Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A Point of Order

During the lengthy preamble at the start of each meeting, a warning is given that the Minutes from various committees are to be 'received' only. The contents of the Minutes, and any decisions made, must not be discussed, only the accuracy. In practice, there is usually some matter brought up which is discussed.

It all depends on what the 'matter' is.

When the minutes of the Extraordinary meeting held on the 27th February were up for approval at the start of yesterday's meeting, Cllr Caiach asked whether the libel indemnity was still being provided to Mark James as the case was ongoing. (I believe the indemnity has actually been withdrawn, as it is unlawful of course).

Executive Board Member Cllr Pam Palmer immediately called a Point of Order as the question was not related to accuracy. The Chair hastily agreed and Cllr Caiach's query therefore remained unanswered and the meeting moved very swiftly on to less controversial topics.

During the approval of numerous other committee Minutes, assorted discussions arose relating to subjects within the various reports. Unrelated to accuracy.

Not once did Cllr Palmer call another Point of Order and stop anyone else from asking a question or prompting a discussion.

The meeting has been archived and is available to view here. The main event was the approval of the Welsh Language Census group report which Cneifiwr has covered in detail.

Unfortunately, soon after the announcement, a problem with the publicly funded Welsh language support organisation Menter Cwm Gwendraeth emerged.
The BBC reports that Chief Executive, Cathryn Ings (former editor of the Carmarthen Journal) and Chair, county councillor Sian Thomas have both resigned. Details are sketchy but the interim chief executive Nerys Burton confirms that there is "absolutely no financial worry". Let's hope that her reassurance is not a precursor to the arrival of the auditors...

Meanwhile, with the countdown to the European election underway it looks like there's no shifting Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry Jones and Carmarthenshire's Mark James as Regional and Local Returning Officers respectively.

As we are aware, there is currently a police investigation ongoing in relation to unlawful payments made to both men and there have been calls for both to stand down from the roles (see previous posts). The Western Telegraph reports that Mr Parry Jones will receive £12,000 in fees (Mr James will receive roughly half that amount) and calls, which appear futile, have been made for his salary to be reduced to reflect the fee.

The appointment of Returning Officers is made by the UK government and the Cabinet Office gave another rather ambiguous statement, similar to that received by Jonathan Edwards MP in Carmarthenshire: “We are closely monitoring developments but it would not be appropriate to comment while a police investigation into this matter is ongoing.”

It would seem that only an Act of Parliament or divine intervention could have prised the two away from the job.

And, just to remind those following events in Caerphilly, the chief executive, Anthony O'Sullivan, and his deputy, Nigel Barnett will both be appearing at Bristol Magistrates court next week, on the 22nd April.

They have both been charged will alleged Misconduct in Public Office following a police investigation. The investigation, by an outside force, commenced after findings of unlawful payments were published by the Wales Audit Office.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Twisting the truth

The issue of email snooping, which has been rumbling around for months, finally reached the Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting at the end of March and the minutes of that meeting have just been published. (see Email snooping and misuse of the press office - sterilised and repackaged) .

To recap, Cllr Caiach discovered, in June 2013 that one of her emails had been 'tracked', without her knowledge, nearly two years previously, by officer 'unknown'. One of the troubling aspects was exactly how commonplace this sort of activity was, and whether constituents emails to their representatives were routinely read. Cllr Caiach's statement can be read here.

Equally concerning was that Cllr Caiach then went on to become a witness for myself, against the chief executive and the council. Whether her email activities were 'monitored' throughout the litigation remains unknown.

The matter was brought up at the full council meeting in June 2013 and Mark James, chief executive, stated to full council that there was no routine snooping of emails and the email tracking was on the orders of the High Court during the the litigation.

The email 'tracking' had happened on the 2nd September 2011. The disclosure stage, which Mr James was referring to in the full council meeting, was in the autumn of 2012.

So the 'tracking' was not on the orders of the court at all.

Mr James also deflected responsibility away from himself by accusing Cllr Caiach of pointing the finger at a junior officer in the IT department, something which neither she, nor anyone else had ever done.

Now we come to the minutes of the Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting from March this year which state;
"Responding to a question the Head of Administration & Law explained that a pre-action letter had been received by the Council during 2012 [actually it was August 2011] notifying it that a blogger intended to sue the Council based on the content of an e-mail the Chief Executive had sent to all Elected Members. Wishing to establish who had forwarded his email to an external destination, the Chief Executive, under Paragraph 5.15 of the Policy, had requested that his e-mail be tracked."

So the unknown officer was, of course the chief executive. The email to 'all elected members' was the same as he had sent, earlier that day, to the Madaxeman blog.

Cllr Caiach was, I believe, the only person who responded critically to the chief executive's email in 2011.

Why, after all this time Mr James should be saying his email was tracked is astonishing, and to say that he had used paragraph 5.15 as 'authorisation' is very odd. It would require prior knowledge that an email had been forwarded to the 'outside' world;

"Internal email and other internal materials must not be forwarded to destinations outside the Authority unless this is done in the course of performing the business of the Carmarthenshire County Council".

To put it simply, he was particularly interested in what Cllr Caiach was saying, and who to. The recent 'explanation' is twisted, to say the least....

I can only imagine the internal chaos which must have ensued after someone 'forwarded' the 'blacklisting' email to the South Wales Guardian in December 2012.

As for the monitoring of constituents emails, the policy states that;
The Council will automatically monitor email including both the text of a message and any
attachments. The Council will monitor both incoming and outgoing mail.

The committee decided that at the very least residents should be aware of this blanket monitoring and suggested a disclaimer be placed on the council website. Be warned.

The other matter of interest which arose at the scrutiny meeting concerned the press office, and the question of who was actually controlling some of the output. Recent attacks on the Auditor and MP suggest the Department of Propaganda and Spin is still in full swing.
The minutes of the whole meeting can be read here, and a review of procedures has been promised, or 'strengthened' as the Assistant Chief Executive puts it. The committee have in fact decided to set up a cross-party group to review the press and media protocol, which is not before time. 

The origin of this whole matter was the level of officer involvement in the 'sainsbury's press release' in 2012 attacking two Plaid politicians. The ombudsman subsequently found that Cllr Kevin Madge had breached the code of conduct by using the council press office to launch a political attack.
Others felt that the chief executive himself exerts undue control. 

The brief minute relating to this, (from the recent March meeting) says;

"In response to a question the Committee was informed that a press release regarding two planning applications had been issued in accordance with the protocol in that it had been 'signed-off' by both the Leader and Chief Executive."

Oddly, back in November 2013, whilst the scrutiny committee were still waiting for answers the head of law said this;

"...although the press release was issued by the press office the statement was requested and approved by the Leader.....It was clearly issued as a statement by him and did not quote any officer of the Council."

and in January this year she said;

"...that there was no decision for the Committee to scrutinise." 

No, it didn't quote any officer of the council but it is now known that Mr James approved it and signed it off....and therefore there was a decision to scrutinise.

On a related note, we know just how far County Hall will go to prevent criticism and negative stories appearing in the press, and elsewhere. Back in late 2011, the council press manager felt it necessary to report a conversation she had with a local reporter to the chief executive. I have a copy of the email.

It concerned a statement made by two councillors to the same reporter. I will not go into the details, for reasons that will be apparent, but basically, their main concern was that Notices of Motion they had put forward to full council were being deliberately blocked 'at source'. Democratic debate was being prevented.

Their argument was, I believe, well founded and based on first hand knowledge. In fact, observers of this council would call it common knowledge and common practice. 

The reporter had obviously phoned the press office for a comment. However, sensing the whiff of a negative story, the press manager rushed an email off to the chief executive alleging slander and, if the story went to print, it would be libel.
I don't suppose the reporter got his comment.

