As part of my casework, and in researching the data about the socio-economic conditions across my constituency, it remains very apparent that the experience of poverty is a persistent problem. The lived experiences of those living in stressful circumstances as a result of welfare reform continues to cross the door of my constituency office every week.
It is one of the many frustrations about the protracted arguments over our relationship with the EU that other vital issues (e.g. probation and prison service, welfare reform and austerity) are receiving less attention. While there are occasional headlines around the figures for the numbers of people in work, it is clear that the problems of in-work poverty have multiplied. Until recently it remained the case that people are finding work, but too often that work is insecure and much of it is not paying enough to meet the costs of living.
The much debated process of welfare reform, with its continuing twists and turns has left too many people vulnerable and facing real choices between rent, food and heating bills. Only in recent days my office issued another food voucher for a constituent who was in full time employment but faced arrears in private rented property and this month would be left without money for food.
As I have said before austerity eats at the social fabric upon which our communities depend. It is damaging to the shared public sphere on which we all rely and breaks the social infrastructure that our communities require.
The recent report of the UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty places the responsibility for rising poverty levels firmly with the Tory UK Government. As the rapporteur correctly identified “it is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people from government policies”. As the former Tory MP Heidi Allen recently said:
“Our welfare safety net is no longer holding up those most vulnerable in society. It’s tangling around their feet and dragging them under the water”. It is perhaps a pity she contested the last two General Elections on that policy platform!
THE WELSH LABOUR SHIELD
As Mark recently wrote in “exchange” the journal of the Bevan Foundation (Spring 2019) “I believe that the record of successive Labour Governments in Wales deserves more credit than is often provided”. Mark cites examples like the:
- savings to vulnerable people from a policy of free prescriptions: some 1.7 million items prescribed across Merthyr Tydfil in 2017/18,
- Council Tax benefits (the Welsh Government will pay £244 million in support in 2019/20),
- new Childcare offer which will see schools open in the Summer holidays
- funding for the new and extended school uniform grant,
- the school holiday Food and Fun programme.
In addition the Welsh Government are establishing the Children and Communities Grant encompassing the excellent work of Flying Start, Families First and other grant streams delivering vital interventions. The Welsh Government are investing in new childcare settings, and across Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly this investment will amount to almost £6 million.
The Pupil Deprivation Grant is invested to try and break the link between poverty and educational attainment and benefitted 80,000 learners across Wales last year. So in my constituency a school like Goetre primary got allocated £197,000 from PDG and Phillipstown in Rhymney £46,000. This money aims to improve attainment for pupils in these communities.
The PDG Access Fund offers parents up to £125 to ensure they can meet the everyday costs associated with sending their children to school. Indeed with the £3.5 million boost for PDG –Access this brings overall funding for the PDG to £97 million in 2019-20.
As Mark said this type of record deserves stronger recognition and even in times of austerity are Welsh Labour putting their principles in to practical action.
POVERTY PROOFING IN WALES
Given this record today I asked First Minister Mark Drakeford about further actions the Welsh Government can take to poverty proof our decisions in government I have previously written about wellbeing in all policies, and was more recently challenged to think about wellbeing, including the tackling of poverty, in all decisions.
I happen to believe that being persistent in tackling the causes of poverty is in Welsh Labour’s DNA. So we can address the Rapporteurs concern about any loss of focus in this work in Wales by ensuring that as many of our decisions as possible reflect the need to improve the conditions for future generations. That we continue to intervene as early as possible in order to turn round the adverse impacts of poverty, and continue to identify financial interventions as part of our Budget priorities. It is important to continue our focus on tackling poverty, and show clear leadership and deliver transparent actions in meeting this challenge.
I know that every day, in many meaningful ways, many people across Wales and the South Wales Valleys, including in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, benefit as a result of the actions of this Welsh Labour government.