Thursday, 23 October 2014

Chief Executive pay-off - Plaid demand full open debate


An article in last week's South Wales Guardian featured a quote from leader Cllr Kevin Madge (Lab) remarking on the ongoing restructuring of senior management in the council which, he said, included the possibility of abolishing the chief executive role.

Earlier this month, (see Severance), I queried the fact that it was the chief executive himself who had been delegated to extend the severance scheme to cover this year, and also that he had said publicly that he was the one doing the senior management restructuring review...the golden path neatly paved then. All that's now needed is the loyal rubber stamp from Kev, Pam and Co.

This week's paper features a response (not online yet) from Plaid opposition leader Cllr Emlyn Dole who seems to have picked up a very similar train of thought and has, with last week's dire events at Pembs council also in mind I'm sure, demanded that any decision involving a pay-off for the chief executive should be debated by full council and held in public;

"As leader of the opposition group on the council I have to question where the suggestion of making the chief executive's post redundant has come from. 
There has been no discussion on the future of that position. It's therefore not unreasonable to question whether the management structure of the council is possibly being changed in order to secure a financial pay-off for one person. 
The 28-strong Plaid Cymru group that I lead will want any decision on the chief executive's departure and potential pay-off to be brought in front of full council for all councillors to have their say. 
In doing so we will demand that a decision is made in full view of the public so they can see how councillors are spending their money"
Of course, what you demand and what you get can be a very different matter in our council and Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Plaid AM has already said that Mr James should have no more public money.

However, I would have thought even Mr Madge might agree with Plaid on this one, particularly if he's been listening to public opinion or more to the point, the 'voter'. There's a snapshot of that public opinion over on the petition, which is still available to sign and, if you wish, leave a comment.

Mr Madge has been deeply involved in the whole sorry unlawful payments scandal and has consistently defended the questionable use of public money, despite the financial abyss; most recently defending the £26,000 paid to QC Tim Kerr for the fruitless legal opinions as 'reasonable and necessary'..

Update 24th Oct; I understand that the long awaited WLGA Governance Review report, required following the pension and libel indemnity scandals, is currently being translated and will be published at the end of next week. Everyone who contributed to the review will receive a copy and it will also be published on the WLGA website.

A full page article appeared in today's Welsh language current affairs magazine Golwg highlighting the petition and the subject of the impending pay-off. It is not online but available at all good newsagents in Wales.


Golwg 23rd October 2014

Cllr Sian Caiach makes the point that under the severance scheme, key members of the workforce are not supposed to take redundancy.

Should a business case be put forward and be accepted, then this may leave a curious situation. If Meryl, Kev and co wish to give the chief executive a gold plated Christmas present, they will be forced to agree, after bleating for years about their wonderful, and indispensable chief executive, that both he, and the role is in fact, entirely dispensable.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Wild west newsround


Further to the deal made at last week's meeting of Pembrokeshire Council to award chief exec Bryn Parry Jones a £332,000 pay-off, the Wales Audit Office are now examining the details. The BBC reports on the matter here .
Pembs councillor Jacob Williams published the eye-watering figures on his website, which can be found here
Interestingly the package included £16k compensation for 'breach of contract' as the council did not pay the pension payments after the policy was stopped in January. This followed the WAO report which deemed them unlawful, and also applied to Carmarthenshire of course.
(Update Tuesday; Pembs Unison reaction here and Pembs Cllrs explain themselves here)

Further speculation continues in Carmarthenshire. Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has already stated that Mark James should not receive another penny when he quits, whilst Cneifiwr reports that veteran indies remain under his spell, well one of them at least.

Over three hundred members of the public have made their views very clear over on the Change.org petition - please sign if you haven't done so already. There is also a link to the petition on my earlier post here.

Wherever Mr James is going, and whatever he's going with, he'll also be taking £31,000, plus interest, secured on my home, which is not something I'm going to forget in a hurry..

Planning Committee to be webcast


After the executive board hinted at the possibility around six months ago, it seems that finally Carmarthenshire Council's Planning Committee will be webcast from the 6th November onwards.
This is good news of course, now only exec board, scrutiny, democratic services etc to go.

Even better would be for the council to adopt Pembrokeshire Council's recent move (no, I don't mean give the chief exec a golden handshake) to allow the public to film all open meetings.


Here's me in March 2011 trying to film a Planning Committee meeting and being told by the Council's senior solicitor that it 'clearly stated' in the Standing Orders that filming was not allowed. The Standing Orders 'clearly stated' no such thing of course, and still don't. As you may remember, in June 2011 I made a further stand and was arrested.

March 31st 2011;

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Cllr Caiach reflects - A link to her blog


Carmarthenshire Councillors, on the whole, remain a tight lipped bunch, and for some it's probably best they stay that way. There are a few exceptions but even then, even less are prepared to publish their thoughts and reflections to the big wide world.

The one exception is Cllr Sian Caiach and those of you who have watched the webcast meetings over the past year or so will have noticed that she is very often the only councillor to stick her head over the parapet and say how it is, or at least try her level best to. In the past Mr James has restricted her right to information for 'asking too many questions' and his attempt to report her to the Ombudsman failed miserably.

Cllr Caiach has today published her thoughts on the legacy of Mark James and the future of the council in the hands of those equally responsible for the damage.
The whole post, How to play the end game? can be read on her website.
Here are a couple of extracts;

"....I have asked for clarification on many of the council’s dubious decisions before, and have received nothing but evasive answers at best. I have brought concerns from my constituents before them in council meetings and have been shut down repeatedly, sometimes by grown men screaming at me to be silent...."

"....We may never know the complete truth. Mark is not being asked to give back the unlawful payments or even his CBE. His tenure may well be remembered by us as a time of loss. We lost more money than most of us will ever possess in our lifetimes, the well being and quality of life of countless local people was reduced. 

We also lost the integrity and dignity of one Welsh council."

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For those of you who haven't signed the petition yet and wish to do so, it can be found here;


My previous post, 'Petition - Mark James' severance deal' also provides a link.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Filming council meetings - a first for Wales?


Thursday's meeting of neighbouring Pembrokeshire Council will go down in history as the one where disgraced chief executive Bryn Parry Jones was given a handsome golden parachute of £330,000 to depart before the disciplinary committee has finished it's work, the whole deal being discussed behind very un-transparent closed doors. Twenty nine councillors voted for, and twenty three against.

An almost unanimous vote earlier in the meeting, and which, perhaps understandably, almost passed unnoticed approved a motion put forward by Cllr David Howlett (Con) for the public to film all open meetings of Pembrokeshire Council, including cabinet and committees.
Correct me if I'm wrong but I think this is first for Wales.

The protocol accompanying the approval is, as all council documents are, constipated, but despite some control by the Chair, prior permission is not required. The final paragraph is to allay the fears of those overly sensitive councillors that they may be made to look silly....

Anyway, it's over to the rest of Wales and particularly Pembrokeshire's fellow basket case, Carmarthenshire council; this protection of democratic rights is now the law in England, I'm sure it will be quite a simple process to copy and paste Pembrokeshire's protocol into your own Standing Orders.

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With Bryn's golden parachute sealed, don't forget to sign the petition to try and avert a similar expense concerning our own disgraced chief executive in Carmarthenshire. There's a link on my previous post; Petition - Mark James' severance deal 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Petition - Mark James' severance deal


A petition has been set up by a Carmarthenshire resident to not pay Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mark James any more public money through a severance pay-off when he leaves the authority.

A decision on this could be made as early as next month and could possibly be heard at the next full council meeting on the 12th November, in just over three weeks time. It is important therefore that as many people as possible sign this petition and make their voice heard.

