Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Police back in Pembrokeshire Council

Interesting news from the Pembrokeshire press this evening that Gloucestershire Police are conducting a criminal investigating after new evidence emerged over the unlawful pension payments, paid to chief executive Bryn Parry Jones and another unnamed officer.

It seems that a whistleblower contacted the Labour leader, Cllr Paul Miller with an allegation that it was not the Director of Finance and Head of HR who wrote the original report to the senior staff committee as claimed, but Bryn Parry-Jones himself. Cllr Miller reported the matter to the police on July 9th and today they issued this statement;

"Following receipt of new information relating to Pembrokeshire County Council and the Public Interest report published by the Wales Audit Office early this year, Dyfed-Powys Police and Gloucestershire Constabulary have now fully considered this and as a result have decided the new information specifically should be investigated further by the police".

Hopefully it will be more thorough than the last time.

Cllr Miller has today (Wed) called for Bryn Parry-Jones' immediate suspension.

Pembrokeshire Herald
Western Telegraph

There is also email evidence that Carmarthenshire's Chief Executive Mark James discussed, amended and approved the report recommending the libel counterclaim, with head of legal, Linda Rees Jones three days before it was presented to the Executive Board in January 2012. Maybe someone will have a look at that one day.


23rd July - The BBC has now reported on events in Pembrokeshire.

In unrelated news, the South Wales Argus reports that Chris Burns, one of the two Assistant CEOs at Carmarthenshire Council has become the new interim chief executive of Caerphilly Council. He always had a cheery smile for Caebrwyn, as long as no one was looking of course....

Misleading Minutes

The minutes of the July full council meeting have just been published and of interest to Caebrwyn is the way in which Item 7, 'Libel indemnities' was recorded for printed posterity.

To the casual reader it would appear that there nothing untoward had ever happened.  The word 'unlawful' has been carefully omitted from the whole section. Also omitted is the statement made by the First Minister of Wales, just the day before, and read out in full by Cllr Alun Lenny. You may recall that it went like this;

"...in terms of the situation in Carmarthenshire, we as a Government have said that it is not right to provide any sort of indemnity in terms of what has happened there. At the end of the day it is something for the council but it is exceptionally important that the council does ensure that they do not place officers in a situation where they do have some sort of indemnity in terms of cases that have gone to court, and that point has been made in the past"

The Minutes, perhaps wisely, have also omitted the brief rant from the chief executive.

Due to the overwhelming urge to peddle the official line, anyone from the distant future who happens to undertake a study of 'Council Minutes in the dark ages', will go away with a very slanted view of local government in Carmarthenshire; the renowned experts at putting propaganda and spin into official records of proceedings; or, airbrushing the past.

They will also be wondering, if there was nothing wrong with the libel indemnity, why the clause was removed from the Constitution.

...and what they will not be aware of either is the identity of the very senior official who approves the Minutes...and who, I discovered, is not averse to doing a bit of editing either....

Getting Engaged...

No sooner had Caebrwyn sent her rather lengthy contribution to the WLGA governance review panel (full of helpful suggestions) than an interesting item pops up for the next meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee; a report on the review of the 'Council's Engagement Mechanisms'. Not the most 'engaging' of titles, but never mind.

Last year a national survey found that Carmarthenshire residents felt least able to influence decisions out of the whole of  Wales. A cross-party group of councillors has, since last May, been looking at this very issue and the whole matter of public engagement, consultation and the role of elected members. Half way through this process things became slightly more pressing with the scandals surrounding the Wales Audit Office reports.

As an aside, asking the opinion of the public (lesson one; they should never use the awful word 'stakeholders'), will become even more important this Autumn as the budget approaches. The revised figures following the Welsh Government's warning that cuts will be even deeper than first thought mean that instead of around £30m cuts in Carmarthenshire, this figure will be roughly £46m over the next three years, it could be more.

The handful of 'efficiencies' which were put on the backburner in February; closing children's respite centres, abolishing lollipop persons, ending free transport for 6th formers, etc all make a very early reappearance at next Monday's Executive Board meeting. According to the financial report, some 'free thinking' will be required and 'alternative delivery models' considered. Quite how that will pan out we'll have to wait and see, mass outsourcing? The 'partner' evangelicals in charge of Social Care? Who knows.

Anyway, back to the report (which can be read in full here, badly formatted as usual), once you've got through the jargon there are a few interesting points...not least of which is to improve the formatting of online documents... (Stop press 8pm - the document has now been replaced and is in pdf format...they're learning..)

The report has taken over a year to complete and in my view barely scratches the surface, Caebrwyn's missive to the 'Panel', 4000 words written in two days goes a lot further in practical (and reasonable) terms to address many of the same points. Maybe a key part of improving public engagement would have been to ask the public in the first place..

Anyway, as I said, the report doesn't go far enough but it seems the council is beginning to realise the benefits of using social media to directly communicate with residents and actually listen to their views. Perhaps from now on we'll see less of this (concerning the current consultation over the price hike in sports pitch fees);

And more "Thanks for your views! We'll pass your opinions/ideas onto the relevant person".

Moving on, the report also looked at officer communication with elected members, and vice versa. This has been an enormous problem and has created a feeling that backbench councillors are kept in the dark over executive decisions. Sadly there are many that are quite happy to remain in the dark but that's a matter for the next election.
According to this graphic included in the report though, some clearly think there's room for improvement;

As may become apparent after the WLGA review, all the good intentions in the world will fail to bear the desired fruit if those in charge are resistant to change and prefer to rule the roost by their own rules and agenda. How can elected members gain the proper information and become fully informed if, for example, they get sanctioned for asking too many questions

One area which was looked at was the preliminary get-togethers prior to official Executive Board meetings. You may recall that the Appointed Auditor was not impressed with this particular element of Carmarthenshire decision making in one of his reports;

“There is no formal record of this pre-meeting which does raise concerns over the openness and transparency of the decision-making process”

An hour long chat before a fifteen minute 'official' meeting is not the way to do things. The report falls short in acknowledging that many decisions are made behind closed doors and prefers to call it a 'perception' and that there is a 'lack of understanding' amongst elected members of the purpose in such informal meetings. 

As I've said in my essay to the Panel, informal preparatory discussion has its place perhaps but should never reduce the official, public meeting to a pat-on-the-back rubber stamping exercise, which is what executive board meetings in Carmarthenshire are.

Another interesting point is the call-in procedure for Scrutiny meetings.
At present, if an executive decision is deemed by Scrutiny Members to have been unlawful, outside its powers, financially suspect or shows failure to consult, then the Members have all of three days to call it in and ask the chief officer to convene a meeting. 

Three days might be very convenient for the executive board but it's a ridiculously short time for Members - according to the report a review of the call-in procedure could be on the cards.

It is a little known fact that the public can also have their say at scrutiny meetings. The section of the council's constitution concerning Scrutiny Committees fails to mention the word 'public' once. The report mentions that 'members of the public rarely attend Scrutiny Committee meetings to provide evidence'. Hands up if you knew you could?  No wonder it's a rare occurrence.

So, let's hope that all these reviews - Governance, Public Engagement, Scrutiny, Press and Media Protocol, Email usage, Member/Officer Protocol etc etc....are not simply cosmetic.... 

Friday, 18 July 2014


I'm coming to the conclusion that council leaders, at least in the rotten boroughs of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, have acquired an additional role, or 'portfolio' if you wish. This additional role has been evident in Carmarthenshire for the lengthy Meryl and Mark years and has seamlessly drifted into the Kevin era, though, as we all know, Meryl still wears the iron pants.

The role requires council leaders to 'liaise' with the chief executive; nowhere in the constitutional waffle does it say 'defend and protect the chief executive, 'no matter what'. In Carmarthenshire, Kevin is even given scripts to read out which was embarrassingly evident last week. His 'official duties' certainly don't include any requirements to think for himself or hold officers to account. He was so determined to take the bullet for Mark James at last week's meeting he was prepared to stab his own party leader, Carwyn Jones squarely in the back.

