There are still big questions to be answered about this Welsh Government scandal

The First Minister. Picture: National Assembly.

Tim Richards

 

The row over the scandalous sell-off of a hugely valuable portfolio of publicly-owned land for peanuts (£21m) by the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) rumbles on.

Questioned about when the Welsh Government will publish a report on the scandal, First Minister Carwyn Jones attempted to shift the blame by claiming that Plaid Cymru was partly responsible because they had been in the coalition government that set up RIFW.

Replying to a question about RIFW from Plaid Cymru AM, Neil McEvoy, Carwyn claimed that “we must be careful because there was involvement with Ministers from his own party as well”.

But this was being economical with the truth as the controversial sell-off did not take place until after the coalition had ended.

When Carwyn Jones was challenged over that his reply was that “I can be more precise and refer to the fact that the Deputy Minister for Regeneration and Housing, together with the Deputy First Minister as Plaid Cymru members of the Government were responsible for approving the establishment of RIFW and the allocation to it of the land assets portfolio in March 2010.”

If he really wanted to be precise then he would have said that the controversial plan to sell off the entire property portfolio to Sir Stanley Thomas was first put forward at the RIFW Board meeting on May 6th, 2011, the very first day that Labour regained full control of the Welsh Government after the election.

Present

Unfortunately the Wales Audit Office (WAO) Report on the scandal was not at all precise either, as on pages 39, and 54 it says that the sell-off decision was made at the RIFW Board meeting on May 5th  2011, the day of the Welsh general election, but overleaf, on Page 55, the WAO says that the meeting was on May 6th 2011.

It was only when they were challenged on this rather strange discrepancy in their report that they admitted that it was actually May 6th, but what happened at that meeting is unclear.

It was in the following meeting, on June 11th that, according to the WAO Report, the decision was made to sell off the entire property portfolio to Sir Stanley Thomas.

Unfortunately, only two voting members of the RIFW Board were present at the meeting. One was Ceri Breeze, the Welsh Government’s Deputy Director of Housing.

The other was a business representative, Mr Richard Anning. But the WAO claims that while he supported the decision they noted that he actually abstained from the formal vote, “pending receipt of indemnity insurance for all of the Board members,” which meant that he was not prepared to make a decision unless he would not be held personally liable for it.

Unfortunately, as the only other RIFW Board member, Cllr. Chris Holley had only agreed via an email sent afterwards although the WAO described it as a decision “made in principle” they had to admit that the decision was not lawfully made.

Questions

The WAO was also rather imprecise about the final decision to sell off the entire RIFW Property portfolio in January 2012, as, while Ceri Breeze and Cllr. Chris Holley voted in favour of the sell-off there are some serious doubts about whether it was a lawful decision.

The quorum for the RIFW Board required “the attendance of at least two Representatives, provided always that at least one Welsh Ministers Representatives and one Private Sector Representative, are in attendance”.

So, while Richard Anning agreed to the decision by an email sent afterwards, how the WAO can argue that it was a lawful decision when he was not “in attendance” is not clear, or imprecise.

The Welsh Government has said that Ceri Breeze was in regular email contact with Huw Lewis, the Minister of Housing in Carwyn Jones’s Welsh Government.

During the critical months of May to July 2011 and in January 2012 they exchanged 400 emails.

Alas, despite repeated attempts via Freedom of Information requests to see those emails, they still have not released any and the dispute is now in the hands of the Information Commissioners Office.

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