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Grants paid out ‘without any proper checks’



simonhart“WHAT a difference a year makes”, Cllr Mike Stoddart told the Herald after reading a report on the Commercial Property Grant Scheme (CPGS) in Pembroke Dock that is due to go before PCC’s audit committee next Monday. 

The Hakin councillor has been making allegations about this grant scheme for almost 18 months and in September 2013, after the matter was referred to the audit committee by Cllr Michael Williams (Plaid Cymru), and an investigation carried out by the council’s internal audit service, members were told: “Internal Audit has shared its findings with the Council’s Monitoring Officer who is satisfied that there is no evidence of maladministration or non-compliance with the governance arrangements relevant to the specific schemes or of any lack of competence in officers concerned with the administration of the schemes.”

Now, a year later, the council is singing a different tune and the report before next week’s meeting says that a further internal audit investigation into 29 Dimond Street (Paul Sartori) has found there is “No evidence of regular site visits being undertaken to ensure details agree with the specification and standards” and that “There was insufficient evidence of physical or financial completion of the project to support the authorisation of the grant payment.” Cllr Stoddart told our reporter: “If you cut through the jargon, what this means is that grant money was paid out without anyone carrying out proper checks that the work had actually been done” “So much for last year’s attempt to gloss over the problem with talk of ‘no evidence of maladministration’ or ‘any lack of competence’ by council officers.” “The only conclusion is that the report that went before the audit committee last September was either not properly researched or, more likely, one of the council’s trademark cover-ups.”

The latest report also concludes that: “Management and/or disciplinary action should be considered in respect of non-compliance with the process and procedures contained in the CPGS procedural manual, and the additional issues identified in this review.” But Cllr Stoddart says it’s a bit late for that. “A report was sent to the police in April this year containing allegations of massive overpayments at Paul Sartori for work that was either ineligible for grant aid, or, in many cases, simply not done at all.” “That was when disciplinary action should have been considered “, he told the Herald, “it’s probably too late now because, I understand, the officer who signed off these ‘irregular payments’ went on long-term sick leave just a couple of weeks ago”. Cllr Stoddart says that one of his main concerns was that the tender process was wide open to fraud.

He wrote to the council last September pointing out that not only was the tender opening process entirely in the hands of the developer’s architect, but, as eligible and ineligible works were intermingled in the Bills of Quantities accompanying the tender, it was possible for the rates for the eligible work to be inflated to attract a higher grant, while those for the ineligible work could be reduced to keep the tender competitive. As Cllr Stoddart said: “This is especially so if there is a collusive agreement between the applicant and the builder that the ineligible works will not be required to be done. That being the case the builder can submit whatever rates he likes for the private work without ever having to deliver.

The council’s internal auditors dismissed his concerns by claiming that as the developer didn’t know which items were eligible and which were not and “Consequently they have no ability to carry out the fraud suggested, whether they collude or not.” Mike Stoddart says it is simply not true that applicants don’t know which parts of the work are eligible for grants and which not and this latest audit report recommends that: “Grant funding should be based on the lowest tender for eligible works to ensure that the process cannot be manipulated and that best value for public funds is obtained.” The report also suggests that, in order to ensure the integrity of the process, in future, a council officer should be present when tenders are opened. Cllr Stoddart told the Herald: “This report bears out everything I have said about the flaws in this process.”

“People should wonder what sort of regime we are living under when a member is subject to a barrage of personal attacks by leading members of the ruling IPPG for simply telling the truth.” This is a reference to last December’s meeting of full council, when Cllr David Pugh, cabinet member with responsibility for grants, accused Cllr Stoddart of conducting “a campaign of innuendo and smear tactics” and making “spurious allegations” about the way the council had administered the CPGS; concluding his ten minute tirade: “But, then, getting at the truth is not on his agenda.”

At the same meeting, Pugh’s IPPG colleague Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse accused the Hakin councillor of being “someone who wouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. But Mike Stoddart is defiant in the face of these attacks. “Sadly for them, they have backed the wrong horse”, he told the Herald, “the truth is all on my side”. As for the attempted character assassination, he was contemptuously dismissive. “I regard being attacked by buffoons like Pugh and Allen- Mirehouse as an honour. If they liked me, I would begin to worry that I had taken a wrong turn. “But what people will find hard to understand,” Mike Stoddart concluded, “is that nine months after launching this personal attack on me, based, as it was, on untruths and outright lies, Cllr Pugh is still trousering his £15,000 a year cabinet SRA.”

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Primary school teacher would ‘moan’ as he touched female pupils, court hears



A HAVERFORDWEST primary school teacher would “moan” while he touched his female pupils in a sexual way, a witness said in Swansea Crown Court.

In total, 11 former pupils, who were all under 13, have come forward and accused James Oulton, 34, of sexually assaulting them.

Oulton denies all the charges – saying the case was a “witch-hunt” and that he had behaved appropriately all times.

One of the pupils, who was in year four at the time, opened day four of the trial by giving evidence via a video link.

The girl told the court: “He would put his arm around by back and backside.”

Under cross examination Chris Clee QC, for the defence, asked the witness: “Did you tell the police that you were touched in an inappropriate way?”

The witness answered: “Yes, teachers should not be touching in that way.”

James Oulton

Asked if what he was doing wrong, the witness replied:

“Yes, very wrong”

In cross examination letters and cards were produced, made the witness whilst in school, where she had said Mr. James Oulton was “the best teacher in the whole world.”

One of the cards said: “You’ve made my life complete”.

Another card said: “Thank you for being so nice, and thanks for everything that you’ve done for me.”

The witness added: “Despite what he did do, he was a good teacher.  

“He used to buy us treats.

“He was nice caring and a sweet and fun teacher – but not what he was doing.

