Friday, 15 September 2017

News round-up; Schools and spin..other news...and more spin

The Autumn term at County Hall kicks off next week with September's full council meeting, the agenda, for your information, is here. It includes a Motion and a couple of questions from the Labour benches over the proposed cuts to the education budget over the next three years. The planned cuts, amounting to £15m, nearly half of the total cuts to be made, were rubber stamped for consultation by the Executive Board back in July.

I daresay the responses will be to say that 'nothing's been decided', there'll be some cross-party blaming and accusations of scaremongering. We'll have to see what happens. Last year's planned school cuts were lessened after the council bean counters jiggled the council loan repayments to free up some cash, which was also just happened to be prior to the council such election this time round.

Meanwhile, the council press office, or 'Media and Marketing' department as it's now known, and which, as usual, remains largely unscathed from the worst of the cuts, has been busy putting together some spin. A video appeared over the summer rejoicing in the £250m spent on new schools and refurbishments. No doubt this is all very welcome, but what the message fails to convey is that this expenditure was over fifteen years and involved the closure of over 40 schools and decimated the heart of many rural communities. Building new schools is a false economy when the actual teaching budgets are being slashed, let alone spending precious resources on pointless spin.

Anyway, do tune in next Wednesday at 10am, I will also post a link to the meeting here when it's archived.

* * *

Also up next week is a meeting of the Licencing Committee where an application from Scarlets' Regional Ltd is being discussed. The application is to extend the sale of alcohol to the external area of the Parc Y Scarlets' stadium, ie some grassy areas and the car park, and to extend the hours to, well, all day, every day.

Regular readers will be aware of the controversies surrounding the development of the stadium and the ongoing cost to the taxpayers (same happened in Boston where the very same council chief executive had a similar 'vision') so I'll not repeat it again but a more recent controversy gives the application an ironic twist.

A couple of years ago a 'surplus' car park, owned by the club and the council was sold off to Marstons' Inns, planning irregularities were 'dealt with' and, thanks to the intervention of Mark James, the taxpayer ended up losing over £200,000. The details can be found on this blog, including here. Anyway, Marstons went on to build a pub and more recently a 27 bed hotel on the site...and are now the main objectors to Scarlets' Regional licensing plans, and as can be seen from the application, have put their strongly worded objections in the hands of their solicitors.

* * *
I mentioned, earlier this year that the council had managed to find £350k stuffed down the back of the corporate sofa (the precious revenue budget actually) for Llanelly House, the restored Georgian House and visitor attraction in Llanelli. The house is run by the Cambrian Heritage Regeneration Trust (CHRT) which is also supposed to be restoring the YMCA building in Merthyr. Further background to the CHRT can be found here on Jac o'the North's blog.

Clearly the trust were in difficulties and although the Executive Board decision was held in secret, Company House records show auditors' material concerns with the ongoing viability of the trust. In fact a couple of years ago Finance Wales refused to come up with any more cash and even the council changed it's mind about advancing a £200k loan. There are nine outstanding charges and, needless to say, a considerable amount of public money involved. The chief executive of the trust, who also acted as a consultant, resigned in December.

Companies House now shows that things were a lot worse and a few weeks after the council dished out £350,000, and the Lottery paid out £250,000 to fund a 'business review', the Trust called in the insolvency practitioners and entered a Company Voluntary Arrangement, a legally binding high court agreement to pay off its creditors.
CHRT's current status with the Charity Commission doesn't look too good either with the Trust having 'failed to provide information on its finances within 10 months of its financial year end'.

I wish the place every success and I'm sure that after such an expensive 'business review' it will be turning its fortunes around...but, given the precarious finances it would be interesting to know exactly what the terms of the £350k grant were, and what CHRT actually did with it. Given the council's stance on Parc Howard, maybe some of our councillors might like find out.

* * *

Finally, rather like the email snooping story, I am reminded of another Carmarthenshire saga from elsewhere in the UK. Public interest journalists at 853London report that Greenwich Council have threatened to withdraw advertising from a new weekly paper for publishing critical news stories. The article is well worth a read and of course no such story is complete without a link to Carmarthenshire's efforts to control the editorial freedom of the local press.

The link related to events in 2012 when advertising was withdrawn from the South Wales Guardian after a mildly critical article raising the concerns of Ammanford traders. The proof of the pudding appeared in a leaked email from the council press office. A subsequent Plaid motion (Oh how things have changed..) for full council to support the freedom of the local press was blocked by the chief executive...'Council Chief accused of gagging free speech' screamed the Plaid the time.

There was, of course, more to it than that and council pressure on newspapers, or complaints to the corporate owners often had the desired effect. I provided a summary back in 2015. In another instance, a call from County Hall led to a reporter's freedom of information request concerning senior officers expenses being withdrawn. You can guess who was behind the call and who's expenses they were... The Mark James Media Empire also ensured that the council's press manager attended the duration of the libel trial in London. Despite this, there was much courtroom consternation amongst the other side on the last day when The Times published it's leader...

Another sinister threat, a sword of Damocles if you like, to any enthusiastic investigative reporters was the threat to sue for libel, unique to Carmarthenshire Council and enshrined in the constitution in 2008... and suspended due to being entirely illegal in 2014.

As time has moved on, the internet has proved to be one step ahead of Mr James; a quiet word, an invitation to lunch to new editors, or a fatuous complaint don't usually go unnoticed any more and become the story itself. A pop at the Herald when it was first published in Carmarthenshire resulted in a headline story which reached well out of county.

The council propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News is now down to two hard copies and two electronic editions a year. It is run by the council but funded by several other equally cash-strapped public bodies which make up the talking shop Public Service Board. According to the PSB the e-editions 'had not worked the way it was intended' (at cost unknown) and all was to be reviewed, with better use of existing social media a possible way forward. Yes, and cheaper.

In what appears to me to have been a desperate and last ditch attempt to have a go at the press, Mr James CBE went to the police to say I was harassing him by republishing critical articles, most notably from the Herald and Private Eye. In what can only be described as cowardice he never troubled the publications themselves, both of which would have had the means to put up a fight.
Fortunately the CPS decided he was a lost cause.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Email snooping; from Liverpool to Carmarthenshire....and complaints up by 45%

There's a row brewing in Liverpool Council where a resident's email to her councillor was snooped on by senior officials. Reported by the Liverpool Echo, Libdem Cllr Andrew Makinson was shocked to discover that an email sent by Ms Josie Mullen, who is a former councillor and a campaigner against certain council developments had been intercepted - finally arriving in his inbox, complete with comments added by the customer feedback manager located in the chief executive's office. Incidentally, Liverpool's chief executive is currently on bail under suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Afterwards, Cllr Makinson tweeted 'They're just diverting emails sent by anyone they think complains too much or asks too many questions.'

Naturally, all this sounds rather familiar and reminds us of a similar occurrence here in Carmarthenshire. You may recall that former councillor Sian Caiach had her emails monitored a few years back. She recounted the experience on her blog a few months ago.

The wider issue is that in general, residents, or even campaigners, email their local councillor in the mistaken belief that their communication, which may include very personal matters, eg health and family issues, will only be seen by said councillor, not passed around every Tom, Dick and Harry in County Hall, whether it's Carmarthenshire, Liverpool, or anywhere else.

Sian Caiach wasn't aware that her emails had been tracked until the evidence popped up in the disclosures after the libel trial in 2013. She had no idea what had been going on, she would never have been told, and had to then advise her constituents to use her personal email, not her council account.

Given the circumstances in Carmarthenshire, the order to track was clearly made by the chief executive. Asking junior officers to carry out questionable tasks may have become a bit of a habit for Mr James, from allegations in his previous employment that a member of staff had been 'persuaded' to backdate a document, to the liberal use of council computers to provide evidence for the police in a private complaint.

