The panel carrying out a review into allegations of corruption surrounding the redevelopment of the Teesside steelworks site appointed by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has been announced.

It comes as Labour are due to bring a vote regarding the release of correspondence relating to the Government’s decision-making over an inquiry into the multi-million pound development project.

Concerns about the Teesworks scheme were previously raised by Middlesborough MP Andy McDonald in the Commons, who alleged “truly shocking, industrial-scale corruption”.

The Northern Echo: Andy McDonald MPAndy McDonald MP

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Mr Gove said the investigation would be independent, but opposition MPs have demanded an inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, rather than a panel “handpicked” by ministers.

Angie Ridgwell, chief executive of Lancashire County Council, and previously a Director General at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has been appointed as lead reviewer, bringing 30 years of experience across local government, central government and the private sector.

She will be supported by Quentin Baker, who is a qualified solicitor and the director of law and governance at Hertfordshire County Council and by Richard Paver, who brings significant financial experience and knowledge of Combined Authorities from a previous role as treasurer of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. 

The panel will review the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s oversight of the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) and Teesworks Joint Venture.

This will include consideration of specific allegations made in relation to the scheme.

As set out in the published terms of reference, as well as considering the specific allegations of corruption, illegality and wrongdoing that have been raised, the panel will also look at governance and financial management, reflecting the Government’s existing approach to external assurance reviews of local authorities.   

Local Government Minister Lee Rowley said: “I want to stress we have not seen evidence of corruption, wrongdoing, or illegality in relation to Teesworks, but it is apparent the allegations present a risk to the delivery of jobs and economic growth in the region.  

“Given the importance to Tees Valley of addressing this matter, and the request made by the Mayor, the government has appointed an independent panel to review the arrangements.” 

The review is due to get underway and the panel is expected to provide a report of their findings, along with any recommendations, in the summer.    

Any interested party, including Members of Parliament, will be invited to make representations to the panel as part of the evidence gathering.

Mr Gove has written Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen regarding the inquiry, saying: “Upon completion of its investigation, the panel will provide me with a report of their findings, along with any recommendations.

“This report will be published in line with usual practices and appropriate next steps will be taken in light of its contents.”

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The Northern Echo: The letter from Michael GoveThe letter from Michael Gove (Image: Contributor)

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: “I welcome the Government agreeing to my request for an independent review into the Teesworks project, including the involvement of the NAO.

“As someone whose primary responsibility, as Mayor of the Tees Valley, is to attract investment and create jobs for local people, I felt that the recent misinformation spread by the Labour Party and the abuse of Parliamentary Privilege by Andy McDonald was starting to have a negative impact on the prospects of Teesside and the local community.

“I feel that an independent review is necessary to show investors, businesses and local people that there is no corruption, wrongdoing or illegality in what has become and continues to be an incredible project for jobs and investment in our region."

The Northern Echo: Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (Image: The Northern Echo)

Mr Houchen said: “I look forward to the outcome, in due course, and will be making no further comment until the independent review has been completed, so to allow the independent body to carry out their work without influence or favour.

“My officers stand ready to provide any and all information requested by the independent review.”

Meanwhile Labour is calling for the publication of documents explaining why the NAO was ‘excluded’ from investigating issues surrounding the redevelopment project.

Labour will bring a vote on the release of correspondence relating to the Government’s decision-making over the inquiry today.

The Opposition is tabling a motion in the form of a “humble address” – a parliamentary procedure sometimes used to call for papers from Government departments.

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Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy said: “The steelworks are part of the civic inheritance for people on Teesside, and those people deserve answers.

“There was cross-party support, including from the Conservative mayor (Ben Houchen), for a NAO investigation into the serious allegations of misuse of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money and assets.

“But for some reason, ministers – who are responsible for the flawed system of accountability that has partly led to this situation – have chosen to set up a review where they will hand-pick the panel and terms.

“Today, MPs can vote with Labour to shed light on why they made this baffling decision, or they can opt to continue to deny answers to people on Teesside.”

