Wales politics

Ministers' handling of £50m science fund criticised

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A watchdog has criticised the Welsh government for the way it set up and ran a £50m biotech investment fund.

The Wales Life Sciences Fund was set up in 2012 to get more medical and pharmaceutical firms to move to Wales.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) said ministers should have handled potential conflicts of interest "more robustly".

A spokeswoman for the Welsh government said: "We will consider this report and respond in due course."

It is understood the venture has created more than 150 highly-skilled jobs in Wales.

It was created on the recommendation of a panel chaired by multimillionaire life sciences entrepreneur Sir Chris Evans.

He later formed a company called Arthurian, which bid for and won the tender to manage the fund.

The fund also invested in ReNeuron, a firm in which Sir Chris held shares.

The WAO report, published on Thursday, found Arthurian and Sir Chris acted properly and potential conflicts of interest were declared.

But auditors made a series of criticisms of the Welsh government and its investment arm, Finance Wales.

It said:

  • The Welsh government should have handled potential conflicts of interest "more robustly"
  • The decision to appoint a fund manager was "poorly documented"
  • The investment in ReNeuron "did not comply" with the Welsh government's usual business processes
  • Oversight arrangements put in place by Finance Wales were "insufficiently robust"

Auditor general Huw Vaughan Thomas said: "This report addresses a range of weaknesses in the Welsh government's and Finance Wales' establishment of the fund and in their oversight of its initial operations.

"These findings underline the continuing need for strong governance in this age of austerity."

Public accounts committee chairman and Conservative AM Darren Millar said: "Once again the auditor general for Wales has published a report which shows the governance and oversight arrangements put in place by Welsh government and Finance Wales to manage large sums of public money were insufficiently robust and have fallen short of what taxpayers should expect."

Plaid Cymru's shadow economy minister Rhun ap Iorwerth said the fund was a "strong idea" which had been "handled poorly".

He said: "There are clear failings in the way this fund has been set up and run."

Liberal Democrat AM Aled Roberts said: "It's pretty damning to be honest.

"Serious questions have to be asked in regard to the internal workings of the Welsh Labour government."

Arthurian Life Sciences chief executive Martin Walton said: "We are delighted that the Welsh Audit Office found that Arthurian has acted properly, professionally and correctly as manager of the Welsh Life Science Fund.

"The Welsh government was innovative and visionary in establishing this fund and in doing so has put Wales firmly on the international life sciences map."

The fund was one of the best-performing in Europe, he said, and led to a series of biotech firms relocating to Wales.

Finance Wales is carrying out its own review of the fund's performance.

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