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Assembly Committees report on Welsh Budget

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'People are searching for clarity and certainty': Says Finance Committee Chair, Llyr Gruffydd

FOUR National Assembly committees have published reports examining how the Welsh Government intends to spend its £17 billion budget on schools, hospitals, the environment and local services.

EQUALITY, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND COMMUNITIES COMMITTEE

The Committee is disappointed the Welsh Government’s commitment to ending homelessness in Wales is not backed up by the amount of money allocated to tackling the problem. In fact, under the draft budget, funding will stay the same which equates to a real term cut when taking inflation into account.
The Committee recommends that the Welsh Government increases the allocation of funding to the Housing Support Grant and the Homelessness prevention budget line in the 2020-21 budget to ensure that the Welsh Government’s ambition on reducing homelessness to be rare, brief and unrepeated can be delivered.

CHILDREN, YOUNG PEOPLE AND EDUCATION COMMITTEE

The Committee has raised again this year how vital it is to ensure that enough money is made available to fund schools in Wales. While it welcomes the increase in local authorities’ funding and the commitment given by local government to use it to prioritise school and social care funding, it remains very concerned about school funding in Wales.
The Committee’s report calls on the Welsh Government to robustly monitor this funding and to demonstrate to the Assembly that this money is reaching our schools.

CLIMATE CHANGE, ENVIRONMENT AND RURAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

In the light of the Welsh Government declaring a climate emergency, the Committee was expecting a transformative budget showing how investment was being prioritised to address the issue. But members concluded the budget was business as usual and that it was unacceptable for the Welsh Government to continue to plead ignorance about the cost and potential benefits of its decarbonisation policies.
From next year the Committee expects the Welsh Government to change the way it does things – the draft budget should be accompanied by detailed information about the carbon impact of the allocations in it.

ECONOMY, INFRASTRUCTURE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE

The Committee‘s report looks to get beyond the headline figures of the Draft Welsh Budget by looking at issues including rail funding, research and development funding and how the Welsh Government is planning to support regional economies in Wales.
The Committee calls for greater transparency on the funding for KeolisAmy, the company who operates the Wales and Borders rail franchise as TfW Rail Services, as well as their performance targets and the penalties they face for poor service.
During the scrutiny process, Kirsty Williams AM, the Education Minister, admitted that the Welsh Government did not know how much it spent on research and development funding. The Committee has called for a review, especially as a significant amount currently comes from the EU.

The Committee has also called for the release of research behind the Welsh Government’s new Regional Economic Frameworks and Regional Indicative Budgets which will be used to develop regional economies across Wales.

HEALTH, SOCIAL CARE AND SPORT COMMITTEE

The Committee believes that this draft budget fails to show a shift towards mainstreaming prevention and service transformation. Going forward, the Welsh Government needs to demonstrate how its funding allocations will support long term sustainable change in the delivery of integrated health and social care services. The Committee expects to see a greater strategic focus on transformation and prevention in future budget rounds.
The reports follow an overview of the draft budget from the Finance Committee which raised concerns around climate change, poverty and Brexit.
Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM, said: “We are in unprecedented times as we approach Brexit and, risks and opportunities aside, what people are searching for most of all are clarity and certainty.
“The Welsh Government expects EU Structural funds will be replaced by the UK Government. But agriculture sits outside of this so the Committee would like assurances farming payments will continue as normal until a new funding structure is brought in.
“Nobody should be worse off as a result of leaving the EU.”

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Politics

Rough sleeping: millions wasted on fragmented system

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‘A WASTE OF MONEY’. That’s how a hard-hitting report from Audit Wales described how local authorities, the Welsh Government, and other public bodies deal with rough-sleeping.
Audit Wales is the body which checks how public money is spent and advises the Welsh Government and other public bodies on how to make sure they get value for money.
The Audit Wales reports says that the public sector spends up to £210m reacting to rough sleeping, rather than preventing it and dealing with its causes.
Audit Wales do not say, however, that spending to tackle rough sleeping is a waste of public money. Instead, Audit Wales says the money is spent on faulty strategies which react to the problem, don’t deal with it proactively, and fail to provide good outcomes for those sleeping rough.
It says the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for public bodies to start addressing weaknesses in partnership working to help tackle rough sleeping.

