YESTERDAY Jane Hutt, the Minister for Social Justice, updated Senedd members on what the Welsh Government is doing to help families by alleviating aspects of the cost of living crisis .

The Minister said:

“Over the last week, we’ve seen further evidence of just how quickly prices are rising. The cost of filling up an average-sized family car passed £100 for the first time, and a week ago today, prices at the pump recorded their biggest one-day increase in 17 years. A great many households are struggling to make ends meet. Work by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that some 48,000 Welsh households are already facing food and energy bills that are greater than their disposable incomes. Unfortunately, this crisis will get worse as we head towards winter with another energy price cap rise in October, which could add a further £800 to energy 127

Dirprwy Lywydd, our focus as a Government has always been to help people with everyday costs by introducing a wide range of programmes that put money back in their pockets. We provide thousands of free breakfasts for primary school pupils every year and, as a result of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, we will be extending free school meals to all primary school children from September. We provide help with the costs of sending children to school. Our Healthy Start vouchers give families money off their shopping. We provide free swimming for the old and the young and we support hundreds of thousands of people with council tax bills every year.

We help people get the benefits that they are entitled to; we’ve run two successful ‘Claim what’s yours’ campaigns and the most recent in March helped people to claim more than £2.1 million of additional income. Our single advice fund’s benefit advice services were launched two years ago to help people navigate the benefit system. And our Warm Homes scheme has improved the home energy efficiency of more than 67,000 lower income households, and more than 160,000 people have received energy efficiency advice since its launch in 2011. We are now developing the next iteration of the programme.128

But this cost-of-living crisis is unprecedented. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that this year will see the biggest fall in living standards in the UK since records began. We will continue to do everything we can to help people in Wales through this crisis, with support targeted towards those who need it most. As the crisis has worsened, we have introduced two new packages of measures that are unique to Wales and are targeted at those who need our help the most.

Just a few days ago, I announced £4 million to help people on pre-payment meters and households not on mains gas—two groups that were left out of the Chancellor’s most recent package of measures. We are funding the Fuel Bank Foundation to provide fuel vouchers to help people on pre-payment meters who are facing real hardship. Around 120,000 people will be eligible. People on pre-payment meters have been hit particularly hard by rises in standing charges in recent months; the increases have been highest in north Wales. Vouchers worth £30 in the summer and £49 in the winter will be available to all eligible households and people will be able to claim up to three times in a six-month period.

We are also launching a heat fund to help those households not on mains gas, many of whom are in rural Wales, and will have experienced rapidly rising costs for oil or liquid gas, and this will help an estimated 2,000 households across Wales. This is in addition to the support payments for off-grid households available through the discretionary assistance fund. More than 1,000 people have received grants worth almost £192,000 between October and April.129

Last week, the Deputy Minister for Social Services announced an additional £4.5 million for the carers support fund over the next three years. Unpaid carers will be able to apply for up to £500 to pay for food, household items and electronic items. Deputy Llywydd, this support is on top of our other all-Wales schemes, such as the £200 winter fuel support payment and the £150 payment for everyone in council tax bands A to D, which continues to be paid into people’s bank accounts today. Beyond these schemes, I have met with energy suppliers to discuss what help is available to households struggling with energy bills and debt. Many companies fund grants of up to £600 to households with long-term debt issues. The suppliers supported our calls for the UK Government to extend the warm home discount scheme and to introduce an energy social tariff for lower income households. I’ve also hosted a cost-of-living summit; chaired a food poverty round-table and met with the Wales Race Forum to better understand the impact of the crisis in our communities. I’ll be meeting the Disability Equality Forum later this month and will be holding a follow-up summit in July. All these events will help to shape our actions and build partnerships to strengthen our response over the coming months.130

But Deputy Llywydd, this is a cost-of-living crisis with its roots firmly in Downing Street and the actions of successive Conservative Governments. It is the UK Government, with its tax and benefit powers, that can and must make a real difference to this crisis. We need to see benefit payments urgently uprated to match rising inflation and a lower energy tariff for lower income households and a reinstatement of funding for discretionary housing payments. Without such action, there is a real risk that a great many families will be faced with the terrible choice between heating and eating this winter. In a rich country like ours, that’s a choice that no-one should ever have to make.”

By Gwynoro Jones

Former MP for Carmarthenshire, Gwynoro Jones joined the team covering politics in Wales. He has a wealth of experience in politics and has been a regular commentator on radio, TV and in newspapers in Wales. Email: gwynorojones@walesnewsonline.com

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