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Council U-Turn on ‘Bedroom Tax’ policy

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Bedroom-Tax-WheelchairThe Herald has learnt that a high profile local and televised case has led to a change of heart in how Pembrokeshire County Council applies the Government’s policy on the Spare Room Subsidy, often referred to as the‘Bedroom Tax’.

The controversial policy was at the centre of Westminster politics this week when David Cameron was challenged, during Prime Minister’s Questions, in Parliament, by Labour MP Jim Cook to justify his position for what Mr Cook saw as ‘a policy that punishes the poor’. To which, The Prime Minister responded by stating that the policy is designed to apply the same rules to both the private and public sector housing markets alike. Mr Cameron also challenged Labour to state whether they would reverse the Coalition policy or not, to which he received no response.

The Spare Room Subsidy was introduced on April 1 of this year by the UK Government. principally, because they claim there are nearly one million spare bedrooms in the UK, with an estimated cost to the tax payer of up to half a billion pounds a year. Simon Hart, MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire told The Herald that,

“To ensure we protect those affected, we have trebled the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). We have allocated £25 million to support disabled people living in heavily adapted accommodation”.

In the Welsh Assembly this week, Rebecca Evans AM, and member of the Health and Social Care Committee, commented on the policy, claiming that the Labour Welsh Government were ‘making efforts to mitigate the effects of the Bedroom Tax’. In a press release dated September 3, of the UK Government, she stated that,

“Amazingly, despite admitting that the Bedroom Tax could have a disproportionate effect on rural communities, the UK Government didn’t undertake a specific rural impact assessment to fully investigate the problems it may pose. It seems they are quite comfortable with pushing forward with metropolitan policies that have a harsh effect on rural communities”

Welsh Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, visited housing developments in both Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock and said that,

“We are determined to do all that we can to help mitigate against the UK Government welfare reforms. That’s why we’ve allocated £20 million to provide much needed one and two bedroom homes across Wales.”

However, one Pembrokeshire resident directly affected by this policy, whose story was featured on Channel 4 news this past week, does not feel the application of this tax is being applied in a fair and even handed way. Paul Rutherford, of Haverfordwest, spoke directly with The Herald to explain his experience.

“Our bungalow was purpose built and allocated to my wife and her grandson due to the profound nature of his disabilities and care requirements. It was built with various adaptations. We first became unsure if we would, in fact, be affected or not after I read the legislation in January of this year. There, it states that an exemption will be made for any household in which the claimant or the claimant’s partner requires an extra bedroom for an overnight carer who does not normally reside at the address.”

In correspondence with The Herald, Simon Hart MP re-iterated this aspect of policy.

Mr Rutherford, continued to explain that the spare bedroom for which the tax would be liable was occupied at least two to three nights a week by a non resident carer. Initially, he said that the Council had advised him to put in a claim for a Discretionary Housing Payment. After many problems with form filling and financial assessment, he went on to say that the Council had advised him that he was not eligible for a DHP and could therefore afford to pay the additional 14% of his rent. Eventually, however, he said that the Council agreed to award the DHP but informed Pembrokeshire County Council that, in fact, he was appealing against the original decision to have their housing benefit cut, as required by the Spare Room Subsidy policy. He stated that his concern was that this was merely a short term funding plan and that the real issue was that of the housing benefit cut itself. Mr Rutherford explained that he would be taking legal action saying that,

“This tax is pernicious. Of the 660,000 households said to be affected, almost two thirds contain disabled people, like us, who need the space in their homes to have carers stay overnight or for equipment storage. We will fight this all the way and we would have expected more support from Pembrokeshire County Council, but they don’t actually care.”

The Herald contacted County Councillor David Simpson, Cabinet Spokesperson for Housing, regarding Mr Rutherford’s case, who, speaking exclusively to The Herald, said,

“We will be reviewing the policy at Cabinet on Monday, which will stop him (Mr Rutherford)  from having to pay.”

When asked why the County Council had not applied the discretion for disabled tenants as per Government policy, Mr Simpson said of this apparent U-turn in Council policy towards implementing the Spare Room Subsidy,

“In the original assessment it was not felt they (Mr Rutherford and his wife) were in dire need. This is the Government’s fault. It is a policy imposed upon councils and has put all councils in a very difficult position. I heard about it (Mr Rutherford’s case) and acted as quickly as I could.”

