Wales

Natural Resources Wales: more accounts issues possible

Larch tree plantation Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Problems with Natural Resources Wales's accounts began in 2014 over a £39m deal for diseased larch struck

Wales' troubled environment watchdog may see further problems with its accounts for a fourth year in a row, its boss has admitted.

It follows an independent review into a controversy over timber contracts at Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

The report by audit firm Grant Thornton identified "potential irregularities", which NRW said would be investigated.

Chief executive Clare Pillman insisted NRW had an action plan in place to correct the problems.

Ms Pillman told the assembly's climate committee that further criticism of NRW's accounts by the Wales Audit Office may be "unavoidable" because of "historic issues".

For three years running the Wales Audit Office queried the watchdog's accounts, signing them off with a so-called "qualification", indicating that there were questions over whether the organisation had acted within the rules.

It is only the second public body in Wales to have its accounts qualified by the Wales Audit Office since the assembly was established.

Timber scandal

At issue were multimillion-pound contracts repeatedly offered to some timber firms without allowing others to compete for them.

Auditors and AMs have questioned whether the deals were lawful and value for money.

NRW's chair Diane McCrea and head of commercial operations Peter Garson resigned over the affair, while former chief executive Dr Emyr Roberts - in charge at the time the controversial deals were struck - has since retired.

Earlier this month, the Grant Thornton review found "serious failings" in the way such contracts were managed and overseen by NRW.

Image caption NRW chief executive Clare Pillman speaks to the climate change committee

Dr Roberts's replacement Ms Pillman - in post since February 2018 - promised the Assembly's environment committee she would do "absolutely everything I can" to ensure the problems with the accounts did not happen again.

Asked about the action plan NRW had put in place she said the organisation estimated it was already 55% through implementing it.

It included "completely rewriting our timber standards documents" and further training for staff.

Bewildered

NRW's timber scandal was this afternoon the subject of a full debate in the National Assembly.

Nick Ramsay, AM - chair of the Public Accounts Committee - said members had been "left bewildered" by decisions taken at NRW which "defied logic", concluding they would "never fully understand or have an explanation about what happened".

He said it would remain to be seen whether the organisation's new leadership could turn things around, but that it was important to give them the "time and space" to do so.

However, fellow Conservative AM Mohammad Asghar claimed NRW had "systematically failed the people of Wales" and should be abolished.

Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on the environment and rural affairs Llyr Gruffydd called for an independent inquiry to see whether NRW had the resources it needed and whether there were lessons to be learned from the way the organisation was formed.

Environment minister Lesley Griffiths described the Grant Thornton report as a "powerful driver for change" and said the Welsh Government was determined to see through the "necessary changes at NRW".

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