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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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Politics

Draft Welsh Budget probed

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Finance Chair Simon Thomas: Committees hold WG to account

COMMITTEES of the National Assembly for Wales have reported on the Welsh Government’s draft budget 2018-19. The Finance Committee has published its findings, alongside reports from six other Assembly Committees.

Concerns have been raised about the progress of transformation of NHS Services by two Assembly Committees.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee noted that significant change is needed to transform NHS services and improve outcomes, but it is not clear that the Welsh Government budget is targeted to achieve this. The Committee also highlighted that extra funding is sustaining the current position rather than driving improvements, whilst the Finance Committee agreed there is limited evidence of improvement in financial planning in local health boards.

The Health Committee warned that escalating social care costs coupled with rising demand require urgent attention and a whole-system approach to health and social care. The Finance Committee also recognised that an increase in funding for the Health Service results in a cut in other areas, most notably local government, bodies often responsible for the majority of social care provision.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommend that the Welsh Government explains how outcomes will be monitored to ensure that the removal of ring-fenced budgets does not lead to vulnerable people falling between gaps in services.

The Finance Committee identified:

  • That despite a recommendation from last year’s budget scrutiny, there has been only limited progress in linking the budget to the goals and ways of working laid out in the Well-being of Future Generations Act
  • Future draft budgets should also demonstrate how the Government’s allocation of funds will meet the priorities outlined in its Programme for Government and national strategy, Prosperity for All

The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee also raised concerns about the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, warning that the Welsh Government is yet to demonstrate the transformative change promised in the legislation and expressing disappointment at the lack of progress in embedding it in policy. The Committee also warned about the impact of funding reductions on Natural Resources Wales, including a £10m reduction in staff costs.

Concerns have been raised by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee in their report that the £1b dispute with the UK Government over the rail franchise remains unresolved in this budget. The Committee noted that this money could be used to make a real difference to services that could be provided to rail passengers in Wales.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee has concerns about a lack of transparency in relation to the funding available for schools in Wales, particularly the confusion surrounding the amount of additional funding being provided compared to last year. The Committee calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with local government to ensure that protection for school budgets translates from budget calculations to the chalkface.

The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee raised concerns that scale of the resources needed to deliver the Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims for a million Welsh speakers by 2050, has yet to be fully considered. The Committee would like to see greater clarity over the resources that will be needed over the medium and longer term.

Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee, said: “Scrutinising this budget has been a change for all the Committees in the Assembly – the Finance Committee has developed its role into holding the Government to account on its high level and strategic priorities, whilst examining the Government’s intentions with regards to raising revenue and borrowing.

“However, it is good to see that some of the issues coming from the policy committees are resonating with our findings; concerns have been raised around the continued prioritisation of health, often at the expense of local government.

“Additionally, we are still struggling to see the impact of the Future Generations Act, which was raised by the Members of Finance Committee and the Environment Committee.”

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Politics

Last possible date for by-election

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Alyn & Deeside election: Llywydd took circumstances into account

THE LLYWYDD has announced that the date for the Alyn and Deeside by-election will be Tuesday, February 6, 2018 and has written to the Returning Officer asking him to arrange for the poll to take place on that date.

In deciding upon the date, the Llywydd has taken account of the sensitivities of the circumstances which led to the vacancy arising, the practical arrangements for the effective management of the by-election and the impact of the Christmas period on arrangements.

February 6 is statutorily the last possible day on which the by-election can take place. Although elections and by-elections, by convention, have taken place on Thursdays, there is no statutory compulsion to do so.

In these circumstances, the Llywydd believes that this decision provides all political parties and candidates with the maximum opportunity to prepare and also enables the local authority to make the necessary arrangements in a timely way.

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Politics

Independence doubts curb National Procurement Service

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Forecasts savings were over-optimistic: Nick Ramsay

ALTHOUGH spend through the National Procurement Service (NPS) is increasing, it has not developed as quickly as expected resulting in concerns over its funding and less than anticipated savings

A report from the Wales Audit Office has also suggested that some public bodies think the NPS is too close to the Welsh Government.

Public bodies spent £234 million through the NPS in 2016-17, but this was well short of previous estimates, a report by the Auditor General for Wales has said.

Although spend through its procurement arrangements has increased year-on-year since its inception in 2013, public bodies are not using the NPS as much as anticipated. Of the £234 million spent through NPS in 2016-17, the 73 member organisations spent £222 million. NPS’s 2015 business plan had targeted a figure of £2.2 billion.

Until the end of 2015-16, a £5.9 million Welsh Government ‘Invest-to Save’ loan covered most of NPS’s operating costs. The Welsh Government expected that NPS would then start repaying the loan from surplus income generated by a supplier rebate. However, the rebate generated only £0.9 million in 2016-17 compared with operating costs of £2.8 million. Although there are signs of income increasing in 2017-18, NPS is still not expecting to cover its costs. The Welsh Government has used its reserves to meet the shortfall.

As at August 2017, NPS has reported savings for public bodies of £14.8 million for 2016-17 as well as wider benefits to the economy such as job creation and direct spend with Welsh suppliers. While the reported savings have increased year-on-year, the figures have been substantially lower than some early estimates.

The report also found that some public bodies have been concerned that the NPS is not sufficiently independent from the Welsh Government and that its focus is towards national issues rather than local priorities.

The report makes five recommendations on issues including:

  • identifying why public bodies are not using NPS as much as anticipated;
  • clarifying the process for members opting-out of using NPS procurement arrangements; and
  • agreeing a sustainable funding mechanism for the NPS.

Huw Vaughan Thomas said today “There is still broad in-principle support for the NPS, but it is vital that public bodies have confidence in it and it is clear that previous expectations about the growth of the NPS are a long way from being met. The NPS needs to do more to identify and address the reasons why public bodies choose not to use its procurement arrangements and to convince public bodies of the benefits.”

The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “The National Procurement Service (NPS) has an important role to play in getting a better deal for public bodies for their goods and services and in delivering the Welsh Government’s wider procurement policy objectives.

“The Auditor General’s report makes clear that the NPS is falling well short of what appears in hindsight to have been over-optimistic expectations about the amount of public spending that it would be able to influence, at least in its early years.

“The report raises some broader questions about public bodies’ commitment to collaborative purchasing and about the balance between national and local priorities, and the overall governance of the NPS.

“The Committee will be considering this report about the NPS alongside the Auditor General’s wider report on Public Procurement in Wales, published last month.”

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