If you wish to sign, please click on the link below. You do not have to live in Carmarthenshire to do so. If you also wish to leave a comment, please do so on the petition;


Change.org; 'To not pay disgraced Local Authority Chief Executive, Mark James, a voluntary severance package'


Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has also said publicly that he did not believe any more public money should be paid out for Mr James' departure.
(Western Mail, 30th September)


Update 15th October;
Rumours have been circulating, and indeed reaching Caebrwyn, that Mark James has already accepted another job elsewhere (the University of Bath we hear?) despite his severance application still to be decided. The council have called it 'speculation'.
The Llanelli Star has the story here.

Over the border, the Pembrokeshire Herald reports on rumours that equally disgraced Pembs council chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, could be paid a £320,000 exit package. Councillors are due to decide tomorrow.
Update Thursday; Pembs councillors approve pay-off for Bryn Parry Jones. According to BBC Wales it is worth £330,000. According to reports, the deal is being looked over by the Wales Audit Office.

As far as Carmarthenshire is concerned, it's all the more reason to sign the petition.


(Previous posts; Severance and Final Charging order...and Mark James is off)

Monday, 13 October 2014

Executive Board - On the Road


As a Community Councillor I went along today to one of Kev's 'On the road' Executive Board meetings where the convoy of officers and executive board members meet and yes, 'engage' with the 'grassroots' of democracy.

It was held in Llandovery and what with plenty of expenses to be claimed and several hours of officer time taken up it was quite an expensive exercise.

County Hall outing

Executive board meeting themselves are very dull affairs with the Members nodding through what they're told to and the whole thing predetermined at the unminuted pre-meeting gathering before the public event starts.

Having criticised these get-togethers before, I can now speak from direct experience (on a personal level obviously, I'm not speaking for my community council) and say that it was indeed a waste of time and little more than a PR exercise.The presence of the council press manager was a bit of a giveaway.

The exec board meeting was first with a sprinkling of local town and community councillors sat around the assembled County Hall crew. You can't ask questions or speak during the meeting. To their credit opposition Cllrs Dai Jenkins and Emlyn Dole trekked out to Llandovery as observers. County Cllrs Tom Theophilus and Ivor Jackson were also present as the local members, and sat there like a couple of snoozing bookends.

Linda Rees Jones loitered on the periphery in case the chief executive suddenly required some emergency legal ironing.

Opening the meeting, Mr James announced that it was Meryl's 70th birthday that very same day, but thankfully we were spared having to sing a chorus of Happy Birthday as dear Meryl wasn't there.

First up was a presentation from the privately run Llandovery College which arose from the ashes of near bankruptcy a couple of years ago. Kevin Madge declared how he would never like to see the school close, indeed not, but shame he was so keen for state run Pantycelyn secondary school to close last year. Good old socialist principles eh Kev?

I'm not certain what the presentation was in aid of but there was quite a lot of talk of 'growth' and later in the meeting the chief executive hinted at talks, and 'joint aspirations' with the college principal over the future of the site of the now defunct Pantycelyn School.

Next up was a strange discussion over a £14k grant, from the Mynydd y Betws wind farm fund for a community farm to add to the community garden at Ysgol Y Bedol in Garnant.

It would provide sanctuary for chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits etc for the children and wider community, eggs could be sold and lots could be learned. Kevin Madge and Colin Evans declared interests and left the meeting, I think it was because they were governors, or perhaps pupils...you know, held back a few years.

This grant had already been heard at an Exec Board Member meeting (Meryl) where, seemingly unnecessary concerns had been raised over the proposed care of animals. Given that this project has actually got to this stage I'm sure the organisers had thought this through, and the report backs this up.

Anyway, unlike Meryl's Millions which are rubber stamped by her good self behind closed doors, this little primary school community farm project, perhaps for the benefit of critics of Carmarthenshire's grant management, was elevated to the executive board and was clearly going to be subjected to a level of scrutiny never before seen.

Luckily for the future of the natural world, Pam was on hand to fret that the poor creatures needed water. Again, I'm absolutely certain that the organisers were perfectly aware that animals needed water. Anyway, on it went, and on...  I couldn't hear what happened at the end, I just hope they got their grant.

The usual revenue and capital monitoring reports came up which presented an opportunity for the chief executive to give a little speech about the wondrous capital projects blossoming all over the county, the press manager was hastily scribbling away.

Mr James, soon to be 'down the road' rather than on it, never misses an opportunity for PR waffle and I seem to remember he even managed to mention the county's 2% increase in recycling figures when under cross-examination in the witness box at the libel trial.

The meeting went on to budget news and the £45m the council would have to cut over the next three years. "Things were beyond our control"  said our ever-assertive Leader Cllr Madge. Labour Cllr Colin Evans who has the highways and byways portfolio, a budget which, unlike social care and education, is not protected, couldn't understand the mentality of the Welsh Government; or, 'his colleagues in Cardiff', as they are otherwise known.

With reference to the reduction in Welsh Government grants Kevin Madge blamed the auditors for their fees for checking the paperwork...with Pam nodding frantically in agreement. They've clearly got a thing about auditors at Carmarthenshire Council....

Full public consultation on the carefully yet-to-be-announced pre-selected budget proposals was promised, which will be, er, something to look forward to...

A brief discussion followed on the issue of council mergers with Kevin Madge pleased that the best council in Wales would remain intact; the "huge monster" of Dyfed would be kept at bay, for now. Along with any threat to his £48k per year.

So with the future still "fluid"; and not one Executive Board Member even suggesting that they put up a fight to protect frontline services, and all looking a little bored, the official meeting closed.

Ramping up council tax, or discussing the £100m the council holds in reserves wasn't mentioned of course. It would have been like swearing at a polite tea party.

Before they could have their lunch though the assembled scattering of town and community councillors had to be disposed of.

We were invited to join the merry group from County Hall, introduced ourselves, were welcomed by Kev, (a strange strangled noise when it came to me, and the chief executive had a sudden interest in the ceiling of Rhys Pritchard Memorial Hall) and we were then subjected to yet another presentation.

This time it was by Wendy Walters, now an interim chief executive, on the marvels of Llandovery regeneration. Questions (limited to local community council matters) were allowed and there was much waffle about enterprise zones and rural regeneration, and no straight answers.

One asked whether Llanwrda and Llansadwrn Primary Schools were still due to close at some point in the near future; the answer, from the Director of Education was that due to falling numbers they were not educationally viable and alternative methods of delivering education were being considered...a simple "yes" would have done.

As far as I am aware, each of the community councils present are quite adept at phoning or emailing the appropriate council department if they have a query, or even tackling the grants system. I also know that my community council has a free range public question time. The whole event was superfluous and faintly ridiculous.

Given the idiotic way in which these highly remunerated assembled Members of the ruling administration voted last week to ban themselves from asking questions, their idea of scrutiny and debate, over the coming financially difficult months doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

October meeting - and an unbelievable vote over 'councillors questions'

Update 15th October; Plaid group leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole has written to the local papers pointing out the ridiculous vote as detailed below. He makes it clear he will be calling for another vote at next month's meeting and suggests readers watch the webcast to see how their own representative votes...
South Wales Guardian letters.

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The October gathering of Carmarthenshire Council was a relatively brief affair but plumbed new depths over the issue of 'councillors questions'. You may remember at September's meeting that no supplementary questions were allowed - the constitution was interpreted as being 'silent' on the issue, therefore an arbitrary ban was applied, on the advice of the chief executive and head of legal, of course.

With several question on this month's agenda the leader of the Plaid group, Cllr Emlyn Dole first of all suggested that the use of the plural in 'questions' in the constitution inferred a common sense interpretation that supplementary questions were indeed permissible and, as in any other normal democratic arena, were to be expected.