Presumably, the thought crossed their minds to sue the newspaper if it printed the story.

In 2012 of course, the constitution was 'amended' so that all Motions on Notice to full council required seven seconders rather than the usual one.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sunday ramble; Chairs, Salaries and Webcasting

Carmarthenshire Council has a quaintly traditional way of nominating Chairs and Vice Chairs of the council, a ritual which will start at the meeting on Tuesday (webcast here, starting at 10am) with the actual 'election' taking place at the AGM on the 21st May. The AGM will also be the twelve month anniversary of webcasting, and the end of the pilot.

The position of Chair, and Vice Chair comes with an attractive Civic Salary and various trips around Wales to assorted charity events and civic get-togethers in the chauffeur driven motor. In my view it's archaic nonsense which perpetuates the tugging forelock twaddle of a bygone era. Better to save the cash on the cars, regalia and civic dinners and give it all to charity in the first place.

May 2013 Chairing ritual; Cllr Terry Davies on the left and Cllr Daff Davies on the right
The two civic salaries have yet to be determined this year due to a novel recommendation from the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales. The IRPW has said that the amount should be within a £19000 to £24000 band for Chair and £14000 to £18000 for Vice Chair; the full council must decide the salary depending on 'activity' and 'anticipated workloads and responsibilities'. Incidentally, the Leader is in for a £500 rise, 'rounding-up' his salary to £49000 per annum.

Of course these figures pale into significance when you consider the our chief officers' pay, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they're present and correct, or not. Or, given recent events, whether some of that pay was illegal. I have no idea if deputy chief executive Mr D Gilbert receives extra payment for filling the shoes of Mr James, so to speak; if he does receive such an 'honorarium' payment this would be on top of the extra 10% he already gets for being deputy.

I do hope we're not currently paying for two chief executives.

The selection of Chair of the Council is run on a rotational basis and has been since time began, with the three main political groups, Labour, Independent and Plaid taking turns. So any unaffiliated Members, such as Cllr Caiach, will never have a look-in.

The Chair in 2011/12, you may recall, was Cllr Ivor Jackson (Ind), a memorable stint, for all the wrong reasons. I'll say no more.

The difficulty, for the ruling cabal, arises when it's Plaid's turn for Chair and in 2012/2013 the quite capable Cllr Sian Thomas took over. With Plaid in the Chair, the control freakery coming from her left became even more apparent, something she was clearly relieved to publicly disclose after recent events.

The current incumbent has been the safe Labour Councillor, Terry Davies who has dutifully read from the script, and shown his loyalty to the ruling junta by jumping up and down every time Cllr Caiach spoke.

Next in line, traditionally, is the Vice Chair, and in this case it is Cllr Daff Davies (Ind). You may remember from last year's event that he was nominated largely on the strength of his shooting abilities, or this was how it came over. This may come in handy of course if there is any nonsense from the public gallery.

I suspect, like his immediate predecessor, his shins will remain largely unbruised should the person, usually on the left, return.

Unless there's a revolution before Tuesday, it will be Plaid's turn to take Vice Chair and it will be interesting to see who they put forward.
Who knows, perhaps while the cat's away.....

Back to webcasting and, as the pilot is coming to an end, I'd be interested in readers' views on the subject. I believe there will be a report to council sometime in the next few weeks.

Obviously I think it's been a resounding success and firmly believe it should continue and be extended to every meeting possible.There's no greater detergent than sunlight and this council, like no other, needs a prolonged heatwave; webcasting meetings plays an important part in effecting both transparency and democracy.

I also firmly believe that the public should be allowed to film and record every open meeting - the current arbitrary ban (Definition of arbitrary; based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system) is also coming up for review.

Over 2500 watched the extraordinary meeting on the 27th and whatever the figures for the ordinary meetings, either watching live or on archive, it's guaranteed to be a whole lot more than ever braved the hard wooden benches and other assorted perils of the Public Gallery.

Scenes from the EGM on the 27th Feb 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Carmarthenshire council and Data Protection

The BBC reports today that breaches of data protection by Welsh councils has more than doubled this year from last, from 60 to 135. Of interest to us of course is Carmarthenshire. The figures from 2012 are unknown but 2013 records five breaches, including, according to the BBC, going over the 40 day limit and two cases where information should have been released but wasn't.

A closer look at council minutes from November last year reveals further details; a CRB disclosure was sent to the wrong address; a client's personal details, including sensitive medical history was lost and a report concerning a child, prior to 'imminent' court proceedings, was emailed to the home address of a NHS employee to complete, the employee then sent the completed report to the wrong email address.

With regards to the latter, consideration was given whether such highly sensitive material should be sent to home email addresses at all. Probably not.

Another issue which arose after an internal audit in 2012/13 was that over 160 employees emailed information from the office to their own computers when working from home leading to the risk of personal data being potentially accessible to anyone who happened to use the home PC.

Of course, ensuring compliance in such a large organisation, with such an array of devices around these days is not easy and I'm sure the vast majority of staff take great care with personal data, but with a staffing compliment of two dealing with DPA and FOI, compared with a 'team of twenty' in the press office, priorities given to monitoring these issues might be a little skewed.

When the shoe is on the other foot though, and there is anything remotely 'sensitive' in a council meeting, such as public toilets or evangelical churches, the press and public are booted out forthwith. A request to view the register of councillor's gifts and interests involves a very closely supervised appointment in County Hall and for eighteen months all visitors to the public gallery were forced to give their names and addresses and signatures, even children.

'Out!' they said.
Of course, everyone should double check the email address before clicking 'send'. I had an interesting email from Mr James a couple of years ago which was intended for the FOI officer and related to a request for information I had submitted. What was interesting was that the Chief Executive had been involved at all given the subject matter of the request...common practice I expect.

A response from the council to another request made via the What Do They Know site in 2011 included my name and address, it took over two months for the head of administration and law to alert the website and have it removed.

In what I had better describe as 'threatening noises' made to me last year, it was suggested that as a blogger I was in breach of data protection as I was not registered as a data controller with the Information Commissioner and was publishing personal data. This was a little odd as a precedent had already been set in 2011 when an attempt by Barnet Council to attack a local blogger in this way was thrown out by the Information Commissioner.

I'm not sure where covert 'tracking' of councillors' emails fits into all this...but constituents should be aware of this if they should wish to contact their elected representative about any matter, data protection gets a bit blurry and anyone in County Hall could be reading it....

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Message to Miliband

Anyone from Carmarthenshire listening to Ed Miliband today during PMQs over the Maria Miller scandal must surely be wondering if Welsh Labour are existing as a separate entity to their London party bosses.
He said;

"The reason the public were so appalled was that if it had happened in any other business, there would have been no question of her staying in her job. Why was he the last person in the country to realise that her position was untenable?"

Has Mr Miliband actually seen the sorry mess in Carmarthenshire, and Cardiff for that matter? His Labour colleagues in Carmarthenshire Council happily agreed to make two payments to a public official which have been deemed unlawful by the Welsh Government's own auditors.

Even though the Carmarthenshire public are as "appalled" as the general population are over Maria Miller, the council Labour leadership proceeded to (expensively) defend these payments and refused to suspend the public official. Even the prospective Labour candidate for the next general election gave the council leadership his blessing over the scandals.

Then, despite the police launching an investigation, the public official has been allowed to casually 'step aside' on full pay and now appears to be continuing with his duties away from his desk.

The Welsh Labour Government has also refused to publicly condemn the scandals, a situation which is being seen simply as a Labour government refusing to criticise a Labour council.