I have observed Pembrokeshire council much less of course but I can't have been the only viewer of Monday's Week in Week Out programme, which exposed the systematic failure of Pembrokeshire Council to protect children from a predatory council youth worker, who felt that chief exec Bryn Parry Jones was going to do the honourable thing and resign on Tuesday morning.

He did no such thing of course, why resign when you have a minion in the form of a council leader who will happily take the bullet, defend you to the death, and ensure you have a cosmetic democratic mandate as he whips his disciples into dutiful obedience. Parry-Jones sat there like the cat that had the cream.

The whistleblower, Mrs Sue Thomas, who featured in the BBC programme has left a lengthy comment on the Western Telegraph article

I'm not sure what the job description for chief exec is in Pembrokeshire, but in Carmarthenshire it says clearly that the buck stops at the doors of the presidential suite; 'Overall corporate management and operational responsibility'. What a joke. In both counties.

Then there was the matter of Parry-Jones' unlawful pension scam, a scandal shared with his partner in unlawfulness across the county border; were the council going to force him to pay it back? The Pembrokeshire leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, had been given three tasks to fulfil; to attack the anonymous anarchist who had leaked the chief's 'letter' to the press; ensure the vote was held in private session to avoid public embarrassment and lastly, to ensure Parry Jones, and his wife kept the loot. Partly I'm sure because of the disproportionate cost of pursuing Mr and Mrs CEO through the courts, and having already spent a shedload of taxpayers' money on a legal defence, he managed to succeed on all three counts.

As it happens, I found it quite refreshing that someone had an overwhelming sense of civic duty to leak the letter. Good on them.

Then we come to Carmarthenshire. Where do you start...? At last week's meeting, for instance, Mr Madge clearly felt he was adhering to his duty to "Promote and support good governance of the Council and its affairs" by not only defending profoundly unlawful decision making, but helping to silence an opposition councillor who had been publicly attacked by the chief executive for choosing to support a member of the public in a court case. Not an item I noticed on the agenda incidentally. As for the chief executive, part of his job description, believe it or not, is to provide 'professional and impartial advice to all parties in the decision making process...'  
What a circus.

The WLGA review, (which, remember, has been forced upon them, the panel haven't exactly been 'invited' as Mr Madge claims), is now underway and we hope they are beginning to understand the depth and scope of the problems in Carmarthenshire. I sincerely hope it will do some some good and restore some semblance of democracy, we'll have to wait and see. 
Unfortunately, what it won't do is get to the heart of the problems and force a change of culture, and for that to happen we need a change of top brass, elected and unelected.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Whistleblowing out west...and beyond

Anyone who watched last night's BBC Week in Week out programme will have been appalled by the way Pembrokeshire Council not only utterly failed to protect vulnerable children from a predatory youth worker but also it's treatment of whistleblowers who persistently raised the alarm. Pembrokeshire councillor and blogger Mike Stoddart has the story here and the programme is available on iPlayer for a few more days.

Many are wondering how on earth Pembrokeshire chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, is still in his job. This is not the first time Pembrokeshire has let down its most vulnerable residents and I mentioned the previous trail of destruction back in 2011.

Many will be reminded of the case of Delyth Jenkins in Carmarthenshire who, after witnessing an assault on a vulnerable lady in a council run day centre by a member of staff, was treated appallingly by the senior management of the council when she raised her concerns.

No one is suggesting that whistleblowing is an easy area to manage, and great care, diligence and professional understanding is vital for both accuser and alleged perpetrator during any investigation. But the message which comes out of Pembrokeshire, and, from the people who have contacted me, in Carmarthenshire as well, is that whistleblowing policies are not worth the paper they're written on when there exists such a culture of bullying and intimidation towards anyone who dares raise their head above the parapet.
Pembrokeshire, back in 2011, was accused of being more concerned about the reputation of the council, and of course, those in charge, than the welfare of vulnerable children.

It is enormously difficult for employees to raise concerns when they are very well aware that the consequences could mean not only a deliberate smear campaign against them both personally, and in the workplace, but dismissal from their job. Council employees who have contacted me over the years have done so in desperation, and in confidence, more often than not actually frightened of repercussions for their families and livelihoods.

As a footnote, one particular anecdote, in the form of a document received some time ago, struck something of a chord; one of the reasons it did so, perhaps, was because it was a sworn statement, an Affidavit witnessed by a solicitor.
It contains allegations concerning events at a council in the north of England way back in the 1990s.

During a management restructuring process it became evident that a senior director had his sights on the dismissal of a particular junior officer.
The junior officer took the matter to a tribunal and part of his case was that he'd never been given the proper employment documentation in the first place. The sworn statement alleged that the senior director, on the day before the tribunal took place, instructed an administrator, under threat of dismissal, to write up the documentation, backdate it by several months and after making a copy to file, destroy the original. According to the sworn statement, the director then gave evidence, under oath, at the tribunal that the document was genuine.

Both the administrator, and the line manager, who had passed on the instructions from the senior director, were deeply troubled by what they were being ordered to do, and consequently, were both eventually squeezed out of their jobs.

Unfortunately it appears that this culture, which goes to the very heart of accountability, in our councils, and elsewhere is as endemic now as it ever was.


The Western Telegraph has more Bryn Parry-Jones news this morning, with further news on the tax avoidance pension scandal shared, you will remember, with the chief executive over the border in Carmarthenshire. At an EGM in May, Pembrokeshire councillors resolved to write to Parry-Jones and the other unnamed Pembrokeshire official involved, inviting them to repay the cash.

The response, from Bryn Parry Jones will be discussed at a full council meeting tomorrow (webcast here). The contents of the letter though, with typical west Wales transparency, is scheduled to be heard in private. The Western Telegraph has, apparently, acquired  a copy of the letter, written by a consultant on behalf of Parry-Jones. Unsurprisingly he is flatly refusing to repay the money but what is surprising is that he has been transferring the cash to his wife

Update 17th July; Pembrokeshire Council did discuss the matter in private and it went to a vote - he's going to be allowed to keep the loot. The vote, apparently was recorded and I'm sure the Pembrokeshire bloggers will have more details soon.

Other than calls in the press from Jonathan Edwards MP, Carmarthenshire Councillors have not asked Mark James to repay his tax avoidance pension cash or the libel indemnity money, both of which were unlawful, or illegal, much the same thing in my view. Anyway, Kevin Madge wouldn't dream of asking him something so impertinent....

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Council Governance Review - Your views please! - updated with new deadline

Update 16th July - Due to the fact that the WLGA only asked the Council to add contact details to its website yesterday (why they didn't use their own initiative I don't know) the deadline for the public to submit their views has been extended to Wednesday 20th August


As I have mentioned, once or twice, the Wales Audit Office Public Interest Reports, concerning the unlawful decisions over the pension payments and libel indemnity, recommended an urgent review of all governance arrangements at Carmarthenshire County Council.

The Council and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) have finally asked for your input regarding how the local authority is being run and how it might be improved. You've got one week...

The review will centre around the failures of its decision making processes, failings in declarations of interest, and the like. There are numerous posts on this blog illustrating my point. I recently provided the example of the 'seven seconder rule'.

Members of the panel were present as observers at last week's meeting, that meeting alone should have provided sufficient evidence of the problem we are facing in Carmarthenshire. The most senior official, the chief executive, started off by having a dig at the panel itself, it is patently obvious that they are as welcome as a dose of chickenpox.

He then proceeded to have a sarcastic swipe at the Wales Audit Office, the independent auditors of the council; this is now a regular occurrence.

The Leader of the council was then tasked with reading out a statement urging council to reject the auditors findings, it was plain as the nose on your face it wasn't written by him. It was also a direct rejection of the view of his senior Labour colleague, the First Minister the day before. It was painful to watch.

The chief executive then proceeded to launch a verbal attack on myself, the second such attack in so many weeks, and then directed his anger at a councillor. The chief executive then instructed the Chair of the Council to deny that councillor the right of reply.

If the panel members were not deeply disturbed by what they witnessed last week, which was just a snapshot, then clearly their presence is a waste of time.

The council's aspiration is to be the 'Most open and transparent council in Wales' and a few weeks ago local bloggers made a few suggestions. They clearly have a long way to go.

