Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Rearranging the deckchairs; Part 94...

Back in July (see 'Getting Engaged') I mentioned that a report had appeared by the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee to improve public engagement. Well, a month later, the minutes for that meeting have finally been published and the Committee appear to have come up with an additional suggestion.

The suggestion was, that prior to Executive Board and Executive Board Member (EBM) decision meetings, there should be a fifteen minute slot for the public and councillors to ask questions relating to items on the agenda.

Seems a great idea to me and with regards to EBM meetings, for example, would give added scrutiny to the many millions in grants which Meryl has been doling out for the past umpteen years.

As for Executive Board meetings, some public scrutiny prior to the usual pat-on-the-back (and occasionally unlawful) rubber stamping sessions would certainly be refreshing.

However, acting head of law, Linda Rees Jones was on hand to try and put the kibosh on such a revolutionary suggestion by using the threat of "added financial cost" which would be required for simultaneous translation (all fifteen minutes of it) and reminded the committee that EBM meeting were closed to the public, full stop.

Also on hand was one of the Assistant Chief Executives to remind the committee that such things were currently being looked at by the governance review panel, which (according to these minutes) was reporting its findings to the group leaders on the 28th July; nearly a month before the deadline for public contributions...let's hope it was 'initial' findings and not the final thing.

The governance review panel is actually due to report to council in the Autumn and amongst the suggestions put forward is for a drastic improvement in the quality and quantity of Minutes, which are notoriously brief and often deliberately misleading. Without webcasting all meetings, or allowing the public to make their own recordings, the minutes are all we have. This particular meeting was no exception - little more than a side and a half of A4 for a meeting which lasted two hours and forty minutes.

The trouble is, with Carmarthenshire council governance "not fit for purpose" this is all reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, a change of culture is necessary and that will not happen until there's a change at the top.

Unlike Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire seems to be grasping the nettle and another Extraordinary meeting of full council has been set for Friday 19th September (rescheduled from the 10th, ed) where votes of No Confidence will be held in the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams and, significantly, the Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones, currently languishing on gardening leave.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Carmarthenshire Council governance "in disarray and not fit for purpose" - Sir David Lewis

Cneifiwr has had sight of a letter from the co-opted voting member of the council's Audit Committee, and former Lord Mayor of London, Sir David Thomas Rowell Lewis to the WLGA Governance Review Panel. For reasons which Cneifiwr explains, he, like ourselves and members of the public had to put pen to paper despite his request to address the panel personally.

He is writing from an independent position and without political motivation, and has, crucially, identified the crux of the problem. The content of his letter is explosive.

Here are some extracts from Cneifiwr's blog, the full post is here

'There has been a breakdown in trust between the electorate and the Council, he says. "The governance of the Council is in disarray and not fit for purpose".  
The values of any well governed Council include openness and transparency, honesty and integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality and fairness. "In recent years these values have evidently not been applied or followed". 
Sir David believes that this is not the fault of the general body of councillors but that responsibility lies in the hands of the Executive Board and the Chief Executive. "There needs to be a change in culture". 
It is not that the rules are procedures are not adequate, more a case that they are not applied in practice because of "the internal culture in County Hall". 
Basic rules and values concerning conflicts of interest which should be obvious to all have not been applied by some members of the Executive Board and senior management. "They are not mere technicalities as some have suggested"

As for 'recent events', he says they "will not happen if there is a proper professional relationship between the Chief Executive, the Executive Board and the Council generally and if the Scrutiny Committees are given the full facts."

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

As for internal legal advice, and particularly over the Wales Audit Office reports he is scathing; "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst". 

Without naming names, Sir David's letter reflects what both myself and Cneifiwr have been saying for some time, no amount of tinkering around the edges of protocols and constitutions will be effective; there needs to be a dramatic overhaul of senior management.

As Cneifiwr eloquently puts it,
"...changing the culture of the council without changing the senior personnel is doomed to failure."

Update 14:18
The consensus of online opinion seems to be that if this letter from Sir David, who also happens to be a senior lawyer, doesn't cause something of an earthquake in County Hall then nothing will. I hope the majority of councillors will be made aware of its message and act on it forthwith.