The public official in Carmarthenshire is not supposed to be a politician, but he is a public figure and has consistently put himself forward as one. What is important is that the unlawful payments, and the cost of defending them, has come from the same pot of public money which Ms Miller has used.

The total amount is also a damn sight more.

Perhaps Mr Miliband should get on the blower and communicate with Wales, or does "in any other business" exclude Carmarthenshire and its long suffering residents?

Ed and Carwyn

Pension scandal - Trustees kept in the dark

Former Chair of the Council and a trustee of the Dyfed Pension Fund, Cllr Sian Thomas (Plaid) has spoken out again over the pension scandal relating to the Chief Executive Mark James. She also spoke at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th February to say how devastated she was that the reputation of the Fund, which is administered by Carmarthenshire County Council, had been reduced to tatters by the scandal.

Cllr Thomas, you may remember, appeared on the Byd ar Bedwar programme and revealed how Mr James continually sought to influence her position as Chair, and effectively control full council meetings himself, by making comments, remarks and gestures from the seat next to her.

In today's South Wales Guardian (the article is not yet online) she expresses her concern that the trustees of the pension fund were kept in the dark about Mr James' 'pay supplement', (as County Hall like to refer to it), well, all the trustees that is apart from the one who happened to sit on the Executive Board.
She said;

"Cllr Wyn Evans (Ind), as well as being Chair of the Pension Fund, was a member of the Executive Board which approved the unlawful payments to Mr James, so it is very disappointing that he did not inform the trustees of the decision....When I requested a meeting, on several occasions, to discuss the Wales Audit Office report regarding the pension changes I was told it was none of my business. 

The pay supplements to the Chief Executive have annoyed my constituents considerably. I have had people stopping me in the street to complain about these unlawful payments"

The County council 'response', from an anonymous spokeswoman, is typically defensive saying that a decision to offer a 'pay supplement' was 'a matter for the employing body, and not the pension fund' and, as the Audit Reports were issued to the Council and not the fund they could not be referred to the trustees.

However, the Appointed Auditor was unable to sign off the Statement of Accounts for the Dyfed Pension Fund last year due to the unlawful payment so it would seem it was very relevant to the trustees;

Anthony Barrett, Appointed Auditor, Dyfed Pension Fund, 1st October 2013
Of course, what it boils down to is that it all stinks. Although no one is committed to remain with the fund it was only the Chief Executive who left in such personally beneficial and spectacular circumstances. The Executive Board decision in 2011 was, as we know, shrouded in deliberately vague terms. Incidentally, given that the Council's Director of Resources (and Section 151 officer), plays a 'key role' in the financial management of the Fund and is also an 'active member' of the said fund, he has been surprisingly quiet on the subject.

Mr James has 'stepped down' from his post on full pay whilst Gloucestershire Police continue with their investigations into the two reports concerning the pension and his libel indemnity but he is still going to take the role of local Returning Officer for the European election.

As this will mean extensive involvement in council business and contact with staff, it makes the 'stepping down' position something of a mockery.

Incidentally, the agenda for next week's full council meeting has been published and up for approval are the Minutes of that very extraordinary meeting on the 27th February.... 

Monday, 7 April 2014

News round up; Parks, schools and care homes

The South Wales Guardian reports on the latest saga over the council's 'Community Asset Transfer' programme, not quite the community spirited vision the title suggests, but a cost shifting exercise to persuade town and community councils to take over the parks and playgrounds. If they are unable to raise the funds through the local precept or find another way to maintain these public amenities then it is quite possible they will be lost.

'Tempers flared' at a recent meeting of Llandeilo Town Council when the matter was discussed and advice from One Voice Wales (the advisory body to local councils) urging extreme caution and consultation with the local electorate, was produced. Fortunately, Town and County councillor, Edward Thomas, a member of Pam's ruling Independent Group in County Hall, was on hand to ensure One Voice Wales was ignored and the correct path of One Voice Pam was followed....

Penlan Park, Llandeilo
If further proof should be required that it is the school itself rather than shiny new premises which ensure a sound education the latest Estyn report for QE High in Carmarthen confirms it. Overall, the standard is 'adequate', which is nothing to shout about. QE High was opened in 2008 as part of the County's 'vision' for education.

In Llandeilo, work has commenced on the controversial new secondary school in Ffairfach, (although irritating roman and bronze age artefacts keep turning up which are delaying matters). Apparently the contemporary design will provide a 21st century education....who needs teachers when you've got top spec aluminum cladding eh?

Site of the new school in Ffairfach where concerns regarding flooding were dismissed.....
....and work has now commenced... (pic source; West Wales News Review)
....and incidentally, my grammar is far from perfect but shouldn't official council reports relating to education always be double checked for grammatical accuracy?

It looks like the council have finally had their way and closed St Paul's care home for the elderly in Llanelli. (This information is published in a report to next week's Social Care Scrutiny Committee). Campaigners have fought hard over the last few years to retain the council run facility but the 'reconfiguration' of elderly care came up again in the budget.

In attempt to avoid further opposition the Executive Board made a premature announcement in the Llanelli Star in January that £7m had suddenly been plucked from thin air to fund an Extra Care Scheme in Llanelli to replace the homes. This was before any final decision on closure had been made. I blogged about this here.

St Pauls, Llanelli

Pembrokeshire Council is again in the spotlight as the BBC reported that EU funds for commercial property grants are being withheld from Pembrokeshire businesses until the outcome of an investigation by Dyfed Powys Police. The discrepancies were uncovered through the investigative persistence of blogging councillors, Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams.

In Carmarthenshire, the Wales Audit Office have already raised concerns over the the way this council awards and monitors grants. Our County Hall, naturally, publicly dismissed the criticism as petty. Hmm. It still remains to be seen whether the European Commission will launch a full investigation into the possible breach of EU State Aid rules over the funding of Scarlets Regional Ltd.

Carmarthenshire council would definitely benefit from a couple of similarly curious blogging councillors...

And finally, I stumbled upon a set of Minutes from Carmarthen Town Council from March 2013 where it was noted that the Mayor had written to the Chief Executive, Mark James following the libel case in the High Court. It would seem he either had a poor grasp of location, or there was something else going on we knew nothing about...;

Friday, 4 April 2014

Wales Blog Awards 2014 - Finalist

I'm really delighted to say that this blog has been shortlisted as a finalist for the 2014 Wales Blog Awards in the Best Political Blog category, alongside Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and Blog Menai.

The final will be held on the 15th May in Cardiff.

Many, many thanks to those who nominated the blog and hopefully the trophy will return again to Carmarthenshire!

The full list of all shortlisted blogs, and details of the People's Choice Award can be found here;
Wales Blog Awards 2014

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Council; 'We have acted to minimise costs...'

The print version of the South Wales Guardian has given the '£70,000 audit costs bill' front page treatment. The print version of the Carmarthen Journal appears to have omitted it altogether. It does give the Returning Officer row a mention though, tucked away on page seven.

The SW Guardian has also published a comment from an unnamed 'council spokesman'. Remarkably, but unsurprisingly, the council, (for they speak as one) do not feel responsible for the fees as they consider that they were in the right all along. In fact to suggest otherwise is 'untrue'.

The fact that they have withdrawn the pension arrangement and suspended the libel amendment clause in the constitution is not because anyone had done anything wrong, oh goodness me no.

The best bit is at the end, "We have acted to minimise unnecessary costs throughout", Really? I suspect that with the £55,000 in unlawful payments, all the legal advice, officer reports, meetings, the audit fees (even if the final figure is less than £70,000), bringing Mr Kerr QC to Carmarthen for the day, the time and expense involved in using the press office as an attack dog, etc etc the final cost will be well over £100,000.

