National Assembly for Wales

Back to Search

Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

21/03/2019

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Carwyn Jones AM
Gareth Bennett AM
Huw Irranca-Davies AM
Jenny Rathbone AM
John Griffiths AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Mark Isherwood AM
Mohammad Asghar AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Emma Williams Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr, Adran Polisi Tai, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director, Housing Policy Division, Welsh Government
Julie James AM Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
Minister for Housing and Local Government
Miranda Evans Rheolwr Polisi a Rhaglenni, Anabledd Cymru
Policy and Programmes Manager, Disability Wales
Sarah Rhodes Pennaeth y Gangen Ddigartrefedd, Adran Polisi Tai, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Homelessness Branch, Housing Policy Division, Welsh Government

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Helen Taylor Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Lisa Griffiths Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Megan Jones Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:30.

The meeting began at 09:30.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Okay, may I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? The first item on our agenda today is apologies and declarations of interest. We've had one apology for the whole meeting from Leanne Wood, who is unable to be with us today, apologies from Carwyn Jones for this first session, and apologies from Jenny Rathbone and Gareth Bennett for the later session. Are there any declarations of interest? No.

2. Sesiwn Dystiolaeth gyda'r Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol mewn Perthynas â Chysgu ar y Stryd yng Nghymru
2. Follow-up Session with the Minister for Housing and Local Government in Relation to Rough-sleeping in Wales

Then item 2 on our agenda today is the follow-up session with the Minister for Housing and Local Government in relation to rough-sleeping in Wales. The committee did a report on rough-sleeping in Wales, and this is part of our work to follow up on that and to make sure that we do not simply publish reports and then forget about them, but actually return to them to assess whether they are being effectively implemented and whether the recommendations—those accepted, for example—are being taken forward.

So, I'm very pleased to welcome Julie James here today as Minister for Housing and Local Government, Emma Williams, deputy director of the housing policy division of Welsh Government, and Sarah Rhodes, head of the homelessness branch in the housing policy division. So, welcome to you all, and perhaps I might begin by asking the first question, Minister, which is: we are now about halfway through the two-year action plan on rough-sleeping. Shelter Cymru have told us that there is little evidence that any of the actions have had a significant impact on the number of people sleeping rough. So, I wonder if you would give us your overview of that first year of the action plan and what progress you think has been made over that period of time.   

Certainly, Chair. Good morning. So, this is the—. I think I'm right in saying that this is the hundredth day that I've had this portfolio. One of the things that strikes me as I come into the portfolio is the sheer complexity of the amount and wealth of information in this area. The plan was conceived as a result of that being reflected back to us by Shelter and so on, and the complex and difficult sets of criteria that both the person who finds themselves to be homeless, or in danger of losing their home, and the people who are administering the system—the sheer complexity of what they're trying to administer or how they would find help. So, if you were unfortunate enough to find yourself homeless, with nowhere to go, how on earth would you know how to access that help?

So, the plan was conceived as a response to that, and a large part of that plan has therefore been dedicated to getting training to front-line staff and clarifying some of the processes and procedures that are in place. We've really focused on getting people to think about the spirit of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, as well as the letter of it. We know we've got patchy and differential attitudes to the Act across Wales, so we've been really concentrating on getting a set of training out to front-line staff that gets them to understand both the spirit and the focus of the Act, to get that going. So, we won't have seen very much impact directly yet on the actual numbers.

The other thing to say is that, it's quite clear to me, after only a short period of time, that we're fighting a rising tide here. So, we're preventing, through our new section 68 duty in the housing Act—. About 65 per cent, we think, of households threatened with homelessness are saved, if you like, from homelessness. But actually that percentage is a percentage of a rising number of people threatened with homelessness, because of the impact of a number of things: austerity, the change to universal credit—it's having a very detrimental effect. So, the figures disguise, the percentage figures disguise, the sheer volume of what's going on, and then our figures—and I think you're probably going to come on to tell me this, but our figures, our snapshot figure, shows a kind of steady state or slightly dropped number for that particular snapshot time. But that's not the feel for the system. The system feels as if there are more numbers in it. And so that's the problem with a snapshot figure—it doesn't tell you anything other than that single thing.

And so we've—. I'm climbing about all over your agenda here probably, but we've also got the task and finish group, which was set up, and they are helping us to look to see whether the plan is fit for purpose. It probably isn't. We need to use their expertise to simplify and strengthen particular direct actions in that plan as part of an overall strategy. So, I suppose the short answer is: there has been progress in a number of very specific areas in the plan, particularly the training of front-line staff, the finding of some pathways—for example, the pathway for prison leavers—and the developing approach to housing first. But it's very much not a done deal and I think it probably needs some comprehensive revision.  

09:35

Okay. We will come on to many of the matters that you've mentioned, Minister. Could I just ask you about universal credit, at this stage? This committee has recommended more than once that the administration of universal credit should be devolved to Welsh Government so that some of the identified issues with that administration in Wales might be addressed. One of them is whether the housing benefit element should be paid or could be paid direct to the landlord, if that was the choice of the benefit recipient and the tenant. Part of the Welsh Government's response was that there is an arrangement with the Department for Work and Pensions that enables that to happen at the moment. Given what you said about the importance of universal credit to this rising tide that Welsh Government is fighting to stem, are those arrangements in place at the moment not working very well, not being taken up to any great extent? 

Well, I think they work in some places, and that's one of the issues. The issue is for us that each registered social landlord, each council, will have a different attitude to that and a different set of arrangements for their tenants and different sets of circumstances in which they allow, or help or assist with getting those arrangements in place. So, for us, it's much more about trying to get a much more universal understanding of that across the piece so that we have a better system in place.

You'll know that the complex arrangements for the discretionary housing grant, for example, are not devolved to Wales, so they are paid directly to the local authorities, and somewhere in here—this is a shortened form of the briefing, which shows you how complex all of this is—. I was reading only last night actually—let's see if I can find it; there we are—that, as a response to the way that universal credit is rolling out, the discretionary housing payment and the allocation to us, which is direct to the local authority—it doesn't come through the Welsh Government—is declining as well, and we know that the local authorities spent the whole lot of it last year. And so the allocation, it says here, is going down by approximately £165,000. So, it's going to put pressure on the local authorities as well. So, that's part of the problem.

The complexity of the administration of the various things by different bits of different authorities and different Governments and the need to negotiate your way through all of that is complex for the staff administering it, as well as for the people in the system. And the rollover hasn't been straightforward, so people struggle to understand what's happened to where they were before and where they are now. I think Emma—. It's very complex, so I'll ask Emma if there's any more detail on that.

I was just going to add—thank you, Minister—that, beside the fact of direct payment, where there have been some improved arrangements from the UK Government about who can receive direct payments, there is a fundamental underlying issue that the local housing allowance rates are increasingly diverging from the actual reality of rents. So, regardless of the fact that those payments are being made direct, it is leaving a larger and larger shortfall for more and more families that they're having to find through other parts of their income. And that's a problem that isn't administrative; it's at the core of universal credit and how it works.

09:40

But is direct payment, nonetheless, a significant part of the problem?

I think that there has been a greater issue with direct payment in the past, but my understanding is that UK Government has extended the scope of landlords who can receive direct payment, which is welcomed. But, even where direct payments are available, landlords, particularly in the private rented sector, are, frankly, nervous about people's ability to pay the full rent when they know that the local housing allowances are significantly, in some areas, below the actual rates of private rented sector rents.

Would you have figures, perhaps, that you might be able to give the committee on the number of claimants that are having direct payments made to their landlords, as a percentage of the total?

No. I don't think we have those. We can certainly investigate. But I don't think we have those details.

It would be useful if you let us know whether you have or not, then, and perhaps we might pursue other avenues if you haven't. Huw.  

We can explore whether the Department of Work and Pensions has.

Chair, it's only a short supplementary to your question. Recognising the changes that have taken place with the UK guidance around direct payments, but the frustration that you are expressing, Minister, with the landlord landscape out there, what can you do as Welsh Government to be more directive to ensure that any landlords who can do offer if a tenant says, 'We would benefit from direct payments'? Is there something that you can do? Because, clearly, you're frustrated with this. 

We're working on a set—. As part of the action plan and the overall strategy, we've been working on a set of guidance, which will go out to all practitioners. It will cover a range of issues around how we expect people to assist with smoothing a path, if you like, through the complexity, and it will have arrangements in there that will tell people how to do that. But the point is that the tenant themselves has to want that. We can't direct them to do it. So, if the tenant doesn't want to do it, they don't have to do it—they can have the money paid to them. And the difficulty there is that we know that people haven't got enough money, so they're vulnerable. So, actually, what we're also doing is putting a lot of money into helping our advice agencies help people with how to manage budgeting and debt.

I will say this, Chair—it's very political, so I'm not going to apologise for that—but it makes me really angry when I'm told that people who are vulnerable in that way can't budget. My experience has been that people at that end of the poverty spectrum are very, very good at budgeting, because they manage on an amount of money that most of us would have absolutely no hope of managing. But the point is that they're right on the edge. So, as soon as something happens to them that means that their budget just isn't sufficient to stretch, then they get into a debt spiral. And, actually, there's no way out for them from that debt spiral. So, I think it's really careful—the language that we use has got to be really right, because this is not help with budgeting as in they can't budget; this is help with making an insufficient amount of money do the best it can. So, I just wanted to make that point, because I do think that you can sound as if you're being ridiculously patronising to somebody who's actually manged perfectly well for a long time, but finds himself in the situation where they are now no longer able to do that because of the amount of money they're receiving is no longer adequate. So, it's help with how you best manage that situation rather than budgeting as in, 'This is how you do a budget', because I think most people are very well aware of how to do that.  

Yes. I agree entirely with that point and it's well made, but we can't get away from the evidence of the early pilots of the universal credit and the ongoing data, hard data, which shows that some people, when they do not utilise that option to have the direct payments to their landlords, fall into difficulty. And it is to do with the amount—it's absolutely to do with the amount—but, sometimes, also, there was a convenience, in that, prior to universal credit, when those direct payments were made, it did assist some of that client group. Sorry, just—.

Thank you. You referred to this question of housing payments being fully utilised—in fact we raised this in the Chamber recently. Last year I think three Welsh local authorities returned money to the Treasury at the end of the year because they hadn't fully utilised it for one of which the media is saying demand was falling, which I think, whatever our views, we would feel might not be the case. So, I was wondering what action you're taking to ensure not only accurate information about that, but also that local authorities are applying that money appropriately, because some of the authorities returning seemed unlikely, given the demographics of their—

09:45

So, I'm going to ask Emma to give some detail to you, but, in terms of overall terms, Welsh local authorities overspent their 2017-18 allocation by about £165,000. So, we know that the reduction that comes after that is going to impact them very severely, but I don't have the detail, Mark, on the individuals. Emma may be able to help.

Secondly, a brief point. Obviously, direct payments to tenants were first introduced in 2008 with the local housing allowance introduction, and then incorporated, post 2010, into the development of the Government schemes since then. We know that the Welsh Government and WLGA both signed up to the universal support network six or seven years ago, which enabled, from the beginning, the option, for example, to pay the landlord direct. Now, with the move to universal credit applications broadening mandatorily for people, meaning their access point is in the Jobcentre Plus rather than necessarily with the local authority direct, what consideration are you giving to responding to calls by Community Housing Cymru for a one-stop shop so that schemes administered or delivered by local authorities can be accessed at the same point of contact, given the new way that the services are being delivered?

Yes. I'm aware of that, and I know that some authorities are exploring whether they can do that, whether they can get the advice all into the one place, and actually, there's a great project up in Wrexham—just skipping ahead slightly—where they've got an assertive outreach programme, which basically has all of the services, not just the welfare benefits and discretionary payment-type services, but mental health services and medical services and so on, all in the one space, to do exactly that to make sure that people actually—

With Karen Sankey; yes, I've worked with her and have been in there a few times.

