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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

05/05/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Caroline Jones AM
Dawn Bowden AM
Delyth Jewell AM
Huw Irranca-Davies AM
John Griffiths AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Mark Isherwood AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Emma Williams Cyfarwyddwr Tai ac Adfywio, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director of Housing and Regeneration, Welsh Government
Julie James AM Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
Minister for Housing and Local Government
Reg Kilpatrick Cyfarwyddwr, Llywodraeth Leol, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Local Government, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Osian Bowyer Ymchwilydd
Researcher

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.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 10:07.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 10:07.

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

Okay, may I welcome Members to this first virtual meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee?

In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, published last Friday. This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual.

Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. I would remind all participants that microphones will be controlled centrally, so there is no need to turn them off or on individually.

Are there any declarations of interest from Members, please? No.

One other matter from me before we move into questions: for the record, if for any reason I drop out of the meeting because of problems with technology, the temporary Chair will be Dawn Bowden AM, and Dawn will take over proceedings while I'm trying to rejoin.

2. COVID-19 a'i Effaith ar Faterion sy’n Ymwneud â Chylch Gwaith y Pwyllgor: Sesiwn Graffu gyda’r Gweinidog
2. COVID-19 and its Impact on Matters Relating to the Committee’s Remit: Ministerial Scrutiny Session

Okay, if we move on to item 2 them, which is COVID-19 and its impact on matters relating to this committee's remit, I'm very pleased to welcome Julie James AM, Minister for Housing and Local Government, together with her officials, Reg Kilpatrick, director of local government, and Emma Williams, director of housing and regeneration. Welcome to you all. Perhaps I might move straight into questions, given that we have so little time.

So, I'll begin with the first question, Minister, which is in relation to the co-ordination of the local government response to the pandemic. What would you say about the impact of the pandemic and the effectiveness of the local government response, particularly, perhaps, in relation to the role of the partnership council, the workforce partnership council, and the WLGA? If, perhaps, you could deal with the current time, but also how all of that might work as we move forward.

10:10

I've been in really close partnership with local authorities and other sector partners, actually, right through this whole crisis, and I just want to start by saying how incredibly grateful I am to all of the leadership teams and the staff of the local authorities, who have worked exceptionally hard throughout this period, above and beyond anything that you would have normally expected. They've just been incredible in coming forward.

So, in a very short time, what's become a new normal—we've just become so used to it already. So, we've managed to distribute food parcels out to all the shielded individuals, local authorities stepping up to that plate by setting up their community hubs, for example. We've accelerated funding to local authorities so that they don't have to worry about it upfront and we're just working at the moment on a paper with them around lost income of fees and charges. I have a twice weekly meeting with all of the leaders of local government from across the piece. We've had a meeting of the finance sub-group of the partnership council. It's just been incredible. So, I think the overall— and in the interest of time—the overall answer really is that everyone has pulled together really effectively right across the piece and I think that they've done a sterling job. 

Well, Minister, it's really good to hear that because I think we're all acutely conscious of the fact that it's only by pulling together right across sectors and in communities that we'll get through this pandemic in reasonable shape. So, it's very encouraging, I must say, to hear that. We'll move to Mark Isherwood for some further questions on local government.

On local government, I'll skip to my relevant page. I am aware the Welsh Local Government Association has conducted a funding survey of authorities with the findings to be submitted to the Welsh Government finance sub-group. Their work outlines the significant loss of income experienced by authorities despite some offsetting. They've identified, I believe, a combined budget gap of £172 million in the first quarter of this financial year and they're making the case for urgent support through the additional funding provided to the Welsh Government from the UK Government—I quote.

I know that you and colleagues have stated that you've already provided local government with greater support than the additional funding provided, but nonetheless they're seeing that as additional funding and I'm wondering how you might respond to that question that's been raised with me.

As I say, we've been working very hard with local authorities to understand what their cash flow looks like, and at the moment, you're quite right, Mark, we've got a piece of work going on with the WLGA and the treasurers right across the piece with our officials here to understand what their loss of income, fees and charges looks like. That's an ongoing piece of work. We have a process inside Government; we have the funding from the emergency fund, the £1.7 billion, and that's in hand, and then there's an iterative process with the local authorities while we try to sort out exactly what it is we're asking for.

All of this funding has been done on an actuals basis. So, we put the funding in place and then they claim back for their actual expenditure. So, it's not sent out on a formulaic basis. Formulas always have winners and losers and so on. This is on a claims made for actual expenditure basis. I'm not aware that anybody's got any problem with that.

Our big worry is not now. I'm not worried about now. We're worried about what will happen at the other end of the year. So, we can sort out the present moment, but obviously because we've accelerated all the funding to this end of the year, it means that when we come to the other end of the year, we'll be reliant on the UK Government across the whole of the British isles, actually, on what they're going to do to get us out of this crisis. But right now, no local authority should have any kind of cash flow problem because we've upfronted the revenue support grant payments, and, as I say, it's done on an actuals basis.