What the council officials seem to forget is, to the majority of people, that's the price of a modest family home. A sum of money most of us spend a lifetime paying for. To have used this to defend a very highly paid senior officer is completely unjustified. (see previous post)

With regards to the press office, the council's Media and Press Protocol was the subject of discussion at a recent meeting of the Policy and Resources committee. (I have explained the actual reason for its appearance here).

The minutes haven't been published yet but I understand that Executive Board Member and official guardian of Carmarthenshire's free and independent press, Cllr Pam Palmer, was present as an observer and offered her tuppence worth. Apparently she was concerned about 'fairness and balance'. You have to remember that anything published in the local papers other than an official council press releases is considered to be subversive and worthy of a variety of threats.

Cllr Palmer

One interesting line in the protocol concerns social media  With the growth of social media, many members of the public, organisations and politicians are now using sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. The Press Office monitors social media sites daily, and will occasionally engage by posting a response.comment on blogs". I'm sure extra care is taken these days and lessons have been learned since the contribution to the Madaxeman blog; Mr James admitted during the trial of course, that in hindsight, this was a contribution he probably shouldn't have made....

However, despite the looming presence of Cllr Palmer, I understand that the committee have decided to review the protocol as, according to one of our assistant Chief Executives in the understatement of the year, there are 'weaknesses in the system'. 

Friday, 28 March 2014

The victory parade is over

The council's Audit Committee met today (28th) and learned that the bill from the Wales Audit Office for the two damning Audit reports and associated costs will be somewhere around £70,000. The council are arguing it might be a little bit less, as if that makes any damn difference.

Had the council leadership, which includes the Labour and Independents as well as the senior officials involved, accepted the findings in the first place, this additional cost would have been avoided. For the avoidance of doubt, those senior officials include Mr James himself, Linda Rees Jones and also the Director of Resources.

So as well as £55,000 in illegal payments, £15,000 for the QC (so far), and unknown costs in officer time, additional reports, use of the council website etc etc, there's another £70,000 to add to it all.

Plaid Cymru issued another strongly worded statement this afternoon which can be found, in full, here. Rhodri Glyn Thomas said "It seems the Labour party has not thought for one second about the cost to county taxpayers.  The council leadership has been more interested in covering its own back and trying to defend the indefensible"

The Independent Group are equally to blame, I just hope the idiotic nonsense about 'Duty of Care' spouted by Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer, Giles Morgan etc at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th February comes back to bite them, they should be ashamed to claim to represent the people of Carmarthenshire.

Residents of Carmarthenshire, who received their Council Tax demands this week must be feeling quite sick.
Incidentally, Caebrwyn has been paying to sue herself through her council tax for some time.

No matter how it's dressed up, all this money, and all this nonsense, is to defend one man, Mark James.

Last March, after the libel judgement came out, Mr James embarked on his lengthy victory parade and said, "My only regret is that Mrs Thompson has wasted a huge amount of time and money". No Mr James, I was scrutinizing this council, a task which has been proved entirely justified and necessary. You were not happy with that, hence your letter to the Madaxeman blog.

You are the one who has now been shown to be entirely happy for residents of the county to defend your indefensible position by wasting tens of thousands of pounds of their money, and endless hours of officer time.

Whatever the future holds for me Mr James, your victory parade is well and truly over. 

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Mark James should be suspended, say MP and AM

As I reported in yesterday's post, ('The Returning Officer question...and another descent into farce'), Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM requested urgent ministerial intervention over Mark James' role as Returning Officer in the Commons and the Senedd yesterday.

In strong statements issued to the South Wales Guardian, they are asking the council leadership to formally suspend Mr James immediately, and explain why this wasn't done at the start of the police investigation.

If he is still not suspended, they confirm that the Plaid opposition will bring a Motion to full council to remove him from electoral duties as Returning Officer;

“....E-mail correspondence shown to me suggests the Labour-Independent leadership of Carmarthenshire council has intentionally not suspended the chief executive in order to allow him to continue in his electoral officer role," said Mr Edwards. 
“This contradicts the forceful position taken by a Labour AM who has called for the chief executive of neighbouring Pembrokeshire Council – also the subject of a police investigation – to be removed as Returning Officer in the upcoming European elections. 
“The complete lack of leadership and the failure to formally suspend the Chief Executive in the first place – for the benefit of both the council and Mr James himself – has left many important questions unanswered. It has highlighted further uncertainties about his departure and has the potential to undermine the integrity of a police investigation. 
“Following my question to the Secretary of State we now know UK Government is monitoring events in Carmarthenshire. This is a serious intervention from the UK Government which should make the council leadership sit up and think about the position it has taken. 
“Carmarthenshire residents deserve an urgent public statement from the Labour leadership of the council about the exact terms and conditions of the chief executive’s departure in which the council leader needs to explain why the chief executive was not formally suspended during this police investigation.” 
Mr Thomas said Ms Griffiths' comments exposed the "farcical decisions" taken by the leadership of Carmarthenshire Council Council "which has brought embarrassment on the county". 
He added: “There is a police investigation underway into two Wales Audit Office reports yet the person at the centre of those reports remains in office. 
"Carmarthenshire residents will understandably believe they have been misled by statements from County Hall which suggested the chief executive is no longer in his post while the police investigation was on-going. 
“It is clear the only way in which public confidence in County Hall and the electoral process can be restored is if the chief executive is formally suspended from his duties or if a motion to the full council is presented to remove the electoral duties from the Chief Executive’s responsibilities. 
“We call on the Labour leadership of the council to take the necessary steps or Plaid Cymru will not hesitate to act in the public interest and bring that motion to the next meeting of the council....”
          (Full article; South Wales Guardian)

Golwg - Profile of Jacqui Thompson

This week's edition of Welsh news and current affairs magazine Golwg features a profile of myself on the fifth anniversary of this blog...if you're so inclined...and is available from all good newsagents....Diolch yn fawr iawn Golwg.

Golwg; 27th March 2014
Follow Golwg on Twitter @CylchgrawnGolwg 

The Returning Officer question...and another descent into farce

Local politicians raised the question yesterday of Mark James' suitability as Returning Officer for the European elections, given that he is 'not at his desk because of a criminal investigation'. Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards raised it in the House of Commons and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas in the Senedd.

The Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones said that they are 'keeping a close eye on the situation'.

In the Senedd, Plaid's Rhodri Glyn Thomas asked the Labour Minister, Lesley Griffiths how, as Mr James is currently suspended from his duties as Chief Executive and is not supposed to have contact with staff, he can possibly carry out the functions of Returning Officer? He called for the Minister to intervene.

The Minister immediately corrected Mr Thomas and said that Mr James was 'NOT' suspended and was still Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service. Incidentally Mr Edwards used the word suspension in the Commons.

She then went on to say she was aware of the grave public concern and had been in discussion with Baroness Randerson, the lib dem peer, and had also written to Greg Clark, the UK Cabinet Officer who deals with these things.

Basically she said that no one had the power to step in, it was up to the Local Authority itself.

She was then passed the statement issued by Kevin Madge on the 14th February saying that Mr James was no longer undertaking his duties as Chief Executive.

She must be as puzzled as the rest of us.

What an unholy mess. Not even the Welsh Minister for Local Government seems to know whether Mr James is currently still Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service or not.

If he's 'no longer undertaking his duties' then one of those duties, according to the council's constitution, is the role of Returning Officer...surely this must logically mean he's no longer legally capable, nor entitled, to run an election.

In actual fact, it appears that Mr James might as well be sat in County Hall. It is understood that he remains in full contact with staff and has full access to the council computer network...and to all intent and purpose, remains in full control..

It beggars belief that despite the public outrage over the scandalous findings, and an ongoing criminal investigation, County Hall officials have continued to deliberately try and pull the wool over everyone's eyes.

