Welsh Budget update

The Welsh Finance Minister Rebecca Evans AM has updated the National Assembly about the UK Spending Round for 2020/21 and the implications for our Welsh Budget. A number of points have been made about the short term nature of the UK spending announcement, the need for the spending plans to be voted upon in Westminster before the money is confirmed, and the absence of any details regarding the Shared Prosperity Fund. Not a very satisfactory situation, but the Minister’s statement was as follows:

“Llywydd, I am today providing members with a further statement on the UK Government’s Spending Round, the implications for Wales, and the actions that we as a government are taking to respond to the UK Government’s unpredictable approach to public finances.

On 4 September, the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented the UK Government’s Spending Round setting out its spending plans for 2020-21. Immediately following the Chancellor’s Spending Round I provided members with a written statement during recess outlining an initial response to the key headlines for Wales.

The Chancellor’s announcement was against the backdrop of escalating Brexit uncertainty and evidence of the UK potentially entering another period of recession.

In the fortnight since the Spending Round we have seen further chaos, uncertainty and mixed messages from the UK Government. The range of scenarios we now need to consider include the prospect of publishing our draft Budget in a pre-election period.

The Chancellor’s announcement provided, for the first time, details of our revenue budget for 2020-21 which will increase by £593 million above the 2019-20 baseline. This represents an increase of 2.3% in real terms. The Spending Round also includes an increase of £18 million to our capital budget, which had already been set for 2020-21. Our capital budget will be 2.4% higher in real terms than in 2019-20.

On the basis of the Chancellor’s announcement, the Welsh Government’s budget in 2020-21 will still be 2% or £300 million lower in real terms than in 2010-11. The additional funding does not even return our spending power to the levels of a decade ago.

We have consistently called for the end of the UK government’s austerity policy and for increased investment in our vital public services. While the Chancellor’s announcement indicates some signs of loosening the purse strings in the short-term, it does not make up for nearly a decade of cuts, neither does it come close to providing the sustainable, long-term basis on which to plan that our public services desperately need.

We remain unclear about the UK Government’s plans for an Autumn Budget. The Office for Budget Responsibility has informed the UK Parliament’s Treasury Committee that it has not been engaged to produce an updated forecast and would normally require 10 weeks’ notice.

The UK Government is acting irresponsibly by publishing spending plans at this time based on forecasts from March, which assumed a relatively benign Brexit, and a previous administration’s fiscal policy. Since March official data has shown that the UK economy contracted in the second quarter and the latest survey data indicates that it remains weak. A smaller economy means lower tax revenues and makes it likely that this UK Government will quickly revert to a policy of austerity.

Indeed, if the Office for Budget Responsibility had produced the timely economic and fiscal forecasts that normally underlie such a statement, the “headroom” that the Chancellor has exploited may well have been shown to be illusory.

The spending announcements will add further to borrowing, and the OBR has since stated that the Government’s own fiscal rules and a key Conservative manifesto pledge to deliver balanced budgets by the mid-2020s may well be off course, only adding to the high probability that another round of austerity will be likely in the near future.

We can have no confidence that these spending announcements will be sustainable. We certainly cannot rely on the claimed long-term settlements for NHS and schools in England and any potential consequential which they might deliver, because the funding implications for these settlements beyond 2020-21 will actually be determined as part of the next Comprehensive Spending Review. The reality is that the Chancellor’s announcement is a pre-election distraction from the UK Government’s management of an increasingly chaotic Brexit.

The Chancellor announced a further £2 billion in 2020-21 for Brexit delivery. We have been clear that the support to address even a proportion of the impact of Brexit cannot be delivered without a much more significant increase in public spending. We will require substantial additional funding and flexibilities to be able to respond meaningfully to the challenge of Brexit. I pressed this point to the Chief Secretary of the Treasury at a meeting of the Finance Ministers’ Quadrilateral at the end of August. The answers we have received from the UK Government to date provide no assurance that the funding we would require would be forthcoming.

