Sunday, 23 April 2017

Statements in the Western Mail - my comments



The article pictured above appeared in the Western Mail last week, it's not online but please click to read in full.
The piece carried two statements, one from council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid), currently competing for votes for the council seat of Llannon, and one from Mark James' solicitors. I would like to make a few observations concerning both statements.

Emlyn Dole states that the 'gutter' comment was an "insensitive off-the-cuff remark made on the spur of the moment by his [Mr James'] legal counsel in reply to an inquiry by the judge.” The implication being that it is clearly of no consequence, it is unimportant. I have no doubt that the comment came as a shock to Mr Dole, as much as it did everyone else, including me, but Mr Dole was not in court.

During the hearing, before adjourning for lunch, the judge asked for information regarding the promise by Mr James to hand over any damages. We both had an hour. Within ten minutes I had found the report with the relevant clause, emailed it to the court staff from my phone, and they kindly printed it out, let me highlight the clause and had it on the judge's desk within minutes.

Mr James' expensive brief (£3500 for the day) also had an hour to take instructions or at least come up with a decent response to the judge's enquiry. The response, for which Mr James has forked out a total of £22,000 (£14k now payable by me) for, was that he'd changed his mind' and could stuff it in the gutter.

'Off the cuff' remarks are an interesting concept when it comes to the legal world. 'Pinocchio' and 'slush fund' were off-the-cuff, would Mr Dole agree? And comments I have made about not paying Mr James a penny were regarded by the judge on the 23rd March as said in the heat of the moment. off-the-cuff.

And what about words said by your barrister on your behalf? My barrister, during the libel trial and during the cross-examination of Mr James referred, carefully, to the '£5000 in the brown envelope' episode. That line of questioning, was included by Judge Tugendhat in the extra £5000 aggravated damages awarded to Mr James, it was deemed as too upsetting for the CBE holder. I was liable for it.

I acknowledge that Mr Dole had no part in the unlawful decision to indemnify Mr James in 2012 although it was common knowledge that the Plaid group leader at the time, Peter Hughes Griffiths was keen for it to go ahead. There was no comment from Mr Dole until Mr James was rumbled by the WAO in 2014, over both the libel indemnity and the pension tax avoidance scam. During that time I was even contacted by a senior Plaid source stating that they were 'after Mr James' blood'. By June 2015, and now council leader, Mr Dole suddenly became 'unaware' of any unlawful payments; selective amnesia seemed to be a pre-requisite for power in County Hall.

I have no problem with Plaid as a party, nor any other party (all are good in parts, bad in others and to be taken with a pinch of salt at elections time), and I think Jonathan Edwards and Adam Price are decent constituency politicians. I believe they have been badly let down by the Plaid leadership on the council.

Aside from Mr Dole getting some 'off-the-cuff' planning permission, the episode before Christmas when Plaid councillors tried to broker a resolution to my impending homelessness through public debate illustrated the point well. The Motion, engineered by Adam Price, was blocked by Mr James under spurious threats of 'contempt of court'; it was a 'private matter' and all that nonsense.

Mr Dole was silent on the subject despite his councillors coming under flak and even having to remove statements from social media. Mr Dole showed plenty of leadership when he and his executive board decided to pursue me for £191k but precious little when confronted by the arrogance and bluff of Mr James.

Clearly, Mr Dole's everso polite invitation in the Western Mail for Mr James to consider handing the damages over (once his costs have been recouped...) shows that the word 'private' never came into the equation. It also shows we're right in the middle of an election.

Don't think for one moment that this lets Labour, or the Independents off the hook. Kevin Madge, an original member of the Exec board which approved the unlawful blank cheque, and the pension scam, is standing for re-election in Garnant. The current Labour group leader, Jeff Edmunds, has not said a word on the subject. Meryl and Pam have, as we know, finally hung up their Official Civic Broomsticks to retire on their generous councillor pensions.


Now I move on to the statement from Mr James' solicitors which I find remarkable. And if I didn't live in a bungalow I'd be heading to the foot of our stairs.
"The matter of what Mr James might do with the damages, as and when he finally receives them was irrelevant to the purpose of the enforcement proceedings. On the day of the hearing, Mr James' solicitors were unable to take instructions and confirm his position to the court.
Mr James' barrister clearly explained to the court that he had been unable to take instructions and confirm Mr James' position but the destination of any damages payment was irrelevant"

There are two issues here. I clearly heard the barrister say he had taken instructions, who from is not clear, and neither does it matter. Mr James had been dishing out instructions for twelve months. What was said was said, as I have pointed out above.

The second point concerns the matter of irrelevance. An average forced sale hearing should cost no more than £2000 to £4000 and take, at most, a couple of hours. They wanted a whole day and Mr James managed to rack up £22,000 of complete irrelevance. I went to the hearing prepared to defend the forced sale of my home with a two page skeleton argument.

Mr James had clearly instructed his solicitors that an extensive character assassination of Llanwrda housewife Mrs Thompson was absolutely necessary and crucially, relevant. The judge did not seem to think so.

Mr James had, in the course of the enforcement proceedings instructed no less than three barristers, one being Mr Adam Speker, his media lawyer from the libel case (his costs disallowed by the judge). The 250 page court bundle had, unbelievably, cost £1100 to cobble together, a hundred and odd pages of which was Tugendhat's original judgement. The two page Court Order from the trial would have sufficed.

Mr James' lawyers, despite the fact that they had not been properly briefed about Mr James' broken promise, clearly expected a slam dunk victory and the keys of the house safely in Mr James' pocket by 4pm. This was clearly based on the instructions he had given them and the irrelevant documentation they had been supplied with.

It turned out, of course, that the court felt that Mr James' intentions, and indeed his motives, were highly relevant.

There is another way of looking at this. If Mr James felt he was on shaky moral or legal ground, Derbyshire-style or otherwise, and that the unlawful circumstances which gave rise to the damages were casting a niggling doubt over his actions and motives, then what better way to counter it than to go on the attack with as much irrelevance as he could muster.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

'In The Gutter' - Mark James back in Private Eye


The latest edition of Private Eye features further national recognition for Carmarthenshire Council and Mr James CBE. This is the third mention this year alone in the Rotten Boroughs column...a hat trick for 2017.

Rotten Boroughs, Private Eye No.1442

I have written to my MP and AM, Jonathan Edwards and Adam Price seeking their views on Mr James' 'change of mind' and whether they are prepared to challenge him in any way, or at least flag it up with the Wales Audit Office. After all, part of the council's justification (Mr James' justification in fact, as he approved and contributed to the report before the Exec Board even saw it) for giving him the unlawful blank cheque was that he would hand over any damages to the council.

In my opinion, aside from the vindictive actions by Mr James, there has been a massive breach of trust and yet another question mark placed squarely over his integrity.  Any other employee would have found themselves sat in front of a disciplinary panel by now, or worse.
Neither Mr Edwards or Mr Price have responded yet.
I also understand that anyone asking for a comment from Mr James on these matters, is now directed to his solicitors.

As for the police, I still haven't heard anything since being interviewed under caution on the 16th March, five weeks ago. So much for "you'll hear in a week or so". Whether the police decide to take further action or not, the details of the allegations made against me will become apparent in due course.

Mr James has insisted that the police investigate me on and off for fifteen months. Given his close working relationship with the force I would have thought he would have been well aware of their limited resources, and that their time would be better spent elsewhere rather than poring over this blog for hours. (Update 22nd April; I've been informed that the police are preparing a file for the CPS)

Update 12:39; There is an article concerning Mr James' intentions regarding the damages in today's Western Mail, it is not yet online. Council leader Emlyn Dole, choosing his words carefully, states that he hopes Mr James will consider honouring his promise to hand over the damages to the council...once he has recouped his £14k costs.

