6. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip: The Welsh Benefits System and Charter

– in the Senedd at 4:57 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:57, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

Item 6 today is a statement by the Minister for Social Justice: the Welsh benefits system and charter. I call on the Minister, Jane Hutt.

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on the launch of the Welsh benefits charter on 22 January 2024 at Blaenavon Resource Centre with the leader of Torfaen County Borough Council and Plaid Cymru’s designated Member, Sian Gwenllian MS. The charter is a key new part of our Welsh benefits system.

The charter, which has been co-produced with a range of stakeholders, and endorsed by all 22 local authorities, sets out high-level principles for a compassionate, person-centred Welsh benefits system, a system that is based on a person's entitlement to financial support, removing the stigma that some people feel when they are asking for a benefit.

A Welsh benefits system where people only need tell their story once to access their entitlements has been a long-term vision. We would not be where we are today without the hard work and dedication of many people. I would like to thank John Griffiths MS, and the members of the former Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, for their excellent report 'Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery'. The Welsh benefits charter is based upon the committee’s recommendation for the collective development of a set of principles underpinning the design and delivery of Welsh benefits.

I would also like to thank the Bevan Foundation and their partners, including Policy in Practice, for the series of research papers they have produced on a Welsh benefits system. These have informed our understanding of what a coherent and integrated Welsh benefits system looks like and guided the development of the commitments in the Welsh benefits charter.

The Welsh Local Government Association and local authority representatives helped to develop the charter, and following the partnership council for Wales meeting last November, chaired by the Minister for Finance and Local Government, all local authorities endorsed the charter. This represents a clear collective commitment to establish and strengthen a streamlined Welsh benefits system, as is embodied in the Welsh benefits charter, as the first important step on this journey.

An external steering group has been established to develop an action plan of all the activities that need to be completed to bring the charter commitments to life in a practical sense. And I'm pleased that Fran Targett has agreed to chair the external steering group. The members were chosen because of their expertise in the delivery of Welsh benefits or in supporting people who experience most difficulty when claiming benefits. The steering group held its inaugural meeting on 14 February and aims to have produced an action plan by summer 2024. The steering group will also determine the measures that are appropriate to be used to assess progress against the attainment of the eight outcomes set out within the charter, and report on progress to the partnership council for Wales.

It is important to note, though, that we're not starting this programme of work from a standstill. As we saw during the COVID pandemic, Welsh local authorities are skilled in the design and delivery of financial support schemes. A recent audit by the Welsh Local Government Association found most authorities are already making progress to join up the Welsh benefits they're responsible for delivering, with some assessing entitlement to three key benefits from a single application. It's this good practice that local authorities are now working together to replicate across Wales.

I know Members have welcomed the implementation of the Welsh benefits charter. It is a positive example of what can be achieved when different stakeholders sharing the same aim work in partnership. And I hope Members will now support the ongoing programme of work that will turn the charter’s commitments into action. The work to strengthen a Welsh benefits system is progressing, as a result of our co-operation agreement commitment with Plaid Cymru, to support the devolution of the administration of welfare and explore the necessary infrastructure required to prepare for this and fully attain our vision for a Welsh benefits system.

Through the implementation of the Welsh benefits charter, we're putting in place the building blocks of the infrastructure for a compassionate, person-centred Welsh benefits system. Any future administration of welfare powers would be delivered in line with the charter’s aims. But this is a complex area. It is important we understand all implications of devolving the administration of welfare. We're therefore commissioning independent research that will provide an evidence-based summary of how the devolution of the administration of welfare could be taken forward in Wales, and to inform the organisational design work that would be required to enable the transfer of these powers to Wales. The findings from this research will therefore help identify the next practical steps for the devolution of the administration of welfare.

