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Grants scandal probe delayed again

THIS WEEK’s Badger deals with delay in the Pembroke Dock grants scandal probe by the Council’s Audit Committee.
As we went to press, and by coincidence, Cllr Jacob Williams published a blog post at jacobwilliams.com dealing with the causes of the further delay. The difference between our columnist’s and Cllr Williams’ take on events is clear. However, they both highlight a worryingly familiar pattern of behaviour to those who have tried to scrutinise the Commercial Property Grants Scandal over the years.
His inside take on what is going on shows that – on the advice of the Monitoring Officer, Claire Jones, and the Council’s Head of Legal, Claire Incledon – Audit Committee Chair Cllr Tony Baron pulled the scheduled hearing without discussing it with his councillor-colleagues.
With his permission, we reproduce Cllr Williams’ blogpost here.
Cllr Jacob Williams writes:


SEVERAL people have been asking me what’s happening with Pembrokeshire County Council’s audit committee’s grants probe.
This is the one that’s supposed to be looking into internal antics and deficiencies relating to the well-publicised and long-running fraud allegations in PCC-administered property restoration grant schemes, commonly known as the ‘Pembroke Dock grants saga.’
At our last meeting, on 21st November, audit committee members agreed on some terms for this internal review.
We also set about the formal legal process of ‘requiring’ the attendance of certain relevant council officials for questioning, and ‘inviting’ those who have already retired or otherwise ceased to be employed by the authority.
Dates were proposed for our hearings – and confirmed for: 20th and 29th January, and 4th February.
But in an abrupt development just before Christmas, it was all put on hold, without prior consultation of members, by the audit committee’s chairman, Conservative councillor Tony Baron.
In his December 23rd email informing us of his decision, Cllr. Baron said he had been advised by Claires Incledon (legal chief) and Jones (monitoring officer) – known in County Hall as ‘the two Claires’ – that:
“…if the outcome of the Council appointed Working Group was that a prosecution was possible, it would be unwise to conduct interviews of involved individuals at the Audit Committee meeting planned for 20 January 2020 as it could jeopardise any future proceedings undertaken by PCC.”
The ‘working group’ is a reference to an entirely separate committee, effectively – of which I’m also a member – set up by council for a specific purpose.
It’s investigating the possibility of the council taking out its own prosecution about the grant fraud allegations which the Crown Prosecution Service famously dropped last summer they say due to, among other things, ‘insufficient evidence.’
Without revealing any specifics about this working group’s activity or progress to date, I can say that its remit is ongoing, and an external barrister is being consulted.
Cllr. Baron’s email says: “…I believe that we need to await the full and final opinion of Counsel before commencing the Audit Committee’s review. I have therefore decided that the Audit Committee meeting scheduled to start the review on 20 January should be postponed. I am keen that the review is undertaken as soon as possible as I suspect that lessons from this case have not been fully learnt. However, the advice is clear that no action should be taken that could affect the outcome of any possible proceedings.”
The audit committee’s ordinary meeting of February 4 is still going ahead. Its agenda has been published, where the only relative item – for which we only have the title, no written report – is: “11. Working Group on Grant Scheme Update and Next Steps.”
The working group’s formation and activity are wholly unconnected to the audit committee. It is a creature of full council, so the way it seems to have found its way as a titled agenda item before the audit committee is interesting.
Whilst I might agree that the audit committee should avoid jeopardising a council prosecution – if that’s a process councillors resolve to undertake – it’s worth noting that no decision on taking a prosecution is even close to being made.
And, that was exactly the state of play in November when the audit committee, during a meeting personally attended by the monitoring officer, set its now-cancelled set of internal review hearing dates.
In other words, the chairman’s unilateral decision to postpone the audit committee’s investigation – on the advice of senior council officers – is somewhat confusing, especially against a materially unchanged backdrop.
I say this as an audit committee member who has to accept the chair’s decision – I can only imagine how it looks to those outside!