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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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Police and drugs advice service issue warning over ‘deadly batch’ of heroin

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POLICE have asked the media to issue a warning over a batch of heroin.

The drug circulating in west Wales, first detected in Llanelli, is particularly dangerous, it has been confirmed.

“We are warning drug users to take extra care following reports of a particularly harmful batch of heroin circulating in the Llanelli area” said a Dyfed-Powys Police spokesperson.

“We have reasons to believe some drugs being distributed and used in the Carmarthenshire area at present have been contaminated with other substances and could be extremely dangerous for anyone taking them.

“We would also appeal to drug users to seek medical attention immediately if they become unwell.

“Please share this information with anyone you believe could come into contact with these drugs.

”In an emergency or if you think someone’s life is at risk always dial 999.”

Earlier this week Barod, the drug and alcohol abuse service reported a dangerous and toxic heroin circulating in Pembroke Dock which a spokesperson described as being ‘potentially deadly’.

To comes as Public Health England issued a formal alert about the risks of heroin containing fentanyl or carfentanyl.

The warning reads: “There is significant evidence from a small number of post-mortem results of recent drug user deaths and from police seizures that some heroin may contain fentanyl or carfentanyl added by dealers.

“These are highly potent synthetic opioids and very small amounts can cause severe or even fatal toxicity.

“Those of you in contact with heroin users should be alert to the increased possibility of overdose arising from heroin cut with these synthetic opioids, be able to recognise possible symptoms of overdose and respond appropriately.”

The fentanyls are a group of synthetic opioids; some have legitimate uses while others are illicit drugs.

Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine and is a licensed medicine used to treat severe and terminal pain. Carfentanyl is 4,000 – 10,000 times more potent than morphine and principally used as an animal tranquilliser.

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Tenby’s famous walrus ‘Wally’ has been spotted again

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TENBY’S most famous marine animal has been spotted again after fears she had been scared away.

Wally was spotted on Friday evening by the seaside town’s Lifeboat station.

Thought to be a two-year-old male, the walrus’s return comes after it was feared she had been disturbed by people flocking to catch a glimpse of her and “getting too close”

The animal has attracted hundreds of people to the seaside town now that the travel restrictions with Wales have been lifted to coincide with the Easter school holidays.

Wally was last seen on Monday, but  members of the public were warned it was in the animal’s “best interests” to be “left alone” as much as possible and they were urged to “avoid the temptation to get near and disturb” her.

A joint statement was issued by the RSPCA, Tenby harbour master Chris Salisbury, Welsh Marine Life Rescue, Tenby lifeboat coxswain Phil John, British Divers Marine Life Rescue, Natural Resources Wales and CSIP Marine Environmental Rescue said that they were concerned to hear that people had tried to get close by using personal watercraft or paddle and surfboards.

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Police plan to deter badly behaved youths from gathering in Tenby

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POLICE in Tenby responded to community concerns over antisocial behaviour and groups of between 15-20 youths gathering and clashing over the Easter bank holiday weekend. They moved the youths on, seized alcohol from them and stopped matters escalating when there were clashes between the groups. And they have a clear message ahead of this weekend – there will be extra police patrols and presence in Tenby, including on the trains, so this type of behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Dyfed-Powys Police officers used powers under the Antisocial Behaviour Act to disperse groups of youngsters meeting to drink alcohol in and around Tenby, many of whom had travelled by train to the area to meet up.

Based on these scenes from last weekend, plans are in place as part of a joint operation with Pembrokeshire County Council licensing officers and British Transport Police, to address and prevent any further gatherings.

A Section 34 Order is in place covering Tenby, which allows officers to move people out of the area and prevent them from returning for up to 48 hours.

Sergeant Stuart Wheeler said: “Following last weekend we had some concern from the community of Tenby, due to antisocial behaviour related to the groups of youths from Pembroke, Pembroke Dock and Tenby, and subsequently those groups clashing. Alcohol consumption by these youngsters was a factor.

“Proactive action was taken, and we are keen to avoid a repeat of this behaviour this weekend, and have therefore put plans in place. Additional resources have been allocated, which will allow us to respond quickly and prevent matters from escalating.

“Tenby Neighbourhood Policing Team and response officers, will be carrying out high visibility patrols in the area, covering areas known to be popular with youngsters. Pembrokeshire County Council licensing officers will be assisting us in ensuring youngsters can’t buy alcohol in the area by visiting shops and reminding them of the laws around selling alcohol, and if they bring it with them it will be seized. And our colleagues in British Transport Police will be patrolling the train network to prevent problematic groups getting to Tenby by train.”

Police are also appealing to parents and carers to know where their children are, and what they are doing.

Sergeant Wheeler added: “We would like to appeal directly to parents to be aware of where their children are, and prevent them from gathering in large groups. This type of behaviour is distressing for people living and working in Tenby, and we are urging you to be accountable for your children’s actions.

“We understand that the past few months have been difficult, and that children want to see their friends, but remember that only 6 people from 2 households can meet outdoors still. Please do your best to ensure they are adhering to regulations that are in place for all our safety.”

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