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The Welsh Development Agency so whats changed in Welsh Government?

That applies to many cases. The award of a contract should be subject to greater openness and, when it is not given to the lowest bidder, the reasons for that decision should be given.

The Welsh Development Agency has caused the Committee a great deal of concern and has been the subject of lengthy discussion. Our 29th report on the WDA for 1994–95 is not as serious as some of our earlier ones on it—it has an exceptionally serious history. We note that Mr. Michael Scholar, from the Treasury, is now permanent secretary at the Welsh Office, and we look forward to his putting the Department into somewhat better order than it used to be in.

We were concerned about the acquisition and sale of a site in Aberdare to Tesco plc. We were concerned that, in a number of key areas, the WDA did not know what was going on when it should have done. The PAC's particular concern involved the sale of the Gadlys road site to Tesco plc. The agency received a late and unsolicited offer from Tesco and it did not notify that fact to other interested parties. We questioned whether it was wise that two directors of Tesco should have been directors of the agency with responsibility for deciding on matters such as the disposal of the Gadlys road site. We were deeply concerned that that action was not fair to the other offerers and that the agency appeared to have given preferential treatment to Tesco. The PAC noted:

"We consider that the assessment by the Welsh Office that the disposal of the … site was badly handled severely under-estimates"

the serious matter of probity in the public sector. We considered that the disposal had been handled in a totally unacceptable manner. I hope that we will not hear any more about the WDA and its failure to carry out its responsibility for the proper conduct of public money.

 

With some regret, I now turn to matters Celtic. I am glad to say that despite a rather bad press at times for some of the Welsh quangos, the reality is that almost all the organisations at which we look in the Public Accounts Committee and which have problems are London based rather than based in Wales or in Scotland. We must be careful not to get one or two instances that relate to Wales, to Scotland or to Northern Ireland out of proportion. However, that does not alter the fact that one cannot condone what happened at the Welsh Development Agency.

It is a matter of sadness to anyone who cares for the future of Wales that an agency on which we depend for inward investment and for the strategic development of our economy fell into the hands of people who did not understand the public ethic and who did not necessarily share the civil service attitude towards probity and standards of conduct. We had a fly-by-night period at the Welsh Development Agency and, I am sad to say, one particular individual who was responsible for appointments, from outside politics, made appointments in his own likeness.

Unfortunately, the cutting of corners, which may or may not have been well intentioned, led to the first report on the WDA. Again, we had the gagging clauses, the free cars for private use as well as for business use, redundancy schemes that had never had Treasury approval and did not conform to Treasury rules and, above all, the case of the operation known as Wizard. A group of senior members of the WDA connived at using public funds, through three consultancies, to try to devise a package for management buy-outs—that is really what it was all about—of the most lucrative parts of the WDA. So that the Treasury and the Welsh Office would not know what was going on, the three consultancy projects were spread into different parts of the budget. It was hoped that no one would realise that an attempt was being made to undermine the standing of the WDA.

 Again, it is salutary to realize—we have referred to this before—that even the National Audit Office, for which we all have enormous respect, did not discover Wizard, so well was it buried. We came to know about Wizard only because we were contacted by a couple of whistle-blowers within the Welsh Development Agency who were appalled at what they saw and came to meet three members of the Committee in one of the small Committee Rooms next to the Great Hall to tell us what was going on. The Chairman of the Committee could confirm that, for the first time in a PAC report, we praised people for leaking, and we stated in the report that had it not been for those whistle-blowers, we would not have been aware of what was going on.

I say to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth that, while I am aware of the courtesies of the House, he may want to make comments to the press and—I mean this nicely—I do not want him to feel that he has to sit through my tedious speech as a courtesy. The hon. Gentleman should by all means feel free to leave the Chamber, because most of what I shall be talking about will not be familiar to him.

I am sad to say that the Welsh Development Agency reappeared on the scene in another matter when its conduct was utterly unacceptable, as the Treasury itself indicated. There was a virtual conspiracy between one senior member of the Welsh Development Agency and other parties in a joint venture set up with local authorities to promote a property deal in the Aberdare area, and to deliberately try to sink an existing project that was being developed by others in which a great deal of money had been invested.

