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Council U-Turn on ‘Bedroom Tax’ policy

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Bedroom-Tax-WheelchairThe Herald has learnt that a high profile local and televised case has led to a change of heart in how Pembrokeshire County Council applies the Government’s policy on the Spare Room Subsidy, often referred to as the‘Bedroom Tax’.

The controversial policy was at the centre of Westminster politics this week when David Cameron was challenged, during Prime Minister’s Questions, in Parliament, by Labour MP Jim Cook to justify his position for what Mr Cook saw as ‘a policy that punishes the poor’. To which, The Prime Minister responded by stating that the policy is designed to apply the same rules to both the private and public sector housing markets alike. Mr Cameron also challenged Labour to state whether they would reverse the Coalition policy or not, to which he received no response.

The Spare Room Subsidy was introduced on April 1 of this year by the UK Government. principally, because they claim there are nearly one million spare bedrooms in the UK, with an estimated cost to the tax payer of up to half a billion pounds a year. Simon Hart, MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire told The Herald that,

“To ensure we protect those affected, we have trebled the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). We have allocated £25 million to support disabled people living in heavily adapted accommodation”.

In the Welsh Assembly this week, Rebecca Evans AM, and member of the Health and Social Care Committee, commented on the policy, claiming that the Labour Welsh Government were ‘making efforts to mitigate the effects of the Bedroom Tax’. In a press release dated September 3, of the UK Government, she stated that,

“Amazingly, despite admitting that the Bedroom Tax could have a disproportionate effect on rural communities, the UK Government didn’t undertake a specific rural impact assessment to fully investigate the problems it may pose. It seems they are quite comfortable with pushing forward with metropolitan policies that have a harsh effect on rural communities”

Welsh Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, visited housing developments in both Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock and said that,

“We are determined to do all that we can to help mitigate against the UK Government welfare reforms. That’s why we’ve allocated £20 million to provide much needed one and two bedroom homes across Wales.”

However, one Pembrokeshire resident directly affected by this policy, whose story was featured on Channel 4 news this past week, does not feel the application of this tax is being applied in a fair and even handed way. Paul Rutherford, of Haverfordwest, spoke directly with The Herald to explain his experience.

“Our bungalow was purpose built and allocated to my wife and her grandson due to the profound nature of his disabilities and care requirements. It was built with various adaptations. We first became unsure if we would, in fact, be affected or not after I read the legislation in January of this year. There, it states that an exemption will be made for any household in which the claimant or the claimant’s partner requires an extra bedroom for an overnight carer who does not normally reside at the address.”

In correspondence with The Herald, Simon Hart MP re-iterated this aspect of policy.

Mr Rutherford, continued to explain that the spare bedroom for which the tax would be liable was occupied at least two to three nights a week by a non resident carer. Initially, he said that the Council had advised him to put in a claim for a Discretionary Housing Payment. After many problems with form filling and financial assessment, he went on to say that the Council had advised him that he was not eligible for a DHP and could therefore afford to pay the additional 14% of his rent. Eventually, however, he said that the Council agreed to award the DHP but informed Pembrokeshire County Council that, in fact, he was appealing against the original decision to have their housing benefit cut, as required by the Spare Room Subsidy policy. He stated that his concern was that this was merely a short term funding plan and that the real issue was that of the housing benefit cut itself. Mr Rutherford explained that he would be taking legal action saying that,

“This tax is pernicious. Of the 660,000 households said to be affected, almost two thirds contain disabled people, like us, who need the space in their homes to have carers stay overnight or for equipment storage. We will fight this all the way and we would have expected more support from Pembrokeshire County Council, but they don’t actually care.”

The Herald contacted County Councillor David Simpson, Cabinet Spokesperson for Housing, regarding Mr Rutherford’s case, who, speaking exclusively to The Herald, said,

“We will be reviewing the policy at Cabinet on Monday, which will stop him (Mr Rutherford)  from having to pay.”

When asked why the County Council had not applied the discretion for disabled tenants as per Government policy, Mr Simpson said of this apparent U-turn in Council policy towards implementing the Spare Room Subsidy,

“In the original assessment it was not felt they (Mr Rutherford and his wife) were in dire need. This is the Government’s fault. It is a policy imposed upon councils and has put all councils in a very difficult position. I heard about it (Mr Rutherford’s case) and acted as quickly as I could.”