The previous mentions in Private Eye (in 2017) are here, (the national accolade) and here.
Earlier posts on the court hearing are here, and here.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Carmarthenshire Council Candidates 2017


Update 18th April; With a general election announced for the 8th June, so far Nia Griffiths MP (Lab) Llanelli and Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid) Carmarthen East and Dinefwr have confirmed they will stand for re-election. I will add to the list of candidates as and when they declare.
Turning out to be a bumper year for the Returning Officer...

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For your information, the list of local election candidates for the 74 seats on Carmarthenshire County Council, to be held on the 4th May, can be found here, and the candidates for the Town and Community Councils here.

Caebrwyn is not standing for County this time, being a little preoccupied with other matters but have put my name forward for the Llanwrda Community Council of which I have been a member for seven years.

After seven candidates stood for the Cilycwm by-election last September the numbers are down to three, Labour and two independents. It appears that Plaid were unable to persuade farmer Dafydd Tomos, who won in September, to extend his brief foray into the world of politics, or anyone else to stand.

There's a sprinkling of Kippers across the board who will hopefully get nowhere; voters of Carmarthenshire be warned as you will recall that somehow we ended up with Neil Hamilton as a regional AM. There's also a smattering of Conservatives who never do very well in Carmarthenshire though it has been long suspected that some members of the Independent Group are actually closet Tories, and veer towards the far right.
Essentially the election will be a three way contest between Plaid, Labour and independents.

Four of the seats are uncontested; three Plaid and one Independent. Plaid have taken the Llanddarog seat by default from the retiring Independent, Wyn Evans as no one else stood, not even Labour.
We'll have to wait and see how many Town and Community Councils are uncontested, Llanwrda will be one of them.

The Libdems are still trying for a seat though hopefully they will not revert to the tactics used in the September by-election. A campaign manager called at Caebrwyn's home to threaten a dirty tricks campaign if I didn't withdraw my nomination. I hope that little gesture bites them on the backside.

There is no Meryl or Pam this time, so we should be thankful for small mercies, but a few other members of the Independent group, who have held the sway of power in County Hall for years, are having another go, including Jim Jones, Mair Stephens, Jane Tremlett. It is difficult to determine on the candidate lists which independents might be likely to join the Independent group, which could still be going strong - this is something voters should be asking, ie, are you a true independent? And candidates should also be on their guard, Pam and Mair turned up at the Cilycwm by-election and made a bee-line for the unsuspecting independent farmer candidate to woo him into their clutches.

Another Independent group stalwart, Phillip Hughes is up against former AM Plaid's Rhodri Glyn Thomas down in the depths of St Clears. If Thomas wins, rumour has it that he will be aiming to knock Emlyn Dole, of recent Private Eye fame, off the leadership perch. Emlyn Dole is in the running in Llannon a two seat ward currently shared with Labour.

Another two seat ward is Hengoed currently represented by Sian Caiach and Labour's Penny Edwards. I hope, of course, that Sian Caiach is re-elected having been one of the only councillors to have consistently attempted to hold this basket-case authority to account with determination and persistence.

Talking of baskets-case councils, let's hope that the long standing rumours that chief executive will be departing after he's collected his Returning Officer fees turn out to be true. Incidentally he took £20,000 in 2012, in advance of the election and before the number of contested seats were known.
If not, then it makes little difference who wins next month, he'll still be running the council.

Anyway, I'm sure there will be plenty of analysis, bickering and social media gaffes to amuse us in the run up to May 4th so I will leave it there for now.
Let's see what happens on May 5th.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Cadno - The Gold in the Gutter - Carmarthenshire Herald


Further to information which came to light at the court hearing on the 23rd March, Carmarthenshire Herald columnist, Cadno has provided us with a thoughtful opinion piece in this week's paper, here it is in full;


'The Chief Executive had an indemnity from the Council in order to fund his defence of a libel claim brought against him by blogger Jacqui Thompson and was also provided with funding for a counterclaim in which he alleged libel against Mrs Thompson. 
Mrs Thompson lost her claim and the counterclaim and costs were awarded to Mr James (and, therefore, the Council recouped the costs it incurred on our behalf when defending Mr James and supporting his counter-suit). 
Mr James was also awarded damages of £25,000, for which he has pursued enforcement action. Based on a valid judgement, there was no defence to enforcement of the judgement debt. Indeed, it is worth noting that a statutory demand based on a concluded judgement has no defence. Quite how he managed to rack up a claimed 21K plus in costs in enforcing a judgement, while changing solicitors several times, is a peculiarity only Mr James can answer. 
At least he faces coughing up over £7K of the extraordinary costs himself, after a District Judge struck them down to £14K. 
In the course of the hearing on Thursday, March 23, a question was put to Mr James’s barrister about whether the beloved and respected CEO, whose name is a byword for integrity, intended to stick by a promise he made to the Council to pay the damages he received over to his employer. 
Mr James, the Court was told, had changed his mind. The damages were his to do with as he pleased. Cadno will not repeat the phrase used in Court, but if Mr James is prepared to take the step his Counsel suggest, Cadno supposes that he must be referring to the gutters between the lanes in God’s Bowling Alley. 
So much is reported elsewhere in this newspaper. But Cadno wants to walk you through the background papers to Mr James’s decision to renege on a promise made to the Council about the damages. 
We start with the fateful Executive Board meeting on January 23, 2012, at which the decision was made to grant the blessed Mark a costs indemnity to go with his CBE. 
Here is the minute, readers: 
The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him.' 
The Council has no interest in the public relations cost of its present situation and, if one accepts that Mr James’s action against Mrs Thompson for damages is entirely a private matter (and Cadno is proud to have kept a straight face writing that phrase), then it has no interest in how, when, or whether Mr James chooses to extract his pound of flesh. 
Except it does. 
Mr James would not have defended Mrs Thompson’s claim against him – offers to settle had been made – and would not have launched a counterclaim without the Council writing their Chief Executive a blank cheque. 
But, even worse is the record of correspondence between the WAO – who ultimately ruled the indemnity unlawful – and Linda Rees-Jones, now Head of Legal to the local authority having been appointed to that role by Mr James’s exercise of delegated powers. 
Ms Rees-Jones told the WAO, on the day the indemnity was agreed, 
‘The Chief has volunteered to pay over any damages awarded to him if his counterclaim succeeds’
Geraint Norman of the WAO responded with a query: 
‘Regarding the agreement to pay over any damages, will this be formalised in writing?’ 
If the WAO received an answer, there is no readily available public record of it. The Herald has made a Freedom of Information request relating to that correspondence, just in case Mr James had changed his mind on what to do with the damages at an early stage. 
However, in August 2012 the WAO investigated a complaint by a third party regarding the Council’s actions relating to the libel case. 
The WAO were able to offer a limited assurance to the complainant based upon what it had been told by senior council officers, and that response was cc’d to Roger Jones and Linda Rees-Jones: 
‘We understand from the the Director of Resources and the Monitoring Officer that Mr James will pass any compensation received to the Council. There is no formal signed agreement in relation to repayment of compensation, but IT WAS ON THIS BASIS that the indemnity was considered and given by the Executive Board’. (Emphasis added). 
And if that was wrong, it was up to the Director of Resources and the Monitoring Officer to put the WAO right. 
Indeed, there was continued discussion about one aspect of the WAO’s report to the third party between Linda Rees-Jones and the WAO, but no issue was raised to correct the assertion that the indemnity was given in light of Mark James’s promise to pay over his compo if he won. 
We can leave the WAO correspondence there and move on to the advice the Council received from Tim Kerr QC about whether its libel indemnity was lawful. Mr Kerr, who picked his words very carefully, said the report upon the basis of which the Executive Board offered the indemnity to Mr James: 
‘recorded that he had agreed to pay over to the Council any damages recovered
by him under the counterclaim’.
 
