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 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

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."


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'


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

Friday, 5 September 2014

Meryl and the £2.6m grant - a turn for the worse

Update 8th September; I understand that the £2.6m grant awarded in June was not for Celtica Foods but a separate speculative development.

Update 7th September; Thanks to Redhead in the comments below for pointing out that there was earlier grant of £1.9m in April 2012 (link to minutes here). This was awarded by Meryl's independent colleague Cllr Scourfield who stood down in the 2012 election.
As has already been said, the company which received the grants, JBCH Ltd, was dormant until earlier this year.


Further to reports this week over her approval of a £2.6m grant to a company in Cross Hands things seem to be taking a turn for the worse this evening for former leader and Executive Board member Cllr Meryl Gravell.

You will recall that the grant was signed off by Meryl, in a fifteen minute secret meeting back in June, she was accompanied by just two officers.

BBC Radio Cymru have been investigating and have found out that Meryl awarded the grant after the director of resources, Roger Jones had reported it to the Wales Audit Office (after serious concerns were brought to his attention by an unnamed councillor) and before the recipients JBCH Ltd had signed a contract to build the food processing plant and before anyone had even decided to move to the site. A "speculative development" as the BBC reporter put it.

She must have been well aware of the involvement of the Wales Audit Office as she wielded her rubber stamp. She should go.

Meryl spoke to the BBC Radio reporter this evening and naturally claimed that everything was rosy, a "Good news story" in fact. Oh dear. As for the usual cry of job creation, the position as I understand it, is that the meat processing jobs will actually be relocated from Carmarthen and "it is hoped" that around new 30 jobs will be created at the new site over the next five years.

The council statement to the Western Mail last week, attributed to regeneration director Dave Gilbert, reeked of council spin and glossed over the issue. Everything was fine and the WAO had merely recommended they tidy things up a bit.

Tonight's revelations bring the honesty of that council statement, and the integrity of Cllr Gravell, into question.

The Wales Audit Office are still investigating.

The Pembrokeshire Herald reports today that the scandal surrounding certain EU grants awarded by Pembrokeshire Council appears to be escalating.

It would appear from this evenings's revelations that Carmarthenshire can always be relied on to go one better...

Concern over the issue of grant awards was brought up at a recent scrutiny meeting (Aug 1st), the minutes tell us little of course but the cryptic response to whatever was asked was 'The level of governance requirements however caused problems with delivering grants to the private sector'. That word 'governance' disarray and not fit for purpose.

(See also Wednesday's post Roger's parting shot which links to the Western Mail)

Carmarthenshire Council - Questions on the agenda!

Further to this morning's post, Shuffling the deck, there appears to be some last minute excitement over next week's agenda for full council. It's been amended twice, so far. Firstly, details of the interim arrangements for the replacement of the director of resources were added yesterday. 

The second change and appearing for the first time ever, is a short, tentative list of questions from councillors to the Chair, the leader Kevin Madge or to an Executive Board Member. This was one of the suggestions made by myself and I'm sure many others to the WLGA governance review panel. Along with encouraging public questions...

I know this is quite normal elsewhere but it's such a novelty for us in Carmarthenshire that I just have to copy them here;

WLGA Governance Review
In light of the fact that it is the Constitutional duty of the Chair of Council to promote and support good governance of the Council as well as open and transparent governance, could he inform us as to what steps he has taken in order to ensure that the final report from the WLGA regarding the review of Carms Governance comes back straight to full Council? 
Introducing car parking charges for the 16,500 disabled Blue Badge holders in Carmarthenshire.
Isn't this council’s Leader ashamed that his Labour/Independent administration has reneged on the Labour Party 2012 manifesto promise not to introduce car parking charges for the 16,500 disabled Blue Badge holders in Carmarthenshire – a measure which will cause hardship to a number of disabled people, who are often amongst the poorest in society? 
Repayment of the £250,000 loan to Llanelly House.
In January, 2013 Carmarthenshire County Council resolved to provide an interest-free cash-flow loan to Llanelly House. While rejoicing in the completion of this project and its economic benefit, could he tell us if the emergency loan has now been repaid – and if not, why not? 
Times of Waste Collection
Whilst accepting that we should prevent people putting their rubbish out too early isn't 6pm on the previous night far too late, because by then from the beginning of November onwards it will be dark. Isn’t asking older people to venture out in the dark in winter carrying rubbish bags not only unreasonable but also irresponsible considering that they might trip over unseen obstacles, slip in icy conditions or even become victims of an assault? 
Payments to Timothy Kerr and the WAO
Can the Leader announce how much money was paid to Timothy Kerr QC with regard to his advice to the Councy Council on the matter of the pension payment and the indemnity to the Chief Executive including any other costs incurred in light of the Leader’s promise to disclose that when Mr Kerr’s and the WAO’s work was concluded?
Although we probably already know some of the answers this will be an interesting exercise, especially if we read between the lines....I presume each councillor will be allowed a supplementary question which will open some sort of debate.

