Friday, 19 December 2014

The Governance working group - Cats and Pigeons


Ten days or so ago I emailed the acting head of law and Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones asking for details of the membership of the working group set up to consider the 38 recommendations of the WLGA governance review.
I also asked her when the minutes of the first meeting, held on December 9th, would be published.

The WLGA review of the dire state of governance, ie how the council is run, was required further to the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports concerning the pension payments and the libel indemnity scandals relating directly to the Chief Executive, Mark James.

The constitution has, over recent years, been deliberately engineered to form a barrier to democracy.

The damning WLGA report was published at the beginning of November; WLGA Report - The toxic culture recognised

Here's Ms Rees Jones response to my email received today;

"Members of the group;

Plaid (4): Cllr. Emlyn Dole; Cllr. David Jenkins; Cllr. Tyssul Evans; Cllr. Hazel Evans.

Labour (3): Cllr. Kevin Madge; Cllr. Derek Cundy; Cllr. Terry Davies (chair)

Independent (3): Cllr. Pam Palmer; Cllr. Mair Stephens; Cllr. Hugh Richards.

All were present at the first meeting except for Cllr. Hugh Richards, who tendered his apologies.

The officers at the meeting were the Chief Executive, myself, Robert Edgecombe, Elid Morris, and Gaynor Morgan. The first meeting started working on an Action Plan for taking the recommendations forward.

Notes of Working Group meetings are not published because their recommendations will in due course be published when they're referred to the appropriate body eg County Council, but I will ask the members at their next meeting whether they are prepared to release them."

I have a few comments;

1. The very people identified as part of that toxic culture are involved in this committee. Those responsible for the unlawful actions which prompted the review are now in a position to steer the group how they wish.
I am talking about the chief executive of course, along with his trusty aide Linda Rees Jones. Mr James treated the whole WLGA exercise with utter contempt.
Add Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer to the mix and all that's missing from this unholy alliance is Meryl Gravell.
There shouldn't have been any Executive Board members on the group at all.

Perhaps the chief executive, at least, will have left the authority before long. As for the internal legal advice, the lay member of the Audit Committee Sir David Lewis described it as 'cavalier at best and incompetent at worst.

2. It is not a politically balanced group. The Independents are a group and act as such, whipped by Pam Palmer. Cllr Palmer referred to the WLGA report as a 'distraction'. Kevin Madge was equally lukewarm.

To put it simply the ruling administration can outvote the opposition..hardly balanced.

Yet again there are no unaffiliated independents in the group, of which there are two. Cllr Caiach and Cllr John Jenkins. They should have been invited to sit on the group.

3. The Plaid group have a grasp of what needs to be done and I expect one of the Labour members has a pretty good idea too.
The least said about the Independent contingent the better. One of them didn't even turn up. .
As for Cllr Terry Davies in the Chair, his contributions in council and planning meetings seem to be confined to hurrying everyone up to end debate and go to a vote. Or lunch maybe.

4. The minutes, or 'notes' of this particular working group should be published as a matter of course. No one needs to 'ask' anyone. Whatever conclusions they come to, it is essential that we see how they were reached.
In fact the meetings should be webcast but I'm not even going to bother mentioning that.

The WLGA found that a change of culture was necessary and in my view that is not possible without the wholesale removal of the prime suspects named in point 1, so far only one of them is thinking of going. To involve them in this review is disturbing.

However, the Wales Audit Office have said they will be monitoring progress, and so will a couple of bloggers.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Scarlets - Palpitations in County Hall


There was some confusion on Monday morning regarding a winding-up Order listed in the High Court for the Llanelli based regional rugby club, the Scarlets. HMRC had brought the case suggesting it related to an unpaid tax bill. The press reported that the bill must have been paid as HMRC withdrew the case.

Later in the day the Scarlets issued a statement saying that HMRC had made a mistake, there was no tax bill, the club knew nothing about the hearing which was merely the taxman officially withdrawing the case. This is not unknown of course.

Due to annual heavy losses, or at least the capacity to offset any profit, the club does not pay any corporation tax (or rent for that matter) so presumably if they'd been sent a tax bill for that, they would have noticed immediately. Whether the mix-up related to tax and NI contributions for staff and players isn't known.
HMRC are refusing to comment citing client confidentiality

Whatever the confusion was, it seems that all was well in the end.

This incident, prior to the all-clear later on, must have sent a few palpitations through County Hall, Carmarthen.  Given the precarious nature of the club's finances, a net loss of over £600,000 according to the most recent accounts and an excess of liabilities over assets of £3.5m, the question of what would happen to the stadium should the receivers ever be called in must have flashed through several executive minds... and one in particular.

The council have said in the past that as the stadium is leased to the club, if the Scarlets went pop, it would revert back to the council. All well and good if that is the case but the council would then be saddled with a large useless stadium, in which they had invested millions, which they would then have to market or maintain (which they do anyway).

The stadium appears in the Scarlets' accounts as a fixed tangible asset worth £10m. As of course the council own the freehold, this figure must relate to the long 150 year lease, although the club's independent auditors have always questioned its value and presence as an asset given the 'material uncertainty' of the club as a going concern.

As it is of no use to anyone other than the Scarlets, it is really theirs to keep as long as they don't fold. With the current arrangement this £10m 'asset' is sent back and forth from County Hall to the Scarlets depending on which way the wind's blowing and who needs it on their CV.

Those who have observed council meetings will know that anyone who raises concerns over the council's financial involvement in Scarlets Regional Ltd is immediately, and unfairly, accused of knocking the team.

Whatever the mix-up was on Monday, it should act as a wake up call to the council to safeguard its assets and investments, which, when it comes to the Scarlets, have been extremely generous in loan interest deferments, back door subsidies and deductible expenses.

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Entirely unrelated to the above, I noticed that @CarmsCouncil retweeted a tweet this morning highlighting the problems of alcohol fuelled violence. Very commendable.

However, only last week, @CarmsCouncil's Licensing Committee approved a licence for a new 'Bargain Booze' franchise in Lammas Street, Carmarthen.

This was despite Carmarthen Town Council objecting on the grounds that it was a 'hot-spot for anti-social behaviour', therefore aggravating the problems of alcohol fuelled violence...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Grants - a 'clean bill of health'? Not just yet


Last week I mentioned that EU auditors had paid a visit to County Hall (Grants, Agendas and a reminder) specifically to look at the South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF). Their findings were translated into the Executive Board minutes as 'a clean bill of health'. It appears that this claim may have been a bit premature.

The Wales Audit Office has, for the last three years raised serious concerns about the council's grant management procedures and in their Annual Audit Letter dated 10th December, which is on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee, they again raise those doubts.
However, this time they specifically include the EU funded SWWPDF.

Followers of this and Cneifiwr's blog will be aware that we have raised our own concerns about these, and other grants. These concerns include, amongst others, whether one one councillor (Meryl Gravell in this case) should be rubber stamping millions of pounds in grant money behind closed doors, with backbench councillors, public and press under a blanket ban, and should over £3m in speculative grants go to companies set up so recently that they do not have to present a set of accounts.

One grant in particular had caught the attention of the now retired Director of Resources, who flagged it up with the Wales Audit Office in the summer. When the press reported on the matter the council went into its usual defensive overdrive, even using the council press office, as it does. The spin suggested that the exercise was merely a WAO 'health check' and things just needed a bit of tightening up...

The Annual Audit Letter suggests a little more than a 'health check';

"....our initial findings are that the council's grant management arrangements still need to be improved. In particular we have reported that the council needs to improve its arrangements for the awarding of Property Development Fund grants under the European Union's Convergence grant scheme. The results of our work will be reported to the Audit Committee when complete"

The WAO isn't due to complete its report until March 2015, So it would seem that the 'clean bill of health' claim was, as I said, somewhat premature.

You will also note from the letter that the Wales Audit Office is keeping an eye on the council's response to the WLGA governance review. It has become obvious that the chief executive has treated the whole exercise with arrogant disdain and unfortunately he appears to be in the driving seat of the newly formed committee addressing the issues.

Last week I asked the acting head of legal and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, which Councillors are on the committee and when we will be able to see the minutes of the discussions... So far there's only been a stony silence.

Given that the aim is to be the most open council in Wales, we're not getting off to a particularly transparent start.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Gloucestershire Police remain silent


A couple of months ago I contacted the Information Commissioner and challenged the decision by Gloucestershire police not to disclose documents used in the criminal investigation into Carmarthenshire County Council. The investigation was over the pension and libel indemnity scandals relating to the chief executive.