And when he considered whether the Council’s decision to grant the indemnity, Mr Kerr said it was ‘eminently reasonable’. And he said that: 
‘particularly given the minimal extra cost of the counterclaim using the same lawyers and the offer of Mr James to use any damages recovered to offset the cost of providing the indemnity’. 
And he went further again at a later juncture: 
‘if ever there was a case that was truly exceptional so as to justify using the power to grant an indemnity outside the 2006 Order, this was it. The following ingredients co-existed to contribute to that conclusion: …… (iv) the undertaking of Mr James to reimburse the cost of providing the indemnity from any damages recovered’. 
Well, readers, after the comments made on Mr James’s behalf in Court next week you have to wonder whether the councillors who granted Mr James his indemnity feel ripped off. 
And whether, should the wonder precisely what value they should put on an officer’s word in the future, they should start in the gutter and look for it there. 
Coincidentally, should you consider these lines to be justification for defending one’s good name: 
'Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.'
 
You would do well to think hard on which of Shakespeare’s characters uses them and to which intent and tragic end.'
          (Reproduced with permission, Carmarthenshire Herald 31st March 2017)
       
The 'fateful' 2012 Executive Board meeting to which Cadno refers was also attended by Mr James himself, who neither declared an interest, nor left the meeting as he was being personally, and unlawfully bankrolled for tens of thousands of pounds. The WAO took a very dim view.

In fact, not only was he there, he had also discussed the contents of the Report recommending the blank cheque, privately, three days prior to the meeting, with Linda Rees Jones. The discussion shows that Mr James approved the report, subject to a clause offering to pay any damages over to the council being included.

Of course, you might say that his presence at the meeting, and his offer to hand over any damages were a calculated attempt to ensure that the special cheque book was presented to him on a gold platter. On the other hand, being bankrolled, and giving any award over to the council, might have been seen as a direct breach of the rule that a governing body cannot sue...and one can only speculate whether or not Mr James had any true intentions of handing over the damages in the first place.

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

Anyway, it's a lovely sunny day, so let's finish today with a short poem. This one is written by 'Anonynurse', who can be found on Facebook, here.

A local bod with national honour's praised,
A toast is due, yes! Glasses should be raised!
For, in our midst, we have 'Shit of the Year',
By Private Eye decreed (whom we hold dear).

From deep within the bowels of County Hall,
He issues forth whilst brown-nosed minions crawl
In glistening tracks - be careful not to skid,
Mark my words, they'll do as they are bid.

They dumbly fall in line with their Big Cheese,
And grunt his name, with hands upon their knees;
Bank notes like toilet paper tossed his way,
He's flushed with pride but should be flushed away.

So, come out, sniff the air, what do you think?
Would not Beelzebub envy such a stink?
"Richly deserved" an eminent doctor noted;
I'd like to shake the hands of all who voted!!

Friday, 24 March 2017

Mr James and the gutter - Yesterday's hearing


Well it turned out to be a long day in court yesterday. The chief executive was attempting to get an order to force sale of my home, within a few weeks, for the libel damages (now around £36k plus interest).

Unusually for enforcement cases like this, the judge used his discretion and held the hearing in public. I was asked if I objected but it was fine by me, I have nothing to hide. The chief executive wasn't there himself.

I presented my arguments under Article 8 ECHR, the right to family life, home etc, incorporating the question of the unlawful funding of the counterclaim. I said that as the claimant had been funded by the council, and had offered to hand over any damages to the council he was acting as a public authority and therefore this gave me more protection under Article 8. I also questioned the motives of the chief executive in his pursuit of this money.

My husband, joint owner of the property had not been served with the claim at all, and it turned out yesterday that he should have been. The judge made him a party to the proceedings and he was also able to speak in defence of our home.

Essentially my main points centred around the reasons for us to keep our home, our sons have a business based here and Cae Brwyn (our home as well as my Twitter name), built by ourselves, is the centre of family life. The forced loss of our home would have a devastating effect on our family and the means to earn a crust.

Counsel for Mr James, from London, detailed the findings of Justice Tugendhat, my failure to offer sufficiently large instalment payments, refusals to pay (the judge felt I'd said this in the heat of various moments), my credibility, and so forth.

The hearing took an interesting turn when the judge asked to see evidence that Mr James had offered to hand any damages over to the council. This was, as I mentioned above, in relation to the Derbyshire Rule and in relation to his motives.

Adjourning for lunch I arranged with the court staff to provide the judge with a copy of the report to the executive board recommending the indemnity, in which Mr James states;

'The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him.'

Counsel for Mr James had to take instructions as he seemed to be unaware of this arrangement. He then told the judge that Mr James had changed his mind, he was entitled to do so, and could, in fact, choose to stuff the money in the 'gutter' if he so wished.

The judge seemed less than impressed and commented that it was remarkable for a head of paid service, the chief officer, to make such an official commitment and then change his mind.
He noted, later, that Mr James was probably not in urgent need of the money.

The judge listened carefully to both sides and retired to consider his judgement for a short while.

In the end, no matter what my article 8 rights were, there was an order against me which still stood. He issued an order for sale but suspended it for ten years as long as I make monthly payments of £250. He had asked me earlier for an affordable and realistic offer and I had said £80, so £250 is an alarming amount.

However, our home is safe for now and we are looking forward to the summer when we will be able to forage for nuts and berries to sustain us through the winter months. Mr James will now have a little addition to his monthly salary.

Then came the issue of costs for the hearing plus the prep work, which I was now liable to pay. The chief executive's cost schedule arrived in my inbox last week with a hefty thump. At £21,763.73 I thought it was a bit steep, which was an understatement. The judge seemed to agree and went through it there and then. He cut it by a third, including a payment to a media lawyer, leaving £14,348.61. This is still steep, though he added it on to the damages rather than giving me 14 days to pay.

It remains a matter of opinion whether the chief executive has benefited financially from an unlawful decision in public office, and the matter of the 'change of mind' is an interesting development. For me, despite the £250 sting, at least I live to fight another day.

I'd just like to thank everyone for their help and support and a special thanks to those who came to the court. Hopefully, with council business rumbling along, (bereft of Caebrwyn's usual vigilance), and an election coming up, I'll be able to blog about something else before too long....

25th March 2017; Y Cneifiwr; Reputations in the gutter, well worth a read.

6th April 2017; I have now received the Court Order from the hearing, I am, somehow or other, to pay Mr James £250 per month until May 2032. If I default in any way he'll force sale of the house without further notice.

8th April 2017; Found on Facebook, written by AnonyNurse;


Saturday, 18 March 2017

County Court hearing, 23rd March


Update 24th March - Mr James and the gutter - Yesterday's hearing

* * *

It comes to my attention, periodically, that members of the public have written to the council, well, to Mr James, Ms Rees Jones, or Council leader Dole in respect of Mr James's pursuit of damages. I am eternally grateful for their efforts and indeed the commendable, if brief mutiny by a handful of Plaid Councillors just before Christmas. My thanks for the continued support from Cllr Caiach goes without saying.
Astonished by the replies, some members of the public seek me out via the interweb to show me the responses.

One such reply came my way the other day. The reply had been written, apparently, by council leader Emlyn Dole, and he confirmed this following an enquiry as to who the true author actually was. The letter, and reply were both copied to Welsh Government minister Mark Drakeford.

The letter writer gave his name, but what was striking about the response from Cllr Dole was that despite stating twice that he was not acquainted with the writer, 'I do not know who you are'; he then proceeds, aggressively, to fire both barrels at myself, a piece of writing comparable to one of the chief executive's witness statements.

The email goes on to press home that thorny issue that the chief executive's actions are entirely a private and personal matter. If that is truly the case, which it isn't, I can only speculate as to why Cllr Dole felt the need to defend his honour so robustly, and on council facilities.

He concludes by saying "By the way, in case you think that I am being defensive so as to protect my own actions please note that I was not on the Council’s Administration at the time the decision was taken to grant the Chief Executive the indemnity." This begs the question as to why Cllr Dole is now so defensive over unlawful decisions prior to his leadership, let alone so defensive about Mr James's "personal legal rights and private life"?

