear progression; we don't all finish phase 1 and go on to phase 2. Phase 1 means you've just presented as homeless; this is the phase you're in being sorted out. Phase 2 is: this is what happens to you afterwards, moving on. So, you know, it's very much an iterative process, depending on the individual that's presenting. But unless Emma can tell me something different about the figures, we're in that kind of ballpark, I believe, aren't we, Emma?

Yes, Minister. That's the last set of data that we've had published. As you indicate, that was the figure up until the end of August, I believe. It will have increased since then. It's also important to note that people who came into emergency accommodation will have had move on plans put in place, and some of those will have moved on into more permanent accommodation already, so it's a moving figure, as the Minister says.

Okay, thank you for that. Minister, I know you've said quite a lot about phase 2 and your hopes for phase 2 already. In terms of the types of accommodation that are going to be used again—I know that you've already put a lot of this on the record—was there anything else that you wanted to say on phase 2, and—? I'll let you answer that first.

The Chair's going to have to be strict with me now because I could talk for another hour and a half on this, if you like. So it's very important to get the right kind of accommodation for the right sorts of people. Some people can just move straight into their secure permanent home, because we've fortunately got them early enough in their journey into homelessness for them for them to still be able to manage that. But many people will have been very scarred by the experience of homelessness; some of them needing a trauma-informed approach to what's happened to them for many years into the future. Some people will need to have an interim solution, with a hub arrangement of services around them to make sure that they are able to maintain that tenancy. And that will include a whole range of things: income maximisation—hopefully employment, but, if not, benefit maximisation; mental health, substance abuse, relationship breakdown, domestic violence support—a whole range of things.

So, we've been working—. I think there are 70-odd projects that we've now approved—looking at Emma to nod at me; yes—70 odd, and they're a mix of straightforward housing, housing support services, and all of the things I've just mentioned. I've said many, many times: it isn't a housing crisis; it's a public services crisis. So, you need all of the services to come together to be able to sustain people in those tenancies, and frankly, the longer you've been in that position, the more likely you are to have complex problems that require a lot of support. You only have to think yourself: how long could you survive on the street? Even if you start off okay, by the end of your first week on the street, you are going to have serious problems. By the end of your first month, you'll have very entrenched problems. It takes a long time to recover from that.

Absolutely. And in terms of the—I can see that Mark wants to come in with a supplementary on that.

On this point, Mark? You're muted at the moment, Mark.

Sorry. If Delyth perhaps wanted to finish, I could just come in at the end, if that's—?

In terms of the integrated support that needs to be made available to people who are maybe in accommodation for the first time in a long time, would you be using existing structures like public services boards for that, or would it be new complementary structures that would sit alongside that?

So, we expect the authorities to have homelessness provision in place as part of their normal planning. What this has done is accelerate the numbers, if you like, and so, we've had to have specific organisational issues, particularly in some areas. It won't be at all surprising to you to find that the people with the highest numbers are Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. That's not a big surprise to anybody. The cities have always been a draw for people with those kinds of problems. But actually, of course, most councils have had some kind of issue during the pandemic. So we've got somebody we call a relationship manager, and one of our housing officials is working with each of the authorities to understand what the situation in that authority is, what the profile of the people presenting looks like, what the particular issues are, what the current public services arrangements are, whether they need enhancing—all that kind of stuff. So, we've been working very closely, one on one, with them all the way through.

And also, I cannot underestimate what a cultural change this has been. So, for years and years and years, the people working in housing options—dedicated people with hard, hard jobs, dealing with really difficult things day in, day out—they have been in a rationing situation for years. So, their job has been to try and make sure that you don't get something you're not entitled to, and whatever. We swapped that overnight into saying, 'No. Everybody gets it; everybody gets what they need; everybody—.' So, the cultural change inside those organisations is enormous. So, just trying to work with those organisations and make sure they embrace that cultural change, and they've put the support services in place. You know, that's not to be sniffed at—the difficulty of that. And not surprisingly, some organisations have made that shift pretty well; others are struggling a little bit with that. And it will take many months to embed and entrench a different way of working. We're obviously going into a winter now where that's even more difficult. It's harder to get people to be happy inside a rain-soaked whatever, they can't get out into the garden, there's all kinds of anti-social behaviour issues and so on. So, we will need to work very closely with authorities to get them to understand what they're able to do in particular circumstances.

So, just to give one last example to bring it to life for you. Trying to get councils to understand that they can put support into bed-and-breakfast accommodation—mental health, substance abuse and so on—has proved problematic in many areas, because they're not used to doing that. They're used to people who are in hostels or people who are in different kinds of accommodation. So, it's trying to persuade them, repeatedly, there's no reason why that support can't go into that hotel or that bed and breakfast. That's proved one of the more difficult cultural issues, shall we say? And can I just emphasise that's not everywhere, but just in some places?


Okay, Delyth. Shall we bring Mark in? Go on, Delyth.

There was one final question I wanted to ask, but it was a slightly different area of homelessness, so I don't know if Mark's—? 

Okay, just quickly then. In terms of the challenges that we are going to be facing in the winter months, what effect do you think that will have on your planning in this area in terms of dealing with people who have been homeless and are now in emergency accommodation? Would you be looking to use less, or make less use of emergency accommodation, and will you be looking at specific legislation?

So, we've been very clear that we're not going back—we're not going back—to night shelters and floor space and so on. So, we've made this step forward; we're going to stay stepped forward, if I can put it like. So, trying to persuade councils that they can put the support into the bed and breakfasts, they can requisition more types of accommodation, that there is a human being aspect to some of this, has proved challenging, but we are working very hard at it. All our relationship managers are working very hard with the councils at the moment, to understand what they think the problem is that they're trying to solve, and to make them shift the focus. And the other thing is to say that we're working very hard with our third sector partners as well, to make them understand that we very much want them to stay in this work, we very much want them to stay in homelessness, but we are not funding floor space, night shelters and those kinds of things. So, they need to shift their provision to what we're prepared to fund, or they'll find themselves without the funding. And we need them to walk this walk with us. We need them to come with us on this.

Thank you. Caroline, is it on this particular point that you wanted to come in? You're muted at the moment, Caroline. Sorry.

It was about the bed-and-breakfast issue that the Minister raised. Several weeks ago I visited a homeless veteran living in a shed at the bottom of someone's garden, and when he went to the council with all his other issues as well—PTSD and so forth—he was told that he could be helped to go into private accommodation: they'd help with the bond, but he'd have to save for the month's rent in advance. Obviously, he couldn't do this, so he remained in the shed. So, are we having mixed messages here of where—? He's still remaining in the shed, there's a two-month waiting list for him to have help with the mental health issues that he's experiencing, and I just wondered what other messages we can give as some sort of light at the end of the tunnel for someone who is in a desperate situation. Thank you.


Just on that one, Caroline, it's obviously very difficult to address individual cases in this kind of session, but if you want to give me details privately, I'll see what I can do about it, because without more information, it's impossible to say. But the councils ought to be—. People should not be living in sheds. The councils are in a position where they ought to be able to help that individual immediately, and so if you want to tell me the details—. It's impossible to address those individual issues in this kind of session, I'm afraid.

I'm going to bring Mark in, but, first of all, Dawn, because I think it's on this issue—Dawn, is it?

Yes. Thanks, Chair. The Minister is aware of the concern I've got in this particular area. It is to do with those people—. I absolutely agree with what you're saying about not funding floor space for night shelters, and we need to get away from that. But there'll be many local authorities, and certainly one of the local authorities in my area, where there is a very small cohort of people—no more than maybe half a dozen—who have already been evicted, for want of a better word, from several emergency accommodations within the town. And it is impossible to find any further accommodation to put these people in, because these are people with such complex needs that even the emergency accommodation they're not able to hold down without intensive support around them.

But these people are going to need support and accommodation through the coldest nights of the winter, and I'm just wondering what kind of support we would be able to put in place, if not the floor space type of support—because I'm not even sure that that would be suitable for them in any event because of the very complex nature of the issues that they're dealing with—but what kind of support are councils going to be able to put in place at such short notice for these really difficult cohorts of individuals that need intensive support?

So, we had a brief conversation, didn't we, Dawn, about the specifics, but I won't answer the specifics here? In general, if you're working with an individual that's been evicted several times for anti-social behaviour, you haven't got short notice of that, have you, you've known for a very, very long time that that person has got complex needs and so on? So, really, we ought to have been working for some time to get a package in place.