It is clear that the Prime Minister is prepared to take the UK over the no deal cliff edge. This would have a catastrophic impact on Wales. All the evidence shows that leaving the UK without a deal will produce a severe economic slowdown in the UK and that a prolonged recession is likely. In those circumstances we know that the economy in Wales is likely to be around 10 per cent smaller in the long term. This would be reflected in real incomes that, in today’s terms, would be up to £2,000 lower per person than otherwise.

I am deeply concerned that with exit day looming large the Chancellor was silent on replacement EU funding to support our communities and business in Wales. He was unable to provide any kind of assurance that the UK Government will keep the promises of the Prime Minister that we will not receive a penny less than we would have expected within the EU and that in accordance with the long-standing devolution settlements, we must have autonomy to develop and deliver successor arrangements for EU funding programmes. These are principles which have the full backing of the Assembly.

Llywydd, despite these challenges and unprecedented uncertainty I am more determined than ever to look positively to the future and support our public services in Wales as best we can.

I am now proposing to bring forward our plans and publish the Welsh Government Budget earlier to November to provide as much certainty as possible to our partners and stakeholders. I am liaising with the Business and Finance Committees to seek their support for this change. I welcome the support both committees have already offered and I hope these new arrangements are acceptable.

The Welsh Government Budget will be based on the needs of the people of Wales and we will aim to deliver the fairest possible settlement for Welsh public services. This consistent commitment is borne out by the fact that health and social services spending in Wales continues to be significantly higher than in England and cuts to local authorities in England have been twice as deep as in Wales.

The Welsh Government has made it very clear that health will continue to be our priority along with providing local government with the best possible settlement.

We remain determined to maximise the impact of the resources we have. In my July statement on the Future of Public Spending I outlined that our budget preparations have been shaped by our eight priority areas of early years, social care, housing, skills and employability, better mental health, decarbonisation, poverty and biodiversity.

We recognise these eight areas as having the greatest potential contribution to long-term prosperity and well-being. They reflect the times in people’s lives when they may be most in need of support, and when the right help can have a dramatic effect on their life course.

They are priority areas where it has been shown that early intervention – tackling the root causes, rather than treating symptoms – pays dividends. If we are to realise the full potential of the Well‑being of Future Generations Act, then integration and collaboration between activities and services, with an early intervention and people-centred approach, is essential to delivering long-term outcomes.

Our budget will be focused on the areas where we can have the greatest impact over the long-term and will be at the heart of the way Wales will respond to the challenges presented by this Spending Round”.

 

Update on improving security of tenure

The Minister for Housing and Local Government has made a statement about security of tenure for private sector tenants. It is a step to additional protection that I welcome as we move to ensure that people who rent get a fairer deal. I will continue to campaign for improved security and monitoring the impact of today’s announcement will be important, but I am happy we hav emade progress in Wales. Statement as follows:

“This statement provides an update on the government’s proposals for extending the minimum notice period for ‘no fault’ evictions under the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016. The consultation closed earlier this month, and the responses are currently being considered and I will of course update members further in due course.

Ahead of that I want to make clear what is being proposed. Our approach is to amend the 2016 Act in order to deliver on the commitment to improve security of tenure in the private rented sector, and for the amended Act to then be implemented before the end of the current Assembly term.

The consultation proposed tripling, from two months to six months, the notice that a landlord must give when seeking to end a standard occupation contract under section 173 of the Act. This would apply in those cases where a landlord does not have to provide a reason for ending the contract. The consultation also proposed restricting the issue of a section 173 notice until six months after the occupation date of the contract. The Act currently sets this at 4 months.

Taken together, the effect of these two key features would be that contract holders would enjoy 12, instead of 6, months initial security of tenure – subject to compliance with the terms of their contract of course.

