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Politics

Benefits system ‘failing Wales’

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A REPORT from a Welsh Assembly Committee states the benefits system is too complex and does not treat people with dignity, fairness and compassion.
An inquiry held by the National Assembly for Wales’ Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee heard the benefits system is failing some people on the lowest incomes and is causing wider problems for our communities – in areas from mental health, to local government to poverty.
The UK Government’s programme of welfare reform is one of the most important political issues to affect Wales since devolution.
By 2023, one-third of Welsh households will receive Universal Credit, and the Committee heard particular concerns that long waits for the first payment and monthly, rather than fortnightly, payments were causing numerous problems.
The Committee’s report – Benefits in Wales: Options for a better delivery – contains 17 recommendations for Welsh Government. These include changes within the current devolution settlement, as well as exploring the devolution of housing-related benefits and the assessment process for disability and sickness benefits.
Included in the Committee’s report are recommendations to address these issues. They call for the Welsh Government to ensure that Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) payments are made available as an immediate action. DAF payments are non-repayable emergency grants for people on low-income in Wales and could ease the pressure on households as they wait for their Universal Credit payments.
Welsh Government should also seek payment flexibilities, so people can opt for more frequent payments, direct payments to the landlord, or to split payments between couples.
The complex system is not working at its best and could do more to help people on the lowest incomes, says John Griffiths AM, Chair of the Equality Local Government and Communities Committee;
“The current system is not working for far too many people. We repeatedly hear that benefits are not enough to cover basic and essential household costs, and the system does not treat people with dignity, fairness or compassion. The human cost of these failures is unacceptable, in one of the world’s largest national economies.
“Whilst recommending that Welsh Government explore opportunities to devolve more control of benefits to Wales, our recommendations emphasise what can be done now, within the current settlement, and in the longer term. We believe they set out a clear framework for positive change, which will reduce poverty and inequality at an individual and household level, improve well-being and the economy at a community and national level.
“Almost half of the Welsh population receive some kind of benefit, but the social security system is largely non-devolved. The system plays a vital role in the Welsh economy, for individual households and also the wider Welsh purse.”
Alone, among Wales’ principal political parties, Plaid Cymru supports the devolution of welfare benefits’ administration to Wales.
And a report published by the Wales Governance Centre outlines how Wales could be financially better off if it followed the same model over welfare as Scotland.
The report says that if a fiscal framework agreement similar to the one negotiated by the Scottish Government had been agreed by the Welsh and UK governments and had powers over S-benefits been devolved to Wales in 2018-19, the Welsh Treasury “would have been cumulatively better off by £700 million by the end of 2023-24.”
The Wales Governance Centre estimates we could be generating surpluses of over £200 million by the middle of the next decade if Wales had the same deal as Scotland. There would also be the indirect savings to the NHS and Housing Associations who have had to pick up the tab from Westminster’s shambolic handling of the welfare system.

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Politics

Paul Davies Plays Cancer Strategy Jenga

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Preseli Pembrokeshire Assembly Member Paul Davies recently met with representatives of Cancer
Research UK and even had a go at their Cancer Strategy Jenga! Mr Davies heard how there are around
2,700 cancer cases per year in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area and that to achieve better
outcomes for patients, the Welsh Government needs to tackle preventable risk factors and address
shortages in the cancer workforce.

Mr Davies said, “It was a pleasure to speak to Cancer Research UK about how we can improve cancer
services and patient outcomes for those affected by cancer in Pembrokeshire. I enjoyed playing the
Cancer Strategy Jenga and learning about the different ‘planks’ that an ambitious cancer strategy for
Wales should have. Thanks to research and improvements in diagnosis and treatment, survival in the UK
has doubled since the 1970s so, today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer and hopefully that figure will
continue to rise. I will of course, be doing all that I can to call on the Welsh Government to bring forward
a cancer strategy – and one that makes a very real difference to patients and their families in Wales.”

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Community

Closing day approaching for deposit plan consultation

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The deadline is nearing for public comments on Pembrokeshire County Council’s replacement Local Development Plan – known as the Deposit Plan.

The public consultation on the Deposit Plan opened in January and will end at 4.30pm on Wednesday, 18th March.

The consultation has included seven drop-in sessions at locations around the county. Cllr Jon Harvey, Cabinet Member for Planning, said they had been well-attended and thanked members of the public for their feedback.

“We would encourage anyone interested in the future development of Pembrokeshire to participate in the consultation if they haven’t yet done so,” he added.

The Deposit Plan and related documents are available to view on the Council’s website at: www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/local-development-plan-review/deposit

The Deposit Plan covers the area of Pembrokeshire excluding the National Park.

It identifies a need for 6,800 new homes between 2017 and 2033 (425 a year) including 2,000 affordable homes. This growth will be distributed across the Plan area in accordance with a whole County strategy, which promotes sustainable development.

