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Hostile exchanges at Audit Committee

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jacob williamsCouncil’s Director of Development’s, presentation to Monday’s (Sept 22) Extraordinary Audit Committee has raised considerably more questions about grants scandal in Pembroke Dock than it answered. The thrust of Dr Jones’ lengthy address to the committee was, essentially, that where – in his words – “the irregularity” had occurred it was the fault of everyone but him or his department. Doctor Jones began by blaming the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) for approving a manual for the Commercial Property Grants Scheme that had “weaknesses”. His European Manager, Gwyn Evans, had written the manual, but any problems with it were clearly WEFO’s fault. And if WEFO weren’t at fault then there were all sorts of other compelling reasons (or possibly excuses) that Dr Jones could offer up. In public session, Dr Jones alleged that issues that had arisen with the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock grants schemes were all to do with the activities of one developer exploiting “loopholes” in the system. Further and in addition, Dr Jones averred that some problems had arisen because of increased workload and staffing shortages. On the one hand Dr Jones pointed out that the number of staff and projects for which he and his department had risen and on the other he pointed out that staff shortages had caused problems to arise. The failure, to replace a key manager and plan adequately for one member of staff’s maternity leave, were offered up as reasons why problems had arisen in project management.

DEPARTMENT UNDERSTAFFED’ At one point, Dr Jones sought to demonstrate that whereas there were once 18 members of staff under the Head of Regeneration (a manager’s post), he now had 94 members of staff as Director of Development (a director’s post). Any sympathy most members of the Committee might have felt for the £130k+ a year Dr Jones was somewhat moderated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of those “new” posts are actually contractors engaged with the Council’s partners – such as the Futureworks initiative organised in concert with the DWP. In a thinly veiled attempt to put pressure on councillors, he three times said that it was up to councillors to decide whether they wanted the benefit of grant-aided investment in Pembrokeshire and were willing to make funds available to ensure that grants could be administered properly. Of course, Dr Jones never admitted any problems existed before – whether in staffing levels, workload or administrative burden. On the contrary, before the same Committee in January Dr Jones asserted confidently that any issues uncovered would be trivial in nature. Back in January, Dr Jones had claimed that any problems with the grants would amount to the equivalent of a few bread rolls a day lost from the canteen. As it happens, using only the figures before the Audit Committee that would mean that – at 15p per bread roll – something like 900,000 bread rolls over a calendar year, or nearly 2,500 a day h a d gone walk about on Dr Jones’ watch. But he did not apologise. He expressed “disappointment”. As a display of patronising chutzpah before the Audit Committee, it was only equalled by the continued protestations of European Manager Gwyn Evans that whatever had gone wrong it was nothing to do with him. In all of these protestations, Dr Jones and Mr Evans were dealt with in soothing and understanding tones by the newly-elected Chair of the Audit Committee, Peter Jones. Formerly of Morgan Cole Solicitors and presently legal counsel to Swansea University and Chair of Swansea Bay Futures, Mr Jones’ role appeared to be less to encourage rigorous scrutiny and investigation than to accept everything the Committee were told by officers at face value. In the absence of the Head of Legal Services, Huw Miller, and the Council’s own Monitoring Officer, Laurence Harding – it appeared that Mr Jones’ appointment was – at times – particularly fortuitous, due to his extensive legal experience heading a major law firm.

JONES THE LEGAL EAGLE Prepared to deploy his undoubtedly deep legal knowledge when it was most advantageous to the culture which allows £125,000 to be treated like loose change lost behind a sofa cushion, Mr Jones managed to appear to contradict two senior officers (Kerry MacDermott and Jon Haswell). Both of whom agreed with Cllr Jacob Williams that key documents and correspondence relating to negotiations between the Council and Mr Cathal McCosker (Dr Steven Jones’ ‘lone gunman’) could be examined by councillors on the Audit Committee as of right. That is not to say that everything was plain sailing. The Chair was visibly narked and exasperated by the efforts of Cllr Jacob Williams to extract even the merest scintilla of an apology from Dr Jones or Mr Evans. On the basis that evidence is literally ‘that which can be seen’, Mr Jones appeared impatient when Cllr Williams continued to point out that the problem was not necessarily the old procedural manual but the failure to adhere to it. Cllr Williams continued to press on in the teeth of the Chair’s rising impatience with his wish to actually hold someone to account for the repeated and manifest failings of the Council’s Development Directorate and Regeneration Unit. Cllr Williams pointed out that the Council’s own manual provided that bank statements should have been produced to show expenditure had been incurred. Offering a legal opinion based on his professional practice, Mr Jones disagreed. What Mr Jones’ keen legal mind did not pick up on, however, was that the procedural manual was a document produced by Pembrokeshire County Council for its own use. It was only approved by WEFO. The manual’s author was before the committee. Going increasing red at the back of his neck, Gwyn Evans failed to explain why he had included something in the original manual that he and his department had no intention of enforcing. He ventured to say that it would not be practical. And the Chair nodded sagely; but Mr Evans could not or did not explain that if his own procedural manual was impractical why he did not realise that and change it to reflect practicalities before any issues arose.

