During the pandemic, our chances of dying, getting critically ill, losing jobs or falling behind in education have been in part determined by our age, race, gender, disability, income and where we live.
The Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee published its report on the impact of the pandemic on inequality in August, and the Welsh Government responded to its recommendations in September. The Senedd will debate both on Wednesday 7 October.
The First Minister’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Advisory Group’s socio-economic report by Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna informed many of the Committee’s recommendations. The Welsh Government has also responded to this report.
This article provides an overview of the Committee’s main areas of recommendation and the Welsh Government’s response.
Improvements to impact assessments and data
The Committee urged the Government to publish equality impact and human rights assessments for all major decisions, and to dramatically improve equality data collection across the public sector (and in relation to the support provided to businesses), which was echoed by Professor Ogbonna’s report. It also recommended the acceleration of the public sector equality duties (PSED) review.
The Welsh Government began publishing impact assessments alongside the 21 day coronavirus regulations reviews, and said “further impact assessments relating to coronavirus legislation and guidance will be published in due course”.
The response acknowledges problems with equality data collection, and committed to working with the NHS, social care sector and Office for National Statistics (ONS) in particular to improve this. It highlights the Public Health Wales research on the impact of the virus on people with learning disabilities, published in September.
The Government also states that “when resources become available PSED review work will be restarted”.
The reversal of emergency relaxations to social care and mental health duties
The Committee recommended that relaxations to social care and mental health duties under the Coronavirus Act be reversed, as it was unclear why they were still necessary. It stated “the fact they are still in place sends a powerful message to those groups of people that the fulfilment of their care needs is seen as non-essential.”
The Welsh Government recognises these concerns, but said its approach is informed by engagement with older and disabled people’s groups. It states that it will consult on whether the social care provisions should be repealed.
In terms of mental health tribunals, the response states that so far no one has been affected by the provision to allow cases to be decided without a hearing, and all hearings have taken place by telephone.
Targeting public services at those who need them the most
The Committee repeated its previous calls for the Welsh Government to re-establish a cross-government poverty reduction strategy, and to adhere to the spirit of the socio-economic duty (which will require public authorities to consider the needs of people on low incomes when making decisions) before its commencement in March 2021.
In response the Welsh Government said that its Child Poverty Strategy, which was last updated in 2015, “sets out objectives for tackling child poverty”. It goes on to say that it “remains committed to developing our approach to anti-poverty policies and programmes in the future”.
The response also says “we are aware the Permanent Secretary has encouraged officials to lead by example, and to be applying the ethos of the [socio-economic] Duty in their advice to Ministers on strategic decisions.”
Helping people find out about their employment rights and benefit entitlements
The Committee highlighted that many people have experienced income or job losses due to the pandemic, and may have to claim benefits or emergency support for the first time. It recommended that the Government should:
- significantly increase funding to advice services that have expertise in employment, benefits and discrimination – the Government responded by highlighting its existing £8.2 million funding for advice services, and a pilot Black, Asian and minority ethnic helpline, but stated that it is “not in a position to fund all the gaps in provision and will work with other funders to ensure there is a coordinated approach to the provision of advice services across Wales”;
- undertake a large scale, comprehensive benefits take-up campaign to ensure people are accessing the benefits they are entitled – the Government committed to provide £800,000 for income maximisation initiatives, and will target benefits entitlement work at three priority groups: Black, Asian and minority ethnic households, households with disabled children or adults, and households in low waged employment;
- pause council tax debt enforcement for 12 months – this was rejected by the Government;
- rebrand and run an awareness campaign for the Discretionary Assistance Fund – the Government insisted that the Fund is a ‘recognised brand’, but said it will keep its effectiveness and awareness ‘under review’;
- top up Discretionary Housing Payment funds as needed – this was rejected by the Government as the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is reviewing allocations for the payments;
- explore options for allowing automatic entitlement to devolved benefits such as council tax reduction – the response states that potential solutions are being explored to address this.
Caring for carers
The Committee made a range of recommendations to ensure a decent income and good working conditions for health and social care staff (who are disproportionately women, and more likely to be from Black, Asian or minority ethnic groups). It recommended that the Advisory Group’s workplace risk assessment tool is rolled out beyond health and social care, which is currently being done.
The Committee also recommended that work on the fair work for social care forum be accelerated and quick wins identified, such as paying domiciliary care workers for all time worked, including travel time, improving opportunities for formal training and ensuring care home workers and domiciliary care workers are treated equally. The Welsh Government stated that the forum was established in September 2020 and has been tasked with exploring short to medium term changes to deliver fair work in the sector.
The Committee highlighted the issue of the £500 social care bonus being taxed by the UK Government, but the Welsh Government state that its request for a tax waiver was turned down.
