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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

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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