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Politics

Online abuse motion goes before Council

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“I’M UNDOUBTEDLY the most abused councillor in Britain.”

That’s the claim made by Pembroke Dock Central County Councillor Paul Dowson in an interview with The Herald about a notice of motion due for debate by the Full Council next Thursday (Oct 14).

In a revealing interview, Cllr Dowson said he regretted becoming embroiled in a series of social media spats and acknowledged mistakes in how he dealt with them.

Paul Dowson was not, however, wholly contrite.

He told us that, while he thought social media’ pile-ons’ had gone too far, he felt justified in standing up for what he thought was right.

Since his unexpected election in 2017, Cllr Dowson has courted publicity. He was vocal about issues affecting his ward and his hometown of Pembroke Dock. He rubbed up plenty of people the wrong way, especially council officers and his fellow members, with his use of social media to communicate about the issues he felt – and still feels – affect Pembroke Dock.

He is notably disparaging about councillors he thinks do little apart from striking poses about issues remote from everyday life as it’s lived in Pembroke Dock.

I pointed out that a friend of mine had described him as ’a typical Dock boy’ of his age and background.

He enthusiastically agreed.

SOCIAL AND ANTISOCIAL MEDIA

He told The Herald that the turning point in his relationship with social media and controversy came following his outspoken condemnation of a Council statement that supported the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

“I’m not a racist,” he told The Herald.

“People who know me know I’m not a racist. I stand against racism, and I have no problem with saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Of course, they do.

“I said what I said about lighting up County Hall because I opposed the violent protests [following the murder of George Floyd in the USA]. The political agenda behind how those protests developed is something I couldn’t agree with – it was jumped on by people with a violent agenda I just couldn’t support. The cause is fine, but violent protests are not.

“So, I said what I said. ‘All lives matter.’ I didn’t know it was a term used offensively in America. Why would I? I’m not from America.

“And so the pile on started, with people being invited to complain about me being a racist to the Ombudsman by another County Councillor [Joshua Beynon].”

And what about his involvement at Penally, we asked.

Things got confrontational there.

“When the protests got violent, I knew the protestors against the unjust use of the camp without public consultation had lost. The night it kicked off, I made a point of speaking to the Police afterwards and thanking them for doing their job.”

He told us: “I sent Josh a message around Christmas last year saying everything had gone too far and we should both back off. I didn’t get an answer.”

THE OMBUDSMAN

We asked about the complaints made to the Ombudsman about his words regarding Black Lives Matter.

“Yes, people did complain. Some of those complaints lied about what I’d said, so they were dismissed. Some came from fake accounts, so they were dismissed. There’s one last one to go to the Council’s Standards Committee. I will insist that is heard in public, so people can hear everything and make their own judgements.”

We asked him whether he’d ever used an account under a phoney name to argue with others on social media, as he mentioned fake accounts.

“Yes, I have. I’d rather not have done it, but I think it’s justified when people are abusing you, bullying you, and stopping you from responding and carrying on targeting you, your business, and your family. And I’m always pretty obvious about it.

“In the heat of the moment, I’ve said things online that I’ve regretted. I don’t pretend to be a saint, but I don’t like being told what to think and do. When people push me, I push back.”

We asked Paul Dowson about comments made by those who apparently support some of his social media posts and respond aggressively to those who disagree with them.

His response was immediate: “Some people who’ve commented on social media have gone way too far in what they’ve said on some of my posts. When it’s been drawn to my attention by those who’ve been targeted, I delete the comments. I can’t do that 24/7 and I can’t stop people saying what they feel.”

A SIMPLE PROPOSAL

Although some will attack it because of its source, Cllr Dowson’s Notice of Motion should be uncontroversial.

Strip away the exposition from the text, and it’s a straightforward proposition.

Potentially good councillors are not coming forward for election thanks to social media trolling.

The Council needs to be more proactive with how it supports members.

The Council should be more modern in its approach to tackling the abuse of elected members.

 The Council – and councils – should do more to halt the tide of abuse directed at elected members and candidates.

To illustrate his point, Paul Dowson told us former Monitoring Officer Claire Jones had advised him not to use social media.

He scoffed at the advice.

“That’s so out of date, it’s unreal. How does she think people communicate with each other, these days? You don’t go knocking door-to-door or wait for them to come to you, you make yourself available to people who get in touch on social media!”

On the wider issue of whether social media companies do enough to prevent abuse, harassment, and trolling, Cllr Dowson was clear.

“No. It’s ridiculous that you can open an account without any identification or verification of who you are or that you are who you claim to be.

“I’ve had fake accounts pretend to be me, and I’ve had fake accounts make bogus complaints against me. If there was a system of verifying identity that all social media companies use, that’d be a start.

“Look, they can trace an IP address and locate you, but it takes too much time. If you have verification, that’s avoided, and things can be dealt with quickly and finally by social media companies.”

If it appears bitterly ironic to his detractors that Cllr Dowson has brought forward a motion to tackle online abuse, suppose it passes when councillors vote on it.

In that case, it will go before a committee chaired by Cllr Joshua Beynon.