I suppose our point of view is that we don't understand how you can manage a person with such complex needs in a warehouse-hostel-type situation, when you can't manage them in other circumstances. There's something going wrong there. So, we need to get the relationship manager on board with trying to sort that out.

But in general, the message is—it's a transformation in the culture of thinking about it. So, the old way of thinking about it was, 'Look, we would stop people dying because it was cold outside, by letting them come inside where it's a bit warmer, but apart from that, we won't do anything and then we'll chuck them back out at 8 o'clock in the morning when it's no longer freezing, and it's not our problem; after that, the police can pick them up, or whatever. You know, we can't deal with it.' And we're saying, 'Well, that's not a humane way of dealing with it—chucking them out onto the street and hoping they get picked up by the police is just not a good system.' So, what we've been saying is, 'Look, that person needs to have a trauma-informed case-management approach to them.' These are people with very challenging behaviour; these are not pleasant people to be around very often, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't understand how they've got to where they are. You know, they're all somebody's son or brother, or whatever. So, it is about getting the trauma-informed piece of work around them as fast as possible to try and get them into a situation where they can be on the right medication, or with the right mental health support and so on.

I don't underestimate the sheer problems that some people are presenting with, because of how traumatised they are from all of this. But we do need to work with them. And we don't want to flip back to that short-termism: 'We'll keep them alive in the night. That's all we'll do. We'll chuck them out in the day—it's not our problem.' That's sort of sustaining the people-on-the-streets approach, which is what that's doing and is what we're saying they have to stop doing; they have to turn it around.

But it's what I was saying earlier in response to somebody—I've forgotten who, I'm sorry, Chair—this is a big cultural shift for people; it's a big change in the way we've been doing things, and so you can't expect people to just change overnight the practice of 30 years. It's going to take a long time for us to start reinforcing that we expect that different approach. But then, for individual instances, which all of you will have, if you want to separately bring those up, we can take them up with the individual relationship managers of particular councils and work with them to understand what's happening in very specific areas in Wales. But, you know, this is why I keep saying, Chair: we haven't solved homelessness, we've put a sticking plaster over homelessness; now we need to work together to solve it, and solving it is about addressing some of these much more entrenched and much more difficult issues. It's never been about four walls and a roof. Emma, are you trying to come in on that?


Thank you, Minister. Yes, I just wanted to add to that that the type of individuals that we're talking about here are the type of individuals who we have been very successfully supported through Housing First. Now, obviously, in the current circumstance, one of the challenges for local authorities is establishing properties, moving people on into Housing First, but that is the type of response that we need to be aiming for, which is why it's so important that part of the Minister's long-term plan is about moving to rapid rehousing. Individuals will have a far greater chance of success in meeting the challenges that they face, through their traumatised backgrounds, if they are in a safe and secure housing situation. That's what Housing First does. And then there are other programmes that take a rapid-rehousing approach with that wraparound support, and the data is there, proving that, actually, it can be highly successful with individuals with the very highest complexity of needs.

Okay. Well, thank you for that, Emma, and thank you, Minister. And finally on this, then, Mark Isherwood.

Thank you. Well, I've sat on this committee and its three predecessors over four Assembly terms and we've conducted a number of inquiries over those years where we've engaged directly with the communities we're talking about—people who are, or have been, on the streets, young and older, including, of course, the work that this particular committee's done during this Senedd term. We know that the complex needs don't begin on the streets; the complex needs lead to them being on the streets and then things can get worse and more complex as everything else is thrown into the mix.

We know that some of the more successful interventions—you refer to Wrexham, for example, in terms of going to develop relationships with the people who, despite all other interventions, still choose to be on the streets—come from Street Pastors, the Red Cross, the Community Care Collaborative, established in Wrexham, and so on. So, to what extent are you engaging with those organisations who are, and have been, doing this work for a long time, literally on the streets, in the design and delivery of interventions that actually help people develop enough trust to come back to take advantage of the broader statutory provision that's available? And linked to that, it's literally almost exactly a decade since the then committee, equivalent to this committee, produced a report referring to social letting agencies, which was a partnership between the private rented sector, third sector and local authorities to house and support the very people we're talking about—those that landlords generally didn't want to house. And at that point at least, the success rate, despite the complexity of need, was hugely successful, although we subsequently saw the arrival of private rented sector access agencies—that was something different. I'm wondering what consideration you've given, or might give, the revisiting of proposals that came from this committee's predecessor report almost exactly a decade ago.

Thanks, Mark. So, I have to say, without the support of the kinds of people that you've just listed there, we wouldn't have been able to do what we've been able to do during the pandemic. It's been absolutely essential to work with everyone in the homelessness sector, support workers and so on, all the way through this, to help us to do this. So, we've absolutely been working with faith groups, Street Pastors, absolutely everybody you can think of—all the homelessness charities, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. Everybody has really pulled together, and I can't go on enough about how people so wanted to help—they so wanted to be able to do this. So, first of all, to reassure you, we absolutely are working with all of those people.

Secondly, we're already doing some of what you say, and I'm very happy to look again at the committee's recommendations from a decade ago, or whenever it was, but we are absolutely doing that. So, we're rolling out a whole series of efforts in the private rented sector to persuade landlords to give us over their properties so that we can use them for the kinds of accommodation that people need. We can put the wraparound support services around them. Lots of the phase 2 stuff is about the support services and how you get them to people in various kinds of accommodation. So, (a), Chair, I'm very happy to relook at the committee's recommendation back then—I'm sure Mark can point me to it—but (b) just to reassure you that we have a number of schemes in place that do exactly that, and we're very keen. So, we've just rolled out the private rented sector leaseback scheme for private rented to another three authorities, I think it is. It's at six now. So, we're in the process of doing that, Mark. But I'm very happy to look again at the particular recommendation as well. I keep saying we haven't got all the good ideas, and I'm more than happy, if you've got anything you think will work, to have a look at it.


Okay, thank you for that, Minister, and we will pursue that no doubt. Thank you. Now, Dawn Bowden.

Sorry, I hadn't unmuted. Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to ask you some questions around rented accommodation, Minister. Now, the Welsh Government's taken action to extend the notice periods again to avoid evictions, but that is not the case for people subject to evictions with anti-social behaviour or domestic violence where they're going to return to the pre-pandemic arrangements. Can you tell me whether there are likely to be any further changes necessary now, or when you're likely to be reviewing it again?

So, we have two things going on in parallel. We've got the response to the pandemic stuff, which we've been obviously dealing with through the emergency regulations that you're talking about there, where, trying to address some of the issues that we've had arising through the pandemic and learning lessons, we've changed some of the thinking on longer notice periods and so on for obvious reasons. However, of course, what that does mean is if you're evicted from a private rented sector accommodation because of anti-social behaviour or because you're the perpetrator in domestic abuse situations, you'll still be homeless, you will still turn up at housing options—the local authority will still owe you a duty of care. So, we're only transferring it from one place to another.

Now, we've got an agreement with our social rented landlords in Wales to have no eviction into homelessness. So, that doesn't mean they can't evict people from their particular accommodation, because, in some instances, that's the only thing that'll work—you need to remove the person from the place—but they have got to find them somewhere else to go. They've agreed with us that that needs to happen, because you're just transferring them to a different—. You're evicting them at the front door of the council and they go round the back to housing options and re-present. So, that's not a solution. So, we've been working with the social rented sector on that, and it just means we're transferring the issue, but we've just got to recognise that sometimes in the private rented sector there is no other solution but to move the person away from the circumstances that they find themselves in. It's just one of those really nuanced, difficult circumstances.

And then, separate to the pandemic, but it just happens to completely overlap it, tomorrow I'm introducing the Rented Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill to the Senedd. So, that was our pre-COVID response, but obviously it's now informed by our experience during the pandemic, to what we need to do to the private rented sector in Wales to give people better security of tenure and so on. You'll know that we're in the unusual situation of amending an Act that's not yet in force, because we've already learned that we didn't get it entirely right in the first place, so we're amending that Act before it comes into force in order to be able to address some of the issues you've just raised. But they are two parallel tracks, not to be confused, really.

I understand that. Can I just move on to landlords and what the impact of the changes are on landlords and what kind of feedback, if any, you've had from them and whether you've been able to address any of their concerns?

You mean now during the pandemic, is that what you're—?

Yes, the assessments of the impact of changes on notice periods in particular for landlords in the private and the public sector.