SAY SORRY TO STODDART Cllr Jacob Williams landed a telling blow by following up a point made earlier by Cllr Guy Woodham. Cllr Williams asked why all of the issues that Dr Jones now prayed in aid of his department had not been acknowledged before. Why, in particular, did Dr Jones persist in saying that nobody could have known what was wrong when clear evidence had been presented by Cllr Mike Stoddart at the time that something was amiss? Cllrs Woodham and Williams suggested that officers should apologise to Cllr Stoddart for the way they had previously dealt with his concerns. Councillor Williams went so far as to say that a systematic attempt had been made “to rubbish” the Hakin representative. Dr Jones pointedly declined to apologise and the Council’s European Manager, Gwyn Evans, remarkably said he stood by the content of a public FAQ document which had been shown to be factually incorrect. It was hard to determine whether either officer was intentionally or unintentionally patronising. If the word ‘sorry’ was in their minds, it was rapidly strangled before it could be uttered. Peter Jones, of course, would have been a stranger to the intricacies of the discussion before him. It did not matter how well briefed and prepared he was, the ins and outs of the grants scandal and the efforts of the Council to cover it up were not on his radar.

STODDART GETS A SAY In the teeth of Chair’s bemusement, Cllrs Woodham and Williams proposed that Cllr Stoddart address the meeting. Cllr John Allen Mirehouse gracelessly consented. Two officers, Kerry MacDermott and Jon Haswell, pointed out that as Cllr Stoddart had been invited to address the panel previously on this matter he should be asked to share his thoughts. Cllr Stoddart offered some constructive views on the way forward and agreed that the proposals in the new procedural manual and checklist proposed went some way to tackling concerns. Indeed, Cllr Stoddart seemed to have gained an ally in Jon Haswell, who agreed with him that a very basic amendment could resolve an issue which had plagued the whole grants scheme. Gwyn Evans disagreed. Peter Jones leapt in to Mr Evans’ defence. Mr Haswell was not deflected and persisted with his view. With the Chairman looking at his watch, the meeting ended shambolically and unsatisfactorily with a spat between Cllrs Mirehouse and Stoddart. Peter Jones, seemingly taking the position that the Audit Committee had no choice but to approve the documents before them, drew the meeting to a quick close at the behest of Cllrs Mirehouse and Tom Richards.

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Masks now advised in all secondary schools

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PUPILS across Wales are now being advised to wear facemasks in all communal areas of secondary schools (including playgrounds), colleges and on transport to and from places of learning by the Welsh Government.

Although not compulsory, the new recommendations have been made by ministers to ensure a consistent approach in tackling COVID-19 across Wales.

People picking up and dropping off children are also advised to wear face coverings too to minimise the risk of catching or passing on COVID-19.

The new guidance, aimed mainly at secondary schools, which the Education Minister has described as ‘easy to follow’ was announced today and now means that the only spaces where staff and pupils can safely remove their facemasks is in the classroom.

The majority of councils already require secondary pupils and staff to wear masks in corridors and on most school transport with those rules extended to primary pupils too in some areas.

Education minister Kirsty Williams said: “It is vital that young people, parents, adults and the workforce feel confident that all measures are being taken to ensure the educational environments are as safe as possible.

“We have been clear that we will keep every policy under review and will continue to follow scientific advice. The policy we are announcing today does just that”.

The new advice has been recommended by the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Group (Tag), which has been looking at the “possibility of wearing face coverings for older age groups in more circumstances, including on public and dedicated transport” and could “even include in the classroom on a risk assessed basis…. balancing benefits with harms to overall wellbeing of students.”

Tag is also looking at how feasible a mass asymptomatic testing programme in schools and colleges could be, the Welsh Government has said it is considering that approach.

Debbie Thomas, Head of Policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society Cymru, said: “Face masks and coverings in communal areas could have serious consequences for Wales’ 2,500 deaf children, almost all of whom rely on lip reading and facial expressions to communicate.
“Socialising in corridors, break time chats and playground games are all rites of passage, but deaf young people now risk missing out because they can’t understand what others are saying. They’re also more likely to experience loneliness, isolation and bullying.
“Public health is the priority, but schools and colleges must move quickly to introduce reasonable adjustments to help deaf young people during this difficult time.”

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Two day centres to close temporarily as a precaution

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TWO north Pembrokeshire Day facilities for older people and people with learning disabilities are to close temporarily as a precaution following the rise in coronavirus cases in Ceredigion.

Bro Preseli Day Centre in Crymych and Wintern Day Centre, Goodwick, are to close temporarily from tomorrow (Tuesday, November 24).

The decision to close each site will be reviewed regularly.

It is emphasised that there have been no positive cases of Covid-19 detected at either site and the temporary closures have been put in place as a precaution.

 

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North Pembrokeshire schools remain closed

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THE SIX North Pembrokeshire schools which were closed today (Monday, November 23) as a precaution following the increased spread of coronavirus in South Ceredigion, will remain closed tomorrow (Tuesday, November 23).

The Pembrokeshire schools are:

• Ysgol Preseli
• Ysgol y Frenni
• Ysgol Llandudoch
• Ysgol Eglwyswrw
• Ysgol Cilgerran
• Ysgol Clydau.

The Pembrokeshire schools are closed as a precaution as they share services – such as transport – with the Ceredigion schools.

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