ROUGH SLEEPING A ‘REVOLVING DOOR’

Audit Wales’ report found, although many public bodies work with people sleeping rough, services were not always joined up and helping people when they needed it.
It found many examples of people being assisted off the streets and into temporary accommodation. Once in temporary accommodation, they did not, however, get the support they needed to address the root causes of their homelessness and often ended up back where they started.
The true extent of people sleeping rough in Wales each year is unknown.
Drawing on information from specialist charities who work with people sleeping rough, there are roughly 3,000 incidences of rough sleeping every year.
The most recent data published by the Welsh Government show the number of people sleeping rough was continuing to rise before the pandemic, increasing by 17% between November 2018 and November 2019.
Audit Wales’ research shows that people sleeping rough in later life have often experienced domestic or sexual abuse, substance misuse, been abused at home, had difficulties in school or lived in poverty from a young age.
To end rough sleeping, solutions need to address both accommodation and support needs and requires many public bodies – including, councils, the Police, health bodies, housing associations, and others – to change how they work and what they do to tackle rough sleeping.
Audit Wales says the key to tackling this problem is for public bodies to deliver a single public service response targeted at people sleeping rough.
To support that step, Audit Wales included in its report a self-reflection tool for public bodies to use to improve how they can jointly address complex needs in the future.

TIME TO ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSES

Adrian Crompton, the Auditor General for Wales, said: “There has been a real change and emphasis on rough sleeping since the pandemic hit, with public services stepping up to help people off the streets into accommodation.
“Public services now need to capitalise on this work and deliver longer-term solutions to end people sleeping on our streets.
“I believe that for the first time in a generation, eliminating rough sleeping in Wales is a possibility. Our report sets out how we can all work towards this goal.
“Public bodies must not just focus on giving people a roof over their head, it needs all partners to work together to address the root causes of homelessness.
Frances Beecher, CEO of Llamau and Chair of End Youth Homelessness Cymru, who was a member of the Homelessness Action Group, welcomed Audit Wales’ report.
“For too long we have known that the root causes of homelessness stem from traumatic and adverse experiences in childhood.
“It is crucial that we build on the work we have done to support people sleeping rough during the Covid19 pandemic, and invest in integrated services which intervene early to prevent homelessness, rather than waiting until people reach a crisis point in their lives.
“Ending homelessness is everyone’s responsibility and if we all work together, I truly believe we have a huge opportunity to create a Wales without homelessness.”
‘A FRAGMENTED SYSTEM’
Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Transforming Public Services, Delyth Jewell MS, said: “Homelessness is the predictable consequence of years of cuts to social security, a failure to build social housing, and the continued refusal of the Welsh Government to make the necessary legislative changes such as ending priority need to ensure everyone is entitled to support when they present as homeless.
“I welcome the report from the Auditor General for Wales, which highlights the long-standing weaknesses that come from a fragmented system. However, the pandemic has revealed that when there is a will, there is a way to end homelessness. The Welsh Government’s lack of ability to effectively tackle rough sleeping before the pandemic must now be seriously called into question – they can no longer blame their lack of action on austerity, but an utter lack of will to deal with the problem in hand.
“Plaid Cymru believes that no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a person must sleep on the street. Above all, tackling this problem is a question of political will.”

FINDINGS ARE ‘A SCANDAL’

Mark Isherwood MS – the Conservative’s Shadow Minister for Local Government and Housing – said: “This is nothing short of a scandal.
“In the words of the report’s authors, some £209 million is wasted annually by the public sector reacting to, rather than preventing, rough sleeping. The report also found that services were not always joined up and people were not being helped when they needed it.
“Cited, too, were ‘many examples’ of a ‘revolving door’ for service users who were assisted off the streets and into temporary accommodation, but without the necessary support to address the root causes of their homelessness, and who often ended up back where they started.
“The crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity for public bodies to start addressing weaknesses in partnership working to help tackle rough sleeping.
“It is now crucial that the Welsh Government publishes what it will do to help homeless people once the current lockdown is eased.”

GOVERNMENT MUST BUILD ON COVID EXPERIENCE

The Chair of the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities, John Griffiths MS, commented: “This Committee has prioritised homelessness and rough sleeping. We have taken evidence and produced detailed reports with recommendations to tackle the issues involved.
“Only last week, we heard about the live challenges facing individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness, including those sleeping rough, and the pressures on those services that provide support. We also heard about the monumental effort being made by all partners, within local authorities and the third sector to get people off the streets at the height of the pandemic. What has been achieved is significant and impressive, and we hope that this can be built upon to meet the Welsh Government’s aim of making homelessness rare, brief and unrepeated.
“I welcome the Auditor General’s report and echo his call for public services to capitalise on their response to the COVID-19 crisis through a step-change in approach, shifting resources to focus on prevention.
“Looming economic challenges that could otherwise drive more homelessness and rough sleeping make this all the more important. We will continue to hold the Welsh Government to account on this important issue in the coming months, and this report will help inform our scrutiny.”
At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Welsh Government and councils moved quickly to provide accommodation to rough sleepers and those in unsuitable accommodation.
Housing Minister Julie James MS said: “Getting over 800 people off the streets or away from unsuitable accommodation has not been easy but by working together we have made a big difference to the lives of these people.
“This does not, however, mean we have resolved homelessness in Wales. We have achieved a reprieve, but it remains our goal to end homelessness and we will not see people forced back onto the streets.”