Mark James and Linda Rees Jones disagreed. 

Cllr Dole then went on to propose that the relevant Standing Order was suspended, which would then allow supplementaries. This was put to the vote.

Unbelievably, thirty councillors voted against further democracy and banned themselves from asking follow-up questions; with only twenty seven in favour and one abstention (sixteen councillors were absent from the meeting) the vote was lost. It should be remembered at the next election that these councillors voted against representing your interests.

The vote was not recorded but it appeared to be the usual suspects from the Labour and independent benches who voted in such an extraordinary way, we don't know whether they were being remotely controlled by the chief executive or they actually thought this was a good idea. The mind boggles.

We all know very well that certain unelected officials like to exert an unhealthy power and control over what is said by councillors in the Chamber. Today was a perfect example. Hopefully that power will soon be removed...

Presumably the issue of supplementary questions will be brought up as a matter of urgency at the 'Workshop' arranged by the WLGA governance review panel meeting in the afternoon. Hopefully it will fit into 'theme testing' and discussion on 'Key Issues' which is forming the final, er, 'independent' report. 

In the normal world independent reports are only passed by those involved to check the facts...perhaps the WLGA are new to this procedure....See 'Next week's agenda and the missing WLGA report' 

Cllr Dole, in reference to his own question referring to remarks made by the Police Commissioner about 'murky backroom deals' asked if he could add a preamble to put the question in context. No he couldn't said Mr James, he could only ask the question.

The Chair managed to read out a prepared answer in that the comments had been made in a party political debate but that the Police Commissioner Panel had been informed and would be 'dealing' with it at their next meeting. It wasn't made clear what they would actually do other than ensure that the PCC performs his 'Statutory duties'.

You may also remember from the last meeting that there was a furore from the Plaid benches over an anonymous comment in Exec Board minutes that the Welsh language should not impede inward investment, implying that it would. Cllr Cefn Campell (Plaid) asked for some evidence to be presented to substantiate this remark. 
Kevin Madge responded that the Member in question (who has remained anonymous) was expressing an opinion and he would always defend their right to do so. That was that.

Of interest to Caebrwyn was the final question from Cllr Elwyn Williams (Plaid); 
'In view of the Leader’s previous admission that over £28,000 was spent on legal advice to try to justify the “unlawful” expenditure on the Chief Executive’s tax avoidance scheme and his libel action indemnity, does the Leader think that this was taxpayers' money well spent – and if so, why?'

Kevin Madge was brief and said that at the time they needed independent legal advice and he believed it to be reasonable and necessary. No supplementary question allowed of course.

Quite something for a Labour leader to consider what amounts to a considerably above average annual salary for a Carmarthenshire worker to be paid over to defend (which it failed to do) a tax avoidance scheme and a means to personally sue a member of the public on behalf of the highest paid employee of the council. 

Also interesting that he refers to the necessity for 'independent' legal advice, particularly after having ignored the WAO's direction that independent legal advice be sought before counter suing me. All that was 'necessary' then, in January 2012 was a misleading report from Linda Rees Jones, approval of the report by Mark James before the meeting, and his presence at the meeting to ensure no one decided differently. He now reaps his financial reward.

A brief discussion on the Scarlets came up and Cllr Caiach asked whether any more money would be spent on the club given the present financial climate. Apparently none was envisaged and the sponsorship deal was coming to an end, it would be up to council whether or not to renew it. To my knowledge, the amount of money entailed in the sponsorship deal has never been made public. 

The chief executive then took the opportunity to announce that a letter had been received in response to a complaint (looking at Cllr Caiach) which had been made to the EU Commission in that the millions of pounds of public money invested in the club, (a private company) may have been in breach of state aid rules (see State Aid and the Stadium). The letter stated that the EU Commission did not envisage pursuing the matter. He looked particularly smug, even more than normal.

Cllr Caiach was not allowed to respond.

I am still waiting for the outcome of my complaint I made to the Wales Audit Office over the council/Scarlets car park deal, see; The Council, the Scarlets and the 'Allowable expenses' - a Revelation

The subject of the very poor air quality in Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo came up and the ongoing call for a by-pass. The 'call' has been 'ongoing' for about forty years. Anyway, Kevin Madge assured council that pressure on the Welsh Government was continuing and for some reason mentioned his delight that businessman Sir Terry Matthews (of Celtic Manor Hotel fame) was now Chair the Swansea Bay Regional partnership thing. Maybe he's going to ask Mr Matthews to build the bypass...

Cllr Sharon Davies (Lab) brought up the issue that grant funding to organisations which dealt with drug abuse should only be made if the people delivering the service were suitable qualified. There seemed to be slightly more to this statement than met the eye and Cllr Peter Cooper (Lab) also seemed to think so, 

Although no organisation was named Cllr Cooper wondered whether the organisation she was thinking of, and I would imagine he was thinking of Chooselife Llanelli, a Christian based drop-in centre, required qualifications as it was a drop-in rather than treatment centre. Chooselife currently has over £100k per year in grants.
Cllr Davies denied being specific....

The full meeting will be available on archive tomorrow.

The November meeting looks like it could be an interesting affair, not only should the WLGA final report be on the agenda (See also the comments provided to the panel from Sir David Lewis, lay member of the audit committee) but, according to Kevin Madge, a decision could be taken at next month's meeting as to how many hundreds of thousands of pounds are going to be required to ensure that the chief executive finally er, departs. He didn't put it quite like that of course.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Big screens and rusty tiles

The SellToWales website lists the details of tenders put forward by local authorities and other 'buyers'. The latest notice for Carmarthenshire Council is for the 'Supply and installation of fixed and mobile digital screen media for Carms Leisure Services'. Basically it's for six fixed screens and a van to relay digital blurbs promoting a healthy lifestyle, targeting, for example, the 'frail elderly'.

The notice mentions the 'overarching Welsh Government supported Intermediate Care Fund' (ICF) which, I assume, given the dire financial straits of the council's social care department must be where the funding for this will be coming from.

The ICF was set up by the Welsh Government with a pot of £50m late last year with the primary aim 'to support older people to maintain their independence and remain in their own home' and several examples of the current projects underway around Wales are listed on the Welsh Government website; extra intermediate care beds, occupational therapists, dementia care, crisis intervention support services etc etc.

I'm sure the 'digital display' idea is very well intentioned, (the tender notice does include the word 'sustainable' so I'm sure that ticked enough boxes by itself) and is obviously the result of a particularly enthusiastic innovative-joined-up-brainstorming-session.

I'm sure we can all picture the frail elderly transfixed and inspired, in their droves, by the patronising digital messages on their smartphones and public displays....however, I remain doubtful whether this will achieve, as stated in the tender notice, the "end goal of reducing the need for unnecessary admission to health care settings"....


Whilst on the subject of leisure services, the council run Llanelli Leisure centre opened to a fanfare a couple of months ago after a £350,000 spend on essential repair. Unfortunately this didn't seem to include a good clean and one resident has highlighted the less than hygienic surroundings to the press.

The newspaper managed to get a quote from Cllr Meryl Gravell who has scientifically identified the brown gunge on the ceramic tiles as 'a rust issue which will be removed'. A rust issue?

'rusty' tiles (Pic source SW Evening Post)


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Severance


Some further thoughts on the voluntary severance scheme approved by the executive board in September 2013 which seems to be Mr James' preferred departure route and which could mean a very hefty pay off.

At the meeting last September, the Board also granted the chief executive the delegated power to extend the scheme for another year, if it was required...clearly it was.

Incidentally, Mr James and other senior officers declared an interest as they could potentially gain financially from the decision...no 'schoolboy error' this time.