The Council has provided a link on its homepage to the relevant page on the WLGA site which can be found here and includes a dedicated email address - carmartheshirereview@wlga.gov.uk - for you to use, and the WLGA assures that all submissions will be treated in confidence.

Contributions must be in by the 23rd July; members of the public have not been given much time, so get emailing! (deadline now extended - see update above)

As a reminder, here is the scope of the review;

1.  The conduct of council business, in particular:

2.  The effectiveness or otherwise of current procedures or protocols such as notices of motion, urgent and exempt terms, scrutiny, declarations of interest and

3.  Ensuring that reports fully set out legal, financial and equality implications of proposed policies and schemes

4.  Transparency and accountability to members, including the role of scrutiny and the availability of information for members, including the recording, dissemination and communication of council decisions;

5.  The role of Full Council, including consideration of the new Modular Constitution; and

6.  Member development and support and the role of Democratic Services function

You are also welcome to leave relevant comments on this post.

With regards to the new 'Modular Constitution' for Wales, I've found a draft here. It contains some very questionable ideas and according to Pembrokeshire's Old Grumpy it is 'so illiberal that it might have been written by Vladimir Putin', see 'Questionable Tactics' from August 2013.
On the upside, the draft contains a heavily bracketed clause to allow the public to fim meetings, though I doubt if that will make it to the final form, not in Carmarthenshire anyway. Also on a positive note, there's no sign of any libel indemnity clauses...

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

July meeting; libel indemnities and "more 'satire', than 'Eastenders''

(Links to the archived webcast can be found at the end of this post)

The meeting got off to the usual start with a prayer for guidance and good judgement (it never works, I don't know why they bother) and a very lengthy series of family announcements, parish notices and apologies The Chief Executive welcomed members of the WLGA Governance Review panel who had come, he said, "to see how we do things properly"...

The whole meeting, well most of it, was quite a lengthy affair which seemed, to the casual observer, to consist of several hours of tributes to various people. The people were the Director of Resources, who was retiring after thirty seven years, the Director of Social Care who was leaving next month and the organisers of the Eisteddfod to be held in Llanelli in August. All of which left little time to actually debate anything meaningful.

The Director of Resources was thanked by the chief executive for his continual reminders that the money they were spending was taxpayers money.... Despite partnering up with Linda Rees Jones to push through the unlawful indemnity, the Director did make a valiant effort to protect the taxpayer over the Scarlets/Council car park deal, but was sadly thwarted at the last minute by the chief executive....who must have momentarily forgotten about those continual reminders.

Following the presentation from the organisers of the Eisteddfod the meeting moved on to some technical amendments to the Local Government Pension Scheme. The chief executive said that although he didn't have to leave the Chamber during this item, he would, as he wasn't going to give the auditors another reason to send a large bill. This dig at the Wales Audit Office concerned their unlawful findings relating to his pension arrangements, or to put it another way, tax avoidance.

Next up were those troubling legal issues surrounding libel indemnities.

Kevin Madge waffled on about Eastenders, Eddie Murphy, 'score draws' and, contrary to what his senior colleague, the First Minister said yesterday, moved that the report be accepted.

Plaid Councillors Darren Price and Alun Lenny expressed their surprise that the now infamous letter from Lesley Griffiths did not represent what was in the officer's report, nor what Mr James had published in his newsletter last week. Alun Lenny also read out the First Minister's statement from yesterday in the Senedd.

Plaid Leader Cllr Emlyn Dole proposed that council should accept the comments from the First Minister, and thereby accept the findings of the WAO. Although amongst the later confusion Cllr Dole's amendment wasn't, he said, 'retrospective', so how it would have impacted on the WAO report was not entirely clear.

Thanks I suspect to the First Minister's timely intervention yesterday, Cllr Calum Higgins (Lab), possibly thinking that his parliamentary career could be over before it began by associating himself with this nonsense, proposed that the report and the Minister's letter be 'noted', and that the 'libel clause' should be withdrawn from the Constitution indefinitely. The reason being of course that it was unlawful. Though nobody was saying that. It was as unlawful today as it was in January 2012 of course, but nobody was saying that either.

'Noted' is a well known euphemism for kicking something into the undergrowth and avoiding further embarrassment for as long as possible.

Cllr Caiach reminded everyone that the whole saga, more 'satire' than 'Eastenders', began with the chief executive's strange decision to comment on an interestingly titled blog, namely the 'Madaxeman'. Feathers could be heard ruffling dangerously from the direction of the executive podium.

Linda Rees Jones and the soon-to-be-departing Director of Resources, the authors of both this misleading report and the equally misleading one to the Exec Board in 2012, chipped in with their subjective interpretation of the letter and the 2006 Order; but it was not just the Wales Audit Office which disagreed with their view now, so did the Welsh Government.

According to Ms Rees Jones, they hadn't asked the Minister to comment on this particular case, ie Thompson v James, the unlawfulness of that indemnity was apparently still a matter for the courts to decide.

As I rather expected, the conversation twisted around to the 'exceptional circumstances' argument. Meryl kicked it off with a tribute to Linda Rees Jones, or 'Mrs Carmarthenshire' as she called her and how it was their duty to protect their officers. Not, of course, to hold them to account, Meryl would never show such disloyalty, especially to Mark. She added they should accept the report because it had been proved by a judge - in London (no less) - that I was liar. Nice one Meryl.

There was more confused to-ing and fro-ing only broken by an episode which featured the chief executive letting off a little executive steam, directed at Cllr Caiach and myself of course. It was similar to the outburst in the Y Gair newsletter last week but delivered with very unchristian-like venom. Anyway, this steam can be viewed, if you wish, on the webcast.

The WLGA panel must have been dumbstruck.

One thing which seems to have irritated Mr James, to fever pitch, was the fact that Cllr Caiach had the brazen audacity to be a witness in court on behalf of the dastardly Mrs Thompson. And the mention of the word 'Madaxeman' in the Chamber seemed to touch a very raw nerve.

I had no means to a right of reply of course but neither it turned out, did Cllr Caiach; her attempt to respond to Mr James' accusations was stamped on with force by the Chair and the Leader.

Predictably, Cllr Dole's proposal was defeated. The Labour/Ind council would not accept what the Labour First Minister had said.

Cllr Calum Higgins' proposal was next, which was to 'note' the officers' report and letter, and to permanently 'suspend' (but not abolish) the libel indemnity clause, essentially to guard against any legal challenges from the auditor, not because it was morally wrong.

That was passed.

So despite some very careful fudging and muddying the waters, the officers didn't quite get their own way - the WAO report was rubbished and the auditor put in his place again.....but nothing was resolved. The WAO report is still hanging in the air.

I suspect that the real purpose behind today's 'item' was to enable Mr James to claim some sort of 'democratic mandate' over his unlawful personal indemnity - and if it hadn't been for Carwyn Jones' remarks yesterday, and Calum Higgins' political aspirations, he might have got it.
But he didn't quite get what he was after.... and as for the 'libel clause' they would just have to manage without it. For now.

The Welsh Local Government Minister is apparently consulting her own officials over the council's interpretation of her letter, whether anything will come of that we'll have to wait and see.

If you thought it was all over, it's not, not just yet.

The item on the libel indemnities starts here. If you wish to access the whole meeting from the beginning, and you have the stamina, it starts here.

Update 10th July; Cneifiwr has updated 'A test of Kevin Madge's leadership' ' with further observations from the archived webcast. Including this;

"One other interesting snippet from the archive came rather earlier when councillors were paying tribute to Roger Jones, who is retiring as Director of Resources. The WLGA observers may have spotted that the Chair, Daff Davies, turns to the Chief Executive to warn him that Cllr Siân Caiach wishes to speak, presumably to seek guidance as to whether this should be allowed.

We cannot see Mr James's response, but presumably it was a nod of assent. Later on when the Chief Executive had finished his rant about Jacqui Thompson, and Cllr Caiach was seeking to raise a point of information, the advice coming from the left of the Chair appears to have been rather less indulgent.

There in a nutshell is governance as we have come to know it."