In terms of unpaid caring responsibilities, the Committee highlighted research showing that mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have quit or lost their job, since the start of the lockdown. The Committee reiterated its previous recommendations from 2018 for all public sector jobs to be advertised as ‘flexible by default’, and the Government should provide advice on how to implement flexible working to all employers in receipt in of Welsh Government support.
In response, the Welsh Government said it would ‘explore’ these issues, and that it was looking at ways to reinforce links between public funding and fair work outcomes.
The Committee also recommended that the Government maximise the income of unpaid carers, including through council tax discounts. The Government states that the best way of maximising unpaid carers’ income is to remain in work. It states that a ‘national carers plan’ consultation will be launched in autumn, and the income maximisation activities (noted earlier) are targeted at low income households that include disabled adults or children.
Reducing health inequalities and educational attainment gaps
The Committee echoed Professor Ogbonna’s recommendation that public health messaging should be targeted at groups most likely to be affected by coronavirus, including Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, but also older people, disabled people and those with long term health conditions, and people in deprived areas. The Government’s response notes that its public health messaging has been translated into over 100 languages.
In terms of education, the situation has changed significantly since the Committee made its recommendations, particularly in relation to examinations. The Committee recommended that ‘catch up’ classes be provided for pupils most likely to have fallen behind during lockdown, and the Welsh Government states that £29 million has been allocated for learners at ‘crucial stages’ in their education.
Protecting people most at risk of violence and abuse
The Committee took evidence from the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence (VAWDASV) sector in June as concerns about rises in abuse during lockdown increased. It wrote to the Deputy Minister Jane Hutt MS on 29 May urging the Welsh Government to clarify what funding would be available to the sector to manage the increase in demand and pay for necessary adaptations to protect public health. In June, the Welsh Government announced £1.5 million to help victims and survivors of abuse.
In its report, the Committee reiterated its previous recommendation(s) that a sustainable, long term funding model is found for the VAWDASV sector, which has been promised for over four years. The Welsh Government said it is ‘working with stakeholders’, and while a number of models have been proposed, none have been agreed.
The Committee also recommended that a way of recording VAWDASV experienced by older people is found, and the Government said it was working with the Office for National Statistics on this issue.
The Committee highlighted hate crime experienced by certain groups during the pandemic, and reiterated its previous recommendations for the Welsh Government to update its community cohesion delivery plan. The Government said work to “develop a set of Community Cohesion Principles” was paused due to the pandemic, but it will produce a short update on progress towards actions in its Hate Crime Framework.
Improving accessibility for disabled people
The Committee received evidence about the challenges faced by disabled people due to changes in our environment, and the impact on their independence. It recommended that the Government run a social distancing awareness campaign to emphasise the difference challenges faced by disabled people, and provide guidance to businesses on physical and communication accessibility.
The Government stated that it has provided advice to people who are ‘shielding’ and has supported the Distance Aware Initiative through social media, and highlighted its guidance to retail businesses. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has raised concerns about this issue multiple times over the past six months, and published specific accessibility guidance in September as a result.
The Committee also recommended that a priority grocery delivery scheme (similar to the RNIB/ Defra scheme in England) should be established for disabled people who are not shielding, but struggle to shop for themselves. The Government stated that retailers are voluntarily introducing such initiatives.
The Committee also recommended the Welsh Government establish an ‘accessibility lead’ to oversee the production of public health and other information in accessible formats. The Welsh Government has established an Accessible Communication Group, and highlighted ongoing work to produce content in sign language, Easy Watch and other methods. It noted that a ‘future communication policy’ is being developed.
Making sure migrants don’t fall between gaps in support
The Committee’s report highlighted that migrants play a key role in our society in the response to the pandemic, with a fifth of the UK’s health and social care workforce being born outside of the UK. Migrants are also more likely to be industries affected by the crisis, such as accommodation and food services, and many with temporary leave to remain will have ‘no recourse to public funds’, preventing them from accessing most benefits and housing assistance.
The Committee recommended that the Welsh Government provide migrant awareness training to frontline public sector staff to ensure that migrants are able to access all the services and funds they are entitled to, without discrimination. The Government said this will be delivered in late 2020/ early 2021.
The Committee also recommended lobbying the UK Government to lift NRPF restrictions. The Welsh Government accepted this and noted that it published a feasibility study on providing support for people with NRPF within the current devolution settlement.
The Committee also recommended that English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes are provided online, which is being taken forward under the ReStart: Refugee Integration project alongside provision for digitally excluded learners.
Concerns were also raised that EU citizens have been unable to access face to face support to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme during lockdown, so the Committee recommended that the sessions are run in alternative ways. The Government stated that video explainers, webinars and social media campaigns have been used to continue providing advice.
The plenary debate on the Committee’s report can be watched on Wednesday 7 October at senedd.tv.
Article by Hannah Johnson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament