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Call for fraud probe on grants

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grants scandalPLAID CYMRU has uncovered that Pembrokeshire Council’s procurement rules were not followed in respect of public funds to 29 Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock.

A letter from the Welsh Local Government Minister states the Council’s procurement procedures were not followed and there was insufficient evidence to support the expenditure claimed in respect to 29 Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock, officials in the Welsh European Funding Office found.

Speaking from Brussels where he held a meeting with the EC’s Director of Public Procurement at which probity and corruption in EU funds was discussed, Mid & West AM Simon Thomas said:

“I am grateful to my constituent for raising this important matter with me. The Council’s own rules on procurement were not followed in this case and I have little faith that there are no other examples. It is not enough that the Welsh Government is seeking a claw back of the money paid to the council and will remove the properties in question from the European Union scheme.

“This is only sweeping things under the carpet. Either the police or an independent audit must go over such schemes with a fine toothcomb to ensure no other project has been mismanaged or fraud has been committed.

“I will be calling on the government to undertake such an audit and have also raised questions over the wider issue of governance of Pembrokeshire Council with the Local Government Minister as my Plaid Cymru colleagues on Pembrokeshire Council have done in the council chamber.”

Councillor Michael Williams, Leader of the Party of Wales on Pembrokeshire Council added:

“This is public money and it is disgraceful that Pembrokeshire Council haven’t followed their own procurement procedures particularly when the council makes companies jump through so many hoops to get contracts. The Wales Audit Office found that the council acted unlawfully over pension payments, and now this.”

The Council strikes back

RESPONDING to the Plaid press release, a Council spokesperson told the Herald:

“Pembrokeshire County Council has seen the correspondence between Minister Lesley Griffith AM and Simon Thomas AM and we do not agree with the statement by Plaid Cymru.

“It is not the case that procurement rules were not followed in relation to 29 Dimond Street.

“Works undertaken with the benefit of the Commercial Property Grant Scheme (CPGS) are not procured by the Council. The Council’s role is set out in the Council’s Procedure Manual which has recently been revised in consultation with the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO).

“The grant for the property is being recovered and, while a police investigation into other matters in relation to the property are on-going, it would be inappropriate for the Council to comment further.

“There is no basis on which Mr Thomas can say that there may be other examples within the CPGS as WEFO has recently completed a 100 per cent check on all 24 CPGS-funded properties and found only two where there were any issues. Both had already been referred to the police by Pembrokeshire County Council.

“As Mrs Griffith’s letter makes clear, WEFO is satisfied that the Council has taken appropriate action and has lifted the payment suppression, both positive points that the statement from Plaid Cymru chooses to overlook.”

Inspection: Council officers check buildings

Inspection: Council officers check buildings

Procurement procedure not followed

THE DISPUTED revelation that the County Council failed to follow its own procurement procedures is bound to be an embarrassment to what it has been only too proud to proclaim is its “expert” team.

In January, we reported how the Council’s own European Manager had reassured Audit Committee members that they would find nothing wrong with the Scheme. It later appeared as though that officer, Gwyn Evans, had doctored a report of a meeting in an attempt to ensure that was the case.

At that same Audit Committee meeting, Dr Stephen Jones told members of the Committee that any problems with the scheme that would lead to recoupment would be trivial in nature.

It is now open to question how much active collusion or passive acquiescence there was by other officers more intimately involved in the grants scheme and the Town Heritage Initiative that preceded.

The response from Welsh Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths, reveals that Pembrokeshire County Council has undertaken that it will refund monies paid out under the Commercial Property Grants Scheme (CPGS).

The Herald understands that the amount to be repaid is rather more significant than trivial, and sums between £150K and £300K are the subject of speculation at County Hall.

Questions still remain, however, about money given to other developments carried out by “Baron of the Bedsits”, Cathal McCosker under the Town Heritage Initiative.

What is certain, however, that once Pembrokeshire’s Best Magazine and Mike Stoddart began reporting on the grants fiasco the amount received in grant payments by Mr McCosker’s developments markedly diminished. As The Herald revealed, NO request for payment has been made by Mr McCosker or any of his companies in relation to 50 Dimond Street, a property now up for auction at a guide price significantly under that than would be indicated by the original grant allocation.

Mirehouse’s mistake

AT JANUARY’S Audit Committee meeting, former Deputy Leader of the Council John Allen Mirehouse (IPPG, Hundleton) proclaimed it was a shame that only around £18K of public money had been spent on renovating a tiny former butcher’s shop in Dimond Street instead of the £64K originally scheduled.

As the Council now faces repaying grant monies paid out to Mr McCosker and his companies under the CPGS, Mr Allen Mirehouse might want to re-appraise both that view and the view that there was no need for the scheme to be subject to scrutiny that he expressed in an ill-judged tirade directed against Cllr Mike Stoddart at a Council meeting in December last year.

In fact, even if the Council succeeds in getting any money back from Cathal McCosker at all, it will still be out of pocket. The rake the Council took for its so-called “administration” of the grants scheme amounted to 9% of the total amount received in European Funding. It is Pembrokeshire’s Council Tax payers who will ultimately foot that bill.

Minister also errs

THE HERALD is able to confirm that an assertion regarding controversial CEO Bryn Parry Jones in Ms Griffiths’ response is also misleading.

The letter claims that the controversial CEO has stepped aside from his post while an unrelated Police investigation takes place into the unlawful pay supplement scheme that the Council’s own Senior Staff Committee agreed in a bid to help Mr Parry Jones avoid tax on his seven-figure publicly-funded pension pot.

The Herald has confirmed that it is not the case that the ongoing Police investigation into that matter has anything to do with Mr Parry Jones continued paid absence from work. A Council spokesman told The Herald:

“Lesley Griffiths is incorrect in her assumption that the Chief Executive stepped aside ‘for the duration of the re-opened Police investigation.’

“He has taken a period of absence because of the “continuing speculation” surrounding his position and this is what we said in our press statement.”

grant scandalStoddart’s analysis

MIKE STODDART, who has tirelessly investigated the grants scandal told The Herald:

“It is heartening to see that Plaid Cymru are taking an interest in this matter.

“What is difficult to understand is why the police, who were provided with a dossier by PCC in April containing evidence of serious “irregularities” on projects carried out in Pembroke Dock by Mr Cathal McCosker and his associated companies still haven’t launched an investigation.

“The last time I enquired, about a month ago, the police told me that they were consulting with the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) on whether it was “appropriate” to mount a criminal investigation.

“I met with three officers from WEFO on 9 June when I explained at great length how these “irregularities” were engineered by the developer his architect and builder so it is not easy to understand what is holding them back though, as WEFO have carried out multiple audits of these grants and failed to spot any of these “irregularities” it looks like they’re being asked to mark their own homework.

“In her letter to Simon Thomas AM the Minister Lesley Griffiths, after referring to the police involvement, says: ‘However these do not form part of the Commercial Property Grants Scheme, or other European Union funded scheme led by the council and so it would be inappropriate for the Welsh Government to comment any further at this time.’

“This is extremely misleading because the two projects that were referred to the Police were 10 Meyrick Street and 29 Dimond Street, both in Pembroke Dock.

“According to documents in my possession, large Commercial Property Grants funded by the EU were paid out on both these projects.

“However, I also understand that PCC has been forced to refund WEFO with ALL grant monies paid to Mr McCosker and the companies he controls, plus the sums provided by WEFO to cover PCC’s costs for administrating the scheme, so I suspect that what is now being spun is that, as the money has been returned, these projects were never grant funded in the first place.

“That seems like a classic case of rewriting history to me.

“I suspect a narrative is being prepared along the following lines: McCosker has repaid the grants so there is no loss to the public purse. PCC has tightened up its administrative procedures so that these ‘irregularities’ are unlikely to recur. In all the circumstances it would not be in the public interest to launch an expensive, time-consuming criminal investigation.

“Or, what most people recognise as a typical establishment cover-up.”

Who picks up the bill?

THE HERALD asked the Council that, as the Minister suggested that the Council had agreed to repay grant monies incorrectly paid out, to specify the amount in which payment was to be made, whether Mr McCosker agreed to indemnify the Council for this repayment and, if so, to identify with whom at County Hall any discussions took place.

A Council spokesperson told us: “As explained at the Council meeting on July 17, the fact that the grant is to be repaid does not mean that on all the properties concerned there are irregularities. The repayment is to expedite the continuation of the grant scheme and the lifting of the payment suppression. The grant to be repaid on the two properties that have been referred to the police is £144k. The owner of these properties has offered to repay grant paid to the Council. A charge has also been placed against the properties.”

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Welsh Conservatives appoint new Senedd Leader

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IT HAS been announced that Andrew RT Davies MS has been appointed as the new Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Welsh Parliament.

Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “Becoming leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd once again is a great honour and privilege, and I’m pleased to enjoy the unanimous support of my colleagues to take us forward after a difficult few days for us all.

“On behalf of the Group I want to pay tribute to Paul Davies for his service as leader. Paul is not only a colleague but a trusted friend, who has served his constituents and party with distinction, and will continue to do so.

“There is urgent work in front of all of us and our immediate focus will be continuing to hold the Labour administration in the Senedd to account on vital issues such as the vaccine rollout, and fighting May’s election alongside our excellent slate of candidates and dedicated volunteers.

“We are in a moment like no other, and the COVID-19 pandemic has sadly only served to shine a spotlight on the challenges in people’s everyday lives; challenges that have been made all the harder by twenty of Welsh Labour Government failure.

“From our fragile economy to ever increasing NHS waiting lists, people in Wales have been badly let down by successive Labour administrations. Let me be clear; devolution isn’t the issue, it is the socialists in the Labour Party, and Wales deserves better.

“In just over 100 days, the Welsh public will head to the ballot box to decide on the future they want for our country and in the coming weeks and months the Welsh Conservatives will put forward a positive plan to get Wales moving again and build back our country better than ever.

“This will be in tough election during a tough time for our country and whereas other parties want to use this period to divide and separate, we’ll seek to unite our country and deliver a strong voice for Wales, in a strong United Kingdom.”

Chairman of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Senedd, Janet Finch-Saunders MS said: “Following a meeting of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Senedd this morning, I’m pleased to confirm that Andrew RT Davies has been endorsed unanimously as our new leader in the Senedd.

“As Chairman of the Group, I want to say thank you to Paul Davies for his immense efforts in the post since 2018. Paul played a key role in our record-breaking General Election in 2019, whilst setting the groundwork ahead of May’s Senedd election.

“Our attention now turns to May and taking the fight to the Labour Party.”

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Health

Health Board makes vaccination U-turn after queue-jumping complaints

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HYWEL DDA UHB today (Jan 23) announced a U-turn on its vaccination policy and will stick to the national priority scheme.

The move came after allegations it allowed Pembrokeshire County Council employees and other non-front-line workers to jump the queue for inoculations against Covid-19.
While surgeries in Pembrokeshire are still waiting for vaccines to inoculate its most eligible patients, the Health Board’s approach to delivering vaccinations breached Government guidance.

Yesterday (Friday, Jan 22), Ros Jervis, Director of Public Health at Hywel Dda University Health Board told The Herald: “The decision was made this week to extend the vaccine invitation to staff groups critical to the COVID response, without which we would not be able to run essential COVID response services.

“Many of these staff are currently redeployed from the frontline and patient-facing roles and employed by the health board, social care services, independent or third sector care services and fall within the JCVI’s priority group 2.”

The Welsh Government’s strategy is to inoculate frontline staff and then Over 80s. People in those categories are JCVI Priority Group 1.

However, this afternoon the Health Board issued the following statement: “In the past week, after offering frontline staff the opportunity to book vaccination, we expanded our eligibility criteria.

“We have reviewed the guidance and will now not be able to offer or vaccinate this group of staff currently. This is because it is increasingly difficult to draw the line around which staff should be included in this group and because we risk vaccinating before they are eligible.
“We must stay within the JCVI guidance which permits us only to vaccinate frontline health and social care staff, to protect patients and service users, at this point.
“We know that many other groups who are not part of the health and social care workforce are also critical to the wider COVID response and therefore it would be inequitable.
“We are so grateful to all key workers. We have throughout the pandemic continually strived to do the best for our staff and population, and we apologise for any confusion there has been around this issue over the past few days.”

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Paul Davies MS quits as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd

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PRESELI Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies quit as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd this morning.

The Conservatives’ Chief Whip also quit his frontbench role.

The dramatic move comes only 24 hours after Mr Davies got the Conservative Senedd Group’s unanimous backing.

However, later yesterday (Friday, Jan 21) – as criticism poured in – the Welsh Conservatives’ Executive met. In that meeting, Constituency Chairs reported widespread disbelief and anger among the Party’s members. Conservative Party Chair, Lord Davies of Gower, received particular criticism for a lack of leadership. Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, also attended the meeting and was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling within the Party.