Incidentally, contents of the various responses suggests that the main focus of police attention was the libel indemnity rather than the pension scam.

The Commissioner has issued a decision and agreed with the police...or the council. I'm not sure which, the lines are a little blurred.

Anyway, the original response from the police back in May, after the criminal investigation had been dropped, revealed that no one had been interviewed during the three month investigation and there had been no correspondence with the council. I could go no further with that, as they were telling me there was no information to be had.

I had also asked for documents relating to the investigation as well, (even if it was just a list) including the final police report. They said, in a nutshell, that to disclose these documents could compromise the detection of crime by revealing police tactics.

I asked the police to review their decision due to the clear public interest that an investigation by one public body into another should be open and transparent, and in this particular case there had already been unlawful findings.

The police then changed tack and, without elaboration, said it was because it might prejudice ongoing or future civil proceedings. It was not the police's role to disclose documents which might prejudice civil proceedings.

As Gloucestershire Police refused to specify, even in general terms, what civil litigation they were referring to I asked the Information Commissioner to review their refusal under that particular exemption.
To be clear, other exemptions were used which the police could fall back on if this one failed. However, I pursued the point.

The police argued that the press release regarding the outcome of the investigation should "satisfy the public interest in transparency and in knowing that a proper investigation had taken place"

The police also said that I had publicly stated my intention of pursuing a Judicial Review against the decision to indemnify Mr James. It was this which appears to be, partly anyway, the 'potential civil litigation' referred to.

In fact, this particular reference did not appear my blog until three weeks after the second police response (actually I said I was "exploring the possibilities").

The police have argued that it was 'not in the public interest to allow the open dissemination of information relating to civil proceedings, which was obtained as a result of a criminal investigation and which is not already in the public domain'

The police also provided (to the Commissioner only, as it was confidential) additional "specific public interest arguments which reveal information it considers to be exempt from disclosure"

The Commissioner, when weighing up the arguments, recognised that this particular case had all the essential ingredients for disclosure;
"In this case, the fact that the subject of the police investigation was the council's decision to fund a civil action against an individual who had been highly critical of it, and that there were questions as to whether this decision, add considerable weight to this [public] interest"

However, along with the predictable counterbalance that police investigations should be 'free and frank' without the threat of FOI, as well as the unknown arguments within the 'confidential' attachment, what the Commissioner saw as the "key" factor against disclosure was the "timing" of my request.
Whilst noting my 'intention' to bring a Judicial Review, as "stated on her blog", he has also considered the;

"ongoing nature of the complainants dispute with the council....which shows no sign of being resolved...she has actively fought to have the [libel] judgement overturned".

"In light of all this, the Commissioner considers it reasonable to believe that further civil litigation is a strong possibility, and that the constabulary's concerns about prejudicing that process by disclosing information relating to its criminal investigation are credible"

There is agreed recognition by all sides that the indemnity "could be subject to challenge by way of judicial review on conventional public law grounds" (WAO report) but it is quite clear that the council are covering all possible bases in their instructions to the police over the disclosure of documents.

Whatever the council's concerns are, all this begs the question whether information recovered during the criminal investigation, or created during the investigation itself, would further damage the council's case should further civil proceedings occur.

Much of the legal opinion and documentation relating to the libel indemnity is already in the public domain but clearly there is more and the council, and the police, are very reluctant for anyone to see it. So for now, at least, it will have to remain a mystery.

To be honest I won't be bringing a judicial review any time soon, this is something the Wales Audit Office should have done. I have more pressing issues to deal with.




I only have the Information Commissioner's decision letter in hard copy and as it runs to several pages I am unable to put it on the blog. The ICO will at some point in the next few weeks upload it onto their website here. The case reference is FS50556313.

Meanwhile, the thread of the original request and review to Gloucestershire police and their responses can be found here, and for reference, the Wales Audit Office report into the libel indemnity is here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

December council meeting - A test of stamina


Update 12th December: The Trelech by-election result was a significant Plaid Cymru gain over Pam Palmer's Independent party. Plaid now have 29 seats and Labour and the Independents (in coalition) have 21 each. The Hengoed by-election will be held in the new year.
Trelech results:
Jean Lewis (Plaid) 598
Hugh Phillips (Ind) 181
Selwyn Runnett (Libdem) 96

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Yesterday's meeting was definitely not for the faint hearted viewer. With the first three hours taken up with assorted tributes including granting the freedom of the county to retired veteran councillor Dai 'Trelech' and a lengthy round of cheers for the departing Director of Technical Services. The onslaught was only interrupted by a death-by-powerpoint presentation from Welsh Water.

The Chair, Cllr Daff Davies was even more bewildered than usual and wheezed and stumbled through the script. Executive Board member Cllr Wyn Evans announced that the Dyfed Pension Fund had won some sort of award and was not, as stated earlier in the year 'in tatters'.

The same pension fund that Cllr Evans and his executive colleagues provided an opt out tax avoidance arrangement for Mr James.

I presume this was a dream agenda for the chief executive who only became squeaky and cross when deliberations over accepting a scrutiny report threatened to overrun into the 'freedom' ceremony. Again he thought it hilarious to say he didn't want to appear 'overbearing or officer-led'. He demanded they move on. The Chair did as he was told.

In fact it was rather disturbing to hear Mr James say that he'd be glad when this was sorted out once and for all when 'we' in the governance working group (following the WLGA report) got round to dealing with this point; ie 'noting' previous reports and minutes, not discussing them.

Mr James ruling the roost in the working group, which met on Tuesday for the first time, doesn't bode well for a 'change of culture'. Not only is he part of the problem but he has viewed the WLGA exercise as a massive joke.
In any event, you'd think he would understand that some councillors are now a little wary of accepting any minutes or reports without question, not wanting to be unwittingly approving illegal decisions again...

The local papers must have become curious as to when he's actually going to go and must have posed the question. Apparently councillors will be discussing his severance in the 'New Year'. According to the papers the post of chief executive could be deleted or there could be a 'bumped severance' which means a post is deleted 'within two or three tiers' of the released employee’s level. Whatever that might mean. Maybe it will be farewell to Linda Rees Jones too...

Back to Welsh Water and they seem to have been instructed to make sure the Cllr Caiach was told there was 'no pollution' in the Burry Estuary and that the planning committee would stop getting jittery about approving applications from large developers in this sensitive area.  Cllr Caiach wasn't convinced and given that Welsh Water are investing £25m in various drainage schemes in the Llanelli area over the next few years, neither were they.

Mr James was very keen for all the members to visit the sewage plant in Bynea and mentioned it several times. He seemed particularly interested in the treatment of 'solids' and thought that the Chamber might be as well. Perhaps we've solved the mystery of Mr James new job...I'm sure they'll provide him with a gold-plated shovel.



The main event, after a fortified lunch in honour of Dai Trelech, was not, as you might expect, a corporate nap, but the adoption of the Local Development Plan which, after it's lengthy and tortuous journey through consultations, inspections for soundness, focussed changes, delivery agreements etc etc was finally adopted at the meeting.

The details of the discussion (and the whole meeting of course) can be seen on the archived webcast here, but it began with Meryl insisting they adopt the LDP 'or else' the Welsh Government would force it upon them anyway. Which rather set the tone. Essentially, the plan is based on a disputed housing projection for a staggering 15,000 more homes in the county over the next few years. Looks like they'll have to reopen all those village schools after all...

Kevin Madge talked about jobs, as he does, and seemed to be predicting a pan-global financial boom based in Carmarthen. You never know I suppose. Helpfully he suggested that people "need to move into jobs where they can find work". A very sensible idea.

It was all a bit depressing and it is clear that nothing has changed. It would have been far more informative to have seen the budget seminar earlier in the week, or even the meeting of the Governance review committee. I have asked Linda Rees Jones when the minutes of the latter will be published, I presume, as an officially constituted group, minutes will have been taken...

The truth is of course that with webcasting meetings such as those, or even opening them up to the public, the subsequent spin is much harder to manipulate.

The executive board meets on Monday where, amongst other things, they will be paving the way for a Hilton hotel for Machynys golf club; taking £150,000 out of the reserves to build a public car park to assist a developer in Laugharne and then going behind closed doors to buy a plot of land in Carmarthen.
As for a report on the libel costs, like Mr James' pay-off, it's obviously all to much to stomach just before Christmas.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

More from Oggy Bloggy Ogwr - Robochief


Fans of the silver screen will have undoubtedly enjoyed Oggy Bloggy Ogwr's take on the classic movie 'Apocalypse Nawr' back in August. It told the story of the secret mission to advance up the River Towy to infiltrate the hideout of a certain Colonel James...