A business case will have to be put forward for the deletion of the post of chief executive (perhaps). Mr James has already said in public that he is in the process of carrying out a senior management restructuring review, maybe he has already paved the golden path himself...

A decision to delete the post of chief executive, to be replaced by, for example, a corporate director, (on a far lower salary) would, I believe, have to be taken by full council. The problem being that the desired result - the exit of Mr James - may also sanction the golden handshake.

Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has already said that the unlawful payments scandal "has left public trust in the county council at an all-time low" and that Mr James should not receive any more public money; it will be interesting to see how this will be done. Tax avoidance, libel indemnity...just two examples, over the years, where Mr James has played senior colleagues and executive board puppets like a fiddle.

Anyway, I'm sure further information will become apparent in due course.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Next week's agenda, and the missing WLGA report


The agenda for next week's full council has just been published and one item is notable by it's absence. At the September meeting it was promised that the long awaited final WLGA governance review report, required following the damning audit reports, would be before council on the 8th October.

I made enquiries to the WLGA as to its mysterious whereabouts and was informed today (very quick response, thank you) that;

"The Review Team is currently finalising the report. Although it had originally been planned to present the report to Council on 8th October, the Review Team wished to test some key issues with members further and has organised a Workshop, open to all members, to receive feedback and test draft themes and proposals before the report is finalised. The workshop session has been scheduled for the afternoon of 8th October. 
Following this workshop, the Review Team will publish its final report later in October, which will be circulated to all councillors, interviewed partners and members of the public who submitted evidence. It will also be published on the WLGA website. The Council has previously indicated that the report would be considered by full Council, so I assume that this might occur at November’s meeting."

Ah, of course, there are still 'draft themes' to be tested...

As I, and others have said, for this council to become the open and democratic institution it is supposed to be, there needs to be change of culture, and that will only be achieved by the removal of the top brass at County Hall. After Tuesday's announcement, it looks like the main obstacle will soon be gone...without, it is hoped, any more public money, as Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said in the Western Mail.

Back to the agenda and Kevin Madge appears to be trying to scrape the Carmarthenshire barrel of positive PR by proposing a motion to ban the sale of chinese lanterns from council premises. No doubt this is a worthy cause given the reported damage they can cause, but you may have thought that the leader of the council, teetering on the edge of the worst financial predicament for years, senior officers jumping ship, and governance 'not fit for purpose', he may have had more pressing thoughts.

Anyway, the agenda also contains some more councillor questions - you may remember the ridiculous fiasco at the last meeting when councillors were banned by Mark James and Linda Rees Jones from asking a follow up question. The resultant effect more or less was to give the Exec Board members and leader an opportunity to spout forth with no comebacks allowed.

Whether that thorny issue will be resolved for Wednesday's meeting we will have to wait and see.

All the questions can be viewed on the agenda here. They include one from Cllr Dole, leader of the Plaid Group; he asks for a full apology from the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon for accusing the Chief Constable and local councillors of negotiating 'murky back room deals'. This follows Mr Salmon's remarks attacking the UK Labour party proposals to abolish his job.

At least it will be novel to hear the phrase 'murky back room deals' in the Chamber, even if it's in a different context.

Another question from a Plaid councillor asks;

In view of the Leader’s previous admission that over £28,000 was spent on legal advice to try to justify the “unlawful” expenditure on the Chief Executive’s tax avoidance scheme and his libel action indemnity, does the Leader think that this was taxpayers' money well spent – and if so, why? 

Can't wait for the answer to that one....
The QC's advice failed to justify anything of course...although I imagine it's especially difficult to defend illegal payments in public office (I'm sure there's a shorter word...begins with 'f', five letters, can't quite think of it...)

Planning; A local victory


I'd like to mention a story in this week's Carmarthen Journal concerning a planning victory for local Carmarthen residents as it's a twist in the tale from a post I had written eighteen months or so ago.

Way back in April 2013 the council's executive board decided to sell off 86 small pieces of council owned land for potential development.

There were objections put forward against four of the areas being sold, one of which was at Cae Bryn Drain, Carmarthen where Bro Myrddin Housing Association appeared to be lined up to build homes on a green space used by local children.

The Board 'noted' the objections (in council-speak this means 'ignored'), which included a 278 name petition to protect the Cae Bryn Drain site, and resolved to proceed with the sales anyway. Naturally.

Also on that agenda, there happened to be another item in which Welsh Government guidance required local authorities to protect green spaces, where possible, for children to play and to consider the impact if it ever decided to sell off such sites. This guidance was accepted.

See my 2013 post; 'Open play areas and black holes'

This contradiction was pointed out at the following full council meeting and board members were accused of not listening to residents. Kevin Madge waffled on about not being able to afford to cut the grass, they needed the money, etc at these sites, and it was the only sensible way forward blah blah. That was that.

Fast forward to last week's planning committee meeting and up with a recommendation for approval by planning officers was an application by Bro Myrddin for four affordable dwellings on the Cae Bryn Drain site.

Undoubtedly there needs to be properly affordable homes but this proposal was on the only green space in the middle of several dwellings and had been designated as an 'open space' in the original planning permission, and used as such by the families, for more than thirty years.

The new development would mean that children would have needed to cross a busy road to access the nearest playground several hundred metres away.

The families have continued with their campaign to preserve this small green space and local member, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) reminded the planning committee last week of the contradiction over open, 'green space' play provision.

He said that any development on this site would be contrary to the council's own policy to provide open space adopted at that earlier Exec Board meeting.  After a site visit the committee rejected the application. Cllr Hughes Griffiths said; "These are two areas of guidance which were ignored as part of the report to the planning committee. That should not have happened and I will be asking further questions."

Campaigners, Cae Bryn Drain. (pic source Carmarthen Journal)

The housing association has, of course, the right of appeal but it shows that if local campaigners stick to their guns for long enough, sometimes you will get the desired result, if not quite through the avenue you first thought.


Full story; Carmarthen Journal

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Will anyone think of Meryl...?


I've heard that many Carmarthenshire citizens are deeply concerned about the welfare of Cllr Meryl Gravell since Mark's forthcoming departure was announced yesterday.

According to several unreliable moles she spent a restless night texting Pam and writing a tearful tribute. In the end she just couldn't find the words and sent him this message instead;






The Meryl and Mark years #RIP

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Final Charging Order...and Mr James is off


The telephone hearing was held at 2pm this afternoon and Mark James was granted his final charging order on my home for his damages from his unlawfully funded counterclaim.

The other news this afternoon is that Mr James will, at some point over the next few months, be clearing his desk and moving on, or retiring, or whatever. The council issued a statement today
that "....an application for severance has been received from the Chief Executive, Mr Mark James....there is a process to be followed to consider each application over the next three to four months. During this period, it will be business as usual for Mr James who will continue in his role as Chief Executive..."
As I understand it the post of chief executive will also become redundant and Mr James could potentially walk off with a hefty deal.

Interesting. If he is moving on to greener pastures, then he should carry a compulsory government health warning. Talk about leaving a trail of destruction...

As for today's hearing, my original request to the court to have this heard in locally, in Wales was refused. In addition, a last minute mix-up by the court meant that a different judge heard the application. He did not have any of the paperwork, or details of the case in front of him, including my objections which I have copied, in part, below. I was able, however, to give a summary of the main points.

Mr James now has a couple of options; to leave the charge in place, with interest of £166 per month accruing or to make a further application to the court to force sale of my home so he can get his money. The judge did not agree to freeze the interest.

As I have explained, this sum of money, over £30,000 relates to the damages, it has nothing to do with the costs which were awarded against me, £190,000 for the claim and £41,000 for the unlawful counterclaim. Mr James has, if nothing else, ensured that he has secured his money first, there is nothing left for the Council or for that matter, the taxpayer.