10:15

I would, but I'm conscious time is short, so let's move on.

Okay. Minister, perhaps then I could ask you about the adult social care fund, and the impact and distribution of the £40 million, including the availability of PPE for the social care workforce.

Yes, so the £40 million is to assist with the additional costs of social care in this unprecedented crisis. PPE is very complex, so we do have practical costs for PPE, but simultaneously, we have not wanted people to be fishing in the same pond for PPE across the British isles and driving the prices up and so on. So, very early on, we actually took the decision to supply PPE out to our care homes via our central stores, and do it that way, so we are paying increased costs where those are evidenced, but actually, most of the PPE—about 40 per cent of the PPE coming through the Welsh stream—is going straight to care homes.

Although you're talking about adult social care, John, it is worth at this point mentioning that we also have registered social landlords and housing providers who also need that kind of PPE. We have a separate arrangement for them, which I'm sure Emma could talk about at great length, if you wanted her to, but I just want to be clear that we have covered off all the areas in my portfolio where people might require increased PPE.

We've also made it clear that the £40 million in the first instance can be used to shore up care homes where their occupancy rates are lower because of the—[Inaudible.]—formerly have commissioned beds from that care home, they are able to help the care home with that cash-flow issue they have because of reduced occupancy, and that's been a matter of some discussion between myself and the leaders of the councils over the last couple of meetings that we've had with them.

Okay. Could I then, Minister, ask you about the processing of emergency funds, because obviously, local authorities are very busy at the moment with help for businesses, help for individuals' benefits, and no doubt their staff and their administration situation must be under very great strain, I would imagine? So, are local authorities coping adequately with those responsibilities, in your view?

So, we've lightened off quite a few of their requirements and we're actually doing a piece of work with the local authority monitoring officers at the moment around any specific powers and duties that we need to actually remove, or lighten off. We've made it very clear that we're providing as much flexibility as possible inside the grant streams that we've given. That doesn't mean, just to be clear, that they can spend any money on anything, but where we're able to give flexibility, we've been able to do that, and as I say, we're treating the claims on a claims-made basis, and our officials are working very hard with the local authorities to ease that process so we don't put any administrative burdens on them that are unnecessary. And we've had huge co-operation from both the officials in Welsh Government and the officers in local government and from the leadership teams around making that system work, so it's been very beneficial.

Okay. Minister, I know it's necessary to concentrate a massive effort to get through this pandemic in the short term, but nonetheless, we also need to start planning ahead for the future, and I know that the loss of income for local authorities is a great problem. Is there anything you're able to say at this stage in terms of the difficulties that that might cause and how they might best be overcome?

Yes, so there's several different aspects to that. One is the fees and charges that they get from individual members of the public and what you might call 'customers' in other circumstances. So, as I already said, we've got a piece of work being done through the treasurers and our officials, which we've already submitted into the central process here in the Government for consideration, and then there are two other pieces of work—which are not in my portfolio, but obviously, I am aware of and which are in Rebecca Evans's portfolio—a piece of work on the loss of council tax income and the increase in the council tax relief fund moneys, which obviously we need to understand, and then a loss of the rates income, and of course that's correlated with the administration of the scheme for businesses of rates relief. So, not only have the local authorities lost, they've also been instrumental in handing out the grants and the rates relief to all of the people who would normally have paid those grants, and they've done a magnificent job. We've got the money out to them in tranches to do that to make sure that there isn't a cash-flow issue for them as they hand those grants out. So, again—I mean, I just can't commend highly enough the work of everyone on both sides of that equation to get that money out as fast as possible. And then, John, just to anticipate a question that may be coming later on—I feel obliged to mention it, because it's such a sterling job—one of the other big jobs we've done, of course, is in homelessness, where local authorities and their staff and third sector partners have worked incredibly hard to get homeless people into suitable accommodation, off the streets. I cannot commend enough the work of local government and third sector partners in that space across the piece as well.

10:20

Okay, well you've successfully anticipated our next set of questions, Minister. So, we'll turn to Delyth Jewell.

Diolch am hynny, Cadeirydd. Roeddwn i eisiau gofyn i chi am ddigartrefedd, Weinidog. Roeddwn i eisiau gofyn—. Rwy'n clodfori'r hyn sydd wedi cael ei wneud. Dŷch chi wedi sôn yn barod yn y Senedd, y Plenary llawn, am y ffaith, erbyn hyn, mewn cynghorau lleol, mae niferoedd y bobl sydd actually yn byw ar y stryd mewn single figures ar hyn o bryd. Ydych chi—? Beth ydy'r sialensiau dŷch chi wedi'u hwynebu yn ceisio gwneud yn siŵr bod cymaint o bobl ag sy'n bosib ddim yn byw ar y stryd yn ystod y firws yma, a pha gamau y byddwch chi'n eu cymryd i wneud yn siŵr fydd pobl ddim yn gorfod mynd nôl i fyw ar y stryd ar ôl hyn?