The Electoral Commission said Returning Officers were the responsibility of the UK government, the UK government said they are monitoring the situation, the Welsh Government seems to think its up to the council.

What a bizarre affair.

There should have been an official suspension in the first place. Perhaps one reason, with an appeal on the counterclaim ongoing, is that the phrase 'stepped aside' sounds slightly better across the courtroom than 'suspended'.

Update 27th March;

Video links to questions in the Senedd here, and the House of Commons here (scroll to 11.55.00).

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Unlawful payments - the 'review' of democracy

One recommendation from both Wales Audit Office reports was the urgent necessity for a review into the council's governance arrangements, in other words, making sure the decision making processes are above board from now on.

Leader of the Council, Mr Madge, announced back in January that any review would be led by the Welsh Local Government Association. This brought audible groans all round as the public perception of the WLGA is that it is a lobbying group representing the interests of council officials rather than a protector of the democratic process.

The EGM on the 27th February saw an attempt by Plaid for the review to be undertaken by the council's own audit committee. If nothing else, it would be easier to keep an eye on.
At the meeting Mr Madge had his own way and the WLGA will be in charge.

This 'Review' crops up on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee as the Minutes of the Corporate Governance Group (which met on the 6th March) are up for approval. The minutes record a list of issues 'relating to the Democratic Process' which will be looked at by the group headed by the WLGA;

● Declarations of Interest

● Attendance of Officers with a potential interest in a Report

● Dealing with Urgent Items

● Dealing with Exempt Items

● Equality Impact Assessments

About time too.
The democratic process needs a complete overhaul, back in October calls were made for the council to be put in special measures. Proposals to remove Executive Board minutes from full council meetings and to turn the event into corporate powerpoint presentations need to be withdrawn. Inaccurate and selective Minutes need to become a thing of the past and webcasting should be extended to cover all open meetings.

There should be no more hour long pre-meeting meetings of the Executive Board which result in a fifteen minute rubber stamping exercise when the public and press are present.

I could go on but perhaps while they're at it they could look into the comments made by the former Chair of the Council Sian Thomas on the Byd Y Bedwar programme. Her position was continually compromised by the remarks and comments from Mr James sitting next to her in meetings. I know how she felt, I also experienced something similar from Mr James across the courtroom when I was giving evidence.

Anyway, back to the Corporate Governance group minutes which also records that the WAO will be closely monitoring the authority, culminating with a follow-up report, a Corporate Assessment Review.

As for the setting up of a cross-party group to look at, and receive further advice on, libel indemnities, so far there is no news.

Also on the agenda is a 'things to do' list from the WAO.

Top of the list are the Public Interest Reports. The Auditors are still waiting for 'formal confirmation of agreed actions from the Council and advertisement in the local newspaper'. I have no idea what the newspaper ad will say, it must be a Statutory requirement or perhaps it will be a full page apology. Not.

The WAO will also be discussing the Audit Fee in relation to the Public reports with the Director of Resources.
This fee is yet another cost incurred by the unlawful decisions.

The WAO state that they are also in receipt of a 'significant amount' of correspondence with local government electors. Their work is 'ongoing' and is likely to add to the fees.
That suggest to me that there is a heightened awareness and interest in the financial affairs of our council and people are starting to ask questions. Where else can they go?

Meanwhile, Gloucestershire police continue with their investigation.

Monday, 24 March 2014


A couple of days ago I noticed, and tweeted, a Freedom of Information request to the Welsh Government asking for the cost, and the guest list, for their hospitality box in the Millenium Stadium. I'm not sure who made the request but an article has appeared in today's Western Mail.

The response states that the WG pays an astonishing £45,000 per season for the box. The 'guest list' of individuals and corporate entities was refused under Data Protection. I would say that the refusal is highly questionable, maybe the requester will appeal. 

I find it quite staggering that this sort of public/private sector corporate entertainment is still flourishing. Never mind the cost. I'm sure that when people of Wales voted for devolution, some may have imagined that things may have been different, it was an opportunity to break away from the Westminster culture of vested interest and undercover lobbying. It didn't take long though did it.

One rugby fan summed it up; “Grassroots supporters who clearly struggle to cover the costs of tickets – which is evident from the frequent spectacle of swathes of empty seats – now have to stomach the sight of the Welsh Government entertaining the great and good using the public purse.”

Not to be outdone of course, Carmarthenshire Council ensured it had its own hospitality box in Parc Y Scarlets stadium 'to promote the county'. We don't know how much the costs associated with that are, but they are probably buried within other assorted payments in FOI responses, one of which which showed a total expenditure in back door subsidies to Scarlets Regional Ltd of £164,000 between 2010 and 2012.

To determine which businesses and individuals wine and dine our council officials, and vice versa, it takes further investigation, again through FOI. A disclosure, in 2011 of the Register of Officers' Interests, Gifts and Hospitality threw up a few items of interest (see Just the Ticket) as it listed the companies and individuals who had sent invitations to officials. One I particularly like, under 'gifts', was a 'Presentation Box containing Champagne and Port' for the Director of Regeneration from the developer at Machynys Homes. Cheers! 

Carmarthenshire Council are not unique of course in conducting their business in the hospitality boxes of Parc Y Scarlets, the Millenium Stadium and even Wembley, it seems to be common practice. It's unlikely though that your local grocer or your local builder will be quaffing champagne whilst watching the match anytime soon, unlike Carillion, Mott McDonald, Geldards, Liberty Homes, the WRU etc etc... 

Personally, I don't think this is an appropriate way for public bodies to do business, no matter how much it's dressed up as 'encouraging investment'. It might be a method the business world understands but when public money is involved surely it's sending completely the wrong message, especially to the taxpayer.

As for the Welsh Government, perhaps it was a typo, maybe they meant to say spend £45,000 on a hospital, not hospitality.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Police Commissioner pulls funding from Council rag

There was a welcome move from Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon today as he announced that he was pulling the £5000 funding the force gives to the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News, giving his public backing to "independent" local media.

It must have come as a bit of a shock to County Hall which scratched around for a statement from anyone but themselves. They succeeded in getting a statement from the Chair of the Health Board, another organisation which could probably find better things to spend it's money on. The hurried statement appears on the council website but carries no introduction as to what it's all about.

The council, which masterminds the publication, and which naturally retains editorial control,  insists it's a product of the Local Service Board, a two monthly gathering of senior representatives of local public bodies which, incidentally, hasn't published a set of Minutes for over two years.

The latest edition of the Carms News contains a double page spread of council propaganda detailing the sprinkling of services which were 'saved' at the eleventh hour by the Executive Board. Of course, it had nothing to do with 'listening' to the public but everything to do with desperate PR in the midst of the unlawful payments scandals.
Funnily enough, there's no mention of course of the tens of thousands of pounds spent on legal advice to defend the chief executive and the aforementioned scandals.
No mention either, strangely, of the extraordinary council deal which saw one private company pay off a large loan to another private company.

The 'Children's page' continues to be sponsored by County Hall's fundamentalist evangelical partners at the Towy Community Church in the guise of the Xcel 'bowling alley'. There are clearly some at County Hall who would rather like to raise an entire generation of Carmarthenshire born again christians.

Pleased to see that Mr Salmon includes Caebrwyn as independent 'local media'...maybe he could tell that to the judge...

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Mark James - 'Not to have contact with any member of staff'

As Gloucestershire police continue with their investigations, further information relating to the elusive details of the terms and conditions of Mark James' 'stand down' emerge.