On the actual figure of those affected in Pembrokeshire, and the claim by the Labour Welsh Government that only fourteen one bedroom properties were currently available, he went on to say that,

“The County Council currently has 947 one bedroom, or smaller, properties. The fourteen figure quoted relates to the number of one bedroom, or smaller, properties available at a point in time in August – this will change over time. Since April 1st there have been a total of fifty-seven one bedroom properties that have become available. “

Paul Davies, Am for Preseli Pembrokeshire, speaking with The Herald, said of the policy,

“Welfare bills, including housing benefit, spiralled out of control under the last Labour Government, costing over £100 billion every year, paid for with the taxes of hardworking people. I am surprised that Labour politicians continue to support the reckless sort of spending which got this country into the economic mess in the first place. Most families in Wales have to pay extra in rent or mortgage payments if they want to have a guest bedroom so why should it be any different for people on housing benefit?”

This was a sentiment echoed by Simon Hart MP who said that the policy aimed to make better use of housing stock, support those in overcrowded accommodation and on waiting lists, encourage mobility within the social rented sector, and strengthen work incentives.

He finished by stating that,

“The Spare Room Subsidy is not a penalty and it is not a tax. It is a reduction in housing benefit for those who are being subsidised for spare bedrooms. This policy is founded on the principles of fairness; fairness to those in overcrowded homes, fairness to those in the private sector and fairness to the taxpayer”.

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There are no illegal immigrants in Penally, Home Office confirms

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THE HOME OFFICE has been in touch with The Pembrokeshire Herald to clarify some of the queries that locals have regarding the Penally Army Camp, now being used to house asylum seekers.

The Management Team at the asylum seeker holding unit have refused to engage with the local County Councillor, John Preston, but the information now received could go some way to answer some of the questions which have, until now, remained unanswered on social media, and by the local member himself.

Firstly, there has been speculation about the immigration status of those people held in Penally. The government has now confirmed that those being housed in MoD sites are people “currently awaiting asylum decisions”.

This means that all of the people in the camp have applied for asylum officially, and that they are currently in the United Kingdom legally. This is because a refugee, who has presented himself to the UK authorities without delay, showed good cause for his entry or presence and has made a claim for asylum as soon as was reasonably practicable, is afforded protection in law from offences connected with that entry. It is legal for people to enter the country in a manner which would normally be illegal, as long as it was for the purposes of seeking asylum.

The people who are staying at Penally Camp are new to the UK, having arrived in boats or in the back of lorries – but they have already been quarantined and screened for Covid-19.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “In line with guidelines about arrivals into the United Kingdom, asylum seekers will have first spent a 14-day quarantine period in other temporary accommodation before, providing they do not display any symptoms of Covid-19, being moved to the MoD sites [including Penally].”

The Home Office also said that whenever using contingency accommodation, they “ensure that detailed assessment is carried out to ensure asylum seekers have the support services they need. If there are any issues that need to be addressed, we will work with our contractor and other partners to find solutions.

Suggesting that the decision to use Penally Camp was made in a rush the Home Office said: “There are times where contingency accommodation must be procured and mobilised at speed to ensure we meet our legal obligations.”

The spokesman added: “The Home Office is committed to working collaboratively with communities and stakeholders to ensure that destitute asylum seekers are provided with safe, secure and suitable accommodation while their asylum claims are considered. This includes working in partnership with local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups in England and Local Health Boards in Wales, Public Health England and Wales, the Welsh Government and local police forces. We have specifically set up an Asylum Accommodation Strategic Working Group to support collaborative working.

“Our ambition is to house asylum seekers within the asylum estate without the need for contingency accommodation. We are working to address the issues putting pressure on our asylum accommodation. This includes resuming support cessations, to get people moving out of accommodation when their cases are concluded, and also to continue to take steps to address illegal migration and the exploitation and organised criminality that goes with it, including the dangerous Channel crossings we have seen in recent times”.

THREAT OF ARREST

In regards to the protests in Penally, the Home Office spokesperson said: “We will not tolerate any attempts to fuel resentment towards asylum seekers and we will take all the necessary steps to protect people in our care.

“We continually review the security at asylum accommodation sites with providers, who work closely with local police to ensure action is taken if someone tries to access a site.”

The information sent from the Home Office came on the day that more asylum seekers were bussed into the camp, under the escort of unmarked police vehicles (Sept 28).
One solitary protestor was on hand to attempt to block the bus, but under the threat of arrest he was moved out of the way by a police officer.

On Monday evening, some of the asylum seekers from the camp came to the gates to speak to protestors. One of those protestors, James Gould, a member of the Facebook group ‘Penally Against Illegal Migrant Camp’ live streamed an ad-hoc interview with one of the camp residents, which has now been seen by over 20,000 people.

COUNCILLOR WANTS HIS VOICE HEARD

Meanwhile, Cllr Preston is pushing forward with his plan to spread national awareness about what is happening in Penally. He told the press over the weekend: “I spoke with a Home Office official last week and stated that I am deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that our human rights obligations may not be possible to uphold in such a facility”

“It is my understanding that the asylum seekers have been removed from support networks established within the UK who have the infrastructure to provide them with their essential medical, spiritual, emotional, and domestic needs.