I add that should I have been successful with my claim, Mr James was at no risk as he had made sure that any damages he would have had to pay to me were going to be provided by the Carmarthenshire taxpayer.

As I have also said, on numerous occasions, I do not agree with the findings of either the trial judge nor the appeal court. However, I have little choice in the matter but I hoped today that the court may have given me the benefit of the doubt given the unlawful findings. Clearly not.

It leaves me with little else other than to say how I feel and I make no apologies for what I am about to say. I am in no doubt that by securing this charge on my home Mr James has gained financially from an unlawful action in public office; not just unlawful in principle but in practice as well.

You may remember he was present, and took part in the meeting when the indemnity was granted and used his own lawyer to provide 'independent' advice.

Quite clearly, public vindication was not enough for Mr James and if nothing else, this ongoing battle has revealed to me that he is a vindictive dishonest bully, and a control freak of the highest order, and has failed miserably to follow his supposed Christian faith.  All I can do is reiterate that I will fight this to the bitter end; I do not acknowledge the debt, either the damages nor the costs and as long as I have breath in my body I will try my damndest not to hand over one penny to either Mr James nor the council.

At this stage I do not particularly care about what has been said against me over the past couple of years, I know in my heart that all I have ever done is criticise a tin pot council, when necessary and try and bring some light and local interest into the dark corners of the local authority. I have never made false allegations about anyone, unlike Mr James. He will not be missed.

Neither have I hid behind a mask of anonymity.

If you are wondering why I am being so outspoken, it is the truth, plain and simple.

I shall, of course be continuing with the blog, whether it be from my home or from a bloody tent.

As I have said, I have copied the first part of my objection to the charge below, the second part consisted of personal, financial and family details which I will not be publishing.

Queen's Bench Masters
Queen’s Bench Division
Royal Courts of Justice
Case Ref; HQ11D04250 
Dear Sir, 
This letter and accompanying documentation is filed and served as my
objection to the Interim Charging Order, granted to the benefit of Mr Mark James on the 19th June 2014, being made final. 
Hearing date; 30th September 2014 at 2pm, by telephone. 
I object to the Charge on Title CYM**** being made final on the grounds detailed below. 
1.  The funding of the counterclaim which gave rise to the damages which forms the greatest part of this judgement debt has been found to be unlawful by Carmarthenshire council’s independent auditors, the Wales Audit Office (WAO).  
I enclose copies of the ‘Indemnity for Libel Counterclaim - Carmarthenshire County Council - Report in the Public Interest issued by the Wales Audit Office January 2014.  
I also enclose the legal advice from Browne Jacobson LLP commissioned by the WAO in respect of the libel counterclaim dated 19th September 2013. 
2. The decision to indemnify Mr James was found to be unlawful on two grounds;
Firstly, it was specifically prohibited under 6.(3) of the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers)(Wales) Order 2006 (“ the 2006 Order“) therefore the decision was ultra vires. 
I enclose a copy of the 2006 Order. 
3.  Secondly, Mr James failed to declare a personal and pecuniary interest, or leave the Executive Board (Council cabinet) meeting on the 23rd Jan 2012 when the indemnity was discussed and approved.  
This also rendered the decision void and unlawful. 
Mr James also had input into the report recommending his indemnity prior to the meeting of the Executive Board in 2012. 
4.  Although the Wales Audit Office is unequivocal in its finding of unlawfulness, even the Council itself (meeting of full council 9th July 2014) has determined that the issue is unresolved and remains a matter for the courts to decide on a principle of public law. 
5.  As a result of the Wales Audit Office Report, the clause in the council’s constitution which allowed such indemnities, contrary to the 2006 Order, was permanently suspended at an Extraordinary meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council on February 27th 2014. 
6.  If Mr James is successful in this application then he would be benefiting financially from a decision which was found to be unlawful in principle and in practice. 
7.  In addition, the First Minister of the Welsh Government, Carwyn Jones AM publicly stated on the 8th July 2014 that “…we as a government have said that it is not right to provide any sort of indemnity in terms of what has happened here” 
8.  The Appeal Court judges in their judgment issued on the 14th May 2014 (Thompson v James [2014] EWCA Civ 600) specifically chose not to make any observations on the lawfulness of the indemnity provision, clearly recognising the controversy, and, after having seen the Wales Audit Office report. 
9.  The grounds above relating to the unlawful funding in Carmarthenshire could have been subject to a claim for a Judicial Review. Despite the prospect of further court action and possible cost risk I am still exploring the possibilities of a Judicial Review over the decision. I am hopeful that the time limit for bringing proceeding could be extended in these unique circumstances.  
10.  I ask the court to recognise this whole matter as an abuse of process and that the unlawful funding is highly relevant to the judgment debt for damages arising from the counterclaim and accordingly I am asking the court to set aside the Charge and any other enforcement proceedings and dismiss Mr James’ application.  
As a matter of principle, there is still an important point of public law yet to be resolved. 
At the very least, I believe that such a drastic step of a Charging Order on my home should not be made whilst this legal controversy is ongoing.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Meryl's grants - the press office to the rescue!


With the increasing interest in what have become known as Meryl's Millions, the council seem to be going to some lengths to assure the enquiring public that everything is above board.

As I have said, the Wales Audit Office remains less than satisfied with the council's grant management system, for the third year running.

Yesterday's publication of the most recent speculative award of £302k from the South West Wales Property Development Fund includes an explanation using warm words such as 'due diligence', low risk', and 'satisfied the agreed procurement rules'. There is nothing unusual in these grants of course, what is unusual is the sudden desire to add the explanation, it's as if a nerve has been touched somewhere...

What probably doesn't help matters, in the transparency stakes at least, is that these meetings are held in private and the agenda isn't published until several days after the event.

Just to be on the safe side, and to stave off those..erm..enquiring minds, Meryl and Co have today called in the help of the propaganda division, the council press office.

The press release announces the start of an office development in Carmarthen which had benefited from another speculative £400k SWWPDF grant to Hacer Developments Ltd.

The press release hails the possible creation of 17 jobs, which is slightly overshadowed by the fact that the offices will be occupied by Bro Myrddin Housing Association who are relocating from the other side of town and presumably relocating the jobs in the process.
For good measure, the press release goes into some detail about the structure and benefits of the SWWPDF

As I said, there is nothing unusual in these grants, nor am I suggesting there is anything wrong with the successful applicants. Personally I find it odd, in these austere times that the fund is prepared to give large grants to entirely speculative projects, you would think that the element of risk would be too great.

However, the press release quotes an enthusiastic Meryl; “I am pleased that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help take forward this venture which will provide high quality office space in Carmarthen.”

Which is not dissimilar to this quote in January 2013 (another speculative grant to a sister company of Hacer Developments Ltd) “It is good news that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help bring about this venture to provide industrial space at Llanelli Gate which is a major hub for business in Carmarthenshire with the advantage of excellent transport links.”

..and remarkably similar to this quote, also in 2013;“I am pleased that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help take forward this venture which will provide high quality office space in Carmarthen. The end occupier and their customers, have the benefit of excellent transport links to and from the site.” referring to an earlier grant to the same company featuring in yesterday's decision.

Anyway, it seems that what Meryl may lack in the way of original quotes she has more than made up for in the latest photo shoot. Keen to assure her adoring public, she appears (2nd from right) to have rushed straight out of bed and turned up in her dressing gown; 



Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Friday's Audit Committee (aside from the elephants)


The council's Audit Committee meets on Friday and the rather dry looking agenda hides the fact that there are serious issues on the cards. Not least of all the letter from the lay member of that very committee, Sir David Lewis to the WLGA governance review panel in which he described the governance of the council as "in disarray and not fit for purpose" and the internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The statement of accounts has again been marred by the chief executive's pension and libel indemnity scandals (incurring an audit fee of £51k) and furthermore, the accounts will not be finally signed off by the Appointed Auditor until 'enquiries arising from matters raised by members of the public have been formally completed'.

