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‘Fundamental flaws’ cost Welsh taxpayers

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Welsh TaxpayersFUNDAMENTAL flaws in the way the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was managed, overseen, and advised, cost Welsh taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, according to a National Assembly for Wales committee.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfill their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers. Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding. The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Members also agreed that, in light of South Wales Land Developments Ltd onward sales, the Welsh Government’s contention that it is not possible to demonstrate that the sale was under value, is unconvincing, pointing to the following as evidence (overage is an agreed sum of money to claw-back in addition to the sale price if the buyer meets certain conditions):

  • The Rhoose site was purchased from RIFW for less than £3 m, without overage, and sold on by SWLD for nearly £10.5 m;
  • The Abergele site was purchased from RIFW for £0.1 m, without overage, and sold for £1.9m.
  • Lisvane, near Cardiff, was / is the ‘jewel in the crown’ and should have been disposed of via a properly marketed open and competitive sale process. The Committee believed it incomprehensible that this was sold to SWLD at an agricultural land value of £1.835 million (even with overage) when its potential open market value for residential housing is at least £39 million.

“The Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) has been one of the most significant and deeply troubling inquiries undertaken by the Committee,” said Darren Millar AM, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

“The fact that one of the largest sales of publicly owned land in Wales should have generated tens of millions of pounds more for the taxpayer than it did, is inexcusable.

“While the Committee found the concept of RIFW to be innovative, we concluded that it was poorly executed due to fundamental flaws in Welsh Government oversight and governance arrangements, and that the Fund was poorly served from those appointed and trusted to provide the Board with professional advice and expertise.

“It is regrettable that many of the flaws we identified are consistent with issues this Committee has considered during previous inquiries.”

The Committee makes 18 recommendations in its report including:

  • The Welsh Government must strengthen monitoring and oversight arrangements of its arms-length bodies and, in particular, ensure that any concerns are swiftly identified and escalated internally;
  • That measures are put in place to ensure that Board Members have the appropriate expertise and capacity to fulfil their duties and receive adequate and appropriate induction training, and;
  • The Welsh Government should ensure that robust overage arrangements are considered whenever it disposes of public assets that possess future development potential.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was established in December 2009 in response to the constrained financial climate which restricted access to capital for investment in regeneration in Wales. RIFW was created as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) wholly-owned by the Welsh Government. RIFW’s purpose was to invest £55 m initially in urban regeneration schemes across Wales, comprising £25 million of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and £30 m of Welsh Government funding. The Welsh Government provided RIFW with £9.4 m cash, and a portfolio of 18 land and property assets valued in existing use at £20.5 m , based on a valuation commissioned by the Welsh Government.

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Politics

Government acts on porn access

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THE UK will become the first country in the world to bring in age-verification for online pornography when the measures come into force on July 15, 2019.

It means that commercial providers of online pornography will be required by law to carry out robust age-verification checks on users, to ensure that they are 18 or over. The move is backed by 88% of UK parents with children aged 7-17, who agree there should be robust age-verification controls in place to stop children seeing pornography online.

Websites that fail to implement age-verification technology face having payment services withdrawn or being blocked for UK users.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the new laws. They have confirmed that they will begin enforcement on 15 July, following an implementation period to allow websites time to comply with the new standards.

UK Minister for Digital Margot James said: “Adult content is currently far too easy for children to access online. The introduction of mandatory age-verification is a world-first, and we’ve taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content. We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”

Government has listened carefully to privacy concerns and is clear that age-verification arrangements should only be concerned with verifying age, not identity. In addition to the requirement for all age-verification providers to comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards, the BBFC have created a voluntary certification scheme, the Age-verification Certificate (AVC), which will assess the data security standards of AV providers. The AVC has been developed in cooperation with industry, with input from the government.

Certified age-verification solutions which offer these robust data protection conditions will be certified following an independent assessment and will carry the BBFC’s new green ‘AV’ symbol. Details will also be published on the BBFC’s age-verification website, ageverificationregulator.comso consumers can make an informed choice between age-verification providers.

BBFC Chief Executive David Austin said: “The introduction of age-verification to restrict access to commercial pornographic websites to adults is a groundbreaking child protection measure. Age-verification will help prevent children from accessing pornographic content online and means the UK is leading the way in internet safety.

“On entry into force, consumers will be able to identify that an age-verification provider has met rigorous security and data checks if they carry the BBFC’s new green ‘AV’ symbol.”

The change in the law is part of the Government’s commitment to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, especially for children. It follows last week’s publication of the Online Harms White Paper which set out clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe online, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.

CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said: “We are delighted to see the government tackling the issue of online pornography. Children seeing online content for which they’re not emotionally ready can be very damaging, especially if they don’t speak out about it.

“While our research shows that parents overwhelmingly support age-verification and are confident it will make a difference, we must recognise that digital solutions aren’t the only answer and parents can’t become complacent about their child’s digital world.

“There is no substitute to having regular and honest conversations with your child about what they’re getting up to online, establishing an open dialogue about their digital life from a young age.”

Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet said: “We hope that the introduction of this age-verification will help in protecting children, making it harder for young people to accidentally come across online pornography, as well as bringing in the same protections that we use offline to protect children from age-restricted goods or services.

“Talking to children is vital and education has a major part to play here, and we need to ensure all young people are given a platform to discuss the pressures they face online and have the skills to spot and understand the gap between perception and reality. We are releasing a new extended PSHE toolkit later this month to address the issue of online pornography along with related topics of body image and healthy relationships.