We've got liaison forums for the two different sectors. So, we've had no pushback at all in the social rented sector. We have long-established arrangements with them and long-established liaison. I very recently—I think it was only last week—met with the National Residential Landlords Association, who were extremely helpful in terms of how the legislation works and what's possible—definitely onside with us. They understand what we're trying to do, and we're just trying to work through some of the practical implications for them and understand where they're coming from and so on. But there's no massive pushback. There are some nuanced things: they would like us to lengthen the period of time they've got to decide they've made a mistake in issuing a summons and so on. We're saying, 'It's 14 days because you ought to be a professional landlord', and so on. There are some nuanced areas of disagreement, but it is disagreement rather than outright not understanding each other, if I can put it like that. So, there are occasions when I'm saying, 'Well, I think 14 days is long enough', and they'd like 21. It's that kind of level of disagreement; it's not fundamental disagreement with the legislation, which I'm very pleased about. And I think that's because they can see that there's a lot more support in place now for private rented sector landlords through Rent Smart Wales, and so on, than there used to be, and, of course, we've got a unique situation in Wales, where we know who our landlords are, which nobody else does, so we can actually talk to them, and it's a real big thing that we can do that. So, I think we've done well to be able to get ourselves into that position, and we can consolidate that now so that we have a good communication system with them, and we're able to put the kind of trauma-informed services that we've just been talking about around tenancy support into the private rented sector as well as into the social sector, exactly as Mark just said, actually, so that we're able to sustain people in their tenancies. 


Yes. Thank you for that, Minister. If I can just ask you now about support for tenants in hardship, you've introduced the new scheme there—I was just trying to think what it's called now—

The tenancy saver scheme—that's the one—and with the support of credit unions, and so on. Are you satisfied that that's going to be sufficient, or are you kind of, 'Let's suck it and see', really, on how that works out, and do you think there is any more scope to do anything else, particularly with the use of discretionary housing payments, and so on?

So, it will help the situation for some people, and there were a group of people that we were very worried about who are falling in between a number of systems. So, these are people who are not eligible for the housing element of universal credit or housing benefit for one reason or another—usually that they're earning just above thresholds, or they have some savings, or whatever, but it's very marginal, not being eligible—who were nevertheless falling into rent arrears because they were on very insecure zero-hours contracts, reduced money, furlough schemes, where it might not sound like very much, 10 per cent of your income, but it might have been the difference between being able to pay and not pay, and all that kind of stuff. So, we knew that there was that group of people, and we were just trying to help them stay in their housing, really. Your heart just goes out to them, really, because you're talking about somebody who is on a marginal income and who's incurred a £5,000 or £6,000 or £7,000 loan, and who is now going to have to pay that off on top of their rent for the next five—. You may never recover from that, you know. That's really bad.

So, we've managed to do it through our credit unions, which I'm delighted about, and at a very marginal rate of interest—1 per cent. I'm often asked why has it got interest on it at all, but we needed to cover the costs of the credit unions in order to be able to do it. Obviously, the Government is backing them in order to ensure that the credit unions can take the risk, and we're doing it through the WCVA as well, so I'm very pleased with it. It won't help everyone. If you were in substantial rent arrears before the pandemic, then you won't be eligible for it. We are working with the landlords to make sure the landlords are also being as helpful as possible. So, where they can afford to allow the tenant some leeway with rent and so on, or reduce the rent temporarily, or whatever, during the pandemic, we're working with them to do that. And bear in mind that, if you are on universal credit or the old housing benefit, then this isn't the route for you—you would want to go through the discretionary assistance fund, and there are other routes for people on credit. But there are several things that we would like to be able to do that are not in the Welsh Government's power: so, I would like the local housing allowance to go up to 50 per cent, and we would like more people to be given eligibility for universal credit housing allowances. It's very marginal where people are at the moment, and you'll know that the worst thing of all that can happen to you if you're on universal credit is that you go in and out of work, because it's near impossible to keep your benefits running, and so on. So, with this kind of on-off stuff, in hospitality and so on, it's a disaster for people. 

So, it's our attempt to help a cohort of people we know are out there. It's very difficult to put a number on them. We've guessed at about £8 million. We think, in liaison with a number of groups, that that's about the right amount of money, but it's an educated guess; it's not knowledge. I've also met with a number of tenant organisations, most recently with ACORN—you may have been getting correspondence off them—last week. I'm very happy to include those in our liaison arrangements so that we understand what it feels like on the ground, and they made a number of suggestions last week for improvements, which we'll have a look at taking on board to see if we can adapt the scheme in any way to assist. But, otherwise, we're going to be faced with a large number of people with huge amounts of arrears who will lose their housing and who will then have a massive debt as well as having no housing. So, trying to get them back into social housing then becomes a real issue. So, you get yourself into a position through no fault of your own where it's near impossible to recover, and we really didn't want that to happen to people.


And so, on the discretionary housing fund, which I know is a UK Government pot of money, do you see that the discretionary housing fund is going to have a significant role to play in this?

We've been putting money into the discretionary assistance fund, which is a slightly different—

That's what I'm saying—discretionary housing payments, particularly, is what I'm talking about. 

It's a UK fund that we've been putting additional Welsh Government money into in order to allow people to access it, and we've changed the rules around how many times you can access it, and so on, in order to try and help. And obviously, we've worked with our social landlord partners to make them understand what people's ability to pay is and to work hard on income maximisation and also on making sure that they've negotiated the right kind of rent repayment programmes or rent reduction, or whatever it is that's necessary in the social sector. It's a lot easier to deal with in the social sector than it is in the private rented. I'd just like to say as well that some private landlords, of course, have been amazing and have been really helpful, but unfortunately not all of them. And some of them have not been very amazing. So, we've got a spectrum, as you'd expect. 

I was going to ask you about wider support for landlords, but I think you probably dealt with that in my earlier question. So, I can leave it there, Chair. 

Thank you very much, Dawn. Okay, well if there are no further questions, then—

Thank you. I just wanted to check, as, obviously, it's absolutely right to support tenants in financial hardship, but most landlords only have one or two properties and rely on their income from those properties for their own living expenses. I'm wondering what support for those landlords in financial hardship is in place or might be considered, particularly where tenants may have been in arrears preceding COVID, or may be in arrears for reasons that are not to do with events since the arrival of COVID and who are simply refusing to pay. And related to that, as you mentioned Rent Smart Wales, of course, enforcement action against criminal landlords is not in the hands of Rent Smart Wales; it's in the hands of local authorities. How are you monitoring that important action, where the figures I've obtained suggest a very mixed approach to this, which might need attention?

On that last one, it's one of the things we talk about when we liaise—. We have a WLGA housing cabinet members liaison group, and that includes all 22 authorities, not just the stockholders, where we talk about a whole range of issues such as that, Mark, and try to understand what individual councils are facing in terms of issues. But if you have any evidence you'd like to share with me, I'm always very willing to talk to you about it, as you know. So, if you think there are particular areas of issue in a particular authority, I'm very happy to be told that so I can take it up with them. 

I'm going to bring Emma in on the discretionary housing payments stuff, if you don't mind, Chair, because she's the person with much more detailed knowledge than I have about some of how that works. Emma. 

Thank you, Minister. Yes, discretionary housing payments: the amount that was allocated UK Government to authorities did go up this year, but we are aware that, last year, virtually every authority spent in excess of their allocations. They are allowed to top-up the discretionary housing payment fund by, I think, up to two and a half times their allocation, but there is of course no guarantee that they would receive that money back from UK Government. So, we are expecting there to be significant strain on DHP funding this year, and we're monitoring that very closely with authorities. And the Minister has raised concerns with UK Government on a number of occasions surrounding this and, in particular, as the Minister mentioned, around the notion that, actually, DHPs might be a vehicle to help a wider group of individuals, but it is restricted, as the Minister said, specifically to those that are on certain benefits. But, certainly, the system is under pressure. Certainly, local authorities will be making their own local choices about how they make that fund stretch as far as they can, and how much they can commit to adding to the funding pot with no guarantee that they would get that funding back from UK Government. So, a difficult landscape around DHPs. 


Well, I didn't feel—a very helpful response, which I think built on Dawn's question—I don't think the point I raised about support for landlords who might be in financial hardship, because tenants aren't paying for reasons that probably pre-date or are unrelated to COVID—. 

