This story in the Western Mail suggests that the Assembly Minister is going to stop all future new spending by Communities First. This would be in reaction to the alleged misuse of public funds in Plas Madoc, which is still under investigation. For the first time, the 'leak' outlines some of the allegations being made against Communities First staff.
Claims of financial abuse may close fund
Well-placed sources have told the Western Mail that Social Justice Minister Carl Sargeant plans to announce a moratorium on new spending associated with the troubled Communities First programme.THE Assembly Government’s flagship anti-poverty programme is at risk because of allegations of financial abuse at a publicly-funded community project, we can reveal.
More than £241m has been spent on the programme’s projects in Wales’ most deprived areas over eight years but a succession of reports has questioned their effectiveness in tackling poverty.
And now the minister is understood to be so concerned about the implication of alleged financial irregularities that he is ready to call a halt to new Communities First spending. Results of a joint investigation carried out by Assembly officials and the Wales Audit Office into behaviour at the Plas Madoc Communities First partnership at Plas Madoc, near Wrexham, will be delivered to Mr Sargeant imminently.
Two senior members of staff there have been suspended since last November as a probe has looked into accusations that:
A car bought out of public funds for the benefit of the project as a whole was allegedly commandeered for the exclusive use of a staff member;
Individuals were paid for work on a “cash in hand” basis; and
Payment records were chaotic and incomplete.
A source told us: “This looks like the beginning of the end for Communities First. Carl Sargeant is expected to make the announcement very soon.
“He will say that while core funding for Communities First projects that is already committed will continue, no new initiatives will be authorised.”
The prospect of a moratorium on new spending will not be popular with those running Communities First projects.
A leading committee member of one South Wales project, who did not wish to be named, said: “It would be grossly unfair for Carl Sargeant to punish all Communities First partnerships because of this. A lot of good work is being done despite the criticisms in reports that have been published.”
The brainchild of current Health Minister and failed Welsh Labour leadership contender Edwina Hart, successive reports have said there is little evidence that, despite all the money spent on it, Communities First has succeeded in improving prosperity in Wales’ poorest areas.
Last week, a cross-party group of AMs condemned a “chronic and long-lasting failure” by the Assembly Government to provide leadership.
The Assembly’s public accounts committee said: “Our conclusions are that, overall, the Communities First programme has not delivered good value for the significant amount of public money spent on it, and that this is largely because of weaknesses in the [Assembly’s] construction and management of the programme.”
The report follows findings by the Wales Audit Office last year that of the £214m spent between 2001 and 2009, £140m had gone to partnerships, mainly to employ staff and administer projects.
At Plas Madoc, project co-ordinator Miriam Beard and finance and monitoring officer Andy Bunning were suspended as the investigation got under way.
Plas Madoc Communities First was formed in 2003 as a company limited by guarantee and is a registered charity.
The community has major problems with access to services, such as GPs and dentists, education standards, local employment opportunities and childcare support.
Since it was set up the partnership – which has an independent set of trustees – it has co- ordinated a range of beneficial projects to support the area, including £125,000 to give play areas a facelift, taking children on life-changing trips to Gambia, and organising local environmental schemes.
But concerns were raised last year about the way it was being run, with Mandy Bostwick, a psychotherapist and community councillor who provided counselling services to the partnership, voicing her worries.
Mrs Bostwick told BBC Wales last October: “I started to have some concerns about the way they were operating after I attended a staff meeting. I started to realise that it was the same residents connected to the project – I never saw any new faces.
“I started to hear about people being paid cash. I certainly received cash payment, a nominal fee, and I started to ask for receipts for the money that I was receiving for the work that I was doing, and never got receipts.”
On the advice of Communities First officials in North Wales, Mrs Bostwick raised her concerns with Plas Madoc’s trustees. Subsequently the team stopped using her services.
The claims were denied by the partnership’s managers at the time, who insisted they would be vindicated after the investigations had concluded.
Neither Ms Beard nor Mr Dunning could be contacted for comment about the new development.
An Assembly Government spokeswoman said: “We are aware of issues in one particular Communities First partnership.
“The minister expects to receive a report in the near future regarding this. He will then make a statement to the Assembly.
“It would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”