English | Cymraeg Tel: 029 2076 5760 Connect: Twitter

Making the links: Lesley Griffiths interview

The reshuffle saw Lesley Griffiths take over from Carl Sargeant as the minister responsible for housing and regeneration. Her expanded portfolio as minister for communities and tackling poverty also includes children and inequality. In an interview in November, the Wrexham AM told Jules Birch about her politics and her priorities

What first brought you into politics?

I was brought up in a very apolitical family but when I was doing my A levels I decided to do British Constitution and I had a really interesting lecturer who took us to the Houses of Parliament for the first time and I just started to get really interested in politics. When I was 18 I decided to join a political party.
The Labour Party for me was my natural home because I thought it was – it is – the party for equality and social justice. So that’s how I got involved. It was a hobby, I didn’t really get too involved, then when I had my own children about ten years later – I’ve
got two girls – I realised that absolutely everything in life was to do with politics, from whether you had a street light in your street, to a library to go to, to which school your children went to. I just realised there were things I needed to fight for then. I never thought I would become an elected representative but here I am.

So your brief: obviously communities and tackling poverty and housing and regeneration is a bit of a mouthful to have to say…

And children and inequality.

People are worried that housing was getting downgraded because previously it had its own minister directly.

It’s still got its own minister. I sit round the Cabinet table and I’m the housing minister. Just because it’s not in my title doesn’t mean it’s not a priority for the government or that I’m not round the Cabinet table because I am. Obviously in the reshuffle in September the First Minister downsized the Cabinet so ministers had different responsibilities and different portfolios came together. But housing is at the heart of everything and I can certainly see the links between communities and tackling poverty and housing and regeneration. It really fits together well.

Does being with communities and tackling poverty change the emphasis or the priorities  at all?

No, not at all. Tackling poverty has been mainstreamed across government I would say more than ever over the last 18 months. Certainly in my previous portfolio I was made to explain very clearly what my department was doing about poverty, what policies I had to tackle poverty, but I think bringing it together now with housing and regeneration just shows our commitment. If you think about what we’re doing in housing and regeneration we’re bringing more jobs in the construction industry, we’re really helping the poverty agenda.

And you’ve just launched a consultation on a new child poverty strategy.

We’ve got one now which is from 2011 to 2014 so we need a new one for 2015. One of my first jobs actually when I came into the portfolio was to get the consultation out. I took a little while to make sure that it’s absolutely pertinent for now because for instance when we went to consultation in 2011 food poverty wasn’t mentioned where now sadly food poverty is really on the agenda. Last Friday I was at a Shelter Cymru event and they were saying that if you spent more than 10 per cent of your net income on fuel then you’re in fuel poverty. I’ve asked officials to look if we’ve got a figure about food poverty because clearly for a lot of families you can see the way that they’re accessing food banks, which sadly is a lot to do with the welfare reform changes coming from the UK Government. Clearly food poverty is a new type of poverty along with in-work poverty so we need to make sure that the new strategy takes those things into account.

You were reaffirming the 2020 target to eliminate child poverty. Within the constraints from the UK government is that possible any more?

Certainly it’s my ambition to eradicate child poverty by 2020 but the changes coming from UK government make it incredibly difficult for us. We haven’t got lots of the levers we’d like to have. I had a meeting with Oxfam this morning and one of the things they were highlighting to me was the unfairness of the sanctions regime in welfare reform. What could we do about it? Well frankly there’s very little I can do about it, I can make very strong representations to the UK government but it’s not a lever I got it.

In the context of devolution, the Scottish Government is pushing for housing benefit to be devolved and for the universal credit not to be applied [the interview took place before publication of the Smith Commission and its recommendations did not go that far]. Is there anything you can do in Wales?

I think it will be interesting to see after the Smith Commission report is published what they’re going to give to Scotland and then obviously are we going to get similar things. We’re going to have to look at it on a case by case basis I think. The concern if they devolve things is that they don’t give you the funding to go with the powers they devolve. In my previous portfolio with the council tax reduction scheme they just got rid of council tax benefit and handed the powers to us and we had to meet a very significant shortfall, which we’ve done, but you can’t just keep plugging gaps all the time in the funding.

And housing benefit in particular is something that the second part of the Silk Commission came out against devolving but perhaps Scotland has put it back on the agenda again?

We’ll have to see what comes out of the Smith Commission I think.

We’ve probably covered some of them already but what would you say are your priorities across your portfolio?

Obviously housing supply is hugely important. You’ll be aware of our 10,000 affordable homes target for which we’ve just had new figures last month and we’re well on target. So I want to continue working with all parts of the housing sector on that. I’ve met some really enthusiastic and committed people. I’ve been very impressed with housing associations, for instance. The work that they do is not just about providing homes for people: training, I met a woman who’s off to university being supported by her housing association; volunteering, I met a single mum where they do timebanking who was helping out in the food and vegetable cooperative and got a basket of fruit free or she could take her daughter swimming. I was really impressed with the work being done.

Legislation is really important. I’ll be introducing the Renting Homes Bill in the New Year. One of my political interests is action against domestic abuse so one of the things we’re looking at is if you’ve got a couple on a joint tenancy and one’s the perpetrator and one’s the victim, now it tends to be the victim that flees the house and perpetrator that stays in. Well under the change we’re looking at that wouldn’t happen and the victim because they’ve got children would be able to stay and the perpetrator would have to leave. Again, it’s really important to support the victim but it’s equally important to try and help the perpetrator and look at programmes for that.

On The Renting Homes Bill, the plans have been out to consultation and been widely debated. One thing that is maybe not quite settled and some people disagree with is on the six-month moratorium.