We're also looking closely at the work being done in Scotland, where the administration of welfare is devolved. The designated Member and I have met with Social Security Scotland and colleagues in the Scottish Government to understand more about the experience there and how any lessons could be applied here. As set out in objective 1 of the child poverty strategy, improving access to Welsh benefits is one of the positive steps we're taking to reduce costs and maximise the incomes of families. Together with our continued support for the single advice fund, the flagship 'Claim what’s yours' benefit take-up campaign, and provision of free awareness-raising training for front-line workers, we are ensuring families across Wales claim every pound to which they're entitled.

We're rightly proud of the financial support that the Welsh Government makes available, which includes free school meals, the school essentials grant, the council tax reduction scheme, and the education maintenance allowance. These payments are making a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Wales. This year alone, 260,912 households are receiving help with paying their council tax bill, with over 210,000 households paying no council tax at all.

A Welsh benefits system where a person only has to tell their story once to access all their entitlements will have a positive impact on maximising household income and tackling poverty, and I thank our partners who are now working towards implementing this system.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 5:04, 20 February 2024

Questioning you here three weeks ago on the Welsh benefits charter, I noted that for almost a decade, service providers and researchers across the sector have been calling for a coherent and integrated Welsh benefits system for all the means-tested benefits the Welsh Government is responsible for. When you launched the Welsh Government's benefits charter last month, you told us that it aims to increase take-up of Welsh benefits, enabling more people in Wales to take up their entitlement, and to identify and remove the barriers that prevent people from claiming their entitlements.

However, the Welsh Local Government Association then issued a press release making clear that far from being the launch of a Welsh benefits system, local authorities had only agreed to work with the Welsh Government to take action towards developing one. So, just as the Children's Commissioner for Wales stated in the context of your child poverty strategy, the lack of detailed actions, timescales and deliverables again means that there is no way of holding the Welsh Government to account. Do you therefore have a timescale for the introduction of a Welsh benefits system, and, if so, what targets will be in place to measure progress?

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 5:05, 20 February 2024

In your reply, you stated that all 22 local authorities have signed up to the charter. Have they agreed when they will implement a Welsh benefits system by, and, if so, when is this? Further, have they agreed to implement this on a uniform basis across Wales to avoid any postcode lottery? And critically, how will you monitor implementation and practice to ensure effectiveness, efficiency and target outcomes? You also stated that there's going to be an independent external reference group—now steering group—chaired by Fran Targett, putting the charter into practice. Although you state today that the steering group aims to produce an action plan by summer 2024, what terms of reference, targets and timescales have you set the external steering group? 

The Bevan Foundation states that it's eager to ensure that the Welsh Government delivers on its commitment to establish a Welsh benefits system in the round. How do you therefore respond to their statement that although the current arrangements are based on collaboration and partnership, participation is therefore voluntary with a risk that the some bodies do not participate at all, while others do their own thing? And how do you respond to their calls on the Welsh Government, including to put participation on a firmer footing by requiring local authorities to align their administration of the council tax reduction scheme with other devolved schemes they administer, to set out a clear route map to bring other means-tested grants and allowances into the system beyond the original idea of seven different schemes brought into a common framework, and to reimburse local authorities and potentially others in due course for additional costs, starting with the council tax reduction scheme, where there is expected to be the largest increase in take-up? When I asked you these questions three weeks ago, your reply focused on generalities. I'd therefore be grateful if you could provide specific answers to these specific questions, either today or in writing after we conclude.

The Welsh benefits charter states that the Welsh Government and local authorities will work in partnership with other delivery partners to design an inclusive system. I was a member of the 2019 Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee inquiry into benefits in Wales and options for better delivery. Witnesses, including Community Housing Cymru, called for better integration between jobcentres and locally delivered services. However, the Welsh benefits charter only refers to continuing to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to raise awareness and promote the take-up of non-devolved benefits in Wales, without any reference to a collaborative role for local Jobcentre Plus offices, which are already established to administer non-devolved welfare benefits and which, working with local authorities, can become a single point of contact for devolved benefits also.