Yes. So, to make sure that people can access absolutely everything all at once. I mean, that clearly is working, and it's one of the things we're watching really carefully to see whether we can roll the benefit of that out more widely. Sarah, do you want to—?

I was just going to add that we've also, this year, funded some training with Shelter Cymru and Jobcentre Plus staff, so that we can make sure that they're aware, in the jobcentres, in terms of the housing legislation, and we're trying to strengthen those links with local authorities and the housing options teams, so that there is that collaborative working with staff in DWP, so that they're aware of how local authorities can support them, and they can work together in that person-centred way.

Which, as the Minister says, is working up in Wrexham.

Yes, absolutely.

And just to mention one other thing, which I don't know if the committee's aware of, but of course we've now been told that we will get a share of the financial levy for the provision of debt advice as part of a consequential. So, I very much welcome that, and we'll be able to integrate debt services across the other advice services as well. So, we are very much working to see whether we can get those services to be joined up, so that people get them in the most efficient way for them, really, bearing in mind you don't want people to have to make more than one journey on expensive buses and all the rest of it, either. So, getting the services to somewhere that is somewhere that somebody might go anyway, rather than them having to make a journey to it, is the other thing. So, especially once you're in insecure housing, actually having to keep track of appointments where you have to go to very specific places, we know, is one of the problems. So, we're very keen to see how that model might work, get the evaluation and get it rolled out as widely as we possibly can.

On that very point—I was going to come to it—I have two daughters working in the third sector on debt and money advice, full time, every day, and neither of them are in organisations that are recipients of Welsh Government funding. So, how can you consider advice networks that are based on what's actually happening out there, who's reaching who and where, to ensure that we're not simply reliant on the good work of Citizens Advice, but that we are also acknowledging the work of others, which is helping so many people get out of crisis?

Yes, I completely agree with that, and not all advice agencies will be able to provide appropriate advice for everyone in a one-place scenario. The other problem and the downside of the Citizens Advice funding from the UK Government, of course, is  that it's one advice session for people, and my experience in my surgeries—and I'm sure everybody around the table's having it as well—is that people need far more support than an initial advice session. They need to come back several times to get additional help. So, we will definitely have to have a network of wider advice services.

09:50

Yes, absolutely. So, yes, the short answer to that—. The Deputy Minister, actually, has advice services. I have credit unions, and so on. So, it's spread across the Government. So, we will be looking to make sure that we get the best out of that network—the directly funded, the partially funded and the rest of the network, so that we basically have a good jigsaw that doesn't have gaps and overlays as much as is humanly possible to achieve.

I just want to go back to some of the fundamentals. The Wallich evidence for this inquiry points out that the number of people still sleeping rough in some authorities, whilst emergency units are available—. It's a very complex issue. I know, for example, that the cabinet member for housing in Cardiff confirmed to me only the other day that there are still units available, but, unfortunately, there is a very large number of people still sleeping rough.

Now, when you talk to people on the streets as to why they're not going to some of this emergency accommodation, they say it's because some of the people in that emergency accommodation they're fearful of, they think they're drug-taking. On the other hand, if you talk to some of the voluntary organisations working with these people on the street, they say they're not going into the emergency accommodation because of their drug use and their desire to go and buy drugs and take them overnight. So, I just wondered what your view is on how on earth we can square this circle because it's a very significant one.

And it's a very complex picture, as you say, and what it tells you straight away is that one size just doesn't fit all and we have a set of provisions that are not flexible enough for a large number of people who need to access them, and there is drug use because people self-medicate in difficult circumstances. I'm always very keen to point this out to people: if I've had a bad day, I go home and have a glass of wine. I'm lucky enough to have a house to do that in and to be able to afford the wine to self-medicate. If you're on the street, you'll self-medicate with whatever you can get your hands on because you're not in a position to be able to do that. So, it's only human behaviour, but it's done at the scale that people can manage, and I just think it's important for us as a society to understand what we're looking at there. We need to assist people to get themselves back into a position where they're in a secure house and they can have that glass of wine instead of the position they find themselves in. That's kind of the whole point of the housing first approach—so, a trauma-centred approach, which understands what people's specific issues are. To come away from the substance misuse stuff, also, you might not want to go into the shelter because you have a dog. A dog may be your only standard companion. You're not going to leave it on the street, are you, to go in. So, there are lots of issues around what we need to find for people.

These are issues we covered in our report. So, I just wondered what progress had been made on the other—

So, the housing first approach to that, which is an emerging thing across the world, about finding the right kind of immediate, secure, permanent—or as permanent as we can make it—accommodation for people rather than getting them to climb this, sort of, merit ladder so you have to have to almost earn your secure accommodation by being good in the hostel and then being able to demonstrate that you can manage in the shelter, whatever—. That approach might have worked for some people, and it certainly did work for some people, but it doesn't universally work, and there are large numbers of people for whom it just doesn't work at all. So, we're very keen to get the housing trauma-centred approach rolled out.

I had a really great visit to the Housing First project here in Cardiff, run by the Salvation Army, and a very long conversation with a gentleman who'd been brave enough to come and be interviewed by absolutely everybody. There was a lot of media there. Clearly, he was a gentleman who wouldn't normally have wanted to court that kind of stuff, and he was excellent, I thought, actually. He was talking about the fact that he'd been—. Well, he's one of the hidden street homeless; he'd been sleeping in a vehicle. And that's one of the other issues about the count, you see, because who are we counting exactly? Lots of women, for example, don't sleep in the night, they sleep in the day and walk all night because it's safer. So, the count is problematic. But he was saying that he had learned a series of distrusts of various authority figures and all the rest of it for various reasons and that the outreach that Housing First provided and the persistence, if you like, of the worker who gained his trust and talked him in and got him the help he needed and then got him the suitable accommodation—so, not any old accommodation but accommodation in a place where he still had a network and access to things that would help him support that accommodation—took about four or five months, I think he said. A long time. So, this isn't just something where you can just walk up to somebody and say, 'Look, we've got a flat for you. Come on.' So, you have to get that right.

And then they also talked in that setting—I was very struck by this—about the need to find the suitable accommodation. We all have choices about where we live, and perhaps where you choose to live would not suit me at all, and vice versa, and if we just plonk people in somewhere—. So, for example, if you put somebody into a high-rise building who, actually, isn't terribly communal and is a more solitary individual or you put somebody who is very communal into a more solitary situation, they won't sustain that because that won't be a place that they can learn to call home. So, you have to be really careful about the selection of the accommodation.

09:55

It's eight stable established tenancies.

And it's 100 per cent successful for the people there, and they've just rolled it out into Merthyr. It's only just starting there, and we've got four others around Wales. The other thing to say about the housing first network, because we have the group that's chaired by Crisis for us, is that people adopt parts of the housing first principles, so they say that they've got some of the Housing First—. But that doesn't work. It works as a complete system. So, it's fine to have a trauma-centred approach in other areas, but if you're going to do Housing First, you have to do it properly, and it's intensive and expensive, but it works. So, we have to get that right. We have to roll it out to the right people in the right place. And then the last thing is the housing supply, because all of this, actually, is caused by the fact that we simply don't have enough social housing. So, the real issue is how we can build enough social housing so that we are not rationing it in this unfortunate way and, frankly, putting people into accommodation that they won't sustain because it isn't at all right for them.

So, are you able to provide us with—perhaps not immediately, but later—a list of where the housing first places are going to be coming on stream and how many places are involved? Because I think that is a major issue, because, certainly in Cardiff, there are very large numbers of people sleeping on the street. I mean, we're still talking only hundreds, but we are talking hundreds.

Yes. So, we've funded—. At the moment, we've got an 18-month housing first trailblazer programme. We've been working with the network to ensure that the projects that are funded under this are adhering to all the principles of Housing First, as the Minister has said. So, currently we have approved funding for four projects. The first one that we approved was in Conwy and Denbighshire, and that's been awarded 18 months' funding. It's both local authorities; it works across the two local authority areas as one single project, so individuals can be placed in either local authority. So, obviously that increases the choice and availability as well. That got up and running in January this year. We've also approved independent applications in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf. The Merthyr project, as the Minister has mentioned, is using the Salvation Army as the delivery agent and building on the work that they've already taken forward in Cardiff. In RCT, they're taking a slightly different approach, and the funding is being used to enhance and extend the successful Wales integrated serious and dangerous offender management project that we've previously funded. So, the particular focus there is on working with ex-offenders, and it takes—

That's RCT. And that takes a multi-agency panel approach and is supported by Trivallis. We've sat down with the two local authorities because obviously they come within the Cwm Taf health board area, to look at, whilst they're separate individual projects, how they might work together in terms of getting the support that's required from the local health board, because obviously health needs to be a key participant in making a success of Housing First.

And then the final application that's been approved to date is in Cardiff, from Cardiff council, and there are two separate projects within there—one delivered in-house by Cardiff council, and the other is the continuation of the Salvation Army project. Again, we're satisfied that the two projects, whilst they're in the same area, are working in a partnership approach to deliver Housing First in Cardiff. So, those four projects in total provide 45 units for individuals. As the Minister says, it's small scale to start with, but we've been working with the housing first network, and the evidence from around the world and where it's being rolled out in other countries is that you need to make sure that you're getting it right before you roll it out at scale, and it takes time.

10:00

Okay. All right. Well, it's certainly a drop in the ocean compared with the size of the problem, but I appreciate the detail on that. Minister, if I could just ask you about the paper, where you talk about that the revised guidance for local authorities has been delayed because of uncertainty around immigration policy and eligibility regulations arising from Brexit. Of all the unintended consequences of Brexit, I hadn't realised this was one. So, I wondered if you could just elaborate on that.

Yes. Because the guidance has to talk about eligibility for social housing and homelessness services and it hasn't been clear to us what resident EU nationals' entitlement will be, and it still isn't, of course, clear to us—. But, actually, it's now gone on for so long that we're pressing ahead anyway because we just can't wait any more. So, we'll have to do the bits that we can do and we'll have to just retrofit it once it is clear. But the news this morning is that we are—. The news this morning is that we are no more clear than we were when we were waiting for this a year ago. So, we're going to—. Basically, we're going to press ahead with bits of the guidance that we can do as fast as possible that aren't about eligibility, but it can't be completed until we know what the picture is.

So, how do we fast-track the man who told me that he was waiting for his Polish passport, because he'd lost it, in order to then go home? Do we instantly get him in touch with the Polish consulate so that—

So, at the moment, he's an EU national, he will be able to be assisted, because, you know—. But the point we're making is that, in rolling the guide out for the future, we don't know what the situation will be. We obviously know what we hope the situation will be, but we don't know what it will be. Until we do, we can't republish a guide that may have to be immediately republished when the situation changes. So, we are in a bit of a catch-22 with it. There are bits of it that we're definitely planning to go as fast as possible, but with the caveat that it will have problems because of the situation we've found ourselves in.

So, which bits are you going to be updating and what date are you going to be doing it by?

I think there are two specific elements of the code that rely on immigration law—so, that's eligibility for social housing and eligibility for certain types of homelessness support. There are a whole raft of other areas of the code that would benefit from being refreshed and updated and made more useful. So, we can get on with all of that work. The difficulty is that that may mean that we have to go to public consultation twice within a very short period of time because we're required to consult on significant changes to the code, hence, whilst matters have been unclear, we've been in the predicament of hoping that clarity would come and we'd be able to do the complete job. I think, as the Minister says, we're now reaching a point where we just need to get on with what we can do.

Can't you do an either/or scenario and say, you know, in relation to—?

Because it's so complex, we have no idea what that would be.

And I think that's the other thing about the code, is—. The code is very specifically about helping people interpret the letter of the law. The other piece of work that sits alongside this is actually the more useful user-friendly good practice guidance in a number of areas. Work is progressing on a number of aspects of that guidance, which, in some ways, is the more important aspect of the work, actually helping front-line workers do the right thing. But authorities do need to have a source of factual information that helps them interpret the law.

