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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

A new Leader too far!

Jo Moore, the Government spin doctor who, famously suggested that September 11th was a good day to publish bad news, would no doubt have approved of the timing of the announcement of the Plaid Cymru leadership election results. As it is I suspect that it was a fortunate coincidence for Plaid that the re-election of Ieuan Wyn Jones as their Assembly leader clashed with the publication of one of the most damning reports into a Government Quango that I have ever read. After a summer of thin news the media at last have something really meaty to get their teeth into. The problem is that after months of feeding on an insubstantial diet many outlets and newspapers found that the food was a bit too rich and had been served up in too large a quantity. There were some severe cases of gluttony, no doubt to be followed by a bad bout of indigestion. At times like these however, we do miss the Welsh Mirror.

The report into the funding of the Pop Factory in Rhondda Cynon Taff by ELWa , published today, was a real shock to the system. The description of the way that public money was abused and put at risk and standard compliance procedures ignored left me breathless. The report by the Auditor General for Wales, Sir John Bourne, concentrates on the £4 million of public money given by ELWa to a new media and technology centre next to the Pop factory in Porth, Rhondda. It reveals that inadequate controls were applied during the application and approval process and that there was no thorough project risk assessment or option appraisal. In addition, millions of pounds of public money were paid out in advance to this project and other providers, apparently to prevent the Assembly clawing the money back at the end of the financial year.

ELWa have issued a statement accepting that there were serious deficiencies in the operation of the organisation’s financial and management control systems but so far we have heard nothing from the Education Minister. Her officials also expressed concerns about the Pop factory scheme but it seems they did not pursue them strongly enough to prevent this happening. Clearly, there has a been a failure of political control that needs to be answered. In the meantime the Assembly's Audit Committee will be dissecting the report all day on Thursday whilst on Wednesday 24 September the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee, which I chair, will be scrutinising ELWa's action plan to put things right. From discussions I have had, I have no doubt that if ELWa had been allowed to have a shadow year then a lot of this could have been avoided, but I can't help feeling that this was not just an organisational failure.

My instincts and my reading of the report tell me that there was a well-intentioned but misguided agenda within ELWa to protect the resources they had from being clawed back by the Assembly and that rules were broken with that aim in mind. The Chair and the Chief Executive may have moved on but I am not convinced that the malaise has been fully rooted out even with the action plan in place. There are still strong representations being made for a change in the rules and an unhealthy contempt for the oversight role of the Assembly within ELWa. Perhaps the time has come not just to reform this Quango but to take away its independence and pull it into the Assembly altogether. That is something that will have to be seriously considered.

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