So, what, if any, specific discussions have you had with the UK DWP regarding the role that Jobcentre Plus offices can play in an integrated Welsh benefits system, working collaboratively with local authorities across Wales? When I asked you this three weeks ago, you only provided a general answer about how you work where you can with Jobcentre Plus to ensure there's a take-up of both Welsh Government benefits and of UK Government benefits like pension credit. How will you therefore ensure that the call by witnesses to the 2019 committee inquiry for Jobcentre Plus offices to act as a single point of access, by incorporating a local authority Welsh benefits service, is acted upon? 

And finally, given your reference to devolution of the administration of welfare and the work being done in Scotland, what evidence do you have that this is likely to happen in Wales—and I did support it in that report—and what consideration have you given to relevant content in our 2019 committee report, including the unforeseen costs incurred, when we visited Edinburgh and took evidence from the Scottish Government, from Social Security Scotland, from the relevant Scottish Parliament committee, and from the Scottish third sector partners who had co-produced the system introduced in Scotland? Diolch yn fawr. 

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:10, 20 February 2024

Diolch yn fawr, Mark Isherwood. I’m sure you must be delighted to see that the work that you were involved in, indeed, with John Griffiths chairing that committee, has now come to fruition with the launch of the Welsh benefits charter. Clearly, this is about committing to ensuring that people in Wales claim every pound they’re entitled to. And also, we know people are still missing out on their entitlements, including the financial support that we, the Welsh Government, are responsible for. So, that’s why we’re creating this more joined-up Welsh benefits system where a person only has to tell their story once to access their entitlements.

Can I just say that this has been co-produced with key stakeholders from the Welsh Local Government Association, local authorities and third sector organisations? It was really great when we had that launch event back in January, when we went to Blaenavon resource centre and the leader of Torfaen council, Councillor Anthony Hunt, who is actually the lead cabinet member for finance for Welsh local government as well, was there fully in support of the launch, and also demonstrating what a council like Torfaen can do to ensure that we do have that joined-up Welsh benefits system where a person only has to tell their story once to access their entitlements. I think it’s really interesting, because he also had his team, what he called the revenue and benefits team at Torfaen council, because he has told us on many occasions that it’s the 'rev-ben' team in all authorities. The society of treasurers will be engaged with this as well—they’re the ones at the front line, who actually are going to deliver this.

It is important to recognise this is a major step forward. You’ve seen the Welsh benefits charter, you’ve seen the fact that every logo of every authority in Wales is signed up to this. It’s a tremendous achievement, but of course it is about delivery, it’s about implementation. That’s why it was the partnership council meeting, chaired by the Minister for Finance and Local Government, which was so important, because they all formally endorsed the Welsh benefits charter, very much led by Councillor Anthony Hunt as the finance lead for local government in Wales. They confirmed their collective commitment to improving access to financial support for people across Wales. The Welsh Local Government Association were at the launch on 22 January, and I’m looking forward, in fact, to a visit tomorrow, with the designated Member, to Carmarthenshire Council, to one of their hubs, and the Deputy Minister went to Ynys Môn, and visited a team there. I think in all your constituencies I do urge you to go and see how they are delivering on the Welsh benefits charter, because they’ve all signed up to it.

Just on the question of implementation of the charter and how it will be measured, there are eight outcomes that I’ve listed in the charter, and it actually covers a range of intended impacts: most importantly, first of all, increased take-up of Welsh benefits, maximising household incomes; secondly, informed Welsh policy that has involved partners and individuals and other stakeholders in development; thirdly, awareness of benefit entitlement and support available; and fourthly, commitments on income maximisation, welfare benefits, financially resilient communities, outcomes improved for children and young people from low-income households, reduction in the need for emergency aid such as foodbanks, and take-up measured by the number of people supported by the Welsh Government benefits scheme.

This external steering group has been set up to oversee this work on streamlining the Welsh benefits system and they’re developing their reporting mechanism for measuring progress against these outcomes. I’ve already said in my statement that they’re going to produce an action plan by the summer, and they’re also looking at how they can measure some of those softer outcomes about attitudinal change.