Right, so, there isn't very much we can do about that, Mark. You'd be reliant on the welfare state in the way everybody else is if you're income is disrupted in that way. The tenancy saver loans, of course, are paid direct to landlords in circumstances where the long-standing problem is as a result of COVID and isn't a predating issue. Otherwise, I'm afraid, the landlord is in the same position as everybody else is in terms of having their income disrupted. So, we haven't specifically looked at landlords who face that situation. There are large numbers of other people who also have that. If it's a business, of course, then you'd probably be eligible for business support. If it's a non-business income, then you'd be in the same position as everybody else who's had their income disrupted as a result of the pandemic, I fear. 

Absolutely, I think it's that mixed bag. As you say, our landlords are small landlords with one or two properties, and sometimes that's part of a portfolio, but it does mean that we are aware that they have, in some instances, fallen in between the different packages of support available. But it's a very mixed bag in terms of the circumstances that those individuals find themselves in.  

Okay. Well, thank you all very much. Thank you, Minister, thank you, Emma, and thank you, Claire, for being with us for the session. You will be sent a transcript, Minister, to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr. 

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 14:47 a 15:00. 

The meeting adjourned between 14:47 and 15:00. 

3. Ymchwiliad i COVID-19 a’i Effaith ar Faterion sy’n Ymwneud â Chylch Gwaith y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth gyda’r Dirprwy Weinidog a'r Prif Chwip
3. Inquiry into COVID-19 and its Impact on Matters Relating to the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s Remit: Evidence Session with the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip

Okay, may I welcome everyone back to committee? Item 3 on our agenda today continues our inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to this committee's remit, and this item is evidence from the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip on the impact of COVID-19 on matters relating to equalities. So, I'm very pleased to welcome Jane Hutt and also Jane's official, Alyson Francis, who is deputy director of communities within Welsh Government. Perhaps I might begin then, Minister, with some initial questions on the strategic approach of Welsh Government to tackling inequalities. Firstly, I wonder if you could tell committee what are your short to medium-term priorities in relation to inequality.

Thank you very much, Chair, and can I thank you and the committee for inviting me this afternoon, particularly following up your all-important report on inequalities and the pandemic? Obviously, the pandemic has had an impact, even, I would say, on our short to medium-term priorities in relation to inequality, but, as you will be aware, of course, in line with our specific equality duties as a Welsh Government, we have our strategic equality plan, which was published—the third strategic equality plan, in fact—in April this year, following extensive public engagement over the last year. That, of course, is a four-year plan. And that is—you know, as you say, in terms of, well, medium and longer term objectives, this is a four-year plan, so it has to set the scene for our direction in how do we identify and tackle barriers to equality. But also, of course, it's about how do we protect those with protected characteristics, how do we reflect the priorities. So, that's under way, our strategic equality plan for the next four years, 2020 to 2024.

We will have to then, obviously, look at this through the particular experience and lens of COVID. But, actually, in terms of progressing equality and advancing human rights, it clearly is underpinned and supported by other plans that are coming forward, and I would say—. The race action plan clearly is an example of something that we agreed to do before the pandemic, but the impact, the disproportionate impact, of COVID on black, Asian, minority ethnic people particularly has accelerated the need and the case for us to progress with this race equality action plan. It's a key element, in fact, in the delivery of the strategic equality plan as well. So, I think, Chair, that's an example of—. The strategic equality plan and then the race equality plan: short term, in the sense that we are going to have this produced—co-produced—by the end of this Senedd, but, of course, it will be delivered for the medium and long term. I would just also quite quickly want to mention the fact that we've also agreed to develop a plan in terms of updating our LGBT+ action plan for Wales.

Okay. In terms of some of the inequalities around race and ethnicity, Minister, you, of course, set up the BAME advisory group in terms of COVID and its impact, and that's led to some important developments. Are you able to say anything in terms of how that work will feed into the race equality action plan and to what extent that plan will draw on that work that's taking place?


Well, it's absolutely critical. The BAME COVID advisory group that was set up, chaired by Judge Ray Singh had that—. There are two sub-groups: one on developing a risk-assessment tool, which was developed at pace, but the second one is the crucial one for the race equality plan, which is the socioeconomic sub-group plan. That was led, as you know, by Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna and you recognised that work in your report. He got to grips with partners in the black, Asian, minority ethnic community to look at the socioeconomic impacts on the BAME community, because we knew it wasn't just a clinical, medical issue—epidemiological issue—it was to do with structural inequalities.

So, as you will have seen from the Welsh Government's response to Emmanuel Ogbonna's report—and we debated this last week—we've accepted that report. There are many recommendations that we're already putting into play, some of which, actually, were in your report, before we even responded, like setting up a helpline and the data issues—crucially important for the race equality action plan, but there are other areas. His plan, his report, covered housing, it covered economic development, employability, as well as health and social care.

So, we see that that socioeconomic group plan is going to feed into the race equality plan. We've asked Emmanuel Ogbonna to co-chair the steering group for the race equality plan with the Permanent Secretary, Shan Morgan, because this is a new way and an innovative way of doing things. We need someone like Professor Ogbonna to be there at the top with the Permanent Secretary to ensure that the response is cross-Government because it actually covers virtually every responsibility of this Welsh Government, the race equality action plan. So, it will directly feed into the work that we're doing; it already is feeding into it.

But the race equality action plan also—we need to get grass-roots engagement in that. So, we've just been trawling for—. We've publicised a community grants fund, which lots of organisations have put forward money for, applications for, because we need grass-roots engagement to get this race equality action plan right. So, you need the top-level commitment to it—Professor Ogbonna, the Permanent Secretary, Welsh Government. We need local government involved—in fact, I have to say that the Welsh Local Government Association was involved in Emmanuel Ogbonna's work, as were academics, as were practitioners at the grass roots, as was the Wales Trades Union Congress.

So, we've got—. Also, I'll just finally say that we've got the Wales race forum, which has been going for many years. It's an advisory group to Ministers. I've just extended the membership for that, which includes, for example, people like Andrew Ogun from Newport. We need to get the grass roots involved in helping us get this right.

Okay, Minister. Thank you very much for that. Could I ask you about commencement of the public sector equality duty and what impact you think would come from that in relation to the Welsh Government's strategic approach to tackling these issues?

Well, the public sector equality duties—obviously, we had to pause the public sector equality duties because of COVID-19 and also partly because the Equality and Human Rights Commission also themselves were unable to progress with, as the regulator, the public sector equality duties. But the work is now under way to pick that up and recommence that.FootnoteLink

Obviously, one of the key areas of policy, which I made sure was recognised by the First Minister that we had to progress now was the new socioeconomic duty, which, in fact, will be coming forward will be coming forward to the Senedd for a debate in due course. So, we have got to get the public sector equality duties review. We had tremendous response to it. We enthused the public bodies who were engaged with them. COVID came in. But, alongside this, we were looking at all the other priorities in terms of advancing human rights and equality, and that—I think socioeconomic duty is crucial. But I can say just, for example, the public sector equality duty that we are going to have—. We're doing research, as you know, on strengthening equalities and human rights. That's going to feed into it. That's been paused to a certain extent by the pandemic, but the socioeconomic duty is going ahead at pace, and we'll be crucially important in delivering—. Well, you made that a very strong call in your recommendations in your report, that the socioeconomic duty was there to help tackle poverty and inequality.


Yes. Okay. One final question from me, Minister, before we move on to others on this committee: the separate community cohesion strategy and hate crime strategy, will they continue to be separate, given the forthcoming race equality strategy, or will there be some merging of these?

Well, I think the—. And it's interesting that tomorrow I'm making a statement actually on Hate Crime Awareness Week and I will be able to update Members about how we're progressing with these issues. But I think what's important is that we need to see the community cohesion and hate crime framework through the lens of what does this mean in terms of advancing equality for all people, but we need to then ensure that it influences all our strategies. So, I would say that, in terms of the race equality plan, it'll be influenced by the principles of the community cohesion strategy. And the hate crime framework, I think I'd already—. I perhaps said this in my response to the debate last week: I'm going to do an update on the hate crime framework and I will certainly be reporting in greater detail tomorrow in my statement to the Senedd.

Okay. Okay, Minister. Thank you for that. Dawn Bowden.

Thank you, Chair. You touched earlier on, Minister, about data issues and I just wondered if you could tell us what action is now being taken to improve equality data across the public sector. In particular, I'm just thinking about the ethnicity data, which I think was identified as a gap.