On the actual figure of those affected in Pembrokeshire, and the claim by the Labour Welsh Government that only fourteen one bedroom properties were currently available, he went on to say that,

“The County Council currently has 947 one bedroom, or smaller, properties. The fourteen figure quoted relates to the number of one bedroom, or smaller, properties available at a point in time in August – this will change over time. Since April 1st there have been a total of fifty-seven one bedroom properties that have become available. “

Paul Davies, Am for Preseli Pembrokeshire, speaking with The Herald, said of the policy,

“Welfare bills, including housing benefit, spiralled out of control under the last Labour Government, costing over £100 billion every year, paid for with the taxes of hardworking people. I am surprised that Labour politicians continue to support the reckless sort of spending which got this country into the economic mess in the first place. Most families in Wales have to pay extra in rent or mortgage payments if they want to have a guest bedroom so why should it be any different for people on housing benefit?”

This was a sentiment echoed by Simon Hart MP who said that the policy aimed to make better use of housing stock, support those in overcrowded accommodation and on waiting lists, encourage mobility within the social rented sector, and strengthen work incentives.

He finished by stating that,

“The Spare Room Subsidy is not a penalty and it is not a tax. It is a reduction in housing benefit for those who are being subsidised for spare bedrooms. This policy is founded on the principles of fairness; fairness to those in overcrowded homes, fairness to those in the private sector and fairness to the taxpayer”.

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Primary school teacher would ‘moan’ as he touched female pupils, court hears

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A HAVERFORDWEST primary school teacher would “moan” while he touched his female pupils in a sexual way, a witness said in Swansea Crown Court.

In total, 11 former pupils, who were all under 13, have come forward and accused James Oulton, 34, of sexually assaulting them.

Oulton denies all the charges – saying the case was a “witch-hunt” and that he had behaved appropriately all times.

One of the pupils, who was in year four at the time, opened day four of the trial by giving evidence via a video link.

The girl told the court: “He would put his arm around by back and backside.”

Under cross examination Chris Clee QC, for the defence, asked the witness: “Did you tell the police that you were touched in an inappropriate way?”

The witness answered: “Yes, teachers should not be touching in that way.”

James Oulton

Asked if what he was doing wrong, the witness replied:

“Yes, very wrong”

In cross examination letters and cards were produced, made the witness whilst in school, where she had said Mr. James Oulton was “the best teacher in the whole world.”

One of the cards said: “You’ve made my life complete”.

Another card said: “Thank you for being so nice, and thanks for everything that you’ve done for me.”

The witness added: “Despite what he did do, he was a good teacher.  

“He used to buy us treats.

“He was nice caring and a sweet and fun teacher – but not what he was doing.

Referring to the cards, she said: “I would definitely not be saying that stuff now.”

Explaining how she told her parents the witness said: “Once I realised that [x] was in his class, I asked her ‘did he do this stuff to you?’

“She said yes.

“I realised more and more it was wrong and it was time to grow up now, and to speak.

“As soon as I found out that this was happening to [x] I stood up and told my parents.

Asked if she had seen inappropriate behaviour happening to anybody else the witness answered: “He did it to most of the girls in the class, but he had his favourites.

Asked if she had spoken to other girls about the touching, the witness said: “Yes, I was just curious was it just me, or was it normal?”

“Teachers should most definitely not be doing that to students.

“Doing what?”, the witness was asked, “You said in your police interview that he would pull you off your chair and make you sit on his lap, is that true?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Did you try and stop him?” she was asked.

“Yes, I tried to push him off sometimes and said, ‘get off its weird’, but I didn’t want to make a scene.

“He would make me sit on his lap whilst he was marking my work.”

When asked by the defence barrister how she was sat on her teacher’s lap, and if it was under a desk, the witness answered: “No, not under the desk, as both of our legs wouldn’t fit under.”

The witness also said that when she was sat on the defendant’s knee he would make “a low grunting noise.”

Asked if she had spoken others about this case, the girl said: “Police told my mum and dad that there were very many people involved in the case.

“I thought it was just me and [x] that was going to be at court, I only recently discovered that others had come out.”

A second female pupil was also giving evidence via video link. She was 9-years-old at the time of the alleged offending.