Thank you for that, Chair. I wanted to ask you about homelessness, Minister. I wanted to ask—. I praise what has been done, and you've already mentioned in the Plenary meeting that, by now, in local authorities, the numbers of people who are rough-sleeping are in single figures at present. What are the challenges that you've faced in trying to ensure as many people as possible aren't rough-sleeping in this period, and what action will you be taking to ensure that people don’t have to go back to rough-sleeping after this?

—slight intermittent problem with the audio, but I—. So, I hope you can all hear me okay.

Good. So, it's been not without its challenges, you're absolutely right. So, getting the right accommodation in place and getting the wraparound services in place was a big effort by everyone. We put an extra £10 million into the system upfront to assist people to do that. We have been very successful—six local authorities have nobody sleeping rough at all; all the others have very low figures—two or three—and those are people individually presenting.

Obviously, this is an ongoing crisis as well. We've got outreach teams in touch with absolutely everyone. We've had to deal with what you can imagine would be challenging behaviour from people who are in accommodation and perhaps for the first time in many years, and the teams have been working really hard to support local authorities and other providers to make sure that that challenging behaviour is adequately dealt with. And then, now, we are starting to turn our attention to how we can ensure that nobody who has been housed as a result of this crisis ends up back on the streets—so, an ongoing programme to make sure that we can move people into permanent accommodation, or better temporary accommodation, or whatever other accommodation we can manage. And I'm absolutely determined that we're not going to have people put back on the streets.

I did say in Plenary too, Delyth, and I'll just repeat it here, that the group we're most concerned about is the group with no recourse to public funds. Because this is a public health crisis we've been able to house them—quite rightly in my view—and I'm very concerned that, unless the UK Government changes the rules, those people will be put back onto the streets at the end of the crisis, because we will have no power to do anything about that. I'm very, very concerned about that and would urge the committee to look at whether we could recommend anything that could be done to help that particular group of people.

Thank you for that, Minister. I certainly share that concern. Another thing that you've mentioned already in Plenary sessions is the demand for homelessness services from a number of groups that might be considered the hidden homeless, including people who are at greater risk of domestic violence during the pandemic. Do you have any figures or any reflections on that demand in services from people who are not simply people who are already living on the streets, but people who are at risk of becoming homeless in the crisis?

Yes. So, that—. We have, as I say, a steady stream of people. So, the figures—. It's very hard to say we've got this many people homeless in any one day, with new presentations and so on, and they are, exactly as you say, Delyth, from a range of sources—so, people fleeing domestic abuse, young people leaving care or fleeing difficult family circumstances, sofa surfers who are no longer able to find friends and family who can assist them, prison leavers—[Inaudible.]—evidence. And then you'll know that there's been a limited number of early release prisoners as well, actually in very low numbers in Wales so far, but we anticipate that that might continue. So, services are stretched and they're dealing with that on a daily basis, but I wouldn't want to pretend that that was an easy or a done deal. People are working very hard to keep on top of that situation.

I don't have any figures for domestic abuse. Emma, I don't know whether you have any figures. I'm not sure that we're keeping it in quite that way, but Emma may know more.

10:25

No, we don't have firm figures for the new presentations coming through. Local authorities will be aware of the background and the circumstances of individuals as they engage with them, but it's not data that we've collected at this point in time.

Okay, thank you for that. In terms of—I commend again the fact that emergency accommodation has been made available to people who were either at risk of homelessness or already were homeless. What efforts are being made at the moment to ensure that there is permanent accommodation made available at the end of that crisis, again to ensure that people don't go back to being at risk of homelessness again at the end of the crisis?

Yes, absolutely. So, there's a variety of things here. One is about the physical accommodation and making sure that we have that. We have a plan in place. Some of the stuff that we've got now is capable of carrying on past the crisis; other stuff we're looking at—the physical bits, I'm talking about now, not the people. We're looking across the piece in Wales at local authorities and what we can do to secure better accommodation.

But the much more challenging—and exciting at the same time—piece is that we've got people into services who perhaps for 20 years have been impossible to reach. So, the issue of keeping them there and making sure that we get the right services to them and that we can sustain those placements in service terms is a much more challenging piece, really, than just the physical accommodation. So, we're working hard to make sure we can sustain the support packages for those individuals who have otherwise proven very difficult to reach.

So, making sure that we've got, in particular, mental health, tenancy support, substance abuse services in place to sustain those tenancies as we go forward is one of the big things that we're currently working on. As I said, we're very, very conscious of the need to ensure that we don't have a slide back. And then also, as part of the exit strategy, we will be working on supply-side housing to make sure we try and accelerate our social house building programme so that we don't have a sudden surge of people with breaking up of relationships and so on at the end of the lockdown. So, there are pieces of work going on in a number of areas there.