Legal position now clarified to the satisfaction of everyone apart from those directly responsible. It is and was, unlawful. However, the clause still appears intact under the delegated 'general' powers of the Chief Executive, page 12.

First Minister confirms libel indemnity unlawful

Yesterday in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas asked the First Minister, Carwyn Jones (Lab) this question (translated);

Rhodri Glyn Thomas;

"...will you join with me to condemn the fact that Carmarthenshire County Council once again has been trying to justify that what happened with the indemnity for the costs of the CEO in the court case, and misrepresenting a letter they received from the Minister for Local Government that the Welsh Government are supporting them in this regard.
Will you make it entirely clear that whatever the system is in terms of local government, that challenging reports from the Wales Audit Office is highly unacceptable?".

First Minister Carwyn Jones replied (my underline);

"...in terms of the situation in Carmarthenshire, we as a Government have said that it is not right to provide any sort of indemnity in terms of what has happened there. At the end of the day it is something for the council but it is exceptionally important that the council does ensure that they do not place officers in a situation where they do have some sort of indemnity in terms of cases that have gone to court, and that point has been made in the past"

So there you have it, how much clearer does it have to be? The council's claim in today's report for the meeting, and in Mr James' 'newsletter', that the Welsh Government now agrees with the council is complete nonsense; it has not given Carmarthenshire Council the all clear over the indemnity, nor to reject the Wales Audit Office report.

This was what Mr James said in his 'newsletter' to all staff last week;

"The Council has refused to accept the Wales Audit Office report and has subsequently confirmed with Welsh Government that the Council does have the powers to grant such indemnities"

Misleading? It looks that way.

So, with the Welsh Government and the Wales Audit Office condemning their actions, just how much longer does Mark James, Linda Rees Jones and co think they can sustain this?

If the vote goes ahead and this Labour council decide to reject the findings of the Auditor they will surely be opening themselves up to a legal challenge - they will also go down in history as setting a precedent, based on yet another highly misleading report, for Welsh councils to sue members of the public.

It's over to you, Kevin Madge.

Yesterday's post; Libel indemnities - in the Western Mail 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Libel indemnities - today's Western Mail - Updated

Update 19.07; Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas raised the matter in the Senedd today. He questioned Carmarthenshire Council's position that Ms Griffiths' letter justified the indemnity. The First Minister was also questioned and given their initial reaction, it is not looking good for County Hall.

I would imagine that the last thing the Welsh Labour leaders need today is to be seen as giving the all clear for councils to sue members of the public.

More soon...


Ahead of tomorrow's full council meeting, which will be discussing the issue of libel indemnities, today's Western Mail covers the controversy.

As I said in my post on Friday (Libel indemnities), Mr James and two of his senior colleagues are making a concerted effort to ensure that full council rejects the Wales Audit Office report which found the libel indemnity unlawful.

The attack began last week with the publication of the aggressive staff newsletter written by Mr James and was followed by the disclosure of the letter from Welsh Minister Lesley Griffiths. Mr James claimed that the letter gave the seal of approval to the unlawful funding, in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, it did no such thing.

The Welsh Government have responded to further questions by reiterating the contents of the letter, it does not say that they support the actions of the council, it says it is is ultimately a matter for the courts. Perhaps the Carmarthenshire Labour leadership should take note of the Labour Minister's warning.

The Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett has yet again stood firmly by his unlawful findings.

It seems that as the required categorical rejection didn't happen at the EGM in February, (when the report was 'noted') its reappearance has been contrived for another attempt tomorrow. The issue is certainly not going away.

Tomorrow's meeting, which will be webcast here, starts at 10am and if this vote goes ahead, it promises to be a very interesting item.

(Update 15.44; I understand that the WLGA 'Governance Review Panel' set up in the aftermath of the WAO reports - see previous posts - will be in County Hall tomorrow to observe the meeting....and will be conducting interviews in the afternoon)

Watch this space.

Western Mail;
Council insists it was RIGHT to use taxpayers' cash to fight chief executive's libel action 
Carmarthenshire councillors are being asked to reject the advice of the Wales Audit Office in relation to chief executive Mark James' libel case 
A row over a council decision to indemnify the cost of a libel action brought by its top officer has taken a new twist with councillors being asked to reject an auditor’s advice that such a course of action was unlawful. 
Anthony Barrett, the Assistant Auditor General for Wales and Appointed Auditor of Carmarthenshire County Council, issued a public interest report saying the authority had acted unlawfully in indemnifying chief executive Mark James’ libel counter claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson. 
Mr James won a High Court battle with Mrs Thompson, but there has been continuing disquiet over the council’s decision to offer him a financial guarantee. 
Tomorrow a report on the matter will be considered at a full council meeting, and councillors will be asked to reject Mr Barrett’s ruling that their earlier decision was unlawful. 
It has emerged that Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths wrote to the council in May, reminding it of legislation passed in 2006 which said: “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to the alleged defamation of that member or officer but may be provided in relation to the defence by that member or officer of any allegation of defamation made against him”. 
In the report to tomorrow’s meeting, two senior officials of Carmarthenshire council – director of resources Roger Jones and acting head of administration and law Linda Rees-Jones – argue that an earlier piece of legislation dating from 1972 allowed the authority to back Mr James’ libel action financially. 
County councillor Sian Caiach of the People First group has written to Ms Griffiths expressing her serious concern. She states: “This opinion by these two officers who were themselves instrumental in giving the original guidance to the Executive Board in 2012 is that your letter supports them, and does not endorse the Wales Audit Office report saying the payment was unlawful. 
“I do not agree with this interpretation, but as most of the councillors do not have experience of reading legal reports and may not even try to wade through the rambling ‘explanation’ in their report of why these officers were right to promote the policy of supporting Mr James in a libel claim against a blogger, and the reasons they regard your letter as agreement and confirmation that they were right to do so. 
“In 2012 we backbench councillors were not given copy of the legal advice from James Goudie which supposedly supported the decision to pay Mr James’ legal costs. When eventually given to us in the WAO report, it did no such thing. Now the same officers who advised the executive in 2012 are asking us to approve a report which exonerates them on the basis of your letter. 
“I ask that you urgently make your true position known. A Labour-led council is otherwise very likely to vote to approve this report rubbishing the views of the Wales Audit Office and therefore setting a precedent for Welsh councils to take libel actions against bloggers using their officers as proxies.” 
Last week Mr James wrote an article in a council staff newsletter which said: “The legal advice the council had from two QCs was very clear, it could indemnify its officers in exceptional cases. 
“They granted that indemnity to me, as chief executive, on behalf of the officers, to not only defend an action for defamation brought by a local blogger, but to counter sue. 
“Following a six day trial last year, the blogger’s action against the council was thrown out in its entirety.” 
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said “We have nothing to add to the letter the Minister sent to the council in May. It is for the council to satisfy itself that it has acted within its powers and any issue over statutory interpretation is, ultimately, a matter for the courts.” 
A spokesman for the Wales Audit Office said: “The Appointed Auditor stands by the findings in his report in the public interest. In his view the decision was unlawful.
          (Source here, there are background links in the article)

Update 10am; Some Twitter reaction;
@GarethLlewe "Absolutely staggering";
@RMisstear; "A law unto themselves?";
@Welshdelboy "Easy to spend others money";
@JohnStroud2 "this Council is WELL out of control";
@MaureenJenner "Public servants should not dip their hands into public funds";
@jbsandown "Welsh County Council rubbishes Audit Office findings over libel action costs!"
@wezlangdon "an on-going disgrace, services cut, jobs lost, James gets a free ride"
@ShiptonMartin "Carmarthenshire councillors urged by their own officers to tell Wales Audit Office to get lost" 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Council Accounts 2014 - a few figures

For your information, Friday's Audit Committee meeting sees the first outing this year of the Council's Statement of Accounts for 2013 - 14. It's not complete, as it has yet to include the views of the independent auditor, namely the Wales Audit Office. Whether there will be any new 'problems' remains to be seen. According to the WAO there are numerous elector complaints to consider, not least of all this one of course.

