Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A question of costs


Back in February this year, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee requested a full breakdown of external legal costs incurred by the council and the report is finally before the committee next week. It can be read in full, along with the breakdowns, on the published agenda here (Item 5).

The cost and details of the advice are divided into two appendices with 'A' covering 1st April 2013 to 31st March 2014, and 'B' from the 1st April 2014 until 1st October 2014.

Most cases, as you would expect, concern child protection and social care issues, the only instructions made directly by legal services, headed by Linda Rees Jones who has been 'acting' since 2011 involve the libel case and the payments to Tim Kerr QC.

I was particularly interested in the various payments made to Slater and Gordon, the solicitors instructed to act for Mr James and the council throughout the libel case. Including the unlawfully funded counterclaim.

As the main trial had concluded in February 2013, the majority of the costs were, of course, incurred prior to the dates covered by this scrutiny report.

What I find curious is that a payment of £3208 was made between April and October of this year for 'Advice regarding defence of defamation claim', a 'Continuation of previous instructions given in 2011'.(Appendix B)

The last unlawful payment, £3209.08, in relation to the counterclaim was made on behalf of Mr James in December 2013, following the findings of the Wales Audit Office. This appears in Appendix A.

The only point which remained the subject of consideration by the Court of Appeal, and heard on 30th April this year, was exclusively in relation to the counterclaim for which, I was informed, Mr James had directly instructed his barrister and, as the indemnity had been withdrawn, was funding it himself, around £3000 I understand. A costs order was made against me.

By April 2014, as far as I knew, there were no issues relating to the claim left in the proceedings, and hadn't been for several months...

Oh, and by the way, unless Carmarthenshire council is now dealing exclusively in US dollars, can someone in County Hall please locate the £ button?

Also submerged deep in the agenda are updates on the progress of the review into Press and Media Protocol and also the Email Usage and Monitoring Policy. The former was first called for following the South Wales Guardian 'blacklisting' scandal in 2012 (amongst numerous other things) and the latter after it emerged that senior officers were snooping on Cllr Caiach's emails prior, and possibly during, the libel case, way back last year.

According to the agenda, these might be completed by the spring 2015. To say some things move slowly is an understatement but maybe the WLGA report will hurry things along, I doubt it though.

More of Meryl's meetings


It was a little disappointing that Cllr Meryl Gravell did not attend the full council meeting last week. As we know the WLGA report was discussed and Cllr Gravell, as former council leader and continuing Executive Board Member has, over many dutiful years, played a key role in bringing the council into disrepute and its governance into disarray.

Whatever her reasons are for her non-attendance, personal or otherwise, they were clearly not holding her back 48 hours later when one of her Executive Board Member Decision meetings was held in Llanelli Town Hall. Cllr Gravell signed off, with public and press excluded, another South West Wales Property Development Fund grant, this time for £458,793. The successful applicant is a local developer and businessman, trading for many years. However, the company named in the document was only formed in January this year and has yet to submit a set of accounts.

Carmarthenshire Council's grant management procedures have been under the spotlight recently and the Wales Audit Office, for the third year running,  have again expressing serious concerns. One grant made back in the summer is, I understand, still under review, see Roger's parting shot.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

News round up; Leighton looks west....and council budget news


Senior pay

Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas brought up the issue of senior officer pay, and pay-offs, in the Senedd last Wednesday. Labour Minister for Public Services Leighton Andrews (just to confuse everyone, up until the last reshuffle Ms Lesley Griffiths held the post which was then called 'Minister for Local Government'..)

Mr Andrews responded with the information that senior officer pay in Welsh public authorities totalled over £25m per year and one of the best ways to save on that bill was to implement the Williams Commission recommendations (with his boot behind it) and reduce the number of Welsh councils from 22 down to around 12. So far, the plans leave Carmarthenshire as a stand alone authority...

Rhodri Glyn Thomas then went on to ask about the £280k pay-off to Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry-Jones and the potential six-figure sum heading towards Carmarthenshire's Mark James.
Mr Andrews said that he had recently written to the Auditor General, presumably to raise his concerns, about the Pembs pay-off and was waiting for a reply;
"In respect of the situation in Pembrokeshire, I have written to the Auditor General for Wales, asking for his advice on this matter".

Its probably all a little too late and I'm sure Mr Parry-Jones is laughing all the way to exotic destinations by now, but in Carmarthenshire the decision has yet to be made. Will a Labour minister fire a warning shot to a Labour run council? We'll have to see.

Meanwhile, if you haven't already done so, please sign the petition.

Budget

As I have mentioned, the Executive Board will be looking at the draft budget proposals (very badly formatted, as usual) on Monday, The usual plan is for a few unpalatable red herrings to be inserted, which then gives Kev, Pam and co a PR opportunity to abandon them in a glorious fanfare just after Christmas.

The most notable example of this was just before the 2012 local election....though this time, with £44m cuts to finds over the next three years the opportunity for positive spin might not be quite so forthcoming.

So far £42.1m worth of cuts and job losses over three years have been 'identified', supported by a rise in council tax of 5% for each year. There is plenty of jargon with the usual overdose of 'R' words..review, restructure, reconfigure, remodel, reduce...

Managerial 'efficiencies' appear to mainly effect back-office support staff. Senior staff have been leaving in numbers, on unknown severance arrangements, but a new director of environmental services has just been appointed and an advert for the newly created post of 'head of learner programmes' has just gone out; the combined salary for the two posts is over £200,000 per year.

The new proposals include everything which had been 'dropped' in previous years, including closing a respite home for severely disabled children and charging for 6th Form transport.
The lollipop patrols are back in for the axe, aka 'deselection of school crossing patrol sites'. This will 'save' £110k...