Award winning blog author, Bridgend based Owen Donovan has again treated us to another interpretation, this time it's 80's movie hit Robocop.
So, for fans of the cult movie, council mergers and our own fair county, he presents....


I find the movie poster at the top of his post particularly evocative...


Reprieve for the childrens' respite centres

Further to last week's post 'Budget cuts - Respite care for disabled children?', I understand that a councillors' budget seminar was held yesterday and Cllr Caiach and others forced a vote to remove the two respite centres for profoundly disabled children, Blaenau and Llys Caradog, from the list of proposed cuts.

I'm pleased to report that the vote was successful and they will not be cut.

They should never have been on there in the first place and hopefully they will not reappear next year, but good news all the same.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Grants, agendas and a reminder


The minutes of last Monday's Executive Board meeting have been published and include reference to what can only be described as a timely visit from the EU auditors, specifically looking at grants approved under the South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF).

The visit may have been by invitation or be purely co-incidental but you may recall that these awards have come under recent scrutiny for several reasons, including;
Should one councillor (Meryl Gravell in this case) be rubber stamping millions of pounds in grant money? and
Should those 'meetings' be held behind closed doors, with backbench councillors, public and press under a blanket ban?
Should over £3m in speculative grants go to companies set up so recently that they do not have to present a set of accounts?
Why does the 'job creation' appear to actually be shifting of jobs from one side of town/county to the other?

The EU auditors, it turned out, found nothing wrong.

A warm welcome for the EU auditors

A 'clean bill of health' said the council minutes. All boxes ticked I imagine.

In his letter to the WLGA panel, Sir David Lewis, lay member of the council's Audit Committee pointed out that the rules and procedures are all there, it is the application which is the problem due to the "the internal culture in County Hall". I don't suppose the European Auditors looked at that.

As has been said before, correctly worded protocols, policies and procedures are one thing; interpretation and implementation are quite another. Just ask anyone who has tried out the whistleblowing policy for example.

It takes more than an official audit sometimes to get to the bottom of things, there are wider issues. Take the allowable expenses nonsense for example. It appears, on paper (though I'm not sure it was the same paper I was looking at) that to the WAO, all was satisfactory and that the proper procedures were followed. There was no value judgment on this particular use of public money.

To even a casual observer, there was something very clearly wrong.

To anyone digging a little deeper, and looking at the wider picture of governance, you can have all the audits in the world, something will continue to stink. It takes a very determined councillor to get through the clouds of smoke and walls of mirrors to get the truth. Pembrokeshire councillor Mike Stoddart (Old Grumpy) has a very good example on his latest post.

"Just one more thing..."

Despite the absurd findings from the WAO over the allowable expenses (and for that matter the £1.4m to the evangelical church. but not, of course, the pension payments and libel indemnity) they have expressed concerns over the council's grant management procedures for the past three years, this doesn't just cover the SWWPDF grants of course but all those hot tubs and sets of patio furniture Meryl's been sprinkling around the county.

The council, as far as we know have been told to 'tighten up' procedures by the WAO, quite what that means we don't know other than they are currently, er, loose.

As for the 'Executive Board Member' meetings where these grants are given the final approval, even backbench councillors are barred from attending, let alone anyone else. There is no scrutiny at all. The recent  WLGA governance report made the following observations and recommendations;

Executive Board Member Decision Meetings

5.17 The Review Team heard from a number of non-executive members and members of the public who expressed concern about the transparency of Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. There was no apparent non-executive member witnessing of and therefore limited opportunity to call-in or scrutinise delegated decisions made by individual Executive Board Members. 
5.18 Similarly there was some confusion and lack of clarity around delegations to individual Executive Board Members and concerns that some individuals had significant delegated authority regarding funding and the distribution of grants to external bodies. The Wales Audit Office has for a number of years made recommendations for improving the Council’s grants management arrangements. The Review Team was advised that the Wales Audit Office has recently completed a review of a £2m grant application and has made a number of recommendations for improvement. The Council have established a review group to respond to these recommendations. In the meantime, the Review Team makes the following proposal: 
Recommendation 33: The Council should allow non-executive members to observe Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. 

The agenda for Wednesday's full council meeting has no reference to the application for six-figure severance by the chief executive on the agenda, something Kevin Madge suggested would be finalised by Christmas.
There is also nothing on the agenda to suggest that the WLGA governance report was anything more than an unfortunate blip in the great Carms Council PR machine.

Some of the WLGA recommendations (all accepted at the last meeting) are very simple and straightforward. Not rocket science as it were.

We also know however, from Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer's guarded comments at the last meeting that the ruling administration is far from committed and sees the WLGA report as a 'distraction'. The chief executive went one step further and sneered at the whole exercise.

The last meeting eventually saw a resolution to set up a politically balanced cross-party working group to look at the recommendations. Has this been constituted yet? Has it met? Who's on it? will it be minuted? I suspect the answer is no to all the above, if I'm wrong then they've kept it very very quiet.

There will be no sense of urgency, no sense from Kevin Madge that these serious issues of governance have to be addressed, public faith in the council is at rock bottom, or is that the preferred background to drive through a difficult budget? It probably is. There's no local election until 2017.

Constitutional changes are supposed to be taken by full council so Wednesday's meeting is a missed opportunity for a brief report to show urgent commitment to being the most open council in Wales.

There were 38 recommendations to be implemented within six months, some of them three months, so why not sort a few out now? I expect there are many of us ordinary folk who could have got together several urgent proposals to present to full council, we could probably have even shrouded it in unnecessary jargon.

As you can see from a few examples below (my 'amendments' in blue), it's quite a simple matter of deleting or adding brief clauses to the constitution, something the combined legal minds of Linda Rees Jones and Mark James have been very adept at doing for several years over coffee and a packet of custard creams.

Reversing the 8 signature requirement for Notices on Motion?

CPR 12 - MOTIONS ON NOTICE
12.1 Any members of the Council may give notice of not more than one motion for
consideration at any meeting of the Council, subject to the notice indicating the support of
not less than 7  1 other members.

Allowing councillors supplementary questions?

11.2 QUESTIONS ON NOTICE AT FULL COUNCIL
Subject to Rule 11.4, a member of the Council may ask:
(a) the Chair of the Council;
(b) a member of the Executive Board; or
(c) the Chair of any committee;
(d) a question on any matter in relation to which the Council has powers or duties or
which affects the area of the authority, or part of it, or the inhabitants of that area, or
some of them
addition - (e) Councillors can ask a supplementary question.

Delete of the reference which allows Motions on Notice to be referred away from public debate;

12.11 The Chief Executive shall in consultation with the Chair of Council refer, whereappropriate Notices of Motions upon receipt to the Executive Board, Executive BoardMember or the relevant Committee unless the content requires consideration by theCouncil.
See what I mean? 

Why is the recommended Item 'Public Questions' (even if there aren't any) not on December's agenda?
Why not also, for that matter, allow the public to film meetings? The dreaded 'protocol' could even be copied and pasted from Pembs council.

They could even permanently remove the suspended clause which provides, now...how shall I put this, an unlawful fund for unlawful purposes (the libel indemnity)


Oh, really? The legal position is not yet clarified? I think it is.

Where's the register of members' interests on the website? A far better use of limited publicly funded webspace than telling us that Kevin Madge is dressing up as a snowman.




If it wasn't for one 'councillor question' pointing to the Local Service Board's lack of transparency, there'd be nothing.

So here's a reminder that, to date, nothing has changed, and before the 38 recommendations get quietly brushed under the civic carpet, we'll go back again to Sir David's letter;

 "The governance of the Council is in disarray and not fit for purpose".

"In recent years these values [openness and transparency, honesty and integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality and fairness] have evidently not been applied or followed".

The responsibility for this is with the Executive Board and the Chief Executive, not the body of councillors. "There needs to be a change in culture".

Basic rules and values concerning conflicts of interest which should be obvious to all have not been applied by some members of the Executive Board and senior management. "They are not mere technicalities as some have suggested"

As for the notoriously brief Minutes of meetings, he said that "there is a culture of hiding difficult or troublesome items" and goes on to say, "It is unclear to me whether or not the committee clerks are instructed to adopt this unhelpful approach and if so by whom."