I just want to briefly and quickly turn to the UK Government benefits system, which I do not believe is a compassionate, coherent, person-centred benefits system. The fact is that the UK Government benefits system is still, for example, not treating people with compassion and dignity, but using punitive measures such as benefits sanctions as a means of forcing people into unsuitable jobs. Personalised job support is the key factor in removing barriers to employment, but the changes to the universal credit conditionality regime, which were announced last spring, means claimants who are the lead carers of children aged 1 or 2 will be compelled to search for work or face a sanction, even where one parent in the family is already working. But you will be pleased to hear, Mark, that I've met with the UK Government Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. We've had an inaugural bilateral inter-ministerial group meeting, we've got terms of reference, so it's a positive step towards improved communication and relationships at a ministerial level on areas of mutual interest where we can maximise the take-up of UK Government benefits, as well as our own.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 5:15, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

Thank you for the statement, Minister. Since 2021, as Plaid Cymru spokesperson on social justice, I have supported calls to create a Welsh benefits system many times in the Chamber, and in 2022 the Senedd supported my motion calling for a duty to be imposed on all public sector organisations to ensure that more money does reach the pockets of the people of Wales by increasing the use of Welsh support payments and local authority support payments, and that by simplifying the process of receipt and ensuring consistency throughout Wales.

Plaid Cymru is therefore proud of the work that is taking place through the co-operation agreement to lay the foundations for a Welsh benefits system that includes, of course, the new charter as a first step. And it is a long-awaited first step, however we have to go further if we really want to achieve the goal of ensuring that the welfare system is fit for purpose and fulfils its purpose, namely being an effective safety net for the tens of thousands of households who are finding it more than difficult to make ends meet. The increase in problem debt and the increase in regular use of foodbanks shows us that people no longer have the means to support themselves, and broad-ranging actions are urgently needed if we want to protect them.

The commitment of all local authorities in Wales to the principles of the charter to improve the access of people across Wales to financial support is to be welcomed, of course. The principles of the charter are the basis for creating a more humane and human way of tackling poverty, but the non-statutory nature of the commitment weakens the likelihood that it will achieve that to the greatest possible extent. I've asked this several times but I've not received a clear answer: is the Government confident that the necessary resources have been allocated to local authorities in order to ensure that the limits on their budgets, which we hear so much about—they're critical—don't have an effect on their ability to achieve the objectives of the charter?

If we are serious about creating an effective Welsh benefits system, we must look to Scotland to see what it's achieving. I'm pleased to hear that you've been having meetings on that, because there is no denying that creating benefits that are fit for purpose, and have an impact, such as the Scotland child payment, has been transformative in tackling child poverty, for example. And work must begin on preparing the way to incorporate more grants and other means-tested benefits, and this ability to create payments, such as the child benefit, into a new Welsh system. So, will the Welsh Government set out a clear path and timetable for doing this kind of work?

And in terms of the work that's being done to prepare for the devolution of the powers over the administration of the welfare system, what lessons have been learned from what is being achieved in Scotland to tackle poverty through the welfare system? What work is being done to look at how something like a child payment policy would have an impact on child poverty levels in Wales, and what is the timetable for that work? If there were to be a change of Government in Westminster, would the Government roll out this work as a way of making the case for transferring welfare powers to Wales? 

In looking at the manifestos of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party in Wales, it's obvious that only one has stated that he's in favour of devolving powers to the welfare state. So, do you agree, Minister, that it would be an empty step to row back on the stated commitment of the Government in this sense, in the wake of a change of First Minister in Wales?

Plaid Cymru is urging the Welsh Government to act with more urgency and more determination to create a Welsh benefits system that will deserve to be called a social security system. At present, too many people are living on the precipice, and too many are already finding themselves caught in the merciless clutches of the poverty trap.

