Oliver Townsend argues that the Supporting People programme has attracted widespread political and policy consensus, but action is still needed to protect it.
Despite delivering a variety of benefits across a range of public policy areas – and being the envy of housing professionals the other side of Offa’s Dyke – the Welsh Government’s Supporting People (SP) programme does not seem to garner the same attention as other initiatives. A £124.4 million programme, it works across Wales, supporting over 60,000 vulnerable people every year. It provides a range of interventions that address homelessness, maintain independence, reduce use of health and social services, prevent domestic abuse, reduce re-offending and help people back into education, training and employment.
In the context of the Institute for Welsh Affairs, Supporting People is an interesting case study for that rarest of policy agendas: one that has many different impacts, and one that has widespread cross-party support. One of the reasons it has been such a long-lasting programme has been the support from all parties in the Assembly. Over the years, debates have been led by Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats to ensure this vital funding stream is protected. It has also received consistent support from Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru in Government.
Given the usual acrimony in politics, Supporting People has largely been unscathed by political footballing. There are, I believe, several reasons for this:
- It is pan-Wales and firmly rooted in local constituencies and regions, which means every Assembly Member of any party can see immediately the benefits to their area;
- It has a transformative impact on people’s lives, and this means the stories of people can be incredibly powerful;
- There is evidence that it delivers benefits to a wide range of public services, (evidence such as the Data Linkage Feasibility study which showed a clear link between SP interventions and reduced health service usage; and the study from Carmarthenshire County Council showing savings to health, social care, housing and community safety of £2.30 for every £1 spent);
- It meets a very real and growing issue of homelessness, which at least in Wales has been a traditionally non-partisan area of policy.
The underlying principles of the programme are also able to appeal to people of every party and none. It can help foster independence, enabling people into work, it clearly addresses many needs of the most vulnerable, and offers protection for those most at risk. There is quite clearly something of value to every political party’s ideology in the programme.
In this sense therefore, it might be fair to describe the programme as the ‘hen’s tooth’ of policy in Wales. Rarer than hen’s teeth, the traditional saying goes. In policy terms, despite our country facing some of the greatest challenges in recent memory, this example of collaborative policy-making is regrettably just as rare.
There is a great deal that the policy communities across Wales can learn from Supporting People. It helps to have identifiable aims and purposes; it makes a real difference to see first-hand the benefits to individuals; it helps to ensure the aims meet with different (but complementary) ideological goals. It also helps when the assumption is made that all politicians want to see the best from the people they represent. It is a trend too often seen in politics and policy, that a party other than one’s own is seen as ‘the bad party’. It can lead the debate on policy away from the evidence, and towards unhelpful party point-scoring.
Supporting People can serve as a model for how good policies can be designed, implemented – and maintained.
This is not to say that the programme is perfect – no policy can be. The Wales Audit Office report last week identified some clear areas for improvement, predominantly in the management and administration of the fund, recommending clearer guidance and better data collection. However, it is also important to note, as Katie Dalton said in Cymorth’s response to the report, that “the report does not criticise the services provided by the many dedicated staff across Wales”.
Some of the delay in implementation of changes is, as cited in the report, arguably due to the co-productive principles adhered to by the programme. Which is a further lesson in itself for policymakers: co-production when done properly can slow the pace of change, but it does mean the change can be more effective and embedded when it does take place. The WAO report argues that the annual funding cycle is one of the weaknesses in the programme, and recommends a move towards 3-year indicative funding, something that Cymorth Cymru has argued for over many years. This certainty will allow longer-term strategic planning and enable the Programme to become even more successful than it has already been.
This year is a crucial year for Supporting People. Budget pressures facing the Welsh Government mean that once again Supporting People funding is under threat. However, the difficult financial climate provides the opportunity for political leadership. We hope the Welsh Government and opposition parties show this in the coming weeks. Supporting People services have been reducing their costs for years and providers are clear that any further cuts will lead to fewer people receiving vital support. This cannot be allowed to happen, when so many vulnerable people rely on it.
You can join the campaign to protect the SP budget by taking part in our Day of Action by tweeting, and by targeting your local Assembly Members asking them to commit to protecting the budget. Sign up to the Thunderclap here.
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