As we know from our experience here in Wales, downturns in the economy are followed by the social impact on families and communities as people lose their jobs or have their pay frozen while prices continue to rise. Poverty is often the consequence.
My aim as First Minister is threefold: to prevent poverty, to help people out of poverty and to mitigate the impact of poverty.
We realise that helping people out of poverty is not easy, but the Welsh Government is determined to do what it can to make a difference. Tackling poverty is our number one priority. We do not accept it, just as we do not accept inequality or the erosion of public services.
Tackling poverty relies, yes, on jobs: the more people who are in work, the more they have to spend, the healthier our economy. But jobs alone are not the answer. The solution also lies in providing people with the tools they need to get out of poverty so that we have fewer adults and fewer children living in poverty.
In June, Carl Sargeant and Gwenda Thomas, the Ministers who lead on tackling poverty for the Welsh Government, launched our Tackling Poverty Action Plan. The Ministers, who are responsible for communities and children, made it clear that this is an absolute priority for us and that we will tackle poverty through everything we do as a government.
Many of the factors that influence poverty directly and immediately are outside our control, but the main areas where we can have the biggest impact on poverty are educational attainment, childcare, teams which work with families and employment.
Our efforts to prevent poverty start with targeting investment to give children the best possible start in life. From early in pregnancy through to early adulthood, our aim will be to reduce inequality at the earliest possible stage and break the link between socio-economic disadvantage, educational under-achievement and the impaired life chances that flow from these.
A total of 18,000 children have benefited from our Flying Start programme since it was launched and we recently announced £19m in capital funding to support the £55m expansion of the scheme that will double the number of children that will benefit from it.
We have reaffirmed our commitment to the Communities First programme, which helps our poorest communities, by announcing £19m to support a new approach. That represents around a quarter of the programme and we will be making further announcements in the coming weeks.
We continue to support the development of an effective credit union movement that provides accessible, affordable high quality financial services across Wales.
We have delivered practical support for children and older people through free school breakfasts and milk, the school uniform grant scheme, free access to swimming and museums and free bus travel, as well as free prescriptions for all, as we know that all too often there is a link between ill health and poverty.
The first phase of our Arbed programme has improved the energy efficiency of more than 6,000 homes in some of the most deprived communities in Wales, saving people money and helping the environment, thanks to an investment nearly £37m. The second phase, which started in May, will invest £45m of European and Welsh Government funds to improve energy efficiency in a further 5,000 houses.
We have also supported the use of European structural funds to help people into the labour market and kept the Education Maintenance Allowance.
Other initiatives such as our Community Benefits policy, which encourages contractors on public sector projects to deliver benefits such as training and employment for local people and sub-contracts for local suppliers as part of their contract with us, also have a role in tackling poverty.
As I have already said, we recognise that the best route out of poverty is through employment and we will continue to help people to improve their skills, and enhance the relevance of their qualifications. But we will also do our best to remove other barriers to employment – from practical barriers such as the accessibility of transport and buildings to less tangible barriers such as poverty of aspiration - helping people to move on to and up the employment ladder.
We are doing these things against a background that is vastly more challenging than previous Welsh Governments have faced. Economic growth has faltered, the budget the Welsh Government has to spend on public services and investment has been cut, the cost of living has increased as a result of higher energy and food prices, and the welfare system is undergoing huge changes.
The welfare system should create the right incentives to work for those who can work. However the reforms that are being proposed are on a scale and at a time which will inevitably lead to more families and individuals falling into poverty.
Given that many of the key levers that impact on poverty, such as welfare reform, are outside our control, it is even more important that we optimise what we can do and that we can measure the outcomes of those actions so we can demonstrate that our efforts are making an impact.
This Welsh Government is driven by values of fairness, social justice and equality. Our determination to tackle poverty, and ensure that everyone has access to opportunity and support no matter where and who they are, is at the heart of what we do.
Poverty is not only a blight on individual lives but also takes a terrible toll on our economy and on the sustainability of communities. It is the business of every Minister and all parts of Welsh Government to tackle poverty relentlessly in every way we can and I am determined that we will continue doing just that.