Residents can look at the Deposit Plan text and maps to view proposals in their area. The Plan proposes revised town and village boundaries (known as settlement boundaries) and a range of sites are allocated for different land uses, including 70 sites for housing. It also identifies a range of industrial sites (known as Strategic Employment Sites), local employment sites and two quarry sites.

The Deposit Plan seeks to respond to the challenges of climate change by including policies and designations to protect sites and species that are of importance for their biodiversity and nature conservation interest, open spaces and Green Wedges.

New growth is directed to sustainable locations. Proposals for vulnerable uses are directed away from flood risk areas and new development will be limited in areas at risk because of climate change. All new dwellings will be built to high quality, energy efficient designs and will incorporate charging points for ultra-low emission vehicles. Three sites are allocated for solar photovoltaic arrays.

The Deposit Plan and related documents are available to view on the Council’s website at: www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/local-development-plan-review/deposit

Hard copies are also available at County Hall, Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire County Council Customer Service Centres and in local Libraries, during normal opening hours.

• If you wish to have your say on the Deposit Plan you can do so using the Representations Form available online at the above website address, or in paper format from County Hall, Haverfordwest. This form should be used for making comments wherever possible.

• Please email your representation forms to ldp@pembrokeshire.gov.uk or post to The Development Plans Team, County Hall, Freeman’s Way, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, SA61 1TP by 4.30pm on Wednesday, 18th March 2020.

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News

Pembrokeshire MP calls on Government to Secure Access to Cash

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Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb has joined the Association of Convenience Stores, British Retail Consortium, Federation of Small Businesses, Positive Money and Responsible Finance in urging the Chancellor to use next week’s Budget to secure long-term access to cash across the UK.

Stephen Crabb has endorsed action on access to cash in a private letter to the Chancellor submitted today (Thursday). The letter outlines that to secure long-term access to cash, the Chancellor should use his Budget to:

• Reverse the arbitrary cuts to LINK interchange fees paid by banks to fund the network
• Exempt free-to-use ATMs from business rates bills
• Recognise that ATMs are the only infrastructure through which to guarantee national access to cash

ATM closures and big banks leaving communities behind are threatening the future of cash. Research commissioned by the Payment Systems Regulator shows that ‘the majority of consumers use cash regularly’ while the Access to Cash Review has found that eight million adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said: “In many rural areas cash machines have been disappearing at an alarming rate despite the fact that lots of people still prefer to use cash. Many small businesses have yet to make the move to contactless or digital payments because mobile and internet coverage is so weak in rural areas. There is a danger of cash deserts emerging in areas where there are no ATMs or bank branches. I hope the Chancellor and his team at the Treasury consider what steps need to be taken to address these trends”.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “We acknowledge the growth in digital payments but access to cash remains crucial for the millions who still rely on it for essential purchases. We need a planned approach to changing payment methods instead of the haphazard removal of free to use ATMs from communities.

“Cash back is not a workable replacement for the whole ATM network and comes with costs and security risks for businesses. We need the Chancellor to take action at the Budget to reverse cuts to interchange fees and exempt free to use ATMs from business rates that are making them unsustainable for ATM operators and local shops to host.”

British Retail Consortium Head of Payments Policy Andrew Cregan said: “Cash accounts for almost 40% of retail transactions and is important to many vulnerable people, especially as a tool for budgeting and control. Government should safeguard consumers’ access to cash by ensuring retailers are fairly rewarded for providing cashback services to customers and protecting the viability of free-to-use ATMs.”

Federation of Small Businesses National Chairman Mike Cherry said: “Cash is the payment method of choice for millions of small business customers, and millions more see it as an important part of the payments mix. There are some straightforward steps that the Chancellor can take on Wednesday to bolster our rapidly declining cash infrastructure. Removing business rates on free-to-use cash points is a good starting point. This a prime example of the many stifling quirks that exist within the archaic rates system. Equally, if the Treasury wants more small businesses to offer cashback, it must ensure they are given sufficient financial support to take that on.”

Positive Money Executive Director Fran Boait said: “After being bailed out by the public, banks have repaid the favour by slashing support for free ATMs, making us pay to access our own money. The Chancellor must stand up to banks’ cost-cutting in the Budget and make sure it is them and not the public who pay for Britain’s cash machine network.”

Responsible Finance Chief Executive Theodora Hadjimichael said: “The perils of relying on a single payment method have been illustrated by the weaknesses of digitalised financial systems, and the rapidly decreasing availability of free-to-use cash machines leaves million of people struggling to make payments, including the elderly and vulnerable. Paying for access to cash can compound the poverty premium for low-income families who rely on cash for their day to day budgeting and spending. It is critical that the Chancellor acts now to secure long-term access to cash across the UK.”

LINK, the ATM network body, is required under Specific Direction 8 from the Payment Systems Regulator to ensure the ongoing availability of access to free-to-use ATMs for consumers across the country. However, LINK’s own data shows over 500 free-to-use ATMs are closing every month and one-in-ten areas no longer have free access to cash via an ATM despite LINK’s commitments under the Financial Inclusion Programme.

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