Okay. Thank you for that. The other area where there seems to be a bit of a delay in ensuring that we're all clear on what the revised code ought to be saying—. This is about the local connection. You say in your evidence that you're going to publish something after Easter to clarify what is the duty of, say, Cardiff council, to be able to house people and then send the bill to another authority, if they come from another authority.

So, that's part of the work that we've been doing to see what the optimal situation for that is, and it's part of the conversation that I was just having with you all about finding accommodation that people can sustain, because it's quite clear, just on the basis of common sense and human beings, that, if you move somebody miles away from their social and any other network, they will not be able to sustain that accommodation. So, it is about trying to get it right for the individual. And I really do think—it's really struck me since I've been reading my way into this portfolio—that actually, taking a step back—and we were discussing with the officials—and actually beginning to think again that, you know, people who find themselves in this situation are just people like us who are having a terrible time, but who actually have all the same needs and desires and wants that we have. And that making people—. So, if you put all of us, who are all privileged enough to have homes and all the rest of it, into one place and made us all share, I'm pretty sure that some of us wouldn't be able to sustain that at the end of the week. And yet we expect people to be able to do that and it just doesn't work. Also, as I said before, if you took me and put me in a tower block in the middle of Cardiff, I would be very unlikely to be able to sustain that accommodation, because I would be miles away from my social network and my whatever. So, we've got to be able to—

10:05

Okay. But here we're talking about—. We're talking about who is paying, which—

Yes. So, we've got to be able to sort out a system where section 68 duties to provide accommodation and to prevent homelessness work and then sort out who is paying for it. You need both of those together. So, I absolutely agree that, if the right place to house somebody is in Cardiff, then we have to have a system where we understand which authority is the home authority and so on. But we also have to get the system right that places them, and, at the moment, it's not clear, I think, how that might work.

And the other thing to say is that we have rural authorities with huge problems about not enough social housing in their area for youngsters and so on. We have to be able to sort out the priority allocation programmes to allow people with local connection to get local housing, without displacing people who are in urgent need. So, it's a complex picture and that's why we're working on the revised arrangements.

Okay, but this is a conversation between local authorities, effectively, so—

No, absolutely, but what I mean is that it doesn't need to go to public consultation necessarily, does it? So, when do you plan to publish this? Is it in May?

It doesn't need to go to public consultation, no. The good practice guide around the implementation of local connection is work that is ongoing at the moment, and will be published before the summer. Because local connection is an area where, actually, a lot of the problem is about misinterpretation of what the law does and doesn't say and does and doesn't allow. So, the piece of work is a discrete piece of work and it's focused on actually the application of what the law says and getting it right for people. Because, certainly, the engagement of individuals in the conversation about whether reuniting—

I understand what it's about. It was in our report a year ago. I just wondered exactly when we're going to see this revised guidance so that all local authorities know which hymn sheet—

Well, the current plan is May, as you say, so—. I haven't been told that it's different to that. Before the summer is—

I think it's—. Building on what the Minister has said, I think it's important to note, as the Minister says, that the priority need system does have implications for local connection, and the research that we've commissioned in respect of priority need will look at that as well. So, I think, longer term, in terms of how all those elements work together, then that research will be critical.

Okay. Well, I think that brings me on to my last question, really, which is this whole issue of changing priority need. You say that— . The rough-sleeping action plan is only a two-year plan, but yet, the research that you have commissioned on this, you don't expect to publish until April 2020, which is after this two-year plan has—.

Yes, but the two-year plan—. We're not expecting to finish—you know, we won't just have solved homelessness in a year, I'm very sorry to say.

And so the two-year plan was what it was. I've just been saying that, actually, even only a year in, I think we need to have a really good look at it. We have the task and finish group set up, which has the Crisis lead for Housing First on the task and finish group. We're going to use them to help us renew the plan and we will renew it as often as it requires to be renewed, as we learn more from around the world about what works and what doesn't work. So, yes, it was a two-year plan, because you have to have some kind of—. But it's not—. You know, it's just a living document and, in the end, it will end up being whatever it is. So, the priority needs research—we've just finished the commissioning process for it, so it will start; it's a year long, so we'll get it in a year's time—will look right across the board at all of the issues around priority need, which I'm sure the committee is aware are very complex, including whether we need it at all, in fact, and what would happen if we didn't have it—you know what are the consequences or otherwise of that, or adding categories, or whatever it is. So, the research will look at all of that. In the meantime we have to be doing other things that we know will work, and then when we get that research we'll need to react to it and change our plan in accordance with the research. So, it's just a living thing that we carry on doing.

10:10

So, the research you've commissioned has been done externally, has it?

Okay. Well, that brings us nicely on, I think, to Huw Irranca-Davies's questions.

Thank you, Chair. I've got some short, snappy questions that I want to ask you, but two things have come across this morning already: one is your stressing of the complexity of this and the work to be done, but also, I have to say, your passion for doing this. But can I just ask you a simple question: if you look at where we are in terms of Wales, or in comparison to other parts of the UK, is your assessment at this moment, as you're reading yourself into the post, that we are winning the battle, or that we are at standstill, or we are losing it?

My kind of emotional response to that is we're just about stemming the tide, but that that tide is rising, so we're going to have to step up the pace to even stay where we are. So, I would say we've kind of stayed where we are, but that's against the rising number, if you like, so—.

Okay, thank you. On that basis, the action plan that we've currently had in place—we're halfway through it—has anything changed in that? It's a live document, so what's changed over the last year?

The emphasis, really. So, for example, Housing First only appears in one bit of the action plan, but it's rapidly becoming one of the big focuses that we're concentrating on, and how we can roll out the projects and evaluate them and so on. So, that's the first one.

The other one is we've got a prisoner pathway in place, because we've got problems with people coming out of prison, especially short-term repeat jaunts in prison and all the rest of it. So, we need to take that forward and we need to sort that out as part of the regular stuff in the plan. We've got a whole piece of work with the private rented sector and the landlords—part of the Act that we're in the process of passing through the Assembly, and so on, all the work that's going into that—well, it isn't adequately reflected. We've got some really interesting work with the private rented sector where we're persuading landlords to be part of a piece, where they accept people who have complex problems and we basically de-risk it for them—very interesting projects in that regard, which are not, I think, adequately reflected. And then the whole piece on youth homelessness and the innovation projects that we've got in place are not reflected. It's a living document, so a year ago we weren't doing those things and now we are and so the plan needs to take cognisance of that. So, I almost think you're going to be renewing it on a rolling programme as these things come on stream.

The ministerial task and finish group, which was established last year—the committee had a hand in that—it's an excellent forum, and I've had the privilege of meeting with them. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we want to use, to get, so that we're at the cutting edge. But we're talking today about the sharp end of all of this. The other thing to say is that we have a massive programme, which I am attempting to accelerate at some speed, of building houses for social rent at pace and scale, because in the end the real problem here is a shortage of supply. So, we need to get to the point where we are building sufficient houses for social rent, and I'm making that distinction—not affordable housing, but specifically houses for social rent, which help us to stop the rising tide and turn it back. So, we absolutely have to address both ends of that problem or we'll just be sticking a sticking plaster on what is an ever-growing difficulty.

And maybe I could just chuck in my twopenn'orth as a Co-operative Assembly Member to say that maybe that's part of the solution.

So, please, in your discussions with other Ministers, look at that. But can I ask you: you've got a lot of groups out there who are experts within this field who are willing to assist you, but one of the frustrations they've expressed to us is, as this live action plan develops and so on, that there's something of a lack of transparency. They can't see the measurable outcomes. They can't track what's happening and say, 'We've achieved that; now let's move on to this'. Do you have some sympathy with that? Is it part of your review on this to say, 'Well, okay, let's agree collectively on what the measurable outcomes should be as we do this live update'. Well, what should be the live update on outcomes?

If you're talking about Crisis and Shelter Cymru, and so on, they're all very much part of the task and finish group. So we're very aware of that. However, I will say this: I'm very happy to include targets, or whatever, as long as they are both achievable and stretching. I'm not going to say that we're going to eradicate homelessness in 10 years—

10:15

Yes, but off the back of the evidence that shows me that, invested in the right way and pursued in the right way, we could actually get to—. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to sit here and say, 'The Welsh Government's committed to eradicating homelessness in "insert arbitrary figure here".' I don't know whether we could do that, and I don't see what the point of a target that I have absolutely no idea whether we could achieve it is. So, we'll be working with the task and finish group to see what we can put in place for that purpose. We're doing that for three reasons. First, so people can understand whether what we're doing is having any impact, because, actually, we need to understand that. Secondly, so that we can review our practice, so that we've got better evaluations—we spend a lot of money in this field—of whether the money we're spending is having the best possible outcome, and I'm not sure we've got all of the information we need for that. And then, thirdly, how we keep abreast of what I was just talking about, which is the emerging best practice across the world. Because we aren't alone here. All over the developed world, there have been homelessness projects, but it's interesting the dearth of evidence off the back of which they have been based. So, this is a worldwide movement to try and figure out what on earth it is that works, and we're very much part of that, and we want to stay very much part of that. 

But I think those groups will appreciate what is a clear offer from you within the task and finish group to actually work on measurable, achievable, but stretching outcomes. 

Can I just take you back to that thing about the overall aim of eradicating homelessness, eradicating rough-sleeping? You don't think that's worthwhile, once you've got a real grip on what we're doing. Now, I know some of the things, as you've already said, are out of our control, but isn't that a worthwhile outcome, because certainly some of the groups would say it is?

Yes, if you look at the Finnish example, it's really—. So, they're most advanced, really, on this. A lot of people like to look at the Scandinavian outcomes and try and pick a bit of them out and say, 'Oh, look, why don't we do that?' but actually, of course, it's an entire-system approach, and it's important to understand that. 

Yes. But even in Finland, they still have occasional homelessness, so how do they characterise it differently? So where that inevitably happens, you want it to be as brief and as fleeting as possible and to have the measures in place to make sure that anyone who finds themselves in that position is rapidly rehoused into suitable and secure accommodation. But even there, they have not been able to stop everyone, so that nobody ever becomes homeless. 

Absolutely. But their overriding aim is to eradicate homelessness and to deal with those instances that appear rapidly. 

Do you see that ultimately as an aim for you as Minister?

Yes, of course, we all share—it's a human right, isn't it? It's a basic human right, and it's all of our instincts that no human being should be in a position where they don't have secure accommodation. But it's also a fact of life that stuff happens, and so sometimes people will find themselves in inevitable family break-up or in whatever circumstances where they do find themselves in a situation where they no longer have that, and you need a system in place that picks that person up and rehomes them as fast as humanly possible.

Indeed. It's the same argument with unemployment: you can never totally eradicate it; there's always transitional unemployment, and so on. But what I'm trying to get to—and I'm not saying today, but ultimately, when you've crunched through all of this, when you've got pathway milestones and measurable outcomes that are agreed, would you then come forward as a Government and say, 'And, overriding this, our ambition is to eradicate homelessness? Here's how we define it, we recognise there will be transititory homelessness, but we aim to eradicate homelessness'?

Well, I can say that now. It would absolutely be any Government's aim to eradicate homelessness. What I'm saying to you is that we have to do that in a way that's achievable and understandable. So, I don't want to say that in any meaningless way. It's absolutely a basic human right, which we acknowledge as a Government and as a country, I would say, that people should have a safe, secure, affordable home to live in in a community of their choice, in a place of their choosing. Our challenge is to get to the position where we can do that and then to ensure thereafter that, in the Finnish model, and I'll quote from it, where homelessness cannot be prevented, it is something rare, brief and non-recurrent.

So, that's the aim, if you like. But we need a whole-system approach to that, and what I'm not prepared to do is just arbitrarily insert a figure of years by which we say we can do it, because I have absolutely no idea how long it will take us to get there—that's the truth. 