The unlawful payments to the chief executive continue to feature in the accounts and blot the copybook as they 'roll over' from the previous year; £13,775 in pension payments and £3,601 for the libel indemnity for 2013 - 2014. The former bumping up the CEOs salary to £180k, and don't forget the Returning Officer fees for the Euro election.

The audit fee for the public interest reports was £51,000, which could have been avoided if the council had admitted its mistakes last summer. Along with the payments themselves, amounting to nearly £57,000 over the two years; £15k+ to Mr Kerr QC (cost of attendance at EGM still unknown) and endless officer hours on the subject etc etc...and still counting...it could all have probably fixed a fair few potholes.

Incidentally, the cost of external legal advice, over all areas of the council, was £247,321 which includes an unknown amount to specialist media lawyers.

The accounts also include the Annual Governance Statement with a played down version of the reasons for the current 'governance review', namely the two public Interest Reports 'which made comment on some aspects of two particular decisions'. Compare that with the Audit letter from the WAO, which is also on the agenda, and is a little more, er, specific;

The same letter hints that there are yet again still significant problems with the council's management of grants and it seems that more care needs to be taken when accounting for their capital expenditure. Further details will emerge as the WAO complete their audit.

The accounts show the cost of exit packages was £4m this year compared to £3m last year - 329 jobs have gone over the two year period through 'agreed departures'. One employee left with an exit package of £133,459.

The controversial loan to Scarlets Regional Ltd, originally £2.4m, doesn't seem to be decreasing, rising from £2.5m last year to £2.6m this year, their accounts are now considerably overdue.

The cost of councillors allowances also increased by around £10,000 to £1,235,941 probably due to the Executive Board insisting its numbers were bumped back up to ten rather than nine. Expect this figure to go up another £10,000-ish next year due to the 'approx' 1% increase in allowances.

There was also a marked increase in councillors expenses, the annual total jumping by over £4000 to £47,728.

More details will emerge as the Statement of Accounts winds it's way through the system and the Wales Audit Office does its thing, maybe one day the council will even publish their spending details. How next year's books will look is anyone's guess with the recent announcement from the Welsh Government that cuts to councils budgets are likely to be much higher than first thought. Carmarthenshire council could be looking to cut an extra £8m on top of the £16m it is already cutting in the next couple of years.

The council currently pays out around £14m per year to service its long term borrowing of around a quarter of a billion pounds; that's around £1300 per head of population of the county. Any future borrowing must be for absolute necessities and not to spend on 'visionary' vanity projects.  As for the money currently held in council reserves, the total has gone up from £58.4m in 2013 to £73.4m in 2014.

Let's just hope County Hall is beginning to learn its lesson and remember that whatever cuts to services will be made, and wherever the axe will fall; public scrutiny, effective consultation, proper decision making and full transparency are vitally important ingredients in the whole process.

Update 8th July;
Regular readers will be aware of the controversial and ongoing financial commitments Carmarthenshire Council has with the Scarlets. Two years ago their auditors questioned the future viability of the club with an excess  of liabilities over assets of nearly £2m.
Today's Western Mail reports that the Club's accounts are three months late and they have no intention of submitting them until a firm deal is signed with the WRU.
Richard Roper, a Stradey campaigner and a supporter of the club notes; "I think it's very worrying that the accounts are so late. The region is breaking the law by not filing its accounts with Companies House on time. But in my view, because of the very large sums of public money tied up with the Scarlets, the company has an even greater responsibility to be transparent"

Update 11th July;
The Statement of Accounts (Pre-audit) is now available here, in an easier to read format.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Libel indemnities on the agenda...and still unlawful - updated; Cllr Caiach writes to the Minister

Update 6th July; Cllr Sian Caiach has written urgently to Lesley Griffiths, Welsh Local Government minister, the full text can be found at the end of this post


Following the EGM on the 27th February council decided to ask for further guidance over their power to grant an indemnity to bring an action for libel on behalf of officers. Specifically of course was the issue of the public funding of the indemnity for Mr James to counter sue me.  The Appointed Auditor had deemed it unlawful, and still does.

According to Mr James' bizarre 'newsletter', as per yesterday's post, he claims that the council 'has subsequently confirmed with Welsh Government that the Council does have the powers to grant such indemnities'.

It does no such thing.

This matter is now on the agenda for next week's full council meeting.

The correspondence with Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Minister, can be read here and it does not differ from earlier correspondence from former local government minister, Carl Sargeant. She states that she does not have all the facts and neither has she seen the reports which were given to members. On that basis, I'm not sure she was in a position to give any guidance anyway.

However, she refuses to give legal advice and states that 'the issue of Statutory interpretation is clearly a matter for the courts'. In other words, the Welsh Government is not in a position to clarify a matter of law such as this, only a court can decide.
She notes the risks associated with relying on the Local Government Act and consequently the 'exceptional circumstances' 'get out' clause.

As Carl Sargeant said in 2010, the council must satisfy itself and others that it has acted within the powers available.

So, as I said, Mark James is wrong and disingenuous, the Welsh Government has not confirmed that the council has such power.

Linda Rees Jones, the acting head of law, and the Director of Resources, Roger Jones have compiled a report, here, for next week's meeting. These two officials were the authors of the report (along with contributions from Mr James himself) to the Executive Board in January 2012 where the indemnity was granted. This was the meeting where Mr James not only remained present but also failed to declare a financial and personal interest.

Mrs Rees Jones, as the council solicitor has a decidedly vested interest in all this. If council had agreed that the indemnity was unlawful then this would have serious implications for her, and Mr James of course.

The fact remains though that it was unlawful.

In addition, the Appointed Auditor has seen the letter from Lesley Griffiths and, not surprisingly, has not changed his view that the indemnity was unlawful. Despite the 2006 Guidance, the 2006 Order itself specifically prohibits the granting of Indemnities to bring actions for libel. Simple.

What the council is relying on is that the 1972 Local Government Act allows for a council to “..have power to do anything (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions”.

The auditor is of the view that the 2006 Order removed once and for all the doubt within the Local Government Act specifically in relation to the funding of libel actions.

The council's opinion brings us back yet again to the issue of 'exceptional circumstances' and whether, by funding Mr James it facilitated the discharge of their functions. In plain English, was I clogging up the wheels of my local council to such a degree that it was in the public's best interest to fund Mr James' counterclaim.

Again I repeat, the Appointed Auditor does not recognise this argument at all, and neither, in my view, does the Welsh Government.

If we look at the council's 'exceptional circumstances' opinion in more detail, it is, as I have said before, deeply flawed. You may also remember that the legal advice (which has not been disclosed) on the merits of bringing the counterclaim was from Mr Adam Speker, the barrister who has represented Mr James throughout the case. Hardly an independent view.

The counterclaim was brought for entirely tactical reasons, and as part of the defence, if you will, not because Mr James felt suddenly concerned about what had been said. The blog posts concerned, (and you will recall part of the counterclaim concerned this very issue of the granting of indemnities which turned out to be unlawful anyway) were written several months prior to the counterclaim. Out of over 700 blogposts only two points were thought to be possibly actionable.

The bringing of the counterclaim also made any early resolution, and therefore a far smaller costs bill, extremely difficult. The action was a calculated step to put pressure on me to withdraw my claim, not because Mr James had suffered any injury to his reputation. For what it's worth, he acquired a CBE shortly before the counterclaim was brought; his reputation was intact.

The 'Derbyshire rule' prevents local authorities (and all government bodies) from bringing libel actions in their own name, this is to prevent any 'chilling effect' on robust democratic debate. Local authorities are also prohibited from using a council officer, in this case Mr James, to get around the Derbyshire rule by 'suing by proxy'.

Mr James confirms in his 'newsletter' that this is exactly what they have done - he bought the counterclaim 'on behalf of officers', clearly contrary to the Derbyshire rule.

Following the EGM, as we know, the indemnity was stopped and the 'clause' in the constitution suspended. It is not clear from the documents for next week's meeting whether the suspension will continue - if this is a matter for council to decide then I implore Member's to remove the clause once and for all. It is unlawful, unethical, and simply immoral.
What is clear is that senior officers are trying to mislead councillors into rejecting the Wales Audit Office report, I hope the Members don't fall for it.

