FOLLOWING a grilling by AM’s at the Senedd today, Monday (Sep 24) most notably by Lee Waters AM the CEO of NRW Clare Pillman and executives Peter Garson and Kevin Ingram explained that the terrible mess that the public body had got into was as a result of a number of oversights, being very busy and supporting a number of businesses to deliver timber and timber products into the supply chain. The sale of timber to three firms without going to the open market cost the Welsh tax payer an estimated loss of £1m. The organisation had also failed to have their accounts signed of by the Auditor General for Wales for two years running.

LLANELLI’S AM Lee Waters has described the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee with NRW on Twitter as ‘jaw dropping’.

The new CEO of NRW Clare Pillman began the meeting by apologising for their failings as identified in the Auditor General for Wales’ Report. She said that NRW’s reputation within the industry and with the people of Wales had been damaged and she was determined to do everything to earn that trust back. She said that as CEO she had been hugely impressed with the work of her staff.

Chairperson of the meeting Nick Ramsay AM said that NRW now found themselves in the same position following the 2015-2016 accounts with irregularities and asked ‘Were no lessons learned’?

He asked “Can you assure the committee that there was no criminal activity in the award of the transitional contracts in 2017.”

The CEO replied “We can never be complacent about the possibility of fraud.”

Nick Ramsay AM asked: “Is your view, you say that you take the auditor General’s review very seriously. Are you confident that that is a view that is shared by staff. Are they taking this seriously. Can we be sure that this will not happen again?”

The CEO replied “I have been out and about meeting as many staff as possible. It is an issue that comes up everywhere I go. They want to be reassured that we are on top of it.

Lee Waters questioned the CEO on why a saw line had not been installed and why NRW were awarding contracts to a company who had threatened NRW with legal action and political fallout if they were not awarded a contract.

In a prolonged attack on NRW's representatives Lee Waters said: “So you've got a set of contracts that you have given to a firm that had breached its contract and then threatened you with legal action and political fall out. You gave them a series of contracts which you didn't have signed so may not have been actionable. You didn't tell the Chief Executive about it. You didn't get them signed off even though he'd asked you to. You didn't give it to your own board, your own audit committee or to the Welsh Government. Your organisation had for the second time running failed to have its accounts signed off by the Auditor General for Wales. You're about to have a tough session if front of the Public Accounts Committee and you didn't feel it was prudent to have any of those checks in place to cover yourselves?"

The responses from the CEO and the two executives Peter Garson and Kevin Ingram appeared to be less than convincing when under fire from AM's from all parties. Both Garson and Ingram had been in post for the whole term when NRW were going through what some AM's were trying to infer was a time of 'fraud and corruption' within the culture of the organisation and the social circles within the industry.

Lee Waters asked why NRW were not more straightforward with the Welsh Government. The answer was that they accepted that they should have been told more at the time but that it was a very busy time for the organisation.

Adam Price AM asked: “Are you saying that the explanation about these terrible failings is wholly to do with incompetence and nothing to do with any shape or form corruption?”

Clare Tillman answered 'Yes'.

Adam Price went on to say, if NRW accepted that the warning signs in procurement fraud which he explained were unjustified contract extensions and unjustified closed tenders both of which were relevant in this case would the CEO accept that those warning signs that are generally referred to in investigations to procurement fraud were both relevant in this case.

The CEO answered 'Yes'.

Lee Waters: Continued his assault on the CEO and executives He said: “What I am struggling with is getting at the culture of the organisation. You should have been on alert having failed to have your accounts signed off. What kind of structure is this? You have executives who are a law unto themselves.

“You have two colleagues beside you who were part of these decisions who were part of the culture of this organisation. The chair and the chief executive have gone. I am not sure what the consequences are for the other people who had the operational independence to do these things that have landed the organisation in this hot water. What's the consequence for it?”

The CEO said that the consequences were clear to see.

Lee Waters said: “That's the organisation. Mr Ingram and Mr Garson who are culpable in these decisions as part of that culture. The others have lost their heads around them but what consequences are there beyond that?”

The CEO defended her executives and said that she had been working with them to make sure the organisation had learned lessons.

The explanation as to why the problem was as a result of incompetence and not corruption was followed by an acceptance of the Auditor General for Wales' report and findings followed by apologies for what had happened and assurances that it would not happen again.

The Welsh Government, the staff of NRW and the tax payers of Wales will now have to accept the apology, explanations and assurances as they accepted it the last time NRW were up before the Public Accounts Committee facing the same scrutiny for the same behaviour.

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