As for the pension and libel indemnity scandals, "if there is a proper professional relationship between the Chief Executive, the Executive Board and the Council generally and if the Scrutiny Committees are given the full facts.", they may not have happened.
On the quality of internal legal advice, particularly over these scandals he was scathing; "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

Incidentally, the legal department no longer has the accreditation of the ISO British Quality Standard. Apparently it de-registered itself due to the cost...

Here endeth my Monday sermon.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Libel costs - to be discussed by Executive Board


A few week's ago the council's policy and resources scrutiny committee met and on the agenda was a report detailing the cost of external legal advice and representation. I wrote about it here.

There is nothing in the newly published minutes which answers my query but there is something else, I have copied the relevant minutes below.
Before I pass comment at length, I will wait until I know what course of action, if any, they decide to take.

All I will say for now is that I will fight any attempt to recover costs and any move to do so will prove completely disproportionate and fruitless. In any event Mark James has already secured my share of the equity in my home with his personal charging order for over £30,000. There's nothing left. As for the specific costs of the counterclaim, it was unlawful, full stop.

For information, the Costs Order against me consists of £190,390 for the defence and £40,875 for costs of the counterclaim. It would seem, by the comments in paragraph 6, that my financial circumstances are now known. They must have asked Mark James.

The minutes record what the acting head of law, Linda Rees Jones said (my underlining);

"Reference was made to the recovery of costs and whether the Council had succeeded in recovering all the monies. 
"The Head of Administration and Law confirmed that the Council had not recovered all the monies and that a report was due to be considered by the Executive Board in relation to the recovery of costs that had resulted from advice and representation in defending the Defamation case. ... 
"Responding to a question in relation to the £28k spent on advice from Tim Kerr QC and who was responsible for instructing him, the Head of Administration and Law informed the Committee that originally he had been instructed in relation to the Pay Supplement and that this had been a joint instruction with Pembrokeshire County Council, who had suggested him. 
"In terms of the indemnity case, she had instructed him as he was an expert in employment law. 
"Responding to a comment that the decision to indemnify the cost of the well documented libel action was unlawful, the Head of Administration and Law stated that she believed the decision to be lawful and that a differing view existed between the Council and the Wales Audit Office. 
"In response to a question relating to the steps taken to recover costs from an individual, the Head of Administration and Law informed the Committee, that in the case being referred to, the report to the Executive Board explained that the other party’s financial status was not, at that time, known. 
"However she added that the other party was insured and asked to obtain top up insurance in relation to her defence of the counterclaim, so there had been every prospect that the Authority would recover its costs if successful on both its defence of the claim brought against it and the costs of the counterclaim. However, because of the strength of the findings made by the judge, the insurance company had reneged on the cover."

I don't know when this will be discussed but the next meeting of the Executive Board is on the 15th December.
I have made several previous statements on this blog, including this, in June 2013 in which I mention the issue of costs; 
Libel Case - further comment

-------------------------------------------

Unrelated to the above, the agenda for next Wednesday's Full Council has been published. Barring any late amendments to it, Mr James' pay-off is not listed, so far.
Back in October council leader Kevin Madge said that it would be a matter for full council as it would be a six-figure sum, and that it might even be decided at November's full council. It wasn't, and it doesn't seem to be at December's either. 
Perhaps Mr James has decided to linger a bit longer, there is after all a general election in May for which he can expect a generous fee as Returning Officer....or maybe he's just decided to go without a penny? I suspect the former rather than the latter. Or they could be waiting for yet another legal opinion from Mr Kerr QC...

The Planning Committee...online


Today's Planning Committee meeting was a bit of a strange affair, if you wish you can of course watch the archived webcast when it's uploaded. (Here it is; http://www.carmarthenshire.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/157289)

One particular application had been put forward for a wind turbine at Wern, Pencader. This was an identical application (on exactly the same spot), aside for one small correction to an ecology report, to one passed by the planning committee two months ago, in September, following a site visit.

Although the earlier application had been passed, it was now under legal challenge in the form of a Judicial Review (JR) brought by local opponents to the turbine.

Leader of the Plaid group, Cllr Dole (who had voted against the turbine at the earlier application) clearly recognised that this was a very strange situation - if they passed this one, the developer could use either of the two permissions.

If the JR succeeded, the company could use the new permission, if it failed, they could use either. A second attempt at a JR after it had failed at the first attempt would be nigh on impossible to bring again.

He questioned this and also whether, given they'd all voted one way or the other a few weeks ago, they should all declare an interest. Under Section 25 of the Localism Act, decision makers must not approach a decision with a closed mind and in particular, there was clearly an issue of pre-determination.

The planning solicitor and the planning officer both said that as it was a 'new' application, it was perfectly fine for the committee to decide. They'd taken 'legal advice', apparently. This was, I add, the same solicitor who had told me, wrongly, that it was 'clearly written' in the Constitution that filming wasn't allowed...

Cllr Dole described the situation as absurd and that by the same logic as that being dished out by officers today, he was requesting another site visit, this was accepted in a vote. By doing this Cllr Dole was also sensibly deferring this curious matter to a later date.

I'm not passing comment on the merits or otherwise of wind turbines but the company have certainly gone for quite an extraordinary manoeuvre, and it is something of a questionable move by the planning department to validate this application and present it to the planning committee whilst it's twin brother was under Judicial Review.
I dare say it would all be described as a 'grey area'...

In another application, a proposal for 41 homes in Bynea, Llanelli was refused. The applicant was the council itself and had recommended, unsurprisingly, approval.

Aside from some of the statutory consultees, there were overwhelming local objections ranging from flooding, traffic and pollution issues to density. In fact, despite the highways department having 'no objections', it recommended that, er, £600,000 would need to be spent on the road when the development was completed....

The council were also accused of attempting a 'dash for cash' on the site, regardless of objections, as it was included in the Unitary Development Plan, but was being dropped from the Local Development Plan (LDP).
The LDP is due to be adopted (or not) at next week's full council.

There were lengthy arguments back and forth and as I said, it was refused. The committee now have a couple of weeks 'cooling-off' period. The application will then be brought back to committee to ratify their decision and who knows, maybe the planning authority will then launch a challenge against its own planning committee....

We also learned that the bell pressed by the chair to recall councillors, who had declared an interest in a previous application, back into the Chamber didn't work in the members lounge. So presumably, if necessary, and particularly at full council meetings, they could be quietly forgotten.... 

Budget cuts - Respite care for disabled children?


Update 9th December; There's been a reprieve. See;
http://carmarthenplanning.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/reprieve-for-childrens-respite-centres.html

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Back in February's budget, a proposal to close one of the two council run respite centres for profoundly disabled children, Blaenau and Llys Caradog, was given a temporary reprieve after one of those last minute PR exercises from the executive board we see on an annual basis.

Predictably, and along with the school crossing patrols, day centre closures etc, the proposal is back on the agenda this year.

This is a vital, indispensable service providing brief respite for families, helping them stay together and providing invaluable support. They offer the children the chance to socialise and interact with others in a fully registered and regulated setting.

Last February campaigners launched a petition which had 2655 signatures, Mencap Cymru strongly opposed the closure, as would anyone with any sense of compassion and understanding.

The council hope to save £200,000 by closing one of the centres, slightly more than they have happily shelled out in unlawful payments and the defence thereof; rather less than they gave to one of their favoured private companies, Scarlets Regional Ltd, to pay off a third party loan to fit out a shop. At least we know where County Hall compassion and understanding truly lies.

The campaign has had to be launched again and a new petition has been set up here. Please sign.

"For many families with disabled children this service provides the only much needed break for families providing round the clock care for their child's additional needs.  This service provides social opportunities to children that may otherwise never have a "sleepover" or "tea at a friends house".  For parents and siblings it provides the opportunity to rest and recharge ready to provide care again. Please, please help to save this lifeline."

Care Home closures - thinking it through?


One feature of Carmarthenshire Council's Social Care policy has been to close all the council run homes for the elderly. The shift has been to support independent living and to create Extra Care Homes in Llanelli, Carmarthens and Ammanford. These closures have been highly controversial and whereas supported independent living in their own home would always be preferable for the elderly person, it is not always practical, appropriate nor possible.

With a rising elderly population in Carmarthenshire, the demand for Elderly Mentally Infirm (EMI) places, essentially people with dementia, is also rising. Questions have been raised in the past regarding the suitability and capacity of these Extra Care Schemes, the units are small bungalows or tiny apartments designed for frail elderly people.  They are looked after by private carers, possibly on zero hour contracts, on 24 hour call. Each scheme has a small specialised unit for dementia patients.

