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Senior officers covered up scandal in Pembrey

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AS THE COUNCIL carries out its own investigation into irregularities at Pembrey Country Park and other council leisure facilities, The Herald has been provided with credible information from more than one source which indicates that not only were there significant and widespread irregularities in the management and finances of the venue, but that senior council officers were made aware of them and took steps to cover them up.

The Herald has spoken to several current members of council staff and been given documents and recordings which suggest that the Council’s ongoing enquiry into Pembrey is likely to uncover not only who knew, but when they knew, and why the matter was brushed under the carpet by officers desperate to avoid a scandal.

The Herald understands that affairs at Pembrey were on the radar of senior then opposition councillors before Plaid took leadership of the authority last year.

We can also confirm that Executive Board Member for Resources David Jenkins launched an enquiry into the operation of the leisure operation at Pembrey having previously held concerns at the lack of clarity in certain figures relating to the Park’s operation. The result of that enquiry was the preliminary report presented to the Audit Committee on March 22.

That report suggested that there were ‘historic issues’ and that Council procedures had not been complied with.

We believe that at least one officer concerned in the allegations has recently left – or is shortly due to leave – the Council’s employment without facing disciplinary action and with a payoff.

Repeated assurances were given to councillors at a Full Council meeting that there was no evidence of dishonesty, with Deputy Leader Pam Palmer leaping in to defend officers from any suggestion of misconduct. It appears those assurances and Cllr Palmer’s wish to fling herself in front of a bullet for council officers, were sadly misplaced.

ASSURANCES FROM OFFICERS

Responding to questions from members of the Audit Committee in March, Ian Jones, Director of Leisure and Regeneration, and Phil Sexton expressly denied that any fraud had taken place.

Mr Jones told the committee that, following the departure of the previous Director (David Gilbert OBE, who is now a member of the Swansea Bay City Region Board), staff had been asked to look at a number of issues. However, Mr Jones failed to expressly identify what those issues were or how they had arisen in the first place.

Mr Jones went on to claim that what the report had picked up on were ‘exceptions’ and that whatever the ‘historic issues’ were, they were not the norm across all sites.

The Director of Leisure and Regeneration claimed that the authority was a victim of its own success and change within his department. He cited challenges the authority had faced with staff leaving and with unidentified and unexplained ‘complicated Human Resource issues’.

Mr Jones said that areas needed to be strengthened and improved, while failing to identify why improvement was required, or at least how the circumstances giving rise to improvement’ necessity had arisen.

NO FRAUD, BUT NO HIDING PLACE

Phil Sexton, the council’s head of audit, risk and procurement said: “It was made clear to the Audit Committee that no fraud had been identified. In terms of the review of the leisure facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park, which had been undertaken at the request of the Director of Communities, the committee was made aware that the weaknesses identified were being addressed and officers would continue to work closely with the audit section.

“Members were advised that an Action Plan was being prepared in respect of the issues in question and it was agreed that this should be brought to the committee at its next meeting.

“It was then resolved by the committee that, for monitoring purposes, an Action Plan be submitted to the next meeting detailing as to how the concerns raised following the review of the leisure facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park would be addressed.”

Speaking to Herald reporter Alan Evans after the meeting, the Executive Board Member for Finance, Cllr Dai Jenkins, said: “The audit committee have done their work and there is going to be an action plan to look into it further. If the allegations are as bad as they seem to be and are found to be true and if there are loopholes in the system they will be removed. The audit committee is only a tool of the full council as are all scrutiny committees.

“There is no hiding place. I don’t see any way shape or form that there can be a cover up. We will look at the review in full detail and report to full council accordingly.”

‘FOR F**K SAKE DON’T GO TO THE POLICE’

The Herald can confirm that it has listened to a recording in which two senior council officers are heard pleading with a third party not to go to the Police with details regarding allegations of serial dishonesty and sharp practice by other council employees.

In the course of that recording one senior officer demands to know what information is in a third party’s possession. When the third party refuses to confirm or deny that he has information that substantiates allegations of dishonesty, the senior officer says: “You do [have the information] don’t you. For f**k sake don’t go to the police.”

The Herald believes that information is now in the possession of local MP Nia Griffith and AM Lee Waters and that material has now been handed to the Police.

A further recording has a manager at a council facility detailing the fact that a contactor would win a tender and openly giving them confidential information about other tenders and about the amount of money they should offer for the tender. THE TENDER

The Herald has heard a recording and seen a transcript which contains a conversation between in which the parties discuss the tender for catering services at Pembrey Country Park. They also discuss personal HR information regarding the dismissal of a council employee who is unaware of their impending purported redundancy.

The two discuss plans for reorganisation of council facilities in order to ‘get rid’ of the employee who is known to them both. They also discuss conversations they have had with county council officers.

The recording took place in January 2016.

We know the identity of both participants, but we will refer to them as H and X.

H: You will be awarded the bloody tender on the first of February. Trust me, on the first of February we will award you the contract. We will make a decision week after next. We will give you the nod on the first of February. There is a ten day cooling off period. There are ten days where it is in limbo where you can change your mind if you don’t want it. The formal contract is February 15 or 16.

Nobody knows what we are doing really do they? I discussed it with (council officers) and that.

THE DISMISSAL

X: We know what has happened the problem we have is that we are not able to do what we want to

H: He is going to get his redundancy notice

X: Oh he hasn’t had it yet?

H: (A named senior current officer) fixed a meeting with him for yesterday to formally give him….HR said don’t give him his redundancy notice before Christmas it will spoil his Christmas. It was due for the 7th. It is something like the 15th that he will get his formal notice. The trouble is he’s got three months’ notice.

X: Ah, but you said you were going to do like you did with (a former manager).

H: I have plans. The only problem we got with the ski slope is they are putting it into sport.

X: That is a way of getting rid of him?

H: To get rid of him. I hope I can get it back. My problem is if it goes into a trust I have problems. I don’t want them to have the cycling. The leisure centres are going into it. All the leisure centres, theatres and they are going to add the ski slope. They’ve done it to get rid of him.

The Herald has also seen two letters, which our source says were written by X under duress from H. We were told that the letters were given to council auditors in order to cover up failure to follow tender processes at a council facility.

Referring to the two letters our source said: “It is all falsified. H wanted the auditors to see X had tendered but X hadn’t.”

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Conservatives in disarray over alleged Christmas party lockdown breach

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party is investigating the attendance of senior Senedd members and staff at a Christmas party held during December’s lockdown.

Lockdown restrictions prohibit mixing with people outside your own household.

The Welsh restrictions barring such gatherings follow the basic outline of those imposed by the Conservative UK Government in December.

Those attending the drinks party included Paul Smith, the Conservative Chief of Staff at the Senedd, Darren Millar, the Party’s Chief Whip and campaign coordinator, and Preseli Pembrokeshire MS and Conservative Senedd Group Leader Paul Davies.

The Herald understands that a Labour Senedd Member who attended the Party has been suspended by the Labour Senedd Group pending its own investigation.

The Conservatives’ embarrassment at talking the talk but not walking the walk is intensified by Darren Millar’s presence at the shindig.

In May, Mr Millar led calls for Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething to be sacked for eating a bag of chips in a park with one of his own children.

If the Conservative Party follows the logic of their previously stated positions, Mr Millar’s and Mr Davies’ futures look bleak indeed.

With a Senedd election only months away, the revelations have thrown the Conservatives into disarray.

If they do nothing, the Conservatives will – at the very least – face claims they are hypocrites.

If the Conservative Party acts decisively, it faces massive internal problems.

The Conservatives responded to our request for a response to our story.

Those involved stressed they did not host a Christmas Party.

The incident happened on December 8, when the above met in the members’ tea room to discuss legislation for possible inclusion in the Welsh Conservative manifesto with a Labour backbencher.

During the evening they did drink a glass or two of wine.

They stress that at no point were there more than four people in the room at any one time and that they maintained social distancing.

A joint statement from Paul Davies, Darren Millar, and Paul Smith said: “We are profoundly sorry for our actions.

“While we did not break the rules, we recognise that what was part of a day’s work would not be seen to be following the spirit of them, especially given the tough time the country has been going through.”

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Have your say on Carmarthenshire County Council’s budget

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PEOPLE are being encouraged to get involved in Carmarthenshire County Council’s annual budget setting process.

