Welsh Benefits System would be ‘game changer’ for families facing hard winter, says think tank

The Lansbury Park estate in Caerphilly, one of Wales’ poorest areas. Picture from Google Maps

A Welsh think tank has called on the Welsh Government to improve the support it provides to families trapped in poverty by establishing a Welsh Benefits System.

With winter 2020 set to be one of the most difficult in decades, many more people will be relying on help provided by the Welsh Governments to survive the storm, the Bevan Foundation said.

Their report shows that the Welsh Government spends more than £400m on various grants, allowances and in-kind provision for low-income households, such as the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, provision of Free School Meals and the help through the Discretionary Assistance Fund. These schemes complement the UK social security system.

Yet despite the significant investment in these schemes, the Bevan Foundation has found some weaknesses and gaps which can mean people miss out.

Dr Steffan Evans, Policy and Research at the Bevan Foundation said that too many families are currently missing out because of arbitrary eligibility criteria and complex application processes.

“Even if they do successfully apply, sometimes the value of the scheme is not always sufficient to meet people’s needs,” he said.

For example, thousands of working families are missing out on Free School Meals despite living in poverty because they don’t satisfy the eligibility criteria, he added.

The value of the Education Maintenance Allowance on the other hand has not changed since the mid-2000s, meaning that young people from low-income families who wish to continue in education are £15 a week worse off in real terms than if the benefit had kept up with inflation.

The Bevan Foundation proposed that this plethora of schemes should be reformed and pulled together into a coherent Welsh Benefits System.

“A new Welsh Benefits System would enable the Welsh Government to provide vital support to families trapped in poverty, alongside the UK social security system,” Steffan Evans said.

“Our proposals will ensure that resources reach people on the lowest incomes as well as streamlining administration.”

 

‘Harm’

The Bevan Foundation say there are three main schemes to their proposals:

  • Help with housing costs:  a new Welsh Housing Fund and reformed Council Tax Reduction Scheme would mean more people have an affordable home.
  • Help with education costs: a new School Start scheme would provide free meals and help with uniform and equipment costs for children from low-income families, while a new Learning Allowance for 16-year-olds would provide enough cash to live on and help with travel, meals and equipment.
  • Help in emergencies: a new Welsh Emergency Fund would provide cash when disaster, such as flooding or bereavement, strikes.

The Bevan Foundation sets out five key features of its proposed Welsh Benefits System hey say would ensure they reach people and make a difference:

  • Targeted on households on low incomes, defined as being eligible for Universal Credit.
  • Cash or in-kind help that makes a real difference to households’ incomes or costs.
  • Single point of access, using online, phone or postal methods.
  • Based on clear criteria, not discretion.
  • All applicants are treated with dignity and respect.

“Establishing a Welsh Benefits System could be a game-changer. It could help to lift thousands out of poverty, ensuring people have secure homes and enough to eat,” Steffan Evans said.

“The system could be set up quickly as it is mostly within the powers already devolved to the Welsh Parliament. It will cost more but there will be savings through simplified administration and by reducing the long-term harm caused by poverty.”

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