10:20

So, a rolling programme—that's what we're looking at. And as I said, I think the ministerial task and finish group is unlikely to ever get to the 'finish' bit of its title. So, I think it will end up being a task group, because until we get to the point that we've just been discussing where we've eradicated it, there will be a need to constantly review where we are. to take advice across the piece from people who are at the sharp end of it, from the academics, from the people in international good practice, and so on, so that we continue to learn where we can assist our systems.  

Thank you, Chair, and congratulations, Minister for 100 years in this job. [Laughter.] 

A hundred years or 100 days? I'm not that old, Oscar. [Laughter.]  

A hundred days, I beg your pardon.

This is a serious issue, now. Cardiff University published only up to 2017 their research work on homelessness, and they predicted in their research that there'll be a 75 per cent increase in the next 10 years, Chair, in homelessness in Wales. That is an unacceptable figure. I heard you saying goodwill and best wishes for these social and financial reasons why people are homeless. No-one of their own will likes to be in a rough position of living, whether they live in a temporary house or sleeping pod, or hostel. There is another element to it. When you become homeless, there are certain areas that I actually researched with some medical professions. People who are homeless actually face more, in certain areas, drug misuse, disease transmission, deterioration of mental health and anti-social behaviour. These are the main elements, whether in a shelter, housing or wherever they are, or hostels, I mean. So, basically, Minister, what are your plans on those issues when people are going into rough-sleeping and ending up with different problems? This is on top of what they are already suffering, which is a burden to Government and then the NHS with it. There should be another way not for them to just house them in a nice, cosy place, but to rehab them to make sure that their life is worthwhile for the future. What is the plan, therefore? 

So, that's the whole purpose of the Housing First agenda that we've been discussing. So, Housing First is about getting somebody into a safe, secure home as fast as possible, but it's also about surrounding them with the support mechanisms that they need in order to address the problems that probably contributed to their homelessness in the first place. So, assistance with mental health issues, with any kind of substance abuse issues, help with—. It's all very well to give you a flat, but you'd need a bed and some furniture and some curtains, and all the rest of it, so help with financing that, assistance with debt advice and budgeting, all that kind of stuff.

And in response to Mark Isherwood, I talked about the Wrexham model of having all of those services in a single place, and that's very much the housing first model—it's to get those services to that individual, to get them into sustainable accommodation, so it's not just the accommodation. It's actually allowing them to have the support and networks of professionals and others that keep them in that accommodation. That's the most difficult bit—it's not actually that hard to find a place to put somebody. Finding it in the right place is more difficult, and then making sure that all those services are in place for that is a very large part of that. 

And, Chair, if you don't mind, I'll just say a little bit about the substance misuse thing there, because we've been working very hard with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in Wales to come to an understanding of what the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 provisions might look like, so that we don't have a situation where registered social landlords are liable for prosecution for 'allowing' drug misuse on their premises. So, where it's part of a programme that the police are aware of, they are more than happy to co-operate with us in assisting that person, and not criminalising them but treating them in a medical or social setting to assist them to get to a position where they're able to sustain that.

I just wanted to mention that, because it's a very important part of the understanding of how this system works. It will be very much part of the work we want to do with RSLs across Wales to reassure their boards and their decision makers that in participating in Housing First projects, they are not opening themselves to the possibility of prosecution under the Misuse of Drugs Act. I want to pay tribute to our police forces and the CPS, who have worked very hard with us in this area to make sure that we can get that to work.

10:25

Yes, coming on to that, thank you very much; I've just one or two more points to ask and clarify.

Minister, are you open to going for another area, where the new initiative should be taken with certain people like physiotherapists or some professionals to set up some sort of, like, you know, old-age people’s home, and nursing home, and all the rest, so that people who are homeless, with professionals, in the very early stage, they should be looked after and these people are then encouraged to put their resources into those sorts of hostels? I think that could help quite a lot to make sure that, especially people who are younger—I have seen the graph where the ages between 30 and 40 are the most in number where they end up then rough-sleeping. So, they need some psychiatric help also. It’s not financial and physical or other mental health—but also some sort of psychiatric help. So, is there any way you’re open to that sort of approach to make sure that these people are cared for right in the beginning, rather than in the end when they suffer with different problems?

Yes. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone who thinks they have a solution for a subset of people who find themselves in this situation. And what we need to do is then understand how any provision that is being proposed fits into the rest of the picture. And we're very keen as well as to understand that it doesn’t have unintended consequences for people, because there have been lots of well-intentioned innovations that, actually, in the end, make the individual’s position worse and not better. But, I’m very open to that.

We specifically have an innovative housing programme and an integrated care fund designed to address the kinds of things you’re talking about. So, intermediate housing, or assisted or sheltered housing for certain individuals who require that, particularly innovative interventions for youth homelessness. I went down to an organisation called Fabric operating in the Neath Port Talbot/Swansea area who have a very innovative project for teenagers who find themselves homeless—16 or 17-year-olds, a very difficult cohort, but very successful projects. So, yes. The short answer is ‘yes’; we're very open to any suggestion that you think would help a particular cohort of people.

I think we've dealt, actually, with some of the issues on Housing First.

This is the last one. Has the Welsh Government undertaken any work to calculate the costs and benefits of implementing Housing First at scale across Wales?

So, yes; we're in the middle of the trailblazers and the evaluations. I think the important thing to understand about Housing First is that it’s not just about the money—[Interruption.] Thank you. It’s an enormous briefing that I’ve got here. But, it’s not just about the money. What really strikes me about Housing First is the ripple effect for all of the other services. So, you know, as we get people off the streets and out of the acute services, we're assisting the acute services in our hospitals, our acute mental health services, some of our criminal and criminal justice system colleagues, and so on. So, the savings are in services saved, as well as in financial terms.

In financial terms, they’re not enormous, but they can be there. But, actually, it’s about a system save, if you like, because you’re effectively allowing acute services to be used for other acute needs, taking a cohort of people out of those services and giving them the long-term assistance that they need, away from the acute services. So, that’s part of the evaluation that we're looking at, and we want to do that very complex set of evaluations so that we pick up all of the ramifications for the other services as well as the financial issues around it.

So, I’ll just finish, Chair, by saying this: I started by saying it can be an expensive intervention, but once you’ve taken into account the saving across the acute services, it looks very different.

Thanks. Have you considered what changes you'll need in commissioning practices to allow the national roll-out of Housing First?

Yes, that's one of the pieces of work we're looking at. We have been, as the committee will be aware, looking at the rolling of Supporting People into the housing support grant, and we've had a lot of correspondence and conversation with the entire sector over the last year. We've happily arrived at a place, through co-production and much work, where everybody is a lot happier with where we are and understands what we doing. And part of the point of the evaluation of the projects will be how we can best commission them to get the best out of those sets of money. 

We're also looking, as part of the housing—. The reason that we've done the grant and the housing support grant stuff is to just get a much more sustainable system of commissioning and support. So, I haven't unfortunately had the time yet to review the evidence sessions that you had with Crisis and Shelter, but I'm sure they said to you that one of the things we need to do is stop having short-term funding arrangements and have a much more sustainable system, because it's what they say to us and it's what everybody says.

The Government's been across a number of pieces looking at sustainable funding solutions for a large number of people in the local government and in the voluntary sectors, because we know that we drive short-term issues. But we do have a problem, which is that our own budget is currently being given to us on an annual basis, and I'm sorry to mention the 'Brexit' word—it would be lovely to get through an hour and a half without mentioning it, wouldn't it—but, as a result of the Brexit situation in the UK Government, we're not sure what the comprehensive spending review situation is, whether it will happen, whether it will be delayed. We don't know when our own budgets will be. I have a lot of sympathy for that, and we are working very hard to ensure that we give as much certainty as possible, but we're in a situation where we have no certainty of our own. So, I don't also want to give false promises about that. 

10:30

Thinking about the Housing First guidance that was mentioned earlier, what changes have you made to that guidance and, thinking about the stakeholders' emphasis on Housing First, tackling rough-sleeping, what further changes do you think are likely to be made to that guidance? 

I covered a lot of that in the earlier stuff that I've been saying. The task and finish group is helping us to look at exactly what we should be doing in terms of Housing First. We've got the pilots rolling out, we want to do the evaluation of the trailblazers and the pilots to make sure that we pick up all of that, and then work it into the way that we commission stuff in the future. Emma's talked already, and I'm sure she'll talk a bit more now, about some of the other codes that we're putting out and the good practice stuff. Emma, do you want to pick that up?

I think specifically on—thank you, Minister—Housing First, the principles document has been well received by the sector and it's proving very useful, to the point where actually the network has used that as the basis to develop a registration checklist and where it's also underpinning our evaluation approach. So, I think the principles document—. We've not had any feedback to indicate that it needs to be changed. People are comfortable, it ensures that people are giving the right importance to the fidelity of the model, and, as we've talked about earlier, it helps them to focus on the structural issues.

As the Minister has already mentioned, the housing element of Housing First is in some ways the easiest—actually making sure that all of those services are aligned and are available to provide the support, so that when people are ready to engage and are ready to take forward engagement with programmes and support, it's there and available for them. That's what that principles document sets out to do and what the registration checklist is helping them to do.

I think, in our first round of pilots, probably the biggest piece of learning we had was actually authorities and pilots coming back to us and saying that they felt that they had seriously underestimated the amount of work that needed to go into getting those things right. So, we've been able to look at our focus on making sure that we're getting the support right, and hence the slowly but surely approach to getting these pilots up and running and making sure they're long-term sustainable.

Just on commissioning practices, you referred to co-production, and, as chair of various cross-party groups—I'm not being partisan here—many related to disability or conditions, I've been presented with many examples where user-led local groups—disability support, communication support, condition support—which were established by communities for communities, have lost out in competitive commissioning processes to better resourced, more commercial, larger third sector bodies or consortia.

The consequence of that has been constituents or groups or organisations identifying gaps that have arisen in consequence, not because of less money but because the money's gone somewhere else. How, into commissioning, can we build in safeguards and awareness so that those people doing that commissioning, which is at a local level—it's not Welsh Government's fault, except in strengthening guidance—better understand that apparent sometimes short-term savings or simplicity will damage lives and actually end up costing a lot more?

I have a lot of sympathy with that, Mark. In my previous portfolio, I was working on the sustainable commissioning guidance for the domestic violence and sexual violence sector, and we'd done an enormous amount of work under the guidance of Yasmin Khan, who's a specialist adviser there, in trying to understand how we could get sustainable commissioning in and not drive some of the unintended consequences that we had that you've just outlined, and a number of others actually. So, one of the others, for example, is we ask people to bid in with their system, if you like, of what they're going to deliver, and we also ask them to collaborate, but, obviously, they won't collaborate if they're giving away the thing that they then want to bid on. So, what we effectively do is we have people doing this with their good practice and then, sort of, going, 'You can see this much so that I can say I've collaborated'. So, we're driving a set of behaviours that are the exact opposite of what we want. So, we've been working very hard in that group for that particular set of grants, but it will spill over across the Government so that the learning we pick up there about how we do that and some of the unintended consequences comes across.

The other thing is that we want to put—so, this is not just about housing or homelessness, this is just across the way that we commission for the Government—systems in place that allow small groups like that to access expertise in filling in, if you like, the hideous forms that you have to do because, you're quite right—and I think probably everybody in this room has probably experienced this—you've got somebody who's good at writing the grant but not necessarily good at delivering the service. Then the people who are good at delivering the services are not great at writing the grants always. Sometimes, it's a happy marriage of the two, but not always. So, actually, part of that work is to get local advice services in place so that people can access that expertise and don't have to have it themselves all the time so that we can get a more collaborative approach to that. So, we're not anywhere near being perfect on it, but we are well down the road of doing the pieces of work necessary to get some of that in place. So, it's a point well made, and it's a point that we will be looking to cover off as part of the work that we're doing here, learning from other stuff going on in the Government as well.