The council is inviting local residents, businesses, community and voluntary organisations to have their say on its draft budget so that councillors can consider public feedback before making a final decision in March.

The council has a legal responsibility to set a balanced budget every year, ensuring that income from sources such as Council Tax, revenue from paid-for services and grants is enough to cover its expenditure.

With Covid-19 having had a significant impact on services, this year councillors face the added pressure of funding extra costs incurred and ensuring future contingencies can be met.

Pressures are being particularly felt across social care services because of the pandemic, and across the environment department associated with school transport, flood and coastal defences, and enhanced resources to tackle cleansing and fly-tipping in targeted areas.

No new savings proposals are being put forward for consultation this year, however the council’s Executive Board has reiterated its commitment to delivering the three-year savings agreed in the 2020 budget.

Meeting earlier today (Monday, January 18, 2021), Executive Board members rejected a proposed 4.89 per cent Council Tax increase in favour of proposing a more modest 4.48 per cent increase in recognition of the pressures being faced by people because of the pandemic.

“The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked personal and financial havoc on our county, and the good people of Carmarthenshire have paid a huge price,” said Leader of the Council, Cllr Emlyn Dole. “Given the circumstances of Covid-19 and the way that people are currently affected, I propose reducing the proposed Council Tax increase to 4.48 per cent to give the people of Carmarthenshire the support that they so rightly deserve.”

The consultation has now opened allowing people to have their say on the proposed draft budget.

Cllr David Jenkins, Executive Board Member for Resources, said: “It’s so important that we are able to take people’s views into consideration when setting our budget. Although we haven’t put specific proposals forward this year, we have to plan for areas of spending and saving. Hearing from people about what matters to them allows us to understand public opinion and as such we encourage everyone to share their views with us before our final decisions are made.”

People can share their views online at www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/consultation until 5pm on February 3, 2021.

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Education

School consultations underway

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CARMARTHENSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL is consulting on four different proposals for schools in the county.

The council has a legal responsibility to review the number and type of schools it has and to make the best use of resources and facilities to deliver the opportunities that children deserve.

As a result, a wide-ranging programme to improve school buildings and enhance opportunities for learning is underway across Carmarthenshire, and to date £295million has been spent on primary and secondary schools across the county providing state-of-the-art facilities and accommodation to give children the best possible education.

Now local communities are being asked for their views on four different proposals to:

  • review primary education provision in the Mynydd-y-Garreg and Gwenllian areas;
  • change the age range of Swiss Valley Primary School from 4-11 to 3-11;
  • review primary education provision in the Blaenau and Llandybie areas;
  • reconfigure and remodel behaviour support services at Ysgol Rhydygors to improve provision for children and young people.

The consultations are running for six weeks ending on February 11, and will give everyone in the local communities the opportunity to have their say, either via the consultation pages on the council website or by emailing or writing to the council if preferred.

Links to the consultation documents are being sent to all interested parties, and the Education department will be organising ‘virtual’ drop-in sessions so that communities can discuss the proposals and ask any questions they may have.

Some informal sessions have already been held with parents and governors to give them a chance to speak to officers and ask any questions on the proposals.

The information gathered from the consultations will form part of the consultation report which will be submitted to the Executive Board for consideration following the consultation period.

Executive Board Member for Education and Children’s Services Cllr Glynog Davies said: “The council has a statutory obligation to keep the number and type of school places under review and to deliver services to clear standards by the most economic and effective means.

“Our schools need to be able to provide a wide range of services to the communities they serve, and it is important that future provision reflects the changing patterns of population, with schools based in the right location with the accommodation and facilities that are fit to serve the needs of 21st century learners.

“It is important that local communities and interested parties give their views on these proposals for their schools. All the details for each of the proposals can be found on the council website, or please contact us if you need paper copies.

“If you have any questions, I would urge you to please attend one of the virtual drop-in sessions that are being organised, further information to follow as soon as possible, or if you are unable to attend, please get in touch to speak to our officers.”

For further information on the proposals and to take part in the online survey please visit the council website carmarthenshire.gov.uk/consultations

For all other enquiries please email DECMEP@carmarthenshire.gov.uk or call 01267 246426.

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