We have taken the unusual step of issuing this statement in the name of all Ministers and Deputy Ministers because poverty is an issue which concerns us all – and one which we will all take action to tackle.
Government in Wales has a track record of commitment to social justice and equality of opportunity. It has always had a duty to have regard to the principle of equality of opportunity and promoting sustainable development. These values have been demonstrated in practice, through programmes which focus on long-term goals and on support for the most disadvantaged. Communities First, begun in 2001, has been sustained throughout the first, second and third Assemblies, maintaining a commitment to people in our poorest communities. This government has reaffirmed that commitment. 18,000 children have benefited from the Flying Start programme since it was launched in 2006. We have delivered practical support for children and older people through free school breakfasts and milk, free access to swimming and museums and free bus travel. We continue to support the development of an effective credit union movement in Wales which provides accessible, affordable high quality financial services to more than 50,000 members in Wales. We have improved the energy efficiency of homes in some of the most deprived communities in Wales, supported the use of European structural funds to help people into the labour market and kept the Education Maintenance Allowance.
The current context is vastly more challenging than we could have foreseen in 2003 when the first Fuel Poverty Strategy was published or in 2005 - when the first child poverty strategy was launched - or even in 2008. Economic growth has faltered, budgets for public services and investment are being cut, and the cost of living has increased as a result of higher energy and food prices. Employment is the best route out of poverty but even though the Welsh employment rate has improved more than the UK employment rate over the past quarter and the past year, in some localities it remains as much as 8 percentage points below the UK average. 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. The impact in Wales is forecast to be regressive with the poorest families likely to lose the largest proportion of their income and more severe than for the UK as a whole. The Ministerial Task and Finish Group, established to consider the implications of the UK Government’s reforms in Wales, has commissioned a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impacts of the reforms. The Minister for Education and Skills has set out further detail in an oral statement. We recognise that the position is more challenging but our response will not be to lower our aspirations or change what we define as poverty.
We face considerable challenges as a result of the combination of wider economic uncertainty and UK government policies. The Welsh Government does not have control over macro-economic policy or tax and social security: it is not within our power, for example, to increase child benefit to lift children out of poverty. Nevertheless we are determined to be pro-active. Even setting aside the current uncertainties and the social impact of more households encountering problems of indebtedness and deprivation, there is an economic imperative for action. Poverty costs us as a nation, not only in terms of losses to individuals and the economy but also through increased - yet potentially preventable - demands on public services. It has never been more important to reaffirm our commitment to tackling poverty and to redouble our efforts to find the most effective ways of doing so.
The Tackling Poverty plan, together with our statutory Equality Plan, will provide the framework for these efforts. The Tackling Poverty plan will also support the delivery of our statutory child poverty strategy, under the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010, and our statutory fuel poverty strategy. The key objectives of the Tackling Poverty plan are the following:
- in keeping with our commitment to long term well being, our main priority is to prevent poverty, especially through investment in giving children the best possible start in life. From conception through to early adulthood, our aim will be to reduce inequalities at the earliest possible stage and break the link between socio-economic disadvantage, educational underachievement and the impaired life chances that flow from those.
- recognising that the best route out of poverty is through employment, we will continue to help people to improve their skills and enhance the relevance of their qualifications. We will also remove other barriers to employment – from practical barriers such as accessibility, to less tangible barriers such as poverty of aspiration - helping people to move on to and up the employment ladder. That is why, as identified in our Programme for Government, we have introduced new employment programmes to support young people to gain valuable training and work experience; we are increasing the number of Apprentices and investing in skills; and we will be implementing Jobs Growth Wales from 1 April 2012 which will create 4,000 job opportunities per year for young people aged 16-24 with the support of the private sector.
- At the same time, we will increase action to mitigate the impact of poverty here and now. We recognise that for more and more people, even being in work will not guarantee that they can escape relative poverty. We can act to improve the lived experience of these communities, families and individuals. To give just one example, by making tackling fuel poverty an integral part of this agenda, we can help reduce costs to individuals and families, increase their well-being, increase economic activity and lessen the impact on the environment.
Action in these areas must be taken forward in ways which are mutually reinforcing. Good quality, affordable childcare should help children to reach important developmental milestones: at the same time it will create employment for some and remove a barrier to employment for others. Early, targeted action to prevent young people from falling out of education, training or employment should benefit them directly but should also benefit the next generation. Advice which helps people deal with debt, or get on-line, should be a basis for enabling them to manage their finances sustainably and use new skills to increase their engagement in work and society.
We set out in our Programme for Government the key actions we are undertaking and the measures by which we will judge our progress. However the challenges are not ones that government can meet on its own. The Tackling Poverty plan will also shape how we go about meeting them.
- We recognise that many of the successes in tackling poverty are down to the efforts of dedicated and enterprising individuals, starting on a small scale, in their local communities. The principle of community empowerment is fundamental to our approach.
- We have the opportunity in Wales to join up support from different agencies around the individuals and families in greatest need, at a local level. We will encourage the further development of the “team around the family” approach.
- To complement this, action must be joined up across government. Programmes such as Communities First, Families First, Flying Start and Integrated Family Support Services need not only to work coherently with each other, but also to work with mainstream policies and spending on all public services. Flying Start requires investment in skills and infrastructure; Communities First will help the NHS to reach people who currently have least access to services, tackling the “inverse care law” the situation where those who need most health care are least likely to get it. We also have the opportunity to look for new, effective and innovative ways through which to deploy EU funding in support of integrated actions. The Ministerial Programme Board on Tackling Poverty will oversee this joining up and monitor the collective contribution of the Welsh Government towards these objectives.
- Our strategic equality objectives, together with our public service reform agenda, including the simplification of plans and rationalisation of partnerships to support joined up delivery of local services, will support this approach. The single integrated plans produced at local level will have a clear focus on a preventative agenda and support for vulnerable people. The Public Service Leadership Group will be able to identify and pursue specific opportunities for delivering services more effectively and efficiently, identifying, fostering and transferring good practice, and ensuring that public services in Wales collectively deliver measurable improvements.
As our Programme for Government states, all Ministers and Deputy Ministers are accountable for delivering results in tackling poverty. We are already taking action. The Rural Development Plan is supporting rural communities, where poverty and deprivation are dispersed, through locally based approaches to development. Communities First has been relaunched, with a clear focus on tackling poverty through improved health, learning and employment outcomes. The doubling of Flying Start places with free childcare has been set in train. School performance is being assessed against progress in narrowing the attainment gap. Citizen’s Advice has been awarded significant funds to continue to promote advisory services and we will be reviewing our support for advisory services across the board. For disabled people, who are more likely to experience poverty, free Blue Badges and bus travel make it easier and more affordable for them to access employment, services and amenities. A consultation is under way on how best we can help those most in urgent need, using resources transferred from the Social Fund.
The Programme for Government also identifies a long list of key partners in delivery. We will develop the content of the Tackling Poverty Plan in dialogue with them. We will issue a fuller outline in May for this purpose, including further examples of how we will do things differently in order to further the objectives of preventing poverty, helping people out of poverty and mitigating its impact.