Speaking tonight Lisa Nandy said she was given the names and details of the Teesworks investigation panel only seven minutes before the debate started in the Commons.

The shadow communities secretary told the Commons: “Incredibly, even by the standards of this shambolic Government, the terms of reference, and the names of the panel members for this inquiry, were sent to me seven minutes before this debate began.”

She added: “Clearly, I haven’t had much time to read them. But on first sight, what he has sent me looks like a system-focused review, rather than an investigation into what has happened. And ministers have still failed to give us an explanation as to why the National Audit Office (NAO) can’t conduct their own investigation: a body which has capacity, resources, expertise, and is widely respected across the political spectrum.

“Instead, we’re having a bizarre argument about the remit of a respected organisation that is patently able to conduct the investigation required. Can the minister not see why the public would rightly raise an eyebrow?"

It “says something” about the “extraordinary arrogance” of the Government that ministers think it is an unacceptable request to establish the facts, MPs have heard.

Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy said: “That’s what the Mayor of the Tees Valley is attempting to do: establish the facts. That’s what the chairs of the select committees in this House are attempting to do: establish the facts. And that is what on people on Teesside side are attempting to do: establishing the facts.

“It says something about the extraordinary arrogance of this Government that they think that that is an unacceptable request.

“The investigation must confirm when ministers were first made aware of the decision to increase the share to 90%, and if an assessment of value for money for taxpayers was made in advance and could he confirm to us today whether there was any discussion on the terms of reference with the relevant select committee chairs, including the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Business and Trade Select Committee and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee?

“Or is the Government determined to show the same contempt for members here as it is currently showing for people on Teesside?”

Communities minister Lee Rowley said: “These are serious matters, serious allegations have been made and it is incumbent upon us all that we clarify the position as soon as possible for the good of Tees Valley.

“The review we have set up will do that and we look forward to it reporting in the usual way at the earliest opportunity. (MPs) should welcome that and support it.”

He described it as a debate “about a technicality”, adding: “Not about whether a review will happen because it will. Not about whether it will look at these matters in depth because it will.

“Not about whether it will be led by independent experts because it will and not about whether…the facts will be established because they will.”

He went on: “Ministers and officials have so far seen no evidence of corruption, wrong doing or illegality.”

Communities minster Lee Rowley listed the members of the panel appointed to review the Teesworks development project.

He said: “All members of this House should support their important work so that they can proceed quickly and free of partisan comments.”

He asked why Labour “are so suddenly keen on NAO led inquiries in local government when they have not been so before”.

He added: “The cold hard facts are this: the major of Tees Valley has had much success in bringing jobs, growth and economic development over the last half decade to an area now on the up.

“Tees Valley is thriving again thanks to Conservative leadership there and from having engaged and constructive Conservative MPs in this place and on this specific issue the Government has agreed to a request from the mayor for a review.

“A review which is being set up similarly to others, where those to be involved have been appointed as others have been appointed before, where the terms of reference have been published using a similar process before and where if there is an issue, we will deal with it in the normal way in the future and now where the experts who are going to give their time and expertise, should be given that time and that expertise to get on with the job in the normal way and present conclusions when they’re ready.”

Labour MP Julie Elliott said there “can be no confidence in the pretence of an independent inquiry”.

The MP for Sunderland Central told the Commons: “Conservative ministers and the mayor’s cavalier approach to transparency and accountability is now harming the investment prospects for Teesside.”

She added: “There can be no confidence in the pretence of an independent inquiry touted by a Secretary of State (Michael Gove) who (has) in his own words already found his Conservative colleagues innocent of all charges.”

Conservative MP Jill Mortimer (Hartlepool) said: “We all know why we’re here. This has all transpired because of allegations made by the member for Middlesborough (Labour MP Andy McDonald), and interestingly he won’t repeat those allegations outside this chamber and the immunity it provides.”

She added: “The opposition benches seem once again, very sadly, intent on spreading scurrilous rumour and baseless accusation for their own political ends.

“By casting a shadow of doubt over the Teesworks site, they know that will deter investors… they once again want to keep the poor poor.”