Jane Hutt, Deputy Minister and Chief Whip
I am issuing this statement to update Members on our continued support for advice services and on the progress being made to introduce longer-term improvements, which will make advice service provision across Wales better co-ordinated and more sustainable.
We know that information and advice services play a vital role in helping people to resolve problems with their housing, welfare benefits and financial commitments. These problems, which if left unresolved, often act as barriers to employment, can move households into poverty and can negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. We also know the ongoing welfare reforms, particularly the roll-out of Universal Credit, will continue to increase the number of people across Wales who are in need of advice.
It is therefore more important than ever that we have an advice sector in Wales where resources are used as effectively as possible and quality assured providers are delivering services targeted at people in our communities who need them most.
The Information and Advice Action Plan (IAAP) for Wales, which was published in December 2016, commits the Welsh Government to ensuring there is a co-ordinated, cost effective, and sustainable provision of quality assured social welfare information and advice services throughout Wales.
We are making good progress implementing many of the nineteen actions in the plan. We must, however, alongside our partners, maintain this momentum over the remaining 3 years of the 5 year plan.
I have set out below a summary of the key areas of progress.
1. Ensuring the people of Wales are served by quality advice services
To bring consistency in Wales around the definition of a ‘quality advice service’, the IAAP committed the Welsh Government to develop the Information and Advice Quality Framework (IAQF). Advice providers in Wales are quality assured against a number of different advice Quality Standards. These standards can now apply to become IAQF Accredited. The IAQF assesses how an independent Quality Standard Owner audits an advice provider’s compliance with seven key quality areas that the Welsh Government consider are essential components of a good quality advice service. When the audit process of a Quality Standard is assessed as being compliant with these key quality areas, that standard will be awarded IAQF Accredited status.
The IAQF assessment service commenced its operations in December 2018 and 3 independent Quality Standards are expected to be awarded IAQF Accredited status in May 2019. Work has recently commenced with a further 6 Quality Standards to progress their applications for IAQF accreditation.
A programme of support is also being offered to information and advice providers helping them to develop their policies and procedures to a level where they can comply with an IAQF Accredited Quality Standard. Once providers have a Quality Standard that is IAQF accredited, people in Wales can be confident they are receiving impartial advice that is provided solely in their best interests from a provider who meets the essential components of a quality advice service as set out in the IAQF.
2. Preventative support is embedded within advice interventions
Welsh Government is championing the development of preventative solutions to help people build their resilience to social welfare problems, whilst reducing on-going pressure on advice services to tackle repeat crisis situations. Good progress is being made to:
- encourage a better understanding of an individual’s social welfare rights through public legal education
- target early interventions to prevent social welfare problems escalating, and
- build the capability and resilience of people to establish sustainable solutions to prevent the reoccurrence of welfare problems.
Welsh Government is funding 2 pilot projects which are targeting new preventative advice and support delivery models to households in fuel debt who make repeated applications for financial assistance from the Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF). Households are being offered a holistic package of services that help them to resolve underlying social welfare issues and also tackle the root causes of problems. The learning from these projects is being carried forward and will continue to be developed by the providers who receive future Welsh Government advice services funding.
Improving the financial capability of a household is a key activity to building resilience. We are working closely with the newly formed Money and Pensions Service, a UK wide organisation whose responsibilities include improving the financial capability of households across the UK, to ensure Wales is at the heart of its governance arrangements. This will help us to provide the necessary influence to ensure spending decisions by the Money and Pensions Service on financial capability initiatives in Wales complement our approach to merge advice and capability building services and to help households become more resilient.
3. Welsh Government grant funding for advice services
The Welsh Government has a long standing commitment to funding advice services. Through our dedicated social welfare Information and Advice Services funding we provide around £6 million a year, which is used to fund three projects which are all doing good work, mainly supporting the most vulnerable people in our communities. However, as demand for access to advice services is continuing to increase, we must ensure as much of our funding, in addition to other advice services funding streams, is used on the provision of joined-up front line advice services targeted at those most in need in our communities.
Therefore, work has been progressed to merge our 3 advice funding streams into a new Single Advice Fund. Providers are being encouraged to design and deliver services more collaboratively and on a regional basis. However, it is important that providers explain how the regional services will be delivered in accordance with the needs of local communities across a region - a ‘one size fits all’ service delivery model across a region is not always appropriate.
Welsh Government is supporting regional working by leading the establishment of new Regional Advice Networks. These will bring together the local and regional knowledge of advice providers, planners and funders, providing more joined up service delivery that best meets need and maximises the impact of resources. Plans for networks are being developed in partnership with key stakeholders and inaugural Regional Advice Network meetings are anticipated in autumn 2019.
It is equally important for the people of Wales to have access to the best high quality, impartial and free to client advice services they need. Therefore, grants from the Single Advice Fund will be open to all quality assured providers, which has the potential to increase the range of specialist rights-based legal advice that people need to resolve complex and often entrenched problems.
The open grant application process was launched on the 24 April 2019 and providers will have 12 weeks to submit their applications for funding. The new funded services will commence on 1 January 2020.
From January 2019, a share of the UK Financial Levy (an annual payment collected by the Financial Conduct Authority, on behalf of HM Treasury, from financial institutions carrying out their business in the UK) for debt advice funding was devolved to the Welsh Government. The principle of devolving the levy funding is to be welcomed as we are now integrating the commissioning of debt advice services alongside the other areas of social welfare advice services that we will fund through the Single Advice Fund. This will ensure people receive a holistic service that will identify and resolve all the social welfare problems they are experiencing.
It is important that Wales gets the funding it needs to meet the increased demand for debt advice services, which is often caused as a direct result of the welfare reforms being implemented by the UK government. The sum transferred from the Levy for debt advice services is linked to population and over indebtedness figures. I have raised concerns with the UK Government about Wales’ allocation for 2019-20, which is lower than originally expected. This is due to supposed reductions in over indebtedness levels in Wales, both in real terms and relative to England. This data is yet to be published by the Money and Pensions Service, but we are challenging its robustness. Whilst it is pleasing to hear that research shows declining levels of over-indebtedness in Wales, this is contrary to reports from key stakeholders ‘on the ground’, which show that demand for debt advice is increasing.
The Welsh Government is also well aware of the need to be able to respond to significant demand shocks and this is evident in our Brexit planning. I recently approved EU Transition Funding of £1.2 million over 2 years for The EU Citizens’ Rights Project. This will expand the capacity of generalist and specialist advice providers to meet the anticipated increase in engagement with EU Citizens who will be seeking advice on a wide range of issues affecting their lives.
Our key partner in the implementation of the IAAP is the National Advice Network Wales. A public appointment process has been undertaken to replace the outgoing Chair, Mr Bob Chapman, who led the Network admirably during his tenure. I am pleased to announce that I recently appointed Mrs Fran Targett as the next Chair of the National Advice Network. I am sure that Mrs Targett will maintain the Network’s important role as an independent advisory body helping the Welsh Government to continue the successful implementation of the IAAP to further improve information and advice services across Wales.
Finally, the National Advice Network has a vision for Wales where all citizens understand their rights and responsibilities and, importantly, have ease of access to the services that will help them to enforce their rights. We still have some distance to travel before we can turn this vision into the reality; however, I am confident that we are on the right pathway.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.