Finally, for those of you familiar with the classic movie, Apocalypse Now, you may enjoy this superb post from award winning blogger, Owen Donovan, aka Oggy Bloggy Ogwr;

To highlight the substance of the posting, I have taken the liberty of pinching a graphic from his blog.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

News in Brief - redundancy costs, executive jobs, filming and more from Pembrokeshire

I've been a little puzzled recently over information given out by the council press office about the total cost of exit packages as the authority sheds jobs, mainly low paid jobs.

There was something of a discrepancy between the amount quoted by the press office, £2.8m and the amount appearing in the latest Statement of Accounts (Page 95), £4.1m. The total costs relate to 197 redundancies in 2013/2014, 122 of those being the lowest paid workers.

After some enquiries it turns out that the difference, some £1.3m, is the amount the council must put into the pension fund to cover future entitlements, so, technically, it is part of the total cost of exit packages, it is also likely to be needed pretty soon, and it is public money. Whether or not by excluding it, it could be classed as 'massaging the figures' I wouldn't know....but when Carmarthenshire Council enters 'league tables' of local authority redundancy costs, they all really need to be singing from the same ledger...

The big argument put forward by councils as they shed jobs, is that these high short term costs of redundancy lead to huge efficiency savings in the long term. The trouble is, they need to be up front with the true cost in the first place.

The council has embarked on the second attempt to appoint a new director of technical services, (roads, potholes, refuse etc) after the fiasco last year. A committee of councillors is supposed to do the appointing of course but during the meeting last year it became apparent that the Members were not on course to appoint the, er,  'right' candidate and external pressure was brought to bear, resulting in the process being abandoned.

Hopefully, the WLGA governance review panel will be taking a look at the appointments process as a whole as the councillors, (the employers) have had no say in the appointment of head of legal and monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones who has been acting since 2011 and the Director of Education, who was brought in from 'special projects' a few years ago.

The advert is for a 'Director of Environmental Services' and suggests that this directorate will be 'reprofiled' and may take over the functions of the Director of Regeneration (planning) in the future. This may be a good plan given the salaries for each post are in excess of £100k.

The Welsh Government has issued new guidance concerning council newspapers, filming meetings etc etc. It is nothing new, council newspapers look set to continue to land on our doormats and councils are still only 'encouraged' to allow public filming. There is a reminder that the politicisation, and personalisation, of council publicity is wrong, but as with most 'Guidance' from Cardiff, it is ignored by our local authorities here in West Wales, unless it suits their own agenda. 
Another lost opportunity from Cardiff, in my opinion.

The Carmarthen Journal enquired this week whether Carmarthenshire Council would be lifting the ban on public filming in light of the new legislation in England, unsurprisingly the answer, from that mysterious anonymous council spokeswoman, was 'no'. It would, she said, be a matter for full council to discuss.
I shall be looking out for the webcasting of planning meetings in the autumn, as promised by the Executive Board in the spring..

Meanwhile, over in Pembrokeshire, there seems to be far more action going on over the chief executive's refusal to pay back the unlawful pension money.

What is striking is the contrast yet again between the Labour opposition group in Pembrokeshire and the ruling Labour group in Carmarthenshire where the level of protest and dissent is currently 'nil'.

Bryn Parry-Jones has now 'stepped aside' of course, and Gloucestershire Police are investigating the alleged extent of his involvement in the authorship of the report recommending the pension arrangement. The Labour group, led by Cllr Paul Miller who hosted a public meeting this week, are considering formal disciplinary procedures against Mr P-J over recent scandals and allegations.

Pembs councillor Mike Stoddart (Old Grumpy) has added his views regarding the slippery slope facing the ruling mob in Pembs, and also deliberates on the problems and pitfalls of permanently removing an unwanted chief executive.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Interim Charging Order

This, in italics below, is the interim charging order which council chief executive Mark James is attempting to enter on the Land Registry. I have until Thursday register my objections. I have already done so, in the strongest possible terms.

