Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities
The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government published in 2011 sets out the foundation for the Tackling Poverty Action Plan which will bring together the levers available to the Welsh Government and our social partners to help communities and individuals out of poverty.
I have already said that Communities First will be a community focussed tackling poverty programme, as is our Financial Inclusion Strategy “Taking Everyone into Account”. Both of these initiatives are key components in the Welsh Government’s efforts to tackle poverty.
The Financial Inclusion Strategy has given the Welsh Government the opportunity to provide a lead to its partners in tackling financial exclusion and over-indebtedness in Wales, focussing on five specific themes:
- Access to mainstream financial services;
- Providing affordable credit and savings;
- Improving access to financial and debt advice;
- Increasing financial capability; and
- Income maximisation.
The Programme for Government’s Delivery Programme includes the commitment to “support Third Sector advice providers to assist people who have debt problems and help people manage their finances”. Improving access to advisory services that are delivered consistently and universally across Wales is imperative. This is of particular relevance in a climate of forthcoming changes to the welfare and benefit arrangements being introduced by the UK Government.
In addition to the changes to the welfare and benefits system, the advice sector is facing a time of unprecedented change, such as the ending of the Financial Inclusion Fund (FIF) the face-to-face debt advice fund; legal aid reform; pressures on local government funding to advice services and potential transfer of responsibilities for consumer matters to the Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Because of the magnitude of the challenges we now face, the Finance Minister and I have agreed to undertake an in-depth review of advisory services in Wales. Key to this will be seeking input from experts in the field, users and funders of the services and other key stakeholders. A further statement about the scope and proposed timings for the findings of the review will be made in the spring.
In the meantime, I have recently announced a significant funding package to Citizens Advice Cymru: providing more than £100,000 to support the Advice line Cymru telephone service in 2011-12 and consolidating existing Welsh Government benefit take-up schemes (Better Advice, Better Health, Benefit take-up for Children with Disabilities and Council Tax and Housing Benefit take-up) to improve advice services available in Wales. The financial commitment to this service will be £2.2 million annually for three years starting in April 2012.
The Welsh Government also recognises that Post Offices provide a range of services which help to prevent financial exclusion, such as free access to cash and banking services in communities which may be isolated or have lost access to a high street bank through branch closure programmes. I recently reopened the Post Office Diversification Fund, announcing a further £2 million to be made available over three years to local post offices to improve the network’s overall sustainability. The aim of the Post Office Diversification Fund is to encourage post offices to diversify and improve the retail businesses attached to them. This will help post offices remain commercially viable and sustainable, and benefit local communities more widely.
The Welsh Government is continuing also to improve access to financial products and services to financially excluded people, unable to access mainstream financial services offered by the high street banks. People unable to access mainstream financial products continue to be at risk of a downward spiral of unmanageable debt, often exacerbated because of the activities of high cost personal finance providers, pay day loan companies or unregistered moneylenders.
Credit Unions offer a safe and affordable alternative to these high cost providers. As ethical providers of affordable personal finance, these mutual co-operatives offer people most a risk of over indebtedness in our communities an affordable alternative.
Funding of £750,000 revenue and £1m Capital investment was made available 2009/2010 to improve ‘Access to Financial Services through Credit Unions’. Funding of £4.056m has been provided jointly by the Welsh Government and European Regional Development Fund until September 2013 to continue the Access to Financial Products through the Credit Unions project.
As at the end of September 2011, membership of Welsh Credit Unions including junior savers was estimated at 55,140. This represents an increase in adult membership of more than 12 percent in the year ending September 2011 and more than an 11 percent increase in junior membership. This is despite the demise of the Child’s Trust Fund. The value of the loans provided by Welsh Credit Unions in the same period is estimated to be in excess of £13m, an increase of 22 percent when compared against the value of loans reported in September 2010.
Between April 2009 and September 2010, Credit Unions provided services to more than 4300 new financially excluded adult members 482 young savers. From October 2010, Credit Unions have helped a further 4900 people to access financial products that are simple, transparent and affordable. Credit Unions have also recruited a further 1400 new junior savers across Wales.
Despite this success, too many people do not realise that their local Credit Union can offer information, support and where appropriate, and affordable alternative to other personal finance providers. In a survey conducted by Beaufort Research Ltd on behalf of the Welsh Government, 52 per cent of respondents said that they were aware of Credit Unions. This response was more than those who were aware of Internet based loan providers and credit shops at 46 per cent, but less than the percentage of respondents who were aware of pawnbrokers, home credit companies and high street cheque cashers at 60 per cent and 61 per cent respectively.
Of those who are aware of but not a member of Credit Unions, 36 per cent of respondents gave the reason as not needing it, whilst 11 per cent said that they did not know what a credit union was about whilst 9 per cent of respondents said that they would not join a Credit Union.
Through the Access to Financial Services through Credit Unions Project, the Welsh Government has offered business support to credit unions delivered by The Social Investment Business. Not only does this support include advice about effective long terms business planning, risk management and training provision, but also supports the marketing and promotion of Welsh Credit Unions across Wales using a variety of techniques.
This activity includes a national Television campaign that commenced during the week commencing 13 February. With support from the Welsh Government, Credit Unions have worked together to commission this television advertisement to be broadcast over four weeks in 51 daytime advertising programme breaks.
Over the next eighteen months, other activities to promote Credit Unions will include e-marketing to promote good news stories about the work of Credit Unions in Wales, social media used to engage young people aged between 16 – 24 years, explaining the benefits that Credit Union membership can bring, as well as a programme of local road shows in local centres to raise awareness and encourage membership of local Credit Unions in the area. As Minister for Local Government and Communities, I will continue to encourage community leaders, prominent figures in society and the media to help promote the virtues that membership of their local Credit Union can bring.
I have also enlisted the support of local councils to help promote Credit Union membership using methods such as payroll deduction to public sector employees. Following my letter to leaders of local councils in August last year, which is currently being followed up by my officials, the response has been encouraging. With the support of my cabinet colleagues, it is our intention to further promote credit unions and encourage membership across public sector organisations in the health and education sectors.
Taken together, delivery of our commitments in the Programme for Government, reviewing the delivery of advice services to the people of Wales, continuing support for Credit Unions, Post Offices and encouraging closer collaborative working with other community providers, the actions being taken to tackle poverty and financial exclusion in Wales will offer some help to the people of Wales during the difficult economic climate we are experiencing.