Thank you. Thank you, that's really good to hear. Finally from me, Minister, you've mentioned already that the staff or volunteers who are supporting people in this emergency accommodation—they sometimes will have to deal with a number of challenges. You've mentioned challenging behaviour, but what support is being made available to them, please, in terms of dealing with that challenging behaviour but also in terms of ensuring that they are adequately protected with PPE, because of the increased risk of people who are homeless of catching the virus? 

Yes, so, as I said, we've got a PPE supply chain up and running—I'm sure Emma can tell you the detail of that, if you want to hear it. We were very conscious that the we needed to do that. There's a different requirement from NHS and care settings, but, nevertheless, an important requirement. So, we wanted to be sure that we could make sure that workers were adequately covered. Then, you're quite right: there's mental health support for the support workers as well as for the people receiving the support care. So, we are very conscious of that. We've been working with third sector organisations to do that.

We've also been encouraging, weirdly, the other side. You'll see that we're re-running the 'Don't be a bystander' campaign, so that people are—[Inaudible.]—abuse in their local street and so on. We've also been pushing, and I'm going to take this opportunity to do it again, 'Dial 999 and then push 55 and help will come'. That means that if you can't speak about it; help will come if you do that. So, it's very important that we advertise that. I don't want to give anyone the impression that, although the services are stretched, which they are, they themselves wouldn't get help, because they would get help if they needed it.

Emma, I don't know if you wanted to say anything more about the PPE situation.

Yes, thank you, Minister. Just to say that we have worked with Community Housing Cymru and Cymorth, the two umbrella organisations for registered social landlords and third sector partners, to put together a system whereby they can procure PPE, starting with hand sanitiser, now looking at masks in particular, and distribute them effectively, particularly to the small third sector organisations that find it more difficult to procure or may not get the same good prices. So, we're trying to make sure that there is a proper supply through the system for them, supported with some guidance that Public Health Wales produced for them to ensure that actually people were clear and understood what PPE they needed to use in the circumstances that present in those particular homelessness situations. Because it's important that people understand what they need to use and use it effectively so that they're using the right kit at the right time, but, importantly, that they have access to it via that system.

10:30

Just to add one last thing—I should have said, John, sorry—obviously, we're still implementing the housing action group's recommendations, and so the rapid rehousing—. We're in conversation with Community Housing Cymru around how we get the rapid rehousing in place, and that's very much a piece of dealing with the people we've now got in off the streets and making sure they get the right move-on accommodation and support. Sorry, I should have mentioned that before.

Okay, thanks very much. Okay, we'll move on then to further questions on rented accommodation—. Oh, sorry, Mark, did you want to come in on homelessness?

On this particular issue, if I may. So, we've seen some publicity. We knew that there were already new modular homes for temporary accommodation for rough-sleepers in Wrexham; in Conwy, we've seen the pop-up hostel model, with start-up packs with bedding and crockery and so on given to individuals. So, really, two points: how comprehensive has the coverage of provision been across Wales? Are there gaps, or has everyone risen to the challenge and met the need? And, secondly, in terms of the longer term issue, we know from the previous work of the committee and our own experience and comments you've made that people are on the street because of complex issues, complex needs, and that simply giving them accommodation doesn't prevent the revolving door unless you also intervene with those more complex issues. So, you alluded to your acknowledgment of this issue in your responses earlier, but what measures, if any, are being put in place to provide those intervention services now to help people tackle their demons and get back on the road to independent living?

Yes, so, we've been very pleased with the response right across Wales. We don't have any gaps. We obviously have some authorities, like Cardiff and Swansea and Newport, where there's just a higher level of presentations each day, but across the piece we've been very pleased with that. We've worked—. Our officials have worked really hard with local authorities across Wales to make sure that they've got the right provision in place and that they've stepped up to this plate. And, as I say, Mark, we're very anxious that the support services are around the people—tenancy support services, mental health support, substance abuse support—and that's absolutely essential to maintaining that tenancy. So, we've worked very hard on that. Emma can talk a little bit more about what we're doing in terms of follow-on. She's got much more of the detail than I have. 

Thank you, Minister. I think that from the outset our guidance was absolutely clear that accommodation alone is not the solution here. Indeed, the best models are those that have managed to bring together a range of services with individuals in settings. Obviously, individual locations face different challenges in terms of what accommodation they could secure and how they've operated that. So, what we've seen is local authorities being really creative in the approaches that they've taken—in some instances moving people around within the system as they're able to secure new or better accommodation—but all of them finding that, where they have got those support services in place, in situ, on a kind of full service model, if you like, where people are being provided with prescriptions, with food, support, all in one place, they are seeing really excellent engagement with individuals, in a way that they didn't have previously. 

Obviously, for some individuals it is more challenging, and, as we see easement in the future on lockdown, there will be a draw back to the streets for some individuals. Local authorities and support workers are very cognisant of that and are trying to make sure that they provide as much support as they can and move the most vulnerable into long-term solutions. Some of those include use of the housing first model, some of those are involving actually working with RSLs and social landlords to bring voids into play and to house people on a longer term basis, and some of them are about actually thinking how do we facilitate the supported accommodation facilities on a more permanent basis for those individuals who are not yet ready to move on into their own accommodation.