I appreciate that some Members may feel this falls short of a ban on so called ‘no fault evictions’ but I want to stress that the dual impact of implementing Renting Homes and seeking to extend the notice period for section 173 possessions will deliver substantial benefits to contract holders. Improving the security of tenure is our aim and I firmly believe that is what these proposals deliver and that contract holders in Wales will not be ‘short changed’ compared to their counterparts in other parts of the UK.

In Scotland currently, and under the proposals being consulted on for England, there are grounds where tenants who are not at fault can still be evicted with only two months’ notice, such as when the landlord wishes to sell the property or to move into it themselves. Under our proposals, in all circumstances other than when the landlord is seeking possession for a specified breach of the contract, the tenant, or contract-holder, will be entitled to a minimum notice period of six months.

Ultimately, I consider the length of time that someone has to find a new home is more critical than whether or not the landlord has a reason to seek possession. Therefore, under our proposals, even where a landlord intends to sell the property or live in it themselves, contract-holders will have much more time to make the necessary arrangements for themselves or their dependents, such as their child’s school or those they care for and to find a property more suited to their needs.  It will also give those that are able to do so more time to save and those who are less able, more time to engage the necessary support and assistance.

I have also considered how best to maximize improvements to the private rented sector at the earliest opportunity.  It is my view that to do this we need to ensure the many benefits of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act are implemented without further delay.  I am sure I need not remind members that since the legislation was passed, we have been held back on implementing it due to the need for court systems to be changed.  Having now reached a solution I am keen to press ahead with full implementation by the end of the current Assembly term. I will shortly be writing to every member reminding them of the positive changes for every tenant in Wales as a result of this Act but I want to set out some of the main ones now.

The Act will improve security by replacing the current complex areas of housing law with a fairer and simpler legal framework. It will also require landlords to issue a written statement of their occupation contract, which clearly sets out the rights and responsibilities of landlords and those renting from them.

The Act will also provide other benefits, such as setting out the landlord’s obligation to ensure the dwelling is fit for human habitation.  Here regulations can be used to prescribe specific matters and circumstances to which regard must be had for example, including requirements for electrical safety testing, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. There are provisions which will make it easier for a contract-holder’s dependents or relatives to succeed to a contract. Those in supported accommodation will also, for the first time, have a clearly defined set of terms underpinning their occupation, helping them to understand and enforce their rights.  To help ensure abandoned properties are re-let as quickly as possible, the Act also specifies a new procedure for the possession of abandoned dwellings.

There are, therefore, two strands to our plans to improve security before the end of the Assembly term – to implement Renting Homes and to provide further protections for contract-holders when subject to a section 173 notice, which is the matter upon which we have just consulted.

Returning to that consultation, I am pleased to say that over 850 people or organisations responded. Responses were weighted heavily on the side of landlords and agents, which is understandable given the direct link we have to them through Rent Smart Wales. Whilst we did receive some responses directly from individual tenants, we are aware that organisations such as Shelter Cymru ran their own consultations to formulate their response.

I am not surprised by this level of interest because how a landlord can seek possession and the impact any resulting eviction can have on tenants has always been an issue which generates strong feelings.  I am therefore, pleased by the level of response and officials have been meeting with key stakeholders to gather further views that can be considered alongside the analysis of consultation responses.

Ahead of that thorough consideration, there are two important things to remember.  Firstly, whilst it is not my intention to remove section 173 entirely, the changes being proposed, if implemented, would remove the incentives for landlords to use it in the same way they use section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 now.  I expect this to significantly limit the circumstances in which it is used.

This is because the changes would mean that if tenants pay their rent on time, look after the property and are not breaching any terms of their tenancy agreement, then they will have significantly increased security of tenure – twice as much in fact as there would be twelve months’ security at the outset rather than six. They will also no longer have the constant worry of potentially needing to move with only two months’ notice after that.

The second important thing to remember is that landlords will retain their ability to seek possession where there is a breach of the contract, including in the case of rent arrears or anti-social behavior.  The Renting Homes (Wales) Act already contains the necessary provisions and the consultation did not propose extending notice periods in those circumstances.