“They have then been transported during the night to Penally where they have witnessed mass protests and media attention.

“Due to the highly prominent location of the camp it has now become a point of public curiosity creating an environment of anxiety and fear for those on both sides of the fence.

“I have met with residents and business owners over the weekend, and it is still not clear why such a facility has been established in the heart of one of Europe’s premier holiday destinations.

“I am in contact with the BBC with a view to raising national awareness of the situation at Penally Camp and how it has been implemented by the Home Office as I consider this to be of national importance.

“It will not benefit anyone to have a government enquiry in five years’ time to tell us lessons have been learnt’. The injustice is happening now in real time and this decision must be re-called as a matter of urgency”

In other comments to the press the councillor said: “No consideration has been afforded to the elderly population in the area or to the needs of a large group of vulnerable adults. The autocratic manner in which this decision has been made should be a concern to us all. We will continue to demand that it is reconsidered”

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Jail for woman who stole £93,000 from trusting elderly widow

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A WOMAN who stole £93,000 from an elderly widow who had come to trust her as a friend has been jailed for 28 months.

Fiona Louise Harwood, of High Street in Neyland, abused her position as power of attorney while informally caring for a woman in her 80s, to access her bank account and spend thousands of pounds on clothes, a holiday and dating websites.

The victim had so much trust in Harwood, who she had initially paid as a cleaner, that she had amended her will to leave the 50-year-old her house. She later discovered her friend had flouted her position for her own gain.

Dyfed-Powys Police sergeant Stuart Wheeler, who investigated the claims of fraud, explained that the incidents were reported to the force in January 2019.

He said: “This was a saddening investigation to work on, as it transpired the suspect had blatantly abused the trust of a vulnerable elderly woman who believed she could depend on her.

“Before coming to police, the victim had become aware that she hadn’t received a bank statement for over a year, and asked a friend to help her look into it.

“It transpired that the victim’s friend had been alerted to suspicious financial activity around six months earlier, when a Debenhams statement was received showing purchases made at the firm’s Exeter branch. Not only did the victim not hold an account with Debenhams, but the friend was aware that Harwood had recently visited the city.

“After contacting the bank for up-to-date statements, the friend saw there was a huge shortfall from the victim’s accounts, with just £6,000 remaining across an ISA, savings and current account.”

Paperwork showed four pages of purchases from Amazon, which the victim would not know how to use, stores including Next and Joules, and online dating sites.

Officers visited the victim, and learned that she had known Harwood for many years and had employed her to clean her home. She went on to claim a carer’s allowance, and was given power of attorney when the victim’s husband died in 2016.

“The sum of money missing from the victim’s accounts far surpassed what would have been spent in caring for the victim,” PS Wheeler said.

“She had taken advantage of a friend in an appalling way.”

As well as using the victim’s card to go shopping, financial checks showed Harwood had withdrawn £18,676 from ATMs, and transferred £50,300 to her own account.

Harwood was arrested on suspicion of fraud in February 2019. She later claimed she had been giving money to another woman from the victim’s account.

She was charged with fraud by abuse of position, and two counts of fraud by false representation – opening a Next account and Debenhams account in the victim’s name.

Harwood appeared at Swansea Crown Court on Friday, September 25 where she pleaded guilty to the charges.

She was sentenced to 28 months in prison.

“In being granted power of attorney, the defendant was expected to safeguard the financial interests of the victim, not use the position for her own gain,” PS Wheeler said.

“I have no doubt that this criminal behaviour would have continued if the victim’s friend had not become suspicious that something wasn’t right.

“We hope this sentence goes to show that committing fraud of this nature will not be tolerated.”

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Police appeal for witnesses after 20-year-old pedestrian tragically killed on A40

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DYFED-POWYS POLICE is appealing for witnesses to a fatal road traffic collision on the A40 west of Carmarthen on Saturday (Sept 26) in which a 20-year-old man, a pedestrian, lost his life.

The police have asked The Pembrokeshire Herald to publicise this appeal.

A spokesman for the police told this newspaper: “At around 9.40pm, a white VW Transporter was in collision with a pedestrian on the A40 westbound, near the junction of Llangynog, Carmarthen.

“The pedestrian, a 20-year-old male, died as a result of his injuries.

“It appears the pedestrian had left his vehicle, a black Seat, following a single-vehicle collision further along the westbound carriageway shortly before.

The police have asked that if anyone has any information on either or both collisions, or may have been travelling along the A40 at the relevant time, please contact the serious collision investigation unit, quoting reference DPP-20200926-339.

This can be done by email: contactcentre@dyfed-powys.pnn.police.uk, by phone on 101 or by text: If you are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired text the non-emergency number on 07811 311 908.

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