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Politics

Halfway to Paradise

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Jonathan Edwards: Question ignored

PARLIAMENT had its first opportunity to discuss the unsurprising revelation that the seriously wealth retain their serious wealth by means of aggressive tax avoidance schemes on Monday (Nov 6).

With the Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged elsewhere, questions were fielded by Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Mid Devon, Mel Stride.

It appeared that Mr Stride was unprepared to admit that anything was at all untoward with tax avoidance schemes that only the rich and shameless can afford.

Adopting a startling line – prefigured by briefings to the right wing national media – Mr Stride averred that there was no ethical difference between a retail investment available to all UK residents, namely the ISA, and Apple sending out a questionnaire to British Crown Dependences asking them whether or not they would be so kind as to allow Apple to use a brass plate in one of them to ensure it did not have to pay that pesky tax on hundreds of billions in profits.

Never mind brass plate: Mr Stride’s stance had the appearance of brass neck.

In fact, he made great play of the fact that Labour – last in government seven years ago – had done nothing to close the tax loopholes the party now complained of during thirteen years in power. And he was helped in repeatedly avoiding – or perhaps evading – the main issue by being given the opportunity to underline that point by a number of tame questions posed by Conservative backbench stooges.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, presented with the opportunity to make a decent and succinct point on the subject attempted to ask questions of Mel Stride, specifically with regard to investments made by the Duchy of Lancaster – whose current chancellor is Conservative MP Patrick Loughlin – on the Queen’s behalf in offshore tax vehicles.

He may as well have tried nailing jelly to the wall.

David Lammy invited the minister to explain the legitimate reasons for funnelling money offshore to avoid tax, when two-thirds of UK taxpayers are subject to PAYE and have no choice in the matter.

Mr Stride’s response was as remarkable for ducking the question as it was for its content.

“It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality,” Mr Stride suggested, indicating that all was preventing the average worker from availing themselves of the opportunity was a lack of ingenuity and the odd £10m knocking around to make such a vehicle worthwhile.

Jonathan Edwards’ question and its answer deserve full repetition to underline the extent to which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was prepared to be candid.

Jonathan Edwards asked: “After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?”

So, the question is whether the government back the wealthy over the poor and acknowledge the outrage of those with no choice but to hand over their money to the Treasury.

Mr Stride’s response suggests he heard an entirely different question.

“The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40b. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.”

An answer to the question actually posed was absent.

It was that sort of performance. Brazen, shameless, partisan, and deliberately obstructive.

Mr Stride will go far on that sort of form.

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Politics

Draft Welsh Budget probed

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Finance Chair Simon Thomas: Committees hold WG to account

COMMITTEES of the National Assembly for Wales have reported on the Welsh Government’s draft budget 2018-19. The Finance Committee has published its findings, alongside reports from six other Assembly Committees.

Concerns have been raised about the progress of transformation of NHS Services by two Assembly Committees.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee noted that significant change is needed to transform NHS services and improve outcomes, but it is not clear that the Welsh Government budget is targeted to achieve this. The Committee also highlighted that extra funding is sustaining the current position rather than driving improvements, whilst the Finance Committee agreed there is limited evidence of improvement in financial planning in local health boards.

The Health Committee warned that escalating social care costs coupled with rising demand require urgent attention and a whole-system approach to health and social care. The Finance Committee also recognised that an increase in funding for the Health Service results in a cut in other areas, most notably local government, bodies often responsible for the majority of social care provision.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommend that the Welsh Government explains how outcomes will be monitored to ensure that the removal of ring-fenced budgets does not lead to vulnerable people falling between gaps in services.

The Finance Committee identified:

  • That despite a recommendation from last year’s budget scrutiny, there has been only limited progress in linking the budget to the goals and ways of working laid out in the Well-being of Future Generations Act
  • Future draft budgets should also demonstrate how the Government’s allocation of funds will meet the priorities outlined in its Programme for Government and national strategy, Prosperity for All

The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee also raised concerns about the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, warning that the Welsh Government is yet to demonstrate the transformative change promised in the legislation and expressing disappointment at the lack of progress in embedding it in policy. The Committee also warned about the impact of funding reductions on Natural Resources Wales, including a £10m reduction in staff costs.

Concerns have been raised by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee in their report that the £1b dispute with the UK Government over the rail franchise remains unresolved in this budget. The Committee noted that this money could be used to make a real difference to services that could be provided to rail passengers in Wales.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee has concerns about a lack of transparency in relation to the funding available for schools in Wales, particularly the confusion surrounding the amount of additional funding being provided compared to last year. The Committee calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with local government to ensure that protection for school budgets translates from budget calculations to the chalkface.