The next stage is the court hearing where Mr James will be seeking to change 'Interim' to 'Final', currently listed for the 30th September 2014. Due to the expense involved, I asked for it to be moved to Wales, but for it not to be a telephone hearing....the court has now directed that it will be a telephone hearing. So that's that, looks like I'll have to defend my home by phone.

My objections and arguments to the final Charging Order must be filed with the court at least seven days beforehand. If my objections are not successful then Mr James can apply for the next stage of enforcement.

Interim Charging Order;
"RESTRICTION; No disposition of the registered estate, other than a disposition by the proprietor of any registered charge registered before the entry of this restriction, is to be registered without a certificate signed by the applicant for registration or their conveyancer that written notice of the disposition was given to Mark James at [address]. being the person with the benefit of an interim charging order on the beneficial interest of Jacqueline Thompson made by the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division on 19th June 2014 (Court reference HQ11D04250)"

Recent posts;
Blogger will "fight to the bitter end"
Western Mail reports on libel enforcement

Meryl's Meetings

Individual Executive Board Member Decision meetings have always been closeted affairs with the public and press excluded. Most deal with fairly standard stuff although the more notorious ones include Cllr Pam Palmer's 'deliberations' over the freedom of the press and some of those related to Regeneration.

Regeneration is Meryl Gravell's portfolio and she has, for years, given the final approval to millions of pounds given out in various grants. The brief minutes, or 'Decision Record' is not published until after the event so any questions or scrutiny is nigh on impossible.

Often the recipients are named only by their initials so, for example, it took a Freedom of Information request to find out that £20,000 to O C Ltd was an unnecessary £20k to the multi billion pound company Odeon Plc as a contribution towards the new sound system in the Eastgate development. Other grants have included various hot tubs and boilers and such like to promote tourism, and some of them have been questionable.

At the most recent meeting the council's old friends and evangelical christian partners at the Towy Community Church pop up under the snappily titled Welsh Church Fund 'Axis 3 Rural Community Inclusion Fund', in receipt of a modest £2135, modest compared to the £1.4m they've already had anyway. You never know, perhaps the 'community inclusion' bit is to set the bowling alley up as a venue for LGBT weddings....

The budget cuts for next year include a proposal to scrap these meetings altogether, to save on printing costs, and to have all decisions made by the Executive Board, although most would be in private session. This may be quite a good idea as at a Regen meeting in June Meryl, accompanied by one Regen officer, signed off a whopping £2.6m grant from the South West Wales Property Development Fund, the decision record states that it was for a 'proposed development of a food grade industrial unit on Plot 3, Cross Hands Food Park'.

I am not questioning the validity or business case of the grant, the SWWPDF appears to be a European funded pot covering selected parts of west Wales; a consortium of local authorities led by Carmarthenshire Council. It can fund speculative ventures but does exclude 'primary food processing', but maybe this particular grant, which went to a development company, is something different, who knows. A search for the official website for the Cross Hands Food Park turns up an 'Account Suspended' message.

Anyway, the point here is whether or not there should be a limit on just how much money the Executive Board Member, in this case Meryl, can sign off without it being referred to the Executive Board at the very least. £2.6m? Seems a staggering amount, and all done and dusted in exactly 15 minutes. The agenda for these meetings also states that; 'The Executive Board Member, having considered the reports on the under-mentioned items and taken into account the views of Local Members and interested parties where applicable, made the following decisions...' 

So are the local members and any 'interested parties' ever consulted? I guess the key phrase here is 'where applicable' which gives plenty of scope not to consult anyone.

Cllr Meryl Gravell (Ind)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Third Sector to 'feel the pain'

As Carmarthenshire Council, like other Welsh Councils, looks to find extra cuts over the next few years, it seems it's going to start with third sector organisations; voluntary and community groups, charities and the like.

The actual 'volumes of funding' to these groups, councillors are told, is somewhere 'in the region of £35m', clearly the council is not sure of the exact amount...but, they are also told, it is now time for third sector groups to 'feel the pain'.