Llywydd, we have already done a lot to ensure the private rented sector is well regulated and able to offer high quality homes to those who choose to rent. But, there is more that can, and should, be done. That is why we are committed to providing greater security for tenants and I believe that my proposals do just that.  Should they be enacted their impact will be kept under review so we can identify the impacts of the policy on the rental market, whether it has improved security for contract-holders, and whether further change is needed”.

 

 

Policing and Community Safety

UPDATE (17.09.19)

PRISON VISITS

Forgot to mention in the original post that I also visited two Welsh prisons during the year, Cardiff and Berwyn prisons. I was part of the Committee Inquiry in to health and mental health support in prisons. Of course the Prison Service is not devolved to Wales, but the provision of health care is, as the Local health Boards provide those services. It is another example of the important overlap between devolved and non-devolved services. I have been very struck by the importance of proper haelth support for prisoners (physical and mental health) if we are to achieve our aims for rehabilitation.

INTRODUCTION

I maintain a positive working relationship with both the South Wales Police and Gwent Police who provide policing across the constituency. I also work with the local community safety teams as policing and community safety will very often require a team approach to problem solving in local communities.

In this blog piece I take the opportunity to look at various aspects of Policing and community safety work and to reflect on some of my work around this over the last twelve to eighteen months, and some of the issues which have come to my attention.

Of course Policing is not devolved to Wales and the key decisions regarding the funding of the Police are provided by the Home Office with more local accountability via the elected Police and Crime Commissioners.

My colleague Gerald Jones MP plays an important role, and Gerald is to be congratulated on his commitment to the Police Service Parliamentary Scheme through which he spends some considerable time with the Police.

Community safety is devolved and that is how the Welsh Government has been able to assist in the funding of Community Safety Officers in Wales.

THE ISSUES

The types of issues which most frequently come to my attention as the Assembly Member cover familiar topics:

  • Anti-social behaviour,
  • Town centre safety,
  • Neighbour disputes,
  • Speeding / off road vehicles,
  • Concerns over substance misuse / alcohol,
  • Situations involving concerns over drug dealing,

with occasional spikes in conversations and discussion if there is a very serious incident.

101 CALLS

While everyone should use 999 in an emergency it is important to also record non-emergency incidents and concerns via the 101 number. The Police often depend on the reporting of incidents to  help them direct staff to the right places. If there are concerns then local patrols can be adjusted and places checked in more detail.

On occasions the 101 number might be busy but you can request a call back from the centre as the matter being reported should not be an emergency (for which 999 is the correct number). I saw this system in action on my recent visit to the Public Service Centre in Bridgend.

I am also clear that going on general social media like local Facebook sites to just complain about behaviour is not sufficient in helping the Police to gather intelligence and the evidence they need.

PACT MEETINGS – POLICE AND COMMUNITIES TOGETHER  

I know from local councillors that PACT meetings are useful in having a regular dialogue with local Policing teams about issues within communities. Each PACT can identify their own local priorities on a rolling basis and help the Police to be more responsive in their work in each community.

NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH

I’m also aware of a number of active Neighbourhood Watch groups across the constituency and they are another valuable part of keeping communities safe and doing other good work e.g. community clean-up projects and taking pride in our surroundings.

POLICE RESPONSE

As we are aware the Police have seen a significant cut in their numbers by the UK Tory Government and in my visit to the Public Service Centre I saw the way in which they therefore can prioritise calls depending on the severity of the incident being reported. The call handlers have great skills in obtaining the necessary information from callers, and the command structure can then allocate policing and other resources accordingly.

The Centre now has mental health nurses and advisers based there so that appropriate support can be offered and calls diverted to an appropriate type of response. This is a really important innovation and I do believe the co-location and integration of different skills and teams helps provide the best response.

I also discussed issues around Police responses when I went for a “ride out” in a police response vehicle in Merthyr Tydfil.