So, the approach differs slightly in different places, but across Wales what we're seeing is accommodation with support, and that support is coming from third sector, from RSLs, from local authorities and, importantly, from health, in particular substance misuse and mental health services. The changes around prescribing and the ability to prescribe month-long injections for opioid substitutes and things like that are really starting to play a part in being able to support people to find a reach to long-term stability in housing.

10:35

Okay. Thanks very much. We'll move on, then, to some questions on rented accommodation, and firstly Dawn Bowden and then Caroline Jones. Dawn.

Thank you, John. Julie, just a bit about availability of support for tenants, both in the social and private rented sector, and whether you've got any plans for dealing with rent arrears, or maybe even restricting rent increases, once the current restrictions end.

Yes. So, that's quite a complicated issue, really. Renters have been protected from eviction in the short term, just to be clear. So, that's been done in two ways: you can't start eviction proceedings at the moment, and all eviction proceedings that were currently in the system are what's called 'stayed', so there's a practice direction from the courts so they can't advance. So, at the moment, people are protected from eviction.

We've got powers in the Act to potentially extend that period—so, that's for three months. There are powers in the Act to extend that, and I've got officials working on a paper for me at the moment as to whether that protection, which ends in September, should be extended. So, I'm looking forward to having that piece to consider shortly. There's a temptation to think that it must be a good idea to stay it off for six months, but we—[Inaudible.]—and they just have no hope of paying their rent off after that. So, we're giving careful consideration to that.

And then, the big issue for us is that these things are all protection from eviction, but they're not stopping the debt build-up. So, people are still liable for the rent, and we're very concerned that they're building up rent arrears that are just not going to be manageable in the longer term. So we've got a commitment from all our local authority stock-holding housing authorities—that's 11 of them—and our RSLs, not to take any eviction action against any tenant experiencing any kind of financial hardship as a result of coronavirus. And then, we're putting in place something called a 'pre-action protocol', so where somebody is in rent arrears and they're in difficulty with one of our social landlords, the social landlord will be under a duty to go through, with that person, what what their circumstances are and—[Inaudible.]—might include write-off, where it might include a long term to pay, or it might include a number of other measures that they can take in a sector that we have more influence over.

In the private rented sector, I'm pushing the UK Government to put a pre-action protocol in place for all court action, so that all landlords would be under an obligation to go through a mediation process of that sort with their tenants so that they went through a proper examination of the person's finances and their ability to pay and all the rest of it. So, that would be some small help.

Depending on how long this goes on, we would be pressing the UK Government to do something about write-off for renters because, obviously, the longer it builds up, the more likely it is that people will just not be able to cope with that. We will be looking at evictions for rent arrears. Just bringing some reality into the Government's thinking, the UK Government's thinking, about that—because once somebody is evicted from their otherwise perfectly all-right home, they become homeless; they become exceptionally much more expensive, much more difficult, and they have a lot of other problems. So, not only do they become more expensive in housing terms, they become more expensive in all kinds of other service terms. And, obviously, the effect on them is absolutely devastating. So, it doesn't seem like a sensible way forward to me.

But we wouldn't, as the Welsh Government, to be clear, have enough money to do rent write-offs in the private sector; that's not something that we would be able to do unless the UK Government supported us, but we will work with our landlords to make sure that they're as reasonable as possible. And I cannot emphasise enough that, through Rent Smart Wales and the Residential Landlords Association, we've had good co-operation with our landlords here; we haven't had any significant problems with that. The vast majority of the landlords in our private rented sector are decent human beings who've done the right thing.

Personally, I wish that the UK Government had made it a condition of having a rent holiday on your buy-to let-mortgage, that you pass that on to your tenant; they didn't do that, but—[Inaudible.]—most of them have—[Inaudible.]—any of that. That was a little bit of a canter through, I'm sorry, Dawn, but—

No, that's fine, and I appreciate the—. Because my next question was going to be about evictions, and I think you've covered that you've covered that in terms of the extension of eviction notices, potentially, at the end of this. But, have you had any sense of any increases in illegal evictions during this process? Well, obviously, that would mainly be in the private sector that that would be happening in.

10:40

By the very nature of an illegal eviction, we wouldn't have any data on it, so—

You don't know about it—yes. So, I suppose it would be anecdotal if we're getting that kind of feedback from anybody—that they're out on the street because they've been evicted. We're not getting that sort of information at the moment.

No, and judging by the homeless presentations, it's not a big problem, but it's impossible to say that it doesn't happen.

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Bore da, Weinidog.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Minister.

Regarding social landlords, can you tell me about the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on social landlords and their business plans, and the potential for an increase in tenant rent arrears? And the support, can you highlight the support provided by the Welsh Government? 