At a Policy and Resources committee meeting held April, members were given the figure of £19m, to be paid out in 2013/14. This Third Sector spending review is not new, the Policy and Resources committee has been looking at reducing funding for sometime, the upshot being that actually the whole system is so disorganised, scattered and mismanaged that no one is entirely sure who is getting what, what for, and what exactly they're doing with it.

The Wales Audit Office has yet again this year repeated it's concerns over the "weaknesses in the Council’s grant management arrangements which present a significant financial and reputational risk to the Council"

Over the past few years the council has been looking to charities and volunteers to take over the running of services such as Luncheon Clubs and day centres for the elderly, and cuts to Citizens Advice and Women's Aid, for example, have also been part of recent budget decisions. Although there is undoubtedly room to sort the wheat from the chaff, to further squeeze these suppliers of frontline services is a little counter productive.

The third sector groups will be asked to complete an Impact Assessment questionnaire which will form the basis of future decisions, those that can afford to pay a professional to fill it in, and those who have a 'close relationship' with the council, will be at a distinct advantage.

It's again a matter of priority, will the council be looking at their funding to that other great charity, Scarlets Regional Ltd? Will they be asking them to start paying some rent for the stadium or will they continue to pay them rent for 'office space'?

Will questions be asked over the twenty year, £5m, commitment to pay the owners of the Eastgate development for renting even more office space?

And rumours are circulating that questions have very much been asked over an alleged £2m payment to Sainsburys relating to their new store in Cross Hands.

And what about the unfortunate deal over the car park sale between the council and the Scarlets, where value for money and the public pound were the least of the council's concerns. It smacks of hypocrisy when the terms of this new review into third sector funding is to "Ensure that grant funding given to the 3rd sector delivers value for money for our citizens and the public pound"

I could go on about the unlawful payments and the costs to defend them and fees incurred, including £3k+ just for Mr Kerr QC to turn up at the emergency meeting on the 27th Feb. But I won't.

Savings will have to be made but there is a wider picture here and one of priority, and scrapping the council propaganda sheet would be a welcome start. Then, for instance, is the amount the council spends on private consultants, around £2.68m in 2012/13, and that's without expenditure on external legal advice which was just shy of a quarter of a million in 2013/14.

The Auditor General, in his statutory 'Annual Improvement Report' stated that due to the failures in governance highlighted by the two Public Interest Reports it is of the utmost importance, with regards to the forthcoming financial challenges, that public confidence is fully restored in the decision making process. He also refers to the ongoing governance review being undertaken by the WLGA;

"...The increasing financial pressures (and potentially the changing face of local government in Wales) will mean that the Council is likely to have to make some difficult policy decisions and all officers and members have a key role to play in this, and in ensuring that any trust and confidence lost as a result of weaknesses in arrangements is rebuilt. 

Until the WLGA has concluded its work and we have completed forthcoming improvement assessment work, the Auditor General will be unable to conclude whether the Council can put in arrangements to continually improve." 

Can I remind readers that there are only a couple of days left to send in your contributions to the WLGA review, (link here), the deadline is Wednesday 20th August. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Further coverage; "Blogger will fight to the bitter end"

Carmarthen Journal 13th August

Further to my previous post about the article in the Western Mail, this week's Carmarthen Journal reports on the ongoing attempt by Mr James to enforce payment of the damages arising from the unlawfully funded counterclaim. Although, unlike the WM, the Journal doesn't mention the unlawful funding;

Llanwrda blogger will fight to the bitter end to save home

I will indeed fight to the bitter end; as I said in the article, I have no choice.

The article quotes Mr James from earlier in the year, as apparently he is currently away. Therefore the acting head of law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, provides a statement which can be read in full on the above link.

I do not want to reiterate what I've already said about the outcome of the case, I've already made my views very clear but Ms Rees-Jones reminds us that it was I who instigated the initial proceedings; I did so of course because of the defamatory comments which Mr James decided to send to the Madaxeman blog.

Ms Rees-Jones also reminds us that 'all litigation carries a risk'. She is quite right but for Mr James there was never any personal risk, it had been arranged that if I had won, any damages awarded to me arising from Mr James' comments, would, like his legal costs for the counterclaim, have been paid by the taxpayer, not him.