Of course the unlawful indemnity did come under the previous administration but it is staggering to me that whilst I am facing the loss of my home, those responsible, including the chief executive, have escaped any sanction whatsoever. There is something seriously wrong when I face losing my home on the basis of an unlawful decision in public office.
With the council having funded the counterclaim, unlawfully, the word 'private' doesn't come into it. And this is without taking into account the innumerable working hours, the paperclips and the corporate coffee, so to speak.

Other correspondents who have since contacted me had gone directly to the award winning chief executive himself, or his trusty legal eagle and Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones. Not only are the letter writers furnished with lengthy rambling letters about criminal mastermind Mrs Thompson but, to push home the point, Justice Tugendhat's equally lengthy judgement is included as an added bonus. Caebrwyn is considering a FOI request to assess just how many gallons of council ink have been consumed in printing it out and whether Mr James has a stack of them close to his desk ready to hurl at supporters of Mrs Thompson should they venture within reach of the castle walls.

With the lines between private and public firmly blurred to a drizzly grey, next week the chief executive of the council will attempt to get an order to force sale of our family home, and place of business, for the damages.

Some victorious litigants, when faced with an impecunious opponent, are satisfied to point to an award of damages as a measure of vindication, in a dignified manner, some, however will behave with all the charm and persistence of a loan shark, even using other arms of the law to add pressure. It is a matter of personal, perhaps even spiritual choice which road they may take.

Whatever happens on Thursday, one thing I have learned over the past few years is that as far as legal matters go it's not over until it's over. And it's not over yet.

The hearing is at Carmarthen County Court, Picton Terrace at 10.30 am on Thursday 23rd March;

Court listing

Apologies but as before, I won't be publishing comments on this post but as ever, I am always very grateful for messages of support.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Police update


Update 22nd April 2017: After five weeks I have now been informed that the police are preparing a file for the Crown Prosecution Service.

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Just to say that I was questioned by the police today following a complaint of harassment by Carmarthenshire council chief executive, Mark James relating to this blog. As I said here, I attended voluntarily.
I gave a brief prepared statement in my defence followed by no comment to all the questions.
I will be informed in the next week or so whether the matter will go to court or not.
I cannot comment further at the moment.


Next Thursday, the 23rd, the chief executive will be attempting to force sale of my home.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Rotten Borough news - Emlyn Dole in Private Eye


Although he has yet to reach the giddy heights of national recognition achieved by chief executive Mark James, Council Leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid Cymru) has a mention in this week's Private Eye Rotten Boroughs column, and could well be a future contender for an annual award!

Source; Private Eye, Edition 1439

For a selection of earlier Private Eye appearances starring Mr James and the council see here.


20th March 2017; Llanelli Online; Private Eye on Leader

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Pembrey Unfair Dismissal case - Council "put me through hell"


The judgement has been issued for the Employment Tribunal held last month against Carmarthenshire Council for unfair dismissal. The claimant, Mr Eirian Morris, whistleblower and former manager of the ski centre at Pembrey Country Park won his case for unfair dismissal.

Those who have followed this, and the wider scandal, will be aware that part of Mr Morris's case was that it was his whistleblowing disclosures which led, after 27 years exemplary service, to him losing his job. The Tribunal did not find that this was proven but did find that the whole restructuring procedure which left Mr Morris in a 'pool of one' for redundancy was flawed, or shall we say, foggy, and that the evidence that he was eminently qualified for a new, similar post was mysteriously misrepresented.

In this case, the wider background, much of which is on this blog, and the fact that one of the main perpetrators of alleged criminal impropriety was allowed to resign, despite being under disciplinary procedures, whilst Mr Morris found himself out on his ear, speaks volumes about the council's treatment of whistleblowers.

MP Nia Griffith gave a strong reaction earlier in the week which can be read here.
In a completely separate case referred to in the Unison press release below, Mr David Lewis described the council's behaviour as "awkward and obstructive" and that he was made to feel "segregated and bullied". Shameful.

It remains to be seen just how much money was lost to the authority during the lengthy period of mismanagement at the Pembrey and Millenium Coastal Parks, and just how far up the pecking order the knowledge of events went. I know what I think.

Organisational Management Structure, Carmarthenshire County Council

Unison press release;

COUNCIL TO PAY THOUSANDS TO UNFAIRLY SACKED WORKER
An employment tribunal has forced Carmarthenshire County Council to pay tens of thousands of pounds in compensation after concluding it unfairly dismissed an employee working at Pembrey Country Park. Ski centre co-ordinator Eirian Morris was found to have been unlawfully treated when he was made redundant and supported by his trade union, Unison and law firm Thompsons, he has received the maximum permitted payout.

After the second five-figure payout to an employee for unlawful treatment in two years, Unison has condemned the council’s employment practices as woeful. The trade union lambasted executives for having spent public money on unwinnable cases and said it should instead concentrate on improving how it supports staff.

The employment tribunal ruled the council’s approach to Mr Morris’s redundancy was “not satisfactory”; that it “did not act reasonably” by failing to advise him of alternative positions and that it deprived Mr Morris of any opportunity to challenge the criteria on which the redundancy was based.

Eirian Morris said,
“Carmarthenshire County Council turned my life upside down and put me through hell. I suffered a horrible period of stress and depression as a result. An independent tribunal has recognised that the authority behaved unreasonably and ruled a significant award should be paid as recompense. I knew I was right all along and belonging to Unison allowed me to take on the council and win. The truth is though, if executives had acted in the proper way this whole process could have been avoided and I might still have a job.”

Mark Evans, Unison branch secretary said,
“This is the second five-figure payout we have won from the council in two years. The unlawful treatment our members suffered significantly impacted on them and their families. I question why public money is being spent defending the indefensible.  The council needs to use its time and resources looking at improving employment practices, rather than spending thousands of pounds employing lawyers.

“This is a timely reminder why everyone should be a member of a trade union.  Without Unison's legal support, Carmarthenshire County Council's unlawful practices would have gone unchallenged.”

Just last year, Carmarthenshire council was forced to pay thousands of pounds to refuse collector David Lewis after failing in its duty of care to find him suitable alternative employment when he beat skin cancer with surgery.

The council has also been censured by the Wales Audit Office. It concluded in 2014, that the local authority acted unlawfully by letting the chief executive opt out of a pension scheme to avoid potential tax payments. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Police


17th March; A brief update here

* * *

As readers are aware I will be fighting to keep my home in the County Court on the 23rd March. Chief executive Mark James has applied to force sale.

In addition, Dyfed Powys Police phoned me on Sunday to inform me that Mr. James has made a complaint of alleged harassment, relating to the blog, for the second time. I do not know the details yet.
I have no further comment until, and if, matters progress. I am due to be formally questioned on 16th March. If I didn't agree to go voluntarily, I was told I would have been arrested.


Carmarthenshire County Cllr Sian Caiach has tweeted this morning that Mr James has reported her to the Ombudsman; "Have been informed Mr Mark James made complaints against me to ombudsman and he will investigate 5. All code of conduct, no details"

Mr James is clearly a busy man.



8th March; Cneifiwr: Lumpy carpets - Part one

Thursday, 23 February 2017

February Council meeting, and the budget


As usual the event kicked off with the parish notices and chair's announcements, the chief executive joined in at one point to wave vaguely at the public gallery and welcome 'visitors from London'. He didn't elaborate further as to who they were. A crack team of forensic auditors seconded from the Met Police perhaps? I am joking of course.

The main event for full council was of course the budget but prior to that were a few Notices of Motion to get through. First up was Cllr Sian Caiach who had managed to get a Motion relating to the sewage problems in Llanelli past the chief executive. Cllr Caiach's motion was for the council to regularly test the water quality of all beaches where people visit and swim, not just the two 'designated' beaches at Pendine and Pembrey, in the interests of public safety. Of particular concern is Llanelli which currently features a large council sign urging people to wash their hands after visiting the beach.