The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee raised concerns that scale of the resources needed to deliver the Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims for a million Welsh speakers by 2050, has yet to be fully considered. The Committee would like to see greater clarity over the resources that will be needed over the medium and longer term.

Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee, said: “Scrutinising this budget has been a change for all the Committees in the Assembly – the Finance Committee has developed its role into holding the Government to account on its high level and strategic priorities, whilst examining the Government’s intentions with regards to raising revenue and borrowing.

“However, it is good to see that some of the issues coming from the policy committees are resonating with our findings; concerns have been raised around the continued prioritisation of health, often at the expense of local government.

“Additionally, we are still struggling to see the impact of the Future Generations Act, which was raised by the Members of Finance Committee and the Environment Committee.”

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Politics

Last possible date for by-election

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Alyn & Deeside election: Llywydd took circumstances into account

THE LLYWYDD has announced that the date for the Alyn and Deeside by-election will be Tuesday, February 6, 2018 and has written to the Returning Officer asking him to arrange for the poll to take place on that date.

In deciding upon the date, the Llywydd has taken account of the sensitivities of the circumstances which led to the vacancy arising, the practical arrangements for the effective management of the by-election and the impact of the Christmas period on arrangements.

February 6 is statutorily the last possible day on which the by-election can take place. Although elections and by-elections, by convention, have taken place on Thursdays, there is no statutory compulsion to do so.

In these circumstances, the Llywydd believes that this decision provides all political parties and candidates with the maximum opportunity to prepare and also enables the local authority to make the necessary arrangements in a timely way.

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Politics

Independence doubts curb National Procurement Service

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Forecasts savings were over-optimistic: Nick Ramsay

ALTHOUGH spend through the National Procurement Service (NPS) is increasing, it has not developed as quickly as expected resulting in concerns over its funding and less than anticipated savings.

A report from the Wales Audit Office has also suggested that some public bodies think the NPS is too close to the Welsh Government.

Public bodies spent £234 million through the NPS in 2016-17, but this was well short of previous estimates, a report by the Auditor General for Wales has said.

Although spend through its procurement arrangements has increased year-on-year since its inception in 2013, public bodies are not using the NPS as much as anticipated. Of the £234 million spent through NPS in 2016-17, the 73 member organisations spent £222 million. NPS’s 2015 business plan had targeted a figure of £2.2 billion.

Until the end of 2015-16, a £5.9 million Welsh Government ‘Invest-to Save’ loan covered most of NPS’s operating costs. The Welsh Government expected that NPS would then start repaying the loan from surplus income generated by a supplier rebate. However, the rebate generated only £0.9 million in 2016-17 compared with operating costs of £2.8 million. Although there are signs of income increasing in 2017-18, NPS is still not expecting to cover its costs. The Welsh Government has used its reserves to meet the shortfall.

As at August 2017, NPS has reported savings for public bodies of £14.8 million for 2016-17 as well as wider benefits to the economy such as job creation and direct spend with Welsh suppliers. While the reported savings have increased year-on-year, the figures have been substantially lower than some early estimates.

The report also found that some public bodies have been concerned that the NPS is not sufficiently independent from the Welsh Government and that its focus is towards national issues rather than local priorities.

The report makes five recommendations on issues including:

  • identifying why public bodies are not using NPS as much as anticipated;
  • clarifying the process for members opting-out of using NPS procurement arrangements; and
  • agreeing a sustainable funding mechanism for the NPS.
    • Huw Vaughan Thomas said today “There is still broad in-principle support for the NPS, but it is vital that public bodies have confidence in it and it is clear that previous expectations about the growth of the NPS are a long way from being met. The NPS needs to do more to identify and address the reasons why public bodies choose not to use its procurement arrangements and to convince public bodies of the benefits.”

      The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “The National Procurement Service (NPS) has an important role to play in getting a better deal for public bodies for their goods and services and in delivering the Welsh Government’s wider procurement policy objectives.

      “The Auditor General’s report makes clear that the NPS is falling well short of what appears in hindsight to have been over-optimistic expectations about the amount of public spending that it would be able to influence, at least in its early years.

      “The report raises some broader questions about public bodies’ commitment to collaborative purchasing and about the balance between national and local priorities, and the overall governance of the NPS.

      “The Committee will be considering this report about the NPS alongside the Auditor General’s wider report on Public Procurement in Wales, published last month.”

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