Thank you very much, Dawn. I think, again, we've got to be thankful to the work that was undertaken by Professor Ogbonna who identified data as a key issue, and I have to say your report as well. Your report has been so valuable as a committee, alongside the socioeconomic external advisory report to the Welsh Government on data. But also we recognise that data has been a big issue in terms of equality statistics for a long time, so very critical to the race equality action plan and to the Welsh Government's response to Emmanuel Ogbonna's report.

So, I said a few things last week in response in the Chamber on this point on data; I also responded as Minister to your committee report. We've looked at the quality of evidence on ethnicity and coronavirus, for example, through the implementation of the e-form, and that's included also for healthcare workers and we're working with partners in NHS and social care, and not just to look at better recording of ethnicity, which is crucial, but also disability data as well, in both staff records and wider health records. I think I might have mentioned this last week in terms of that social care workforce data on ethnicity is now actually collected via Social Care Wales through its annual surveys. Mandatory registration now we have of domiciliary care workers—that's been introduced in April of this year. And social care workers in residential care home settings—that's planned to be mandatory from April 2022. So, that will mean that Social Care Wales will have much more robust ethnicity data going forward. So, those are some areas where we have a grip and a power, if you like, to collect that data, particularly in relation to ethnicity and disability.


Did you say, Jane, that that's starting to be collected now—that that work is starting now?

Yes. As far as the social care workforce data—that's coming through since April. The mandatory registration of domiciliary care workers is from April of this year. So, that's where we will get that data. And it's not until 2022 in terms of residential care home settings. That's going to be mandatory from 2022. So, Social Care Wales will get that data—but also, as I said, in terms of trying to get improvement through the e-form for the staff of health and social care. But, I think it's also important just to recognise it's not just about—. On getting access, we don't have access to all that data. The ONS is crucially important, of course, but also we are seeking—. And you will recall there's a recommendation in the Emmanuel Ogbonna report for a race disparity unit. One was set up, in fact, by Theresa May when she was Prime Minister, and Lord Simon Woolley, who's been advising us, was, until very recently, leading the race disparity unit in the Cabinet Office. He's been advising our officials on how we can look at data, and then look at disparity in terms of the data that we collect, and how you then act on the evidence of disparity. 

Okay. That's really helpful to have those sort of timescales set out, but can you give us some idea about the timescale for completion of the public sector equality duties?

I think, as John, the Chair, was asking me earlier on about those public sector equality duties—we had to pause it at the time of COVID, and also the Equality and Human Rights Commission paused it as well, but it's now under way again. I think the work that's being undertaken by Swansea University with Diverse Cymru, looking at advancing equality and human rights—that research is going to be very important to delivering on the public sector equality duty. But, as I think I said in response to earlier questions, we're also progressing the socioeconomic duty as well. But I think the public sector equality duty—. I'm glad that you've raised this, not just here but in your report, because this is where the public sector in Wales, public bodies, local government and all the public bodies that come under the Equality Act, have got to deliver. I think your report and what's happened—the deepening of inequalities—has been exposed so visibly as a result of the pandemic, that actually public bodies themselves recognise that this is an issue in terms of providing services and delivering for their local communities. They have to address inequalities and look at ways in which they can tackle barriers and reduce inequalities. And the public sector equality duty gives them the guide to do it, and it is in statute. So, I'm anxious to get that moving again, but I have to do it in partnership with the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

So you don't have a specific timescale for that review just yet. 

Well, in a sense, the review was paused rather than—it was on its way. There's been lots of consultation and I attended big meetings, when we were able to, of public sector bodies and their equality leads, mostly. But, it is now under way again. I'd be very happy to report back to the committee on outcomes of that, but it's certainly one of the key priorities, because it actually does feed into the strategic equality plan, and it will feed into the race equality plan as well. 

I think Alyson Francis wants to come in at this stage, Minister, if that's okay. 


Thank you very much. It was just a couple of points. I wanted to pick up on the timescales. As the Deputy Minister mentioned, the public sector equality duties are already in existence and we started reviewing them earlier this year. They were on pause. And so we're picking them up around other COVID-related work. So, we haven't got an exact timescale around those yet, because that review is being impacted. The commencement of the socioeconomic duty, so Part 1 of the Equality Act, was originally due to be commenced in March this year, and, of course, that was also impacted by COVID-19. That's due to be introduced in March next year, so we're still on track for that and there's a lot of work under way. You've probably seen some of the things that we've recently published to support public bodies. And then, the research that the Deputy Minister mentioned around strengthening equality and human rights is due to be published in February or March time next year. 

That's helpful. Thank you for that. My final question, Chair, is just in relation to the older people's commissioner. We've had a couple of fairly critical comments from the older persons' commissioner in the last few months, originally about reporting Welsh Government to the human rights commission around the violation of rights in care homes, or alleged violation of older people's rights in care homes. And then, most recently, we've had some criticism, haven't we, from the older persons' commissioner around not having involvement in the post-COVID pandemic report work. Can you just tell us whether you've had the opportunity to meet with the older persons' commissioner and discuss any of these issues?

I have met with the older people's commissioner, but actually, the lead Minister, as you know, I'm sure, Dawn and the committee, for working with the older people's commissioner and for older people policy is Julie Morgan, Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services. She has actually met with the older people's commissioner every week since March, because she has had such an important role, the older people's commissioner, in drawing the attention of us and yourselves and the public to the needs and rights of older people. I met the older people's commissioner early on in the pandemic to say that I was specifically interested in equality issues and concerns and the rights of older people. But obviously, Julie Morgan has met, as I said, weekly, in fact, to discuss all the wider policy issues, particularly around social policy and social care as well. And, of course, you've raised that in relation to social care.

I think the interesting issue about, for example, the recovery and the reconstruction—I know that, if you look at the reconstruction work that's being undertaken and the principles that lie behind it, it's very intergenerational; it covers everyone who's been made more vulnerable as a result of COVID-19. So, it covers issues around social care and well-being, but it also covers issues around digital exclusion, around accessible transport, isolation and loneliness and the ways in which we have got to address all these issues as we come out of the pandemic. So, I very much welcome the engagement of older people.

Just from an equality perspective, for example, in June, I met with the Windrush elders, who are a very distinguished group of BAME older people in Wales. I think it's very important that we look at the diversity of Wales when we meet with older people. Indeed, we have a disability equality forum, which I meet regularly, and that's my direct responsibility. And so many disabled people are older people. We often become disabled people as we grow older. The feedback in terms of accessible streets has been one of the very strong messages that's come back from the disability equality forum. But I think the fact that we have an older people's commissioner who speaks up for older people is crucial. And I know that the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services engages with her and those issues, as I said, on a week-by-week basis.


Okay. Let me just bring Huw Irranca-Davies in at this stage. Huw.

Thank you, Chair. Jane, you're right, in that the report that came out recently on the post-COVID reconstruction covered a whole gamut of things. But, I'm just curious as to what happened here with the communication with the older people's commissioner. Normally, in the past—and I include my spell as a Minister on this—if something blows up like this, then—. Something has happened with the communication there. It's either been a misinterpretation by the older people's commissioner about what the report was and what it was going to cover—because I know that, during the summer, there was a deep-dive look at the early phases of the pandemic and the impact of that on care homes. A report was brought out in July or August, which looked at a different way of taking that forward, but much of that wasn't referenced within the post-COVID reconstruction. So, I'm trying to understand still, quite genuinely, what went wrong. Was it a misunderstanding about what this report was about? Will we have clarity going forward? I think that what people are looking for is the moment when the older people's commissioner steps up and says, 'I've now sat down with Ministers, I see that they've not been missed out, there are other things that are being done separately from this report'. Because that's our worry: if it's not in the report, where is it? And is she going to come out and say, 'I'm now content that I can see things are happening'?     

Thank you, Huw. I'm glad that you've drawn attention to some of those ways in which we've been engaging with older people to ensure that their voices are strongly heard throughout the pandemic. This year, I know there's been a £50,000 allocation to Age Cymru to support five national older people's organisations, and part of that was to facilitate wider engagement with a more diverse group of older people. I've mentioned the Windrush elders, and it is that kind of diversity that you need to reach out to, to ensure that we get that kind of feedback. But also, of course, they had funding from us for engagement. I do know that Age Cymru, who are very involved in terms of the older people's commissioner, have worked with older people's groups. They have done a survey on older people's experiences during the pandemic. So, that's critical to feed into recovery plans as well. In fact, I think that survey has done very well. It's got over 1,000 responses. It's going to inform the strategy for an ageing society.

But I think crucially important in terms of the way that we take this forward is to show our commitment to this. We are publishing guidance on how local authorities can have due regard to the UN principles for older persons, and I know that the older people's commissioner is very strong about this point. We are publishing—the Welsh Government—that guidance. We are going to publish a version specifically for older people, and we have the ministerial advisory forum on ageing. So, as you know from your former ministerial responsibilities, there are lots of ways in which we are engaging with older people.

I think we can't also allow the pandemic to cast stereotypes about age, vulnerability and decline, because so many older people are active—the active elderly. The contributions that they are making—so many were involved in the volunteering force during the pandemic. So, older people's rights and voices are critically important. And, of course, human rights and equalities legislation, in itself, does provide a framework to ensure that everyone is treated with fairness, equality, dignity, respect and economy. But, I think that the fact of the report that was published by the Counsel General last week—. He has also met with the older people's commissioner. He said so last week in his statement. The role and the contribution of older people will be fundamental, not just to us as a Welsh Government, but through what I have said in the ways that we're guiding and ensuring that other public bodies also play their part.

Mark Isherwood. I think that Mark wanted to come in as well. 

Thank you. I just wanted to go back to your point about the public sector equality duty. In relatively recent times, I've had so much casework regarding breaches of this. For example, decommissioning user-led disability support groups in the community and giving the contracts to large external bodies; telling us to tell people what size wheelchairs they should have so that they can gain access to places—[Inaudible.]; redesigning streets without involving disabled people; punishing autistic people based on their behaviour without asking what's driving that behaviour and whether, actually, the officers are causing them pain; and much else besides. So, how can we ensure that training, not just equality training, but disability training, goes beyond the plaque on the wall and becomes not an event but a never-ending process, and that people, rather than being penalised, are helped to understand how they should be doing this better as they go forward?


Thank you very much. Those are really important points, Mark, and they actually do reflect many concerns that have been expressed during the pandemic. And you know, of course, that we're having this consultation that's taking place at the moment about Schedule 12 to the coronavirus Act, and I hope very much that the committee will be engaging with that. It's a public consultation, and that's crucial in terms of ensuring that all those rights and duties are upheld.

But I think your point about the public sector equality duty is crucial, because if it's going to work, it is a duty on those public bodies; it's not going to just work as a tick-box, is it? It's going to have to work by ensuring that we are training and engaging with those who actually deliver on those duties, and that we're holding them to account, including ourselves as a Welsh Government. But also that we are getting the evidence of where, as you said—you've given examples—people's rights are not being respected and duties are not being delivered. So, we have to hold those bodies to account.

I mean, I know that Alyson Francis, in answer to the question about getting on with it—. As far as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Welsh Government are concerned, I think your report, again, today, I can say again, has shown the importance of the public sector equality duties and the role that they play in ensuring that we have got a fair and equal society, which has been adversely affected by the pandemic in so many ways.

So, again, I'm grateful to the committee for their report and for these questions, because it will help us make sure that progressing with the review of the public sector equality duty will now commence at pace. It certainly is going to be my priority as a Minister.

Okay, thank you, Minister. We will move on then to Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Turning to advice services, Minister, could you give us an update, please, on where you are with the benefits take-up campaign? And, as well as that, obviously, in encouraging more people to take up the benefits that they're entitled to and because of the COVID-19 situation, it's likely, I'm sure, that there will be more people who will be claiming benefits in the coming months. So, as well as giving us an update on the campaign, could you let us know, please, if you're looking at changing the way that those advice services are funded because of the likely increase on those services that we can expect?

Thanks very much, Delyth. This was an important recommendation in your report. We've obviously had a longstanding commitment to funding our information and advice services, so that you and we can feel confident that people have access to free and impartial advice. They need that at all times, but because of that particular range of issues that have been affected by COVID-19, and particularly issues relating to not just housing and welfare benefits, but debt and money management.

So, you know that this year we did introduce the new single advice fund. That's helped to meet the increasing demand—we've got evidence—for access to advice services, but also to see that that funding is allocated appropriately. You will know your local providers and regional providers as well. During the period from January 2020 to 31 December, we've given—. That was, in fact, ensuring that you are aware, that we gave over £8 million of grant funding through the single advice fund. In fact, I met Fran Targett today, who's the chair of the National Advice Network Wales. We were reviewing the impact of that funding. There has been a stay-at-home policy, so single advice fund providers have gone from their face-to-face services to more remote channels, telephone, web chat, and that's delivered by advisers, many of whom are homeworking, but many, also, are volunteers. It's very much a collaborative model with advice and access partners, national and local organisations.

I've just been looking at January to June of this year: over 52,000 people across Wales did receive help through the single advice fund. Multiple problems and issues, as I've said, the subject areas, but I think what's good was I asked the question, 'Well, are you reaching those who are particularly in need?' and 82 per cent of people helped are from those key priority groups—for example, older people, BAME communities, disabled people, or people living with specific health conditions. So, we've now got, fortunately, also, approval to provide an additional £300,000 to increase the capacity of the employment discrimination advice service, because that really is a response to COVID-19 and how we've had to deal with those extra needs. So, I hope that gives you some idea of how we can target people.

We've also got a voluntary services emergency fund, and, I think, as you know, and I mentioned it earlier on, we're funding a BAME helpline. And we've got the EU citizens' rights project that's funding Citizens Advice Cymru. Again, specialist advice in the workplace, and the ReStart: Refugee Integration project. So, I think we have got to see that accessing advice is crucial to tackling poverty. It's been crucial to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's also working our specialist advice in the ways that I've suggested, and the funding we've given has tried to address those needs in terms of specialist advice.


Thank you. I used to work with Fran Targett, so hearing her name made me smile then. Are you exploring automatic entitlement to the devolved benefits? Do you think that that's something that could be brought in any time soon? You're on mute, Minister. It has to happen at one point in every session that someone has to be reminded to unmute themselves.

This is crucially important in terms of how people—. You know, people are entitled to devolved and non-devolved welfare benefits, aren't they? We obviously promote take-up through the single advice fund, about how people can access services, also through welfare benefits entitlement checks. That's a crucial part of the work done in the single advice fund, to have those welfare benefit entitlement checks, and that's regardless of why people are seeking advice. People are often offered that, aren't they, to help them through? So, when we've got evidence of what that meant, the impact of it, in the six months I identified—between January and June of this year—I understand that single advice fund services have helped households gain welfare benefit income totalling £14 million. We know the money's there; it's not Welsh Government money, it's UK Government money. It's entitlement, and that's why it's so important, as well, that we've got—. We're trying to explore these issues: how can we passport? So, just to finally say that the Minister for finance has agreed an extra £800,000 for an income maximisation initiative, and that's the sort of objective that I know we will share. So, it would allow providers to target support directly to those groups who we can see are missing out on welfare benefits. So, it's partly making them aware of their benefits and then getting the entitlement. It's called an income maximisation initiative, and that's what it's meant to be. That's about the take-up campaign.

Of course, we have identified these groups. You have the BAME households, the households with disabled children and adults, people experiencing domestic violence and low-income households, but we're also looking at how front-line workers in public services can have a much greater awareness of welfare benefits. Those entitlement checks are crucial, also trying to overcome barriers to claiming and see that this is an entitlement, working with people, simplifying the application process, and I think this really is the nub of your question, not just for Welsh Government and local authority administered benefits. So, if we can move that towards something that does explore that alignment, that's got to be the right move.


Thank you for that, Minister. The final question from me is a related point, but could you update us, please, on any progress to increase people's knowledge of their employment rights? I know that was one of the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission.

Well, we have, obviously, committed ourselves to all of those recommendations of the Fair Work Commission, and I think it's, again, what impact COVID-19 has had. It's exposed the importance of these priorities in terms of the Fair Work Commission. COVID-19 has, in some ways, paused and re-prioritised work, but it's also brought out areas of policy where we really have got to focus on priorities. I think in terms of not just workforce but employers' knowledge of workplace rights and avenues of support, it has been seen to be crucially important. It's certainly come out in the work on the disproportionate impact on BAME people and communities.