As with the case in Liverpool, where the correspondent was a campaigner, Sian Caiach was also considered 'problematic' by County Hall, ie someone who asks questions. We will never know how many other councillors have been subjected to the MI5 tactics from Jail Hill.

Aside from the automatic filtering out of spam etc, a council has powers to intercept communications where serious crime or matters of national security are at stake but to monitor councillors and residents communications on the basis that they are a outspoken and persistent is patently wrong.

Any campaign against a council decision/project is likely to involve a degree of persistent communication, it's the nature of peaceful protest, and councillors, or residents have a right and even a duty to ask 'awkward' questions; as long as the contact remains polite there should be no problem. Such snooping in Liverpool, or Carmarthenshire, could quite possibly be unlawful under data protection law and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, let alone unethical.

The email episode in Carmarthenshire led to a review of the council's email usage policy where, after three years, it was decided that the chief executive and the monitoring officer, ie Mark and the dutiful Linda could authorise the tracking of a councillor's emails.
They might as well have not bothered with the review.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Liverpool, Cllr Makinson, like Sian Caiach, has now advised his constituents not to use his council email account. In Carmarthenshire, residents should always be aware that their emails might be being read by anyone, long before it arrives in your councillor's inbox.

In not entirely unrelated news, council complaints in Carmarthenshire have risen by 45% in just one year. A report to the Standards Committee next Friday (update; I've just noticed it's been cancelled until a later date)) shows that the jump was largely due to the changes to refuse collection last Autumn. At best it shows a failure by the council to adequately convey the changes to one of the most basic of council services to its residents. There's also a jump in complaints relating to children's services.

Some of the complaints are also outlined in the report. The summaries leave much to the imagination. To give an example, under 'Administration and Law' it 'was acknowledged that a conversation could have been handled more effectively'...
One complaint regarding the conduct of Carmarthen Market security staff was upheld and a complaint made regarding the tender of sale of property was partially upheld. A Blue Badge renewal pack was sent to a deceased person, and there were complaints related to social care.
There were lots of misunderstandings, explanations and apologies.

Figures are also provided for compliments with quotes from satisfied customers; there are no quotes provided from the complaints, sadly.

Obviously it would be a rare thing for a large organisation to have no complaints and I am not, and never have, criticised the vast majority of staff. The problems arise when complaints become complex and come up against the notorious County Hall culture of defensiveness and there is plenty of evidence of that over the years.
I remember the chief executive, at the libel trial stating with some satisfaction that most people write one or two letters 'then give up'.

Complaints concerning 'properly made policy decisions' are not classed as complaints at all. This all depends on the wide interpretation of the word 'properly' and the degree of deployment of  smoke and mirrors. Anyone complaining about the introduction of a £48 charge for garden waste collection, for example, would have been politely ignored despite the lack of consultation. The same goes for schools closures or council vanity projects.

I made a complaint last year that the chief executive had been economical with the truth in a statement to the Western Mail, and had used the council press office in the process. Apparently this did not meet the criteria of a formal complaint either...

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Swansea Bay City Deal - Pembrokeshire having doubts?

Interesting to see the new leader of Pembrokeshire council, Cllr David Simpson, expressing caution and real concern over the Swansea Bay City Deal at a Pembs Committee meeting webcast (around 40 minutes in) this morning. He claimed that it was not all it seemed; he had "difficulties with the Board"; no one knew what they were letting themselves in for, and it "didn't quite stack up".
He also hinted that Pembrokeshire could pull out of it, though it was not for him to say.
He was also concerned about the 'substantial amount' the council would have to borrow - and whether it would ever be repaid. Commercial interests should self-supporting.

I have no idea what Pembrokeshire will do in the end, but it was refreshing to hear someone question the whole deal. Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea councils are the other three local authorities involved and it will be up to the lead representatives, in our case the chief executive of course, to convince their council that enticing, and propping up commercial ventures by borrowing, and risking millions of pounds worth of public money is a great idea.

Carmarthenshire is well down the City Deal road with the hard-sell being presented to council earlier this year by our own expert second-hand car salesman, Mr James. The presentation included the luxury spa Wellness Village and the only councillor to raise some sort of challenge was Sian Caiach who was, as usual, shot down by the chief executive with barely concealed rage. Who will ask the questions now I wonder?

The problem with the City Deal, from a scrutiny perspective is that's impossible to challenge anything without being fully informed as to what's going on. The private investment element ensures that, even given the amount of public money involved, it is all considered confidential or 'sensitive'. The level of transparency is nil. Your average backbench councillor will be the last to know who's involved or what's at stake.

The Pembs council leader mentioned the 'Promotional material' and so far this is all we have. By the bucket-load. The City Deal has a flashy new website which tells you absolutely nothing other than the spin which has been doing the rounds for the last couple of years. If it looks and smells like b******t, then it most probably is; or at least demands a degree of inquiry. We don't want another Circuit of Wales fiasco or a questionable Welsh Government land deal.

As I said, who will ask the questions in Carmarthenshire, which is already £388m in debt and has a track record of putting the interests of taxpayer somewhere near the bottom of the priority pile? As the chief executive has said he has a lead role in all this, then he is the one to provide answers. Councillors could also ask him how his own business affairs in Cardiff Bay square with his involvement with the City Deal, and while they're at it, how he manages to find the time to be a £171k a year chief executive...or does he run it all from the same office?

Anyway, as for the 'Deal', and the Wellness thing, I suggest councillors get themselves fully informed...before it's too late.

The City Deal promotional 'signing' launch in March (pic; WalesOnline)

Car park at Parc Howard

Anyone who has submitted a planning application will know that if justification is required for something or other, then justification you will have to provide. The consistency with which this is applied can vary a great deal, depending on the identity of the applicant, or whichever party political whip is being wielded at a planning committee meeting.

One example of this is for the new car park at Parc Howard where the applicant is the council itself and justification seems remarkably thin on the ground. Controversy over the future of this Grade II listed building and grounds in Llanelli has rumbled on for years, (see previous posts) and although it remains, for now, in public ownership, the council have decided that private investment is the only option and have already invited 'expressions of interest' for wedding venues, conference organisers and the like.
No one knows, of course, who will be (or who already has been) selected, we just hope that the ridiculous fiasco from Meryl and co a couple of years ago isn't repeated.

Any suggestion of commercialisation, sensitive or otherwise, will be of concern itself and will, by its nature, inevitably limit access for the public to the house and grounds, bequeathed to the people of Llanelli by the Stepney family in 1911. The proposed car park, which is not a simple car park but a two-level affair requiring the destruction of a tennis court and numerous mature trees, will cost around £100k (I think this is optimistic) and is clearly for the benefit of the prospective private investors the council hopes to attract rather than for visitors to the park.

If we look at the application itself (S/35541), it's full of holes, or, as above, a lack of justification. The submission from CADW states that it is 'inadequately documented' and does 'not provide any justification for bringing cars into the public park or for the proposed car park', and will have a 'direct adverse impact on the historic character of the registered park'.

The council's environmental health department has also issued a warning. The site is adjacent to an area of high air pollution, now a designated Air Quality Management Area. It states that 'No information has been provided on the likely or anticipated vehicle trips that will be made to the car park or the turnover rate of the spaces. It is therefore very difficult to determine what
impact the proposal may have on the AQMA'. As it stands, the proposal may have a 'significant adverse impact' on air quality, which is already exceeding safe levels.

The ecologist has also warned that where some areas are to be grassed over, the wizard plan to poke holes in the tarmac and cover it with topsoil and seed is likely to fail...I think he might be right.

The play area, heralded by the sudden arrival of bulldozers, was started without planning permission at all and had to be sought retrospectively. This is unlikely to provide anyone with any confidence that due process will be followed. In the case of the current proposals I would suggest it's a case of going back to the drawing board. According to LlanelliOnline, campaigners have asked the Welsh Government to call-in the application and take it out of the hands of Carmarthenshire council.