Certainly, thank you. [Inaudible.]—on themes of business continuity, tenant health and safety and financial resilience and viability. [Inaudible.]—of income and the impacts over a 12 and 24-month period on their business—[Inaudible.]—planning issue for any RSLs that had pre-existing financial challenges, to make sure that their—[Inaudible.]—have robust building plans. We have a monthly data-collection exercise just beginning, which includes rent and rent arrears, staffing levels, compliance and so on, which will be used to identify trends and issues.

We don't regulate the local authority sector—[Inaudible.]—direct—[Inaudible.]—of the local authorities, but we are in regular contact—[Inaudible.]—with the—[Inaudible.]—issues arising from that, although, as part of the work that we mentioned earlier on local authority finances, we're obviously looking at the effect on local authority housing revenue accounts as well. So, I'm not aware—unless Reg is going to shake his head at me—of any particular issues that have arisen in that sector at the moment.

Once the pandemic risk has passed, or we're starting to come out of it, then we're looking at what can be done around bringing people back up to speed. We've recently written out to all the RSLs, especially those who have furloughed large numbers of staff, asking them quite what their plan is and whether they should reconsider that to make sure that they're using their staff either to contribute to other public sector endeavours, community hubs and so on, or they're using them to carry out emergency repairs and maintenance. For, as I said in one of my earlier answers, we're very keen that all landlords, both councils and RSLs across Wales, are doing everything they can to bring all their voids back into beneficial use so that, obviously, the people we've got in temporary accommodation can be moved on into secure, proper accommodation. The idea that we wouldn't be using this period to bring those voids back into beneficial use is obviously not a good one.

So, we've been working on a range of fronts with them, Caroline, just to make sure both that they remain stable, but also, frankly, that they step up to the plate, which the vast majority of them have done without any prompting, but we have recently prompted, just to make sure.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. My next question is regarding private landlords and what specific support they can expect from Welsh Government. I've noted that it's often mentioned that private landlords have buy-to-let mortgages, but there are some people who have invested all their lives in perhaps one property, and they depend on that income for their pension. Regarding the Women Against State Pension Inequality situation, where the pensionable age has been raised—you know, someone reaches the age of 63 and suddenly they're without an income. So, I wonder if you can tell me, regarding this type of landlord, what advice or support you can give them.

Thanks, Caroline. We've published guidance for landlords and agents in the private rented sector, and on the financial support currently available to landlords and agents, we're just about to publish the financial support document now. We're doing a lot of work with landlord and agent representative bodies to determine what exactly it is that they need. So, we're obviously not wanting to offer things that aren't suitable, especially to the ones that you mentioned, who haven't been able to benefit from a mortgage payment holiday, though perhaps they were lucky enough not to have a mortgage in the first place. Many of them will be able to benefit from just the normal business support—so, we've announced a £1.7 billion fund of additional support for businesses, and many of those would be able to get themselves inside that fund, but we are doing a piece of work right now that I hope to be able to share shortly about additional support for the sector. 

10:45

Thank you, Minister. My final question is: what support is being given by the Welsh Government to students who are trying to end their accommodation contract early because of the lockdown, particularly those living in purpose-built student accommodation?

Sorry, Caroline, I lost the last bit of your question there. Were you saying especially those who are living in purpose-built student accommodation?

For people living in university-owned purpose-built accommodation, that shouldn't be a problem. My colleague, Kirsty Williams has written out to all universities asking them to deal appropriately with students who have possessions that they need to have stored for them, or have inadvertently left there. So, that shouldn't be problematic. Obviously, students are advised to contact their landlord, whether that's the university or a private student-owned block or a private landlord in a house in multiple occupation or whatever, to discuss what that situation is, just to try to come to some kind of amicable arrangement with them about how to do that.

And then, actually, as part of the next situation, of looking at the next iteration of looking at the COVID-19 regulations, I've asked officials to have a look at whether we should do something specific about students who need to come and collect possessions from term-time accommodation. It doesn't seem to me all that difficult to arrange it so that people in shared accommodation come on different days and in different circumstances to clear. That won't be such a problem for the universities, because we're not expecting another influx of students, but for private landlords, it may be more of a difficulty. So we'll be working on guidance and possibly a change to the regulations for people in those circumstances.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Minister. Could I turn to the issue of owner occupiers first of all? I'm just wondering to what extent Welsh Government has been able to help with owner-occupiers, and also what discussions you've had with UK Government on things such as mortgage holidays, and also repossessions.

Yes, that's mostly been carried out by business colleagues, actually, in talking to the lenders, but we have had some limited conversation with them, as I understand it. Obviously, what we're looking at here is trying to utilise the mortgage holiday schemes that have been announced for people who are in difficulties with paying, and these will be people who are obviously affected by problems in their own employment, and so on—a range of matters there. We're looking to see whether—. I know that some mortgage lenders have been more upfront than others, shall we say, about being sympathetic to this, and we've been working on trying to get the UK Government to be a bit more directive, shall we say, about what should happen in some of those circumstances. If we're aware that there's a significant problem in Wales then, clearly, we'll look at a bespoke solution, but I'm not aware of that at the moment. There may be in future, but we're not aware that there's a massive problem of people not being able to access the UK assistance for mortgage holidays, and so on.