One of the more interesting points which has recently come to light concerns something Mr James said in his sworn witness statement for the trial. He claimed that a former councillor, who he named fully, had personally praised him for his comments on the Madaxeman blog. The former councillor was astonished by this claim and has offered to provide a notarized statement that such a conversation never, ever took place.

The Welsh language current affairs magazine Golwg also features an article in this week's edition and does mention the unlawful funding;

As I said, I will fight this to the end, whatever the end might be.


The latest news from Pembrokeshire is that Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones has (finally) taken a 'leave of absence', gardening leave to you and me, whilst the police continue investigations concerning the unlawful pensions scandal.
The last straw was a revelation by two councillors from the Pembs ruling Independent group that they were subjected to a 'foul mouthed' tirade from Mr P-J after they voted in favour of Jacob Williams' motion to ask for the unlawful pension money to be returned, back in May.
It is a fact, often forgotten in a couple of west Wales counties, that councillors can vote any way they like, not as the chief executives expects them to.
More details, can be read on Jacob Williams blog, today's Pembrokeshire Herald and  BBC Wales

Monday, 11 August 2014

Electoral Registration - Cabinet Office #fail

The Caebrwyn household and every other voter in the county, if not Wales, has received notice that voter registration is changing. Basically it means that every individual is now responsible for registering themselves, rather than the 'head of the household'.

After being contacted by a bemused resident who had noticed a glaring contradiction, I took a closer look and the information with regards to the 'Open Register' is indeed contradictory, as you can see underlined below. 

To be clear (as mud) it says; "Your details are not on the open register. To be added to the open register please contact us using the details at the top of this letter". 

Further down the page you are then told; "Your name and address will be included in the open register unless you ask for them to be removed". The 'open register' is the list which can be sold on to third parties.

The resident took the trouble of contacting the council and then the Electoral Commission and the latter told him that it was the Cabinet Office who were responsible for drafting the letter, and that councils had to send it out, presumably at considerable cost, despite the glaring error. Both the council and the Electoral Commission said it was 'contradictory' and 'confusing', the word 'wrong' is not included in public sector vocabulary of course.

Click to enlarge

A Letter in today's Western Mail

A letter from a resident of Carmarthenshire published in today's Western Mail;

Do these councillors feel threatened? 
Sir – That a public servant should be allowed to sue a local council taxpayer out of public funds is as astonishing as it is amoral, but it seems that in Carmarthenshire it is endorsed by the local gaggle of county councillors. 
Perhaps they view the possible demise of their chief executive as a threat to themselves? We all know that when certain people fall out, ordinary people benefit. Similarly, the one accused can so often bring down those with similar faults. Maybe the county councillors of Carmarthenshire are running scared of what might be revealed? I can think of no other reason that they should throw out the decision of the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, Anthony Barrett in his public interest report in which he said the council acted unlawfully in underwriting Mr James’s counterclaim. 
There can be no getting away from the fact that Mr James, and those councillors who backed his actions, acted against the best interests of the council taxpayers of Carmarthenshire. His was a private action and he should have paid the price of hiring top London lawyers. It was not for any county councillor to underwrite his expenses. Had the litigant had to consider his intentions at greater depth, undoubtedly he would have thought rather more deeply about bringing a case against the blogger who was seeking to highlight his failures, as well as those of the local county council. 
Maureen Jenner
(Source; Western Mail)

Recent posts;
Western Mail reports on libel enforcement
Enforcement of counterclaim damages

Wales Audit Office; Indemnity for Libel Counterclaim - Carmarthenshire County Council - Report in the Public Interest, published January 2014

Friday, 8 August 2014

Western Mail reports on libel enforcement - updated

Link to article in today's Western Mail;

Blogger fears she will lose home as Carmarthenshire council boss seeks libel winnings
by Martin Shipton

(blogpost 30th July; Enforcement of counterclaim damages)


10th August

Friday saw a 200-strong protest outside Pembrokeshire county hall, organised by the three main trade unions. Staff and councillors joined the protest where the main message was 'Bryn Out', referring of course to the chief executive Bryn Parry Jones.