Plaid's Emlyn Dole decided, oddly I thought, to oppose this because it might use some resources and wasn'tnecessary. Cllr Caiach reminded the chamber that the UK government had already been found guilty of breaching EU water quality directives specifically in the Llanelli/Burry Port area. With the help of some Llanelli area Plaid councillors, and with some Plaid and Indie members abstaining, the motion was carried, but the chief executive was quick to chirp up, twice, that it had to go to the executive board to find the long grass to be considered as policy, all of which rather explains why he allowed it on the agenda in the first place. Anyway, what's a dose of e-coli between friends, or tourists, anyway?



Next up was a motion from Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths to set up a group of councillors to look specifically at rural issues. Not a bad idea and something I suggested during the Cilycwm by-election. Labour decided to put in an amendment to include all areas of Carmarthenshire, rural and urban. which, in my view, as a rural dweller and community councillor, defeated the object.

Meryl Gravell reminded everyone about all those rural grants she'd signed off, reminiscing I presume over all those hot-tubs and sets of patio furniture. Great. We will of course remember Meryl for her grants (amongst other things), and how the council refused to see eye to eye over several of them with the Wales Audit Office preferring to plump for the auditing skills of the Wales European Funding Office instead. It wouldn't be in the best interests of WEFO to find much wrong.


Meryl will be bidding farewell to County Hall in May
Cllr Pam Palmer, along with Meryl, will be hanging up her Civic Broomstick in May, and reap the rewards of the taxpayer funded pension

Anyway, the original motion was passed but is, again, a matter for the executive board. This was also a golden moment for our Plaid councillor Dafydd Tomos to speak up for his very rural ward of Cilycwm, be a 'strong voice' for the community perhaps, but sadly he remained silent, and has yet to speak in full council at all.

Things then took a religious turn - one for the chapel goers and lay preachers amongst the members, of which there are quite a surprising number. Cllr Alun Lenny (Pl) put forward a motion to celebrate the 300th birthday of William Williams Pantycelyn, the Llandovery hymnwriter. Clearly this had a much better chance of getting on the agenda than his previous Motion before Christmas.

There was a lot of enthusiasm and they just about managed to stop themselves bursting into a rendition of Bread of Heaven. It even brought Llandovery's Ivor Jackson (Ind) to his feet, for once, to call for a statue to be erected in Llandovery. Pity he never got to his feet to oppose the closure of the town's secondary school, named after the great man, or even to oppose car parking hikes in this little market town. Or anything else. He's standing down in May as well. Good.

There was a lengthy debate on the budget but essentially it became a straight split with both sides focusing on the election in eight weeks time. True to form, a few cuts have already been dropped, as I've mentioned earlier, and money mysteriously injected into the School budget which was one of the biggest vote losers. The official spin is now that the school cuts, this year, are 'cash neutral' whereas the opposition call it a cut in 'real terms'. Who knows? I expect only the schools themselves will discover the truth over the next year or two.

Plaid went for a lower rise in Council Tax than last year at 2.5%, which will appeal to voters across the board though the earlier decision to charge £48 for garden waste collection bumps it up a bit.

Labour's Derek Cundy put forward amendments to add further cash to the school budgets, save crossing patrols, stop cuts to care packages, stop the increase in school dinners etc, all of which meant a rise of 4.5% on Council Tax.  All in all a case of the usual swings and roundabouts. It was noted however that Council Tax is due to rise by 4% next year anyway. It's amazing how £500k was found a few weeks ago to commission an external provider for stress management services.
The Labour amendment, which may have proved more fruitful if each proposal had been voted on individually, was lost and the Plaid/Independent budget carried.

A few squabbles broke out during discussion of the capital budget with Labour accusing Plaid of targeting spending to boost their election prospects and Plaid accusing Labour of not reading the documents properly. Kevin Madge was worried about "that Brexit thing". You get the gist.

What should be concerning to all of them is the private healthcare 'Wellness Village' money-pit about to open up in Delta Lakes, Llanelli; millions will now be borrowed for this and other Swansea Bay Deal white elephants with the figures, so far, completely unknown. Another council project, the Museum of Speed at Pendine is currently being developed, on their behalf, part grant funded, by a company from Hereford who have just awarded a £200k contract to interior designers from London. So much for the capital programme boosting the local economy.

The full meeting, all five hours of it, can be watched at your leisure on the archived webcast.

In another pre-election dash, Monday's exec board will kick start the process to outsource housing services, I suspect the plan will be to set up a company wholly owned by the council with funds borrowed from the council. This is nothing new and Flintshire council set one up a couple of years ago. As these are commercial entities, transparency becomes an issue, as does democratic oversight and it becomes difficult to monitor success or failure. Conflicts of interest, governance and HR issues can all become problematic. It is one to keep an eye on given that they have trouble running a small country park.
The fact that this report will be discussed behind closed doors is not an auspicious start.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A couple of updates; The libel clause, and the Employment Tribunal


In what is becoming an annual event I made enquiries with Monitoring Officer and joint guardian of the Council's Constitution, Linda Rees Jones, as to what progress had been made, if any, to remove the unlawful, and still suspended libel indemnity clause from the constitution.

The clause was suspended, but remains struckthrough 'until the legal position is clarified' (pages 12, 17 and 27) , following the Extraordinary meeting on February 27th 2014. Almost three years ago. And before Plaid's Emlyn Dole acquired 'power', but, unfortunately, lost his memory.

Back in 2015 Ms Rees Jones claimed that the cross-party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) would look at the matter in due course. Naturally, they didn't as this is clearly, for Mark and Linda, a no-go area.

This time round she claims that "CRWG has had enough business to consider without prioritising something that’s already marked as “withdrawn". That busy schedule is reflected in the fact that the group have only met once since June 2015. They met in July 2016 when, aside from a few minor tweaks, the main concern was to tighten up, even more, the availability of exempt reports following an embarrassing leak.

CRWG, you might recall, was set up to chew, reluctantly, over the 39 recommendations set by the WLGA Governance Review. The Review, which recognised the toxic officer-led culture, had been required following the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports on the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

The role of the Monitoring Officer, also enshrined in the constitution, is to keep the constitution up-to-date and to monitor and review the operation of the constitution and 'compare practices in this authority with those in other comparable authorities, or national examples of good practice'.

Indeed, following the Governance Review, and as and when required, changes, amendments and deletions to the constitution have been made, and as for 'good practice' I've yet to find national examples, or comparable authorities which include such a sinister clause, withdrawn or otherwise in their constitution.

Clearly the clause would never be used again; it is impotent, obsolete and unlawful but the problem for the Monitoring Officer, and the chief executive is one of finally admitting illegality, and the implications that complete removal would mean.

The constitution places a duty on the monitoring officer to ensure that all decisions, and her advice to Members, are lawful, in this case it most definitely wasn't. As for the chief executive, his legal position would be further compromised, if that's possible, by its removal. This blog has often remarked on the curious interpretation of the constitution by the Monitoring Officer and chief executive, one such example being the permanent appointment of Ms Rees Jones herself.

As for the offending clause, the 'legal position' has of course been clarified, Welsh Government legislation (adopted by the council) prohibits the public funding of libel claims by officers. It is of note that, so far, no attempt has been made, by Mr James, to take enforcement action against me for the unlawful counterclaim costs, which would then bring the matter before a court.
An additional issue is that this all flies in the face of the Derbyshire Rule which prevents a governing body from suing for defamation, by itself or by proxy. The previous Labour and Independent administration, mainly Meryl, Pam and Kevin Madge are equally culpable.

Whether or not the enforcement of damages is, in effect, an attempt to profit from an unlawful decision in public office, is an interesting point. Incidentally, the majority of the damages were awarded for my reference, on the blog, to this very clause.

