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Politics

Tory NHS funding pledge ‘a stunt’

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Tory claim 'a cheap stunt': Eluned Morgan dismisses spin machine

THE ANNOUNCEMENT by the UK Government that it is to release funding for the NHS, claimed hilariously as a ‘Brexit Windfall’, will result in funding being cut in other spending departments and is – as yet – wholly unfunded.

The 3.4% rise is funding over each of the next four years from 2019 is less than the 3.7% average annual rise the NHS budget has received since 1948 and is likely to come with significant strings attached before any of the claimed increase reaches frontline services.

In addition, a disingenuous claim by the UK Government that £1.2bn of the new funding is set aside for NHS services in Wales is nonsense as the UK Government cannot hypothecate money out of the financial settlement it provides to the Welsh Government to fulfil its own UK-wide party-political objectives.

Indeed, the pressing social care disaster in England will not even be addressed by the increased spending, leading to criticism that the announced notional ‘increase’ will do little more than entrench continuing failure in that field.

The Welsh Conservatives have not hesitated to jump all over the opportunistic announcement, made in a speech by Theresa May to healthcare leaders in London, usefully made to coincide with the UK Government’s ongoing humiliation over Brexit, and which has not even been subject to parliamentary scrutiny or approval.

Details of the funding have not even been released to the Welsh Government which Theresa May is seeking to bind to a spending commitment which might never happen.

Angela Burns AM, said: “This is a hugely welcome announcement by the Prime Minister, one which will help secure the future of our most treasured public service for generations to come.

“Conservatives in Government have increased the NHS budget every year, whilst Labour in Wales remain the only party across the UK to have cut an NHS budget, which has put the Welsh NHS under ever-increasing pressure.

“This long-term funding boost must now be invested wisely by the Labour Government in Wales – ensuring the challenges in health and social care can be planned for with confidence, clarity and competence.”

However, the Conservatives’ claims have been dismissed as a ‘stunt’ by Assembly Member Eluned Morgan.

Ms Morgan has pointed out that independent experts – including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Channel 4’s FactCheck – called out the so-called ‘Brexit Dividend’ funding commitment which will ultimately have to be paid through higher taxes as any savings from leaving the EU will have to meet our ‘divorce bill’ and other costs.

Eluned Morgan AM said: “In reality, Theresa May has announced that we’ll all be paying more to fund our NHS through increased taxes and additional borrowing. There is no Brexit dividend, just a Tory spin machine on overdrive attempting to hide the divisions in her own party. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have been brutal in their assessment of this announcement, it is a shame that the Prime Minister and her colleagues in the Assembly haven’t been clear with the public about the detail.

“Any extra spending in England will mean more money for Wales, but when you put the £1.2billion into context, this announcement only goes to replace what Wales has lost over the last 8 years of crippling Tory austerity. Pembrokeshire, like every other county in Wales has seen the impact of Tory austerity resulting in job losses, public services under pressure and increasing poverty for those in and out of work. I know the people of Pembrokeshire will see through this cheap stunt for what it is.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the UK Government’s belated decision to mitigate their austerity policies on our NHS, which we have long been calling for.

“While we welcome any additional funding, we await details of what that additional funding for Wales will be. However, it cannot be forgotten that had the Welsh Budget seen real terms growth between 2010-11 and 2019-20, the budget would be some £4bn higher than it is today.

“Decisions on the allocation of additional funding will be made by the Welsh cabinet in the usual way.”

