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Politics

Conservatives accused of contempt for devolution

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THE WESTMINSTER Government is undermining the devolution settlements of each of the UK’s nations according to opposition parties.

Just before the parliamentary recess, the Conservative Government published a White Paper on the future of the UK’s internal market. The same day, July 16, it opened a brief consultation. The Consultation lasted 28 days and ended yesterday, Thursday, August 13.

White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.

The UK’s devolved administrations have reserved powers for a range of issues, including agricultural and animal welfare standards and building regulations.

The proposals advanced by Westminster would see powers of those two areas of policy removed from the devolved administrations’ control. Building regulations in England are both differently focused and of a lower standard than those in Wales. For example, harmonising building regulations around England’s lowest common denominator could scrap the Welsh Government’s regulation requiring sprinklers to be fitted in new homes.

The UK Government did not consult with any of the UK’s devolved administrations about its proposed legislation before publishing the White Paper and announcing an unusually brief consultation on such an important policy.

POWER GRAB? WHAT POWER GRAB? THAT POWER GRAB
When The Herald put the White Paper’s content to Conservative Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar, and asked about the change in powers over building regulations and animal welfare standards.

We received a furious response.

“To suggest that this is a power grab is utter nonsense,” fulminated Mr Millar.

We suggested no such thing. We asked only about two regulatory areas covered in a 104-page policy document.

Darren Millar continued: “As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union scores of new powers are set to be transferred to the Welsh Parliament – so far from being a power grab, this is actually a significant power gain for Wales.

“These powers have never been held before by the Welsh Government and this legislation will give the Welsh Parliament additional levers which can be used to help ensure that economy of Wales recovers from the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring seamless trade across the UK.”
As Mr Millar said that ‘scores of new powers’ are heading the Welsh Parliament’s way, we invited him to identify some of them.

He did not answer in time for our deadline.

The problem for Mr Millar is Government line in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement set out that Westminster will take some powers from Wales, even as it provides additional powers over other areas of policy.

The position was set out by the current Minister of State at the Wales Office, David TC Davies.
In the Withdrawal Agreement debate, David TC Davies said the following: “The reality is that the change will be called a power grab. I did not hear the phrase used today, but it will be described as a power grab. Of course, it is a power grab, and what a wonderful power grab it is, too. We are grabbing powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”

He continued: “The Government’s whole purpose is to ensure there is a single market within the United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation where different nation-states within the United Kingdom go off and do their own thing.”

The powers being lost to Westminster over agriculture and building regulations are not examples of devolved administrations ‘going off to do their own thing’ in the future. They are examples of devolved administrations which had exercised their powers and face their policies roll-back.

WESTMINSTER CLAWINGBACK POWER FROM WALESOther Welsh parties are less impressed by the White Paper. Cllr William Powell, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said: “In my view, the manner and content of this consultation demonstrate a lack of respect by the UK Government for the Welsh devolution settlement.

“Under the cloak of enabling Westminster to create a new UK internal market at the end of the Brexit transition period, this most ideological of governments is effectively putting to the sword decades of devolution, validated by the Welsh people in two referenda.”

William Powell continued: “The Bill would allow the UK Government to set out how the devolved administrations would interact with Westminster post-Brexit, compelling Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards – in the field of animal welfare, environment and food are built into trade agreements of the future.

“Whereas vital areas of policy, such as agriculture, food safety and the environment are currently overseen by the governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, this UK government clearly wants to have ultimate control over issues previously determined by the EU. In other words, it represents a radical clawback of power, undermining Welsh democracy and giving Boris Johnson and his associates a free hand in post-Brexit negotiations with other countries.

“Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to respecting the devolution settlement & the principle of Welsh Home Rule. Therefore we roundly condemn the UK Government’s cavalier tactics in this consultation.”

‘THIS IS A POWER GRAB’

For Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts MP said: “Four weeks and a series of loaded questions over the summer whilst Parliament isn’t sitting is all this Westminster Government has given people in terms of a consultation on a fundamental shift in the constitution of the UK.

“It is as if the Westminster Government cannot even hide its contempt for devolution.
“This is a power grab, plain and simple. From nakedly taking back competencies already held in Wales, to the fact that this legislation was not proposed jointly with the devolved administrations, the Westminster Government is chipping away at two decades of devolution.

“People will not fall for the Westminster double-speak of adding to devolution, these changes will only diminish Wales’s ability to carve its own path.”

NO DISCUSSIONS WITH WESTMINSTER
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We support having rules across the UK to regulate the internal market, but these rules must be agreed between the four Governments in the UK, each of which has their own responsibility for economic development. Any new system must have independent oversight and dispute resolution.

“Unfortunately, the UK Government did not manage to share the Paper with us, and Welsh Ministers have had no recent discussions with the UK Government on these issues. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a system will be deeply damaging.”

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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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