When we pointed that out, Paul Dowson grinned.

Before we left, we asked Councillor Dowson whether he would seek re-election.

“Damn right, I am. In Pembroke Dock: Bush.”

News

Costs of agency social workers soars in Pembrokeshire from £250k to £1.4m

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CONCERN over the welfare of children has emerged after new figures show that the number of agency social workers employed by councils, and their cost, have been increasing in recent years.

In 2019 Pembrokeshire County Council spent £250k on agency social 8 workers, but by 2020 it had increased to £770k on 11 staff members. By last year it had increased to a staggering £1.4m on employing 12.

Experts say the difficulty experienced by our council, and other local authorities, in attracting permanent staff means vulnerable children and families were often seeing multiple social workers in a single year, making it harder for them to engage with services.

They said the large-scale use of agency social workers was a poor use of dwindling local authority funds, as locums received a higher hourly rate than permanent staff, on top of the fee paid to the company they were employed through.

Across all of Wales, 376 agency social workers were employed by Welsh councils last year at a cost of £20,423,189. This is an increase from 365 for £18,522,072 in 2020/21 and 279 for £16,149,980 the year before.

Already since April this year, £1.8m has been spent on 143 such staff but the cost is likely to far exceed this over the course of a whole year.

The reliance of local authorities on agency social workers has become a significant area of concern in recent months after a council that admitted it failed to prevent the murder of toddler Star Hobson has a serious staff retention problem in its children’s services.

Bradford Council spent £12.3m on agency staff in the last year – representing a doubling of its spend since the 16-month-old girl died on 22 September 2020. It also has the highest spend in the country.

Pembrokeshire was one of five councils to have spent seven-figure sums on agency social workers. On top of Pembrokeshire’s £1.4m, Cardiff spent £5.4m, Powys £4.4m, Merthyr Tydfil £3.3m and Rhondda Cynon Taf £1.3m.

The Welsh Conservatives say that the revelations come after Mark Drakeford’s continued reluctance to implement a review of children’s services across Wales – the only UK nation not to do so – despite having the worst rate of looked-after children of British nations. Calls were prompted after the murder of Logan Mwangi.

Ray Jones, a former director of children’s services and an emeritus professor at Kingston University, said working conditions for social workers had deteriorated, with bigger caseloads, less support and inadequate pay, which made locum work more attractive.

He explained: “You’re paying more for a poorer service [with agency workers] because what you need in terms of children’s and adults social services is continuity – people who know the people they are working with, can build relationships with those families over time, and know their history.”

Commenting, Welsh Conservative and Shadow Social Services Minister Gareth Davies MS said: “We’ve known about understaffing in Wales’ social services departments for a long while now, well before the current labour shortages we are seeing nationwide, which is what makes councils’ reliance on agency workers so concerning.

Logan Mwangi’s case is a prime example of a failure in social services. His mother, stepfather and a teenager were been given life sentences for murdering five-year-old Logan Mwangi and dumping his body in a river last year (Image: Family photo)

“We’ve seen tragic cases like Star Hobson and Logan Mwangi that only go to show that we need a strong presence from social services. This cannot happen when councils are so dependent on agency staff because permanent placements lead to better outcomes as someone can handle a case consistently that way.

“That’s why it is startling to see hundreds are employed every year at substantial cost to the taxpayer, costs that would be lower if resources focussed on paying permanent staff better than shelling out for agency premiums.

“I think our findings only serve to support our calls for a Wales-wide review of social services, especially since Wales is the only British nation not to be doing so and has the worst rate of looked-after children in the UK, which makes Mark Drakeford’s rejection of one so disappointing.”

Speaking in 2019, Nadhim Zahawi, the children and families minister, said: “There are more full-time equivalent social workers than ever before across the UK, which means there are more dedicated people on the frontline to offer much needed support to some of most vulnerable children and families in the country.

“Agency staff can play a vital role in managing short-term recruitment needs, fluctuations in demand or to support improvement.

“We are supporting the recruitment and training of social workers so they have the skills they need for this important job.”

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More than eight in ten want Truss to win – new poll reveals

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LIZ Truss is the overwhelming choice to become the next Prime Minister, a new poll reveals.

In what will be regarded as a blow to Rishi Sunak, 83 per cent of those polled said they’d rather see Ms Truss in Number 10.

The survey of 2,625 voters was carried out by GB News and is the latest boost to Ms Truss’ campaign which has been gaining momentum ever since her ill-tempered TV debate with the former Chancellor.

Of those polled by the channel just 17 per cent – less than ome in five opted for the former Chancellor.

Many of those polled said it was Ms Truss’ pledges on tax and the fact she hadn’t walked out of her Cabinet post that were among the reasons they wanted her to become leader.

Sunak, meanwhile, was described by many as having “betrayed” the PM.

Earlier today Ms Truss told GB News how she had no intention of wasting her time on wallpaper if she got to Number 10.

The Foreign Secretary said there was work to do while also admitting she enjoys winding down by listening to 80’s music and singing karaoke.