10:35

One of the other gaps in that has been a misinterpretation of co-production so that the user voice is often missing before the decisions are made. You only hear it when it goes wrong.

I agree. Co-production is a culture change, and it will take a while for people who are used to a more command-and-control structure to turn, and, because human beings are what they are, it's been more successful in the culture change in some places than in others, and our guidance is very much designed at pushing the good practice for that out as far as possible.

I started this entire session, Chair, by saying that we want people to look at the spirit as well as the letter of the law, and that's very much where we are with that. So, to look out to see what we're trying to achieve here and make sure that the experience of the people who have gone before and who know what the system looks like is reflected in the practice, because that's how we learned what worked and what didn't work.

Okay, thanks for that. Mark, you had some other questions, I think.

Actually, for me, this is a bit like déjà vu. In the Second Assembly, this committee's predecessor did a detailed report on youth homelessness, piloting the same or very much the same issues, with similar recommendations, and at the end of the Third Assembly we produced a report focusing on the role that the private rented sector could take with, again, many similar points. So, it's a degree of déjà vu, if not frustration, from hearing all these points raised again. It's not a new story. In the first four years of devolution homelessness doubled. The Welsh Government brought in voluntary interventions and homelessness fell, but hidden homelessness doubled. So, it's been a cycle for so very long.

You've already addressed your proposals for developing the best practice user guide. Will this be part of statutory guidance on homelessness and, if not, why not?

I don't know the answer to that, Mark. Let me see if Emma does.

The section 68 guide we're talking about here, yes? There are, in effect, two elements. One of which is the statutory part of the code that we were talking about earlier, and one of which is about best practice guidance, as we mentioned earlier. So, actually, two pieces of work, one of which is part of a statutory code and one of which is non-statutory and is guidance for best practice on the ground.

Right, okay. Moving on to the Street Homelessness Information Network, I note this quote—. I've just looked up the formal definition: to improve the accuracy of data on rough-sleepers and rough-sleeping estimates and provide a platform for cross-agency working. When will this be fully operational, and how will this ensure that cross-agency working? I note, for example, in Canada, the national homelessness information service brings together data submitted by homelessness housing providers.

You refer to Wrexham, which has been cited as one of the areas where rough-sleeping appears to have reduced quite substantially, and you identified the Karen Sankey project in the Salvation Army hub. Many years ago, I was on a working group with a project led by TCC—Together Creating Communities—with members of all parties and all agencies that led to the introduction of the Tŷ Nos 16-bed adult homeless shelter there. I know, in January, church and community groups established a 10-week Wrexham night shelter to see people through the cold weather. So, when will this be fully operational? How are you ensuring that that multi-agency voice is there in the design and delivery?  

10:40

So, we've just had an independent report commissioned, which we've just had back. We've been working alongside the Wallich to support a limited pilot to take some of the recommendations in that report forward. We'll be going to the steering group with that report and the proposals resulting from its evaluation and findings to take forward with the Wallich the next stage of the project. So, we're a while off rolling it out altogether. We're in the process of refining it so that we get to the point where we're happy that what we're doing will be effective and then we're in the roll-out. So, we're a little way back from that yet. 

It's due to go to the steering group in the next couple of weeks. Once it's gone there, we'll get a timetable. 

We'll be working with the Wallich and the other partners involved to work through a time plan that ensures that everybody is genuinely signed up and fully engaged, but most importantly that we have all of the appropriate data sharing protocols and security measures in place that we need if we're going to be sharing what is highly sensitive personal data.

I completely accept the point that the information and the data that we have on homelessness numbers are at best flimsy, to be honest. We have a count—a one-nght count—that gives us a number of 158, a two-week count 347, and yet figures from the Wallich demonstrate that they see something nearing 2,000 new clients in Cardiff alone over the year. So, we desperately need something that meets the objectives of the street homeless information network that actually helps us to understand what is people's journey into rough-sleeping, at the very hard end of homelessness, and what is their journey out. Only then can we we actually have a proper handle on what are the actual numbers that we need to find long-term solutions for, because we risk getting caught up on it being a small number when it's not. We've got this large flow through. If you look at some of the crisis work, we've got a figure in the hundreds for rough-sleeping, but 6,000, 7,000 perhaps for people who are homeless when you look at the wider definition.

We're absolutely committed to the objectives of the SHIN project. We just need to make sure that, before we roll it out on a larger scale, it is absolutely robust, that we're protecting people's personal data appropriately and that we can make sure it works, and works for everybody involved in what the Minister has already described as an incredibly complex landscape with a huge number of different agencies who need to be able to rely on a single version of someone's story in order to be able to best help them. So, a really complex piece of work, and we're at that tipping point, I think, in terms of being able to learn an awful lot from the work that the network and the Wallich have led thus far to build a robust plan for how we develop something on a national scale that can genuinely meet that need. 

Mark, just before you go on, Jenny, did you want to come in on this point? 

Yes, I just wanted to understand how quickly the Government, in collaboration with your ministerial taskforce, is able to respond to new information that indicates that problems are flashing? So, for example, I think that one of the most worrying things in the information we collected for this inquiry is the fact that the Huggard is feeling overwhelmed by the substance misuse service they're endeavouring to provide for 83 individuals over a nine-month period, but there are 198 new individuals who they're simply putting on a needle exchange database because they just haven't got the resources to support them, and that people using spice is just making it impossible for them to hold down the emergency accommodation they're provided with. There clearly is a major problem here, and there's a bit of a cry for help—that's how I read that as. 

10:45

I haven't had that conversation with Huggard. We, obviously, meet with all the agencies and do that. We provided top-up funding into the homelessness services across Wales over the winter, for example—quite a lot of money into that. We do have crisis funding, as such, for severe weather occurrences and all the rest of it.

So, the ministerial task force is a place where people can go and say, 'This is a particular problem.'

Yes, we discuss flash points, if that's what you want to call it, but also, unfortunately, that isn't probably a flash point; that's part of the rising tide, I fear. And then there's the shift in what kind of substance misuse is happening and the appropriate response to that is a multi-agency response, because you have to get people the medical assistance they need, but you also need the police to be stepping in to try and stem the flow of it. That's connected to the county lines problems and all the rest of it. So, there's a multi-agency approach to that, but I fear that's part of a rising tide rather than a flash.

This is my last question. Further to the inquiry at the end of the third Assembly on the private rented sector, one of the recommendations in our report related to social letting agencies, where a model had been established in north-west Wales, Dolgellau, supporting people like prison leavers and the people hardest to home into supported housing through the private rented sector in mutually reciprocal arrangements. Yesterday, at the cross-party autism group, we heard about work being done in relation to the now identifiable population of autistic people in prison, but there are others who may not be able to receive that help who have severe speech and language problems or otherwise. We've also heard in previous inquiries about reciprocal schemes. Prisoners have told me themselves on my visits to prisons that they don't often want to go back to the area they came from, even though the guidance still, in terms of priority, focuses on prison leavers going back to the area they came from. So, some local authorities will have reciprocal schemes, accordingly, where it best suits the needs of the individual concerned. So, in terms of policy and practice, what progress has been made in reducing rough-sleeping amongst prisoners and improving homelessness support services for prisoners that go beyond just bricks and mortar, especially when they're serving shorter sentences?

We've just had an evaluation done by Glyndŵr University of homelessness services for adults in the secure estate. You've identified a number of the issues there that we're all familiar with. I've been involved in this for years myself, Mark, so the evidence does show that, for large numbers of people, being reconnected to their families is a prime driver in them being able to sustain a life outside of prison. But for some people, particularly those with substance misuse difficulties, then actually being able to come away from a network where you're likely to be involved in the same sorts of activities will be very important, and people, you're right, do request that. So, we've been doing a lot of work with the Prison Link Cymru projects and re-establishing a task and finish group and a regional group to have better operational engagement between the local authorities, the probation services and the prison service itself.

One of the big things that we're very pleased about is that we've had the secondment of a senior staff member from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service into the homelessness team in the Welsh Government, with specific expertise in that to help us to get that pathway going. The whole purpose of that role is solely to improve the housing outcomes of people leaving the secure estate, and to get the consistent implementation of the pathway across Wales, including the reciprocal arrangements and all the rest of it.

I don't know if you remember that, towards the end of last year, Alun Davies, when he was the Minister for public services, introduced into the Assembly by way of a statement, I think it was, the blueprint for females in the secure estate, where we're looking to work with the Ministry of Justice on a range of possible models for delivering female residential units in Wales. I want to make absolutely certain that the committee understands that that's not a prison. So these are secure diversion from prison arrangements to keep women in the communities that they come from, and, more importantly, to assist them in keeping involved with their children, because women suffer terrible penalties in the prison system.

So, we're very keen to work on that as well to get those kinds of schemes in place, because this whole project is not just about housing people as they come out of prison, but actually the entire—. You highlighted, yourself, I think, the number of people with learning difficulties and autism and so on in prison, who frankly shouldn't be there because they should have had the help necessary to not find themselves on the wrong end of the criminal justice system. So, we need, again, a whole-system approach to that, but we will have the pathway in place, and with the member of staff that's come in to assist us, I'm really pleased about that, actually. I think it's a really positive step forward in understanding what we can do and having the links across all of the agencies that work in this area.

10:50

Is it looking hopeful that Wales might secure one of the five women's units announced by the UK Government?

Yes, we're in discussion with them. We've been in discussion with them for some time to get a pathway project, and actually, to be honest, we're having discussions about how the devolved responsibilities—because, as you know, a large number of people actually pick up all our social services responsibilities and so on—interact with the non-devolved prison estate. So, yes, the discussions have been very positive. We've got a youth offending blueprint and a female offending blueprint that are under discussion.

I raised with you in Plenary the statistics from the independent monitoring board about Cardiff prison and the fact that at least half of them were ending up on the streets very quickly after being released. The Prison Advice and Care Trust has got a programme of recruiting volunteers and training them up to meet people on release at the gate and then take them by car to the relevant services, i.e. the benefits, the housing options, and the probation service. I just wondered whether you were aware of any reduction as a result of that initiative in the numbers of people who are in the revolving door system and falling on the streets and then ending up in prison again, but also whether that sort of system, using the voluntary sector, could be put in place in all the prisons where we get people being released. It is one of the most extraordinary things that the secure estate doesn't seem to be capable of liaising appropriately with other statutory services when they know exactly when X, Y, Z is being released.

Yes. So, we're aware of difficulties in the protocols breaking down. Prisoners being released are supposed to be notified to the local housing authority in good time. They're not supposed to be notified at 4.30 p.m. on a Friday, et cetera, et cetera, but we know that there are problems with that system. So, it will be very much part of the task and finish group to try and develop the proposals across the whole of Wales. We have the same problem in Swansea prison, for what it's worth, and there are volunteers who do exactly that as well. So, the task and finish group that will be put together to implement the Glyndŵr report that I just spoke about, the first meeting of that group is in May, and it will be looking at the range of things that are necessary to ensure that people do exactly that. You'll know as well as I do that somebody coming out of the secure estate, literally being pushed out through the front door, might have seven complex appointments to get to. The chances of them actually making it around all of those are pretty slim, to be honest, and you set people up to fail as a result. Some of that—. Again, sorry for the politics of it, but some of that has been as a result of the probation service changes and, frankly, their complete inability to cope with what's happening. So, I've some optimism that the seeing of sense around the probation service will actually correct some of the issues there, and this task and finish group is set to look at all of the recommendations and see what we can do to improve that outcome, because you're absolutely right. The figures you asked for, I don't have—I don't know if Sarah has them.

Okay. Just one final question from me, Minister, just returning briefly to universal credit. As I said earlier, this committee recommended that Welsh Government consider the devolution of the administration of universal credit for Wales. It wasn't accepted as a recommendation, but the new First Minister has said that there will be some work now to explore the devolution of the administration of welfare benefits. I just wonder if there's anything you could tell us in terms of an overview as to how and when that work might be undertaken.