Politics

Plaid proposes second home restrictions

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THE TIME has come for the Welsh Government to take firm actions to protect communities and first time buyers against the economic oppression of runaway second home purchases, according to Plaid Cymru.
On Wednesday (September 23) the party published a 16-page report containing five main recommendations ahead of a debate in the Senedd the same afternoon.
The proposed measures include:
• Changing planning laws to allow councils to impose a cap on the number of second homes, refuse permission for changing a dwelling from being from a primary to a secondary residence and disallow new properties from being purchased in areas where second homes make up to 20% of the local market
• Allowing council to charge council tax premiums of up to 200% on second homes and having the Welsh Government bring forward regulations to treble the LTT (Land Transaction Tax) charge on the purchase of second properties.
• Close the loophole that allows second home owners to register their property as “businesses” in order to avoid paying the council tax premium.
• Look at bringing in a licencing scheme for renting properties through companies such as AirBnB to control the amount of properties that can be used as a cash cow in popular holiday destinations where house prices are high.
• Proposals to empower councils to build houses with a local conditions on them, make it easier to bring empty properties back into use and redefine the term ‘affordable home’ (which currently includes properties worth over £250,000).
There were 4,000 in Pembrokeshire in 2018 (source PCC). In 2016 in Tenby, 35% of all homes were second homes/holiday lets (source PCC).
Lexden Terrace off St Julien Street, Tenby has six dwellings, five of which are second homes; in Harding Street, eight of eleven houses are second homes; in yet another street in central Tenby, 22 out of 31 houses are second homes.
Across West Wales, there are considerable fears that one of thecoronavirus pandemic has fuelled a housing ‘bubble’ due to the disease’s relatively low rate of infection and transmission in the locality.
“The proliferation of second homes in seaside towns and villages has been driving up property prices and driving away our young people for some time,” said Pembrokeshire County Councillor Mike Williams of Tenby.
“Unless action is taken to regulate the second home market, out coastal communities will become a playground for people who are rich enough to own more than one home. What use is the Future Generations Act if young people have no chance of having a future in their communities?”
Speaking to another local councillor last week, The Herald was told of one house which went on the market on a Friday this month and was sold to buyers from outside Pembrokeshire by the following Monday for £70,000 over its asking price.
When we spoke to a county councillor in Ceredigion, we were told a similar story: properties going onto the market are being snapped up over their asking price as second homes by outsiders attracted by the county’s excellent record handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking about the publication of the report and ahead of the Senedd debate, Plaid Cymru’s shadow housing minister Delyth Jewell MS said: “People all over Wales have heard the cry of pain coming from the North West over the past few months, as the already unsustainable holiday homes situation spirals further out of control.
“The main purpose of devolution was so that we in Wales would have the powers to fix our problems ourselves, but the situation isn’t improving with over a third of homes sold in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn in the last financial year being purchased as second properties.
“12% of Gwynedd’s housing stock consists of second homes owned by people outside the county, this is among the highest in Europe and the subsequent price inflation in a low-wage area means that people are simply unable to buy a home within their own community.
“The series of measures proposed by Plaid Cymru today are designed to bring the situation under control and empower communities through targeted, proportional interventions and I hope the Welsh Government will consider them seriously.”
Ms Jewell added: “Countries all over the world have taken action in the face of similar circumstances, for example New Zealand and Denmark have simply banned property sales for non-citizens, and the Bolzano region is Italy has restricted the sales of holiday homes to people outside the region.
“We can’t go on like this, it’s not fair that people who are living in areas already disadvantaged in terms of a lack of work opportunities have to see their communities slowly being transformed as locals have to move away in order to find a house to live in.
“I am deeply concerned about the effect this will have on the Welsh language, it will be a stain on the conscience of the nation if the language is allowed to wither away in its heartlands simply because the Welsh Government doesn’t want to act.
“But this is an issue that affects the whole of Wales as house prices keep inflating – the measures on affordable housing, LTT rates and the localism clause would benefit first-time buyers all around the country.”

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Politics

Home Office wings it on immigration

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A KEY House of Commons Select Committee’s report has savaged the Home Office’s inability to provide information about immigration.
The Public Accounts Committee says the Department’s policy is informed less by hard evidence than by anecdote.
In its report, the Committee acknowledges that immigration ‘has always been a cause of public and political debate’. However, it expresses concern that, after many years of addressing the issue the Home Office can provide little evidence to inform that debate.
Despite previous enquiries and reports into the Home Office’s handling of immigration, the Committee says: ‘[T]he Department is still not sufficiently curious about the impact of its actions and the underlying reasons for the challenges it faces’.
The report criticises the Home Office for having no idea what impact it has achieved for the £400 million spent each year by its Immigration Enforcement directorate.
It continues: ‘There are major holes in the Department’s understanding of the size and scale of illegal immigration and the extent and nature of any resulting harm. It does not understand the support people need to navigate its systems effectively and humanely, or how its actions affect them’.

HOME OFFICE POLICY NOT BASED ON EVIDENCE

The Committee flays the Department for appearing to formulate policy on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice” and criticises it for showing ‘far too little concern’ over the consequences of its failures on both the illegal and legitimate migrant populations.
Despite years of public and political debate and concern, the Department still does not know the size of the illegal population in the UK.
It does not know what harm the illegal population causes.
It does not know how many people come to the UK legally and do not renew their visa, or how many deliberately come illegally.
The Home Office has not estimated the illegal population in the UK since 2005. It had no answer to the Committee’s concerns that potentially exaggerated figures calculated by unofficial sources could inflame hostility towards immigrants.
The Home Office does not know whether policies introduced to create what the then Home Secretary dubbed a hostile environment to deter illegal migration.
The lack of evidence base and “significant lack of diversity” at senior levels has created organisational “blind spots”, with the Windrush scandal a damning indictment of “the damage such a culture creates”.
In 2019, 62% of immigration detainees were released from detention because the Department could not return them as planned to their country of origin – up from 58% the year before. The Department doesn’t know why this figure is so high, or what it can do to ensure these returns are completed as planned.