Prior to the joint venture with the Welsh Development Agency, Tesco had been in discussion with another company called Landare relating to a site elsewhere in the valley. Landare had not only achieved planning permission for the development from the local authority, but had reached an agreement on planning gain in which the council would receive a sports hall and transport facilities as part of the project. But the project needed one more thing. The two councils that owned the property had agreed to sell a narrow strip of land which blocked the access from the site to the main road, as this was crucial to the project.

The joint venture between the Welsh Development Agency and the councils was chaired by a director of the WDA, and the WDA board decided that Tesco would not be allowed to bid for the site which the WDA was developing as part of that joint venture. A deadline was set, and tenders were invited. The tenders were received, and the councils and the joint venture team decided to have further discussions on the final details of the proposals with the bidders. Then, out of the blue, Tesco—which, we understood, had been banned from bidding in the contest—came in with a bid after the final date for bids which, to and behold, proved to be the highest.

Understandably, the Committee was deeply concerned, and the Chairman pinpointed the fact that Tesco had two representatives on the board of the Welsh Development Agency—the then chairman of the agency, Dr. Jones, was a director of Tesco, while another member of the board still is a director of the company. After the bids had been opened, and when one would have thought that the last financial offer had been received, in came Tesco whose bid won the day. There were delays to allow Tesco to get its bid in, and meetings were postponed to ensure that the company could make its bid.

 We received assurances from Mr. Scholar, the permanent secretary—who, in fairness, was not the permanent secretary at the time this happened—that the two directors of Tesco had declared their interests and had taken no part in the making the decision. But the crucial point was made by the Chairman, who said that although the two gentlemen may have taken no part in the decision-making process, who can say what information was passed from them to other people? The Committee felt, and this was a point with which the Treasury agreed, that such conduct was utterly unacceptable and way below the standards we would expect from a public body.

Having received the bid from Tesco, the parties involved then set out calculatedly to sabotage the other side. In questioning Mr. Scholar, I quoted a minute of a meeting of the joint venture in which a letter from Chestertons, the agents and advisers for the sale of the site, to the Welsh Development Agency was read. The letter said that Chestertons was "facing untimely competition" from an alternative site, and went on to say:

"The scenario outlined above is of great concern as it may prejudice or even possibly prevent the successful disposal of the Gadlys site … The answer to this potential problem is to minimise any opportunity for an operator to swap sides. In this particular case … this is possible, given that the Joint Venture partners control the access to … the alternative site"

. The parties involved then tried to ensure that the councils—which had offered to sell to Landare land that was crucial for access—withdrew their offer, which would completely blight that site. The site would then cease to be an attraction to the retailer Landare had in mind, or to anyone else. I am sure that Conservative Members who have not been involved in this matter would admit that if they were being treated in such a manner by a governmental body, they would feel that that body was stepping way beyond its powers.

I received at my house one Sunday a copy of a report by Vernon Pugh QC. He said in the report that the Welsh Development Agency was guilty of half truths and untruths, had acted ultra vires and was guilty of serious omissions.

The report by the QC had been delivered to the Welsh Office, but the Welsh Office did not deliver it to the office of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne so that he was aware of it before our hearings. So, with the hearing on Wednesday, there was a ring on the bell at my home in Swansea and, to my surprise, on the doorstep was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Swansea, West. A Conservative represented the seat until 1964. He was acting for Landare in a professional capacity. He brought me a copy of the QC's document. It was devastating.

What followed was even worse. Not only did the report show that there had been conduct by the WDA which was unacceptable by any standards, but the way in which it was subsequently ignored revealed that there was a wish to pretend that it did not exist. There was a wish to bury it. In fairness, Mr. Hugh Rees, who was a Government Whip from 1959 to 1964 during the Conservative Administration and a former director of the WDA, did not try to embarrass his party. Instead of making a public fuss about the matter, he started writing letters to try to get things dealt with on the basis of sensible discussion.

