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Champions against poverty

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 2013

Tackling poverty requires a resilient, integrated approach. Huw Lewis, communities and tackling poverty minister for the Welsh Government, talks to PSE about the appointment of a team of individuals to take this forward.

A struggling economy, severe austerity measures and dramatic welfare reform mean poverty is becoming an everyday reality for thousands more people across the UK. The Welsh Government is launching a new strategy to build resistance in communities and to tackle the poverty that threatens to tear them apart.

Other parts of the country will need to learn from this best practice, and will consider introducing similar policies as the cuts begin to bite.

PSE spoke to Huw Lewis, the first poverty minister for the Welsh Government, about the appointment of anti-poverty champions to coordinate an effective response throughout and across government.

Stronger together

Lewis said: “We have anti-poverty champions now within local government, which consist of an officer and a politician. We also have them within the Welsh Government – senior people in each department that relate to the agenda. I’ll be meeting fairly regularly with both groups of champions.

“The idea, in a nutshell, is to bring reality to the rhetoric around the fight against poverty through whole government, multi-partner activity. You can’t expect any department of government to go out there and tackle poverty on its own; it’s such a multi-faceted problem. There are so many responsibilities within the public sector that have something to bring to the fight that you need coherent action across departments, and the work of local partners too.”

The Welsh Government is currently revamping its poverty action plan, which contains “very specific” milestones and targets for each department, committing to these measures between now and the next Welsh Assembly elections in 2016, and 2020, the final target date for the poverty work.

Lewis said: “It’s measurable progress that we’re looking for in terms of our own governmental activity. With local government champions, I want to have a similarly focused conversation around the key measures that hold people back.

“Those groups of people in the poverty statistics have been researched to death. We know precisely what the key problems are; around employment, low income and poor housing, health, and educational attainment.

“I’m particularly interested in encouraging our partners in local government to focus down on some of those key indicators and work alongside us, because we know that no matter how many missives we send out, or directives come out from the centre, unless we have councils proactive around the agenda then a lot of this stuff is simply not deliverable.”

Prioritising the vulnerable

The new champions will be funded through existing central and local government budgets, and will aim to identify and implement the “huge amount that still can be done” to tackle poverty, despite curbed public spending.

The need to do such “reprioritisation work” is even more important given the current pressures on families and communities from the economic downturn, austerity measures and welfare reform, Lewis said.

“We need to talk about how exactly we bring the most vulnerable groups to the front of the queue. There are parts of the UK and lots of parts of Wales where if you look at welfare reform in terms of the impact it’s having on family income, we run a very real risk of destabilising families, and even in some places, destabilising whole communities as a result.”

The rapid change in welfare support could knock many families off track, he said, turning basic payments into a juggling act.

The champions’ influence and importance is “enormous”, Lewis added. “One of the key things we can do is make sure our communities are resilient to the changes.”

Communication and organisation

To build resilience requires information flowing to the right people, which the Welsh Government aims to do by ensuring advisory services are “as protected as much as they possibly can be”, and that they communicate to avoid duplicating provision.

Lewis recently announced £1.8m in new funding, challenging organisations providing advice services in Wales, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, to adapt to increased demand amid budget cuts.

Strong organisation, led by the local authority, is also critically important, Lewis said: “They are really the only body on the ground that can make sure that communities are well-informed and well-organised to deal with the problems, talking to all arms of public services, and also to the third sector, within their area. Funding should also follow that need to be coordinated. Otherwise, I sincerely believe we’re going to hit situations where people are destabilised – the fallout from that will be very damaging and much more expensive than it will have been otherwise.”

To promote resilience long-term, conversations about tackling poverty and providing coordinated support must be held regularly. Lewis explained: “This is where the champions come in; critically these complicated conversations never really end, you have to sustain the agenda sometimes in very difficult circumstances where the local authority, and indeed ourselves, are having to face up to some really highly pressured decisions on priorities in the climate we’re in.”

Right from the top

Ensuring work on tackling poverty really is integrated throughout the Welsh Government is critical, and Lewis’ new role as poverty minister was created to manage this.

He described the role as “roving about government, making sure this action is coordinated”.

“The buck stops with me in making sure that across the Welsh public service we have that buy-in and we have the appropriate action taken. We’re not making any secrets of this stuff, it will be measured publicly – our ability to make progress on the agenda will be known.”

Tackling staff resistance or reluctance to meet these targets will depend on strong political leadership, he said, with a signal “right from the top” about the importance of the work.

Lewis suggested it was unlikely that councils would enter into any party political arguments about the strategy and described “a great deal of consensus” from local government in Wales around tackling poverty, with a “recognition that there’s going to be people that need support here”.

A pact against poverty

Appointing champions could be rolled out across the UK he added, and he pointed to a similar policy in Scotland, where the Government and local authorities have a formal pact to tackle poverty.

“We believe the austerity agenda is damaging and is wrong,” Lewis said. “There will be people, despite all this effort, who will have their family income, their housing situation completely destabilised.

“There will people who will not be able to cope, and there will be harm to people because of the pace of change and the combination of austerity and welfare reform together, particularly this and next financial year, which is really when the cuts will hit the hardest, when people will see the teeth behind the rhetoric.”

The Welsh Government’s Poverty Strategy will be published at the end of June.


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