Sunday 6 December 2015

Coastal Care...a scandal unfolds?

This week's Herald takes another look at the unfolding mess over the use, or misue, of EU money for the Coastal Care programme. Although several local authorities were involved in the project, it is only Carmarthenshire's role which has been the subject of complaints and attempts to blow the whistle.

A Herald report from a couple of weeks ago outlined the issues and allegations and this week's edition includes a further report. This is timely given that this sorry saga forms the subject matter of a question to be posed at Wednesday's full council meeting.

The issues are twofold; firstly the project was never the success that the council claimed and, as the Herald reports in detail, glossy brochures, massaged figures and unverifiable targets disguised the fact that by 2011 the aims were being missed by a mile.

By 2012, the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) was investigating, but despite their own doubts over the programme's success, their remit seemed to be to 'bend over backwards' to accommodate the shortcomings, rather than ensure proper governance and value for money.
For instance, they decided that in-house, non-accredited courses could be classed as 'positive outcomes' even though the participants were never externally assessed to determine whether they had in fact learned anything.

The second issue concerns the allegations that evidence was 'doctored' by the council, actions which would have only been sanctioned by the highest authority. The purpose, to put it simply, was to cover-up the fact that the EU money had not been spent correctly.

This EU money, meant to be directed at finding jobs for vulnerable people, was instead being used to create council jobs by funding duties which the council, by law, was supposed to be providing anyway. Furthermore, clients who were ineligible for the Coastal scheme were seen by workers under it's scope.

During the WEFO 'investigation' the council conducted it's own internal enquiry, which is where things get muddy, The Herald has seen a council document which states that “Evidence has been found to show that claims submitted to the COASTAL project were not always consistent with work documented on client files.”

The Herald continues;
"The solution proposed by the Council was drastic: “A decision has been taken to revisit all timesheets and claims.” 
And the purpose of revisiting them was to: “ensure that these reflect work that was undertaken.” 
In other words, doctoring evidence."

Reading between the lines of the most recent (2015) council report suggests there was indeed something of a problem, and the 'amendments' to files continued;

"...It was essential that each participant's file was scrutinised to ensure compliance in every aspect of work. There were significant risks during the closure process that had to be identified to minimise the potential for future claw-back of the ESF [Coastal] grant"

It will be interesting to see how this matter is discussed on Wednesday....the webcast starts at 10am.

Interestingly, the subject of timesheets also cropped up at a meeting of the council Grants Panel in June, this was in relation to the final grant claim for The Works' development in Llanelli. The WAO were taking a closer look at these documents after a 'Qualification' (in other words, a massive question mark) appeared in the Accountant's Report.

The long wait continues for the WAO report over the two EU property grants dished out by Meryl last year, and, as revealed in an internal audit in July, a £3m payment to the council from the Welsh Government Supporting People grant was delayed due to 'fundamental weaknesses'.

These 'weaknesses' included the failure to comply with procurement rules and a failure to ensure that the money was being spent where it should have been. In this case, the appalling lack of an adequate paper trail seems to have been miraculously 'resolved' and the grant subsequently paid.

The Wales Audit Office, for four years running, has expressed disquiet over the council's grant management procedures but it seems that 'encouraging improvement' and 'health checks' should have been ditched long ago and given way to either an investigation into possible fraud, or at least a full public inquiry. 


Cneifiwr said...

The Coastal project was a failure on an epic scale, and I saw a little bit of it in action at first hand. It was not just that huge amounts of EU funds were squandered, but also the people it was supposed to help were turned into fodder for a gigantic box ticking exercise. They were let down and very badly served. I blogged about Coastal several times, and the events happened to coincide with the closure of several Remploy factories. What we saw was the loss of long-term, stable and genuinely productive employment which could and should have been extended to other parts of Wales, such as Carmarthenshire. A lot of the money went on hiring council staff who then set about filling quotas by sending people off on things like a one day course on how to use a fire extinguisher (a real example).

Anonymous said...

According to a spokesperson for The First Minister, The Auditor General had no great concerns re:Carmarthen Council in the Annual Report of June 2015. Can anyone explain the comment "unlawful"? Surely unlawful describes something that is against the law? If it against the law then surely by definition that is criminal. It is clearly obvious even to those with limited vision that Carmarthen County Council consider themselves to be answerable to no one and the Welsh Government are happy to turn a blind eye to the way that they conduct their business.

Jac o' the North, said...

This case highlights a fundamental problem with the system of public funding in Wales. Namely, that those dishing out the grants - in this case, WEFO - are, for obvious reasons, reluctant to find cases where the grant has been misused, or should never have been awarded in the first place.

Anonymous said...

All you need to look at is who was running the shoot?