“We know that conversations with young people, parents and carers and teachers are paramount to giving children the information, support and skills that they need.”

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Politics

Commons outcry over Saudi executions

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FOREIGN OFFICE Minister Sir Alan Duncan joined the chorus of disapproval following the execution of 37 prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, April 24, Sir Vince Cable asked the Government to make a statement on the executions which took place the previous day.

Amnesty International has condemned the executions, which included the killing of a man who was under 18 at the time of his arrest, in contravention of international law.

The Middle East research Director of Amnesty International, Lynn Maalouf called it “another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority”.

The humanitarian organisation, which opposes capital punishment, say that the executions followed torture, unjust trials and forced confessions.

The Saudi authorities are thought to have executed 104 people so far in 2019.

Those executed yesterday were charged with terrorism offences. One man was crucified. Another had his headless body displayed in public.

Responding to the urgent question, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan said: “We are very concerned by the executions of 37 men in Saudi Arabia and the Foreign Office is working to establish the full facts.

“The UK Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia. We regularly raise human rights concerns, including the use of the death penalty, at the highest levels with the Saudi Arabian authorities.”

In response, Sir Vince Cable said: “We are in urgent need of a reappraisal of our relationship with Saudi Arabia given the fact that the continued mediaeval barbarism of the regime does not constitute the basis for a friendly alliance and indeed makes it an enemy of our values and our human rights.”

The UK Government encourages arms sales to the Saudi kingdom and trains members of the country’s security services in this country. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a war of attrition with neighbouring Yemen, for which it has attracted widespread condemnation for targeting Yemeni civilians.

The MP for Leeds North East, Fabian Hamilton said: “Publicly pinning one of the headless bodies to a pole as a warning is not only disturbingly barbaric and medieval in nature, but an abhorrent violation of human rights.

“According to the families of those executed, there was no prior notice that the executions would be carried out. That is a blatant flouting of international standards set out by even the most brutal of regimes that still use the death penalty.

“We know that some, if not all, of those executed, were convicted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups as secretive, and which has in the past been used to try human rights activists, whom the state often wrongly regards as terrorists.

“We also know that at least three of those executed were juveniles—a clear violation of international law, which the Saudi regime appears to care very little about.

“Abdulkarim al-Hawaj was charged with participating in demonstrations, incitement via social media and preparing banners with anti-state slogans. Reports from human rights watchdogs in the country claim that he was beaten and the so-called confessions extracted from him through various means of torture.

“Mujtaba al-Sweikat was a student about to begin his studies at Western Michigan University when he was arrested at King Fahd airport, beaten and so-called confessions extracted through torture.

“Salman Qureish was just 18 when he was executed, but he was convicted of crimes that allegedly took place when he was still a child. The UN has condemned his sentencing and the use of the death penalty against him after he was denied basic legal rights, such as access to a lawyer.”

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr MP Jonathan Edwards said: “The vast majority of those executed yesterday were Shi’a Muslims. To what degree do the British Government consider that the Saudi regime is using the death penalty as a means of quashing dissent among a persecuted religious minority within its borders?”

Sir Alan Duncan replied: “I do not think that this is the moment for me to give an extended thesis on such matters, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. In many parts of the Middle East, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is very intensive and creates enormous tension, difficulty and strife.”

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Politics

Ultrafast broadband voucher for communities

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COMMUNITIES in Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and across Wales can come together to make a bid for the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme which can provide ultrafast broadband for homes and businesses.

The scheme, which is managed by the UK Government, has been given the boost of a top-up in Wales with the Welsh Government providing more funding to take into account the particular challenges caused by the country’s topography.

Ministers from both governments are now urging Welsh businesses and communities to apply as a group for the funding to get gigabit capable broadband.

The group must include at least one business along with surrounding premises. Two or more businesses can get together, or businesses with residents, to combine their vouchers towards the cost of building the infrastructure. Up to ten residents can get together with one business to create a group or community project.

Under the arrangements for Wales, the Welsh Government will provide an additional £3,000 for businesses up to a certain size and an additional £300 per residential property. This means that for group projects in Wales up to £5,500 is available per business, compared with £2,500 elsewhere in the UK. Up to £800 will now be available per residential property in Wales, compared with £500 elsewhere.

Deputy Minister for Economy Lee Waters said: “While the vast majority of premises in Wales can access superfast broadband, we know we must reach the final five per cent. There is no one size fits all solution to do this, and the Gigabit Voucher Scheme is an important part of our efforts to do this.

“I would urge communities without access to look at this option and see if it’s suitable for them. The vouchers would potentially give them access to some of the fastest broadband speeds in the UK.”

UK Government Minister for Wales Kevin Foster said: “Improved digital connections for homes and businesses is a central part of our modern Industrial Strategy which invests in skills, industries and infrastructure to build a Britain that’s fit for the future.

“Together with the Welsh Government, we are working to ensure more people in Wales have access to reliable broadband speeds, supporting communities, enhancing access to online services and strengthening our rapidly expanding digital sector.”

The Welsh and UK Government funded £200m Superfast Cymru programme has already taken superfast broadband speeds to more than 733,000 Welsh homes and businesses commercial companies had no plans to cover.

Residents and businesses can check whether they’re eligible for the voucher and look up their postcode to find a registered supplier in their area.

Further information on how to apply for the Gigabit Voucher scheme is available on: www.gov.wales/broadband

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