MULTI-AGENCY SAFEGUARDING HUB

As with the Public Service Centre in Bridgend I saw similar benefits on my visit to the Cwm Taf Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) in Pontypridd. The MASH brings together local authority social workers, Police, Health Board, Probation Service and Rehabilitation services in one unit that can make effective decisions around safeguarding of children and adults.

I see little reason as to why an approach such as this cannot be adopted across Wales as it would appear to offer best practice in safeguarding work.

MISSING CHILDREN HUB

Similarly the Missing Children’s Hub in Gwent offers many valuable lessons and is effective providing support across five local authorities, The Police, Health Board, education authorities and third sector. This work includes co-location of staff, sharing information and engaging young people in decisions.

MENTAL HEALTH

Another issue that is very apparent in community safety and policing work is the prevalence of mental health issues. I often also see these issues in my case work and I discussed it in my visit to the custody suite at Merthyr police station.

It is clear that the Police have a significant part of their resource occupied with issues around mental health as they are the service that must always respond to calls. However a lot of Police officer time can be taken up around issues of accompanying people to a place of safety and in ensuring moments of crisis are supported and de-escalated.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Sadly the levels of domestic violence and abuse in our communities are too high. I know it is a high priority for the Police and for key partners like Safer Merthyr Tydfil.

I have visited a range of local refuges and heard at first hand the invaluable role of organisations who help people to take the vital steps to a safer life. ‘Live Fear Free’ is an important campaign that I support on my social media.

PATROLS

I am happy to join Police and Community Support Officers in their patrols and to see at first hand the way in which they work in the community to support individuals, check out reports of concerns and be a reassuring presence.

 

As stated earlier the numbers of Police have been reduced dramatically since 2010 so any move to restore police numbers is very welcome.

NATURE OF CRIME

However as I have also found the nature of crime has, and is, changing. There is a significant growth in cyber crime and online crime including sexual and child exploitation.

This means that our Police need new and different skills in order to respond to such crime. Again it is a different type of demand that is placing pressure on limited Police resources.

SAFER MERTHYR TYDFIL AND SAFER CAERPHILLY

I also welcome the opportunity to join events organised by the community safety organisations across the constituency. It is often in community, or themed based, events that the best engagement happens with our communities and with other local partners. They have very valuable roles in areas such as domestic abuse or interventions in anti-social behaviour.

HEDDLU BACH

It has also been a joy to watch the development and success of the Heddlu Bach (mini Police) in the Upper Rhymney valley over the last two years. Everyone involved is to be congratulated on such a positive scheme and to se young people take pride and respect in their community.

MONEY LENDING AND SCAMS

I am also happy to support the work of Trading Standards and the Police in tackling illegal money lending – stop the loan sharks.

These days there is also a growing problem around scams. Again I am happy to support campaigns to highlight the danger of scams.

SAFETY ON TRAINS –  text 61016

I have also become more aware of the service provided by British Transport Police to safely report disorder and problems on trains. This includes the 61016 text number through which you can report crime or incidents discreetly. This is useful to report non-emergency incidents (this is similar to 1010 for local police).

POLICE AND CRIME COMMISSIONERS

Finally I welcome the strong relationship I have with the two Police and Crime Commissioners (Alun Michael in South Wales and Jeff Cuthbert in Gwent). While many conversations with the Police relate to incidents and complaints which are generally operational issues for the local officers, it is the Commissioners who have an important role in determining priorities and in recommending the police precept to help raise finance for helping to keep communities safe.

 

THANK YOU

To close my thanks goes to everyone who helps to keep our communities safe. I have seen much to admire in the constituency. A special thanks goes to serving officers who on an hourly and daily basis are responding to calls and keeping us all as safe as possible.

In the next phase of this work I want to look at the Courts Service (not devolved but a part of the jigsaw) and to visit other services e.g. Fire and Rescue. This all helps to inform my work as the local AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

And remember 999 in an emergency  -but also use 101 to  help the Police gather information.