Mr. Rees wrote to the then permanent secretary at the Welsh Office. The permanent secretary did not write back to him directly, but telephoned and suggested that Mr.   Rees might see someone from the WDA rather than himself. This Mr. Rees agreed to do. He also wrote to various Ministers, including the then Minister of State, Welsh Office, the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), and the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He also wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister, who was originally a Swansea man. No one really wanted to know. Indeed, the sort of answer that Mr. Rees received was summed up by the brief letter from the Minister of State, which said:

"As you know, the new Chairman of the Welsh Development Agency has looked into the Agency's involvement in the Tir Founder Fields case very carefully. His conclusion is that, while he believes matters might have been handled more tactfully, the complaints made against the Agency are in the main unjustified."

Anyone who read the Pugh report would find it impossible to say that the complaints were unjustified. No Minister has made the slightest attempt to respond to the points that were made in that report. For that reason, I believe that my ex-opponent and his commercial colleagues have a legitimate grievance to air against the Government. I believe that Ministers should answer to the House for the way in which they, rather than behaved, have failed to behave.

 

am sad to say that the Welsh Development Agency reappeared on the scene in another matter when its conduct was utterly unacceptable, as the Treasury itself indicated. There was a virtual conspiracy between one senior member of the Welsh Development Agency and other parties in a joint venture set up with local authorities to promote a property deal in the Aberdare area, and to deliberately try to sink an existing project that was being developed by others in which a great deal of money had been invested.

Prior to the joint venture with the Welsh Development Agency, Tesco had been in discussion with another company called Landare relating to a site elsewhere in the valley. Landare had not only achieved planning permission for the development from the local authority, but had reached an agreement on planning gain in which the council would receive a sports hall and transport facilities as part of the project. But the project needed one more thing. The two councils that owned the property had agreed to sell a narrow strip of land which blocked the access from the site to the main road, as this was crucial to the project.

The joint venture between the Welsh Development Agency and the councils was chaired by a director of the WDA, and the WDA board decided that Tesco would not be allowed to bid for the site which the WDA was developing as part of that joint venture. A deadline was set, and tenders were invited. The tenders were received, and the councils and the joint venture team decided to have further discussions on the final details of the proposals with the bidders. Then, out of the blue, Tesco—which, we understood, had been banned from bidding in the contest—came in with a bid after the final date for bids which, to and behold, proved to be the highest.

Understandably, the Committee was deeply concerned, and the Chairman pinpointed the fact that Tesco had two representatives on the board of the Welsh Development Agency—the then chairman of the agency, Dr. Jones, was a director of Tesco, while another member of the board still is a director of the company. After the bids had been opened, and when one would have thought that the last financial offer had been received, in came Tesco whose bid won the day. There were delays to allow Tesco to get its bid in, and meetings were postponed to ensure that the company could make its bid.

 We received assurances from Mr. Scholar, the permanent secretary—who, in fairness, was not the permanent secretary at the time this happened—that the two directors of Tesco had declared their interests and had taken no part in the making the decision. But the crucial point was made by the Chairman, who said that although the two gentlemen may have taken no part in the decision-making process, who can say what information was passed from them to other people? The Committee felt, and this was a point with which the Treasury agreed, that such conduct was utterly unacceptable and way below the standards we would expect from a public body.

Having received the bid from Tesco, the parties involved then set out calculatedly to sabotage the other side. In questioning Mr. Scholar, I quoted a minute of a meeting of the joint venture in which a letter from Chestertons, the agents and advisers for the sale of the site, to the Welsh Development Agency was read. The letter said that Chestertons was "facing untimely competition" from an alternative site, and went on to say:

"The scenario outlined above is of great concern as it may prejudice or even possibly prevent the successful disposal of the Gadlys site … The answer to this potential problem is to minimise any opportunity for an operator to swap sides. In this particular case … this is possible, given that the Joint Venture partners control the access to … the alternative site"

. The parties involved then tried to ensure that the councils—which had offered to sell to Landare land that was crucial for access—withdrew their offer, which would completely blight that site. The site would then cease to be an attraction to the retailer Landare had in mind, or to anyone else. I am sure that Conservative Members who have not been involved in this matter would admit that if they were being treated in such a manner by a governmental body, they would feel that that body was stepping way beyond its powers.