One of those enquiries concerns the peculiar deal between the council and the Scarlets over the sale of a car park. We also know, from press reports, that work is still ongoing in relation to Meryl's millions.

So, aside from various elephants in the room, the Wales Audit Office have again raised general concern over the council's grant management procedures. There have been some improvements but the council still falls well below the Wales average in terms of the numbers of audited grants which need qualifying and amending. The findings of the WAO include ineligible expenditure, a lack of audit trail/insufficient evidence to support transactions and infringement of procurement rules.

A sample of grant claims which are not subject to external audit were also looked at and the WAO concluded that there were "weaknesses within the Council’s grants management arrangements which increases the risk of poor decision-making and inappropriate expenditure".

In conclusion, I would imagine if this was a school report it would say 'could do better' or maybe even, 'see me'...

There are also, interestingly, a couple of reports from the council's own internal audit review programme which show 'fundamental weaknesses', One concerns claims for travel and subsistence, and another relates to homecare (domiciliary) payments.

The council paid out over £2.4m last year in travel and subsistence (meals) to staff. It appears from the internal report that claims and reimbursement are not always compliant with the current travel policy, and agreed procedures not always followed. Quite how this problem has manifested itself in detail remains unknown but clearly there is something of an issue.

The homecare payments (over £17m last year) report, is even more worrying as there appears to be a difference of opinion between the council's internal auditors and their own department of social care as to how payments, which are largely to private healthcare providers, are monitored and whether the elderly and vulnerable at the receiving end are actually getting the hours that the providers are under contract to deliver.

The council's internal auditors recommended and assumed that the electronic 'call logging system' was used to check on staff attendance and therefore the actual time spent delivering care in the home, and therefore the subsequent payment to the care provider.
The Social Care department took a different view in that the call logging system should not be used to check that payments were appropriate to the hours worked.

The internal audit issued a report finding 'significant variances' between the contracted and invoiced hours, and the start and finish times recorded on the “call logging system”. This gave rise to "serious concern from both a care and financial perspective".

In light of this internal audit, the social care department then conducted its own 'review' and decided that the concerns flagged up by the internal audit report were 'not borne out' by their own experience and feedback.

However, out of this confused internal stand-off, the audit report recommended that a "complete review of the internal Homecare contract monitoring arrangements should be undertaken" to ensure "the proper use of Electronic Call Monitoring Systems ... to ensure care is delivered as expected and payments made are accurate."
I should think so to.

Finally, the decision record for one of Meryl's meetings was published today and included in the list of grants from the Mynydd y Betws Community Benefit Fund (wind turbine) was a couple of grand for the Llandybie Male Voice Choir.

The footnote to this grant was that it was 'Subject to the proviso that the piano will be returned to the Authority should the choir fold'. Will Meryl be looking out with anticipation for the demise of the choir and hauling the piano back to county hall for an executive board sing-song?
I wonder if other grants include such provisos?

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

Update 21:49 
Plaid Cymru Councillor Darren Price has commented briefly today on the £27,000 paid to Mr Tim Kerr QC for legal advice over the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments paid to Mr James. 

You may remember leader Kevin Madge (Lab) announced the figure in response to Cllr Price's 'councillor question' at the last council meeting. 

Cllr Price points out today that 'Meanwhile, Labour county councillors are threatening to take to court pensioners who put out their rubbish bins too early'

There's something very wrong somewhere. The Statement of Accounts referred to above confirms that Mr James' salary for 2013/14 was £180,889 plus the indemnity payment.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Public Question Time


After the 'Questions from councillors' fiasco at last week's council meeting we look forward to next month's gathering when the long awaited WLGA governance report is supposed to be on the agenda. It remains to be seen if the 'panel' agrees that council governance is 'in disarray and not fit for purpose'.

I hope, of course that there will be further questions from councillors and that they will be given the democratic courtesy of a supplementary question.

Whilst on the subject of questions, given that the last time a member of the public asked a question was in 2005, it is worth remembering that as long as you either live or work, or own a business in Carmarthenshire, you can put a question to an Executive Board Member at a full council meeting.

Although 'Public Question Time' does not appear on the agenda for full council meetings, if questions are put forward, it will do, as it is required by the constitution.

This is what you have to do;

You can ask one question, and this must be delivered in writing or by email to the Chief Executive by midday, seven working days before the meeting.
The email address is MJames@carmarthenshire.gov.uk or by post to; Chief Executive, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP.

You must include your name and address and the name of the Executive Board Member to which the question is to be put. For details of the areas of responsibility for each of the Exec Board Members there is a list here.

If you have a question for the meeting on October 8th, by my reckoning it must arrive by 12 noon on Monday the 29th September.

The question needs to be worded with care as the chief executive will reject the question if he decides it;
1.  is not about a matter for which the county Council has a responsibility or which affects the County;
2.  is defamatory, frivolous or offensive;
3.  is substantially the same as a question which has been put at a meeting of the Council in the past six months; or
4.  requires the disclosure of confidential or exempt information.

That's the 'official' list anyhow.

Each question will then be entered in 'a book' open to public inspection and sent to the relevant Member so they can formulate their reply. If a question is rejected, the reason for rejection must be recorded.

If you have got this far, well done - you are now able to ask your question at the meeting, by which time, all councillors will have a copy of your question.

If at all possible, it's a good idea if you can attend. The Chair will invite you to ask your question to the Member you have named. If the member is absent then you will receive a written answer. The same applies if the meeting is running short of time.

If you cannot attend, the Chair will either ask the question on your behalf and a written answer will follow, or he may decide not to ask the question at all.

If you actually manage to ask your question, and get a reply, then you can ask one supplementary (follow-up) question which must be directly related to the question or the reply, and must not breach the four 'official' points of rejection above.

There will normally be no discussion over the point you have raised in your question, but any Member can propose that it is referred to the Executive Board, or a relevant committee for further deliberation.

Suggestions have gone to the WLGA panel to simplify this process and for the council to actively encourage public questions. A straightforward page on their website would help rather than the information being buried in the depths of the constitution.

Meanwhile, fire away!

A way with words

The next meeting of the council's Community scrutiny committee meets on Friday and one item on the agenda is an update on the tendering process for minor works, up to £150,000.

The council uses a 'framework' of contractors who are appointed for a period of around four years. This is supposed to save time and money by not having to re-tender for each job. However, this particular 'framework' appears to have cost quite a lot of time and money.

The report to the committee details the extensive procurement and advertising exercise, (which must also be compliant with EU rules) which started June 2012, and was due to be 'operational' by April this year. Included within the process is a ten day period to allow for a challenge.

In this case, an unsuccessful contractor did put forward a challenge and although the details have not been published, the report states that it was;

'prudent on a commercial basis that the process would stop and that the authority would re-tender. In view of the content of the challenge it was felt that the time would be best served to improve the documentation and adjust the framework to meet the needs of the Authority.'

In other words, the challenge was successful because somewhere along the lengthy line the process was flawed. It was going to take another stab at the whole tender to get it right. However, this is really a huge advantage as we can now 'improve our documentation' and 'adjust' the framework.

The framework eventually became operational on the 1st September, over a fortnight before this report goes to Scrutiny.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Gloucestershire Police - Freedom of Information review


Update 26th September 2014; I have now made a complaint to the Information Commissioner

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

Back in May, the 12th to be exact, I made a Freedom of Information request to Gloucestershire Police for details of the criminal investigation relating to Carmarthenshire County Council.