The front page of tomorrow's South Wales Guardian, which has just been tweeted, reports on the latest developments. As we know, Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards has been calling for 'ministerial intervention' regarding Mr James' role as local Returning Officer in the forthcoming European elections. (see call for ministerial intervention here, and for the Parliamentary Questions tabled to the Cabinet Office, here)
Mr James' fee for the role of Returning Officer is around £20,000 (see update below).

Mr Edwards states;
“The public may well have questions about the suitability of the Chief Executive to undertake the role of Local Returning Officer while the police investigate whether any criminal activity has taken place. 

“Whilst not dismissing those concerns, for me the matter boils down to whether the Chief Executive can undertake the role logistically and maintain the integrity of a police investigation whilst not at his desk.

“Councillors have been told the Chief Executive is not to have contact with any member of staff – it is therefore impossible to see how he can conduct the election properly if that is indeed the case.

“The complete lack of leadership and the failure to formally suspend the Chief Executive in the first place – for the benefit of both the Council and Mr James himself – has left so many important questions unanswered.  It has highlighted further uncertainties about his departure, has potentially compromised the position of staff who must follow his instructions as election officer, and has the potential to undermine the integrity of a police investigation.

“It is because of these serious matters that I have requested intervention from the UK Cabinet Office which coordinates the European election.”
(Jonathan Edwards website)


With regards to the legal costs incurred by the council to defend the pension scandal a Freedom of Information response states that the '2013 Advice on the pay supplement policy was £11,935'.

This figure, nearly £12,000, appears to be just for the written document from Mr Kerr QC. It doesn't include cost of the original advice from Total Rewards Project Ltd in 2011, nor the cost of Mr Kerr's attendance at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th, nor the officer time taken up with defending the scandal.
The claim that the 'pension arrangement' will not cost the authority a penny seems a little wide of the mark.

Nor does the cost include, of course, Mr Kerr's advice concerning the libel indemnity. Or Mr Goudie's from 2008.

The cost of the January 2012 legal advice relating to the counterclaim from Mr Adam Speker, lawyer for Mr James and the council in the libel case, which the council claim was 'independent', is also unknown.


The Local Returning Officer fee for the European election is, I understand, around £5000.

A FOI request was made at the end of February for the cost of the Total Rewards Project Ltd advice in 2011; Mr Kerr's November 2013 advice on the libel indemnity and the total cost to the authority, including expenses, of his attendance at the meeting on the 27th February.
A response is due by the 28th March.

Email snooping and misuse of the press office - sterilised and repackaged

Aside from recent scandals, this council has a proud history of kicking uncomfortable and embarrassing issues into the long grass. Two such issues were the email snooping episode and the misuse of the council press office. Both matters, dating back to 2012, have been sterilised and repackaged in the form of 'policy reviews' and finally appear on the agenda for next Monday's Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting.

You may remember that in June 2013 Cllr Caiach discovered that her email account had been tracked in July 2011 by 'officer unknown' without her knowledge.

This was despite a bar on individual senior officers directly accessing the emails of others 'unless they have been given permission to do so by that person'. The 'tracking' was related to the libel case, and as Cllr Caiach went on to become a witness against the council and its Chief Executive in the case, the question arose whether or not this was actually common practice. 

The Chief Executive, at a meeting of full council stated that this particular 'tracking' incident was all part of the disclosure stage of the case and was 'ordered' by the High Court. It wasn't. The disclosure stage of the case happened in the Autumn of 2012, the 'tracking' was over a year earlier. Another memory lapse from Mr James perhaps.

The press office has much to answer for and has long been seen as the propaganda arm of the unelected senior officials who run the council. The matter came to a head when Kevin Madge, the current political arm of the ruling junta was found, in March last year, to have breached the code of conduct by using a press release to launch a political attack.

The recent scandals have seen the press office throw caution to the wind and repeatedly use the press office, and it's online form, the ironically named 'Newsroom', to defend the illegal payments made to the Chief Executive.

Anyway, like the email snooping, councillors have been patiently waiting for a report 'relating to the process followed and officer involvement in preparing and agreeing the press release'. There are two reports on the agenda for Monday's scrutiny meeting 'Review of Email usage and monitoring policy' and 'Press and Media Protocol' which should give councillors the opportunity to ask some serious questions, given that the monitoring and tracking of emails is up specifically for a closer look.

The current policy states that 'The Council will automatically monitor email including both the text of a message and any attachments. The Council will monitor both incoming and outgoing mail.'. Which is probably standard stuff I suppose. The problem occurs when 'The Council' is in fact an individual, and when that individual is allowed to access emails for improper purposes.

Another issue to consider is the possibility that the privacy of residents was (or is) being violated as they often communicate sensitive and personal information to their elected representatives.

Neither report, of course, actually mentions the two incidents which gave rise to the concerns in the first place.

Also on the agenda is a mention of Car Parking charges. A 7% loss in parking revenue last year, which gave rise to a challenge as to whether or not there would be any benefits to bumping up the charges, has been jiggled around by the council bean counters and turned into a 7.5% increase! Amazing!

Unison Carmarthenshire - Anger at Labour council's double standards

Update 26th March; According to @UNISONCarms twitter feed, the council has now suspended the decision to axe Trade Union secondments. Good news.


Last Monday Unison Carmarthenshire launched a petition to reinstate council funded trade union secondments at Carmarthenshire Council, my post is here and includes a link to the petition.

Unison Carmarthenshire, thanks to the tenacity of branch members such as Mark Evans, knows exactly how this local authority operates. It held its AGM last week and voted unanimously for the Chief Executive Mark James to repay the illegal payments as found by the Wales Audit Office. They also passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in the Chief Executive, the Leader and the Executive Board.

Unison also called for all support to the Labour group in Carmarthenshire to be withdrawn until such time as the corporately funded trade union secondments were reinstated.

Whatever your politics, the statement will resonates with many in the county, including council workers. After all it was only in 2012 that the previous leader, Meryl Gravell (ind) publicly blamed the 'problems at the council' on the laziness of 9000 staff in the infamous 'Mark and I' speech.

Here's an extract from Unison's statement;

Anger at Labour council's double standards 
".....Given the attacks on our branch (removal of the trade union secondment) and the cuts and threats to jobs that our members are facing there was an angry mood amongst members whose anger has been further fuelled by the double standards applied by the Labour led council. 
The Chief Executive (CEO) is on very expensive gardening leave due to receiving nearly thirty thousand pounds agreed by the Executive Board because his Local Government pension pot was full. He was given this money in the view of the branch as a tax scam. 
The CEO was also indemnified quite recently to take out a libel case against a local blogger and thorn in the side of the Local authority Jacqueline Thompson. Both decisions were according to the Welsh audit office illegal. 
Our branch for a number of years has warned that the cabinet system lacked transparency and accountability and these payments and the behaviour of the CEO are in part we think a consequence of this. Decisions are made behind closed doors and not in the public arena of a full council meeting. 
What angers our members is that the present and previous council leader sing the praises of the CEO. The previous Independent (Tory) leader apparently said the CEO was the best in Wales! And this justified paying him nearly £190,000 a year. 
Well if he is the best I would hate to see the worst! 
After much hand wringing and trying to front out the criticisms of the above payments it was agreed that the CEO could have a break while Gloucester police investigate the matter. One of the motions passed at our AGM stated that there appeared to be one rule for the CEO and cabinet members and another rule for the hard working people working for the Local Authority. 
The view was expressed that if one of our members was accused of illegal activity in work they would not have the option of going on gardening leave but would be frogmarched out and suspended. 
Another motion that was also passed unanimously called for all illegal payments as deemed by the Welsh Audit Office to be repaid and that all council officers to be judged on the balance of probabilities as other employees would be. 
The meeting voted again unanimously a vote of no confidence in the current CEO; the leader of the council and the Executive board who voted for and sanctioned these unlawful payments.
In regard to the removal of trade union secondments (that is where the council pays for a trade union officer to carry out their trade union duties) the AGM was told of the on-going campaign for the reinstatement of the above. 
The AGM voted unanimously to call on Unison in Wales including the Labour link to withdraw support and assistance from Labour Party activity within Carmarthenshire until the Labour Led Carmarthenshire County Council reinstates the corporately funded Trade Union Facility Time for its branch officers and Shop Stewards or agrees a way forward with our Unison branch. 
Finally but most importantly the branch voted unanimously to mobilise the full strength of the branch and members to defend our jobs when compulsory redundancies are threatened. The motion also called on all Local Government branches in Wales to take action on the same day against compulsory redundancies....."
(Source; Socialist Party Wales)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Minutes of the Extraordinary meeting....and a birthday

The Minutes of the Extraordinary meeting of Carmarthenshire Council on the 27th February have now been published and can be found here.

