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Politics

Bill to curb premium phone rates backed

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‘No reasonable argument’ for premium charges: Jonathan Edwards

PLAID CYMRU MP Jonathan Edwards is backing a parliamentary Bill aimed at curbing the premium rate costs of phone calls to government agencies such as the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Government Services (Telecommunication Charges) Bill will be presented to parliament on Tuesday, February 21.

The scope of the Bill, which started out with a purpose to reduce costs for phoning the DWP has since been expanded to cover all UK Government Departments and agencies after it was revealed the Home Office Spousal Visa helpline charges callers £1.37 a minute over and above network rates.

Carmarthenshire’s Jonathan Edwards MP, who is co-sponsoring the Bill, said the high costs of calls impacts primarily those most vulnerable in society who are seeking assistance from the state.

Commenting ahead of the Bill being presented to Parliament, Jonathan Edwards said: “It doesn’t sit right with me that those who need to seek assistance from the state are the ones primarily affected premium rate phone call charges.

“In many instances a person is contacting a government agency because their circumstances have changed or they are in need of support. Premium rate phone numbers can act as a barrier to people accessing assistance.

“The Universal Credit helpline, for example, can cost up to 50pence per minute from mobile phones. A long wait on hold, being passed from assistant to assistant or, as many have experienced, having to call back several times to get things sorted can cost people a small fortune that they simply don’t have.

“I see no reasonable argument for premium rate charges. I’m sponsoring this Bill so that calls for help from the most vulnerable in our society do not cost the earth.”

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20mph U-turn: Some roads will return to 30mph following public outcry

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IN a recent shift in policy, Transport Secretary Ken Skates announced that some roads in Wales will revert to a 30mph speed limit following significant public opposition to the Welsh Government’s £34 million initiative to impose a default 20mph limit. This move addresses the concerns consistently raised by many citizens.

The controversial policy, initially rolled out across Wales under former First Minister Mark Drakeford and his transport minister, Lee Waters, aimed at enhancing road safety. However, it has since faced backlash, illustrated by nearly half a million signatures on a Senedd petition opposing the change.

“We’ve put our hands up to say the guidance has to be corrected,” Skates stated, acknowledging the widespread dissatisfaction with the policy’s implementation. He emphasised the need for targeted 20mph zones, particularly in sensitive areas such as near schools, hospitals, and densely populated housing estates. Yet, he admitted that certain routes should not have been included under the stricter speed limit.

Swansea Council Leader Rob Stewart welcomed the revised approach but highlighted the financial burden of changing road signage, urging the Welsh Government to assist with the expenses. Stewart praised Skates’ “pragmatic approach” and stressed that the government should not impose the financial strain on local councils, which are already facing tough budgetary decisions.

The policy has had its proponents, particularly among cycling groups and safety advocates who argue that the lower speed limits contribute to safer community spaces. Despite this, many have called for a more nuanced application of the speed limits rather than a blanket reduction.

In response to the backlash, Skates is set to present the planned adjustments in a forthcoming statement to the Senedd. The changes will allow local councils the autonomy to restore the 30mph limit where deemed appropriate, potentially affecting up to 10 roads in Swansea alone.

Leaders from other councils, including Huw Thomas of Cardiff, expressed relief over the change. Cardiff, where the majority of roads were already under a 20mph limit, saw a favourable reception of the policy. Nonetheless, the decision to empower local governments has been largely welcomed.

The Welsh Conservatives, through their transport spokesperson Natasha Asghar, have voiced strong opposition to the original policy, criticising its expansive application. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth called for a more carefully considered implementation, supporting the principle of 20mph zones but criticising their inconsistent enforcement.

Responding to comments made by Ken Skates, Labour’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport on potential changes to the 20mph guidance, Natasha Asghar MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Transport Minister said: “The people of Wales have rightfully taken significant issue with Labour’s 20mph policy and ‘correcting guidance’ will not be enough to ease concerns.

“The Welsh Conservatives are the only the party to have consistently voted against the ridiculous 20mph policy involving 97% of previously 30mph roads and a £9 billion hit to the Welsh economy.

“The Welsh Conservatives want to see this policy scrapped and have given the Labour Government a number of opportunities to vote to do so. A more targeted approach is needed with the support of the Welsh people.”