I knew you were going to say that. Yes, I’m looking at that very closely. I’ve just started looking at that piece of legislation and the six-month moratorium has been raised with me by a couple of people.

This is within the context of homelessness and the interaction with the Housing Act?

Yes and that’s obviously another priority, implementing the Housing Act. We’re looking at Renting Homes now. It’s been out to consultation and all the responses are in but I’ve had to pick it up. That’s the hardest part actually when you go to a new portfolio, picking up someone else’s legislation. We all have to do it but it’s hard. But I am looking at this very closely and the moratorium is one thing.

Another one was retaliatory eviction?

I’m looking at that as well. There’s some stuff coming through from the UK government that I’m looking at.

Another thing that’s a priority for me is advice services. If you can prevent people from getting into debt, for instance, it just pays itself back so many times, not just for them but for society generally if you can prevent homelessness.

Another piece of work I’m very interested in doing is on childcare. Obviously I’ve got children in the portfolio and childcare is a big barrier to getting back to work, particularly in deprived communities. But I think the arts and sport are great redeemers in life too and one of the things I’m looking at is whether we can do something because I think again childcare is a barrier to people doing physical activity. I spoke to a single mum who said ‘I would love to go and do a bit of keep fit’ but childcare is a barrier so we are looking at what we can do around that because tackling poverty and sport go hand in hand.

You already mentioned domestic abuse, which obviously was one of Carl Sargeant’s priorities.

Yes and I was doing it in local government. I had the [Gender- based Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence] Bill and it’s something I’m very keen on taking forward. I think Carl did some fantastic work, firstly in local government and then in the housing sector. Every housing association has now got a domestic abuse policy. I made sure in my previous portfolio that every public sector organisation had got a domestic abuse policy, so I think it’s just building on that really positive work across government.

And another big priority for him was gender balance.

I did a piece of work on diversity in local government so it’s again something I’m very keen on. Life is not 90 per cent men on things and 10 per cent women, so it’s really important. You just get a different perspective. Laura McAllister did a piece of work for me on diversity and of course Sport Wales was one of the first public bodies to get a gender balance.

One thing that will have an impact on housing that you’ve worked on before is local government reorganisation. You were obviously determined to press ahead with reducing the number of local authorities. That has an impact on housing in terms of the strategic housing function and housing as a local political issue. There’s a perception in housing that previous reorganisations have resulted in the housing function being a bit sidelined. Have you thought through how it might work this time?

In the previous portfolio it was something that was highlighted to me. I don’t think anyone thinks that having 22 local authorities for a country the size of Wales is right. However, lots of issues have been raised with me about for instance where two local authorities merge that have different council tax levels or one still controls the stock and one doesn’t. There are lots of issues to be overcome but it’s something that I’ll obviously be speaking to the public services minister about as we go forward. You’ll be aware the prospectus is currently out for voluntary merger, clearly there are lots of issues, but I honestly can’t think of anybody who thinks 22 is right.

On the draft Budget, broadly speaking people were pleased with the way the affordable homes budget had been protected and increased slightly but there was disappointment about Supporting People.

The thing with Supporting People was obviously that we couldn’t protect everything but it had been protected in previous years and I think that did manage to cushion the impact of this year’s cuts. But certainly I’ve spoken to a few people that deliver Supporting People and I think we need to continue to have discussions with local authorities and providers to make sure it’s not the frontline services that are impacted upon. From the general discussions I’ve had, because there’s been a protection before there’s not going to be the impact that people were concerned about and I think they are able to mitigate the worst of that. But we just can’t protect every budget and obviously the decision’s been taken on that.

Obviously Supporting People is a big contrast with what’s happened in England. Is there anything else do you think that’s distinctively Welsh in the approach to housing and regeneration?

Yes, Vibrant and Viable Places. I don’t think there’s anything similar in England. But I think that’s a really good initiative, £100 million over three years and I think we’re going to see a huge focus on housing. Carl was very clear that’s what he wanted to see. Obviously I was only aware what was going on in Wrexham initially but certainly looking at the 11 local authority areas that have the funding there are some really innovative ideas coming forward now about housing in town centres, which I’m a big fan of. Also, empty homes: I don’t know if there is anything similar in England but 4,471 empty homes were brought back into use in the first three years of this term.

Looking UK-wide obviously the general election is next year and the options seem to range from lots of austerity to lots and lots and lots of austerity.

You don’t think there’s no austerity, no?

Do you?

It’s going to be incredibly tough but I don’t think a Labour government would pursue the austerity we’ve seen from the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition. It’s too quick and too deep. I never had people coming to my surgery as a constituency Assembly member about benefits ever and now most weeks I have somebody come in to see me. Welfare reform is the major thing now. I must have had three people in the last month come to me about PIP [Personal Independence Payment] and it was just unheard of before. There was one lady, her husband was in a wheelchair and they hadn’t had anything for six months. And that’s where I’d go back to advice services. I want to make sure the advice services in Wales are the very best possible. Before I came into the portfolio Jeff [Cuthbert] my predecessor had announced an extra £2 million and I really want to make sure that’s evaluated to ensure that it is getting to the people it needs to get to. If you can stop people going into debt and stop them losing their house it will have done what we wanted it to do.

Sign up to our email newsletter

Every two months we'll email you a summary of the latest news & articles on the WHQ website. Better still, if you're a fully paid up magazine subscriber, you'll get access to the latest members-only articles as well.

Sign up for the email newsletter »

Looking to advertise in our magazine?

Advertising and sponsored features are a great way to raise your profile with our readership of housing and regeneration decision makers in Wales.

Find out more »