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:20, 20 February 2024

Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams. And this is a very important product of our co-operation agreement. And it's good that it's provided an impetus and has brought to fruition recommendations from a previous committee that was a cross-party committee here in the Senedd. But also, and crucially importantly in terms of delivery, it has engaged all 22 local authorities, and the people who work for them on the front line, with this endorsement of a charter. And as I said in my statement, it's a key new part of a Welsh benefits system. What we found—the Partnership Council for Wales, as I said—was a collective commitment to improving that vital access to financial support. They all share our vision for a Welsh benefits system where a person only has to tell their story once to access their entitlements, and that is why, at this stage—. And I met with Victoria Winckler last week from the Bevan Foundation just to also thank her for the role that they've played—the Bevan Foundation—because their important report making the case for a Welsh benefits system. People's experiences also contributed. And I think this is the first step: to actually get the endorsement of local authorities to have a clear, independent, external reference group with timelines for an action plan is where we need to go, rather than mandating local authorities at this stage. I think they've taken on a mandate themselves by endorsing the charter. But, clearly, then we need to see the delivery of it in terms of the outcomes. 

I'm not going to repeat again the eight outcomes listed in the charter covering a range of impacts, but it's interesting that the external reference group wasted no time in meeting and also, as I said, they're developing reporting mechanisms. And if you look at the membership of the external group, it includes many front-line staff from local government, the Trussell Trust, the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales, the Centre for Digital Public Services, the chief digital officer for local government for the WLGA. It includes the Welsh treasuries, it includes Disability Wales, Children in Wales, Citizens Advice, the Bevan Foundation, Age Alliance Wales. They're all very much saying the same things that we're saying, aren't they, about the delivery and the development, through the charter, of our Welsh benefits system?

And also they've got work streams on digital and data, eligibility—phase 1. Now this is an important point, because discussing this with the Bevan Foundation last week, obviously we want to see phase 1 work. That's about the three key benefits: free school meals, the school essentials grant—and, of course, this links entirely with the ways in which we're trying to tackle inequality and poverty via the school essentials grant—and the council tax reduction scheme. But this is only a first step, and I want to make that clear today—this is phase 1. This is how we move forward on this work, and, of course, other themes—other work streams on research, strategic communications, learning and development for local authorities. So, I haven't met with Policy in Practice yet, but I think they will—. As you know, we've met with them and indeed with the designated Member, and I know that they've been engaging with the cross-party group on poverty as well. So, I think we can see that the steps are being taken in the right direction.

So, I just also want to say that it is useful to see not just the work that I'm developing with the UK Government—and I reflected on that—but to look at the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. And this really relates to some of the points that you've made about potential for child payments, for example, in Wales—that the constitution commission recognise that devolution and more powers for welfare benefits will be feasible only with a substantial increase in tax and borrowing powers, to enable the Welsh Government to take on the related risks and liabilities. And, obviously, I was keen to see what they would be saying as far as this was concerned, and I think it is important to reflect on that and to take that forward, in terms of understanding what that would mean in terms of that more substantial devolution that we—. But they weren't themselves—they reflected on it, rather than making clear recommendations.

Can I just make another point, and it responds to the point that was made earlier on, I think, by Mark Isherwood, about the council tax reduction scheme? I think, also, we are improving access—as well as through these benefits, we're improving access to the council tax reduction scheme as a result of the consultation last summer on putting a duty on Welsh Ministers to establish a single national scheme administered locally by local authorities and enabling in-year changes. So, we are making changes, we are progressing in different ways—in that respect, through the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, so that we can have that national scheme and have those in-year changes, so that there are more flexible opportunities to respond to emerging demands.

The council tax reduction scheme has historically low take-up, and the number of households receiving council tax reduction continues to fall, so we are consulting further, actually, on the changes that are needed to the council tax reduction scheme to make those reductions easier. But we now do have that opportunity, I think, as a result of the work that we've done together in the co-operation agreement, the external reference group and the endorsement of 22 local authorities, to drive this forward to deliver the outcomes that I know that we share. 