The behaviour of Mr Parry Jones over the pension scandal is well documented and Pembs councillor Jacob Williams provides further evidence of the bullying tactics employed by their chief exec, which led to the resignation of the chair of the audit committee who felt his position of neutrality was severely compromised.

Readers may remember Sian Thomas, the previous Chair of Carmarthenshire Council saying exactly the same thing back in February.

It is clear to me from the comments on this, and my previous post, that feelings are just as strong in Carmarthenshire where there was not just one damning WAO report, but two. Of course, unlike Pembrokeshire, we can't rely on our Labour group leader, Kevin Madge to galvanise the voice of protest as he is merely the nodding dog on the mantlepiece of the presidential suite.

I am in a difficult position, in fact I despair. However, I can take an objective stance and after years of observation, reporting, and contact with staff; councillors; independent journalists, and of course the long suffering public, documented on this blog, (what is left of it), I can categorically state that when it comes to bullying, intimidation, downright arrogance and moral turpitude, both Mr James and Mr Parry-Jones are clearly from the same school, from which Mark James CBE graduated with honours.


This morning, Cneifiwr has provided further comment on the current situation Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. (12th August; the author of the Madaxeman blog, Martin Milan who appeared as a witness on my behalf at trial, has left a comment on Cneifiwr's post)

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Enforcement of counterclaim damages

I was served Notice yesterday that Carmarthenshire Council chief executive, Mark James, has started High Court enforcement proceedings against me for his damages arising from the libel counterclaim.

He is attempting to put a legal charge on our home.

The public funding of Mr James' counterclaim was deemed unlawful by the Appointed Auditor; and the First Minister of Wales stated; " 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"

August 1st - Further notification of Mr James' intentions, as above, received from Land Registry

August 8th - See later blog post for link to article in Western Mail

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Libel indemnity - The Minister responds to Rhodri Glyn Thomas

As you may remember, the meeting of full council earlier this month considered an item on libel indemnities.

The upshot and essence of it all was that the officers' report claimed that a letter from the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Lesley Griffiths, supported the decision to indemnify the chief executive in his counterclaim for libel. The opposition did not agree that it did any such thing, and neither, it seemed, did a fair few others. The word 'misrepresented' was used.

The Minister's letter from May failed to change the mind of the Appointed Auditor either, who had, of course, deemed the decision unlawful in the Public Interest report.

In the end, Councillors did not accept the officers' report, but merely 'noted it' along with the minister's letter. Had the officers' report been accepted, it would of meant, in effect, that full council were rejecting the Appointed Auditor's finding of unlawfulness in regards to the granting of the indemnity.

You may also remember that the day before the council meeting, Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas brought the matter of the officers' 'interpretation' of the minister's letter up in the Senedd. (For the record, Mr Thomas has repeatedly questioned the council's position over all this for a number of years.)

The First Minister, Carwyn Jones' response referred directly to Carmarthenshire and was unambiguous;

" 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"

Mr Thomas then asked the Minister for Local Government who promised to seek further advice from her officers and write a letter to Mr Thomas in due course.

I requested a copy of this letter from the Plaid Cymru office and they have kindly obliged, I have copied it below.

The Minister states quite clearly; "I do not believe the letter I sent to Carmarthenshire's Deputy Chief Executive in May supports the decision the Executive of Carmarthenshire Council made in indemnifying its Chief Executive in January 2012"

Filming council meetings - new law next England only

Next week, on the 6th August, the new regulations come into force in England giving members of the public the legal right to film, tweet or blog from open council meetings.
Eric Pickles MP welcomes the new laws in Saturday's Independent, here; Local government can no longer act like 'Putin's Russia', says Pickles

Once councillors return to town halls after the summer recess, citizens in England will be able to go along and be free to quietly report on local democracy without fear of arrest or ejection and with the full backing of the law.

The regulations state that members of the public may film, take photographs, or make audio recordings of meetings; provide oral or written commentary on a meeting as it takes place; and use any other methods to enable people not at the meeting to follow proceedings, either as they take place or afterwards.