I will be interested in the response about the loan to Llanelli House (let me guess - it's been repaid, that's why it been allowed on the agenda?) as I've been wondering what happened to that.

Clearly the first and the last question are of great interest. The WLGA review panel have, so I understand from earlier minutes, already given an initial report of their findings to party leaders. If that is so then it would have been far more transparent to have published that report to everyone.

You never know, it might prompt a debate over Sir David Lewis' letter...

Let's hope, as the question asks, the final report will soon arrive...I've heard whispers that there's a draft version beginning to circulate....

As for the last question, I think quite a few of us have already done the maths but the figures, if they match up, will be informative and I'm quite sure Cllr Price has a searching supplementary question at the ready.

It remains to be seen whether Kevin Madge will admit to feeling shame over the Blue Badge charges. Given that he will have had several days to ask someone to write his response for him I should think not.

Anyway, if it's amended again, or I hear anything else, I'll let you know, but don't forget to tune in next Wednesday, 10am.

Shuffling the deck

I'm sure next Wednesday you will be tuning in, in your thousands, to the first full Carmarthenshire Council meeting of the autumn term.

Unlike Pembrokeshire, where discontent abounds and extraordinary meetings have been convened, Carmarthenshire will attempt to pretend all is rosy, apart from the gaping hole in the finances of course.

It's up to the councillors of course, but one hopes that by now all will be aware of the opinion of the respected lay member of the audit committee. I'll be watching the webcast with interest.

One item of interest on the 'official' agenda concerns amendments to the constitution required by excitingly titled Local Authorities (Standing Orders)(Wales)(Amendment) Regulations 2014, Welsh Government legislation which came in to being on the 1st July.

From now on the level of pay, benefits in kind, pension top-ups etc to chief officers, or changes to those levels, will have to be approved by full council and any post with a salary of over £100,000 per year must be publicly advertised.

An internal interim appointment can still be made, but must last no longer than twelve months. For example, the informal 'arrangement' by which the current head of law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones has been 'acting' since the summer of 2011 without Member involvement or approval will no longer be allowed.

The position should now be advertised and a suitable candidate appointed.

The current director of education was brought in from the ominous sounding 'special projects' department a couple of years ago without reference to anyone.

In another change, the almost insurmountable procedure for disciplinary action or dismissal of chief officers over alleged misconduct will now be extended to cover the post of head of democratic services.

The process involves the setting up of an investigative committee (cross-party, but Carmarthenshire's constitution allows it to be selected by the chief executive..), the committee chews over any allegations, writes reports and recommendations, then has to appoint an independent person to chew it over some more. The independent person then makes more recommendations and drafts reports. And that's just the start.

The reason given for the additional protection given to chief officers is that they "might be required to challenge the leadership of their Authority in the course of fulfilling their duties". It's not something I've noticed happening very often in Carmarthenshire, but the complicated procedure also means, of course, that they are extremely hard to get rid of, should the need ever arise.

Also slotted in to the amendments is the withdrawal from the chief executive (aka head of paid service) the power to appoint, discipline or dismiss either the Monitoring Officer or the head of democratic services. This is, according to the Welsh Government, to give the two postholders additional protection; presumably from any particularly over-powerful chief executives....or something like that.

Wednesday looks like quite a busy day in County Hall with a great deal of interim appointments and acting -up (in the employment sense at least) arrangements, all which will have to now be done under the new requirements and not within the exclusive confines of the presidential suite.

On the agenda is the appointment of the interim replacement for retiring director of resources, Roger Jones. The council has to have, by law, a chief finance officer (s151 officer), one statutory duty of that officer being "the duty to report any unlawful financial activity involving the authority (past, present or proposed)" so the current head of financial services, Mr Chris Moore will take on that busy, and clearly necessary role.

Mr Dave Gilbert, director of regeneration and deputy chief executive and all round man of action will take on some of the other duties of the director of resources.

As Mr Moore will have a 15% pay increase, under the new rules the pay rise will have to be approved by full council.

Two Appointment Committees meet in the afternoon. There's no sign of the fate of Ms Rees Jones but it looks like one of the two Assistant Chief Executive posts may be on the way out, and I should think so to.

