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Hostile exchanges at Audit Committee



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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MPs to examine opportunities for defence manufacturing and cyber security in Wales



THE WELSH AFFAIRS COMMITTEE has today launched (Mar 27) a new inquiry examining the defence industry in Wales, looking specifically at defence manufacturing and cyber security.

From Airbus to Kent Periscopes, Raytheon to Qioptiq, there are over 160 companies supporting the defence sector that are based in Wales. Wales’ defence sector is further enhanced by the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) Defence and Electronics Components Agency (DECA), based in North Wales, which has a £0.5 billion contract with the US Department for Defense.

However, there are concerns that a decrease in investment from the MOD will erode the prominence of Wales’ defence sector. In recent years, the number of jobs and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the sector has declined and MOD spending in Wales has fallen by £300 million since 2018. The Committee is keen to examine trends in defence spending and how SMEs can benefit from available opportunities.

Over the course of the inquiry, MPs will look at how important the sector is to the Welsh economy, investigate the opportunities for growth and examine the role of the UK Government in further promoting the defence sector in Wales.

Welsh Affairs Committee Chairman, Stephen Crabb, said:

“From maintaining fighter jets to hosting one of the most advanced aircraft surveillance and intelligence systems in existence, in Wales we have a ground-breaking defence sector that is routinely punching above its weight.

“However, MOD investment in Wales has decreased, as have the numbers of jobs and SMEs in the Welsh defence sector. Over the course of our inquiry, we will be considering the future opportunities and challenges to ensure defence industries in Wales – from defence manufacturing to cyber security – thrive.

“The defence sector is a major employer and helps support local economies across our nation and it is in all our best interests to support Wales’ defence prowess.”

The Committee is inviting written submissions by Friday 5 May. These should focus on, but not be limited to:

  • What are the reasons underlying the trends in MoD spending in Wales since 2019?
  • What is the MoD’s understanding of how funding flows from prime contractors to small and medium sized defence sector businesses in Wales?
  • What is the relationship between Wales-based prime contractors, Welsh academic and research bodies, and the development of new defence technologies?
  • Can Wales play a role in enhancing the UK’s defence industrial capacity?
  • Do skills and knowledge exist within Wales’ workforce to support the growth of the Welsh defence sector?
  • How might the reorganisation of Wales’ defence estate affect employment in the defence sector in Wales?
  • Will the 10% social value weighting applied to MoD procurement support the Levelling Up agenda in Wales?
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Dog in difficulty rescued between St Nons and Caerfai Bay by RNLI



ST DAVIDS inshore lifeboat was tasked at 11am on Monday (Feb 27) to a dog in difficulty at the bottom of cliffs between St Nons and Caerfai Bay.

Marian and Alan Clayton made best speed to the scene where a HM Coastguard team from St Davids assisted the crew by locating the dog.

Once recovered from the base of the cliffs, “Bosun” was reunited with its relieved owners at Porthclais Harbour.

Pictured are crew members Ellen, Tom and Martin with Bosun.

The lifeboat returned to Station before a wash down and refuelling, ready for service by 12:42pm, according to an online report from the RNLI

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Economy Minister congratulates Celtic Freeport consortium on winning bid



ECONOMY MINISTE, Vaughan Gething, was in Port Talbot today to congratulate the Celtic Freeport consortium on their successful bid to be Wales’ first freeport, which is set to deliver tens of thousands of new, high-quality jobs in south west Wales.

Last week, the Welsh and UK governments jointly announced the Celtic Freeport in Milford Haven and Port Talbot, and Anglesey Freeport on Ynys Mon, have been chosen as Wales’ first freeports.

The two freeports aim to collectively create around 20,000 jobs in the green industries of the future by 2030 and attract up to £4.9 billion in public and private investments.

The Celtic Freeport will be based around the port of Port Talbot in Neath Port Talbot, and the port of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

The freeport plans focus on low carbon technologies, such as floating offshore wind (FLOW), hydrogen, carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) and biofuels to support the accelerated reduction of carbon emissions.

The freeport aims to attract significant inward investment, including £3.5 billion in the hydrogen industry as well as the creation of 16,000 jobs, generating £900 million in Gross Value Added (GVA) by 2030, and £13 billion by 2050.

The Minister visited the port of Port Talbot earlier today, which will become one of the focal points of the new Freeport – which is expected to be operational later this year.

Speaking during a visit to Port Talbot, Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething said: “It was great to be in Port Talbot today to congratulate the Celtic Freeport team on their successful bid.

“From off-shore energy to advanced manufacturing, the Celtic Freeport will help create tens of thousands of new, high quality jobs in the green industries of the future. it will support our highly ambitious plans to reach net zero by 2050, while also supporting our young people to plan their futures here in Wales.

“All this will help us transform the economy of south west Wales, helping us create a stronger, fairer and greener future for local people and communities.”

Roger Maggs MBE, Chair of the Celtic Freeport consortium said: “Wales is on the cusp on an exciting green journey.

“The freeport decision will cause a chain reaction.

“Upgrading our major energy ports in Milford Haven and Port Talbot will enable floating offshore wind, create the cradle to nurture new green tech companies and take a step on the path to greening Wales’ steel industry.

“Now is the time for action so that Wales captures the renewable energy supply chain.”

Andrew Harston, Director, Wales and Short Sea Ports, Associated British Ports (ABP) said: “The roll-out of floating offshore wind, or FLOW, in the Celtic Sea provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Wales. Port Talbot is the ideal location for the deployment of FLOW, and ABP is ready to invest over £500m in new and upgraded infrastructure to enable this and to ensure first-mover advantage to capture this global market. The Celtic Freeport provides a huge opportunity, and not just for FLOW, but for sustainable fuels and hydrogen too.

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