Following the money - and wincing

 

Why did officials fail to act on warnings over a decade that the race equality body, the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association, was guilty of "significant and fundamental failures" to manage many millions of pounds in grants?

Is the new Permanent Secretary, Wales' 'top civil servant' as we tend to call Derek Jones, confident that the same failures can't and won't happen again? The sorts of failures that, by his own admission, made him "wince" when he read about them in the Wales Audit Office report?

It's one of the privileges of being new in the job that he could speak bluntly.

Much of the focus has been on one conversation, relatively late in the Awema story, in November last year between a senior official in the Wales European Funding Office and the then Chief Executive of Awema, Naz Malik. Mr Malik revealed that there were concerns about financial and HR issues at the organisation. The official, though, didn't take them any further himself. Mr Jones was admirably even-handed. His first thought? They weren't specific enough for the official to have taken them further. His second thought - "Crikey, I wish he had".

It was Mr Jones' first outing as the new Permanent Secretary. He struck a laid back but engaged tone. Why did he think things had been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent? He pointed at a desire to see the race equality body succeed - a desire that in the end outweighed the warning signs that so frequently popped up over the years, the latest of which was the conversation above.

This was how he put it:

"I'm inclined to say that the organisation was given the benefit of the doubt.

"I think there was a reluctance in terms of due diligence, and the monitoring of what was expected from Awema and I think we also know from the report that the Welsh Government organisation was not sufficiently joined up.

"But also a feeling that because of the priority attached to working on equalities generally, and race equality in particular, a desire to see the work done, and as I say a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to the organisation when in fact, as we now know, it would have been more prudent to intervene".

Could it happen again? Officials, a whole - what do you call a group of officials - a whole row of them, told the committee there'd been a sea change in the way the government gives out grants. All four hundred of the organisations funded by the Welsh Government have been gone through with a fine toothcomb. As far as today's evidence is concerned, there isn't an Awema 2 on the books, or, they hope, on the cards.

If Mr Jones' emollience left the AMs with a warm, cosy feeling that things are definitely on the up, the appearance of former Awema chair, Dr Rita Austin, was akin to a double espresso experience. Who does she hold responsible for Awema's demise? Well, partly, the people sitting on the other side of the table. Few witnesses take the approach of going on the attack about the previous pronouncements of the committee they're appearing in front of, let alone single out its chair for particular scrutiny. Dr Austin is one of those few.

At the height of the political row around the organisation, PAC chair Darren Millar had asked, during the Assembly's plenary session, whether Awema had "run its course".

Dr Austin left no-one in any doubt that this was part of a political campaign against her organisation:

""These prejudicial comments followed twenty days, at least, of constant, strident, partial, often ill-informed interventions by AMs of all opposition parties, including their leaderships, against Awema which fed into, and legitimated, an unremitting negative media.

"And all this at a time when radio silence should have been observed by all politicians in order to avoid influence during the conduct of that review." That review was the final nail in Awema's funding coffin from the Welsh Government.

What united both Derek Jones and Dr Rita Austin was a readiness to admit that things should have been done very differently, as well as a rueful acceptance of the benefits of hindsight for both auditors and AMs.

They'll all be aware that the real test is whether the right lessons are learned - and that next time, there's enough foresight to prevent this happening all over again.

 
Betsan Powys Article written by Betsan Powys Betsan Powys Former political editor, Wales

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