The clause remains, for now, as a monument to bad practice, a banana republic council, and a tin-pot dictator. Quite a legacy. As for the '39 steps' to perfect governance, the use of good old threatening behaviour, as we saw before Christmas, is still a preferred tactic.


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Further to my earlier post The Pembrey scandal - An Employment Tribunal, the judgement has been reserved until the near future so this week's Carmarthenshire Herald (not online) covers the final couple of days of the hearing and features the evidence given by Ms Stephanie Thomas. Ms Thomas held the catering contract at the park for a number of years and was, in March last year, subject of an assault by the Council's Countryside and Coast manager Mr Rory Dickinson. Mr Dickinson was allowed to resign his post a few days before pleading guilty to the offence.

Ms Thomas's evidence further corroborates Mr Morris's claim that the knowledge of serious mismanagement, bullying and underhand tactics went up the corporate ladder.

Despite the audit report clearly referring to missing money and assets, the minutes of the most recent audit committee meeting reveal that an external investigator (a former policeman) had found 'substantial failings' within the service but the police had told the council that there was insufficient evidence of 'deliberate' criminal activity. Interesting use of the term 'deliberate'. The Director of Corporate Services, Mr Chris Moore told the committee that there was 'no need' to prepare an official report on the findings. Really?

The closing statements were interesting. The council's barrister suggested that the idea that the restructuring plan was engineered to deliberately remove Mr Morris was fanciful, and the witnesses were unreliable. Counsel for Mr Morris rather turned that on its head.

You may recall that a very similar post to Mr Morris's was advertised shortly after he was made redundant. Mr Morris's barrister suggested that there had been no proper business case, nor consultation with the union, in an £800,000 efficiency plan, a plan which, curiously, placed Mr Morris in a redundancy pool of one. The new post was titled Active Facilities Manager, something which, as Ski Centre Manager, Mr Morris would have been eminently experienced and qualified for.

The Panel asked the Council's legal team how the point scoring for the new post, and for Mr Morris, was worked out, and how they had come up with 'Five' for Mr Morris, "Five out of what?" they asked, the council's team didn't know. The Panel had also asked, several times, how long Head of Leisure Ian Jones knew of the potential new jobs in the very short pipeline after Mr Morris's redundancy, he couldn't give a definitive answer. The Chair of the Panel observed that he should have known as it was he who wrote the job descriptions.

It is understood that Ms Stephanie Thomas has also brought a case against the council.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fanfares


With potentially uncomfortable revelations down at the Employment Tribunal this week you could forgive the council for going full throttle with it's good news press releases. And there's also the small matter an election looming ever closer....

It's been a week of wonders, first up was the Executive Board's deliberations over the budget and the 'shock' news that money had been found to 'inject' into the soon to be depleted school budget. The actual figures have yet to be seen and the announcement was shrouded in spin and some complicated arithmetic but by my calculation a three year cut of £11m will now be about £9,5m. Interestingly it was also murmured that a new post of 'Schools Efficiency Officer' is to be created, at cost unknown to assist the schools with the cuts efficiencies.

With the budget spin it's easy to forget the 'efficiencies' and 'savings' which will go under the radar, for example the rise in school dinners, the cuts to care packages, day centres, school music services, SEN services, libraries, etc etc. Another 'we've listened to you' announcement was to postpone the proposed closure of St Clears Leisure centre, all very well but on closer inspection the actual proposal reads 'asset transfer (or possible closure) of St Clears Leisure centre'. So it wasn't definitely going to close anyway, not yet, but deposited on to the community instead.

The whole of the Leisure Services, and Housing, are in the process of being outsourced to trusts or arms-length companies, and so is social care although I understand that plan is being put on ice until after the election, being of a sensitive nature.

It's at times like this when one begins to question the monumental amount of cash paid to senior council officials, well over £2m to the combined top brass and heads of service. One in particular coins in more than your average Prime Minister, plus perks. One wonders if he'll be advanced another £20,000 Returning Officer fees ahead of the May elections, like he was in 2012, before the number of contested seats is known, in the previous financial year and because, we were told, it was just 'there'. In the biscuit tin I suppose.

It also brings into question the actions of senior councillors and whether they have now completely left reality behind them. A recent update to the register of gifts and hospitality records an invitation to council leader Dole, and a plus one, to the Liberty Stadium, with pre-match offerings, from the leader of Swansea Council. It is not clear whether Cllr Dole went but as the entry informs us that a 'car and driver' were ordered, it seems likely he did.

This is not unusual of course across Wales (or anywhere), and also across all political parties, and often includes senior officers as well as councillors, as my efforts to have Carmarthenshire's information released will attest. It is not time for these practices to be cast into history? It does not sit well with a struggling electorate and to label such events as a 'regional networking opportunity' when council leaders are on £48k+ per year is to treat residents, particularly those struggling to afford family tickets to rugby matches, with total contempt. It is also a form of lobbying without one jot of transparency. I would far rather decisions were made in the council chamber, however poor and manipulated, than in the various council hospitality boxes around Wales.

Topping even the council's exciting, transformational, visionary and mind-bending (I made that one up) capital programme press release extravaganza was the once-in-a-generation-envy-of-the-world, 'the NHS has had its day', fanfare over our old friend, the Wellness Village. The only bright spot was BBC Wales calling Meryl Gravell the leader of the council, oops. Having blogged about this for a couple of years, each blast of the 'Wellness' PR trumpet has reinforced my opinion that this, basically, is pouring public money into private health care behind closed doors. Worryingly, the chief executive and leader have now been given that familiar taxpayer-funded book of blank cheques to spend, as they wish.

Whatever your views on it all, and of course there is good news along with the bad, you should always bear in mind that whatever is presented by our council press offices might just be a dog's dinner and not the top cuisine it appears. Or, in modern day parlance, Carmarthenshire Council continue to break new ground when it comes to alternative facts.

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14th February; Interesting post from county councillor Sian Caiach, well worth a read; Plaid's Poisoned Chalice - the Leadership of Carmarthenshire Council.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Pembrey scandal: An Employment Tribunal - updated


Update, see post 9th March - Judgement - Unfair dismissal 

* * * *

Update 10th February; Report in the Carmarthenshire Herald

With the Employment Tribunal expected to conclude today (Friday) the Herald has provided a detailed report on the main events, up until the time it went to print. The article is not yet online.

What appears to have emerged over the past few days is, to quote the Herald; '...that a key consideration of Carmarthenshire County Council's officers concerned in Pembrey and the serious and serial malpractice at the Park was to preserve the council's reputation at all costs and conceal the extent of the bad news'. The failure to involve the police, the treatment of whistleblower Eirian Morris and the bland assurances given to councillors suggests this was indeed the case.

Here are some of the key points, though I would urge those interested to read the full article in the Herald;

In response to questions as to why the council (key witnesses were Helen Pugh the Audit and Risk manager and Head of Leisure, Ian Jones) failed to involve the police, it was claimed that the unfolding scenario before them was so chaotic they were unable to formulate a complaint. This was despite potentially criminal acts in that very scenario.

A disciplinary hearing in early October which could have resulted in the dismissal of the Country Park manager Mr Dickinson, who had already received a final warning, was 'postponed'. He was then allowed to resign immediately prior to pleading guilty to the assault of the catering franchise holder.

As Mr Dickinson's line manager, Ian Jones came under questioning as to the extent of his knowledge and any alleged involvement in the removal of Mr Morris. Mr Jones denies involvement.

Despite Mr Morris making allegations against Mr Dickinson, and at least one against Mr Jones, Mr Jones remained as Mr Morris's line manager throughout the council's investigation. A 2014 email from Mr Jones to the then Director, and deputy chief executive, Dave Gilbert states that both he and Mr Dickinson were unconcerned about the allegations against them. This confirms that Mr Gilbert was aware of the allegations.

