Confidence must be restored in Welsh Government’s ability to support rural communities in the post-EU era after it incurred fines for mishandling funds, says Llyr Gruffydd, North Wales MS and Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs.
The Welsh Government’s mishandling of the Rural Development Programme is turning into a huge and costly scandal.
An Audit Wales investigation found £53 million had been awarded to rural projects without competition or tender.
Now my questions to the Rural Affairs minister have revealed that millions of pounds may have to be paid back to the EU in the wake of that mismanagement of funds by the Welsh Government.
I raised the matter of ‘disallowance’ during questions to the minister Lesley Griffiths in the Senedd’s Environment committee.
Her officials confirmed that the EU is looking at ‘disallowance’ of some or all of the £53 million of Rural Development Programme funding that an Audit Wales report recently found was awarded without competition.
Tim Render, director for agriculture and food in the Welsh Government, responded to my question about whether there was a risk of disallowance by confirming: “Yes, there is and we are in discussions now with the European Commission for potential level of penalties and some have been applied in previous years.
“So yes there is likely to be some disallowance in light of this. It’s an ongoing negotiation process.”
In response to further questioning asking where that money would come from, Mr Render said it would be ‘managed within the overall budget – we’ve made some provision for and factored in.’
This is bad news for rural communities in Wales. Plaid Cymru has warned all along that RDP funding needed to go to the right places.
Ever since Ministers in Wales maxed out on modulating funds from Pillar One payments into the RDP we were concerned it wouldn’t come back to our rural communities.
We were assured by the Government that farmers would not lose out, but the emerging reality is proving to be very different.
The Audit Wales report found that key aspects of the design, operation, and oversight of Welsh Government controls over the RDP were not effective enough to secure value for money.
It revealed at least £53m had been awarded without competition, which is hugely worrying and begs many questions about the way this Government is funding rural projects.
If millions of pounds have to be re-paid because of failings on the part of this Government, then it will mean money destined for Welsh rural communities could be lost forever.
It’s a scandal and heads should roll.
I’m also concerned there is still tens of millions of pounds of RDP funding left uncommitted with only months remaining before it is lost.
The committee was told that, at the end of June, the Government had formally committed £701m out of the £834m programme - but of the £130m left, about £80m has been allocated to live schemes that are out for expressions of interest and being evaluated at the moment.
That means there’s about £50m left that’s entirely uncommitted.
The clock is ticking and, unless it is properly committed in the coming months, our rural communities will lose out.
The Welsh Government must learn lessons from this fiasco.
Only a full review of the RDP can give us confidence that the funds have been used effectively, delivering value for money and a decent return on investment for rural communities.
This takes on even greater significance given the Welsh Government intends to replicate the RDP model in its proposals to reform rural support in Wales in the post-EU era.
There’s an urgent need to restore confidence.
Farmers can be penalised for minor discrepancies in forms they must submit for payments.
Yet the same department that penalises them is failing to do basic homework on how best to spend its budget.
We need an immediate review of the RDP and I want assurances that farming communities will not lose out due to this Government’s failures.
Llyr can be found tweeting at @LlyrGruffydd