The investigation followed the Wales Audit Office public interest reports concerning the unlawful libel indemnity and pension payments and also followed a request for a police investigation from Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards.

Gloucestershire Police conducted the investigation as the local force, Dyfed Powys were considered to be to 'close' to the local authority.
The investigation was concluded in early May.

The original Freedom of Information request was for;
1. The final report following the conclusion of the investigation
2. A list of any persons interviewed, and /or job titles, and whether any of these were interviewed under caution
3. Whether or not the CPS were involved and if so, any relevant correspondence.
4. Correspondence between Gloucestershire Constabulary and Carmarthenshire County Council
5. A list, or summary, of all documents in either paper or electronic form which formed part of the investigation.
I was subsequently informed that the investigation did not involve any correspondence with Carmarthenshire Council, nor did they speak to anyone at County Hall and there was no involvement with the Crown Prosecution Service.
In addition, the list of documents used in the investigation, and the final report was withheld. The full original response can be seen here (pdf)

On the 17th June I asked for an internal review of their response. I said;
Points 1 and 5 were considered to be exempt from disclosure. As I said in my request I would have been satisfied with a list of individual documents rather than the documents themselves. I would like you to review your decision and reconsider whether any/all disclosure is possible either in full or as a list. 
As the investigation has concluded and no criminal findings were made, please also review your decision not to disclose the final report. 
With reference to my whole request, this investigation involved two public bodies and I would like to add that transparency is of the utmost importance
The response to this review, another refusal, finally arrived this morning. It can be read in full here (pdf)

Far from deciding to release either the list of documents or the final report, further 'exemptions' have been applied and the initial exemptions revamped.

When considering whether or not to release information, a public body considers three steps; factors favouring disclosure, factors favouring non-disclosure and then it applies the public interest 'balance' test. In other words, it weighs up the pros, the cons.

The response to my original request used a Section 30 exemption which, to put it simply, decided that if the list of documents and the final report were released it might alert potential criminals to the manner of police investigations and there is a danger that they might reduce their offending to an undetectable level.
The 'balance' test was then applied and concluded that;
'To disclose the requested information would hinder the prevention and detection of crime and lead to criminals avoiding detection. It could also undermine the effectiveness of procedures used by other agencies to prosecute offenders'. 
The response to the review, received today, states that in respect of this 'balance' test, 'some of the factors were not appropriate given the nature of the information requested'

The revised exemption now reads thus;
Section 30 – Factors favouring disclosure
Disclosure of this information would provide the public with an awareness of how the Police Service undertakes investigations and enable them to satisfy themselves that an investigation has been thoroughly undertaken.  
Section 30 – Factors favouring non-disclosure
Disclosure of information relating to the matters considered by Police as to whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing would involve the disclosure of a substantial amount of information relating to actual or potential civil litigation proceedings. 
Disclosure under Freedom of Information is disclosure to the world at large and it is not in the public interest to allow the open dissemination of information relating to civil proceedings, which is not already in the public domain. 
Balance test
The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve and there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations to ensure investigations are conducted appropriately. 
However, the Police are responsible for matters falling within the jurisdiction of the criminal law and it is firmly against the public interest for the Police to disclose information relating to civil proceedings in which the Police are not involved and have no responsibility in terms of the outcome. 
Disclosure in relation to civil proceedings is subject to the procedures and rules of the Civil Courts and that function should not be potentially usurped by the Police. 
In view of the above, it is our opinion that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
Two further exemption have also been applied, Section 40 which concerns third party personal data (this does not require a public interest test) and Section 42, Legal Professional Privilege (LLP) which protects correspondence between a client and their lawyer. In this particular case, the public interest test failed and the LLP exemption succeeded. Quite who, or which body was claiming LLP I'm not sure.

What surprises me is the revised Section 30. What 'actual or potential' civil litigation proceedings are being referred to? The libel trial? Any future civil action by the Wales Audit Office? Something else? And what information, relating to any of these, is not already in the public domain? The response seems suggests that to release the information could jeopardize the outcome of civil litigation proceedings.

As for the answers to those questions, your guess is as good as mine.



The full thread of the request and review can be read here and my earlier post on the subject, here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

September Council meeting...and those 'councillors questions'


Today's council meeting was the first of the autumn term. With around eighteen apologies for absence, quite a few had yet to make it back. Including Meryl, unless she was being kept busy with the press.... I've only mentioned a few points here, so for the whole thing tune into the archived webcast tomorrow. (11th Sept; Now archived here)

As usual the meeting kicked off with Bill Thomas (Lab) and Sian Caiach declaring their interests in planning matters. The interest is their ongoing objections to council planning policy in relation to the problem of pollution in the Burry Estuary. The EU Commission has recently directed that the UK government is in breach of policies to protect certain areas, and names specifically the Burry Estuary.

Also as usual, attempts were made to silence the two councillors who were spoiling the party with metaphorical buckets of raw sewage. What is more, as the meeting progressed, the Chair, Daff Davies (Ind), for reasons known only to himself, found Bill Thomas' principled stand increasingly hilarious. What a gent...

Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Caiach declared an interest in a planning committee report and responded to a critical statement from Kevin Madge who had just slated her for her stance over the pollution issue and planning policy. She was again silenced by both Cllr Madge and the Chair. When it was suggested she write to Cllr Madge, the chief executive can be clearly heard to say, sarcastically, "something to look forward to".
I remember, at the trial last year, Mr James remarking on letters of complaint from members of the public, he said that usually, after one letter, they give up. A quick deflection of criticism, not an early resolution to a problem, is considered a victory in County Hall.

Back to the meeting again and tributes were paid to the retiring Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon. Uneventful aside from a brief faux pas from Exec Board Member Cllr Jane Tremlett who purred her thanks to the Director for taking them all through the good times and the bad. Forgetting momentarily that there are no 'bad times' when it comes to Carmarthenshire Council she quickly changed 'bad' to 'not so good'. Oops.

The misleading minutes of the previous full council meeting were then approved.

Next up were the changes to the constitution required by new legislation, (see shuffling the deck). Cllr Dole (Plaid) brought up the point that if the chief executive no longer had the power to scold and/or fire the Monitoring Officer or the head of Democratic Services, who would?

According to Linda Rees Jones, a 'Disciplinary Panel A' would have to be constituted if there was a disciplinary matter to be dealt with... Fortunately for her, her involvement in the libel indemnity scandal came under the old rules....

One of the new rules is that an interim appointment of a senior official can last no longer than twelve months. Cllr Caiach questioned this rule and, as an example, mentioned Ms Rees Jones' three year 'interim' status. The reply didn't divulge anything further on Linda's mysterious employment status nor it's apparent conflict with the new legislation.

The main event, for Caebrwyn, and which I enthusiastically mentioned last week, was the new slot for 'councillors questions'. It wasn't the content of the questions which was so important; it was the faint ray of hope that, in matters of transparency and scrutiny, things might have been changing for the better.

However, all hopes were quickly dashed as the carefully prepared bombshell was dropped that there would be no supplementary questions. That meant that once the (rigorously vetted) question was answered, that was it, no comebacks, no debate. Nothing.

Cllr Dole asked for clarification. The constitution allowed members of the public a supplementary (follow-up) question, but the position as regards to councillors was 'silent' but there was nothing in it to say they couldn't.

In every other public scenario it is usual for follow-up questions to be asked. The initial answer to a formal question will have always been prepared days earlier and, in normal democratic debate it is the follow-up which is the real question.

However, nothing is normal in County Hall and clearly Mr James and Ms Rees Jones had been burning the midnight oil over this. Linda started by saying it wasn't her fault, she'd 'inherited' the constitution. This was an odd statement given the number of time it's been changed. Anyway, because it didn't specifically say anything about supplementary questions, then they didn't exist.