Referring to the cards, she said: “I would definitely not be saying that stuff now.”

Explaining how she told her parents the witness said: “Once I realised that [x] was in his class, I asked her ‘did he do this stuff to you?’

“She said yes.

“I realised more and more it was wrong and it was time to grow up now, and to speak.

“As soon as I found out that this was happening to [x] I stood up and told my parents.

Asked if she had seen inappropriate behaviour happening to anybody else the witness answered: “He did it to most of the girls in the class, but he had his favourites.

Asked if she had spoken to other girls about the touching, the witness said: “Yes, I was just curious was it just me, or was it normal?”

“Teachers should most definitely not be doing that to students.

“Doing what?”, the witness was asked, “You said in your police interview that he would pull you off your chair and make you sit on his lap, is that true?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Did you try and stop him?” she was asked.

“Yes, I tried to push him off sometimes and said, ‘get off its weird’, but I didn’t want to make a scene.

“He would make me sit on his lap whilst he was marking my work.”

When asked by the defence barrister how she was sat on her teacher’s lap, and if it was under a desk, the witness answered: “No, not under the desk, as both of our legs wouldn’t fit under.”

The witness also said that when she was sat on the defendant’s knee he would make “a low grunting noise.”

Asked if she had spoken others about this case, the girl said: “Police told my mum and dad that there were very many people involved in the case.

“I thought it was just me and [x] that was going to be at court, I only recently discovered that others had come out.”

A second female pupil was also giving evidence via video link. She was 9-years-old at the time of the alleged offending.

Firstly, a pre-recorded interview was played in court in which the witness said: “My teacher, Mr. Oulton always put his hand up my leg like that and up my t-shirt.”

She added: “If he calls you over and he pulls you onto his lap, if you don’t, he pulls your chair over and makes you.”

“How would he make you?” the QC asked.

“He would grab your arm, push you, and then pull you in”, she replied.

When asked if this was a one off, the witness said that the defendant “did it every day.”

“How would you be sat on his lap?”, she was asked.

“He would have one arm on my stomach, then the other arm would be rubbing my leg.”

“He would swap arms and then put one arm up my t-shirt.”

When asked to clarify if it was under her t-shirt the girl explained: “Yes it was under my t-shirt rubbing his hands up and down.”

The witness added: “If I tried to get up for work, he would just grab my arm.”

“He would make a funny sound like a hissing airplane.”

“We had a helper in the class, and when he came in, he would stop, and then I could go and sit down.”

The trial continues.

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New trees planted to help town



SEVERAL new trees have been planted on Riverside Avenue in Neyland.

They were planted by Grandiflora, courtesy of the Town Council which recently pledged to plant more trees in the town in an attempt to help the environment.

As well as helping the environment, the trees will prevent vehicles from being parked on the grass verges on Riverside Avenue, which had been severely churned up over the winter and looked unsightly.

The Town Council will be working with Pembrokeshire County Council regarding parking issues in Neyland.

The trees will be tended and watered over the summer period to ensure they reach their maximum potential and enhance the area for residents and visitors alike.

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Golden goodbye report likely to be critical



A REPORT by Audit Wales into the departure of former CEO Ian Westley is very likely to contain criticism of senior council officers.

In November 2020, Mr Westley left Pembrokeshire County Council with a £95,000 pay-out, something which has been criticised by a number of councillors.

In a document before the Audit and Governance Committee on Tuesday (April 13), it says that termination payments to Chief Officers are routinely examined by Audit Wales but in the case of Mr Westley, the audit team was unable to locate a recorded decision to enter into the settlement agreement which led to a termination payment being made to the Chief Executive.

An Audit Office spokesperson said: “This appeared unusual and therefore the audit team decided to undertake an early examination of the process that resulted in the payment being made.”

No complaints were raised, by councillors or any other body, with Audit Wales but the number of concerns and questions being raised at following council meetings prompted them to commence an audit.

Audit Wales state: “Our audit fieldwork is substantially complete. However due to the complex nature of some of the issues involved we considered it necessary to take some external legal
advice. We are currently considering that advice. 

“In the near future we will draft a document setting out our provisional findings and conclusions. 

“Once this document is ready we will commence a clearance process to confirm factual accuracy. 

“If the document contains criticism of identifiable individuals, in the first instance we will provide those individuals with any extracts of the document that pertain to them. Once
we have confirmed the factual accuracy with individuals, we will send the full draft document to the Council’s Chief Executive to identify any remaining factual inaccuracies. 

“We will only issue the finalised document once the clearance process has been completed. #

“We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process.”

Only a handful of senior officers were involved in the procedure surrounding Ian Westley’s departure.

The inference which can be safely drawn from Audit Wales’ report to the Audit Committee is that some of its content will be critical either of councillors, senior officers, or both.

The process of asking those named to respond is known as Maxwellisation, a legal practice that allows persons who are to be criticised in an official report to respond prior to publication.

The report highlights the exceptional nature of the case at Pembrokeshire County Council and demonstrates the sensitivity of the issues raised.

If senior officers are sharply criticised or found to have failed in their duty to their employer, they will almost certainly have to go.

The council’s interim Chief Executive will read the document after maxwellisation.

It is also likely that the council’s newly appointed Chief Executive, Will Bramble, will have a chance to see it.

The Audit Wales spokesperson added: “We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process. We are unable to respond to queries about our emerging findings whilst the audit is progressing, and until we have finalised our conclusions.”

In January, Cllr Jamie Adams had called for the council to commence an internal investigation into Mr Westley’s departure but that was deferred to allow for the Audit Wales review to be completed.

Cllr Adams said that the decision of payment should have been a ‘democratic decision’ and has asked why that wasn’t the case.

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