Gorsedd Circle sandwiched between zip wires and the play area started without planning permission...thoughful landscaping courtesy of Carms council.
Justification will be another interesting element for the Wellness Village vanity project planned for Delta Lakes, Llanelli and it remains to be seen how private health care, luxury spas, 'Wellness Tourism' and assorted conceptual buzzwords are portrayed in the planning application, when it eventually appears. Of even greater concern is the cost to the authority with upfront borrowing likely to be in the high millions (no one seems entirely sure yet), with little or no assurance that it will ever be paid back, or be financially sustainable.

How strange then that a very popular historic public park, and museum, which encourages access through walking, cycling and public transport should fail to be properly maintained by the council. You might think that it ticked all the 'Wellness' boxes without costing an arm and a leg (or future work for forensic auditors), so to speak. As for culture, the council are redeveloping the Oriel Gallery in Carmarthen given its 'rich history dating back to the 19th Century'.

Parc Howard, it seems, will be handed over to the wedding planners.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Meeting with the Police Commissioner

Just in case you thought I'd gone away for good I thought I'd better get back to the blog. The silly season is nearing its end and the wheels of democracy, Carmarthenshire style, will soon rumble back into action. Not that Caebrwyn has been sitting on her laurels, having made a few enquiries via the Freedom of Information Act, including this one currently languishing in the County Hall in-tray.

Before we eventually wander back into the world of budgets, spin, dodgy decisions and assorted extra-curricular activities I must mention, briefly, a meeting I had yesterday at Police HQ with the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn.

To cut a long story short, after I contemplated, on social media, whether the current strains on the police budget might have been a little less painful without the chief executive wasting 18 months of their time and money, Mr Llywelyn offered me a meeting. As my concerns and questions were related directly to the police I had asked for the chief constable to be present. Unfortunately he was otherwise engaged.

However, it was a positive meeting and Mr Llywelyn appeared open and honest and seemed interested to hear my side of events from over the past 18 months, and asked many questions. He seemed genuinely surprised at some elements of the saga, a bit of an eye-opener perhaps. In fact he also turned out to be an occasional reader of blogs, giving Cneifiwr and Jac o'the North a name-check...

I decided to focus my concerns and complaints into a brief document, suspecting that, given the remit of the Commissioner, much of the content would have to be placed before the police themselves.

There were three specific complaints regarding the police action against me. First and foremost was for the Police Information Notice (harassment warning) be removed from the record immediately. This was nonsense when it was issued last year and became even more nonsensical, and completely devoid of legal force when the CPS dropped the case against me a few weeks ago. It remains an insidious threat though, which shouldn't be there.

I have also queried why the police decided to prosecute given the basis and nature of Mr James' complaints, eg me asking my MP for help when I was losing my home, an article from Private Eye, etc, (a great summary can be found over on Cneifiwr's blog). The CPS decision confirmed that the police were wrong and I want this looked at.

Then there is the Conflict of Interest matter. As we know the 'close working relationship' between Dyfed Powys police and Mr James was acknowledged in 2014, and Gloucestershire Police were hauled in to investigate Mr James rather than Dyfed Powys.
According to the police, with regards to their investigation of Mr James' complaints against me, there is no conflict of interest.
I have asked for an investigation into this mysterious and inexplicable leap of logic.

In addition to the complaints above, I have also asked the Commissioner, who has control and oversight of police resources, to support my request that the police investigate Mr James for wasting police time and I have also asked the police to investigate Mr James for misconduct in public office.

With regards to the latter, and despite being spoilt for choice, I am asking the police, following the additional information revealed at the county court hearing on the 23rd March this year, to re-investigate the matter of the Wales Audit report highlighted by Jonathan Edwards MP in 2014. And also the misuse of public resources to provide evidence for the police.

As for wasting police time, I have provided factual details as to why I do not believe Mr James' complaints were genuine or correctly motivated. I believe there was an abuse of the criminal justice system, and a 'close working relationship' with the police, to pursue criminal complaints which either lacked any evidence whatsoever or were essentially civil matters, and were known by him to be so. The CPS decision confirmed this.

I am not holding my breath but let's just hope that the police treat my complaints as seriously as they did for Mr James. I have the evidence so we'll wait and see. Mr Llywelyn has assured me that all this will be passed on to the relevant departments, including the chief constable and that I will be kept informed.

The meeting concluded with Mr Llywelyn asking me, with a smile, what I thought of the departing words of the previous Commissioner, Christopher Salmon in May 2016;

"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

I said he was spot on. Mr Llywelyn was non-committal....
Give him time...

Monday, 14 August 2017

Mr James and Cardiff Bay - the Western Mail reports

20th August;
The next instalment of Cneifiwr's long-running series, the 'Council of Despair' has been published today featuring an exclusive interview with Sir Ephraim Jams...and we are introduced to a couple of new characters, including a Ms Ludmilla Legova...

Council of Despair - An exclusive interview


Mark James' property dealings down in Cardiff Bay seem to have reached the ears of the Western Mail today, with an interesting article about residents' concerns over the management of their flats.

WalesOnline 14th August 2017

Blogger Jac o'the North recently went into a lot more detail in two posts, Baywatch 1 & 2, both of which I linked to here and urge you to read.

Mr James is a director of various Right To Manage (RTM) companies for Century Wharf flats and is also a director of a private company Building and Estate Solutions Today Ltd (BEST) set up in March 2017 with two business associates. All this information is freely available on Companies House website.

Aside from his burgeoning management empire, Mr James' property portfolio includes at least one flat in Century Wharf and two in another complex in Cardiff Bay, and he is also a registered landlord. (He also has a £250 per month hold over Caebrwyn's humble abode for his damages from his illegally funded counterclaim).

Amongst the issues some residents have with Mr James and the management of the Century Wharf complex is that flats are let for overnight stays, Airbnb, etc which is contrary to the terms of the leaseholds, as well as disturbing for the long term residents.
I am also told that Mr James and his business associates seem to have 'taken over' the RTM Board, with Mr James a 'self-appointed' Chairman, and there is some speculation that the new company, BEST, may be seeking to contract maintenance and management work for themselves, and expand their interests elsewhere, not just Century Wharf.

The other issue is the appointment as a manager in the complex of a young lady, a former tenant of one of Mr James' flats, who, according to sources, has little or no experience in the field of property management and was introduced to the post by Mr James himself...

Then there is the manner in which Mr James has dealt with criticism, and I am told that he runs things in the Bay in an extraordinarily similar fashion to the way he runs the council. Needless to say, this is not a good thing. There are claims to legal advice which are never disclosed, claims to ministerial 'contacts', and veiled legal threats to those who question his actions.
Having been involved in litigation with Mr James myself for a number of years I have absolutely no reason to doubt any of the claims and allegations I have heard, and I've heard quite a few.

His responses to residents, as reported in the Western Mail article are quite revealing. He dismisses their concerns over the short stay lets as having no evidential basis; stag parties and hen-dos are no more disturbing that long term lets..says he, from the comfort, and quiet, of his home in Carmarthen...

He then goes on to claim that there is not only a 'cancer' in the complex (presumably this is a charming reference to dissatisfied residents) but the young lady's appointment was all above board; having a personal knowledge of the 'candidate' was an advantage, apparently, and avoided all the fuss of advertising for the post...

I'm sure readers are getting the drift by now, and that Mr James has quite a time consuming 'hands-on' approach to his affairs in the Bay...

With that in mind, and let's not forget the many months spent chasing myself through the civil and criminal court, let alone his extensive involvement with the Swansea City Deal, isn't it time he was asked how he squeezes in his £170,000 a year role as chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council? And, for the avoidance of doubt, has anyone asked about any potential conflicts of interest yet?

And a final point, if Mr James is content to take public money to pursue his legal affairs, and use council facilities as if they were his own, who's to say he hasn't furthered his own business (or other) interests in exactly the same manner, and with exactly the same arrogance?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Freedom of Information - the difference a Review can make...