As part of coming out of this, at whatever point in the future we start coming out of the lockdown, there are going to be a range of financial issues that will have to be dealt with at a UK level, including directions to mortgage lenders and banks about how to deal with people who have, through no fault of their own, accumulated debts including mortgage debt and so on. I think that it's clear from some of the things that the Lord Chief Justice has said, that the courts are going to be taking a robust view of people who are too quick to come forward with repossessions and so on, and not being reasonable about understanding why people are in the situation they're in, and then giving them time to sort themselves back out again.

We've also been very pleased that the UK Government have put  the local housing allowance back up to the thirtieth percentile; we'd prefer it was 50, obviously, but 30 per cent is a great deal better than where it was before, and I would urge the committee to have a look at that, because if that isn't held in place afterwards, when we're back to whatever the new normal looks like, so that people continue to receive that level of support while they try to sort their finances out, if it was to drop back down, then clearly people would have an immediate problem with that. Large numbers of people are now reliant on universal credit who never thought to see themselves in that situation. So, the removal of that element would be a big issue. And then access to the housing support of universal credit, the people who don't otherwise qualify, is something we've asked them to look at. And the last piece here is that we have put the discretionary assistance fund—we've refunded it so that we're giving out a larger number of discretionary assistance payments to people who find themselves in immediate difficulties.   

10:50

And could I just ask, on that matter of the additional support that Welsh Government can give, with things like the discretionary assistance fund, council tax reduction, discretionary housing payments, is this on a needs must basis? Is there any limit to the extent to which Welsh Government can step in and support those who need it, both now and also if this is a medium-term issue as well?

Well, the short answer to that, Huw, is that it's all about how much money we've got. This is an enormous amount of money across very large numbers of sectors, and it really, really worries me—we're all right for now, as I said about local authorities—when we get towards the end of the financial year and we understand what the new normal looks like, it really worries me what that cash flow will look like. So, that's going to have to be addressed across the UK; that's not just a Welsh Government issue. So, we're reliant on the UK Government— [Inaudible.]

There are all kinds of complex rules—discretionary housing allowance rules. Local authorities have discretion on a lot of that, but it is about the funding. I am not an expert on that by a long way. I don't know whether, Emma, you want to rescue me from not being an expert and say something slightly more lucid about it.

With the discretionary housing payments, there is a lot of discretion at local authority level for what those can be used for in relation to helping people with housing-related debt and pressures, but, fundamentally, the framework under which they have that discretion is set by the UK Government. So, they are only able to use those funds that come from the UK Government where somebody is in receipt of a housing-related benefit under universal credit or housing benefit rules at the moment. Obviously, that presents a challenge in that, actually, some of the people who may well come through the system facing housing-related debt as we progress with the current situation and move forward may not be eligible for those benefits and so discretionary housing payments won't be able to help them under the current rules. I know that's something the Minister has picked up, as have others, with the UK Government, because perhaps some flexibility there would be helpful.  

Thank you very much, Emma and Minister, for those responses. Could I just briefly ask you are you able to share with the committee, going forward, any data that you or the UK Government has on numbers of people taking mortgage holidays and numbers of repossessions, as this goes forward? Is that information easily accessible and can it be shared with us?

I don't know, Huw, but we're very happy to go away and find out. 

Thank you very much for that. 

I only have one other question, and it's to do with the use of second homes, which has been under the spotlight a lot since the very beginning with this, with people heading towards west Wales, north Wales, Montgomeryshire and elsewhere, thinking they would sit this out in second homes. Welsh Government has recognised that this is a real issue, so could I just ask how effective you think the regulations have been in stopping the use of second homes during the outbreak, and, frankly, whether or not more needs to be done, or are we now moving into a phase where we can be more relaxed about that? Minister, what do you think? 

Well, the First Minister is issuing a letter that he's jointly written with the Welsh Local Government Association and police commissioners and police sector leaders today, in advance of the bank holiday this coming weekend, telling second home owners that they will not be welcome if they're travelling to their second home and that they will be stopped by the police from travelling. We've been working very closely with local authorities about this—[Inaudible.]—that's the truth of it. So, we're not going to change the regulations. The police are very happy that they already have the powers that they need.

Those people using a second home that have been reported around Wales, when we've investigated, they've all had—. Well, I am not aware of any that has not had a legitimate excuse to be there. So, they've been an emergency worker or they've been properly isolating because of a vulnerable shielded person in their main residence, or some other perfectly reasonable excuse. My understanding from speaking to local authorities across Wales is that these are not very high numbers either, and there is a big issue then about whether, if you did get somebody to leave and travel, actually the travel itself is more problematic than remaining. We have not got reports from any of the health boards across Wales that they are experiencing any undue service pressure as a result of large numbers of second home users being there.