I received at my house one Sunday a copy of a report by Vernon Pugh QC. He said in the report that the Welsh Development Agency was guilty of half truths and untruths, had acted ultra vires and was guilty of serious omissions.

The report by the QC had been delivered to the Welsh Office, but the Welsh Office did not deliver it to the office of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne so that he was aware of it before our hearings. So, with the hearing on Wednesday, there was a ring on the bell at my home in Swansea and, to my surprise, on the doorstep was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Swansea, West. A Conservative represented the seat until 1964. He was acting for Landare in a professional capacity. He brought me a copy of the QC's document. It was devastating.

What followed was even worse. Not only did the report show that there had been conduct by the WDA which was unacceptable by any standards, but the way in which it was subsequently ignored revealed that there was a wish to pretend that it did not exist. There was a wish to bury it. In fairness, Mr. Hugh Rees, who was a Government Whip from 1959 to 1964 during the Conservative Administration and a former director of the WDA, did not try to embarrass his party. Instead of making a public fuss about the matter, he started writing letters to try to get things dealt with on the basis of sensible discussion.

Mr. Rees wrote to the then permanent secretary at the Welsh Office. The permanent secretary did not write back to him directly, but telephoned and suggested that Mr.   Rees might see someone from the WDA rather than himself. This Mr. Rees agreed to do. He also wrote to various Ministers, including the then Minister of State, Welsh Office, the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), and the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He also wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister, who was originally a Swansea man. No one really wanted to know. Indeed, the sort of answer that Mr. Rees received was summed up by the brief letter from the Minister of State, which said:

"As you know, the new Chairman of the Welsh Development Agency has looked into the Agency's involvement in the Tir Founder Fields case very carefully. His conclusion is that, while he believes matters might have been handled more tactfully, the complaints made against the Agency are in the main unjustified."

Anyone who read the Pugh report would find it impossible to say that the complaints were unjustified. No Minister has made the slightest attempt to respond to the points that were made in that report. For that reason, I believe that my ex-opponent and his commercial colleagues have a legitimate grievance to air against the Government. I believe that Ministers should answer to the House for the way in which they, rather than behaved, have failed to behave.

The last report with which I wish to deal is on the occupied royal palaces. It was inevitable that I would refer. to it in view of my special interest in the subject, but I shall be brief. The report is important because it is the first time that Parliament has examined in detail any of the money that is spent on the royal household. I must admit that I could not carry my colleagues on the Committee with me. I wanted to examine the whole £50 million that is spent by the various Departments. I could get agreement to examine only the £25 million that was then being spent on the occupied royal palaces.

Even more worthy of examination would be the £20 million that is spent on royal travel. I have had to do a great deal of the work on that myself, through parliamentary questions. The occasion was interesting because Parliament is incredibly sycophantic about matters royal. I do not understand for the life of me why we should apologise for asking why a family which has two palaces of its own needs five palaces of ours. It seems legitimate for me to ask that question. It is appropriate to seek answers as to why five palaces are needed.

It emerged that the palaces were not needed to house the royal family. I question whether we have a duty to house the wider royal family. The palaces were needed for 280 grace-and-favour apartments. We would not quibble about some of the apartments. They are for people working on the estate—the equivalent of a tied cottage. No one begrudges someone such accommodation. However, it is a different matter when it comes to lavish accommodation in Kensington palace and so on, occupied by people who, as I see it—I recognise that this is not the way the Committee necessarily sees it—are protected by the aura of the Crown and the deference which is shown in the House to anything royal. They have escaped for many years the sort of attention that should be paid to the benefits that they enjoy at the taxpayer's expense. I am referring now to the royal civil service—the royal household.

 The Committee called as a witness Mr. Peat, formerly of Peat Marwick. He put up a spirited defence of the grace and favour system. Towards the end of the hearing, the impact of that defence was somewhat diminished when my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) was discourteous enough to ask him whether he had a grace-and-favour house. He said that he did not, but he hoped to move into one in a few months.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1995-10-23/debates/e9dc3a52-f393-44fe-8212-8925a93e400f/PublicAccounts

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199495/cmhansrd/1995-10-23/Debate-4.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/welsh-agency-tesco-deal-in-audit-probe-1445704.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/712493.stm