Freedom of Information responses from Carmarthenshire Council can be a mixed bag.
Sometimes they try to baffle you with b******t, (appointment of Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones) and sometimes there are bizarre refusals (top secret transfer of public toilets to community councils).

Occasionally, a few interesting beans are spilled, (the, er, 'car park deal', released whilst the chief executive happened to be confined to his potting shed courtesy of Gloucestershire police) whilst sometimes they're met with hellfire, brimstone, and raging defensiveness (asking for correspondence between County Hall and an evangelical church).

My latest FOI request concerned the Wellness Village thingy at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. More specifically, how much the council has spent on the project so far.

My request was clear and asked for information from 2013 to date. I also asked for the cost of any 'works' to be detailed in the response.

The response duly arrived, scant in detail (a hallmark of the whole project so far) but, aside from the match funding from other partners, the figure for the council itself was £32,597.50.

Unfortunately the information only went back to 2016, not 2013 as I'd requested, and didn't include any of the 'works' such as preparing and raising the site so the whole thing doesn't get washed away. It's not called Delta Lakes for nothing.

Given the omissions I asked the council to review their response, the outcome of which arrived yesterday with a new figure, slightly erm, higher than the first at £564,427.72...

At some point soon the council might even get round to submitting the planning application, which in itself has cost £34,000...

The full thread of the FOI request, and responses, can be seen here. There will be more on the Wellness venture in due course, and I've also asked Welsh Government for some figures, but this is an illustration of how, when a council doesn't routinely publish spending details, and has a culture of defensiveness; scrutiny and monitoring can be problematic.

Whilst I'm on the subject, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill is slowly wending its way through parliament and, as the title suggests, hopes to extend the reach of the FOI Act. The Statement of Purpose (in full here) sums up the aims;

'The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill will seek to make housing associations, local safeguarding children boards, Electoral Registration Officers, Returning Officers and the Housing Ombudsman public authorities for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, whilst making information held by persons contracting with public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000...'

All very welcome and interestingly it includes Returning Officers. A request I made some years ago concerning fees paid to our Returning Officer/chief executive was considered by Mr James to be an outrageous invasion of his personal space...I might as well have been asking for his bank details and PIN number.

(all previous FOI requests mentioned in this post can be found by searching this blog, they're there somewhere!)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

News round-up - budgets, selling the silver, and a new Director..

Yesterday's Executive board meeting included the first glimpse of the next budget, which will not be determined until next February. The last budget was passed earlier this year, just as the campaigns for the local elections were underway. There is no such 'pressure' to please anyone this time.

The figures take us up to 2021 and include various unknowns, for example, the effects of Brexit, and how much will come from Welsh Government (a 2% funding reduction is assumed). All in all £36m is likely to be cut over the next three years and by far the largest casualty, nearly half of the 'savings', is yet again the schools budget at £15m.

After tinkering with the council's debt repayment plans (council debt now stands at £388m) last year's planned cut to schools was reduced to a 'cash neutral' position, which sounded better than the £2.4m which was actually cut. Next year this figure is £5m.

One of the great 'unknowns' within the budget report is the future expenditure on interest payments to cover the unknown loans, from government, for the City Deal projects, including the Wellness Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. This project, as I have mentioned several times on this blog is led by the council and includes assorted partners such as the health board, universities, the Welsh Government, the ARCH project, the City Deal people and unknown private investors.

So far it has been high on spin and low on facts, a problem likely to continue as monitoring such a development, with so many interested parties will be a difficult one to unravel.
The budget report repeats the vague promise from Government that the cost to the authority in interest payments for the project will be offset by allowing the council to keep half of any future business rates which (may or may not, given the likely incentives to attract the private sector) become payable.

To allay anyone's fears that the council and health boards are funding a luxury private health spa on the Llanelli Riviera they've come up with a novel way of presenting the spin in a set of FAQs.

By far the most misleading and manipulative question, and answer, is;

'Will I have to pay for my health care if I am referred by the NHS to be seen in the Wellness Village?'

..and the answer?

'No. The Local Health Board is a partner on the project and is working closely with the council to identify services that could provide better outcomes for patients if they are delivered in the community rather than in a hospital environment, for example, some nursing and therapies assessment and treatment. This will enable space in the hospital to be freed up for patients who need to be seen in hospital.'

Also on the agenda, albeit briefly, was the 'Agile Working Investment Plan'. This seems to be a plan to make the workforce more 'agile' in terms of reducing office space and the use of tech, although even by Carmarthenshire's standards this is a particularly awful report.
As the council scratches around to fund the 'plan' it not only plunders most of the 'Development Fund' (waiving aside the 25% limit) for new enterprises, but proposes the sale of Ammanford Town Hall, the council's main customer service centre in the east of the county, and several other offices and buildings. Rumours are also rife that the recently refurbished Llandeilo offices are shutting up shop, leaving no customer services in the entire eastern area.

Ammanford Town Hall
It was less than transparent to have included the proposed sell-offs, let alone the implications for staff (none of whom have been consulted) within a report with such a misleading title. Smoke and mirrors, as usual.

In the event the Item was deferred, hopefully to have a rethink. Not least of all because these proposals, which included the sale of public buildings, were for an Exec Board decision only, with no reference to full council at all.

The Executive Board...and the chief executive, just catching up with Cneifiwr's blog ;-)

You will recall, at the last council meeting, that the chief executive was very, erm, persuasive about requiring a new Director, mainly to oversee all these 'exciting projects' and his assorted 'visions'. The post of Assistant Chief Executive (Regeneration and Policy) was to be made redundant to make way for the new Directorship of White Elephants.

An amendment was put forward by Labour to cap the new salary (and that for a new Director of Education) to £112k per year from the proposed £123k pa.
The chief executive, Mr James, became even more 'persuasive' and the vote was lost.

No time was lost and the advert went out immediately (all posts over £100k must be advertised nationally) only to strangely disappear a few days later. Even more mysterious was an urgent convening of 'Appointment Committee A', which met today.

According to several reliable sources I was spot on with my earlier prediction as to who strolled, permanently, into the new Directorship post with an extra £20k per year. Apparently there were a few other enquiring applicants (who must have been remarkably quick off the mark) but they were rapidly deemed unsuitable..leaving a shortlist of one, Ms Wendy Walters, and a recommendation from the chief executive.

Whether this was a cosy arrangement, with the advertisement of the job merely a brief rubber stamped pretence I wouldn't like to say, although Mr James' 'arrangements' for Linda Rees Jones' post of Monitoring Officer were certainly a constitutional sight to behold...

It's amazing how quickly the wheels of Carmarthenshire local government can turn when a 'new' directorship is on the cards... to the casual observer it might appear that the whole exercise was pre-planned, it was certainly depressingly predictable. I am not, of course, suggesting that the new director is not capable.
Oddly, there's no rush to appoint the new Director of Education and that process will take place later in the year, maybe there's no one in the pipleline for that one...
For what it's worth I also understand that the vote was not entirely unanimous.

But back to the vote at the last meeting of full council over directors' pay. To most observers, aside from political activists and point scorers this was a rare opportunity for councillors to reflect the views of most residents and make a small stand against the eye-watering salary levels of our little rural county's top brass. As I said, it was lost by 32 votes to 18, with 14 abstentions.