I'm not going to comment further at the moment but as the votes for both the libel indemnity report and the votes of no confidence were recorded, here is a list of councillors who decided to spend even more of your money on legal advice to defend the indefensible and who refused to 'Accept' the auditor's findings;

Labour Party Councillors;
Kevin Madge, Pat Jones, Ryan Bartlett, Calum Higgins, Peter Cooper, Jeff Edmunds, Shirley Mathews, Derek Cundy, Tegwen Devichand, Colin Evans, Keith Davies, George Edwards, Sharen Davies, Jan Williams, John James, Louvain Roberts, Anthony Jones, Terry Davies.

Independent Party Councillors;
Pam Palmer, Meryl Gravell, Mair Stephens, Jane Tremlett, Giles Morgan, Ivor Jackson, Tom Theophilus, Andrew James, Philip Hughes, Hugh Richards, Irfon Jones, Jim Jones, Susan Allen, Hugh Shepardson, Edward Thomas, Anthony Davies, Wyn Evans, Joseph Davies, Ieuan Davies, Theressa Bowen, Daff Davies, Dai Davies, Kim Thomas,

These were the same forty-one councillors who also gave their vote of confidence to the three Exec Board councillors, Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell who were complicit in the unlawful findings.

The 'forty-one' also includes Cllrs Madge, Palmer and Gravell of course, who were clearly never going to vote against themselves and their current respective salaries of £47,500, £31,120 and £28,780 plus expenses.

On a brighter note, I'd just like to say that today is the fifth birthday of this blog. Contrary to the views of County Hall officials, the purpose has always been to shed a little light on this surprisingly secretive and dictatorial little council. It's certainly had the occasional spotlight on it's activities, and even reached the world's stage from time to time. For all the wrong reasons.

A lot has been said about me over the past few weeks and months, all of which has achieved nothing other than give the appearance of an increasingly desperate council. I've made my views clear and stand by everything I've said, and everything I've written.

I shall carry on and I know one thing, I am still at my desk, and nothing I have been responsible for is currently being investigated by Gloucestershire Police.

Returning Officer suitability; MP tables Questions to Cabinet Office

Further to Monday's post; 'MP calls for 'intervention' as Mark James confirmed as Returning Officer for Euro Elections', Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has tabled the following written Parliamentary Questions to the Minister for the Cabinet Office to be answered next week;

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office;

i) what representations he has received from (a) the Electoral Commission, (b) the Welsh Government and (c) Carmarthenshire County Council on the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council and his responsibilities as Returning Officer.

ii) what assessment he has made of the suitability of the chief executives of Carmarthenshire County Council and Pembrokeshire County Council acting as returning officers in future elections.

iii) will the Minister meet the Electoral Commission to discuss the suitability of the chief executives of Carmarthenshire County Council and Pembrokeshire County Council for their roles as returning officers at the forthcoming European election.

iv) will the Minister amend the guidance given to the Electoral Commission on whether prohibiting public officials who are suspended or under criminal investigation retain their responsibilities as returning officers.

v) what discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on Returning Officer responsibilities in Carmarthenshire at the forthcoming European elections.

Parliamentary Questions 

Carmarthenshire County Council said yesterday (Wednesday) that Mr James will still be fulfilling the role of Returning Officer as it is different to that of chief executive of the council.

Although the Council's Constitution states that;
The Chief Executive shall be the Head of Paid Service under Section 4 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, having responsibility for the following functions.... 
...acting as Returning Officer and Electoral Registration Officer for local government, National Assembly for Wales, Parliamentary and European elections

Also, the Electoral Commission Wales issued this clarification to Cneifiwr yesterday;

"The role of a Returning Officer is an independent position and the Electoral Commission are not responsible for, and have no legal power relating to, the appointment or the removal of a Returning Officer for any given election. This is a matter for the relevant Government department (in the case of the European Parliamentary elections, this would be the responsibility of the UK Government) and accompanying legislation.

"The position of Local Returning Officer (LRO) for the European Parliamentary election is determined by legislation. The person who is the Returning Officer for local government elections (appointed by the individual county or county borough in Wales) is automatically appointed the LRO for the European Parliamentary elections in that area (Regulation 6 (2) of the European Parliamentary Election Regulations 2004, as amended in 2013)."

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The District Valuer's report sheds no light on the 'Allowable expenses'

Back in November I reported that the details of the deal between Scarlets Regional Ltd and the Council over the sale of a car park to Marston's Inns had finally spilled out from the Executive Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds. I say 'spilled' as previous attempts to extract this information through FOI had been flatly refused.

The total proceeds were £850,000 and the remaining spoils, after deductions, were split 50/50. The Council ended up with £200,000 and Scarlets Regional Ltd, £220,000. No, not exactly 50/50 but that mathematical puzzle still remains a mystery.

In fact, the Scarlets ended up with around £600,000  and the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, £200,000.

What was of interest were the deductions prior to the split, as revealed by Cllr Edmunds;
Fees to agents and architects                     £50k
Allowable expenses to Scarlets                  £280k
Finders fee for buyer to Scarlets                 £30k
Compensation to club for loss of lease        £76k

Without a doubt the most curious figure is the 'Allowable expenses' of £280,000. This was made available to the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan. This was a loan from Henry Davidson Ltd, developers of the Eastgate centre in Llanelli, for fixtures and fittings for the Scarlets shop/restaurant within the development.

Henry Davidson Ltd have had business deals before with Marston's Inns Plc, we don't know whether they 'found Marston's' this time, but if they did then the £30,000 finders fee to the Scarlets may also be questionable.

£76,000 compensation for loss of lease isn't bad either considering that the Scarlets have yet to pay any rent for it, not so much as a peppercorn.

(Update 13th March; With regards to the agents and architects fees, Cllr Sian Caiach has provided us with a little more information in the comments section below...)

Anyway, back to the curious £280,000 allowable expenses. You may remember that at December's Council meeting, where, incidentally, councillors were treated to a presentation from Scarlets Regional Ltd, Cllr Caiach had called for the resignation of leader Kevin Madge over whether other councillors were aware of this generous windfall to the Scarlets prior to a decision, several months later, to continue with reduced payments on a £2.4m loan.

There was considerable buck passing at the meeting and eventually Director of Resources  insisted that the decision 'had been based on the findings of an independent valuer'  and conveniently passed the buck outside County Hall.

I requested a copy of the District Valuer's report which duly arrived yesterday. The response, and the report can be found here. Although it doesn't help solve the puzzle.

I also requested email correspondence between the parties, exchanged prior to the deal, in an attempt to determine exactly how these 'expenses' were arrived at.

That part of my request was refused under Section 43 'Commercial interest' and it was decided that the public had to be protected from such revelations as it may in future jeopardize the negotiating position of the council.
I doubt that's quite the case in this instance.