Firstly, a pre-recorded interview was played in court in which the witness said: “My teacher, Mr. Oulton always put his hand up my leg like that and up my t-shirt.”

She added: “If he calls you over and he pulls you onto his lap, if you don’t, he pulls your chair over and makes you.”

“How would he make you?” the QC asked.

“He would grab your arm, push you, and then pull you in”, she replied.

When asked if this was a one off, the witness said that the defendant “did it every day.”

“How would you be sat on his lap?”, she was asked.

“He would have one arm on my stomach, then the other arm would be rubbing my leg.”

“He would swap arms and then put one arm up my t-shirt.”

When asked to clarify if it was under her t-shirt the girl explained: “Yes it was under my t-shirt rubbing his hands up and down.”

The witness added: “If I tried to get up for work, he would just grab my arm.”

“He would make a funny sound like a hissing airplane.”

“We had a helper in the class, and when he came in, he would stop, and then I could go and sit down.”

The trial continues.

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New trees planted to help town

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SEVERAL new trees have been planted on Riverside Avenue in Neyland.

They were planted by Grandiflora, courtesy of the Town Council which recently pledged to plant more trees in the town in an attempt to help the environment.

As well as helping the environment, the trees will prevent vehicles from being parked on the grass verges on Riverside Avenue, which had been severely churned up over the winter and looked unsightly.

The Town Council will be working with Pembrokeshire County Council regarding parking issues in Neyland.

The trees will be tended and watered over the summer period to ensure they reach their maximum potential and enhance the area for residents and visitors alike.

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Golden goodbye report likely to be critical

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A REPORT by Audit Wales into the departure of former CEO Ian Westley is very likely to contain criticism of senior council officers.

In November 2020, Mr Westley left Pembrokeshire County Council with a £95,000 pay-out, something which has been criticised by a number of councillors.

In a document before the Audit and Governance Committee on Tuesday (April 13), it says that termination payments to Chief Officers are routinely examined by Audit Wales but in the case of Mr Westley, the audit team was unable to locate a recorded decision to enter into the settlement agreement which led to a termination payment being made to the Chief Executive.

An Audit Office spokesperson said: “This appeared unusual and therefore the audit team decided to undertake an early examination of the process that resulted in the payment being made.”

No complaints were raised, by councillors or any other body, with Audit Wales but the number of concerns and questions being raised at following council meetings prompted them to commence an audit.

Audit Wales state: “Our audit fieldwork is substantially complete. However due to the complex nature of some of the issues involved we considered it necessary to take some external legal
advice. We are currently considering that advice. 

“In the near future we will draft a document setting out our provisional findings and conclusions. 

“Once this document is ready we will commence a clearance process to confirm factual accuracy. 

“If the document contains criticism of identifiable individuals, in the first instance we will provide those individuals with any extracts of the document that pertain to them. Once
we have confirmed the factual accuracy with individuals, we will send the full draft document to the Council’s Chief Executive to identify any remaining factual inaccuracies. 

“We will only issue the finalised document once the clearance process has been completed. #

“We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process.”

Only a handful of senior officers were involved in the procedure surrounding Ian Westley’s departure.

The inference which can be safely drawn from Audit Wales’ report to the Audit Committee is that some of its content will be critical either of councillors, senior officers, or both.

The process of asking those named to respond is known as Maxwellisation, a legal practice that allows persons who are to be criticised in an official report to respond prior to publication.

The report highlights the exceptional nature of the case at Pembrokeshire County Council and demonstrates the sensitivity of the issues raised.

If senior officers are sharply criticised or found to have failed in their duty to their employer, they will almost certainly have to go.

The council’s interim Chief Executive will read the document after maxwellisation.

It is also likely that the council’s newly appointed Chief Executive, Will Bramble, will have a chance to see it.

The Audit Wales spokesperson added: “We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process. We are unable to respond to queries about our emerging findings whilst the audit is progressing, and until we have finalised our conclusions.”

In January, Cllr Jamie Adams had called for the council to commence an internal investigation into Mr Westley’s departure but that was deferred to allow for the Audit Wales review to be completed.

Cllr Adams said that the decision of payment should have been a ‘democratic decision’ and has asked why that wasn’t the case.

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