Here are the 32 councillors who voted against tackling fat cat pay;

Plaid Cymru;

Glynog Davies, Quarter bach
Handel Davies, Llandovery
Emlyn Dole, Llannon
Hazel Evans, Cenarth
Tyssul Evans, Llangynderyn
Ken Howell, Llangeler
Peter Hughes Griffiths, Carmarthen Town North
David Jenkins, Glanamman
Alun Lenny, Carmarthen Town West
Dorian Phillips, Llanboidy
Susan Phillips, Hengoed
Emlyn Schiavone, Carmarthen Town West
Dai Thomas, Pen-y-Groes
Gareth Thomas, Hendy
Gwyneth Thomas, Llangennech
Elwyn Williams, Llangunnor
Dorian Williams, Abergwili
Eirwyn Williams, Cynwal Gaeo

Independent Group;

Sue Allen, Whitland
Arwel Davies, Cilycwm
Anthony Davies, Llandybie
Ieuan Davies, Llandybydder
Joseph Davies, Manordeilo and Salem
Rob Evans, Dafen
Phillip Hughes, St Clears
Andrew James, Llangadog
Giles Morgan, Swiss Valley
Hugh Shepardson, Pembrey
Mair Stephens, St Ishmael
Jane Tremlett, Laugharne
Edward Thomas, Llandeilo

The abstentions included several Plaid Cymru councillors, and one independent voted with Labour. The full list will appear in the Minutes.

Update 2nd August;
Also on Monday's Exec Board agenda was an exempt item about the Guildhall in Carmarthen town centre. This was bought by the council last year for £225,000 from the Crown Court service after the court closed. The Carmarthen Journal reports that an heritage funding bid of £100k to repair and maintain the listed building has now failed.
What is worse is that the £225,000 came out of the social care budget. It was an Exec Board decision with no reference to full council.
Whether the county council will step in and cough up the necessary cash, given the current drive to flog off public buildings, remains to be seen, but, as I reported last year when they bought it, the warnings signs were already there.

Update 10th August;
The minutes for the Exec Board meeting have now been published and the item on the Guildhall reads thus;

'RESOLVED to progress with current private sector interest, whilst seeking to ensure the heritage and cultural aspect of the building are maintained'

It would of course be helpful to know, given all the fuss about maintaining the building as an asset exactly what that private sector interest might be.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

'Cadno and the rule of law' - This week's Carmarthenshire Herald

See below for this week's Cadno opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald. An interesting article, self-explanatory, and well worth a read;

Cadno and the rule of law
Cadno believes in the law. 
He also believes that the law is nothing to do with justice. 
If you seek justice, look to philosophers and those who are concerned with abstracts. 
The law is a set of acts of parliaments, precedents derived from case law, judicial interpretation of statute and common law, regulations, and rules. 
And because laws are made by human beings, laws can be fallible. 
In 1996, the then Conservative government introduced the Criminal Procedures and Investigations Act. It was so badly written and conceived that it created absolute chaos. If you were charged with separate offences relating to a course of conduct allegedly committed either side of the date the Act became law, then under the Act’s terms you were subject to separate committal proceedings. In one, the evidence could be tested by hearing and cross-examining witnesses under oath; in the other, all the Magistrates had to find that there was a prima facie case based on the papers. 
So, and this happened, readers: in the old-style oral committal the prosecution case was revealed as more full of holes than a fisherman’s landing net; in the ‘paper committal’ – using exactly the same evidence in the form of police statements – the Magistrate was compelled to find there was a prima facie case to answer and the case headed off to trial. 
That was not just. It was the law. 
In the end, the House of Lords decided the law was indeed an ass and imposed some common sense. But not before a number of people had been subjected to pointless trial by spineless prosecutors too afraid to pull the plug on hopeless compromised cases. 
Or, try this one for size: under the same Act, a duty fell upon the officer in charge of disclosure to list all evidence the police had considered, both used and unused. The unused evidence could be requested by the solicitors representing the Defendant. In one case it emerged that part of the evidence that the disclosure officer had certified he had read, considered, but which the prosecution was not relying upon, did not exist. It had never existed. The police officer concerned had merely made an enquiry of a third party, been told it had material, and listed it as though he had read it. 
What kind of plonker would do that, readers? 
Cadno knows, but wild horses and the fear of being hunted down by humourless rozzers carrying truncheons and set on vengeance would not tear the officer’s name from his lips. 
So, we can be clear, readers: not only can the law be an ass, but even high-flying police officers contemplating truly stellar careers can be wrong and wrong cubed, to boot. 
Last week Jacqui Thompson had a case brought against her by Dyfed Powys Police at the behest of Carmarthenshire’s County Council’s most special snowflake, much-loved and admired CEO Mark James CeebeeEee, dropped for lack of evidence. Mr James claimed he had been harassed by the content of Mrs Thompson’s blog. 
It’s an interesting Act, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Also a creature of the same legal geniuses that dreamed up the Criminal Procedures and Investigation Act (above). 
Section One opens with the deathless statement, a person must not pursue a course of conduct—
(a) which amounts to harassment of another, and
(b) which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other. 
And yet those seeking a definition of what constitutes ‘harassment’ are bereft of guidance from the words of the statute as to what harassment is. 
Thankfully, the Courts have stepped in to provide sense where the plain words of a statute provide none. 
The CPS prosecutors’ code states: ‘The definition of harassment was considered in Plavelil v Director of Public Prosecutions [2014] EWHC 736 (Admin), in which it was held that the repeated making of false and malicious assertions against a doctor in connection with an investigation by the GMC could amount to a course of harassment. The Court of Appeal rejected the argument that malicious allegations could not be oppressive if they could easily be rebutted. 
‘A prosecution under section 2 or 4 requires proof of harassment. In addition, there must be evidence to prove the conduct was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress, and was oppressive and unreasonable’. 
In the case against Mrs Thompson, therefore, the prosecution had to prove that the alleged harassment of Mr James was calculated to cause him distress and was oppressive and unreasonable’. Not and/or – both oppressive AND unreasonable. 
Despite combing Jacqui Thompson’s blog, the CPS determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation. 
Last week, Herald columnist Matthew Paul neatly skewered the Erewhon nature of the allegations against Mrs Thompson. Having read some of the posts concerned in the initial complaint – curse those IP addresses – Cadno can only conclude that Mr Paul was seized with uncommon generosity of spirit not to lampoon the meagreness of the complaint’s subject matter in terms of its capacity to cause offence to anyone, other than those with their nerve-endings situated so close to the surface of their skin that even wearing clothes must be the most exquisite agony. 
There is also the question of the Kafkaesque harassment warning issued to Mrs Thompson before the last complaint. That warning was issued by the Police, and one can only suppose that it was not issued with the backing of the CPS or any oversight of the process. 
Let’s hope that the officers involved in that decision thought long and hard about issuing the notice. 
It comes back to one of Cadno’s nagging and persistent concerns about Dyfed Powys Police’s involvement in the whole imbroglio concerning the County Council’s CEO and a lone blogger. And it is this: when the potential target of a criminal investigation was most senior council employee, the Police recused themselves from acting because of the authority’s close relationship with the Force. 
When the complainant was the Council’s most senior employee, there was no issue. 
That cannot be right. Because while the law has nothing to do with justice, enforcing the law has everything to do with fairness and consistency. Those who are under investigation are entitled to certainty and consistency – the Force did not act consistently and that is not good enough. For the public to have confidence in the Police it has to be like Caesar’s poor wife Pompeia: it was not enough for her to be blameless, she had to be above suspicion. 
So should the Police. As a bare minimum.
Republished with permission from The Carmarthenshire Herald

Monday, 17 July 2017

CPS decision - Y Cneifiwr's analysis. And a complaint to the Wales Audit Office.

Further to the decision by the CPS to drop the prosecution against me, Y Cneifiwr has written an excellent analysis of it all here, including a dissection of Mr James' witness statement;

* * *

Further to ''Evidence' accessed from council computer - the Carmarthenshire Herald' I have now asked the Wales Audit Office to look into the matter. The email below was sent this morning and also copied to Adam Price AM and council leader Emlyn Dole.
I have had an acknowledgement from the WAO (see end of post), so when, or if, there's a response, I'll post it on this blog.

