Tuesday 16 December 2014

Grants - a 'clean bill of health'? Not just yet

Last week I mentioned that EU auditors had paid a visit to County Hall (Grants, Agendas and a reminder) specifically to look at the South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF). Their findings were translated into the Executive Board minutes as 'a clean bill of health'. It appears that this claim may have been a bit premature.

The Wales Audit Office has, for the last three years raised serious concerns about the council's grant management procedures and in their Annual Audit Letter dated 10th December, which is on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee, they again raise those doubts.
However, this time they specifically include the EU funded SWWPDF.

Followers of this and Cneifiwr's blog will be aware that we have raised our own concerns about these, and other grants. These concerns include, amongst others, whether one one councillor (Meryl Gravell in this case) should be rubber stamping millions of pounds in grant money behind closed doors, with backbench councillors, public and press under a blanket ban, and should over £3m in speculative grants go to companies set up so recently that they do not have to present a set of accounts.

One grant in particular had caught the attention of the now retired Director of Resources, who flagged it up with the Wales Audit Office in the summer. When the press reported on the matter the council went into its usual defensive overdrive, even using the council press office, as it does. The spin suggested that the exercise was merely a WAO 'health check' and things just needed a bit of tightening up...

The Annual Audit Letter suggests a little more than a 'health check';

"....our initial findings are that the council's grant management arrangements still need to be improved. In particular we have reported that the council needs to improve its arrangements for the awarding of Property Development Fund grants under the European Union's Convergence grant scheme. The results of our work will be reported to the Audit Committee when complete"

The WAO isn't due to complete its report until March 2015, So it would seem that the 'clean bill of health' claim was, as I said, somewhat premature.

You will also note from the letter that the Wales Audit Office is keeping an eye on the council's response to the WLGA governance review. It has become obvious that the chief executive has treated the whole exercise with arrogant disdain and unfortunately he appears to be in the driving seat of the newly formed committee addressing the issues.

Last week I asked the acting head of legal and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, which Councillors are on the committee and when we will be able to see the minutes of the discussions... So far there's only been a stony silence.

Given that the aim is to be the most open council in Wales, we're not getting off to a particularly transparent start.


Anonymous said...

I too would be interested to see the make up of the committee and how they will be able to address the issues raised in the peer review. It is worrying, by what you have indicated, the CEO Mark James CBE may be the chair (in the driving seat).

As a whistleblower I was disappointed that the Authority's handling of whistleblowers and their disclosures was not reviewed by their peers. Having a very good and robust whistleblowering policy (WB) is not proof that it's procedures are followed and that whistleblowers are valued. To encourage transparency, openness, honesty and accountability in the Authority there is a need to actually follow that policy and other policies such as POVA, Complaints and Investigation.

Mr Mark James is mentioned in the policy as the person to contact if a whistleblower is unhappy with how their disclosures were handled. Delyth and I have found he does not take that responsibility seriously and ignores the whistleblower. He has had opportunities to look into the way his officers fail to follow policies that are in place to protect the vulnerable and protect the public's interest but he is not interested and neither is the chair of the standards committee nor the monitoring officer. We are in the unhappy position of having a council that protects it's own reputation fiercely but has no interest in protecting the public, the vulnerable and its service users against the wrongdoing of staff and officers. A council holding it's own reputation paramount will never follow statutory guidance or their own policies when to do so would endanger it.

Only a strong leader/CEO would be willing to allow scrutiny, be transparent open and honest and put the public's interest before his own. We in Carmarthenshire do not have such a person who would hold himself accountable for the failures of his officers. By not encouraging his officers to act according to the Authority's own policies and procedures he is responsible for all the bad press the CCC receives. Who will review his failure if he is to be involved in guiding the committee?

This committee is going to be like other committees, toothless against the officers and the executive's need to keep everything behind closed doors. It is all window dressing and of no substance. I dare them to look into how well the whistleblowing policy is being followed and how the standards committee chair has in the past been misled by Administration and Law in regard to how many whistleblowing referrals were received between 01/04/09 to 31/03/10. This should give the present chair of the standards committee pause for thought but he prefers to heed the monitoring officer's assurances that all is well and above board even though he has seen proof of the opposite.

Jennifer Brown

Redhead said...

Along with others I made a serious complaint about a councillor in my area. We all received the same fobbed-off reply from the Monitoring Officer. We found that he had not sent the complaint to anyone else (as stated in the Constitution) but decided it on his own. We have now mailed the complaint to all those who should have received it. Deathly silence so far.

The Standards Board was not perfect by any means but it was our only way of getting past these gatekeepers who never open the gate.

Anonymous said...

Plus ├ža change and all that. What else was to be expected?