Yes, we've already asked—and by 'we' I mean the First Minister has already asked—the Wales Centre for Public Policy to help us explore that case with a piece of work that they're doing, to look at devolved administration of some aspects of the benefits system. So, just to be clear, we're not talking about the devolution of the entire thing by a long way—some aspects of the benefits system. That study has been specifically constructed to look at the experience of Scotland to date, because that's been very mixed, as I understand it, but we'll will have a comprehensive view of that; some of the choices and so on; some of the experience of devolution of discretionary housing payments, because I've just talked about the fact that they go direct at the moment and some of the difficulties that come out of that; and things like the carer's allowance, which they're looking at.

I understand entirely, and I think in the exchange in the Chamber between, I think it was, David Melding and the First Minister in which this came up, they were agreeing. So, I think the purpose of the United Kingdom is because welfare is redistributive and the idea that we would somehow be able to manage on our own without the redistribution of the wealth of the south-east of England and the historic reasons for why the south-east of England benefited from the wealth across the rest of Britain and all that sort of stuff, I mean, that's part of the purpose of the United Kingdom. You have to be careful what you wish for, and in the First Minister and David Melding's exchange, actually, they agreed with each other about that.

What we're looking at is to see whether, if we administered some of that, we could get it to jigsaw together with our systems better for better outcomes for the individuals. You know, that will have some caveats. We had a couple of studies done a couple of years ago on some other aspects of welfare benefits, but this Government has had a policy of not wanting to have sanctioning and mandation attached to any of that, and we haven't changed our mind. So, it will be about negotiating what is possible, within our value structure, to do, and whether that will have the benefit that we want, so the better jigsawing of the benefit; better administration; and better outcomes for the people who are benefiting or ought to be benefiting from that system. So, there's a fair way to go.

I think the situation is that we're having that piece of research done, we're looking very carefully to see which benefits we might be talking about, whether they can be done in our value system, so without the mandation and sanctioning that goes with it. I think the Government certainly agrees that that's not something that we'd want to be administering. The experience in Scotland, as I say, because they're ahead of us here, has been mixed, as I understand it. So, when we've got that piece of research back, then we'll be in a position to see what we want to do by way of taking the policy forward. So, it's early days, but we're on that road.

10:55

Okay. Thanks very much for that, Minister. Thank you and thanks to your officials for coming before the committee to give evidence this morning. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr.

Okay. I would suggest that we change the order of our agenda to enable us to consider the evidence that we've just heard next, given that I know that Jenny, and indeed Gareth, although I think he's already gone, are unable to be with us for the later stages of the committee. 

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to Resolve to Exclude the Public

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitemau 6 a 7 y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from items 6 and 7 of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

So, I wonder, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, whether the committee would agree to exclude the public for the next item, which will be item 6, and subsequently for item 7. Okay, thanks for that. We will move into private session.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:58.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:58.

11:15

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 11:15.

The committee reconvened in public at 11:15.

3. Ymchwiliad i Gynllun y Bathodyn Glas yng Nghymru—Cymhwystra a Gweithredu: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 1
3. Inquiry into the Blue Badge Scheme in Wales—Eligibility and Implementation: Evidence Session 1

Okay. May I welcome everybody back to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? Item 3 on our agenda today is the first evidence session, the first oral evidence session, regarding our inquiry into the blue badge scheme in Wales, eligibility and implementation. There have been recent changes to the scheme and the committee is interested in how those changes are working and the experience of users and others, and whether improvements are necessary and how they might be made. So, I'd very much like to welcome Miranda Evans to committee today. Miranda is a policy and programme manager for Disability Wales. Thank you, Miranda. Thanks for coming along.

I wonder if I might begin with a few questions. Disability Wales consulted with disabled people about the blue badge scheme through an online survey. I wonder if you could give us a brief overview of the survey's findings.

Yes. So, we launched our own mini consultation, really. We had a great response. We had 136 responses from people living across all parts of Wales—so, every local authority area, somebody responded, which was really helpful.

So, there were mixed experiences. On the whole people are satisfied with how they are obtaining their blue badges, but there are areas for improvement in relation to information, so that awareness of their eligibility—there seems to be low public awareness of the extended eligibility criteria in general. There are different ways of administering the blue badge. Some people are required to go along to their council office, others aren't, so that seems to be a bit of an issue. There's a big issue around the automatic entitlement and the discretionary entitlement since the introduction of the personal independence payment, which has had a huge impact on many people going from the higher-rate mobility—so, if they've been on the higher-rate mobility for many years under disability living allowance and now they've applied for PIP, which is the personal independence payment, they've now gone down to the standard rate, which means they are not automatically entitled to a blue badge unless they have eight points or more. It's very complicated, and it's difficult for people to understand that, really. It's not very simplified for people to understand. So, there are issues there. I've experienced it myself; I'm a blue badge holder, so I'm one of those people who has gone through that process.

So, they're the sorts of issues. There are issues around hidden impairments—so, public awareness in general. There are incidents where people have been actually abused for using their blue badges in supermarkets, at hospital car parks, where there's quite huge demand for parking. People are being challenged if they don't 'look' so-called disabled, and, as an organisation, we've talked about this for many years now—the blue badge symbol doesn't help that, because it's a wheelchair user, so people expect you to be in a wheelchair when you get out of your vehicle, and then, if you're not, and you don't look so-called disabled, then they will challenge. And this is anybody, really—this is fellow disabled people challenging other disabled people; it's quite a difficult one to address.

So, those are some of the areas, and there's a greater need to raise public awareness, really, to try and tackle some of that abuse and increase people's awareness of people's entitlement to a blue badge.

Okay, Miranda. Well, obviously, from what you've said, and from what we've received in terms of other evidence, public awareness is a very important issue. Would you point the committee to anything in particular that should be done to improve and increase public awareness?

Okay. So, the Welsh Government themselves have produced a set of videos and some guidance, obviously. It's made available on the website; on the YouTube channel I think there are videos as well that I've seen. And each local authority area will have their own information. So, it's very ad hoc; it's all very different, how that is produced. There is some information available in easy-read formats, but not all, which can be very problematic for those who have learning difficulties, and parents and carers with learning disabilities, to understand whether someone's eligible for the blue badge. So, there needs to be a range of information available in a range of different formats—so, we need Braille, large print, audio, easy read. We need BSL videos available so that people with different impairments are able to digest the information and know whether it's relevant for them. So, we need to see more of an effort made, really. Under the Equality Act 2010, public bodies have a duty to provide that information in a range of formats and to ensure its accessibility, so that needs addressing.

11:20

I wonder, Chair, if I could ask: what do you see as the role for the plethora of organisations—? There are some great organisations out there, of all different types, not only disability specific, but ones that will touch many of these individuals. Is there a role for those organisations as well in helping signpost, if not give advice—to signpost to where they can get the clear information?

Yes, most definitely—organisations like Disability Wales, as well as others. So, if somebody, for instance, has an accident of some sort, is leaving hospital, at that very moment it would be helpful for someone to have that information, whether it's in a pack, to know that they can actually approach their local council and apply for a blue badge, including a temporary badge, which has obviously been recently introduced. So, if someone's had a leg injury of some kind—. Because not everybody—again, from our findings, not everybody knows that those temporary badges are available, and that they can apply.

Thank you. What are Disability Wales's views on extending eligibility to include people with cognitive impairments, neuro-diverse conditions and temporary conditions? I think some of the evidence we've had has referred to autism, for example. I also know, in terms of temporary conditions, in the early days, at the very beginning of the development of the revised scheme, I raised with the then Minister a constituent who was required to be in a wheelchair for just over six months because of surgery she'd had. She therefore asked why she couldn't have a badge. When the scheme was produced, it had a one-year limit. The barriers were: how would somebody know, looking at the badge in the window, whether this had expired? Well, the solution's quite simple: you put a date on it. So, what are your views on those points?

Okay. So, we welcomed the extended eligibility. There are particular issues that people fail to recognise in terms of people living with autism, and parents and carers of children with autism, who may have challenging behaviour. It's quite problematic getting out and about. They need the ability to park close to whether it's the supermarket, hospital car parks, wherever it might be, because it can be quite a challenge to get in and out of the vehicle when you have a young person or an adult with autism, who may—I spoke to a parent only yesterday, actually—just run off. Because of their impairment they get quite stressed, because the car park's quite busy, there are other vehicles around, and they'll automatically just run. So, there are big issues there that people fail to recognise, I think, in terms of people's cognitive impairments, that we need to be supporting, along with others with physical and sensory impairments. But, quite often, people don't recognise that in relation to the blue badge, because they think it should be about mobility, but that does have a huge impact on people's mobility, to get out and about, because they can't, and it becomes problematic if they have someone who's going to run off, or have quite challenging behaviour. They need the blue badge to park close to the amenities.

Should the one year be more flexible, where somebody does need that extra help perhaps for shorter than one year, provided that there's some way of flagging that up?

Yes, of course. Flexibility is key. So, everybody's different. Everybody's going to be experiencing their conditions and impairments in different ways. I think what is important is that it is monitored, so we need to ensure that the badge is returned at the end of that temporary period. But, if there is still a need to continue that blue badge, then so be it.

Okay. Can I just bring Carwyn in at this stage? Carwyn.

Hello. Good morning. Two issues for me, really, that concern me about the current operation of the scheme. Local authorities have a discretion—if people fall outside the automatic categories, if I can call it that, then there is discretion for the assessor to decide whether a blue badge is awarded or not. Now we know that a GP's letter is not sufficient, we know that a hospital consultant's letter is often insufficient—I've come across that myself in my constituency, so I suppose the first question is: do you feel that we have a consistent approach across Wales from local authorities? For example, if we have an individual who doesn't qualify automatically but has considerable difficulty walking, as the phrase has it, what do we mean by 'considerable difficulty walking'? Is it your experience that it's interpreted in different—? Is that discretionary side of the blue badge scheme interpreted differently across local authorities in Wales?

11:25

'Yes' is the answer. So, the feedback we've had from our survey tells us that there are inconsistencies. There are inconsistencies in the knowledge of the assessors to understand how particular conditions impact on people's ability to get out and about. The term 'walking' can be problematic, because, if somebody's got a cognitive impairment, people don't realise the challenges people have. It's not necessarily about how we move our legs to get in and out of shops, it's also about whether someone has a learning difficulty or is able to understand instructions or plan safely on leaving their car, leaving their vehicle, and, if they can't, then they should be entitled to support to enable them to live independently through a blue badge. So, 'yes' is the answer; there are inconsistencies across local authorities. 

I accept what you say about, if I can put it this way, hidden disabilities, and I listened carefully to what Mark had to say, but, just on this one issue, if I could focus on this: are you finding that local authorities intepret the phrase, for example, 'considerable difficulty walking' in different ways? For example, is it a certain distance in some authorities, or do some say, 'Well, if you can walk a certain distance without stopping—'? In your experience—that phrase particularly, just as an example, what have you found?

Okay. So, 'yes' again is the answer. People do interpret that differently. Some will focus on pain, some will focus on whether someone has breathing difficulties, some will focus on the distance that someone can walk, whether it's aided, unaided. So, yes, there are different ways of interpreting that. 

Okay. What do you think would help in terms of ensuring greater consistency?

Well, there does need to be flexibility. We can't have a one-size-fits-all approach, because everybody will experience their own conditions in various different ways, whether that's through pain, whether that's through too much effort, or whether that's through cognitive impairment, whatever it might be. So, there needs to be an element of flexibility, but I think what we need to focus on are the barriers that people encounter. So, it's not so much about their medical conditions, it's about the ability to be able to get out of their vehicles, get out of their houses and access whatever they need to access, whether it's shops, services, education, employment. That needs to be the focus. And I think that, once somebody tells their story, there needs to be an element of empathy. The assessor needs to empathise with that person's situation and understand the need for a blue badge, rather than just making a quick judgment on whether someone has whatever condition they live with. 