In Wales, the Welsh Government has only gone as far as to 'encourage' councils to allow such freedoms, leaving it up to individual local authorities to decide for themselves. Webcasting is growing but is council-controlled and coverage of meetings remains extremely limited. However, that is beside the point, the principle of being allowed to film etc must be established, as it will be in England next week.

Carmarthenshire Council has stated that the aim of the ongoing review of governance (required after the two Wales Audit Office reports) is for the council to be the 'most transparent in Wales'. Surely as a means to achieve that end it must formally embrace the spirit of Mr Pickles' new regulations.

Included in my contribution to the ongoing governance review of Carmarthenshire Council I have suggested that the principle must be adopted. The opposition on the council have, over the past couple of years, been consistent with their calls to allow filming but the Labour/Independent ruling administration have consistently rejected it.

Alongside the review of Carmarthenshire Council's decision making processes, the new all-Wales Modular Constitution, currently in draft, is also being considered. It is being looked at by all Welsh Councils and contains some very questionable clauses which I have already mentioned, but there is one brief item which I hope all Welsh Councils will welcome, as, without the Welsh Government taking that extra step to protect your democratic rights, or your own determination, it's all we've got;

From the draft New Modular Constitution Wales

The new regulations in England give citizens in Wales some backing in that, after the 6th August, they will have yet another very arguable point should they turn up at an open meeting and start filming.
...And I should hope that even Carmarthenshire Council has long since ceased to employ those private investigators and 'experts in covert surveillance' it once commissioned to guard it's doors from middle-aged ladies with mobile phones...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Another Sermon from the Mount

Last month the staff of Carmarthenshire Council, were treated to a bizarre message from the chief executive in the Y Gair staff newsletter, exonerating himself from any wrongdoing over the pension payment and libel indemnity scandal. It included, as you would expect from such a high ranking and well respected public official, a special message concerning myself. Classy.

This month's Sermon from the Mount will add to the bemusement of council staff as Mr James predicts that the excessive cuts being passed on from the Welsh Government will mean that Carmarthenshire Council will almost cease to exist. The cuts, staff are told, will be"devastating!" and that the council may become a "shadow of itself"
Perhaps the most surprising comment from Mr James is, "there is no way I can dress this up"...but I suppose there's a first time for everything. 

Instead of having to find £30m of 'savings' over the next three years, the predicted figures now range between £40m to £60m, depending on the final budgeting decisions of the Welsh Government. 

Clearly this is a serious situation and one shared across Welsh councils. I'm sure many council staff are becoming increasingly concerned about their jobs, and in his latest diktat Mr James helpfully reminds them that the council "will employ substantially fewer staff". It remains to be seen whether that will include the non-statutory position of chief executive. 

As well as considering which frontline services to squeeze further, the "wholesale transfer of services to other bodies" are also on the cards, though details are so far left to the imagination. I imagine hefty hikes in council tax are on the cards too, although that remains unsaid, so far...

One can only hope that the years of generosity shown to organisations such as their christian fundamentalist 'partners', the Towy Community Church and of course, the Scarlets, are now a thing of the past. As for the latter, it's a pity that retiring Director of Resources had the rug pulled from under his feet at the last minute in his attempts to secure a better deal for the taxpayer over the car park sale.

It was just a matter of luck I suppose that these additional "catastrophic" cuts came so completely 'out of the blue', after all, it was just a few short months ago that the services of Mr Kerr QC were so urgently required to defend the chief executive and those involved in all that financial unlawfulness. At that point they only had to find £30m savings.

By refusing to accept the auditor's findings last summer, the senior officials and executive board muppets have cost the taxpayer well over £100,000 for the QC, the extra audit fees etc...and of course the unlawful payments themselves totalling a cool £57,000. Naturally, with the council press office at their disposal, there was no problem 'dressing' all that up.

At the full council meeting last month the chief executive paid tribute to the retiring Director of Resources, Roger Jones, and added that Mr Jones always treated taxpayers money as if it were his own. This was a compliment of course, but in the event that such a comment were ever made to the chief executive, it could, given certain examples, be taken quite literally. 

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;

" 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 - - 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);

" 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"