In conclusion I remain of the view that the funding of the counterclaim was indeed unlawful and consequently I am also of the honest opinion that any Court Orders which have arisen from it are void. Mr James may not have brought the counterclaim had the public not been paying for it, I doubt very much if he'd have put his wallet and home on the line over it.

Without the counterclaim the outcome of the whole case may have been very different. Much of the council's defence revolved around my concerns and questions over the unlawfulness of such indemnities - apparently I was being unreasonable in questioning the 2008 clause in the constitution.

Turns out I wasn't.

Update 6th July;
Cllr Sian Caiach has written to the Welsh Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths, it is self-explanatory;

Dear Minister,

At  our next full council meeting on the 9th July 2014 (Agenda item no 7 available on the Carmarthenshire County Website) we, all Carmarthenshire Councillors are being asked to approve a report by our Director of Resources and s151 officer, Roger Jones and acting Head of  Administration and Law and acting monitoring officer Linda Rees-Jones.

This report confirms the Council Executive's position that the libel indemnity found to be unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, is in fact, lawful. In accepting this report we, as a council, will be endorsing this position held by these officers, in conflict with the Wales Audit Office report that it was, in fact,  not lawful.

There appears to be no new evidence presented except your letter of 6th May 2014 to Dave Gilbert. which we have copied in our papers.

It is stated to us for guidance that " The minister's clarification of the Welsh Ministers' view of the Law has been received and is attached. The Welsh Government therefore reiterates its 2006 Guidance on that point.The advice given to the [County Council] Executive Board when it considered the grant of an indemnity to the Head of Paid Service (Mark James) in January 2012 was in accordance with that Guidance.

This opinion by these 2 officers who were themselves instrumental in giving the original guidance to the Executive Board in 2012 is that your letter supports them, and does not endorse the Wales Audit Office Report saying the payment was unlawful.

I myself do not agree with this interpretation, but as most of the Councillors do not have experience of reading legal reports they may not even try to wade through the rambling "explanation"  in their report of why these officers were right to promote the policy of supporting Mr James' in a libel claim against a blogger, and the reasons they regard your letter as agreement and confirmation that they were right to do so.

In 2012 we backbench Councillors were not given copy of the legal advice from James Goudie  [2008] which supposedly supported the decision to pay Mr James'  legal costs. When eventually given to us in the WAO report, it did no such thing.
We had been deliberately mislead.
Now the same officers who advised the executive in 2012 are asking us to approve a report which exonerates them on the basis of your letter.  I ask that you urgently make your true position known.

 A Labour led Council is otherwise very likely to vote to approve this report rubbishing the views of the Welsh Audit Office and therefore setting a precedent for Welsh Councils to take libel actions against bloggers and others using their officers as proxies, in the same way as Mr Mark James was used by the then Council Leader, Meryl Gravell to try to silence a critic.

Cllr Sian Caiach.
People First /Gwerin Gyntaf
Carmarthenshire County Council member for Hengoed Ward

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Mark James writes to the troops....

(Update 4th July 2014; See Libel indemnities on the agenda..and still unlawful; The Welsh Government has not given the council, nor Mr James the 'all clear'over the libel indemnity at all. Contrary to what Mr James says in his staff newsletter below.


For the second time in twelve months, chief executive Mark James has used the council staff newsletter, Y Gair, as a vent for his personal agenda and also to reject completely the findings of the Wales Audit Office.

If I were a member of staff receiving such a message as this from the boss, I might seriously question the state of mind of the author.

Mr James confirms, with the phrase 'on behalf of officers', that he was indeed acting as proxy for the council. Councils cannot sue for libel.

I am also astonished that, according to this, the Welsh Government agree with the council over the indemnity issue - this is potentially a very dangerous situation.

However, I understand that the Welsh Government's opinion on this matter will be on the agenda for next week's full council meeting.

Mr James also fails to mention that he was the only one who took advantage of the pension tax avoidance 'scheme' which has been stopped "for now". I wonder how the low-paid taxpaying staff at the council feel about such perks?

"A political row"? "Minor matters"? Words fail me.

As neither the council nor Mr James accept the findings of the Wales Audit Office, which still stand, they will have no problem with the fact that I refuse to accept the rulings of the judge.

I have copied it in its entirety as clearly this farce looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. I wish the WLGA 'governance review panel' the best of luck, as you can see, they've got an uphill battle;

Y Gair

It has been some months since I have penned an article for Y Gair.  During that time, the Council found itself in the headlines and in the middle of a political row.  As with all such matters people take the opportunity to grab media attention for their own ends, irrespective of the facts of the matter.

There were two matters raised by the Wales Audit Office.  The first was whether the Council could indemnify an officer in respect of proceedings for defamation.  The legal advice the Council had from two QC’s (sic) was very clear, it could indemnify its’ (sic) officers in exceptional cases.  They granted that indemnity to me, as Chief Executive, on behalf of the officers, to not only defend an action for defamation brought by a local blogger, but to counter sue.

Following a six day trial last year, the blogger’s action against the Council was thrown out in its entirety.  In turn, she was found guilty of unlawful defamation, harassment, attempting to pervert the course of justice and generally being so dishonest that her own insurance company cancelled the policy to underwrite her legal action and the judge said that he would not believe a word she said unless it was backed up by evidence, other than her own words.

The Council has refused to accept the Wales Audit Office report and has subsequently confirmed with Welsh Government that  the Council does have the powers to grant such indemnities.  The Auditor was wrong in the Council’s view.

On the second matter, the Council had agreed to make a payment to senior officers equivalent to pension contributions where such officers were forced to leave the pension scheme because of new restrictions by the Government.  This was on condition it did not cost the Council any money.  Many employers make similar arrangements and whilst of itself not intrinsically unlawful, there were some procedural deficiencies in how the decision was taken and the Council decided to withdraw this scheme for now.

Some politicians felt there had been criminal wrongdoing and asked the police to investigate.  This they did and were subsequently fully satisfied that there had been no such wrongdoing.  I said publicly at the time that I was utterly convinced that no officers had done anything wrong, but in order that no one could subsequently allege that I had attempted to influence any investigation I would be “out of office” until the matter was concluded.

Can I place on record my sincere thanks and appreciation for all of you who got in touch, by email, letter, card, phone or in person, to offer your support.  It was very much appreciated.

The  Council can hopefully put this hiatus behind it and now move on.  The Council has excellent services which are highly valued by our residents.  Our Education and Social Care services are second to none.  Our investment in housing is delighting our tenants and in schools, is delighting teachers and students alike.

Our refuse and cleansing services are the envy of many councils and our fantastic regeneration of our County is widely respected across Wales and England.

I am extremely proud of what we together have achieved in Carmarthenshire and I am certainly not prepared to allow our County to be talked down because of these minor matters.

Mark James

Friday, 27 June 2014

The 'seven seconder' rule

One item on the 'wishlist' for the WLGA review panel to consider is the reversal of the excessive number of signatures required for a Notice of Motion, from seven back to two.

The increase from two to seven, in 2011 was designed specifically to prevent minority voices in the Chamber from bringing forward possibly controversial issues for open debate. The decision to cut scrutiny committees from seven to five was another measure which effectively decreased the ability of councillors to hold the executive to account.

If anyone was in any doubt that the 'seven seconder' rule was to silence criticism and prevent open debate, here's an extract from an email from the chief executive, Mark James, dated July 2011 following the presentation of;

"another Notice of Motion from the same source about another matter. It would appear that this will become a means of getting things on the agenda" .

Given that it is the chief executive who has the final say on the agenda anyway, it appears that the intention was to cover all bases.

It just so happens that this particular motion was concerned with allowing members of the public to film in the Council Chamber and was, to quote Lyn Thomas, former Head of Law,  "..criticising the council generally.." 

A further extract from the email thread (1st July 2011) concerning the increase from two to seven signatures, from Mark James to the Business Management Group ie the party leaders (unaffiliated Members are excluded) states;

"The intention is to roll this matter in with a number of other minor amendments to the Constitution and get them to council in September.