But we are—[Inaudible.]—very aware of the cohesion issues that it raises and the ankst of local residents, and we're working very closely with local authorities to understand what that looks like and to keep the regulations under review. Local authorities are very clear that they themselves do not want enforcement powers in this area, so it is the police that enforce the rules. And, as I say, we are focused very mainly on getting the message out there that although Wales is very beautiful and large parts of Wales are very beautiful, and perhaps more beautiful than the part of Wales that you personally live in, you should not be travelling to those more beautiful parts either to stay in a second home or, frankly, just to sightsee. Just locally to me, a man from Bristol was recently—well, yesterday I think it was—stopped having come down to visit Rhossili. So, you know, some people still haven't quite got the message, I think it's fair to say. 

10:55

That's really helpful, Minister. So, the message is, stay away from your second home for now; Wales will still be here tomorrow, next month, next year when you want to come and visit us when the lockdown restrictions are eased, but not now. 

All the more beautiful for it, as well. [Laughter.] 

Okay, thanks, Huw. Thanks, Minister. Minister, I wonder if I could raise one further matter, which is household waste centres and their temporary closure. There are reports of increased fly-tipping, which people attribute to the temporary closure of those centres. Are you aware of this as a problem, and could you say anything as to the possible reopening of those centres? 

Yes, we are aware of a small amount of increased fly-tipping in some areas. There are big issues around reopening the household waste recycling centres, around the staffing and making sure that people can maintain social distance. There's also an issue around the removal of the waste from the centres and what the supply chain for that looks like, and so on. But we are working very hard as we speak, actually, with local authorities around what protocols [Inaudible.] supply and how practical that is. We're also very keen to do that for Wales as a whole. What we don't want is to have neighbouring authorities doing different things and then people attempting to travel across to, I don't know, a tip in their neighbouring authority. If Neath Port Talbot opened theirs and Swansea didn't, would everybody in Swansea travel to North Port Talbot and try and—? You know, it's that kind of stuff. 

So, we're very keen to work as a local authority family on this, to establish the protocols across Wales that local authorities and their trade unions are happy with, and make sure that the trade union representatives of the refuse workers are very happy that they will be safe, that this is something that they're able to do and that we have all of the other systems in place. It's very high on our radar, John. It's certainly one of the things we would like to start looking to do whether the lockdown continues or not, whether we can lighten it up for that. 

And the other piece that we're doing, actually, just to mention to the committee, is around what the protocols for reopening some libraries might look like. We're very aware that, in large parts of Wales, libraries are where people get their broadband connectivity from and their assistance. Many families have well run out of reading material, and so on. It's a big social justice issue. But we want to be very clear that the staff would be safe and protected there, and that that could be done easily maintaining social distance rules and without people travelling distances, and all that kind of stuff. So, we are working on that at the moment, not necessarily as coming out of lockdown but just what could be done now, perhaps in the next iteration of the regulations or guidance. 

Okay, Minister, thanks for that. Mark, did you want to come in on these matters? 

In that context, yes, if I may. You'll have seen probably the news last weekend that Greater Manchester had opened some recycling centres. The mayor there, Andy Burnham, said, 'We are reopening centres, not a return to normal. We would ask the public to limit their journeys and only travel to a household waste recycling centre if it is absolutely essential and that restrictions on social distancing remain in place'. I've been contacted by people from across a range of different counties who have contacted their own councils asking if they're prepared or able to do this, and each is saying they're waiting for Welsh Government, because it would go against Welsh Government policy if they didn't respond. So, I'm wondering what consideration you might be giving to places like Greater Manchester and what they're learning from that and how we might implement that on this side of the border.  

11:00

Yes, absolutely, Mark. You've just reiterated the issues that I was attempting to set out for you in what we're considering in looking at it. So, a couple of the other things we're also considering: some authorities have stopped bulky waste collections, some authorities have stopped green waste collections, and we're looking to see whether we can put some of those back as well, because there's a big issue about what people can store at home—[Inaudible.] We have been to—[Inaudible.]—project. If you've got nowhere to store the waste, just think ahead a little bit. But we're very keen on getting them open if we can do so, if it is safe to do so, if it does not increase travel across Wales and if the supply chains—. If the refuse can be safely removed from the household waste recycling centre sites either into the supply chain or to somewhere else for—[Inaudible.]—very hard on this and, as I say, has recently produced a waste hierarchy chart for what the Welsh Government expects of local—[Inaudible.]—authorities in trying to stay together to do this together with a set of principles. 

Okay. Well, thank you very much. I'm afraid that's all we have time for in this meeting. So, Minister, thank you very much. Thank you to your officials for giving valuable evidence to the committee today at this time of crisis. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr. 

Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr. Thank you very much. 

Thank you. And just to say to committee that our next public meeting will be on Thursday 14 May, where we will be taking evidence from the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, again on the impact of the coronavirus. Thank you very much for your participation today. Diolch yn fawr.    

Daeth y cyfarfod i ben am 11:02.

The meeting ended at 11:02. 

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