In the Ammanford area the closure of the two council run homes, Glanmorlais and Tegfan is well underway but serious concerns were raised at a recent scrutiny meeting. The availablilty of EMI beds is at capacity with the projected needs having been based on 2019/10 figures.

Demand was accelerating at a far quicker pace and it was suggested that the closures had not been properly thought through and had been based on out of date figures; it was highly unlikely that the new scheme would provide adequate capacity for EMI patients. It was suggested that one of the care homes could be retained for specialist EMI care.

Unfortunately the head of service didn't have any answers and needed time to reflect. A proposal for the committee to visit the two homes was rejected as it might give residents and their families the idea that their care home is to be saved after all. In the end it was decided that instead of sending a busload, that one Member from each political group, accompanied by the Director of Social Care and the local member visit the homes.

The problems will only be made worse over the next three years as elderly care services are cut by over £3m. Included in that figure is a 'saving' of £200,000 through a 'service review and renegotiation of contracts' for the Extra Care schemes themselves so even these new arrangements are facing reductions before they've got off the ground.
Shortsighted, short term 'savings' such as this are likely to create a disaster of the council's own making.

Council by-election reminder, and another one on the way.


As we know the by-election for the Trelech ward will be held on the 11th December and the candidates are (in alphabetical order);
Jean Lewis (Plaid)
Hugh Phillips (Independent Group)
Selwyn Runnett (Libdem)

Another by-election is on the way following the sad death of Labour county councillor Mr George Edwards. Mr Edwards represented Hengoed, a two seat ward near Llanelli, the other Member being Cllr Sian Caiach.

The by-election could be interesting with the Plaid candidates only losing narrowly in the 2012 local elections.
There is some speculation that this election could be held at the same time as the general election in May which would save the authority extra costs on polling arrangements and further fees for the Returning Officer. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Severance - Repaying unlawful payments?


Update 4th December; The agenda for December's full council meeting has just been published and the issue of Mr James severance deal and departure is not on it. Perhaps he is going to linger around for a while longer, I had heard talk that he was going to stay until after the General Election in May - those lucrative Returning Officer fees and all that. Maybe the rumours were true...

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

With chief executive Mark James having declared his application for severance, we might assume that calculations regarding the final sum are being made as we speak. Back in October, Council Leader Kevin Madge declared that the decision over the pay-off could be before full council the following month. As it turned out, it wasn't on the agenda for the November meeting.

Whether or not it will be on December's agenda, we'll have to wait until it is published later in the week to find out. If it's not then perhaps Mr James has changed his mind and is going to linger around little longer...anyone's guess.

In Pembrokeshire, the council resolved to formally invite Parry-Jones to repay the unlawful pension payments. You may remember that basically he, or more specifically his representatives, told them to, erm, sod off.

It took the last minute intervention of the Wales Audit Office to ensure that his final pay-off was recalculated to remove the pension payment elements of the deal. Roughly speaking, by cutting the pay-off by £52k, the unlawful payments were repaid to the council. Sort of. He still walked off with £280,000.

Way back in May, after the WAO reports were published, Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards raised the issue that Mr James should be 'instructed' repay the unlawful pension payments as well, but this demand was not followed up by the Plaid opposition on the council. Cllr Caiach has attempted to mention it, and the libel indemnity, several times but has always been silenced by the chief executive Chair.

As we know there are two sets of unlawful payments involved here in Carmarthenshire which amount to £56,946. Is this amount going to be visibly deducted from Mr James final pay-off? £30,128 of it is the unlawful tax avoiding pension payments. The remaining £26,818 is for the costs of the libel indemnity for the counterclaim, also deemed unlawful by the WAO.

Incidentally, I have written to the Wales Audit Office to try and find out why the high court cost order for the counterclaim is actually £40,875; around £15,000 more than the stated indemnity.

No matter which way you look at it, the costs for the counterclaim were unlawful and, in my view, so were the damages arising from it. However, even taking the question of costs on it's own, Mr James has undoubtedly benefited financially from an unlawful decision and as it stands, should, along with the pension payments, pay it back.

In truth, the scandal over both payments has cost a lot more; over £28,000 for Mr Kerr QC, £55,000 for extra audit fees and an unknown sum in officer time, reports and not forgetting the misuse of the council website - all to try and defend the indefensible.

The petition, which can still be signed, can be found here. It would seem from the comments that many believe that Mr James has had quite enough cash and should leave with nothing.




2nd December; County Councillor Sian Caiach writes about the unlawful payments and the ongoing secrecy and nonsense from senior councillors here;


Spot on, Cllr Caiach.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Cars, bins and mergers - news in brief


I'm sure everyone is now aware that the residents of Pembrokeshire have unwittingly been funding a £90,000 Porsche for their now departed chief executive, Bryn Parry Jones, to cruise luxuriously through the countryside. Another worrying fact is that it took a staggering eight months for the council to respond to the BBC Freedom of Information request to extract this information.

Quite what the executive motoring arrangements are in Carmarthenshire remain unclear, all we know is that there are definitely no battered old Fiestas lined up in front of County Hall. The reason given in Pembrokeshire for the delay in responding to the request was equally astonishing;

'it [Pembs council] had been unable to reveal details of the lease car while Mr Parry-Jones was still in his post, as the information was private and exempt from Freedom of Information requests.
"Because this vehicle is no longer in use, we are now in a position to disclose the details," council officials confirmed. (BBC Wales)

What a load of old flannel.

The only reason for the delay was that, as in Carmarthenshire, the decision whether or not to release information of that ilk is controlled directly by the highly sensitive chief executives themselves. Now Parry-Jones has gone, he's not there to stop it. A similar thing happened over the 'allowable expenses' request, after a whole year of various requests and appeals, the final disclosure wasn't forthcoming until Mark James had gone on forced gardening leave earlier this year. This was no coincidence.

It is also common knowledge that Mr James insisted that a local reporter withdraw a request for details of his expenses. It was also very clear from Mr James' witness statement from the libel case that he considered any request which encompassed anything to do with payments made to him as a public official to be nothing short of gross impertinence. I can't imagine what he thought of the Appointed Auditor poking his nose into matters unlawful...harassment I suppose.

Bins
In rubbish news, with the council's contract to deal with its waste and recycling needs heading for renewal in April next year it looks like there could be a problem. The current contractor is Cwm Environmental Ltd, the arms-length company wholly owned and much favoured by the council, (see previous posts).
The problem being that the contract must go out to a proper, legal tender. At a recent scrutiny meeting councillors were told that, true to form, legal advice was being sought, and that ultimately "CWM Environmental would not be treated any differently to other potential tenderers".
This will be an interesting one to watch.

Reorganisation
Local government reorganisation is very much in the news at the moment with various Welsh councils deliberating whether or not to merge with their neighbours with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Minister Leighton Andrews is now the driving force behind the reorganisation which, at the moment could see Welsh councils reduced from twenty-two to anywhere between six and twelve.

Initially, Carmarthenshire council was left out of the equation but more recently Swansea has been eyeing up Llanelli and its surrounds and there are many in Llanelli who would rather be part of anywhere else other than Carmarthenshire. As reported by the BBC, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot have now begun merger talks on this basis, roughly following the boundaries of the Swansea Bay City Region Board.

Talking of which, the new chair of the Board, Sir Terry Matthews held a meeting last week in the Cross Hands Food Park. There are signs that Cllr Meryl Gravell, who also sits on the Board, maybe changing her allegiances, describing Mr Matthews as 'inspirational and visionary', adjectives she used to keep exclusively reserved for dear Mark...

As for the rural parts of north east Carmarthenshire, many have long expressed a preference to be governed by Powys rather than 'those idiots' in Carmarthen (their words not mine).
Whether they're any less collectively idiotic in Powys remains to be seen. If Carmarthenshire withers away and Caebrwyn finds herself living in Powys, she will soon let you know...

Monday, 24 November 2014

Those 'allowable expenses' were 'allowable'! Fancy that!


Well well, it must be little known fact that, despite these austere times, Carmarthenshire Council has a 'policy' to pay off third party loans on behalf of private companies. This unbelievable revelation was made to me today in a letter from the Wales Audit Office... 

You may remember that many months ago it emerged, after a lot of digging and a leak or two, that a deal between the council and Scarlets Regional Ltd to sell off a plot of land to Marstons Inns in 2012 had included a deduction of 'allowable expenses' of £260,000 from the sale price. A supposed 50/50 split turned out to be nothing of the sort.