Photo of John Griffiths John Griffiths Labour 5:26, 20 February 2024

Thank you for your work on this, Minister. It is very gratifying to see the work that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee did with organisations like the Bevan Foundation—to see that coming to fruition and progressing through the Welsh Government and the co-operation agreement is very heartening indeed. It is about reducing outgoings and maximising income for families and individuals in Wales, Minister, and to that extent, I'd like your view on the value of payments and eligibility criteria, because we know that schemes, for example, relating to schools have been frozen in those terms for a number of years, and, obviously, that's made it more difficult to increase the income of families in the way that is necessary. 

With regard to what you said, Minister, about, perhaps, several benefits schemes possibly being included, but starting with a few and then, maybe, expanding that number, might you set out a clear route-map in terms of the process involved in that, because, again, that's, I think, a very important part of the consolidation and user-friendliness that we need to create if we are to see the charter implemented effectively on the ground, delivering the benefit that we'd all like to see? 

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:28, 20 February 2024

Diolch yn fawr, John Griffiths, and can I thank you for the leadership you showed as Chair of the committee that actually did undertake this work in the last Senedd, and the way in which you gave the evidence that, in fact, was then very much endorsed by the Wales Centre for Public Policy—the research that we undertook to look further at the opportunities and options for the devolution of the administration of welfare to Wales?

I think you've focused on the key points, in terms of the work that the external reference group is doing, supported by the Centre for Digital Public Services. So, eligibility is key. The phasing—I've already mentioned the fact that, yes, it's phase 1, but we will have a plan in the summer to show how the external reference group feel that they can expand that. They will be very interested in the response today to my statement.

Also, just to say, looking particularly beyond free school meals, the council tax reduction scheme and the school essentials grant, it's important that people still—that this, in itself, can ensure that we get the money out that has been made available. So, for this financial year, £13.6 million has been made available for the school essentials grant, and 87 per cent of this funding allocation has already been paid out to eligible families. We actually have to get the money out—we can allocate it in our budgets—so I think our 'Get help with school costs' campaign is vital. So, this all has to link in in terms of the way that we promote this, because we know that the school essentials grant is crucial. But let's also focus on the education maintenance allowance. I'm sure that they'll be looking at that as well, with the increase, the uplift, to £40 a week last April, recognising the costs on those young students, particularly those who remain in post-16 education. And all of us who know and meet young students in that situation know how important the EMA is. It's very much done in partnership with schools and colleges, but I think that's another example of the way we can move forward.

I want to also just finally mention the healthy start vouchers. I don't think the Minister is here with us, but the take-up of the healthy start scheme in Wales is currently 78 per cent and continues to grow steadily, compared with 74 per cent in England and 61 per cent in Northern Ireland. So, if there is a will to do this—. And it's there, in fact, I think the fact that training, the mandatory e-learning course for healthy start for the healthy start network, health professionals, has made a difference. So, the learning of how we can roll this out effectively is crucially important.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 5:31, 20 February 2024

We're already out of time for this 30-minute statement, so if I could have short contributions from Members and the Minister, that would help me call a few more Members. Peredur Owen Griffiths.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you for this afternoon's statement, Minister.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

As part of our co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, we're committed to deliver the devolution of administration of the welfare system in Wales. In our view, it will ensure that the provision of welfare support is better tailored to our societal needs. The benefits of devolution in this area are also apparent from a financial perspective. The Wales Governance Centre, for example, have projected that the Welsh Treasury would have saved approximately £700 million between 2018 and 2024 if we had a similar fiscal arrangement in place on welfare to the one negotiated between the Scottish Government and UK Government. Obviously, this projection was made in 2019, before the impact of COVID and the period of high inflation we've been experiencing over the past year, so the figure may well be higher now. Has the Welsh Government done any work to ascertain the latest estimate?