Cllr Dole used a Shakespearean analogy to illustrate his point, referring to Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh, and that it was usually the villain who insisted on the letter of the law, eventually thwarted by the hero who argued for the spirit of the law.

The situation reminded me of the ban on public filming, the constitution was silent (and still is) on that too, but the 'silence' was conveniently interpreted to justify an arbitrary ban.

The situation clearly reminded Mark James of another scenario, not entirely unrelated to filming, and suggested that Emlyn Dole had missed his vocation and should be at the Bar of the High Court...
They had no choice, insisted our chief executive, they just had to stick to the letter of the law...
Unlike the libel indemnity then Mr James.

So with the constitution nicely interpreted to suit the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the Executive Board members, the charade continued.

The first was from Emlyn Dole who wanted reassurance that the final report from the WLGA review would come straight to full council. (see previous post). The Chair, known as the Elmer Fudd of local government, had been given a script to try and read informed Cllr Dole that the report would be coming in the next few weeks and that the WLGA panel may even present it to full council.
That was that. If Cllr Dole had anything else to say about it, he couldn't.

Alun Lenny's question was next and he asked whether Kevin Madge was ashamed over the recent introduction of Blue Badge charges considering his 2012 manifesto pledge to the contrary.
This was met with a lengthy, defensive Kev-style ramble revolving around the context of 'other authorities have done it so why can't we'.

Exec Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds then gave quite a straight answer to Cllr Lenny who asked what had become of the £250,000 loan to the Llanelly House project which was supposed to be repaid sometime last year. Apparently, due to underlying financial concerns with the project, the loan had never been released.  Another odd statement given the basis on which of some of the money is dished out from County Hall...

Cllr Colin Evans, Exec Board Member for Bins then gave a surly response to the question over bin bags, insisting that if little old ladies struggled with putting their bags out at 5am then they could 'phone the council'. It was something like that anyway.

I was so stunned by the constitutional maneuverings of Mark and Linda I had to go and make coffee to revive myself. You'll have to check the archive for accuracy.

Lastly was Cllr Price's enquiry as to the cost of Mr Tim Kerr QC over the pension and libel indemnity. Kev's answer was brief; "£26, 872.80p".
No follow-up allowed.

Let's hope the WLGA panel comes up with a suitable recommendation. You'll remember that Sir David Lewis, lay member of the Audit Committee described the council's internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The meeting drifted on we learned, during the debate over the 10-year social housing/council house repair plan that Kev's much talked about council bungalows have gone £100,000 over budget. It was "slippage", apparently.

Cllr Lemon wondered why, given that offices built at North Dock, Llanelli were still empty after four years, the plan was to build even more on a brownfield site next door. Why not build affordable housing, he enquired. Er, we'll have another look was the half hearted response.

Most of the remainder of the meeting was taken up with an 'anonymous' comment which appeared in the minutes of the last Executive Board meeting when Welsh language policy in education had been discussed.

The offending Minute read; 'Whilst recognising the importance of securing the future of the Welsh language, concern was expressed that it should not become a barrier to attracting overseas investors'.

Despite angry demands from the Plaid group for the Executive Board Member who said it to own up and back the statement up with some evidence, none of them did and, well, Meryl wasn't there.

Cllr Darren Price asked for an expression of opinion to be recorded that council did not agree with this sentence and its sentiment. However, after further constitutional contortions from Mark and Linda, they decided that 'expression of opinion' was definitely not allowed. What a farce.

An anonymous comment and an unfounded allegation in the Executive Board Minutes...? What is the world coming to.

For all the rest, and there was quite a bit more, you'll have to watch the archive. For anyone local to Caebrwyn who wanted to see what their local councillors Tom and Ivor had to say on their behalf, don't bother. Their only contribution was to fill in the expenses claim.

All eyes will be turning to Pembrokeshire's Emergency Council meeting on Friday for the votes of no confidence and the possible suspension of Bryn Parry Jones.
The Pembrokeshire Herald has the latest.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Governance report - a confidential draft? - Updated


Update 9th September;
With reference to the WLGA response in yesterday's update, another term for 'interim observations and emerging proposals' is a 'draft report'. All 74 councillors should have had a copy, not a 'group of senior members and officers'. 

I understand the Plaid opposition group have at least been given the gist of the report by their leader, and the verdict so far is 'damning'. Which it should be.

Us mere mortals will obviously have to wait until next month to see just how damning it is....after the final draft is sent back to that very same group to pick over....

And don't forget, the monthly meetings of Carmarthenshire Council resume tomorrow at 10am and will be webcast here.

Update 20:36;
I emailed the WLGA with a couple of queries this morning and received the response, below, this evening. I appreciate the clarification although clearly the initial findings, and gist of the contents have already been discussed and are currently circulating.

In fact, although I welcome the appearance of councillors questions on Wednesday's agenda it strongly suggests that a minority are not just discussing the initial findings but implementing them as well in an attempt to avert a more damning final report;

"I can assure you that no draft report has been shared with the authority. Indeed, the peer team is yet to discuss a draft report as it has been collating further evidence, including public submissions, and the peer team completed its last interview last week.

The peer team did however provide interim observations and emerging proposals at the end of July to the same group of senior members and officers who met with the peer team at the initiation of the review. This is a normal part of all peer reviews. It was stressed however that this feedback was subject to further testing, further interviews and collation of evidence, not least that provided by the public.

The intention remains that the report will be presented at the meeting of full Council on the 8th October.

We will however share a final draft report with the council in advance in due course to check for factual accuracy, as is customary with external review reports, including those produced by the Wales Audit Office."

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I understand that a draft report from the WLGA Governance Review panel has been issued to the leaders of the political groups of Carmarthenshire council. I assume it has also been issued to senior officials. The two non-aligned councillors have been excluded, one of them being Cllr Caiach.

The aim of the independent investigation, or 'review' was for the council to become the 'most open and transparent' in Wales. This is not a good start and to my mind misses whole point of this exercise, which was required after the two damning Wales Audit Office reports.

Myself and many others made lengthy submissions to the review panel, either in writing or by invitation and the report should have been published, in it's entirety, as soon as it was complete. If it was independent, it should not have gone to a select few, as a confidential document, for their appraisal and digestion first.

For references to the review, there are several posts on this blog, including here and here. The latter refers to the verdict from the lay member of the Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis in his letter to the panel, that Council governance was 'in disarray and not fit for purpose'

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Pembrokeshire News

The latest from Pembrokeshire is that the Extraordinary council meeting has been brought forward to Friday (12th).
On the agenda is a Motion to commence formal disciplinary proceedings, including a two month suspension, against the chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones. One of the matters to be investigated will be the pensions scandal.
There will also be two votes of no confidence, one in the leader, Cllr Jamie Adams and one in the chief executive.
The Agenda is here.

Bryn Parry Jones

Update 9th September:
The Pembrokeshire Herald reports that Pembs chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones returned to work yesterday after what was supposed to be, according to the leader, Jamie Adams, a forced 'leave of absence'; it turned out that it happened to coincide with a pre-planned holiday in foreign parts.
Cllr Adams has claimed that he was 'powerless' to stop him returning. According to reports he is now working from home.

His brief departure was understood to have been related to further emerging allegations and another police investigation over the pension scandal.

His return is just in time for Friday's EGM, which will be webcast.

The BBC report is here and has focussed on the pension tax avoidance scandals in which both Mr Parry Jones and Carmarthenshire's Mark James took part.


Mr James also received an unlawful libel indemnity, as readers will be aware. So far, he appears to be getting away with both.

Mark James