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Withyhedge Landfill faces political allegations and regulatory enforcement

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STEPHEN CRABB MP has vociferously criticised the Welsh Labour Government for its management of the Withyhedge Landfill in Pembrokeshire, claiming it has turned the area into a “dumping ground” for waste from across Wales. Mr. Crabb, supported by Paul Davies MS, alleges that substantial lorries deliver waste daily to the site, causing significant distress to local residents. The MP has repeatedly written to the First Minister, demanding immediate intervention, yet claims to have received no response.

Compounding the controversy, Mr. Crabb highlighted a substantial £200,000 donation to Vaughan Gething’s recent election campaign from the landfill’s owner, questioning the impartiality of regulatory practices. Despite ongoing political efforts, Mr. Crabb asserts that resolution lies solely with the Welsh Government, which has the ultimate authority to address these grievances.

Meanwhile, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has escalated its enforcement actions against the site’s operators, Resources Management UK Ltd (RML), amid persistent community complaints about odour and gas emissions. A recent Regulation 36 Enforcement Notice demands a series of remedial actions by RML, with deadlines stretching into May 2024. These measures focus on improving the site’s gas management infrastructure and capping exposed areas to mitigate odour issues.

Huwel Manley, Head of South West Operations at NRW, expressed understanding of the community’s frustration, emphasizing the urgency of the required actions. “We are committed to ensuring RML Ltd. deliver these actions rapidly and effectively. Continued non-compliance will lead to further measures, potentially including a suspension of the environmental permit,” stated Mr. Manley.

Pembrokeshire County Council, represented by Chief Executive Will Bramble, also voiced disappointment over the ongoing issues, affirming full support for NRW’s stringent enforcement steps. The Council and NRW are working closely to monitor the situation and have encouraged the public to report any odour incidents promptly to aid in effective resolution.

As the deadline approaches, all parties involved are under increasing pressure to demonstrate tangible improvements and ensure the health and well-being of Pembrokeshire residents are prioritised.

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Politics

Barclays closure in Haverfordwest sparks calls for banking changes

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A CALL for Pembrokeshire County Council to potentially change its banking arrangement with Barclays, after the bank announced it was closing its county town branch, is expected to be turned down next week.

Barclays Bank in Haverfordwest, located on the town’s High Street, is to close on May 10.

The council has had a banking services contract with Barclays since 2013, with the most recent contract – for four years – signed last May following an independent review.

Councillor Huw Murphy, in a notice of motion to be heard by Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet meeting of April 22, is asking the council to review its banking arrangements with Barclays following the announced closure.

“The loss of many banking facilities within Pembrokeshire over recent years has had a detrimental impact on many town centres such as Tenby, St Davids, Fishguard, Milford Haven, Narberth, Newport and Pembroke and Pembroke Dock and will soon impact Haverfordwest with the loss of Barclays bank to the town.”

He said the loss of a branch “not only impacts upon town centres and businesses but also disproportionately impacts the elderly who are less likely to embrace on-line banking options”.

After the Haverfordwest closure was announced, a spokesperson for the bank said that the Haverfordwest branch only had 32 regular customers who used the branch exclusively for their banking and do not interact with Barclays in any other way.

A report for cabinet members says, in terms of the impact on Pembrokeshire residents, Barclays has said that it is “not leaving Haverfordwest and [will] continue to provide face-to-face support for those who need it” via community locations.

It adds: “Everything else can be done via alternative channels such as everyday transactions via the Post Office. We will be making personal contact with our regular and vulnerable branch users to discuss their options and guide them through alternative ways to bank.”

Two options were presented to cabinet following Mr Murphy’s motion, to retender the banking services contract, and, the favoured, to work with Barclays to ensure a community location is set up in Haverfordwest.

The report says the costs associated with moving to a new service provider “can be excessive and in some cases greater than the cost of the annual contract value,” adding: “Whilst the costs can vary between local authorities it can be in excess of £50,000.”

For the second, favoured option, the report says: “An integral part of the branch closure communication, Barclays advised that they will be setting up a community location in Haverfordwest.

“Whilst this is a change to how Barclays currently operate in Haverfordwest, this concept mirrors the successful implementation of a hub located within The Giltar Hotel in Tenby that operates twice a week.”

It adds: “Discussions have commenced with Barclays to see what the council can offer in terms of locations.”

Cabinet members are recommended to back the second option.

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