It then transpired that this £260,000 was a loan from Eastgate developers, Henry Davidson Developments (HDD) to the Scarlets for the club to fit out its shop in the Eastgate complex in Llanelli.

The full details, the background of the 'split' and the link to the email thread can be read here; The Council, the Scarlets and the 'Allowable expenses' - a Revelation

Essentially, despite the best efforts of two senior council officers to secure the best deal for the council taxpayer, the rug was pulled from under them at the last minute by the chief executive Mark James who, from the disclosed emails, appeared to be intent on securing the best deal for the Scarlets.



To quote the council's head of corporate property, who was the one actually granted the delegated power to finalise the deal, the £260,000 loan was "a private matter for the Scarlets from their share of the proceeds..and is nothing to do with the Council. The Council would happily wait for a few years for the disposal of the site rather than have to pay HDD anything"

According to the Wales Audit Office, quite clearly I, and possibly the delegated officer, were wrong. The council are, it seems, perfectly entitled to pay off third party debts...I wonder how many other private businesses in Carmarthenshire are aware of this? Or perhaps it was just the Scarlets...we'll never know. I suspect that this little known perk will disappear along with the chief executive...I'm speculating of course.

Like the council, the WAO have passed the responsibility for this strange transaction onto the District Valuer, and note that he negotiated the valuation of the land, and the imaginary 50/50 split. It doesn't actually say he decided on the legality or propriety of the deductions.

There is not just an unpleasant whiff about all this, it stinks to high heaven.

An interesting response from the WAO however, and one which I am bearing in mind over the similarly sized 'third party' Court Order I have with the council...they know, I hope, exactly what they can do with their Court Order.

I've copied my complaint, and the WAO response in full below.
Make what you will of their response, and, if you have time have another look at the FOI email thread, have the WAO been looking at a different set of documents?

From me to the Wales Audit Office April 2014;

"Dear Sir,

I am writing to complain about a financial transaction between Carmarthenshire County Council and the Scarlets rugby club over the sale of a car park to Marstons' Inns. The sale was completed in early 2013 but new information has come to light which raises concerns that the arrangement was not in the best interests of the council and the taxpayer.

The council owns the land which is adjacent to the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and is leased to the Scarlets. Marstons paid a purchase price of £850,000. However, there were numerous deductions taken from this figure which eventually left £220,000 for the Scarlets and £200,000 for the council.

It is these deductions, and the way in which the negotiations took place, which are the subject of my concerns. One of the deductions was an 'allowable expense' of £260,000 made available to the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan to Henry Davidson Developments Ltd.

The loan had been provided for the Scarlets to fit out their new shop/restaurant in the Eastgate complex in Llanelli. I am also concerned about other deductions including a 'Finder's fee' of £30,000 and compensation for loss of lease of £76,000.

I made a freedom of information request in January of this year for the District Valuer's report dated January 2013 and correspondence relating to the deductions/expenses between the parties leading up to the conclusion of the sale.
I was initially provided with a copy of the District Valuer's report but refused the correspondence under commercial sensitivity.

Following an internal review, I was then provided with the email correspondence which had initially been refused and also the draft District Valuer's report dated September 2012. This was yesterday, the 16th April.

From this correspondence it is very clear that the officer delegated to finalise the details of the sale, the Council's Head of Corporate Property, and also the Director of Resources were  both very unhappy with the deductions, particularly the 'allowable expenses' referred to above. They clearly felt it was a private matter between the Scarlets and Henry Davidson Developments Ltd.

It also appears that success was assumed with regards to the planning permission throughout the negotiations, and that any conditions would be 'acceptable'.

The final email in the correspondence refers to a phone call made by the Chief Executive of the council to the Head of Corporate Property in which he appears to have given instructions that the deductions referred to above were to be approved.

To put it bluntly it seems that despite the best efforts of the two senior officers to act in the public interest and safeguard public funds, they were overruled at the last minute by the Chief Executive and the sale was agreed in which the Scarlets, rather than the public, were favoured.

I think my complaint is best illustrated by the Freedom of Information response itself which is publicly available on the What Do They Know website, the final responses are to be found at the end of the page;
https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/expenses_concerning_sale_of_car

If you require further information I am happy to help.

I am also copying in this complaint to Mr Anthony Barrett, the Appointed Auditor and my Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas as I believe it is of importance.

I'd be very grateful if you could briefly acknowledge safe receipt of this complaint,

Your sincerely

Mrs Jacqui Thompson"


Response from the Wales Audit Office to me November 2014;

"Dear Mrs Thompson

I refer to your email to Huw Thomas, the Auditor General, dated 17 April 2014 in which you raise concerns about a financial transaction between Carmarthenshire County Council and Scarlets Regional Rugby over the sale of a car park to Marstons' Inns.

Your email sets out your concerns about a number of deductions that had been made from the sale proceeds in favour of the Scarlets, in particular one which enabled them to repay a third party loan they had. You also raised concerns about the role of officers in reaching the settlement.

I have examined your concerns and considered the key documentation in relation to the disposal. My staff have also held meetings with key officers in the Council, as well as a meeting with the District Valuer, who was responsible for establishing the final apportionment of the proceeds of the disposal between the Council and the Scarlets.

I can understand the concerns that you raised, as it did appear that the council had received an insufficient proportion of the sale proceeds. However, having examined all the information outlined above, I am satisfied that the council acted properly and reached a settlement which was based on an independent valuation and apportionment of proceeds which was negotiated by the District Valuer, who was acting completely independently of the Council.

Based on the information we have seen, I do not have any significant concerns about the internal processes that the council followed, in particular the role of its officers, in finalising the settlement.

Finally, there has been a delay in us responding to you on this matter as the EU Commission took some time to make a decision on whether the Scarlets had received unlawful State Aid from the Council. On 2 October 2014 the EU Commission confirmed that they had looked into the complaint and they would not be pursuing the matter further.

On the basis of the above, I do not propose taking any formal audit action against the council. Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention,

Richard Harris
Engagement Lead, Wales Audit Office."

Hypocrisy


Council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) has been gracing the pages of the local press recently pledging and vowing to support an end to domestic violence. This evening both he and leader of the independents, Cllr Pam Palmer took part in a candlelit march through Carmarthen supporting the 'White Ribbon' campaign to end violence towards women and girls.

One can only speculate as to how their minds work given that last week they both rubber stamped the proposed budget for consultation, axing a £32,000 grant to Women's Aid.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A question of costs


Back in February this year, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee requested a full breakdown of external legal costs incurred by the council and the report is finally before the committee next week. It can be read in full, along with the breakdowns, on the published agenda here (Item 5).

The cost and details of the advice are divided into two appendices with 'A' covering 1st April 2013 to 31st March 2014, and 'B' from the 1st April 2014 until 1st October 2014.

Most cases, as you would expect, concern child protection and social care issues, the only instructions made directly by legal services, headed by Linda Rees Jones who has been 'acting' since 2011 involve the libel case and the payments to Tim Kerr QC.

I was particularly interested in the various payments made to Slater and Gordon, the solicitors instructed to act for Mr James and the council throughout the libel case. Including the unlawfully funded counterclaim.

As the main trial had concluded in February 2013, the majority of the costs were, of course, incurred prior to the dates covered by this scrutiny report.

What I find curious is that a payment of £3208 was made between April and October of this year for 'Advice regarding defence of defamation claim', a 'Continuation of previous instructions given in 2011'.(Appendix B)

The last unlawful payment, £3209.08, in relation to the counterclaim was made on behalf of Mr James in December 2013, following the findings of the Wales Audit Office. This appears in Appendix A.

The only point which remained the subject of consideration by the Court of Appeal, and heard on 30th April this year, was exclusively in relation to the counterclaim for which, I was informed, Mr James had directly instructed his barrister and, as the indemnity had been withdrawn, was funding it himself, around £3000 I understand. A costs order was made against me.

By April 2014, as far as I knew, there were no issues relating to the claim left in the proceedings, and hadn't been for several months...

Oh, and by the way, unless Carmarthenshire council is now dealing exclusively in US dollars, can someone in County Hall please locate the £ button?

Also submerged deep in the agenda are updates on the progress of the review into Press and Media Protocol and also the Email Usage and Monitoring Policy. The former was first called for following the South Wales Guardian 'blacklisting' scandal in 2012 (amongst numerous other things) and the latter after it emerged that senior officers were snooping on Cllr Caiach's emails prior, and possibly during, the libel case, way back last year.