Despite being in line for a new management post, the interview was postponed. Mr Morris found himself instead being made redundant following his whistleblowing disclosures. Mr Morris then noticed that a post similar to his own was being advertised six weeks later. Mr Jones stated that the postponement of Mr Morris's interview was down to advice from the Council's HR and Legal department.

Part of Mr Morris's case is that a restructuring exercise was used to create a bogus redundancy procedure. In evidence a recording was played between Mr Dickinson and a third party which appears to confirm this (see Herald article from June 2016). Mr Jones admitted that the source of Mr Dickinson's information with regard to restructuring must have been from himself but although he admitted to discussing Mr Morris's redundancy with Mr Dickinson, he didn't know why Mr Dickinson stated, in so many words, that the restructuring was rigged to remove Mr Morris.

Mr Morris also alleges that following his disclosures he was subject to pressure and harassment as manager of the ski centre. Mr Jones claimed that this was due to 'audit issues' which had been flagged up. Who flagged them up is not clear. However, as the Herald points out, Mr Jones told the Council's Audit Committee only last month that there were no audit issues at the ski centre.

The panel asked whether any attempt was made to get Mr Dickinson to attend the hearing but were told that he was no longer an employee and had resigned. Personally I find this a little odd as during the libel case the chief executive dragged the former Head of Legal out of nearly two years of retirement to give evidence on his behalf.

Under cross-examination it was put to Mr Morris that he had no evidence of wrongdoing and that his disclosures were anecdotal. Whatever the case, it was these disclosures which led to the uncovering of mismanagement and misconduct at the park. The real issue is what those council officers chose to do about it, or not do, as the case may be.

The hearing continues.

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There's an interesting Employment Tribunal due to take place over the next few days (starts 6th Feb) concerning Carmarthenshire County Council. The claim is being brought by a former leisure manager at Pembrey Country Park, Mr Eirian Morris, against the council for unfair dismissal, and detrimental treatment. He blew the whistle over historic, and not so historic, 'issues' at the Park.

The case put forward is for unfair dismissal and that the complainant  "Suffered a detriment and/or dismissal due to exercising rights under the Public Interest Disclosure Act"

In other words, he blew the whistle and paid the price, County Hall style.

The case, which is being held in Cardiff, is, I understand, open to the press and public.

The background is well documented and began with allegations and rumour of severe management problems at both Pembrey and the Millenium Coastal Park over the past few years. However, nothing emerged until early last year when a brief, but damning summary (and only the summary) of an internal audit report, commissioned following the retirement of the previous Director, appeared on a committee agenda.

Amongst the findings were, to use plain English rather than councilspeak; money and assets going missing, failure to follow almost any proper procedure, health and safety issues and conflicts of interest.

Rather than report matters to the police or the Wales Audit Office as requested by some councillors (not, however by leader Emlyn Dole who thought the suggestion was impertinent...) the sordid affair was kept in house and the usual whitewash began.

One councillor, Bill Thomas (Lab), has consistently called for a forensic audit and has been less than convinced by the usual 'lessons learned' flannel updates to the committee, which he says, has been duped by officers over the past financial chaos. The amount of money which has gone walkabout is not known, but it's not chickenfeed.

Despite the council claiming there was no evidence of fraud or theft, the audit report stated that "It was not possible to place an assurance that all income due has been collected, recorded, banked, monitored and accurately reflected in the Authority’s accounts." rather suggests to me that it was exactly that, fraud. 

Essentially, the internal audit was a means to keep the lid on a far wider scandal and control the release of information.

Far from reporting all this to the police, the chief executive reported me to the police for my reference to lumpy carpets in county hall.

The scandal deepened when details emerged over the March 2016 park catering tender, which was later abandoned when it became clear that it had been somewhat 'compromised'. The council's Countryside and Coast manager Rory Dickinson, who was in charge of the tender, was allowed to resign just a few days before pleading guilty in October to the common assault of the incumbent contract holder for catering services, Ms Stephanie Thomas.

All in all its been a very sordid affair, and smells distinctly like a long and tortuous cover-up by senior officers, further amplified when recorded conversations, reported in the Herald, revealed a senior official pleading "for f****s sake don't go to the police."

Documents were eventually passed to the police by Nia Griffith MP and we wait to see what comes of that.
It is also understood that further legal action might be on its way against the council, possibly relating to the tender, and other unspecified claims as it now appears that other employees lost their jobs via underhand tactics.

This whole business has been kept well under wraps by County Hall, as best they could, and enquiring councillors fed the usual lies, spin and half-truths, but the big question remains that given the length of time over which this serious fiasco rumbled along, exactly how far up the pecking order had the knowledge of the scandal reached, and when?
And this case also brings into question, yet again, the council's treatment of whistleblowers.

Whether or not the council will make a last ditch attempt to settle, or if not, whether further details will emerge and the whistleblower will get justice, remains to be seen, but as with this case, my case, and many others, the least we can hope for is that the uneven floor covering at County Hall may eventually even out, though this will only happen once the Sicilian cartel have finally moved on.

Currently, the claim by this council that it has turned a corner and is on course to be the most transparent and wholesome council in Wales remains a massive standing joke.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Court date


Further to council chief executive Mark James' claim to force sale of my home, the matter has been listed for the 23rd March 2017, although it appears from the letter below that the details may be provisional. 
As I have provided background to all this, and my views, in earlier posts I will not comment further at the moment.



My apologies, but I will not be publishing comments on this post.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Carmarthen West Link Road news


A planning application relating to the Carmarthen West link road is due to be considered at next week's planning committee. The construction of the road was considered essential to alleviate traffic problems as the Carmarthen West Development Brief for 1200 homes progressed, and would also link up the new S4C headquarters, when that is eventually built. The cost of the road is supposed to be paid by the various developers, in stages, as the homes are built.

Whether there was, or is, any demand for 1200 new homes on the outskirts of a town the size of Carmarthen is debatable and a controversial issue in itself.

Anyway, in 2015, to get the road going, and with no developer contributions forthcoming at the time, the council decided, in secret session, to borrow most of the £5m to fund the road.

Throughout 2016 there have been numerous council press releases, with suitably hard-hatted and hi-vis wearing officials pictured at the various stages of road building. All went quiet late last year when it emerged that there were wrangles with landowner(s) and compulsory purchase orders were set in motion. Although, given that the development brief has been around for about five years it's a wonder that such issues weren't ironed out years ago. The identity of the landowner is unknown.

The application next week has been submitted by one of the developers to increase the number of houses they can build before the new road is complete from 60 to 150. They have permission for 250 homes out of the 1200.
The landowner/developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd, which features landed gentry based in Norfolk, claims that the current agreement is not viable, (their most recent accounts can be seen on the Companies House website) so presumably no developer contribution to the road will be made until 150, rather than 60 of the homes are built, though this is not entirely clear.

The application (here, W/27776) features some technical wizardry which suggests there'll be little or no impact on traffic even if the road is not built. I suspect that residents local to Carmarthen, rather than Norfolk, might disagree.

However, despite the fact that the council has borrowed the £5m, (the Welsh Goverment also provided £1.3m towards it) the application is recommended for approval, and has also been given the nod from Cardiff. Whether any 'developer contributions' to the road ever materialise is clearly in doubt.

Amending S106 agreements or planning conditions due to apparent viability problems is fairly common and was the subject of this interesting Guardian article in 2015. What is not common is for the viability reports to be disclosed, although campaigners in Bristol have had some recent success.

An application by Ffos Las Ltd in 2014 to extend the life of the planning permission for 280 homes included a requested amendment to  change the S106 agreement due to 'viability' issues. My FOI request for a copy of the viability report commissioned by Savils was refused.
That particular application is still, according to the council website, 'under consideration' so I guess the extension of time was granted by default but what became of the S106 agreement remains unknown.