To; Wales Audit Office 
Dear Sirs, 
I wish to make a formal complaint concerning the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mr Mark James, relating to the use of public resources to support a private legal case. 
Mr James made a complaint against me for criminal harassment to Dyfed Powys Police in April 2016. This related solely to a blog of which I am the author [], and was in a private capacity, a position confirmed by the Council press office itself on 12th July 2017 to BBC Wales []. 
I am in possession of police reports (attached) which state that the police visited County Hall, Carmarthen on the 18th April 2016 to take Mr James' initial formal complaint. The same day there was an extensive search of my blog from a council IP address. At the time, as this was a very unusual search, I saved the log. I have attached a printed version for your information. 
I believe that the contents of my blog was either saved or printed, by persons unknown on a council computer to support Mr James' private legal action and to supply information to the police for their criminal investigation. 
On the 20/21st June 2016 there was another similar unusual search of my blog from a council IP address, this was a few days prior to the police again attending County Hall to take Mr James' full statement on the 27th June. This date is corroborated in another police report. Again I believe this search was undertaken to provide support for this private criminal complaint. I attach to this email the saved log from this search, as a file.
Searches similar to these have been carried out before that date and since, most notably around the time a renewed complaint of harassment made by Mr James on the 15th December 2016 and a day or two prior to a County Court hearing held on 23rd March 2017 where Mr James was enforcing damages personally awarded to him from an earlier court case. My blog was again used in evidence at that hearing.
I did not save the logs relating to these two instances but I understand that this information could be retrieved from the council, by yourselves, if you decide to investigate the matter. 
The criminal charge of harassment against me was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service on the 10th July 2017. 
I would be very grateful if you could investigate this matter. It is highly inappropriate for the highest ranking officer in a public authority to instruct another officer to provide information, via the council IT infrastructure, for a private legal case, not only is it unethical but it is also an improper use of council time and resources. 
In addition, it is of paramount importance for the administration of justice, and the right to a fair trial, that the parties are on an equal footing in terms of representation and resources. For the chief executive to have access, and to use, public resources in this way is a breach of both the conduct expected of him as well as the basic tenet of our justice system, placing myself at a distinct disadvantage. 
With respect, I look forward to your confirmation that you will be investigating this matter, and I would also be grateful for a brief acknowledgement of this correspondence and the attached evidence. 
If you require any further information please contact me via this email address, or by post. 
Yours sincerely
Mrs Jacqui Thompson 
10 Attachments;
Blog stats for the 18th April 2016 (6 pages)
Blog stats for 20/21st June 2016 (one file)
Police crime report for 18th April 2016
Police report (following my complaints to Dyfed Powys Police); Relevant dates confirmed on Page 5

WAO acknowledgement;

Case reference – 020/17
Thank you for your recent email dated 17 July 2017, I also acknowledge safe receipt of the attachments.
I can confirm that your email has been passed onto the relevant audit team and you should receive a direct response from them, once they have had the opportunity to consider the issues you have raised.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

News round-up; back to business - Updated

Update 28th July - Senior salaries

The adverts for the two posts were duly advertised a matter of hours after the meeting. A few days later they disappeared. The post of Director of Regeneration now appears on the agenda for the Appointments Committee on Tuesday where 'suitable alternative employment' will be considered - presumably this is for the post of Assistant CEO (Regen and Policy) which is being made redundant (see main post below).
The meeting is restricted but I fully expect the details to be released soon afterwards.
It begs the question as to why the post was advertised in the first place. Something ain't right.

Update 19th July - Senior salaries

Full council met today and an amendment was put forward by the Labour group to cap the two new salaries, referred to in the main post below, at £112k each, rather than £123k. As per this post, Labour leader Jeff Edmunds used the firefighters salary for comparison. He also mentioned the Cardiff Plaid '£1m Motion' to cut senior pay (which failed because, er, Labour voted against it)

Political point scoring/motives aside, both Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales have railed against these ridiculous levels of senior pay - and this was the chance to do something about it (despite it being a very modest reduction), or at least send the right message.

The chief executive appeared to break into a cold sweat, decided that this was not going to happen and proceeded to go all out to influence the vote. The only time to review senior pay scales was, he said, when he goes, (he being on £171k + RO fees, perks and unlawful legal expenses) and insisted that the lowest paid workers in the council had by far the best deal...

This complete nonsense, coupled with the usual display of arrogance pushed the council into voting against the amendment which was lost by 32 votes to 18 with 14 abstentions. Plaid and the Indies voted, by and large, against. I would expect this from the Independent group, but Plaid? I hope it was some of them who at least abstained.

Whether or not, as an employee, the chief executive should have even been entering a discussion around senior pay, let alone trying to influence the vote, is quite another matter. He should have been stopped in his tracks.

Anyway, you will be able to see it all for yourselves when the webcast is archived, and the details of how each councillor voted will eventually appear in the minutes.

* * *

So, after all that, to which we will return in the very near future, it's back to business. 

One of the questions on the agenda for next Wednesday's full council meeting is to ask why the expressions of interest for the commercial development of Parc Howard has not been put out to open tender, such as on the Sell2Wales website, and it seems that the arrangements are being made in house. This is surprising and you might think that the old meaningless phrase 'lessons learned' might have come into play after the fiasco a couple of years ago when the 'arrangements' for commercialisation appeared to revolve around secret meetings in hotels and undisclosed emails from Meryl Gravell.

Someone might also want to flag up another proposed development which seems to have passed under the radar located on an acre of car park in Pembrey Country Park. The council are seeking expressions of interest to develop an 80-bed temporary, demountable motel (whatever that is), with a lease of around 15 years.

The Pembrey Masterplan (County Hall are partial to Masterplans) was approved last year, with various facilities marked out on a glossy cartoon map. There is no mention of an 80-bed motel, temporary or otherwise. Nor has there been any hint of planning permission. All a bit odd. This, I would think, another good candidate for an open tender process and particularly after (yet another) fiasco over the catering tender, other financial irregularities and allegations of a top-level cover-up, concerning the Park last year.

A sympathetic development it might be ok, who knows, but as the Park is still publicly owned you might have thought it would at least be polite to ask the public what they thought of the idea.
And the trouble with keeping these decisions comfortably in-house is that some suspicious souls may wonder what sweeteners will be on offer, and whether the 'preferred developer' has, in fact, already been lined up...

* * *

Also on the agenda is a decision by the chief executive to create another directorship. The current post of Assistant Chief Executive (Regeneration and Policy), which attracts a salary of around £100k per year, will be made redundant (we have another Assistant CEO so don't panic) and the new post, Director of Regeneration and Policy will attract a salary of £120k per year. So technically it will be a net cost to the taxpayer of around £20k, roughly an above average annual wage for most Carmarthenshire residents.

The new directorship will have the responsibility of herding the White Elephants and in particular the once-in-a-generation Wellness Shed proposed for the mangrove swamp at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. The development will involve unknown ££££ of generous contributions from our council, universities and local NHS services. They're still keeping quiet about the mysterious private investors. Should it go ahead it will be one to watch with interest and, like the whole City Deal, will undoubtedly provide a few well paid jobs, and contracts, for the boys.

Anyway, back to the new Directorship and as the salary is over £100k is has to be advertised nationally so the council must approve the job description as well as the job advert.
The post which will be made redundant is currently occupied by Ms Wendy Walters and, as the report states, the council are duty bound to redeploy the redundant postholder into a similar position or else face possible action for unfair dismissal. It would seem, possibly, that the scene is set. Unless Ms Walters is going to pastures new, the cynics amongst us might think that, 'national advertising' aside, Ms Walters may well end up with the directorship and the associated pay rise of £20k.

On the upside, if the chief executive creates many more top jobs to oversee our little rural county he may find his own job is the one which is made redundant...

* * *

At the other end of the scale, or 'the real world' as it's known, the council had to return £25k back to the UK government after it failed to spend all of it's Discretionary Housing Payment grant, a grant to help families who are struggling with their rent and facing possible eviction. This is the highest clawback in Wales. Various excuses have been given to the press in that attempts to promote uptake of the DHPs had failed, effectively blaming the residents.