If we just looked at that £700 million, that's around £116 million per year, which would be enough to extend the provision of free school meals to secondary school children in receipt of universal credit, pay for real-terms restoration of the housing support grant, and enough left over to significantly ease the burdens faced by local authorities. I've got three questions, quickly. Can I, therefore, ask what conversations has the Government had with UK Ministers on this front, and do you agree that they should commit the necessary resources to allow devolution to happen? Have you engaged with your UK Labour leadership on this matter too, and, if so, what guarantees have you been able to ascertain to provide that as part of the agenda for Government? And finally, do you believe that the incoming Labour Government at Westminster will be able to deliver this much-needed reform for Wales?

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:33, 20 February 2024

Diolch yn fawr. Thank you for those key points. We do need to look at this wider, the key issues you have raised, the wider fiscal framework, but also look at what is feasible. I won't repeat again what I said about the constitution committee's findings, but the devolution of more powers for welfare benefits in terms of needing that increase in tax and borrowing powers—. So, we're quite a long way off from that position, but we absolutely acknowledge the points that have been made today.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour

Thank you, Minister, for your important statement today on work to deliver both a Welsh benefits charter and system. My thanks to you, your officers, local government and all relevant stakeholders for getting us to this position.

I've just got one question, to keep things quick. I think it's important that any support can be accessed by all members of our communities, including those who may face challenges in terms of language or ICT literacy. I appreciate that our councils and partner organisations already have experience in addressing these concerns, but how will this expertise be embedded into any future systems so that they do not become impenetrable barriers preventing people from accessing support?

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:34, 20 February 2024

Thank you very much, Vikki Howells. You've raised a key point, which I think we've addressed in our external steering group of representatives from Welsh local government, local authorities, but also Disability Wales, Children in Wales, the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales, the Trussell Trust, all those who are working at the sharp end with people with lived experience, to ensure that we get this right in terms of the implementation. I think that's going to be reflected in the working groups that are being set up and also in the ways in which those members can interact. It is about learning and development for local authorities as well, and they recognise this is about us working together to recognise the diversity of Wales and the needs of the poorest.

This is where I also would say that our socioeconomic duty is crucial, and I'm so glad that we did enact that socioeconomic duty, even at the toughest times of the pandemic, because the socioeconomic duty actually puts a duty on all public bodies, including all our local authorities, to look through the perspective of socioeconomic disadvantage. This is crucial to get this right for the charter.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, for this important statement. In responding to the consultation by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales regarding the regulation of linguistic duties and reserved policy matters, the Welsh Language Commissioner noted that social security, child support, pensions and compensation are also reserved matters. Evidently, we welcome the fact that the charter is going to be operating in accordance with the Welsh language standards and talks about access to the system in clear and accessible Welsh, but, obviously, there will be some benefits still under the control of the UK Government. So, could I ask you what assurance or discussions have you had in terms of ensuring that all of this system will be operating through the mediums of Welsh and English, because it will be difficult for people to know what rights they have in terms of using the language of their choice? It's important that both languages are available.

In terms of taking this work forward, the commissioner also said that she was

'not aware of data and research that looks specifically at deprivation and dependency on benefits in communities where there are high percentages of Welsh speakers or among Welsh speakers in general'.

Have you had any discussions or had a look at how we look at this entire system and the specific element of the Welsh language? Thank you.

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour 5:37, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much for that important question.

Photo of Jane Hutt Jane Hutt Labour

I would be very happy to meet with the Welsh Language Commissioner, and I'm sure the Minister also will acknowledge this in the work and the engagement liaison with the Welsh Language Commissioner. It's crucially important that we get this right. You shouldn't have to say it, it should happen, but we need to make sure it does, and I'm happy to take this forward.

Also, I think there are other issues in terms of accessibility. If I could just say that there were commitments that were made in the charter, not just commitments on the Welsh language, but also that the communications about Welsh benefits should be available in accessible formats, easy reads, British Sign Language and community languages. So, as I said, the external reference group has actually got a working group on strategic communications, so I'll make sure that that's all fed back to the external reference group.