Digressing briefly, the council were equally coy over requests for similar information relating to the Towy Community Church. It seemed to touch a nerve somewhere in County Hall. My own efforts to understand the process of how this small group of fundamentalist evangelical christians were given £1.4m to build a bowling alley/church were deemed vexatious.

My appeal to the ICO was also dismissed with the council responding to the ICO by waving Justice Tugendhat's judgement under the nose of the investigator, embellishing it with words such as , 'political blogger', 'critical blog' and 'criminal offences'. As for the latter, I have never been investigated, let alone charged or found guilty of any 'criminal offences'.  Anyway, they seemed to have convinced the investigator.

Back to the District Valuers report (dated 7th January 2913) and it contains some interesting information, including reference to an earlier draft but for the purposes of this post I have copied the section relevant to the 'split' here (my underlining);

4.8 Determination of Apportionment of Proceeds

I have been instructed to calculate the percentage apportionment between the parties of any proceeds that a long leasehold disposal of the property may realise. 

I am of opinion that the percentage apportionment between the parties is weighted equally - 50% to Carmarthenshire County Council and 50% to Llanelli RFC.

Whilst any split is based upon the negotiating position of the parties, it is well established in valuation case law that proceeds between parties are split equally. Precedent of an equal split was held in the ‘ransom’ land case of Stokes v Cambridge (1961). An equal proportion split was also held in the case of Myers v Milton Keynes Development Corporation (1974).

My above opinion of market value of £850,000 represents the gross value. Against this figure there are numerous deductions to be borne (by both parties) to arrive at a net value. The deductions relate to various payments to be made by both parties, in order to engineer the transaction.

Given the negotiating position of both parties, I am of opinion that the value of the net sum is £400,000. Accordingly, the 50% apportionment of the net sum to be split between both parties is £200,000. Both parties have agreed the £200,000 apportionment

There is no mention of the details of the deductions, including the £280,000 to pay off a third party loan, not something which I would imagine could be said to 'engineer the transaction'. In other words, any expenses should be directly related to the sale of the property.

The council's 'excuse' was that the £280,000 deal would increase 'footfall' but this is simply nonsense and without evidence, and in any event, grants relating to regeneration are a separate channel of funding with very particular criteria. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyhow.

So, although the valuer advised on the value of the land and lease and also suggested the proceeds should be split 50/50 (which is an arguable point in that the club haven't really paid anything for the site), there is no published information regarding the deductions which, minus the professional fees, are a cool £400,000.

It would appear from the Report than the District Valuer was not privy to the details of the deductions, or negotiations, and was presented with the final figure of £400,000.

I am no expert on these matters but common sense tells me it is all worth a second look, particularly the £280,000.

To the casual observer it looks very much like the origin of this highly favourable arrangement (favourable to the Scarlets of course, not the taxpayer) began long ago, probably in the council's hospitality box at Parc y Scarlets.

We also know that a meeting to decide on the 'deductions' was held at some point before the final deal was struck, persons present at the meeting included, amongst other unknown attendees, Cllr Kevin Madge and Mr Mark James.

Monday, 10 March 2014

MP calls for 'intervention' as Mark James confirmed as Returning Officer for Euro Elections - updated

Update 17.40;
The Electoral Commission Wales have been in touch with Cneifiwr with a clarification as to their position. They state that they are not responsible for the appointment or removal of a Returning Officer for any given election. The full text can be found on Cneifiwr's blog.

In a further update, Jonathan Edwards MP has confirmed, via Twitter, that he has tabled a series of Parliamentary Questions to the Cabinet Office which should be published on the Order Paper tomorrow.

Update 12 March;
According to a spokesperson from Carmarthenshire Council, Mr James will still be fulfilling the role of Returning Officer as it is different to that of chief executive of the council.

Strange then that under the council's constitution it says;

The Chief Executive shall be the Head of Paid Service under Section 4 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, having responsibility for the following functions.... 
...acting as Returning Officer and Electoral Registration Officer for local government, National Assembly for Wales, Parliamentary and European elections.

Doesn't sound particularly 'different' to me.

So, as for 'stepping down' pending a criminal investigation by Gloucestershire police, it seems that he will be back in County Hall, not only for voting day but in preparation for the election as well.

(Golwg360 reports)


Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards spoke at last week's Welsh Affairs debate at the House of Commons about recent events in Carmarthenshire.
He also called for urgent ministerial intervention regarding confirmation from the Electoral Commission that Mark James, "an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation" will still be the local Returning Officer for the forthcoming European elections. He has already 'stepped aside' from his various roles in the Welsh Government.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): 
Carmarthenshire has a very proud history. Some say it has a claim to be the birthplace of Welsh democracy, which is a reference to Carmarthenshire’s role in delivering a yes vote for the National Assembly in the successful 1997 referendum.  
However, a dark cloud has been hanging over local democracy in Carmarthenshire for far too long, with a ruling cabal of senior officials and executive board members repressively running the council, stopping democratic debate by the full council, pressurising local journalists, smearing opposition politicians, coercing a council chair who dared defy instruction and making financial arrangements to enable the chief executive, a man who earns almost £4,000 a week, to avoid paying his fair share of tax.  
A seemingly permanent back-room deal between Labour and so-called independent councillors—or the closet Tories as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) describes them—means elections are unlikely to lead to political change. 
At the last local authority elections, my party won the largest number of seats convincingly, achieving over 10,000 more votes than our Labour opponents. It is the same discredited personnel at the helm, however. 
Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message. 
However, unrepentant, the council and the executive board are moving towards darker waters. 
That is what happens when we have a toxic combination of weak executive board councillors and powerful senior officers. 
The warnings relating to recent events could not have been clearer. Local papers have lost advertising revenue, which could bankrupt their businesses, for daring to criticise executive board decisions.  
We have seen the steady erosion of the democratic process, with powers being taken away from councillors and put into the hands of unelected officers, and with the executive board rubber-stamping decisions and, to all intents and purposes, operating as the political wing of those senior officers. 
In the past month, a report from the independent Wales Audit Office has found that the executive board was guilty of sanctioning two unlawful payments for the benefit of the chief executive. Those payments totalled more than £50,000.  
One relates to the granting of a legal indemnity which enabled the chief executive to counter-sue a local blogger.  
The second relates to a tax dodge involving the redirection of pension contributions into the pocket of the chief executive.  
The report was damning, and any politician with a sense of integrity would have done the honourable thing and instigated an urgent investigation into the implicated officers before resigning on the spot themselves.  
Instead, we got a deliberate propaganda campaign from the publicly financed press department of the council to discredit the Wales Audit Office, and threats and smears against opposition politicians. 
Last week, the people of Carmarthenshire were subjected to a farcical extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. 
The executive board commissioned a QC, at a potential cost of thousands of pounds to Carmarthenshire ratepayers, to discredit the Wales Audit Office’s findings and protect its leaders from votes of no confidence. 
This has all been happening at a time when the executive board is pushing through huge cuts to council services and increasing council tax by almost 5%. 
The Labour party in Carmarthenshire is pushing through the privatisation of care services, increasing charges for school meals, reducing assessments for children with special needs, making financial cuts to welfare advice services and extending and increasing charges for social care, as well as introducing a range of other regressive measures. 
It is a matter of pressing concern that, despite being relieved of his duties, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council will continue to be the local returning officer for the forthcoming European elections.  
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that position. I fail to understand how an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation can be responsible for the democratic processes in my county. The same applies in Pembrokeshire, unless events in that great county have changed the situation today, and I ask for immediate ministerial intervention. 
(Hansard 6th March 2014)