The voluntary sector Finance network met recently with the Minister for Finance to discuss a range of subjects, from short-term funding cycles to impact assessments, poverty and the climate emergency.
The Minister began the meeting by speaking about the uncertainty Welsh Government faces during budgeting processes. This is an effect of lack of knowledge as to what the UK Budget, due to be delivered on 11 March, may bring, and the continued lack of a now-overdue Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). She hopes the CSR will be delivered this year and offer an outlook of the next three to four years.
Perhaps the most important item on the agenda for the network was the impacts of short-term funding on the voluntary sector. Ruth said that indicated Budgets would be useful to help move away from short-term funding, while the group suggested it could potentially avoid duplication of work. Patience Bentu of Race Council Cymru commented that third sector organisations often receive funding in December of January and are then expected to spend it by the end of the financial year, which hinders good planning. Simon James of Interlink RCT said constant changes in guidance, priorities and processes prevents long-term thinking and puts up a barrier to citizen involvement. The Minister said that further discussion, particularly on end of year funding, is needed and Welsh Government will look to take this forward.
The network also discussed the Budget Improvement Group (BIG), which oversees improvements to Welsh Government’s budgeting processes, and asked to ensure the involvement of the voluntary sector to ensure a range of diverse voices. The meeting also discussed the Budget Advisory Group on Equalities (BAGE) here, which BAGE members felt was not being used to best affect. BAGE members are now discussing what wider engagement around budgeting might look like going forward. Ruth Marks, WCVA Chief Executive, highlighted the importance of the Third Sector Partnership Council, under the Third Sector Scheme, in engaging with the wider voluntary sector. The sector has lots of evidence and expertise to be drawn upon.
The meeting then talked about Impact Assessments. Gethin Rhys of Cytun – Churches in Wales highlighted the importance of impact assessments during budgeting, for example, looking at the gender impacts of spending on health and social care. Sector involvement in the BIG and any successor to BAGE can help Welsh Government see potential unintended consequences of budgeting decisions. The Minister said the issue of impact assessments had come under scrutiny and there was more work to do. She was pleased that the sector wanted to be involved.
The group asked for more information about those elements of welfare that are devolved, such as free school meals and council tax benefits, as part of a conversation about tackling poverty though the Budget. The Minister noted work Welsh Government has done around council tax, such as ensuring those with mental health issues are more able to access benefits and the removal imprisonment for non-payment. The Local Authority Revenue and Benefits Group will take a look at the Council Tax Protocol at its next meeting. Then, during a quick discussion of the Social Partnerships Bill, Ruth Marks noted that the voluntary sector was not mentioned at all within the Bill’s White Paper. The Minister said she’d bring this to the attention of the Minister for Housing and Local Government.
On tackling the climate emergency through the Budget, Jessica McQuade of WWF Cymru noted that the Finance Committee had said that the level of funding made available for this issue was ‘not transformative’. She suggested that 5% of Welsh Government’s overall budget per year could be transformative and might be achieved with an uplift of 0.5% per year over the next few years, acknowledging that tackling the crisis was a step-by-step issue. She noted the difficult of measuring emissions, but said improvement in this area might help with budget allocation. The Minister said a meeting or roundtable event with officials to work on carbon impact assessments would be beneficial.
The Minister updated the network on the Tax Policy Implementation Group, which will be wound down following its work on Landfill Tax and Land Transaction Tax. Welsh Government will now look at ways to engage more widely on tax and are keen to have third sector involvement.
Finally, the group voiced its concerns about the lack of information from UK Government on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for EU funding post-Brexit, and how it will be administered, concerns the Minister said she shared.