According to the agenda, these might be completed by the spring 2015. To say some things move slowly is an understatement but maybe the WLGA report will hurry things along, I doubt it though.

More of Meryl's meetings


It was a little disappointing that Cllr Meryl Gravell did not attend the full council meeting last week. As we know the WLGA report was discussed and Cllr Gravell, as former council leader and continuing Executive Board Member has, over many dutiful years, played a key role in bringing the council into disrepute and its governance into disarray.

Whatever her reasons are for her non-attendance, personal or otherwise, they were clearly not holding her back 48 hours later when one of her Executive Board Member Decision meetings was held in Llanelli Town Hall. Cllr Gravell signed off, with public and press excluded, another South West Wales Property Development Fund grant, this time for £458,793. The successful applicant is a local developer and businessman, trading for many years. However, the company named in the document was only formed in January this year and has yet to submit a set of accounts.

Carmarthenshire Council's grant management procedures have been under the spotlight recently and the Wales Audit Office, for the third year running,  have again expressing serious concerns. One grant made back in the summer is, I understand, still under review, see Roger's parting shot.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

News round up; Leighton looks west....and council budget news


Senior pay

Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas brought up the issue of senior officer pay, and pay-offs, in the Senedd last Wednesday. Labour Minister for Public Services Leighton Andrews (just to confuse everyone, up until the last reshuffle Ms Lesley Griffiths held the post which was then called 'Minister for Local Government'..)

Mr Andrews responded with the information that senior officer pay in Welsh public authorities totalled over £25m per year and one of the best ways to save on that bill was to implement the Williams Commission recommendations (with his boot behind it) and reduce the number of Welsh councils from 22 down to around 12. So far, the plans leave Carmarthenshire as a stand alone authority...

Rhodri Glyn Thomas then went on to ask about the £280k pay-off to Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry-Jones and the potential six-figure sum heading towards Carmarthenshire's Mark James.
Mr Andrews said that he had recently written to the Auditor General, presumably to raise his concerns, about the Pembs pay-off and was waiting for a reply;
"In respect of the situation in Pembrokeshire, I have written to the Auditor General for Wales, asking for his advice on this matter".

Its probably all a little too late and I'm sure Mr Parry-Jones is laughing all the way to exotic destinations by now, but in Carmarthenshire the decision has yet to be made. Will a Labour minister fire a warning shot to a Labour run council? We'll have to see.

Meanwhile, if you haven't already done so, please sign the petition.

Budget

As I have mentioned, the Executive Board will be looking at the draft budget proposals (very badly formatted, as usual) on Monday, The usual plan is for a few unpalatable red herrings to be inserted, which then gives Kev, Pam and co a PR opportunity to abandon them in a glorious fanfare just after Christmas.

The most notable example of this was just before the 2012 local election....though this time, with £44m cuts to finds over the next three years the opportunity for positive spin might not be quite so forthcoming.

So far £42.1m worth of cuts and job losses over three years have been 'identified', supported by a rise in council tax of 5% for each year. There is plenty of jargon with the usual overdose of 'R' words..review, restructure, reconfigure, remodel, reduce...

Managerial 'efficiencies' appear to mainly effect back-office support staff. Senior staff have been leaving in numbers, on unknown severance arrangements, but a new director of environmental services has just been appointed and an advert for the newly created post of 'head of learner programmes' has just gone out; the combined salary for the two posts is over £200,000 per year.

The new proposals include everything which had been 'dropped' in previous years, including closing a respite home for severely disabled children and charging for 6th Form transport.
The lollipop patrols are back in for the axe, aka 'deselection of school crossing patrol sites'. This will 'save' £110k...

Charging 6th formers for transport will pose an interesting question of discrimination in Llandovery where the council forced closure of the town's secondary school which included a thriving 6th form. All will now have to travel to the new superschool in Llandeilo.

In an effort to save £100k there will be no more hot Meals on Wheels, a grant of £32k to Women's Aid will cease and day services and supported employment for people with learning difficulties will be slashed and/or offloaded. Adult Safeguarding team which protects vulnerable adults will lose over £300k over three years.

The most startling figures are reserved for the education budget. This appears to be protected for next year only with a nominal cut of £157k.

The following year it will be slashed by a staggering £7.4m and the year after that, £6.5m.

This is due, according to the report, to falling pupil numbers and an assumption, which will not be without basis, that after next year, the Welsh Government will no longer ring-fence the education budget;

An unfortunate spelling mistake illustrates that slashing the education budget might not be such a good idea.

The council are hoping that over half the savings identified for years 2 and 3 will come from education. The schools will be forced to drive all their reserves to zero. On the other hand, the council's own reserves are being treated with kid gloves (see the accompanying budget report here).

If falling numbers are predicted on such a scale it begs the question whether 15,000 new homes are required over the next few years. This is the housing allowance in the Local Development Plan which is also being discussed today. Unless the growing opposition halts the LDP in its tracks, it is likely to be adopted in December and form the basis of all planning applications from then on.

On top of that, £400k will be cut from SEN school funding over the next two years.

A good, sound education is vital of course, though for those who have observed many Carmarthenshire webcasts, not an obvious requirement for senior members...
.
Another big loser is the highways maintenance budget, with over £3m being axed over three years. With over £600k to be 'saved' by turning off 9100 street lights and a similar amount from cleansing I would imagine that many jobs will be lost, and we'll all be crashing into great big potholes in the dark.

Libraries will lose £170,000 over three years and as I mentioned here, a consultant is being sought to advise on the formation of a Leisure Trust, whether this will include libraries, museums etc as well as leisure centres remains to be seen.

Whilst over £100,000 will be cut from school crossing patrols over three years, a mere £45,000 will be cut from the council press office over the same period, via a 'service review'. This is not unexpected given the priority this council gives to self-image, "investing significant resources into it's public relations function" (WLGA report)

Consultation on the draft budget will start on Tuesday (18th), it will eventually be voted on by full council sometime in February.

Nove 21st; Online consultation here; http://ilocal.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/consultations/budget-consultation/

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If you can't wait until the next webcast of full council in December, you can always watch Tuesday's (18th Nov) meeting of the Planning Committee. On the agenda is a development for 270 homes...bound to be interesting.


Friday, 14 November 2014

Further coverage - Respecting the press


The journalism news site 'Hold the front Page' has picked up on the WLGA report recommendation that County Hall changes its attitude towards the local press, a problem well documented on this blog.

From threatened to actual blacklisting for negativity, to 'insisting' a reporter's Freedom of Information request is withdrawn. From introducing the notoriously unlawful 'libel clause' as a threat to investigative journalism to using the council press office to issue aggressive, biased and confrontational press releases...the list is endless and has gone on for years.
A call for a full council debate on 'respecting the freedom of the local press' was blocked by the chief executive in January 2013.


Council told to show more ‘respect’ to local press

A council accused of giving “one sided, party political and confrontational” press statements has been told to “respect” the role of local newspapers.

A report by the Welsh Local Government Association expressed “concern” at the way Carmarthenshire County Council deals with local journalists in a report into transparency at the authority.

It includes allegations that the council, which is run by an Independent-Labour coalition, threatened to withdraw planned advertising from local newspapers due to disagreements over editorial coverage.

The review comes after several run-ins between journalists, bloggers and the authority in recent years.

In December 2012 South Wales Guardian then-editor Mike Lewis accused the authority of acting like “some Eastern bloc state from the 1960s” after it withdrew advertising following a critical article.

Then in March 2013 blogger Jacqui Thompson, who had been arrested two years previously for filming a council meeting, was ordered to pay £25,000 damages to the chief executive after losing a libel suit.

The report states: “The review team heard concerns that the council’s press statements were one sided, party political and confrontational on occasion.

“The review team also heard concerning suggestions that the council had previously threatened to withdraw planned advertising from local newspapers due to disagreements over editorial coverage, though these suggestions are contested by others.

“Whatever the evidence for the different perspectives held, the review team considers that constructive engagement with local media should be a key priority for the Council in delivering its ambition around openness and transparency.”

Among those interviewed as part of the review were Carmarthen Journal editor Emma Bryant and South Wales Guardian editor Steve Adams.

The report also urged an “open and transparent” authority to respect the role of an independent press in its duty to scrutinise, investigate and provide critical narrative and challenge to both the council and its executive.

It adds: “Whilst the executive working through the press office will properly seek to ensure that the views of the council and its executive are accurately reported, the executive of an open and transparent council will not seek to suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media.

