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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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Tragedy above Milford Haven takeaway

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DYFED POWYS POLICE has confirmed that a 20-year-old male passed away in Milford Haven last Saturday, April 17.

Police were called to the USA Fried Chicken store on Charles Street at around 1:30pm but have said there are no suspicious circumstances.

A Herald reporter was at the scene and witnessed a number of police cars and an ambulance while plain-clothed officers were also seen.

HM Coroner has been informed.

A Welsh Ambulance Service spokesperson added: “We were called to Charles Street in Milford Haven on Saturday 17 April at approximately 1.34pm to reports of a medical emergency. We attended the scene with one emergency ambulance where we assisted colleagues from the police.”

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Tavernspite School the ‘healthiest of schools despite the pandemic’

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THE STAFF, governors, parents, and of course, the children of Tavernspite Community Primary School are delighted to gain the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes National Quality Award for an incredible 5th time after a recent and very rigorous assessment.

The school is already well known and highly regarded for its outstanding work in developing the health and wellbeing of all members of its school community. To achieve this prestigious recognition in the midst of a pandemic is all the more impressive. 

Health and Wellbeing at the school is led by teacher, Lauren Arthur, who has done an incredible job preparing for this re-assessment and raising the profile of the Healthy Schools scheme.

The assessor Mrs Lynne Perry, enjoyed a virtual tour and presentation by Year 3 pupils who took great pleasure in proudly showing Mrs Perry all the wonderful work the school has done to ensure its children are safe, happy with high levels of emotional and physical wellbeing.

In her report, Mrs Perry wrote, ‘Tavernspite School continues to be an outstanding health promoting school. The health promoting school ethos is evident across the whole school population and it runs seamlessly throughout everything that the school does. Tavernspite School continues to give high priority to promoting and enhancing the health and well-being of the whole school community.’

The school received fantastic support from Mrs Liz Western, Senior Public Health Officer and Lead for Healthy Schools and Pre-schools, Pembrokeshire, to whom they are very grateful.

Head teacher Kevin Phelps said, ‘We were delighted to receive this award for the fifth time, particularly considering the experiences we have all been through these past twelve months. Health and wellbeing has never been so important and we are proud to be leading the way like this.’

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Joinery learner through to Screwfix Trade Apprentice of the Year Finals

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PEMBROKESHIRE COLLEGE joinery learner, Conor Ratcliff has made it through to the final ten in this year’s Screwfix Trade Apprentice of the Year competition.

Now in its seventh year, the competition celebrates the next generation of tradespeople as they start out on their career. With over 2,500 nominations, Conor was shortlisted to the top 30 where he had to deliver a video presentation to industry-leading judges and trade body representatives. Judged on professionalism, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm and knowledge of their trade, Conor impressed the judges and is now in the final 10.  

Simon Jackson, Screwfix Customer and Digital director, commented: “Every year we are amazed by the outstanding quality of entrants and, this year, we are on the lookout for apprentices who go above and beyond to succeed within their chosen trade.

“We’ve seen how this career-boosting accolade and £10,000 prize bundle helps kickstart an apprentice’s career. I’d like to wish everyone through to this stage the best of luck!”

The prize package includes everything a future tradesperson may need to start up their own business including £5,000 of tools, a £3,000 training budget and £2,000 worth of technology. The college where they study will also receive £2,000.

Conor is thrilled to have made it through to the finals and commented: “I am extremely honoured to have made it this far in the competition and I am very excited for the final event. It would be an amazing opportunity for me, if I won this competition.

“I hope it encourages more people to consider an apprenticeship in a trade, the Carpentry and Joinery department have been incredibly supportive during my studies.”

The Final is due to take place imminently where the judges will conduct an online interview with the ten finalists before selecting and announcing their overall winner.

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