I would suggest that they should make as much effort in reaching those in need as they do with cosseting and promoting the top brass. As I mentioned last week, the Director of Communties had an extra £14k last year for being deputy chief executive and the permanent appointment of the Head of Legal and monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones a couple of years ago illustrated the Mark James interpretation of the constitution at its most convoluted.

* * *

Finally, today's Sunday Express reports on an appalling story covered by this blog back in 2012 concerning a deprivation of liberty case involving a young lady, then a 19 year old teenager, Carina Burn.

Carina, who is profoundly autistic, cannot speak and has very limited communication skills, was taken from her parents following false allegations of sexual abuse made by two carers employed by a firm commissioned by Carmarthenshire Council. Carina's parents, Robin and Julia, have now spoken out for the first time.

They have asked Dyfed Powys Police to re-open the case and reconsider whether any action can be taken against the carers who, for all anyone knows, are still working in the care system. Since the initial investigations found insufficient evidence to charge the two carers, both the council and Dyfed Powys Police have admitted their own failings in formal reports and confirmed that the allegations against Robin and Julia were completely fabricated, this, in itself is new evidence.

In an Ombudsman's report the council admitted it's failings led to the wrongful deprivation of Carina's liberty but as with so many cases involving the council no one was disciplined, key figures in the case secured promotion, enquiring councillors were told to keep out of it, and it was all swept under the carpet.
Worst of all has been the trauma wrongly inflicted on Carina's parents and most of all on Carina herself who continues to be deeply affected by the experience.

The solicitor who represented Carina in her civil claim for the contravention of her human rights said;

“This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

CPS discontinue blog 'harassment' case - updated

Later post 17th July; CPS decision - Cneifiwr's analysis. And a complaint to the Wales Audit Office

I was informed, late yesterday afternoon (10th July) that the CPS have discontinued the case against me for the alleged non-violent harassment of chief executive Mark James. It's been dropped. I was due to attend court on Thursday 13th.
I am waiting to have this confirmed in writing - I understand a discontinuance notice has been posted to me by the CPS.
It was a police decision to charge and a CPS decision to throw it out.

After what has amounted to 18 months of indescribable stress I am, of course, relieved and I will update this post and write in detail about this whole episode as soon as I can.

In light of all this, I intend to challenge, again, the 'warning letter' (Police Information Notice) issued to me last August. It is still on the record.

* * *

BBC Wales Online have reported that the case has been dropped here; Criminal case against blogger dropped

The CPS have issued a statement to say that I had been charged with a harassment offence as
"Following a review, prosecutors were no longer satisfied there was a realistic prospect of conviction due to insufficient evidence and therefore made the decision to discontinue the case."

The council did not give a comment as they said it was a private matter for Mr James, which is odd as it appears copious amounts of 'insufficient evidence' were sourced via council computers.

The Carmarthen Journal have also reported on the matter; Harassment case against Carmarthenshire blogger dropped

The Carmarthenshire Herald features an excellent and detailed piece on these latest developments (print only) and for those who like a bit of satire, 'Carmarthenshire's Most Wanted' by Herald columnist and barrister Matthew Paul is well worth a read.

* * *

My comment

I'm not sure where to start with this, it has been a very difficult 18 months. I have spent most of the time wondering if the police were going to make an unexpected visit, wondering if I was going to be arrested or if they were going to seize my computer etc. I had no idea what to expect. I have continued the blog with trepidation but also with an element of defiance that what I was writing was, and is, legitimate comment.

I'll start with some background.
The chief executive, Mr Mark James, reported me to the police last year alleging harassment via this blog. There was nothing else, there never has been, it was just the blog. No action was taken but I was eventually issued with a warning letter in August. I refused to sign for it and I denied harassment but as this letter (a Police Information Notice - 'PIN') had no legal force I was not able to counter the allegations.

An additional complaint by Mr James, after the finding in the libel judgement that I was guilty of perverting the course of justice, was also investigated last year, then dropped. The police report issued after I challenged the warning letter noted, in relation to this other allegation; "It was also considered that Mr James could be looking at having 'two bites of the cherry' in making a criminal allegation as the civil case was finalised some three years ago and the timing of the allegation when Carmarthenshire Council and Mr James are actively pursuing Mrs Thompson for the outstanding monies from the civil action must be questioned"

In April 2016 Mr James then instructed solicitors to threaten me with a High Court action with regards to the blog, and later on, in October 2016 he instructed them to force sale of my home.

I challenged the PIN (which stays on record for 14 months) as far as my resources and ability allowed, arguing that what I had said did not constitute criminal harassment and that the notice should be removed from the record.

I also believed there had been a conflict of interest given that Dyfed Powys Police had recused themselves from an earlier investigation into Mr James himself due to their 'close working relationship', handing the task to Gloucestershire police instead.
Neither of my complaints were upheld.

I have already mentioned the substance of the first batch of complaints in earlier posts eg, the lumpy carpets.

Mr James then made another complaint in mid-December last year. This is the case that has now been thrown out.

It appears to have been triggered by the attempt by elected members to bring about a resolution to the county court action to seize my home, brought by Mr James for his damages. Or, as Mr James saw it, pesky politicians meddling in his 'private affairs'.

This 'private affair' arose from the unlawful use of public money to fund his counterclaim. My only 'crime' was to have asked my MP and AM for help.

I am left in no doubt as to Mr James' opinion of Adam Price AM, Jonathan Edwards MP, and Plaid Cllrs Alun Lenny and Cefin Campbell for attempting to bring their motion forward. If their ears have been burning, I know why. Must have been on fire.
It is quite telling that the proper democratic process should be deemed as harassment by Mr James. I can't imagine what was said in County Hall in mid-December but Cllr Lenny's Facebook post ridiculing the notion that this was a 'private' matter soon disappeared..

On a brief lighter note, Mr James' witness statement gives us a surprising insight into the previously unknown, and extensive legal expertise of veteran councillor, Eryl Morgan. You may recall his, erm, Chairmanship of the Council and his confusion over such quaint terms as abstentions and amendments... Who knew that the elderly gentleman he had memorised Tugenhat's judgment with such clarity and was able to use it to reject the Motion on the spurious grounds that everyone would be in contempt of court?
I nearly choked on my cornflakes...

The complaints also included a reference to the Private Eye 'Shit of the Year' award made to Mr James in January 2017. The alleged harassment arose because I posted the article on this blog. The article was not written by me and it was also published online by Private Eye itself, the Herald, and elsewhere online. I understand that Private Eye have never had so much as a whiff of a complaint from Mr James.
I knew someone in primary school like that, they never took the dinner money off the big boys, just the little kids...

Another complaint concerned an article written by the Carmarthenshire Herald about the Pembrey Country Park scandal. I had reported on the article on the blog.

There is reference to the peaceful 'pound of flesh' 'Shylock' demo, from last December, this was a few people who have been kind enough to support me, on their own initiative, exercising their legitimate right to protest against the actions of a council.

My comments that I found Tugendhat's judgement to be a miscarriage of justice and my continued defence over the contents of my blog were both deemed harassing by Mr James. In what world are we not allowed to disagree with a judgement?  Too right I disagree with it but, it's still there and I can't do a lot about it but the findings of perverting the course of justice (Mr James' police statement was deeply and deliberately misleading on this point), and harassment, which have now both been subject to 18 months of criminal investigations, have failed the test.
In that respect I feel vindicated.

I was questioned by the police in March about all this, (under threat of arrest if I didn't agree to interview) I was particularly struck by the accusation over the Eye article, and the rest of it for that matter. I gave no comment at the time but indicated in a statement that I would be pleading not guilty.

The police decided to report me for summons in May. Advised, I believe, by the CPS.

In the past week, the case appears to have gone up the chain of command in the CPS for review, and has now been discontinued.

The police time and resources which have been wasted over all this, on and off for 18 months must be considerable.

