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17 October 2016

Western Mail column: Opposition parties must prioritise Supporting People in budget negotiations

Supporting PeopleThe link between health and housing is well documented and we know from our own experience that good quality, secure accommodation makes a huge difference to people’s mental health and wellbeing. This is reinforced by recent Welsh Government policy and legislation, with the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010 placing accommodation at the heart of care and treatment planning for people using secondary mental health services. In addition, Together for Mental Health requires the entire Welsh Government, including housing, to play their part in improving mental health and wellbeing across Wales.

The Welsh Government’s Supporting People programme plays an important role in this agenda, by preventing homelessness among many vulnerable groups, including people with mental health problems. It supports people to maintain and access accommodation as well as helping them to develop their skills and confidence to live independently in their communities. This often takes the form of tenancy support for people in their own homes and the provision of supported housing for people who need more intensive support.

The Supporting People programme supports approximately 60,000 of the most vulnerable people in Wales every year and the evidence shows that it delivers savings to the public purse in health, social care, homelessness, criminal justice and social security. A recent data linkage study shows that people benefiting from a Supporting People funded service used health services in a more planned way, with a reduction in the number of visits to GPs and A&E departments, as well as emergency hospital admissions. An earlier regional study also showed that savings of £2.30 are generated for every £1 invested in the programme.

Unlike in England, the Welsh Government has continued to ring-fence the Supporting People budget. Evidence from England shows that the removal of the ring-fence led to a reduction in services and increased homelessness.
As the Welsh Government’s draft budget approaches, many people and organisations involved in supporting vulnerable people are keeping a keen eye on discussions between political parties. With just 30 Assembly Members from the governing parties of Welsh Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Government will need the support of at least one opposition party to pass the budget.

On 28th September Plaid Cymru used their opposition debate to call for the Supporting People programme to be protected from financial cuts throughout this Assembly term. The Welsh Conservatives also tabled an amendment in support of this aim. Bethan Jenkins AM, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Housing offered a passionate argument for the protection of this budget. She highlighted the growing evidence that Supporting People not only prevents homelessness but also delivers savings across several areas of public spending. She argued that it makes economic sense to protect this budget.

Welsh Conservatives AM Mark Isherwood and Welsh Labour AM Jeremy Miles also voiced their support for the programme, recognising the value it adds to people in their own constituencies and across Wales. Despite this cross party support, the Welsh Government said it could not vote for the motion due to ongoing budget negotiations. However, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities highlighted the benefits of the Supporting People programme, but also referred to the demands and constraints on the Welsh budget.

The Welsh Government’s recently published Programme for Government makes a commitment to strengthen communities, enable people to develop new skills and live healthy and fulfilling lives, and improve access to housing. We know that the Supporting People programme does this every day and supports people from vulnerable groups to live independent, fulfilled lives in their communities.

The Welsh Government can be proud of its record in continuing to ring-fence Supporting People funding, unlike in other parts of the UK. Opposition parties have also played a crucial role in protecting the Supporting People budget in recent years by prioritising this issue in their budget negotiations.

Based on Plaid Cymru's opposition debate, the Supporting People programme should be high up on the agenda of both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives. Welsh Labour members also have an important role to play in lobbying their colleagues within the Cabinet. 

We hope that the Welsh Government continues to recognise the valuable contribution made by the Supporting People programme and protects it in their upcoming budget. We also hope to see Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives turn their rhetoric into reality by ensuring that the Supporting People programme is high on their ‘shopping list’ during any budget discussions and negotiations. Any deal made by opposition parties must include the protection of Supporting People funding and we will all be watching closely when the draft budget is tabled on the 18th October.

Ewan Hilton is the Chief Executive of the mental health and wellbeing charity Gofal.

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