Yes, a social model. 

Just one more question, Chair, if I may. Again, it's quite specific. When we talk about people who have temporary conditions, the emphasis in the examples that I've seen tends to be, again, on mobility: how does, for example, medical treatment for cancer impact on someone's mobility. But, of course, it could often be a situation where, if somebody, for example, has leukaemia, their immune system is suppressed, so they will need to go somewhere, perhaps, for treatment and the last thing that they need to have happen to them is to walk through a crowded street or walk through a crowded building. So, even though physically they can walk the distance, in terms of the effect on their condition, it could be very damaging indeed. So, what's your view on whether, for example, we should simply say, 'Well, if somebody's having medical treatment for cancer, they would automatically qualify', or do you think there needs to be that caveat that it has to affect their mobility?

I believe it should automatically qualify, because it is—

Yes—automatically qualify. It's a condition that will impact people's daily living and ability to get out and about whenever they need to. So, yes. 

So, we should interpret 'mobility' in the widest possible sense, then, not just physical, but again the social model as it applies to that one individual. 

Exactly right. So, it's about focusing on the barriers that people will encounter to get them out and about, whatever those might be, so—.

I couldn't agree more with that point. I had a casework example that replicated the problems identified with PIP, where you need to ensure the questions are appropriate to who you ask, what you're asking and how you ask them. This was an individual in Flintshire who was asked could she go upstairs, and she said 'Yes'. The question didn't ask, 'Can you go upstairs in one go?' She has to stop every three steps and sit there for a couple of minutes before she goes to the next one. But she's a very honest individual, and she said, 'Yes'. She was asked if she could stand up and do the washing-up at the sink, and she said 'Yes'. She didn't say she had to have a chair behind her and had to keep sitting down and resting and then would get up to carry on, because the question didn't ask that. So, how can we address those sorts of inconsistencies, where some local authorities appear to be replicating problems that we know exist in other application processes?

11:30

That is a big challenge, because, as disabled people we don't recognise the additional support that we often live with daily because we're so used to living that way. So, for instance, like the lady has a chair nearby, you don't actually remember you have that chair nearby because you've always done it, so you don't necessarily give that information without being prompted. So, again, it's about the empathy of the assessor, the people asking the questions, to ensure that they tease out that information. So it's about 'How does this impact on you?' 'How does it impact on your daily living?' So, the barriers. 'What sort of aid and assistance do you require that enable you to undertake different tasks?' So, it's teasing that information out, because people won't necessarily say it for themselves, because they've always done it that way so they forget that they actually have those different aids to independent living. 

Thank you very much, Chair. Along the same lines, one of my constituents brought to my attention that he is a pensioner who had a blue badge for more than five years. He had an assessment done and the badge was removed. So, do you think they are more powerful, more knowledgeable or more concerned about the person, rather than GPs or consultants?

Okay. Could you ask me that question again, please? Is that okay? Just to get my—.

One constituent, he had a badge; he's a pensioner, and he had this blue badge for more than five years, and then suddenly—not suddenly, he had just a normal yearly, or quarterly, or whenever they assess, he went and his badge was removed. They took his badge away. So, I can't understand on what basis, because—. Is it a tick and cross there when they assess, or they don't look at the doctor's advice?

That's right. So, it could be a number of reasons, couldn't it? So, we'd need to look back at what the facts are for that situation. So, PIP has obviously created an issue for many people. So, has he gone from a higher rate mobility down to a standard rate?

He's getting older. He's getting older; he's not getting younger. 

No, no, but it might be that he's in receipt of disability benefit, so disability living allowance. 

Yes, so he might have gone from the high rate to a standard rate, which then meant that it was a discretionary application. So, again, there are inconsistencies in the discretionary application process. It needs to be strengthened, in our view. Perhaps the guidance coming from Welsh Government should be strengthened and give some proper examples around what satisfactory evidence must be given to enable that discretionary badge to be granted. So that's one area that I think might be the case in this situation. 

Yes, it's difficult to know without knowing all the circumstances, isn't it?

It is, yes. 

But, Miranda, in terms of the renewal process, would you have any concerns in terms of consistency, or lack of consistency, around the renewals process? Is that an issue for you, do you think?

I've seen changes myself. I've been a blue badge holder now for 18 years, so I've renewed it a number of times, along with many of our members who have provided feedback. Some local authorities are requiring people to actually go along to their building to make that renewal application, others aren't. So, there's inconsistency there. It can be difficult for people to get along to their council buildings, quite often, because there's a lack of accessible parking, so you're having to park quite far away to actually access the building and you're presented with a load of steps, which can be a problem.

There are some local authorities that use smart phones. So, you're able to take pictures of your medical evidence, your entitlement to personal independence payment, just like I did, and your identification, and just submit it through your smart phone, which is fantastic. It's great for those who do have smart phones, but perhaps for the older population, maybe some don't have access to smart phones and many disabled people haven't got that knowledge, the skills and affordability to purchase smart phones. So, basically, yes, the answer is: there are inconsistencies. There isn't one approach. But maybe we need those different methods; we need different methods to apply for a blue badge, so we shouldn't just have one way. 

11:35

Okay. Just a couple more questions from me, Miranda, before we move on. Firstly, are there any specific conditions that you think should be included in the eligibility criteria? Would you like to see the criteria further extended to include any specific conditions? 

Okay. We haven't had that discussion at length at Disability Wales, but one thing that comes to mind is mental health issues. So, in terms of those living with quite extreme mental health issues, it can have an impact on people's ability to get out and about. I'm talking about extreme paranoia, different conditions like that—schizophrenia. Somebody might need access to a blue badge, whether that's for themselves driving a vehicle, or somebody who actually drives a vehicle for them, to park close to buildings to access whatever they need to, whether that's shopping—because they would find it highly stressful parking in a crowded car park right at the back, and having to walk through a number of vehicles, a number of crowds. So, yes, I think that's one area, perhaps one impairment, that could be extended too.  

Okay. Miranda, just one more question from me, then, before we do move on to other members of the committee. That relationship between eligibility for a blue badge and eligibility for welfare benefits, which we've already touched on—is there anything else you'd like to say about that relationship that you haven't said yet? 

So, there needs to be that discretionary element to the blue badge, because a number of people who have gone from the higher rate mobility down to the standard rate, and under eight points, still have impairments, still live with particular conditions that impact on their ability to get out and about, whether PIP recognised it or not. So, that is our experience. So, we do need that discretionary element, and there needs to be a range of sources of medical evidence that should be accepted, including GPs and consultants. That is our view. So, there will be many people who have access to their GPs; perhaps it's the only person they see, actually—they might not have any health professionals involved in their lives. So, they need to be able to seek that supporting evidence from their GP, but not in all cases—there are many people who don't see their GP very often, but they may see their social worker, occupational therapist, paediatrician, whatever it might be, to get medical evidence that way. But we shouldn't rule out access to GPs and consultants, because that could be somebody's only source of evidence. 

It follows quite nicely on to that fundamental question about your view on Welsh Government's decision to remove GPs from the assessment process. I'm assuming from what you're saying that you'd like to see GPs bolted back into that process. 

Because for some disabled people, they might not have any other health professionals in their lives, but their GP will have access to information on their impairments, their health conditions. And if that's the only source of evidence they've got, there needs to be that access to it. But I know at the time there were issues around charging, so people being charged a certain amount of money to gain that evidence, and I know that there was an additional strain put on GPs' time, really, to produce those letters. So, I understand the reasons behind that, but, for some people, that could be the only source that's available.  

So, if there was a reversal in that decision, then we'd need to look at the way that GP contracts are organised, and the way their reward and remuneration counts for this. Okay. Can I ask about—? We've talked a lot about the variability in the assessment process, and I'm really intrigued that you say that empathy should be part of the process. I agree with that. I'm just curious as to how you drive that into the system when there is such variability. But could I ask you: some stakeholders have expressed concern around the competence of those who are carrying out the assessment process within this variability—do you share those concerns, or do you feel that, actually, assessments are being done by competent people who know what they're doing—it's just that we're coming up with different results? 

I suppose our view is we're not entirely convinced about people's competence to carry out those assessments. We haven't got knowledge of what training those people have undertaken to come to those decisions. So, maybe there's an area there that perhaps needs to be looked at, or, you know, what positions those assessors sit in, whether they’re front-line staff working in local councils—you know, who are those assessors? We haven’t really got enough information about them to make that sort of—.

11:40

Okay. Well, that’s quite honest, because I guess a lot of what we're getting at the moment is anecdotal.

Of course, yes.

So, probably, your request would be to see the evidence of the standards for training, the competence of the assessors and so on.

Okay. Just one other question—it’s on the appeal process. I wonder if you have any views on that as well. We haven’t touched on that yet.

Okay. So, the appeal process was not raised as an issue by any of our respondents. However, we know that, in the guidance, it actually states that there is no appeal process. So, once a decision’s made it is final. But there is room to ask the local authority to reconsider their decision.

It can be difficult for some disabled people to do that, to have the confidence to do that. So, perhaps, in our view, there is room for an appeals process. Just one example recently, actually—it’s in Bridgend; a Bridgend example. There was a gentleman there who had a learning difficulty, he applied for a blue badge and he was denied it. However, the local disabled people’s group supported him to ask for reconsideration and he now has that blue badge, because the local group were able to write a letter of support and state why they felt he needed it, and that was satisfactory.

And I think that would probably be one of my concerns, which is people in that situation being able to access the right sort of support—and there is sometimes good support out there, but trying to find it amongst the plethora of organisations—. And we certainly do that a lot within our offices: identify who can help an individual. Do you have concerns about the quantum of support that’s available, or is it more to do with signposting to the right ones?

It varies in every area, doesn't it? The number of organisations that exist in different areas is very, very different. So, in some areas, there are many local groups; in some areas, they don’t even have a local group of disabled people for someone to turn to. So, this gentleman in question was quite lucky, actually, that he was able to have that support. There are others who are quite isolated, perhaps living in rural areas in different parts of Wales, that wouldn’t have that support. So, yes, there needs to be access to those organisations, and people need to they exist. So, we need to get the information out there, really, including us as an organisation.

Sorry, Chair—have you got a view on who should be doing that? We’re fortunate: if somebody washes up at an AM’s or an MP’s office, we can say, ‘Hold on there; we’re going to take some time and work this out who we can get to support you through this process.’ But should there be some greater co-ordination at a local level by the local authority or others to signpost this?

Yes. So, there should be greater connections between the local authority, local groups of disabled people and national organisations, including Disability Wales and others, local AMs, MPs, to make sure that we are providing sufficient information and signposting people to the right people. Because, sometimes, people go round in circles, and they just can’t find any support, and it becomes so frustrating.

Thank you very much. Thank you, Miranda. My question is just around enforcement. What are your views on current systems of enforcement of blue badges in Wales?

So, again, the feedback we’ve had is that it varies. People feel there needs to be stronger enforcement from traffic wardens—so, making sure that people are being penalised for parking in blue badge spaces when they haven’t got the badge. But also there are issues around inspection of blue badges. I mean, that’s been raised. We’ve had debates for many years about whether the people’s photographs should be on the front of the badge or not. Again, there are pros and cons to that. People feel that they’d be targeted if their picture was on the front and feel that they'd become vulnerable to crime—you know, targets of crime.

The feedback we’ve had from our survey is that there should be penalties for people wrongly using blue badge spaces without a blue badge in place. It does happen from time to time, but not always. We're seeing perhaps that traffic wardens are taking it more responsibly, but we need to see perhaps police officers on the beat looking out for it as well. There's a role for lots of different people, really, in enforcing—even the general public have the ability to report abuse to the local council when they see it, you know, and people having to take pictures of somebody parking without a blue badge so that it can be looked into to identify who these people are.