As I have said, this action against me was misguided and ridiculous. The complaints, within Mr James' sworn witness statement, ranged from the weirdly self-absorbed to the downright absurd. The statement was deliberately misleading and economical with the truth.

Over the past couple of months Mr James has reneged on a promise to his employers (that's without the 'gutter' comment from his lawyer) at the forced sale hearing in March. Where clearly not even the judge saw it as a 'private matter', and in an unusual move threw open the doors to the public and press. Mr James is now under fire for using public resources to support his criminal legal case. I will be pursuing that issue with the appropriate authorities.

I intend to return to the issue of the PIN as that is still hanging over me and also, in due course, challenge the monthly instalments of £250 I'm paying to the chief executive for the next fifteen years, it was never means tested in any shape or form, and believe me, it needs to be.

I also intend to continue with the blog, it will be business as usual.

My thanks as ever to those who have supported me and special thanks to barrister Matthew Paul who has been dealing with this matter for the past few weeks.

It's the first 'proper' meeting of full council next week since the local elections so I'm sure there'll be plenty to write about.

Carmarthenshire Herald 14th July 2017

Saturday, 8 July 2017

'Evidence' accessed from council computer - Carmarthenshire Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald reports that a council computer was used to trawl through this blog immediately prior and during the time that the chief executive, Mr James, was making his first complaint of alleged harassment against me to the police last year.

The two saved logs show very extensive searches, either to download or print blogposts on the 18th April 2016, the same day that the police visited County Hall to take the chief executive's initial complaint and collect 'evidence', and again on the 22nd June 2016. This second trawl was a couple of days before police again attended County Hall to take his full detailed statement.
These searches strongly suggest that the council were involved in compiling a dossier for the police.

So, this is either an astonishing coincidence or your council tax is being used, yet again, to pursue and support the chief executive's 'private' legal manoeuvres.

As Cneifiwr recently pointed out;

'Of course, it would be outrageous to suggest that council staff and resources were used to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune because, as the council likes to remind everyone, this is an entirely private matter between Mr James CBE and a resident.'

And as The Herald notes it would be

"wholly inappropriate for any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so"

The council failed to respond to the Herald's enquiries.

The article is not online, please click to read

Audit woes

The Council's Audit Committee meets next week (not webcast, and recordings are banned) and on the agenda, alongside the draft Statement of Accounts which I mentioned last week, are a couple of worrying internal audit reports.

As is usual, the details are sparse and the language sanitised, and it will be up to the Committee to ensure they are fully briefed rather than simply accept bland assurances from the attending officers.

There are two reports, concerning the failure to follow the Council's Procurement and Contract Procedural Rules .

With a total annual budget of £200m for the supply of goods and services, the first report highlights failure to comply with Contract Procurement Rules. A specimen analysis of several contracts was undertaken and concluded that, in some instances;

  • Contracts or frameworks are not in place;
  • Where there are frameworks they are not always utilised correctly;
  • Contractors have not always been appointed in accordance with the framework call off policy,
  • Quotations were not always obtained or not always retained.

In addition, the cumulative level of spend across the departments is not known and could be failing to comply with EU tendering thresholds, and also failing to provide value for money.

The second report is similar. The total Capital Maintenance budget for the council is £3.25m per annum and again there are failures and a lack of clarity over how contracts are awarded, particularly under the Responsive Minor Works and Disabled Adaptions Contractors Framework.

A framework enables a contract to be awarded ('call-off) within the list of providers, either directly or through a mini-tendering exercise. According to the report, there appears to be little or no record of how the jobs were awarded, and neither was there any record of post-completion monitoring (ie was the work done, and was it done properly). The report states that "Given the significant amount of money spent on Capital Maintenance schemes it is imperative that the Authority takes responsibility for ensuring works are completed to the agreed specification. " Yes indeed.

This is not the first time there have been problems with proper compliance with the awarding of contracts and procurement of services. Similar issues were identified back in March 2014 and more recently with the Supporting People Grants and, most notoriously, with Pembrey Country Park. Worryingly, a £250m tender has just been published for 'partners' to develop the Delta Lakes luxury health spa 'Wellness Village', let's hope that process is correct, transparent and above board...

Given that only a sample of contracts were analysed, one can only guess what the true picture might be across the Authority. Incidentally, there is a third report on the agenda dealing with Coedcae Area Sports Centre, where management issues remain 'ongoing' and no guarantee can be given that all income is accounted for. As with the first two reports, no further details are provided.

So, Members of the Audit Committee, it's over to you.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Exit packages and senior pay - a few figures

I was interested to learn that the council have spent another £3m this year in exit packages bringing the total for the past three years to over £10m, paid out to 541 members of staff. The majority of this relates to low paid jobs and, again over the past three years, at the lowest pay grade, there have been 216 compulsory redundancies. A sizeable chunk though (£1.7m), was shared between just eighteen people at the higher end of the scale. Although some of these may relate to senior teaching staff, it includes two in the last financial year who left the authority sharing £235k between them.

The latest draft accounts show, as usual, the highest paid officers and their pension contributions. One surprising figure is the level of pay for the Director of Communities, Mr Jake Morgan, which has leaped from a meagre £120k per year to £134k in twelve months. With pension contributions listed as £15k and £17k respectively, there is no explanation in the accounts for the dramatic leap, perhaps it's the 10% 'uplift' for being Deputy chief executive? ..and we already have two Assistant chief executives on £100k each.
Maybe, with the chief executive himself busy with property management in Cardiff, he needs the extra help...

Due to his particularly high salary of £170k, the chief executive has his own little table in the accounts. There have been no pension contributions for Mr James over the past couple of years, well, ever since the pension-related unpleasantness with the Wales Audit Office anyway. Neither do the accounts show the Returning Officer fees which, with no less than five elections in the past three years, will have been substantial.

Only the returning officer fees for the local elections are paid directly by the council, and so will appear next year, the rest of it comes from central/Welsh government so does not appear in the accounts. In 2013, following a controversial £20k payment to Mr James as Returning Officer a political move was made to end these extra payments, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

A couple of years ago the Plaid Cymru opposition group at Cardiff Council, with a chief executive also on £170k, proposed a £100k cap on senior executive pay. The motion was defeated by the Labour administration. At the time Plaid leader Leanne Wood criticised first minister Carwyn Jones over the blocked proposal, with Mr Jones saying that although he 'deplored huge salaries in the public sector', it was a matter for the council. Ah.
Perhaps, as we now have a Plaid run council here in Carms, Cllr Dole (who, whilst we're on the subject, collects nearly twice the salary of a registered nurse and even has the brass neck to make a £20 claim for dinner) might like to suggest a similar top level cap here? Given her previous comments, his party leader Ms Wood would clearly support it and I'm sure their Independent Group friends would agree? Not.

National proposals to cap excessive exit packages to £95k still seem to be wending their way through parliament and the Welsh Government haven't even started chewing over it yet. This was the result of some obscenely high pay-offs for chief executives and senior officials in the public sector. Carmarthenshire's chief executive almost departed a couple of years ago with a similarly large golden handshake until it became clear there would be political opposition (we were, of course, heading for a general election...) For some completely unknown reason, Mr James decided to stay on a bit longer...

Extravagant public sector pay for senior officials, pretty much duplicated across twenty-two local authorities in Wales has always been something of controversial topic, and I won't even go down the accountability and responsibility (or lack thereof) road, but the only concession to 'do something about it' is now with the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales who can make recommendations against overly generous gold-plated pay awards.

The reality however is that these levels of pay are incomprehensible to ordinary residents, including myself. How and when did this gap in pay scales reach the ridiculous proportions they have? To put it into perspective, a full time firefighter earns £29k, and even an experienced Area Manager in the Fire Service can only achieve £56k. Something's wrong somewhere and I know who I'd rather give the big money to.
County Hall remains an austerity-free zone.