So, what we're doing now is looking at how we can work with trade unions, our social partners, the third sector, to improve how we can make people more aware of workers' rights and avenues of support. I think there are those particular issues that have come out of COVID-19 related to things like health and safety in workplaces, the working conditions of the social care workforce, the importance of statutory workers' rights. They've actually come to the fore and to public understanding and recognition. I'm also very keen, and I know we're developing support and understanding of the code of practice on ethical employment and supply chains and the economic contract, because those have both got very strong equality dimensions, to reinforce the links between public funding and fair work outcomes.

But this also does require us to build relationships with other UK agencies and how we can improve networks as far as that's concerned. There's actually now a health and safety forum. The Deputy Minister Hannah Blythyn is vice-chair of the health and safety forum, which has been recently established. That's bringing together trade unions and the main employer bodies from across the public and private sectors. So, that's crucial and the lessons learnt, again, as I said, from COVID-19.

We've mentioned the social care forum earlier on. That's having a big influence on fair work in the social care sector and also developing outcome indicators to each characteristic of fair work identified by the Fair Work Commission. So, those outcome indicators will be crucial for us to see how we are actually—the impact of us delivering on the Fair Work Commission's priorities and recommendations. So, that gives you some idea of how we're moving forward.

Thank you, Minister. Okay, Delyth? Thank you. Caroline.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Good afternoon, Minister. I'd like to ask a couple of questions, actually, on accessibility for disabled people during the pandemic. As we know, accessibility for disabled people was challenging enough before this pandemic, but, since, our environment has had to change to cope with this pandemic, and the changes have had to be implemented at such a fast pace it has often led to disabled people losing certain aspects of their independence. For example, guide dogs cannot be trained to adapt to social distancing measures as quickly as things have moved on. So, in view of what I've highlighted, what discussions have you had as a Deputy Minister with the accessible communications group, and what is its immediate workplan? Will the Equality and Human Rights Commission's accessibility guidance for retail businesses be incorporated in the Welsh Government's general retail guidance? If we look at the EHRC, they've also raised the issue of accessibility in retail multiple times, and there's a petition being considered by the Senedd at this moment relating to this. So, it is of paramount importance that we don't inadvertently leave any group behind. I'm just interested in what you have to say in the issues I've highlighted. Diolch yn fawr—thank you.


Diolch yn fawr, Caroline, for those really important questions. They are questions and evidence that you got that led to recommendations in your very important report, which I very much welcomed: a recommendation relating to swift guidance about physical and communication accessibility—crucial—and also I did accept in principle the priority grocery delivery scheme that you also had and also—all your recommendations were crucial.

So, we have—. Again, COVID-19 has shone a light on inequalities and issues, policy issues, where we have had to make progress and bring things to the fore. So, we did actually establish a new accessible communications group. That came together in June, and I think it was very helpful—I think it was Mark last week, Mark Isherwood in the debate, when he said that there had been concerns at the first meeting about accessibility and how people could actually participate fully. We all know we've had to get used to virtual communications, but, as a result of that first meeting, a change in the way that the group was meeting took place as a result of the direct influence of the participants. So, I think, for the next meeting, there was a much better way in which people could engage. The accessible communications group has to be accessible, and we have to learn—which we all have—from disabled people, who can tell us the right way to manage and handle things. So, for example, the fact that with BSL, in the second meeting, a different approach was taken—the call was held over Microsoft Teams rather than Skype. And we have to learn what works, don't we? It helped the BSL interpreters to pin the BSL interpretation to the screen, to be seen throughout the meeting by participants, and then they could join the call early to just make sure the technology works. There are so many lessons that have been learnt as a result of COVID-19, haven't they? We've now changed the way we're doing things—breaks in meetings to let people ensure that they're engaging.

I think—. Just to say that, since those sessions, Welsh Government officials were asked to go away and look at the feedback from the group about communications, how they could be made more accessible, and a new document has been drafted that sets out the way in which we want to take this forward, learning the lessons about accessible communications, but also how we can improve communications around Keep Wales Safe—so, how we can have better feedback, and particularly producing BSL videos and products in a range of languages, because we're also talking about accessible languages as well.

I think, in terms of what's happening next, we've got a draft document going to the accessible communications group for their review, and that's going to be done this week. So, that will come back to us as Ministers. But we don't want to accept anything that is not accepted, and we're guided by the participants in the accessible communications group. There are lots of different groups who are invited and attend those meetings, and I think they have to tell us what it's like to be deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, with learning difficulties or autistic experience, because they can tell us how we should get our communications right. I could share with the committee Chair the list of everyone who is a member of that accessible communications group. Would that be helpful?


Yes. Yes, please, Minister, that would be helpful. 

Also, I think it is good we have a live interpreter at our public broadcasts as well. That certainly has been well received. But I think we have learned a lot as a result of COVID-19 about improving accessible communications, and I'm very glad you focused on it in your report. 

Whilst we're waiting, can I just say, Chair, that we're also looking at accessible communications in relation to test, trace and protect?

Because, in terms of COVID-19 and public health, unless we can—. We can't assume that it's just business as usual. So, test, trace and protect is, again, very much based on trust, but we've got this team of BAME outreach workers but are also looking at accessible communication, because we know that if there's a cluster or—for example, we had the issues around food factories, where there were different languages. So, we're learning also about how we can make accessible communications relevant to recovery through test, trace and protect. 

Yes, absolutely—very important. Thanks for that, Minister. Mark, are you okay to proceed?

Yes, I'm ready. Sorry, I accidentally deleted the page I needed. Last week, the Minister referred—or the Deputy Minister referred—to the speech in the debate last week; I also concluded by referring to third sector, voluntary sector, funding and asked the Welsh Government whether it would agree a sustainable funding model with specialist violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence services and local authorities this Senedd term in that context, to ensure safe, secure accommodation. Will the Deputy Minister tell us what, if any, guidance she's given the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence sustainable funding group to agree a sustainable funding model for the sector within a given deadline?

Thank you very much, Mark. I, again, was glad it was raised last week in the debate and also as part of the committee's key recommendations. What's been very good about the VAWDASV services coming together to work and liaise with Welsh Government, police and all other partners is that we've had this operational group that meets, has been meeting—was meeting every week. I met with it a couple of times, Julie James met with it, but it's now meeting every three weeks to look at funding needs, specialist needs, communication needs.

So, the sustainable funding work had been ongoing, as you know, and it didn't pause as a result of COVID-19. In many ways, we were so actively engaged with looking at shortfalls or where new money was needed, so there was such good dialogue with the specialist providers, that the work on the sustainable funding group wasn't impairing or slowing down ensuring that the money was being provided. So, what's happened now in terms of the sustainable funding group—and this, of course, is the specialist providers and partners—is they've agreed the principles. There have been differences about how those principles should be applied; there are different views across the sector. But what was agreed was that they needed to map out all the different sources of funding for the sector, because there are a range of sources, not just ourselves, Welsh Government—the Home Office, police and crime commissioners, local authorities, the third sector—and that mapping is under way. I think there's one organisation that hasn't yet given the final information that's needed to conclude that. But I think there is much greater consensus now in the sustainable funding group in terms of the way forward, and I think that a separate group of commissioners—and those are the ones who, obviously, have the funding—has been brought together to discuss how we move this work forward.

Obviously, they've all been under so much pressure in terms of responding to COVID-19. We are getting the funding out—and that's Mark's crucial point, I know—to services on a needs-based process and approach. That includes revenue and capital. Reconfiguring the ways in which COVID-secure work can be undertaken has included the need for new funding. So, I just wanted to finally say that funding that's been provided will bring the total amount of new funding for VAWDASV in 2020-21 to over £4 million. And when I came before you, I think, last time, Chair, we were in a state of not knowing what funding was coming to particularly respond to COVID-19, to VAWDASV, but, as a result of all the work and priorities in getting money for this from the centre for VAWDASV, it is now over £4 million new funding for this financial year.


Okay. Thank you, Minister. Mark. You're muted at the moment, Mark.

Thank you. We'd be grateful if you could indicate if you've given the group a deadline, and, if so, what deadline you've given them for agreement of a sustainable funding model.

Thank you. I can't give you a date today, Mark, because the commissioners have come together to identify the next steps, and we've got one outstanding contributor who's got to come back with evidence. But, if it's all right with you, Chair, I will come back to you in written correspondence to give you that date. And it's always helpful when the committee is calling for this kind of progress.  