‘INSUFFICIENTLY PREPARED’

The Home Office is unprepared for the challenges the UK’s exit from the EU presents to its immigration enforcement operations. In evidence to the Committee in mid-July it could provide no evidence that it had even begun discussions with the EU partners it relies on to support its international operations, including the return of foreign national offenders and illegal migrants.
The Home Office has belatedly accepted a previous Committee recommendation that it must extend its “lessons learned” review of Windrush Department beyond Caribbean Commonwealth nationals to include nationals from other Commonwealth countries.
The Committee is not convinced that the Department is sufficiently prepared to properly safeguard the existing, legal immigrant population in the UK, while also implementing a new immigration system and managing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CHAIR’S COMMENTS

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The Home Office has frighteningly little grasp of the impact of its activities in managing immigration. It shows no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes across a swathe of immigration activities – even when it fully accepts that it has made serious errors.
“It accepts the wreckage that its ignorance and the culture it has fostered caused in the Windrush scandal – but the evidence we saw shows too little intent to change, and inspires no confidence that the next such scandal isn’t right around the corner.
“15 years after the then Home Secretary declared the UK’s immigration system “not fit for purpose” it is time for transformation of the Immigration Enforcement into a data-led organisation. Within six months of this report we expect a detailed plan, with set priorities and deadlines, for how the Home Office is going to make this transformation.”
A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report, saying: “We have developed a balanced and evidence-based approach to maintaining a fair immigration system. Since 2010, we have removed more than 53,000 foreign national offenders and more than 133,000 people as enforced removals.
“On a daily basis we continue to tackle those who fail to comply with our immigration laws and abuse our hospitality by committing serious, violent and persistent crimes, with immigration enforcement continually becoming more efficient.”
Why the Home Office could not provide proof of that ‘balanced and evidence-based approach’ to the Public Accounts Committee remains a mystery.

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News

Council workers criticise bumper pay-off for chief executive

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COUNCIL workers employed by Pembrokeshire County Council have expressed their shock at the bumper pay-off for the authority’s out-going chief executive, according to the public services union.
UNISON says it is outraged such an enormous sum has been agreed at a time when Pembrokeshire residents face the greatest social and economic uncertainty of recent times.
The trade union has criticised council executives for a lack of transparency in the decision and said paying thousands of pounds was offensive to low paid care workers, school support staff and others, who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic.

Jonathan Lewis, UNISON Pembrokeshire branch secretary, told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “£95,000 is a lottery-size win and an incomprehensibly large amount of money for the thousands of low paid council staff who have continued to serve their community throughout the lockdown in very difficult circumstances.
“This deal was agreed behind closed doors and gives the impression the council is awash with money when the reality is key community services have been reduced by spending cuts.
“Council executives need a reality check. Their decision represents a crass lack of awareness for what their employees and local people have been going through for the last six months. UNISON is calling for an immediate review of the pay-off.”
Pembrokeshire County Council’s Conservative Group said would be the first to thank and acknowledge the huge contribution of Mr Ian Westley in nearly two decades of service to the Council.

In a statement, the group said: “£95,000 is being reported as a settlement which has been authorised by the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, Cllr David Simpson. Clearly the council tax payers of Pembrokeshire will want to know, and deserve to know, why the Leader agreed this.

“Since the current political leadership of Pembrokeshire County Council took office in May 2017, they have presided over an inflation busting Council Tax increase of 27.4% over just 3 years, and this settlement again prompts serious questions about their spending priorities that are being paid for by the hard-working tax payers of Pembrokeshire.”

As we reported in our print version of The Herald on Friday (Sept 11), the agreement for the payoff was reached through negotiation and is the maximum pay-out available for departing public sector employees.
Mr Westley’s payment was a matter delegated through the Council’s internal procedures to its leader, Cllr David Simpson, who authorised the agreement – executed by Director of Finance and Transformation Jon Haswell on Tuesday, September 1.
Settlement agreements are legally binding contracts which can be used to end an employment relationship on agreed terms. They are voluntary and parties do not have to agree to them or enter into a discussion about them. There can be a process of negotiation during which both sides make proposals and counter-proposals until an agreement is reached or both parties decide no agreement can be reached.

Negotiations regarding settlement agreements are confidential and neither party can disclose their content.

The existence of a Settlement Agreement works both ways. They are not proof of any legally actionable misconduct by either party and can be used to end employment for a variety of reasons, whether proposed by the employer or employee.
Speculation about what led to the negotiation is just that; although, as we reveal in this week’s paper, there were problems between Mr Westley and several members of the Cabinet and a blistering row between Mr Westley and another member of the Council’s senior management in the last few months.
In Mr Westley’s case, the Council – as Mr Westley’s employer – disclosed both the payment and settlement agreement’s existence (though not its other content or the negotiations) voluntarily at the time it was entered into.
Previous practice at Pembrokeshire County Council was to disclose the sums subject to such agreements either in response to a general request under the Freedom of Information Act or buried in the Council’s annual accounts – as was the case regarding the former Director of Education Graham Longster amongst other officers who left before 2017.
The case of previous CEO Bryn Parry Jones, and the amount of money sought by Carmarthenshire’s former CEO Mark James when he volunteered for redundancy directly contributed to the Welsh Government’s decision to cap senior staff’s pay-outs.

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