Emboldened by their success a couple of months ago, I suspect we will continue to receive multi Notices of Motion for each council meeting until the Constitution is amended. I can only deal with them in accordance with the current Standing Orders and will have to allow them onto the agenda, unless I consider they should not be included for legitimate reasons.

I have refused two for the July meeting so far. I suspect there may be others on their way."

A couple of points, firstly; "minor" amendments? This was hardly minor, neither was the removal of the right to present petitions to the Chair and for them to be sent directly to the chief executive instead.

Second point; "Emboldened"? This says it all, how dare councillors become so 'emboldened' to want public debate, don't they know their place? The previous 'success' had been in April 2011one Motion of No Confidence in the Exec Board Member for Social Care over the closure of the Llanelli care homes for the elderly.

Third point; "Legitimate"? In County Hall, 'legitimate', rather like the word 'unlawful', has a highly subjective meaning.

Despite this deeply undemocratic new 'rule', in 2013 the chief executive's office had to become quite creative when blocking a Plaid Motion, (which had the seven signatures as required) to discuss 'Press Freedom' after the scandal over the South Wales Guardian.
It resulted in this particular farce.

There is no doubt whatsoever that there is a pressing need for change.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Democracy 'wishlist' - Bloggers' letter in the South Wales Guardian

Further to yesterday's WLGA announcement, fellow blogger Cneifiwr and I have put together a 'wishlist' of some suggestions for the 'review panel' to consider. It is in the form of an open letter and has been published in today's South Wales Guardian. See below.

We hope you will be inspired to make your own contributions to this panel and remember, this is not any old 'annual' review; it's supposed to be a special, extraordinary, and very badly needed review of how this council is run. It was finally triggered by the unlawful actions and catastrophic failures documented in the Wales Audit Office Reports;

Let the light in

Dear Editor,

Carmarthenshire County Council  has announced that it will be beginning a review of its governance arrangements in the near future. On the face of it, this sounds like a very dry and technical subject, but it goes to the heart of what sort of local government we want.

Readers of the South Wales Guardian will know that Carmarthenshire County Council has been through a very turbulent year and has often made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Council Leader, Kevin Madge, has gone on record as saying that he would like a fresh start, and we think that the review which has just been announced is an opportunity for the council to do just that.

Although the review panel will be talking to councillors and officers, we feel strongly that they should also listen to the views of the public in Carmarthenshire, and we would like to encourage everyone who cares about local government and the services it provides to write in and give their views on what needs to change.

Local government directly affects all of us in our daily lives, often more so than what happens in the Welsh Assembly or Westminster. It is responsible for education, social services, the roads, waste and the environment, planning, public health and much else besides.

Only a minority of voters turns out to vote in council elections, and many councils are effectively run year in, year out by the same old faces. They are often less than welcoming when their actions and decisions are questioned by the press and public. That needs to change.

In Carmarthenshire a recent survey commissioned by the Welsh Government showed that more people than in any other part of Wales felt that they were unable to influence council decisions.

In recent years the constitution which governs the democratic functions of the council has been amended many times, and the cumulative effect of these changes has been to reduce the ability of ordinary councillors to scrutinise the actions of the governing board and senior officers.

Not long ago a request from opposition and backbench councillors to get the council to consult them on charges for sports facilities in the south of the county was rejected by a senior officer as an attempt at “micro-managing” executive decisions.

On another occasion a planning officer rejected a request for a report on traffic and road safety in connection with a planning application saying that it was the council’s policy only to publish what it was legally obliged to publish.

On several occasions in the last year the council executive has refused to allow debate or questions on a number of serious matters.

We believe that the default should be set to “open”, with the council withholding only what it is legal prevented from publishing.

Here are some of the changes we would like to see:

•Encouraging public participation, with time set aside for public questions and answers at monthly meetings and a much simplified procedure for submitting questions.

•Restoring urgent items to the agenda to enable councillors to raise pressing matters with the executive.

•Set aside a part of meetings of the full council with an open session of questions for the Leader and members of the Executive Board.

•Removing unreasonable restrictions on the numbers of signatures councillors need before they can submit a motion.

•Restoring recorded votes in committees so that members of the public can see how councillors voted on controversial matters.

•Extend filming to all committees, and the Planning Committee in particular. If this cannot be done for reasons of cost, the council should allow members of the public to record these public meetings.

•There should be fewer meetings held behind closed doors and independent opinion sought whenever the council applies the so-called “public interest test” before excluding press and public.

•The registers of interests for councillors and senior officers should be published online and updated.

•The Business Management Group which makes important decisions on council business should publish its minutes as a matter of course.

•Details of councillors’ attendance records should be published online.

•Carmarthenshire should follow the example set by Monmouthshire and publish details of council spending online.

•Groups bringing petitions to Council should be heard by the full council, and ordinary backbench councillors should be given an opportunity to speak on the petition.

A former US Supreme Court justice once said “sunshine is the best disinfectant” when it came to ensuring good government, and we believe it is time for Carmarthenshire County Council to pull back the curtains at County Hall and let the light in

Yours sincerely

Richard Vale (Newcastle Emlyn)
Jacqui Thompson (Llanwrda)

See also my post from Saturday; Ten years of damage - the Carmarthenshire 'review

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

WLGA announce Carmarthenshire Governance Review

Given that this is a matter of public interest, the Welsh Local Government Association have announced the governance review, and the panel, as a press release on their website. I have copied it in full below.

There are numerous posts on the subject on this blog, most recently here, Ten years of damage - the Carmarthenshire Review

Press Release;

WLGA Review of Governance, Carmarthenshire County Council

24 June 2014

Carmarthenshire County Council has commissioned the WLGA to undertake an independent peer review of its governance arrangements. The review remit was agreed by the Council’s Group Leaders and was approved, with additional amendments, by full Council on Thursday 12th June 2014.

The Review’s purpose is to help make Carmarthenshire become the most open and the most transparent council in Wales. The terms of reference are:

  • The conduct of council business, in particular:
  • The effectiveness or otherwise of current procedures or protocols such as notices of motion, urgent and exempt terms, scrutiny, declarations of interest and
  • Ensuring that reports fully set out legal, financial and equality implications of proposed policies and schemes/
  • Transparency and accountability to members, including the role of scrutiny and the availability of information for members, including the recording, dissemination and communication of council decisions;
  • The role of Full Council, including consideration of the new Modular Constitution; and
  • Member development and support and the role of Democratic Services function.

The review team comprises:

Byron Davies, Former Chief Executive of Cardiff Council

Rod Alcott, WLGA Associate (former Wales Audit Office)

Cllr Paul Griffiths, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council (Labour)

Anna Nicholl, Former Ministerial Special Advisor (Plaid Cymru)

With team support provided by Daniel Hurford and Sarah Titcombe of the WLGA.

The team is currently undertaking preparatory research and is finalising the approach of the review, including identifying key interviewees, groups and stakeholders to engage with; the Peer Team will wish to seek the views of all members across the council chamber, as well of those of key partners and stakeholders. Further details will follow in due course.

The review team will be at the Council from the week beginning 30th June and it is anticipated that the team will meet at the Council for two days per week throughout July. At this stage, it is proposed that interim conclusions and recommendations will be reported towards the end of July in order to inform the Council's wider work of reviewing its constitution. Following the interim feedback at the end of July, a final report will be prepared for submission in September.

The review will not consider the specific issues of the WAO's recent Public Interest Reports, however those reports will form part of the evidence base for the team who will inevitably consider any potential areas for improvement as a result of those reports; the aim is very much to look forward and make any recommendations for improvement that will help the council achieve its objective of being the most open and transparent council in Wales.

For more information contact: Daniel Hurford

End of press release.

Link to WLGA here

It sounds all a bit local government-speak to me, and I'm not sure who they mean by 'key partners', 'groups' and that dreaded word 'stakeholders'. Hopefully they mean the public.

As for the reference to the WAO reports, and 'looking forward', if it were not for the findings of unlawful activity regarding the chief executive's pension payments and the libel indemnity, there would be no review.