“It is critical in the interests of openness and transparency and engaging with the wider community of Carmarthenshire however that a mutual respect and constructive relationship is maintained.”

Among the WLGA’s specific recommendations were that the council clarified its policy on advertising through local media and review its approach on public engagement.

Hold the Front Page


See also my previous post on Wednesday's council meeting.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

November Council Meeting - updated


(Update 13th November - Local news coverage - below)

The main event at today's full council meeting was of course the damning WLGA Governance Review report. More on that shortly.

After the preliminaries, a series of tributes followed to veteran 'Independent' councillor Dai 'Trelech' Thomas who was retiring after 50 years as a councillor...what is of greater interest I imagine is the prospect of a by-election on December 11th. Runners and riders should be revealed next week.

The Chief Executive felt it necessary to explain that he had only published the letter of resignation from Cllr Thomas on the agenda after he had fully consulted with whole family. Perhaps this is one of many salutatory lessons he's learned from recent legal proceedings.

Anyway, the Chair proposed that Cllr Dai Thomas be granted the Freedom of the County in honour of his service, a sentiment, as you will imagine, embraced all round. Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) mentioned that this wasn't on the agenda.

As you may know, the 'It's not on the agenda' tactic is a very selective excuse to not allow controversial debates in the Chamber. Non-controversial items are fine whether they're on the agenda or not.

This was in the latter category so all that was required, as Cllr Terry Davies well knew, was some legal conjuring from the chief executive who decided that really they were only considering bestowing the honour at this meeting, not actually granting it, so it was all ok.

Moving on to the WLGA report, my comments can be read here; WLGA Report - Toxic culture recognised. The report was required following the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the council reaction to this report is being closely monitored by the Wales Audit Office.

The WLGA team presented the report in the same polite manner it was written. The message, as we know, was far from polite. The council leadership was always going to have to accept the findings and the 39 recommendations, well...in public anyway.

Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer (Ind) attempted to confine the essence of the report to the pitiful state of the constitution rather than the wider culture change that was urgently required and they wondered whether all the changes might not quite 'fit in' in Carmarthenshire.....and there were 'other issues' to consider...whatever they were. Oh dear.

Given the past performance from Kev and Co over the unlawful payment reports they had little choice but to accept it to fend off the Wales Audit Office and to try and save face, albeit begrudgingly.

Kevin Madge said he could 'live with' the 39 recommendations; Cllr Emlyn Dole, the Plaid opposition leader pointed out that Cllr Madge needed to 'embrace' the sentiment rather than just live with it if the council was ever going to become the 'most transparent in Wales'.

The cultural barriers had to come down. Cllr Dole added that he felt that the strong criticism over recent years were fully justified by this report.

It was a pity that the Plaid group didn't take the opportunity to put forward the strong views of their colleagues, Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM.

Labour Cllr Bill Thomas described the constitution as having been slowly 'strangled', along with the councillors voices. He also acknowledged that it was the compliance of councillors which had allowed this to happen.

Cllr Pam Palmer wished to emphasise the 'good' points, as you would never know there was anything 'good' if you read the local press, she said....Pam, as Executive Board Member for Censorship has played her own part in supporting County Hall's desire for editorial control...with varying degrees of success.

The issue is so grave that respect for the independence of the local papers and refraining from threatening behaviour form one of the recommendations of the report itself.

Pam also informed everyone of her continual pride in her own openness and transparency, a quality she has kept remarkably well hidden. Anyway, I'm looking forward to Pam enthusiastically agreeing to allow the public to film meetings..

One name which was politely left unsaid, but hung in the air like a bad smell was that of the chief executive and his role in all this. The councillors may have been largely compliant, but this descent into total disarray in matters of governance has, in my opinion, been driven by Mr James, aided and abetted by that 'cavalier and incompetent' internal legal advice. A toxic combination.

Fortunately for the top brass this was a 'peer review' and not an 'investigation' in the 'heads-should-roll sense. Pity.

The Wales Audit Office have refused to endorse the council's capacity for improvement until this report has been accepted and urgently rolled out. It is up to the councillors now. The chief executive is going, with his severance package under one arm, and his charge on my home under the other, happily leaving them sort out his legacy of democratic destruction..

Mr James only contribution to the debate was on a procedural matter but he couldn't resist a sarcastic swipe at the review team on his right saying he didn't want things to appear "officer-led" nor appear "overbearing"...
It is obvious that our chief executive found the whole review exercise at best an utter bore and at worst, a complete joke, a view he seems happy to share.

Mr James reacts to the WLGA report

The report was accepted and a cross-party committee was to be set up to examine the findings and recommendations, and draw up an action plan with a 'culture change' in mind. The WAO and it seems the WLGA team will be monitoring progress and any developments. So will I.

The group will then report back to council in January. Cllr Caiach suggested that an extraordinary full council meeting be convened to discuss the report in detail but this was considered to be just a little too hasty and what better way to kick things into the long grass for a couple of months than to form committee and insist it produces a report.

Forgetting, of course that the report, from the WLGA, has already been written.

Also on the agenda were several 'councillor questions'. Readers will recall the fiasco at the last meeting when councillors voted 30 - 27 to stop themselves from asking those all important supplementary questions.

Perhaps realising how idiotic that vote looked to the webcast watching public, and knowing that Cllr Dole was going to request the vote again, Cllr Madge decided to quickly propose a motion allowing supplementary questions himself, which was then approved. Embarrassment avoided.

The details of the questions along with everything else which was discussed today can be seen on the archived webcast, but I must just mention the deflection of Cllr Caiach questions to Executive Board Member for dog dirt and sewage, Cllr Jim Jones. Silencing Cllr Caiach's attempts to spoil the genteel surroundings of the Chamber by mentioning raw sewage has become something of a hobby on the top table.

Both Cllrs Bill Thomas and Sian Caiach had declared their usual interests at the start of the meeting. Namely their opposition to planning policy in relation to pollution in the Burry Inlet.  Cllr Thomas warned council that the authority itself could be fined now that the UK government had accepted the EU findings that regulations had been breached.

Clearly Jim was fully primed with a a strictly-to-be-adhered-to script. How long had Cllr Jones knew that EU pollution rules had been breached? Could the council put the 'please wash your hands after using this beach' signs a little nearer to the ice cream shop and cafe on Llanelli beach? Asked Cllr Caiach. Clutching his script and mindful of obeying strict orders from above, Cllr Jones insisted he would only reply to Cllr Caiach IN WRITING.

It is not clear just how much grasp Cllr Jones has on his £29k per year portfolio. He said that he had yet to speak to his new departmental head, so when he does, presumably he'll be told what to write.

Cllr Bill Thomas tried to raise a Point of Information over what had been said but....Ah! There is was! The 'Not on the Agenda' tactic, swiftly deployed, end of debate.

 The Chair....

Archived meeting here.


The agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting has been published and the latest budget proposals, and the timescale for consultation, are on the agenda.

The draft proposals can be read (or deciphered given the bad formatting) here, proposals include permanently switching off 9100 streetlights and, in an unprecedented move, reducing the number of official chauffeur driven executive motors from two, to just one...desperate times here in Carmarthenshire...
More on that in the near future..

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Update 13th November;

Local news coverage

The local papers, the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian have both covered the WLGA findings. The Journal has a two page special report and includes an article on the petition, 'Hundred's join drive to block chief's pay-off'. (Petition here)

The group leaders on the council voice their opinion on the WLGA report.

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) describes the erosion of democracy as power has been passed from elected members to chief officers and he promises that the group will do its 'utmost' ensure the report is implemented;

"...if there is any backtracking on this, we will move a motion of no confidence in the whole executive board"
.
Judging by Kevin Madge's comment, that backtracking may have already begun,;

"...There are a few issues I have with the report which I will expand upon after the full council meeting and later down the line. However, the view that the council has been too officer led I cannot agree with. Decisions have always been taken by councillors"

(was that ok Mark? Yours, Kev)

The South Wales Guardian carries an opinion piece on that very issue and the use of the word 'perception';

"..According to the report, it has also been 'widely perceived' that this council has been 'officer led'. 
Widely perceived' is an interesting choice of words - it is what people think, but gives little indication of the reality. 
While perception is massively important, the true nature of events is just as crucial. 
The Guardian would go one step further than the report: for the past years Carmarthenshire County Council has been officer led, with the elected representatives having little control over the decisions and the purse strings. 
This paper's battles with the local authority are well documented. However there does now appear to be a change in the air.
The Guardian welcomes that shift. 
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating - not just this week, but next week and long, long into the future."