Concessionary fare pass scheme – an update

I understand that some local social media may be making misleading statements about the Welsh Government’s concessionary fare pass scheme. The situation is as follows:
 
1. The current Concessionary Travel Cards all have a common expiry date of 31/12/19 and need to be replaced. This means ALL current eligible pass holders will need to re-apply and receive a new smartcard.
 
2. Existing cardholders will NOT automatically receive a new card they will need to apply using a new online central service provided by Transport for Wales on behalf of local authorities (there will be local arrangements for those unable to access the online service).
 
3. New applicants will now start receiving the new smartcard, but significant work will take place between September and December this year to help existing cardholders switch to the new smartcard.
 
4. The new smartcard will be future proofed and compatible with future enhancements such as public transport integration (as that becomes possible).
 
There was a separate consultation about Improving “Public Transport in Wales” between December 2018 and March 2019. That made proposals about aligning ages for concessionary passes, but also stated “No current pass holder will have their eligibility removed and passholders will remain able to travel free of charge anywhere in Wales”.
The Welsh Government has not yet issued their response to that consultation which aslso covered many other important issues.

Are you missing out on a council tax discount?

Some of Wales’ most vulnerable households could be missing out on valuable support with their council tax the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans warned today.

The Council Tax Reduction Scheme (CTRS) has been protecting vulnerable and low income households in Wales for 5 years, but the latest annual report out today suggests there are likely to be some households across Wales who are still missing out on support they are entitled to. Last year, the average award for those on the scheme was around £940.

In 2018 to 2019 the scheme supported nearly 280,000 households – or 1 in 5 households in Wales.

Approximately 220,000 of these paid no council tax at all. With households struggling to cope due to the UK government’s approach to welfare reform, the Minister is urging everyone to act now and check if they are entitled to support in paying their council tax bill under our national Council Tax Reduction Scheme.

Rebecca Evans said:

Despite our continued support for the most vulnerable households in Wales, take-up of the Council Tax Reduction Scheme is gradually decreasing. We know people across Wales are struggling to make ends meet, so I am encouraging everyone to visit our website and check if they are eligible for the scheme or one of the other discounts which are available.

The Welsh Government has also commissioned external research, which it hopes will help to identify households who might be missing out. The research is currently looking to understand the impact of Universal Credit on take-up of our CTRS and the value of council tax reductions, and also includes the impact of Universal Credit on rent arrears in Wales. The research is due to be published in early 2020 and the findings will be used to help inform the development of the CTRS scheme going forward.

In the meantime we are continuing to work with local authorities, the WLGA and third sector organisations to examine how the council tax system could be improved over the short, medium and longer term.

School funding in Wales

Today our committee report on school funding in Wales is published. You can read a copy here.

Transparency

I found this a very informative piece of scrutiny work and as a committee (Children, Young People and Education) we have now made a series of recommendations to the Welsh Government about changes that we believe could help address some of the concerns we heard, especially around transparency, the distribution and allocation of education and school funding.

Effective spending

However the report is also very clear that the money which is invested in schools and education needs to be spent effectively. There is more to this debate than just the level of funding that reaches any particular school. As our Chair Lynne Neagle AM states:

“The system for funding schools is hugely complex, multi-layered and dependent on many factors. While it would have been easy for us as a Committee to simply recommend additional funding for education and for schools, we absolutely believe that increasing the level of funding alone is not the solution. The funding must also be used effectively”.

Cost of education

One of our principal recommendations is that action is taken to better understand the cost of educating a child in school and that should underpin decisions on how much money is required to fund schools sufficiently .

Additional factors like deprivation and sparsity should be added to the base cost. This approach would also evidence a case for school funding within the overall priorities that underpin any budget process.

Complex process

As the report shows the funding of schools is a complex process. Many of the decisions are shaped by historical trends rather than a needs-based approach. We make also recommendations on how school reserves and deficits should be addressed.

  • How much money is available to the Welsh Government as a whole (largely determined by Westminster)
  • How the Welsh Government divides up its resources and how much it gives to local government as a whole
  • How the Welsh Government divides the local government settlement between each authority;
  • Because the LG settlement is unhypothecated, how much priority each local authority gives to education, and specifically school budgets, amidst funding pressures on other service areas;
  • The extent to which local authorities delegate education funding to schools themselves and how much they retain for centrally provided services;
  • How local authorities divide their funding for schools between schools (they do this using their own formula within the parameters of the School Funding Regulations (Wales) 2010).

I believe there is a shared responsibility around this.

The overall sum put in to the local government settlement is important, but local authorities can also make decisions about local spending through council tax and local service priorities.

However in the report we do note that:

“There has been an overwhelming consensus in the evidence provided during this inquiry that there are insufficient resources being made available to schools. Most stakeholders feel that the primary problem is with the overall size of the pot, rather than how it is divided up. However, concerns have also been raised by a number of stakeholders regarding how the overall quantum is distributed, and these are covered in specific sections in the report”.

Next steps

As always the report will be considered by the Welsh Government and a response will be published in due course, and a debate will be held in the Senedd later this year.

 

My conclusion

The chair of our chair writes:

“If a funding crisis within the education system, and within our schools, is to be avoided, it is vital that those across the sector and in local and national government, urgently work together and deliver for our children and young people. We must ensure that school funding is sufficient, but is also managed effectively and consistently”.

However I take the view that there is no ‘quick fix’ to the issues around funding in schools. Neither is there a clear consensus in Welsh local government about the best way forwards.

The overall level of funding is an important consideration and, like many other areas of public service, we must hope for an end to Tory cuts (austerity) in the near future so the real term cuts in funding can be reversed.

I hope that this committee report helps people reach a clearer understanding about the many issues that are involved with the debate around school funding.