But I think it all comes back to campaigns as well. So, we need a stronger campaign around public awareness to try and tell people the importance of blue badges for disabled people and why people shouldn’t be parking in those spaces, why it’s important for them to be accessible and available to disabled people and not others who aren’t eligible for those spaces. So, a lot more needs to be done to enforce and to challenge abuse when it happens.

11:45

Oscar, just before you go on, I'll just bring Carwyn in very quickly.

Yes, on the issue of enforcement, there are two issues, aren't there? One is people without blue badges parking in spaces reserved for those who are blue badge holders. I strongly agree with you that they should be dealt with, because, at the end of the day, it’s illegal parking.

The second issue is how we can deal with people—and this isn't an easy issue—how we can deal with people who misuse the blue badge—so, for example, borrow someone else’s blue badge and use it to park themselves. Now, some years ago I spent some time with a traffic warden in Bridgend, and we went to a part of Bridgend that only has disabled parking bays. And he said, 'Look, my problem is this: there are blue badges in each of these cars, but I have no idea who's using them, and the only way I can find out is if I wait here and catch somebody in the act if they're using, you know, their grandmother's blue badge when, in fact, they're not entitled to a blue badge themselves.'

Now, I’m not pretending that I’ve got an easy answer to this, but perhaps you've thought of this. As well as those people who don't have blue badges and who abuse disabled parking bays, what more could be done to deal with misuse of a blue badge? Because that means, of course, that somebody who genuinely needs the parking space is being kept out by somebody pretending, because they've borrowed somebody else’s badge. What can we do to—? Is there more that can be done in order to assist genuine users, rather than those who are using the badge for their own convenience?

Yes, there are big issues there. It’s a difficult one, because you don’t want to be challenging people either, because of hidden impairments. So, someone might not look disabled, yet that blue badge is theirs. So, if a traffic warden says: ‘Hang on a minute, is that your blue badge?’, they’re already judging them. So, it can be difficult.

We’ve heard mentions around introducing a sort of centralised system for the blue badge and having a smart badge, so that, perhaps, a traffic warden could actually scan the badge. So, there could be like a barcode on the front of it rather than a picture to see who it belongs to. Again, it would be a matter of waiting around to see if that person comes along or whether they are actually dropping that person off or picking them up. It is a difficult one, but I think that public awareness, a public campaign around respectful use—it’s about respecting each other, it’s about being mindful of the consequences of somebody wrongly using a badge. It’s encouraging people to respect others. We need more of that, really, within society, and I think that a national campaign, whether that’s through a different range of methods, online through social media, for instance. It could be a poster campaign. We could have a poster campaign running, getting people to think and be mindful—perhaps posters displayed near accessible parking spaces, getting people to think before they actually park. That could be one part of it.

Sorry, one more.

I'm racking my brains to try and—. I'm not sure what the penalty is for misuse of a blue badge and whether it involves penalty points or not.

I got £1,000 in my head, but yes.

Yes, but I think penalty points, because you can't do it to the person who is the holder of the badge, necessarily, because that badge might have been taken without their knowledge, and they might themselves be vulnerable. You can't take away a blue badge from somebody because somebody else has misused it. That wouldn't be fair. But, if, for example, the penalty was strengthened, as it has been with mobile phone use, for example, in cars, that sends a powerful message. You are liable to receive penalty points if you park on zigzags, but not on double yellow lines. So, should we be looking at something perhaps stronger in terms of enforcement as well as the campaign that you've mentioned?

That's right—exactly right. We need to be looking at enforcement along those lines. So, it shouldn't just be seen as, 'Oh, never mind—never mind.' Yes, we do mind. The blue badge and accessible parking spaces aren't a luxury item for disabled people; they are an essential aid to independent living. It should be seen as other parking fines as well.

11:50

No penalty points, exactly. But, if that was part of a public awareness campaign and we educate people to understand the consequences, would they go and park in those spaces if they're going to be likely to receive points as well as a penalty? No, they won't.

Thank you very much. Following Carwyn's question, a case came into my office of a taxi driver who was regularly booked by one disabled person and the disabled person was using his disabled badge in the taxi and he forgot once and the taxi driver had to go to London and used his badge and he got caught. So, the person who had the badge was given a very severe warning and the taxi driver had a fine. Anyway, that's the latest. So, basically, my question to you Melinda is: Conwy County Borough Council's evidence suggests that parking attendants—you just earlier mentioned—and traffic wardens should be able to scan smartcards—you just mentioned earlier that that probably would be a little bit of a problem for the senior citizen or people who haven't got the skills for telephone—linked to the central register for blue badges to access a blue badge holder's information. What are Disability Wales's views about this suggestion?

Okay. We are interested in that approach, I would definitely say, and we do need to move with the times. So, this technological advancement could enhance the scheme, it could help to tackle some of the fraud that exists, but also the misuse of badges. So, we would never rule that out. So, it's an interesting area. It's an interesting thing to look at. I suppose our concern would be the expense, and we wouldn't want to see the expense passed on to disabled people. So, obviously, a lot of work—it needs to be looked into, really, in finer detail. We don't agree with any expense being pushed on to disabled people at all; we would see that as a tax on disability, because the blue badge is an essential item.

All right. My final question is: are there any changes that you would like to see to the current enforcement system in Wales?

Okay. So, stronger enforcement, like I've mentioned, really, and it needs to be a multi-organisation approach, I suppose. So, we'd like to see police perhaps taking this more seriously, because I think actually police can actually ask to look at someone's badge, whereas others can't. So, yes, I think there's an area there that perhaps could be strengthened around the police.

I've got a couple of supplementaries. First, on that point, I've just double checked—you were right, the fines are up to £1,000 plus costs, plus on top of that any penalty for any further breaches in relation to parking offences. But it takes the local authority to prosecute. I'm just looking and there are apparently some good practice models established in Rotherham, which has had awards for this, which is followed by Sheffield and others. So, we may want to look—it's not just the penalty but the prosecution of the offence that appears to be producing some beneficial results in Yorkshire.

In terms of GPs, if I may, I've had cases where people—a figure, often £50, came up for a letter, but others where the GP just didn't respond to the request. So, again, how could we be working better with professional bodies—BMA, RCGP, and the regional local medical committees—to try and get a joined-up approach?

Finally, on supplementaries, you referred to the need for local authorities, local groups, AMs and MPs to work together. I think you're aware I'm a patron of a number of those local groups, one of which Disability Wales made the Centre For Independent Living in north Wales, but they've lost their local funding, and they claim that they co-produced first, but the users say that nobody told them and nobody asked them. So, how do we again drive a better understanding and implementation of co-production before those decisions are made, so again the user voice is at the centre of this and the user-led groups have a good chance of being heard?

So, the involvement of disabled people in the organisations is fundamental. We already have an independent living steering group set up through Welsh Government, which helped inform the development of the disability action on independent living framework quite recently, which I know you were involved in. So, it's about involving all those key organisations and individuals to understand how the system could be improved in many different areas really, including enforcement. 

11:55

Okay. In your evidence you state that incorrect advice and information is being given to claimants. Can you expand on this and suggest what alternatives may be put in place to remedy that, including, possibly, suitable formats for people to submit or receive information?

Okay. I mentioned just now about the low awareness of the extended eligibility criteria, so that is one area. So, we need more information amongst blue badge employees working in local councils about that extended eligibility criteria, because our feedback from our survey tells us that that is an issue. So, people are being told they're not eligible when they actually are; through the discretionary route, they could be. So, we need more information in a range of different formats, including easy read for people with learning difficulties, braille information, we need audio and visual, but also BSL interpreted videos as well—just make sure there's greater, greater access to this information for people who are living with a range of different conditions and impairments.

Okay. Thank you. You also referred earlier, as in your written evidence, to disabled people experiencing abuse when using the blue badge, and the particular issue where the impairment may not be physically obvious, so a hidden disability. Can you expand on that and share any evidence you have regarding the prevalence of this across Wales, or the work we need to do to establish and address that?

Okay. So, it does exist. People don't believe it happens until they actually witness it. Just to give my own personal example, I've experienced this a number of times and through the feedback we've had from people. People with heart conditions, people with diabetes, people with hidden mobility impairment, sensory conditions are actually being questioned, judged, by others. And those others include disabled people and older people making those judgments. So, there does need to be a public awareness exercise around hidden impairment. I think it goes back to the symbol on the blue badge—that is quite an issue—because that reinforces the message that people should be in a wheelchair, which then fails to recognise the hidden impairments that people live with. So, it reinforces that message by having that badge.

You say better public awareness, a public awareness campaign—what, if anything, could you suggest should be included within that? How would be the best way of communicating it?

Okay—so, working with disabled people and their organisations, such as our own organisation, Disability Wales. But it has to be led by disabled people with those different hidden impairments, because they are the experts on how they are living their lives but also on how they are treated and how they experience abuse, and how that makes them feel. So, we need to get that message across in a campaign, because people start to internalise the discrimination, the oppression, they experience, and start to think that it's them that's to blame—it's their fault that they're treated that way, because they aren't visibly disabled and 'Perhaps I should be limping a bit more.' Things like that—people start to think those things, and then, in the end, people end up not going out because they think, 'I don't want to be judged every single time I go out.' I've felt that way myself, so I know how they feel. So, yes, we need more public awareness through the work of our different organisations and in partnership, really.  

Okay, Mark. I just wonder if I might ask a third question, Miranda—. Sorry, Huw, did you want to come in at this stage?

Sorry, Chair. It's only to pick up on—. You mentioned a couple of times this issue around the symbol that's used on the blue badge and how that makes people think and respond to this. What thought has been given to something that would replace this? Because, if you flip it on its head, then, clearly, it's certainly isn't to do with the symbol of somebody in a wheelchair—it's something to do with priority parking. This individual—. It could be a carer as well, but this individual needs priority parking because, with them in a car is somebody—you might not be able to see it. But what is it—has any thought been given to that by Disability Wales?

Yes, we've had discussions for many years. We discussed it in the last blue badge review, actually, because we were involved in that at the time. It's trying to come up with a symbol that encompasses every impairment range, but it is about priority parking. Do we need someone who is a wheelchair user in that symbol, or should there be some other form of symbol that doesn't even illustrate impairment in any way? Should it be some sort of positive symbol that just means 'priority parking'?

12:00

That's right, exactly right. So, that needs further discussion. But there's an opportunity now, because we're looking at working with Welsh Government's 'scores on the doors' initiative, which was a petition put forward by the Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People, looking at access to premises and local businesses. So, they're looking at symbols in those discussions at present. Perhaps there's an opportunity there to do some overlap work in terms of the blue badge.

I'm sure you're aware that, I think, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists are also trying to develop or are in the process of developing an all-Wales and England symbol for communication needs in public places and shops and access points. In Wales—well, certainly in north Wales—we have the 'zipped lip' through Betsi Cadwaladr with the Communicating With Confidence charity. Do you recognise the need to incorporate that as well? The problem is that we've got a plethora of symbols at the moment and work is ongoing to simplify that, but we could still end up with duplication if we don't co-ordinate.

That's right. There is a huge need to co-ordinate and to work together on these different initiatives. We often see lots of good initiatives happening, but we need to try and bring it in somehow so that we end up with a consistent approach. If we have too many different symbols, it's just going to be hugely complicated for people to understand who it actually relates to. We need a universal symbol. We still need that universal symbol when it comes to the blue badge, because it's so recognised, but does it need to be a wheelchair user or something else?

Okay. Miranda, I heard what you said earlier about loading costs onto people with disabilities, but, just for clarity, on the idea of introducing a fee for applying for a blue badge and, indeed, the current £10 fee for replacing a blue badge, what are Disability Wales's views on those matters?

Okay. We welcomed the removal of a fee. We are against any form of charging for a blue badge. We view it as a tax on disability. People need a blue badge to access where they need to go; it is an aid to independent living—that is what it is. It's not a luxury item that we should be paying for. It should be readily available for people to use if they are entitled to it and require it because of a certain condition they live with. So, we're opposed to