Budget, Stress Management and deja vu


Update 6th February;
As predicted, the local election was forefront in the minds of the Exec Board. The closure of St Clears leisure centre has been postponed and the grants to Citizens' Advice phased over three years rather than in one big hit. The school budget will have an 'injection' of £1,76m next year which will make the cut 'cash neutral', apparently. A 'Schools Efficiency Officer' will also be appointed. The school cuts will still be around £10m over three years.
The council bean counters are reducing the average balance by which the council's loans are reduced each year from 4% to 2.5% which will, if approved, release a few quid to fund the above 'injection'.

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Next Monday's Executive Board will consider the budget for the next three years. By far the biggest cut will be to the schools' budget, around £11m, with additional slices taken off school improvement support and SEN services.

It remains to be seen whether, with the local elections just around the corner, a couple of red herring cuts might be dropped but it's unlikely that there will be room for much movement in the £11m. The council is facing an overspend of £1.3m this year but, digging a little deeper, we see that the quarterly budget monitoring reports are peppered with 'efficiency slippages', a quaint term to describe the failure to meet the cuts decided at previous budgets, all of which suggests that the cuts programme is not working, and with schools expected to deplete their reserves, the outlook is bleak. At the other end of the age scale, £1.2m is due to be cut from home care packages over the next three year.

But never fear, there's always the capital programme and the many opportunities for hard-hat high-vis photo opportunities they provide as yet another steel-clad out-of-town monolith emerges. The agenda includes the decision to build a covered cycle track at Pembrey Country Park. All very well but the council's borrowings, largely to fund the monoliths, is now approaching £400m with another £10m borrowed last September, goodness knows what for.

The director's report on the five year capital programme mentions the decision last week to give leader/chief executive a big blank cheque to sign off the city deal, which, crucially for the Carmarthenshire taxpayers, includes the Wellness Shed Village.

The unknown cost to the authority, and the hefty borrowing which will be required throws the council bean counters' calculations up the creek. And what of the interest payments on all this borrowing? Currently this stands at £14m per year and it is now clear this will rise significantly but no one has a clue by exactly how much. I'm still astonished how nearly all councillors fell for the hard sell 'Wellness pitch' at last week's extraordinary meeting, complete with a temper tantrum from Mark James when someone dared to politely challenge the wisdom of the whole project.

The budget will go to full council later this month where election fever, rather than future black holes, will be in forefront of the minds of most of our councillors.

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With the council's recent £500,000 tender for stress management services in the news I thought I was having a deja vu/senior moment. After a couple of days the penny finally dropped and I remembered that a tender went out for exactly the same thing in January 2012, I even blogged about it briefly.

The 2012 tender was a little more explicit as to which 'partners' of the council would also benefit from the service and included Castell Howell Foods Ltd, a private hospital, a private school and a manufacturer of puddings. It is not specified which private companies might benefit this time round.

It's not clear whether anyone was ever awarded the 2012 contract and reports since that time suggest the service was kept in-house. In fact only a couple of weeks ago a departmental business plan stated;
'The use of the in-house stress management/Cognitive Behavioural Therapy services continues and is focused on supporting stress, anxiety and depression, alongside management interventions and support' 
There's no mention of outsourcing the service. In fact, a revised Stress Management policy was approved at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, again there was no mention of this tender or the half a million quid.
Furthermore, a planned budget cut of £135,000 is being proposed for health and safety 'restructuring' in general 'to yield savings from a reduction in expenditure on external contractors' .

I do not want to minimise the impact of stress, far from it, and of course, the council does have a legal duty of care towards it's employees but unfortunately, having been contacted by numerous current, and former, members of staff over the past seven years it seems that that duty of care is often disturbingly selective, with 'special' treatment being reserved for whistleblowers and opponents of regime.
Furthermore, it would be interesting to know exactly which private companies will be benefiting as 'partners' of the council, another very selective term.

Still, on a lighter note, if anyone is in need of some therapy, I can think of one person who should be at the front of the queue...




Monday, 23 January 2017

A Rotten Borough - a collection


This week's Cadno opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald features a guest contribution from his friend, Melvyn the Mole. Possibly inspired by last week's national accolade bestowed on a certain senior council employee by Private Eye, Mervyn was moved to obtain permission to reproduce a small selection of the numerous Eye articles relating to our council, mainly from the Rotten Boroughs section from over the past few years. The full Cadno piece is at the end of this post.

With grateful thanks to Anon for the graphic

This reminds us of those other honours achieved by the best council in Wales. Runners up in the Legal Bullies of the year, winners of the Hellfire award and PR Plonkers of the year. As for PR Plonkers, Carmarthenshire council has had quite a rap sheet with regards to the local press, from threats to withdraw advertising because of mildly negative press...and then actually doing it. From demanding the retraction of a reporters Freedom of Info request, to having its own unique, and unlawful addition to its constitution...currently suspended...

There has been much written about the council's relationship with the local media on here and elsewhere over the years and in particular the attempts by County Hall, well, the chief executive, to exert editorial influence over the local independent press.

The former Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon (Con), who recently labelled the council a Sicilian cartel, withdrew the police cash contribution from the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News a couple of years ago saying he'd prefer it went to independent media, trusted by the public. It is not known if the new Commissioner (Plaid) has reversed the decision.

The Cadno article stresses the importance of robust, independent local journalism, listing several examples from the latest edition of the Eye;
"One can only gasp in awe at the sheer arrogance, brazenness, contempt and disdain some people have for the general public. The very people who toil so hard and pay their taxes to keep said Council Leaders, Chief Executives and Executive Board Members of councils all over the UK in employment. They'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those pesky news people"
It is those pesky news people, or rather their decline (apart from the Herald), which feature in an article over on Press Gazette, an interesting read with a warning, from a former local newspaper editor, that the growth in PR officers, cushioning those in authority, is now outnumbering local investigative reporters:
"...And this is having a profound effect on society, reliant as it must be on the checks and balances that govern the relationships between its institutions and its citizens. 
“I can tell you having recently returned from that front line, with only a mild dose of shell shock, that whole areas of life that should be public and debated and questioned are now in danger of disappearing from public consciousness. Town halls, trust boards, courts, quangos all going about their business unhampered by tiresome questions with no light being shone in the corners. 
“We are in danger of losing the ability to hold people to account, speak up for the powerless, those lost in the systems. 
“It is still the case that when people are in trouble, cannot get answers, do not know where to turn, think they are a victim of injustice, have exhausted all avenues for recompense, they turn to a journalist. 
“And in places where rumbustious journalists – I call them affectionately troublemakers – still exist, the psychological effect that has on institutions cannot be underestimated. 
“How many chief exec’s, chief constables, trust chairman, communication managers, union bosses, council leaders, politicians of all sorts factor this sublimely into their decision making: ‘what if this gets into the press?’.” 
“My real fear now is those bosses and decision makers are beginning to rest a little easier, often surrounded as they are by a phalanx of communication officers (often fleeing journalists) who taken together now outnumber journalists working in the patch..."
County Hall has always considered its extensive media empire, or Department of Spin, a priority cause. There is nothing wrong with disseminating essential information of course but Carmarthenshire has always gone above and beyond with the notorious press office sometimes considered to be the first line of defence, or attack, notably against the Appointed Auditor over the unlawful payments. The press manager even joined the County Hall detachment to London for the duration of the libel trial. (However, it was Thompson, not James who featured in The Times leader on the final day ;)

Unlike schools, social care and other frontline services, the council press office has usually escaped the worst of the cuts, and with a tender just gone out for photographic and video services, it seems that it's business as usual.

Usefully for County Hall, the Sell2Wales Codes required for the tender are very explicit with regards to the duties which will be expected from the lucky bidder (my circling);


From Sell2Wales


Cadno - Carmarthenshire Herald 20th January;

Click to read (apols for the poor scan)

Most of the Private Eye articles, and the background to the stories can be found throughout this blog, and another, from November last year, can be found on Mrs Angry's excellent Broken Barnet blog.