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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Welsh Government need to step up to the mark on anti-poverty fight

I am not often in the habit of quoting myself on this blog but I believe that the decision yesterday by the Welsh Government to effectively axe Communities First justifies it just this once.

The BBC reports on the row that this announcement provoked and for once Leanne Wood is spot on the mark. More than £300 million has been spent on this programme since 2001 and yet it is difficult to know what has been achieved.

The most recent figures indicate 740 posts were funded through the Communities First programme. At one point it was supporting about 200 projects, before the number was reduced amid worries about its effectiveness. And there were problems too as the BBC outlines:

In 2011, the head of a Communities First project in Wrexham was jailed for fraud after she diverted funds from the charity to herself and her family.

More recently, in 2015, it emerged that one project in Merthyr Tydfil spent most of its £1.5m budget over three years on salaries.

Port Talbot community regeneration charity NSA Afan had its Communities First funding terminated by Welsh Government in January.

But why, months after it was announced that the scheme was under review, is there no plan B? The Plaid Cymru leader quite rightly told the minister that it was "scandalous" he had not set out a replacement scheme:

She said the minister had accused Plaid of "jeopardising" the programme in the past, and claimed Communities First "was only safe with Labour".

"Neither of those statements were true, they were pure spin," she said.

And it is right that Labour have defended the integrity of this scheme in the past with partisan passion, accusing anybody who questioned its effectiveness of abandoning our poorest communities. Yet, when the history of this scheme is written it will be Labour who will be found to be at fault.

They spent huge sums of public money on 200 plus worthy schemes, created lots of temporary jobs, but at no time did they effectively measure whether that expenditure was achieving the objectives set out for it.

In fact, apart from the general aim of reducing poverty, many of us have been unclear exactly what the Welsh Government were trying to achieve or why they were not measuring the impact of this expenditure in affected communities on basic measures such as employment, health outcomes and educational achievement.

Back in September 2016 I wrote:

When I was on the Assembly we carried out an inquiry into poverty. Unfortunately we ran out of time before we could scrutinise programmes like Community First in any detail. I hope that the new Assembly is picking that up.

However, the two things that were most obvious from the scrutiny we did carry out was that firstly, the Welsh Government's programmes are designed to alleviate poverty not to eliminate it.

That is fine providing they are upfront about it, after all the Welsh Government don't have all the tools needed for an effective anti-poverty drive. However, Ministers are operating under the pretence that they are spending money to eliminate poverty without any evidence to back that up or even that the programmes they are funding work.

Secondly, there appears to be a major failure within Welsh Government to align all its programmes into a coherent anti-poverty drive. Individual Ministers are doing important work with policies such as the pupil premium, healthy community initiatives, funding temporary jobs through Jobs Growth Wales and of course programmes like Flying Start and Communities First, but there is no overall strategy with clear objectives and a co-ordinated approach to tackling poverty.

So when the Western Mail reports that politicians and charity workers have warned about the impact of losing Communities First the story is a bit more complex than that.

In fact the majority of those quoted are not saying the Welsh Government should keep Communities First at all. They are arguing for clarity and a coherent anti-poverty programme that does what it says on the the tin.

Communities First is on the way out, but judging by today's performance the Welsh Government remains as clueless as ever.
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