‘There is no conspiracy to hide anything’ insisted Chief Minister Allan Bell as he was quizzed by MHKs over the legal advice given for the Sefton bail-out.
Controversy continues to dog the bail-out deal announced in April last year, in which government approved a £1.3m loan repayable over five years and a £3.2m sale and lease back agreement for the Middlemarch site.
At the time, Mr Bell said it was designed to prevent the debt-ridden group from going under.
An investigation by Tynwald’s Economic Policy Review Committee into the affair concluded the government was right to act as it did. It’s report will be debated in Tynwald at this month’s sitting.
But questions remain about the legal advice given for the bail-out. In Tynwald last month, acting Attorney General John Quinn, former legal counsel and major shareholder of the Sefton Group, said he could not comment as he was professionally conflicted.
And with no authority to ask another senior officer from the AG’s department on his behalf, Lib Van MHK Kate Beecroft (Douglas South) said she found that situation ‘totally unacceptable’.
In the House of Keys this week, Alfred Cannan (Michael) asked Mr Bell if he would publish the legal guidance.
The Chief Minister replied that he had written to all Tynwald members in April providing an overview of the law in relation to the loans to Sefton Group. Brenda Cannell (Douglas East) and Kate Beecroft (Lib Van, Douglas South) both asked why extracts rather than the full advice had been published.
‘There is no conspiracy to hide anything,’ Mr Bell said, insisting it was not normal practice to publish legal advice from the Attorney General’s department.
Mr Cannan asked whether the legal advice was only sought afterwards to clarify the interpretation that the Ministers had actually put on the wording in the various Acts and policy documents relied on to give the loan. Mr Bell replied that it was his understanding that there was ‘no specific advice given at the outset’.
Economic Development Minster John Shimmin, replying to a separate question from Mr Cannan, confirmed that the Sefton Group had settled a number of government debts by June 30 last year, as required by the terms of the loan agreement. It has also paid the remaining balance of the first loan, as required by July 31.
He said the Group had also confirmed in writing that all local trade creditors outstanding at the time of the restructure have been cleared, although this could not be independently verified.
Mr Shimmin said the Sefton Group had reduced its debts by £72 million over three years in order to keep on trading.