Okay. Thank you. More broadly, in the context of the extra funding allocated to the voluntary sector during the pandemic, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effectiveness of this emergency funding and how its allocation is meeting the needs where they actually exist? I'll give an example: I welcome the fact— and thank you for participating in last Friday's event with the North Wales Association for Multicultural Integration, and, I believe, funding the leaflet that I launched, or the booklet that I launched, but they, for example, are doing key work, on the front-line work, to— [Inaudible.]—in the community. Their key concern is a lack of sustainable funding.

I think, just in terms of—. I was there at the start of that NWAMI meeting on Friday and I thought it was very helpful indeed, and Dr Sibani is joining our Wales race forum, which I'm really pleased about as well. But I think, just in terms of the effectiveness of the emergency funding, I have to say that emergency funding has been not just in terms of the volunteering force that's been required and pressures on the third sector, just in terms of the services that they give, but, for example, flooding. That's been a crucial issue that has affected communities, and we've been helping, for example, particularly moving the community facilities grant, which is capital, to help charities and the third sector support those communities. But I think the fact the third sector has provided such an incredible response. And we did announce £24 million in April—the Welsh Government third sector COVID-19 response fund. That's helped. There's been a third sector resilience fund—£11 million; voluntary services emergency fund—£7.5 million, to support the third sector; Support Wales—£2 million; the voluntary services recovery fund—£5 million; increased flexibility of existing funds—£6 million. And, also, making sure that the communities facilities programme is flexed to support organisations affected by COVID-19. 

But, I think, in terms of your—you mention NWAMI. As I said, we've got new sources of funding, grant-aid funding, particularly to help develop the race equality fund and meet new needs. And, of course, this funding is also helping with the funding for the BAME helpline as well. So, it has been—. Jobs protected by the funds, 210; volunteering positions protected, 483; service users support protected, 16,981. I don't think we could have managed through this pandemic without the support of those volunteers. And the impact, I think, is there in those figures that I've given in terms of jobs, volunteering and organisations, and the service users who've been protected. 


And, again, beyond those useful statistics, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effectiveness in terms of actually delivering services, and the impact that's had on the lives of the recipients or groups and communities?

I think that the 16,981 service users support protected is a fairly good indication of good impact. I think many of the third sector organisations—we've just been mentioning VAWDASV—have been absolutely at the front line, and we've had to get more money to those organisations. I mentioned earlier on the extra money we've given to Age Cymru, for example, for their engagement work; extra funding has gone to a number of organisations as a result of COVID-19. But, I think, it is important the question you ask, Mark, about what this has meant for the third sector resilience for the services that they already provide, and the impact of that. I think you might be doing further work on this in the committee, which I would very much welcome. 

I think some of the organisations—. And Ruth Marks, from the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, spoke to opposition leaders, with myself, last week, and she was reminding us of the fact that charitable income is reduced; charity shops' income has gone right down. Even the Macmillan coffee mornings—there's no way we're raising the money that is part of the third sector income generation. And, also, the fact that there are concerns about the impact of Brexit on the third sector as well. But, I think, the voluntary services emergency fund has helped more people to volunteer. It's helped the elderly, carers, people struggling with access to funding. And, also, I think, if you look at that particular fund, £7 million of grant funding has enabled 150 organisations to engage with over 6,000 volunteers and 764,000 beneficiaries, which is a huge contribution from the third sector. And I think it speaks for itself in terms of impact.

Okay. Thank you, Mark. Minister, before we conclude this session, just a couple of further questions from me. Going back to the Welsh Government's strategic approach to reducing poverty in Wales, what sort of impact would you expect from the commencement of this socioeconomic duty? How would that change, would you say, the strategic approach of Welsh Government?

Well, I think the socioeconomic duty will have a huge impact. It speaks for itself, doesn't it? It's a duty, which we have only in the last year been able to enact, of the Equality Act 2010. It's a duty that actually does enable us to look at the impact of disadvantage—socioeconomic disadvantage—on people's lives and the lives of people with protected characteristics. And it is a duty now on public bodies, which is directly focusing about how do we safeguard equality and human rights. And that is about tackling inequality. We will have to lead by example as a Welsh Government, in terms of, as Welsh Ministers, applying the socioeconomic duty. And that will impact on the way in which we develop all our strategic plans, including tackling poverty. We published the non-statutory guidance on 1 April, and so, already, we're encouraging public bodies to abide by this, in terms of their priorities, their policy developments, and that is, again, about tackling inequality. And we've got the frequently asked questions document, which is actually helping them look at what does it mean to have a policy that takes into account socioeconomic factors. We've been very much helped by the work of the BAME advisory group; the TUC is involved, the Welsh Local Government Association, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. So I do think that this will help to drive a strategic approach to tackling poverty and inequality, not just through Welsh Government policies, but through all the public sector in Wales.


Okay. Thank you for that, Minister. Finally, then, the Public Accounts Committee has brought to our attention the fact that a number of local authorities in Wales have permanent Traveller sites with no broadband connection, which obviously raises very many issues in terms of blended learning for schoolchildren, access to public services, and just the general importance of the new technologies to lead a full life in Wales. So I wonder, Minister, whether you've had any discussions with the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales regarding these matters.

I'm very glad you've raised this, Chair, because I was looking at the work of the Public Accounts Committee myself, and I'm meeting, in fact, with Jenny Rathbone shortly, who's the chair of the cross-party group, particularly relating to this issue. She's raised this issue with me in the Chamber, she's raised it in relation to access to the internet, for example, to broadband. And in fact, there was an account given by a key official to the Public Accounts Committee earlier in the summer, which showed where there were particularly issues around digitally excluded learners and accessibility to stay safe, stay learning. She provided a response, which actually we are now following up with all the local authorities. It is the local authorities' responsibility in terms of that infrastructure. And also the Gypsy/Traveller forum and the Welsh local government Gypsy and Traveller service provider network is planning a task and finish group to share good practice. Because we do have good practice across Wales, not just in terms of that accessibility. It's not just in terms of infrastructure for those existing Gypsy and Traveller sites, it's that we still have authorities without Gypsy and Traveller sites. We have the funding to fund those sites. So that's where this is a key priority for us.

If I could just say, in terms of the stay learning, engaging with schools, we've raised this, of course, with directors of education, headteachers and transport operators, so that they could be guided for this autumn term. In fact, the Minister for Education has engaged with that as well, in terms of the welcome back to learners. But looking at different ways in which we can reach out for schools, this in terms of all learners as well. But as I said, I'm grateful that you've raised this. I will be, obviously, looking very carefully at the Public Accounts Committee work, meeting with Jenny Rathbone and the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller forum to take this forward, but it is for local authorities, so it is also for the Welsh Local Government Association to engage with this issue. 


Yes, okay. Well, thank you very much for that, Minister, and thank you for giving evidence to committee today, and thank you to Alyson Francis as well. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr.

4. Papurau i'w Nodi
4. Papers to Note

Okay. The next item on our agenda today, item 4, is papers to note. The first of which is on the national development framework; paper 2 is regarding the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Residential Tenancies: Protection from Eviction) (Wales) Regulations 2020 and that's a letter from the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to the Llywydd; paper 3 is regarding the Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill from Welsh Government; paper 4 is on the legislative consent memorandum on the Domestic Abuse Bill from the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip; and paper 5, the inquiry into COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to the Public Accounts Committee remit from the Chair of that Public Accounts Committee. Is committee content to note those papers? Yes, thank you very much. 

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public


bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod a'r cyfarfod ar 28 Hydref yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).


that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and the meeting on 28 October in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

The next item is item 5, a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of today's meeting and also from the meeting on 28 October. Is committee content so to do? Okay, thank you very much. We will, then, move to private session.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 16:12. 

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 16:12. 

Eglurhad/Clarification: 'The review of the Welsh Public Sector Equality Duties was started in January 2020 but temporarily halted during the initial months of the Covid pandemic as resources had to be reallocated to other equality and human rights work. PSED reporting obligations were suspended for six months from March 2020 by the EHRC to acknowledge the burden placed on public bodies during the initial response to the pandemic.

Consideration is now being given to how the PSED review work can be progressed over the coming year, building upon work already begun with Knowledge and Analytical Services to improve the gathering and publication of employment and other equalities data. The findings of the ongoing research into strengthening and advancing equalities and human rights in Wales will be an important source of evidence for the PSED review work over the next few months. It is anticipated the extensive stakeholder engagement which is taking place will shed light on how best to strengthen the Welsh Specific Equality Duties and improve compliance with the PSED as a whole. The report will be concluded by the end of February 2021.'