Helen Mary Jones MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Tackling Poverty
It’s Challenge Poverty Week, when we’re encouraged to show “what can and must be done differently” to tackle poverty.
As part of Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet, one of the roles I fulfil is Shadow Minister for Tackling Poverty. While it’s a role I fulfil proudly, it’s a role that shouldn’t have to exist at all.
However, with one in three children in Wales living in poverty, and this is a statistic that has remained “stubbornly high”, not only is this role still vital, it tells us that something different has to be done if Wales is ever going to challenge poverty.
A conversation I’ve had time and time again is that if poverty is defined by having a below-average income, then you’re always going to have poverty. This is true if you’re talking about relative poverty.
But actually, a more useful way of looking at defining poverty is absolute poverty, which measures whether those in the lowest income households are seeing their incomes rise in real terms.
Understanding whether increases in income actually match the rate at which costs are increasing is very important. For the family experiencing poverty, when your income doesn’t match the rising costs of living, it means having to make a choice between paying bills and buying what you need to stay alive. For some families, if they want to keep a roof over the heads of their children, it means not feeding them – a heartbreaking decision that no family in Wales should have to make!
It’s important to understand the definition – not just because it allows you to measure poverty, but it also defines the problem and in turn, gives you the solution. If you say that poverty is when families can no longer afford food after paying housing costs, then the solution can be one of three things:
- Making food cheaper to buy.
- Reducing housing costs.
- Increasing income.
It really is that simple.
Evidence clearly shows that to pull people out of poverty, the most immediate solution is to give cash directly to the person experiencing poverty. Figures from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation suggests that poverty costs Wales £3.6bn every year – from things such as public spending on health and social services to deal with the illnesses caused by poverty.
If ending poverty saves so much money, and it’s clearly good for our children and families, then why hasn’t this been better tackled?
The first thing a Plaid Cymru government would do is to demand the devolution of the administration of benefits as has already happened in Scotland and as recommended by a Senedd Committee.
Getting the system devolved would make it much easier to deliver on our commitment to provide a targeted payment of £35 a week for each child to families living below the poverty line. We’d start by paying families whose children are currently eligible for free school meals.
Not only does this cover around 65,000 children, since we already have the means to deliver this through local authorities, but we could also put this in place on Day One of Plaid being in power.
Pending the devolution of the benefits system there would of course be the risk of the DWP counting these payments as income for the purposes of means tests benefits – this is something we’d want to sort out before we start paying the money to families. We propose setting the money to one side, and paying eligible families a lump sum once the agreement is reached with the DWP.
Benefits from Day One, but only paid when it doesn’t impact other benefits received – we are not in the business of giving with one hand and taking with the other.
This would be a great start, but Plaid Cymru is aware of the scale of child poverty. There are over 200,000 children in Wales living in poverty – that’s one in three children – so this policy would need to be taken a lot further if we are to lift every single one out of poverty.
Immediate work would need to start on reviewing the thresholds at which families receive free school meals – we’d want to make sure that more children living with in-work poverty are included. And this would be an immediate action that we would take while working with others to develop a detailed national roadmap setting out how, as a nation, we will end poverty, with binding measurable targets set across the whole of the public sector
I’m really pleased that the current Welsh Government has already announced that free school meals are being extended throughout the school holidays, but it baffles me that the existing mechanisms are not used to deliver more: More free meals, and more money straight to the families that need it most. It turns out that what Wales needs to tackle poverty is a Plaid Cymru Government.
We have a plan that could be implemented from Day One of being in power. A plan to feed our children, to place money straight into the hands of those that need it most, and that truly tackles poverty.
In the meantime, we will continue to press for devolution of welfare to Wales so that we can take this policy even further. We’ve said what Plaid in Power will do, now it’s up to you in the Senedd elections…