She said yesterday: “We’re now going to campaign in the country, I’m very much looking forward to that and putting my case across that we need a bold new economic policy, we need to take full advantage of all the opportunities of Brexit.

“We need to cut taxes and we need to deliver for all the people right across the United Kingdom.”

She added: “What people rise across Britain care about is how we are going to help them with the cost of living, how we’re going to unleash opportunity and I’m somebody who can get things done in government.

“I’ve shown that I’m willing to push things through Whitehall and that’s why we need to cut taxes.

“We shouldn’t raise national insurance in the first place. We need to cut it now, we need a moratorium on the green energy levy to cut people’s fuel bills.

“And we need to power recovery by attracting investment, getting new businesses to set up so if we carry on with our current economic policy that is currently projected to lead to a recession that will not put us in a good place to win the election.

“I’m somebody who can get things done, get the economy growing, put us on a positive footing, but I can also relate to people right across the country.

“I grew up in Paisley, Leeds. I went to a comprehensive school. I understand the struggles people are facing now and I’m the candidate who can really communicate how we are going to change things and turn things around in Britain.”

Asked why she has supported 15 tax rises in the past, she said: “I opposed that in Cabinet at the time.

“I said it was a bad idea at the time but I’m a loyal person. I respect cabinet collective responsibility.

“Once the decision had been made, I was obliged to respect that decision but I’ve always been clear. It was a mistake, breaking our manifesto commitment and putting up taxes. And I would never have done that…”

Ms Truss was asked how she could reconcile cutting taxes with improving public service and she said: “I’m very committed to building the 40 new hospitals we promised and continuing to fund the NHS and education to get economic growth up.

“The fact is we’ve had low economic growth for two decades. And what that means is a lack of opportunities, lack of new jobs or lack of new businesses.

“By reducing taxes and by taking the full advantage of all the opportunities of Brexit, we can get economic growth going and for me economic growth isn’t just numbers on a page, it is about a new job, a new business, making sure the towns and cities across the country that we promised levelling up to get those spades in the ground, they get those new projects going.

“That is what we can deliver. If we unleash economic growth, if we get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy and the red tape that’s still on our statute books from the EU.

“So as well as doing those tax cuts, I would have a programme of massive reforms to our economy to get our growth rate up, that will fund our public services in the future.”

She was asked about the wallpaper in Number 10 and a fact that people would not know about her.

She said: “Believe me, I’m not going to have time to be thinking about the wallpaper in Number 10 because we’ve only got two years until a general election.

“We need to hit the ground running. We need to get on with changing our economy to really deliver for people right across the country. I’m not going to be thinking about wallpaper.

“I think maybe the one thing people don’t know about me is I do love 1980’s music and I do love karaoke.

“I like to enjoy music as well. My favourite song is I Want To Dance by Whitney Houston.”

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National 20mph limit comes into force in Wales next year

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WALES will be the first UK nation to impose a 20mph default speed limit following a vote held in the Senedd yesterday (July 12). The Welsh Government voted to limit residential roads and busy pedestrian streets to 20mph. 

According to the Welsh Government, this will lessen the likelihood and severity of accidents involving vulnerable road users. It will also encourage more people to cycle and walk. 

39 members of the Senedd voted in favour, while 15 members voted against. 

The new national default speed limit will come into effect from September 2023. The Welsh Government say the changes affect residential roads and busy pedestrian streets. 

According to the Welsh Government, the modifications have an impact on major pedestrian routes and residential roadways. The Welsh Government is still deciding which highways will have 20mph speed restrictions and which ones should stay at 30mph.

The 22 councils in Wales will collaborate with Go Safe to determine implementation timelines, according to the Welsh Government, but enforcement will continue throughout the transition period.

Climate change minister, Julie James, stated: “The future of our towns and cities depends on our ability to move around sustainably and on solutions that have a positive impact on public health environment and communities.

“That is why we will use the principle that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and a 20mph default speed limit will help achieve this. The introduction of a national 20mph limit would be an important and far reaching policy. If passed Wales would be the first country in the UK to introduce the change. We’re asking you all to be part of this change and make our communities understand the wider benefits of 20mph.

“This change is a generational one and when the time to embed, it will need to be accompanied by an important communication and marketing campaign and behaviour change initiatives. Achieving behavioural change is challenging but Wales has previously shown that we can do it successfully with policies such as organ donation, the banning of smoking in public places, and limiting the use of plastic bags. It does, however, require a collaborative effort between agencies, local authorities and by communities. We need to bring speeds down.”

She continued, saying there is evidence that 20 mph speed limits encourage more people to bike or walk, and she hoped this would lead to people naturally choosing those modes of transportation.

According to Ms. James, 80 people die on Welsh roads on average each year, and current data shows that 30mph is the speed at which 53 percent of accidents occur.

The immediate cost is about £33 million, but according to the Welsh Government, increased road safety brought on by slower average speeds could generate a positive financial return of about £25 million over the course of 30 years due to the money saved on fewer emergency services and hospital visits.

Additionally, the policy might result in significant wider economic gains from increased road safety (£1.4 billion), environmental and health gains from increased active travel (£5 million), and additional unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies.

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