Following last night’s announcement by the UK Government, echoed by the First Minister, Wales is now entering a soft version of the lock-downs that have been enacted in Italy, Spain and France. Yet there should be no doubt, immediate further action is needed here in Wales as outlined in Undod’s statement two days ago. Our wellbeing as a people and as communities is on the line.
Because of devolution, Wales, like Scotland, has an autonomous government which is responsible for implementing many of the public health measures decided by the UK Government. The Welsh and Scottish governments are also able to take additional measures on top of what the UK Government decides, especially on the social side of the crisis. That means, the chance to be radically more protective, more humanitarian, and more coherent, exists for Wales.
But early chances to take a more combative stance towards COVID-19 have been lost due to confusion over devolved powers. The confusion from the First Minister over whether he had the powers to close down profiteering caravan parks in rural Wales meant that several crucial days were lost.
The powers of the Welsh Government are notoriously complicated and weak. With that said, where the devolved powers of the Welsh Government are unclear in a pandemic scenario, we demand that it makes clear and decisive statements on its preferred actions. Rather than hiding behind genuinely limited powers, any Welsh Government worthy of the name should challenge these boundaries and offer political leadership, including shaming the UK Government into action as opposed to refusing to challenge them.
Having reviewed our demands in terms of their legality, it becomes clear that many of the actions could be taken or at least initiated by the devolved government. We will now go through them in the order they were set out.
1. Enable more effective social distancing
The introduction of a soft lock-down means that most of these have now been implemented, days after we called for them. Progress has been made today on Free School Meals provision. Cancelling library loans is also a devolved matter and would be very inexpensive to implement. Questions remain to be asked though. Why the delay in taking swift action over holiday accommodation and caravan parks? Will people be removed from those sites and told to go back to their homes?
2. Public information
The Welsh Government has the power to provide further and clearer public information on the pandemic – and our call for social distancing advice that is stronger than what is already out there means there is no possible risk of undermining the agreed UK approach.
3. Help for our NHS
Healthcare is of course fully devolved and there is nothing stopping the Welsh Government urgently procuring personal protective equipment (PPE), launching an intensive training campaign (not just retired medical staff – as welcome as that is), and suspending accommodation fees. And on private healthcare, the Welsh Government should immediately make its intentions clear to the private hospitals that their capacity will be requisitioned for the benefit of the public, as called for by NHS workers.
4. Financial security for everyone
This section is vital and the measures needed to protect our people include urgent ones, and also some that could be delivered over the coming months.
We realise that introducing a basic income in Wales alone would be difficult because there is no obvious payment mechanism which includes non-citizens, and because Wales is unjustly prohibited from creating new benefits. We urge the Welsh Government to explore all the devolved levers with which this might be done, for example through increasing spending on the Council Tax Support system from its current amount of £270 million or issuing a one-off crisis payment to all residents in Wales
On student fees and debt, the Student Loans Company is jointly funded by the UK and Welsh Governments and student finance is devolved. The Education Minister should call for a pause on debt collection.
Likewise, the Welsh Government could fund local authorities to cancel council tax debts (they have already scrapped imprisonment for council tax payment failure), provide discretionary emergency funds to local government to aid vulnerable people, fund and assist food banks, and continue EMA payments.
Freezing utility bills is an electricity market issue, overseen by the UK Government. Nonetheless the Welsh Government should challenge the UK Government on this, as they claim to have done on other non-devolved issues like the wage subsidy.
5. Secure housing for all
In housing the Welsh Government could make a bold and effective statement. Housing is devolved. It could legislate, ideally through emergency procedure, to ban evictions in the private rented sector. Mark Drakeford already wants to ban “no fault evictions”. In this time of crisis, why not go further?
The same legislation could and should freeze private rents. The impact on people’s lives would be tangible and would energise renters in England and Scotland to make the same demand. The costs of this would be borne by the private landlords.
Council tax bills could be wiped out entirely at a cost of £1.8bn per year. But we would support whatever action is affordable. Suspending Council Tax for the third of properties that are in the bottom two bands would, at a rough approximation, cost £500 million. However, doing so would also free up significant funds from the Council Tax Support system to target those in need in higher banded properties.
6. Protection for the vulnerable
The devolution settlement does not limit the Welsh Government when it comes to providing assistance and coordination to mutual aid groups.
The same is also true for assisting services in homelessness, mental health and domestic abuse victim support, all of which are devolved.
Prisons policy is of course not devolved but prison healthcare is, and our call for health advice and resources for prisoners and staff could be delivered through that.
7. Stronger rights for workers
Workers’ rights are won by trade unions and legislated for via employment law, which is a reserved matter. Nonetheless, the Welsh Government can and has promoted workers’ rights within the devolved public sector. It could provide instructions and guidance to public sector managers to ensure that trade union organising is not restricted during the crisis.
This analysis is admittedly limited by the fact we are in an unprecedented emergency. Never has a devolved government been expected to act so quickly, without the rigmarole of consultations, legal advice and lengthy scrutiny. But times of crisis demand radical action.
Let the confused answers about devolved powers over the past few days be a thing of the past. Instead Ministers should state boldly what needs to happen. And then they should identify where powers lie and what needs to be done to protect our people.
A radical Welsh Government which moved quickly to stop evictions, to provide more PPE to our frontline workers, to deliver emergency financial assistance to our most vulnerable households and the homeless, and to do better than the UK Government, would be a vital tool for communities in Wales in the fight against COVID-19 and ultimately for a better world.