We will have to make do with one Assistant CEO, and Deputy Gilbert of course. Mr Burns, one of the Assistants is off to run Caerphilly Council on an interim basis, so it is recommended that Ms Wendy Walters, head of economic development will 'act-up' to fill his shoes until such time as the post is possibly axed, or the twelve month limit is up.

As Mr Burns was also given the role of head of democratic services when the last postholder retired earlier in the year, I presume Ms Walters will acquire that hat as well. Quite what her qualifications are in matters of democratic services are unknown.

Also in the interim (who knew this blogpost would use the word interim so often, the only 'interim' I've been thinking about is the interim charging order Mr James has on my now corrected, ed), is the appointment of a temp director of social services. There is a gap of one month between the retirement of the current holder of the post, which is statutory, and the arrival back from Pembrokeshire of Mr Jake Morgan to take up the post permanently. The council's current head of children's services will 'act up' in the meantime.

What is quite refreshing is that prior to the new requirements, these arrangements, interim, acting or otherwise, would, as I said above, have been made quietly over a cup of Earl Grey in the presidential suite, without any reference to councillors at all, who, it should be remembered, are the employers.

As I said in the title though, it's an exercise in shuffling the deck and you can be quite certain that the dealer, the author of all these recommended arrangements, still holds all the aces....

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Roger's parting shot?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Meryl's Meetings and one in particular in which Cllr Meryl Gravell (Ind) rubber stamped a grant for £2.6m. The meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes, the public and press were excluded and just two officers were present.

A little more digging has been done and the Western Mail confirms that the Council's Director of Resources, Roger Jones, has reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.
He retired last week.

The grant, from the South West Wales Property Development Fund went to a construction firm, JBCH Ltd in Cross Hands for a meat processing plant. According to the Western Mail, JBCH Ltd has been dormant until January this year.

The Wales Audit Office said, "We are looking into this matter and are completing our enquiries at the moment".

A carefully crafted statement has been obtained from council deputy chief executive and head of regeneration Dave Gilbert, who points out that Meryl's rubber stamp is the end result of a lengthy process and that they themselves asked the WAO to 'review the project' as part of a 'health check' of their grant management system - already the subject of repeated concern to the WAO.
He goes on to say that the WAO are happy that proper procedures were followed, just that the process should be 'strengthened'...whatever that is supposed to mean; all a bit odd if you ask me given that the WAO themselves have said they hadn't completed their work.

This statement is Carmarthenshire council spin at its finest. Why did Roger Jones, who presumably had sight of all the documentation, report it to the WAO? This step is almost unheard of in county hall circles, was it a parting shot just before he left? It seems to me he detected something wasn't quite right.

You may also remember the car park deal between the council and the Scarlets and those 'allowable expenses' which is still with the WAO. They have informed me that they will complete their work on that matter sometime this month. You may also recall it was Roger Jones, along with the head of corporate property who had tried hard to secure the best deal for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, only to have, as it appeared from the FOI response, the rug pulled from under their feet at the last minute by someone who had best deal for the Scarlets Regional Ltd as his priority.

Also in the context of securing the best deal for the taxpayer, I remain sceptical that Roger Jones, one of the authors of the report recommending the libel indemnity, was as convinced as Mark and loyal Linda that it was all such a great idea....and as for a tax avoidance pension 'arrangement', surely not.

Probably the most significant event in the past week or two is the explosive letter from the lay member of the audit committee to the WLGA governance review panel. Whatever the outcome of this latest twist, this council is currently run, "in disarray and not fit for purpose"; so should Meryl, a loyal disciple of this officer-led regime, be left in charge of millions of pounds worth of grants, in private meetings and without any reference to the executive board or council?

Update 19:10
Cneifiwr has been watching the archived council meeting from July (aren't they useful?) and has observed that Meryl sat silent throughout the long list of Members' tributes paid to Roger Jones on his forthcoming retirement. As Cneifiwr mentions, given her often stated undying support for her officers, and the fact that she has worked with Mr Jones for the past fifteen years, it was a telling silence....

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

Update 18th September; My objections to the Charge being made final have now been filed with the Court and served on Mr James' solicitors. It will be heard by Master Cook, Royal Courts of Justice, by telephone on the 30th.

Update 2nd September; The Land Registry has rejected my objections and entered Mr James' Interim Charge on my home. The next step is the court hearing on the 30th September. The Land Registry does not tend to consider legal points which formed my objection, it remains to be seen whether the court will.


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...