As for the libel indemnity itself, and also the current suspension of the 'Libel cost amendment' from the Council's Constitution, there are still matters to be resolved. I have written to the acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones for further details. I await a reply.

(Update 17.31; I have received an email from the WLGA which states that the panel will be meeting this week and next to consider how it will go about seeking the views of interested 'stakeholders' (the public, I presume?), whether via web forms with key questions or an email address. I am told that further information and contact details will be available shortly)

Monday, 23 June 2014

Another Press Office failure

Kevin Madge and the council seem to have forgotten the telling off they had from the Ombudsman last year for using the council press office for political purposes. Today's offering from our Leader welcomes the news, direct from Welsh Labour's National Executive Committee, that our wonderful council will probably be spared from disappearing off the map in the proposed forthcoming council mergers.

He is delighted of course that the council will be able to carry on it's merry way untouched, and this removal of doubt is particularly welcome, he tells us, as several new, (and no doubt highly expensive) senior officials need to be appointed....

The mergers are based on the recommendations of the Williams Commission, and are far from set in stone. The plan, which Kev calls 'news' will, in fact, form part of the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2016 Assembly elections...

The publicly funded press office should not be used for political purposes, of any colour. The 'press protocol' is now under review (yes another review), which clearly can't come soon enough.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ten years of damage - the Carmarthenshire 'review'.

I'm all for independence when it comes to reviews, especially those as serious and important as the governance review taking place in Carmarthenshire Council in the next few weeks.

As you know, it follows the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports and will, we are told, address the democratic deficit and lack of openness within this local authority.

Whether this review, which is scheduled to last for around four short weeks will undo the damage created over the past ten years, remains to be seen.

When the review was discussed at the emergency meeting over the unlawful payments the opposition proposed it should be led by the council's own Audit Committee an idea rejected by Cllr Madge in favour of a panel led by the WLGA. Whether the Audit Committee which, if nothing else, knows where some of the bodies are buried would have been more effective, we'll never know.

On the other hand, one member of the audit committee thought that the unlawful presence of a very senior officer at a meeting in which he was benefitting financially was nothing more than a 'schoolboy error'. Hopefully the 'panel' will see things differently, part of its 'remit' is to review the matter of declarations of interest.

So far we only know the identity of the lead man, Byron Davies, who is of course, a former chief executive...

To try and determine exactly how transparent the review itself will be I asked the WLGA what form it would take. I was told that it would be 'fluid' and the panel would take a 'mixed approach', there would be 'focus groups' and 'workshops'. Hmm.

I was told though that councillors would be able to 'let off steam' in private interviews, but as for any public involvement in the process, the WLGA were still mulling over that one...

The problem within the council, specifically the ruling junta led by a couple of unelected officials, is that there is no recognition whatsoever that there's anything wrong, and there never has been. After every criticism has come denial and smear. The WAO findings were met with instant defensiveness.

The small concessions following the reports, such as the review itself, have been reluctant, ill-humoured and lacking any sort of genuine humility on the part of those responsible. Before you seek treatment, you have to admit you have a problem, and in this case there's a running sore...which will need a lot more than a sticking plaster.

They, (and they know who they are) believe that this 'nonsense' has been caused by a handful of troublesome backbench councillors (and 'that's where they'll stay'), outspoken MPs, interfering busybodies such as the WAO and the Ombudsman, and of course those meddling, pesky bloggers.

For several years power has gradually, and quietly been allowed to pass from those people you voted for to those you haven't. Your voice has been systematically silenced to the staggering extent where robust criticism of council decisions could be (and have been) met with a publicly funded lawsuit.
No one is ever accountable.

The relationship between County Hall and the local independent press is another case in point, how many of you can remember when the Carmarthen Journal was the source of objective criticism and a platform for open debate?

Attempts to financially ruin the South Wales Guardian were only thwarted by the paper itself, by exposing the diabolical actions of County Hall, and the public doesn't like bullies.

However this review is conducted, the message needs to be sent that this should be a turning point and a culture changing exercise. The devil will be, to a great extent, in the detail and specific actions need to be taken to reverse rules introduced to stifle debate.

One example is the way Motions on Notice are dealt with and a simple proposal put forward (and rejected) by the Plaid opposition last year was that debates on matters of public interest should be taken by full council, regardless whether it was an 'executive function'. Any decision whether or not to bat a controversial topic away from open debate should itself be determined by full council, not by the chief executive.

The only reason why the WAO reports were publicly debated was because for once, they wouldn't have got away with it. Public disgust was overwhelming. Even then the ruling junta ensured they were represented in the Chamber by a QC.

Aside from the devilish detail, those currently in charge need to be open to change and constructive suggestions. The past record of the regime is itself clear evidence that in certain quarters, this will definitely not be the case.

I, and others, will be putting forward constructive, practical and reasonable suggestions to the panel for improvement, as I doubt that murmurings of revolution will be acceptable to former chief executives and the like.

The gentleman I spoke to at the WLGA seemed to doubt the level of interest the public had in all this. Let's prove him wrong. I'm sure many of you are concerned with the way this council is currently run; this is not a party political issue, it's an urgent matter of restoring basic democratic rights for both the public and the representatives they've voted for.

I trust the WLGA will be providing contact details for the public to make their views and suggestions known. If not, then I will provide them on this blog and will make very sure those views and suggestions are seen and heard.

It's definitely worth a try.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Public filming of Council meetings....Chapter 83....

Back in 2012 the cross-party Policy and Resources Scrutiny committee recommended to the Exec Board that the public should be allowed to film council meetings. The ruling administration rejected the idea (naturally) and further discussion was deferred until after the webcast pilot.

The issue came up again last month at the May full council meeting where once again it was shuffled off in the vague direction of the executive board. Calls were also made to extend the webcasting to other meetings, including scrutiny, exec board and planning. Again, further discussion by the exec board was promised.

The minutes of this most recent scrutiny meeting, June 6th, show that some of the members at least recognise the significance of this important principle of democracy and transparency, and are not giving up the fight. The minutes state that the matter was discussed in detail. We can't see the detail of course because these meetings are not filmed.

However, some of the pros and cons were recorded in the minutes. The pros being nil cost; no legislative barriers; the Welsh Government were 'urging' councils to consider it (the should be requiring them to allow it, not 'urging consideration'); and it 'demonstrated openness' and would be 'viewed as democratic'.

The usual 'cons' came up which as predictably as ever related to fear of being shown in a bad light, the use of 'selective' clips and also 'a person's motive' for filming, given that full council meetings were now webcast. I doubt very much if anyone would want to film a meeting if it was being webcast, but they should be able to if they wanted to.

As for 'motive', if the member of the public were wielding a loaded shotgun rather than a smartphone then they'd then have good reason to worry about motive.

In the three years, (yes, three years), that the council have been chewing over this, legislation is now nearing completion in Westminster to protect the democratic rights of citizens in England to record meetings.

The committee suggested that this matter could be included in the (also long awaited and much needed) 'Press and Media Protocol' review but were advised that this would have to be considered at the first meeting of the Focus Group.

As for the webcasting, the committee learned that the exec board 'had agreed [when was this? Ed] to extend the filming of council meetings to some meetings of the Planning Committee, but because of the cost implications it was not possible to film every Planning Committee meeting'.

So, as some Members pointed out, the council would itself be "selective" in deciding which planning meetings to film.

In conclusion, the scrutiny committee made the following recommendations;

"the Executive Board provides a formal response to the Welsh Government’s suggestion that all Council’s should allow the public to film council meetings.


the filming of council meetings by members of the public be fully debated by Elected Members."

So...who knows...look out for chapter 84. Eventually.


The council keeps the archived meetings online for six months, after which time they are only available on request. As something of an afterthought, I thought it would be a good idea, for reference purposes, to pop them on to You Tube, unedited of course, before they all went offline (the 2013 archived meetings have already gone apart from last year's AGM).

So far, a few from 2014 have been uploaded to my You Tube channel (see the 'most recent'), including the Extraordinary meeting held on the 27th February.  For the most recent meetings go to the council archive.