THE PROBLEM WITH NIMBYS

Even with the best will in the world, local authorities, the Welsh Government and other bodies face a massive struggle to end the scourge of homelessness and rough sleeping.
In 2014, Carmarthenshire’s Planning Committee rejected plans to convert a residence n Carmarthen to house homeless armed forces veterans.
The Planning Inspectorate overturned the rejection in 2015. However, the charity behind the application decided not to proceed with the plan because of continuing hostility from those determined to house the homeless anywhere but near their properties.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, locals have complained about the use of the Silverdale Lodge, Johnston, as temporary accommodation for those made homeless by the pandemic or for rough sleepers placed there as part of controls for COVID-19’s spread.
Similar complaints have been made about a property in Fishguard which is also being used as temporary accommodation for the homeless during the COVID pandemic.
As always, the local rumour mill churns about properties being used as bail hostels or halfway houses.
While most people regard homelessness and rough sleeping as preventable tragedies, it appears that a large majority want them prevented as far away from them as possible.

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Politics

Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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Sooner or later the Conservative Party must talk about poverty

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FROM David Cameron’s focus on life-chances to Theresa May’s burning injustices and now Boris’s vision for levelling up, building a fairer society has been a central theme for my party over the past decade.

But, as last week’s row over free school meals illustrated, we are not always comfortable speaking in direct terms about poverty and hardship.
Some Conservatives prefer the aspirational language of opportunity and social mobility; others choose broader phrases such as social justice or the banner of One Nation. There is a lot of overlap of course.

But when it comes to discussing the problem of families not having enough money to get by, we sometimes struggle to find the vocabulary. Language matters and if we can’t find the words, we probably won’t find the solutions.

The UK has yet to feel the full force of the economic storm that Covid-19 has unleashed but there are already signs it will cause lasting damage to vulnerable communities, undoing much of the progress achieved in cutting unemployment over the past decade.

The speed and scale of the government’s intervention to protect workers during the lockdown has been unprecedented. But paying the wages of nine million people is not sustainable. As the furlough scheme begins to unwind, unemployment will rise with potentially millions of people losing jobs – pulled into poverty through no fault of their own.

Many have already been forced to turn to the benefits system. The most recent figures show a staggering 2.3 million new universal credit claimants. This will grow further.

The system itself has handled the increased caseload remarkably well. But many families will find the change from the emergency parachute of furlough to the longer-term safety net of universal credit a very hard landing indeed.

Worryingly, areas that were already struggling before the pandemic, such as ex-industrial and coastal towns, are likely to be the places hardest hit. These are the very communities at the heart of the levelling-up vision. But the full gains from increasing investment in poorer regions won’t be seen for years. It is not the answer to the question of how we support those families being pushed into poverty right now.

Even before the virus struck there were signs that too many families were struggling to make ends meet, including large numbers of working families also living in poverty.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that nearly two-thirds of families on universal credit have been forced to borrow money since the start of this crisis. As the economic fallout from coronavirus grows, many families will be plunged deeper into debt. In April the government increased the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week, recognising the extra pressures millions are now facing.

But to prevent further hardship, as more people fall out of work and for longer periods, there is a case for strengthening our system of social security. The political choices of the past decade that saw working-age benefits squeezed while the state pension was boosted by the triple lock are not the ones for this new period we are entering.

So, what steps can we take? Firstly, we could implement the recommendation of the work and pensions committee this week and uprate the legacy benefits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is also calling for a temporary increase of £20 per week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits to prevent families being pulled further into poverty. Compared with the eye-watering costs of the furlough scheme, this measure could represent a reasonable price to pay to hold families steady during this crisis.

As the government turns its attention to a growth strategy to fire up the economy, with a focus on jobs, apprenticeships and infrastructure, we should not forget our mission to support families facing hardship at this time.

This would reflect the best of all Conservative traditions.

This article was first published in The Times on Thursday, June 25 and is reproduced by kind permission of Stephen Crabb MP

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