In a statement issued via the Conservative Senedd media office, Mr Davies said: “I am truly sorry for my actions on the 8th and 9th December. They have damaged the trust and respect that I have built up over 14 years in the Welsh Parliament with my colleagues and the wider Conservative Party but more importantly with the people of Wales.
“Whilst using the Senedd facilities at all times my colleagues and I maintained social distancing. There was no drunk or disorderly behaviour. We did not have to be escorted out of the building as some reports have suggested. What we did was to have some alcohol with a meal we heated up in a microwave, which was a couple of glasses of wine on Tuesday and a beer on Wednesday.
I broke no actual Covid-19 regulations.

“For the last 10 months of the pandemic, I have followed the Covid-19 regulations to the letter. As with everyone across Wales, I have not seen family members or friends, I’ve not eaten at my favourite restaurants and, like you, we enjoyed a subdued Christmas compared to other years. I will continue to follow the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Regulations and I would urge everyone to play their part in defeating this virus so that we can all return to normality.

“My priority as Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Welsh Parliament has always been to bring the Conservatives into government in Wales. Our main focus as the Welsh Conservatives must always be on challenging and removing a failing Labour government.

“I am grateful for the support of colleagues in the Welsh Conservative Party for their support in this difficult time, and especially to my wife Julie and my Senedd colleagues who have offered empathy, trust and advice. They have treated me with the same courtesy and decency I hope I have always extended to others.

“Over the last couple of days, I have been speaking with colleagues in the Senedd and the wider Conservative Party. Whilst they have confirmed they do not wish to see me step down, I believe that my actions are becoming a distraction from holding this failing Welsh Labour-led Government to account, not just on their rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines but from more than 20 years of their dither, delay and failure. Yesterday I indicated to the Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament that I wished to resign, but they urged me to reflect further, and we agreed to meet again on Monday. However, for the sake of my party, my health and my own conscience, I simply cannot continue in post.

“Therefore, I am stepping down as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament with immediate effect.”

“It is for the group to decide how best to choose a new leader, but I hope that process will be seamless and speedy, and I pledge my support to whoever becomes leader.”

Darren Millar blamed ‘wildly inaccurate and unfair reports’ and said:

“There was a member of catering staff present in the tea room for a short time after my arrival on the 8th December but she did not serve me a drink, nor did I request one. In fact, I encouraged the member of staff to go home and close up the counter as it had been a long day for her. No members of catering staff were present on the 9th December and the counter was closed for the whole evening.

“While I am advised that I did not breach coronavirus regulations I am very sorry for my actions, especially given the impact of the tough restrictions that people and businesses are enduring.

“For this reason, and given that Paul Davies has resigned as Welsh Conservative Group Leader in the Senedd, I have decided to step down from my front bench role in the Welsh Parliament.

“I am cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and will continue to do so.”
Whoever replaces Paul Davies, the role is likely to an interim appointment ahead of a vote of the Party membership after the Senedd election.

Commenting on the latest developments, William Powell, Welsh Liberal Democrat Senedd Candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire and former AM for Mid and West Wales said: ‘Paul Davies & Darren Millar have now done the correct thing in stepping down, to allow due process to take place, both within Cardiff Council and within the Senedd.
‘While they both need to reflect and learn from recent events, the Welsh Conservatives must now be given the opportunity to select an interim leader to take their party forward into the upcoming Senedd elections.
‘Schadenfreude is one of the unattractive features of our current politics and I want no part of it. I will simply work with my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues to hold Welsh and UK Government to account on the management of the pandemic.
‘My own journey of Covid-19 illness and recovery is a reminder that we should unite to double down on the virus, support our NHS and other key workers and endeavour to do the right thing.’

Welsh Labour Senedd Candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire has called out Paul Davies over his involvement in his apparent disregard of COVID rules in the Senedd and has expressed her concern that no actions have been taken to suspend him by his Party.

Commenting on the Welsh Conservative Group not taking any action against Paul Davies, Jackie Jones said: “I am flabbergasted that the Tory party is sitting on his hands and failed to recognise the public concern at the events described this week. The latest revelations suggest that he didn’t’ just breach the rules once but maybe twice. Now that this information has come to light, it is only right that the Tories look again at the decision they have taken today.

“As Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd he should be setting an example, not flouting the strict pandemic rules by supposedly drinking till 2 am on Senedd premises. Paul Davies constantly criticises the First Minister and Health Minister for implementing rules that are there to protect all of us, but here he is reportedly drinking till who knows when – maybe on two occasions – totally hypocritical.”

Ms Jones added that “I’m sure the constituents of Preseli will be equally annoyed by his behaviour, when they have had to abide by the rules, not going to pubs, not seeing loved ones for months at a time. It is completely out of order.”

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