Charging 6th formers for transport will pose an interesting question of discrimination in Llandovery where the council forced closure of the town's secondary school which included a thriving 6th form. All will now have to travel to the new superschool in Llandeilo.

In an effort to save £100k there will be no more hot Meals on Wheels, a grant of £32k to Women's Aid will cease and day services and supported employment for people with learning difficulties will be slashed and/or offloaded. Adult Safeguarding team which protects vulnerable adults will lose over £300k over three years.

The most startling figures are reserved for the education budget. This appears to be protected for next year only with a nominal cut of £157k.

The following year it will be slashed by a staggering £7.4m and the year after that, £6.5m.

This is due, according to the report, to falling pupil numbers and an assumption, which will not be without basis, that after next year, the Welsh Government will no longer ring-fence the education budget;

An unfortunate spelling mistake illustrates that slashing the education budget might not be such a good idea.

The council are hoping that over half the savings identified for years 2 and 3 will come from education. The schools will be forced to drive all their reserves to zero. On the other hand, the council's own reserves are being treated with kid gloves (see the accompanying budget report here).

If falling numbers are predicted on such a scale it begs the question whether 15,000 new homes are required over the next few years. This is the housing allowance in the Local Development Plan which is also being discussed today. Unless the growing opposition halts the LDP in its tracks, it is likely to be adopted in December and form the basis of all planning applications from then on.

On top of that, £400k will be cut from SEN school funding over the next two years.

A good, sound education is vital of course, though for those who have observed many Carmarthenshire webcasts, not an obvious requirement for senior members...
.
Another big loser is the highways maintenance budget, with over £3m being axed over three years. With over £600k to be 'saved' by turning off 9100 street lights and a similar amount from cleansing I would imagine that many jobs will be lost, and we'll all be crashing into great big potholes in the dark.

Libraries will lose £170,000 over three years and as I mentioned here, a consultant is being sought to advise on the formation of a Leisure Trust, whether this will include libraries, museums etc as well as leisure centres remains to be seen.

Whilst over £100,000 will be cut from school crossing patrols over three years, a mere £45,000 will be cut from the council press office over the same period, via a 'service review'. This is not unexpected given the priority this council gives to self-image, "investing significant resources into it's public relations function" (WLGA report)

Consultation on the draft budget will start on Tuesday (18th), it will eventually be voted on by full council sometime in February.

Nove 21st; Online consultation here; http://ilocal.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/consultations/budget-consultation/

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If you can't wait until the next webcast of full council in December, you can always watch Tuesday's (18th Nov) meeting of the Planning Committee. On the agenda is a development for 270 homes...bound to be interesting.


Friday, 14 November 2014

Further coverage - Respecting the press


The journalism news site 'Hold the front Page' has picked up on the WLGA report recommendation that County Hall changes its attitude towards the local press, a problem well documented on this blog.

From threatened to actual blacklisting for negativity, to 'insisting' a reporter's Freedom of Information request is withdrawn. From introducing the notoriously unlawful 'libel clause' as a threat to investigative journalism to using the council press office to issue aggressive, biased and confrontational press releases...the list is endless and has gone on for years.
A call for a full council debate on 'respecting the freedom of the local press' was blocked by the chief executive in January 2013.


Council told to show more ‘respect’ to local press

A council accused of giving “one sided, party political and confrontational” press statements has been told to “respect” the role of local newspapers.

A report by the Welsh Local Government Association expressed “concern” at the way Carmarthenshire County Council deals with local journalists in a report into transparency at the authority.

It includes allegations that the council, which is run by an Independent-Labour coalition, threatened to withdraw planned advertising from local newspapers due to disagreements over editorial coverage.

The review comes after several run-ins between journalists, bloggers and the authority in recent years.

In December 2012 South Wales Guardian then-editor Mike Lewis accused the authority of acting like “some Eastern bloc state from the 1960s” after it withdrew advertising following a critical article.

Then in March 2013 blogger Jacqui Thompson, who had been arrested two years previously for filming a council meeting, was ordered to pay £25,000 damages to the chief executive after losing a libel suit.

The report states: “The review team heard concerns that the council’s press statements were one sided, party political and confrontational on occasion.

“The review team also heard concerning suggestions that the council had previously threatened to withdraw planned advertising from local newspapers due to disagreements over editorial coverage, though these suggestions are contested by others.

“Whatever the evidence for the different perspectives held, the review team considers that constructive engagement with local media should be a key priority for the Council in delivering its ambition around openness and transparency.”

Among those interviewed as part of the review were Carmarthen Journal editor Emma Bryant and South Wales Guardian editor Steve Adams.

The report also urged an “open and transparent” authority to respect the role of an independent press in its duty to scrutinise, investigate and provide critical narrative and challenge to both the council and its executive.

It adds: “Whilst the executive working through the press office will properly seek to ensure that the views of the council and its executive are accurately reported, the executive of an open and transparent council will not seek to suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media.

“It is critical in the interests of openness and transparency and engaging with the wider community of Carmarthenshire however that a mutual respect and constructive relationship is maintained.”

Among the WLGA’s specific recommendations were that the council clarified its policy on advertising through local media and review its approach on public engagement.

Hold the Front Page


See also my previous post on Wednesday's council meeting.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

November Council Meeting - updated


(Update 13th November - Local news coverage - below)

The main event at today's full council meeting was of course the damning WLGA Governance Review report. More on that shortly.

After the preliminaries, a series of tributes followed to veteran 'Independent' councillor Dai 'Trelech' Thomas who was retiring after 50 years as a councillor...what is of greater interest I imagine is the prospect of a by-election on December 11th. Runners and riders should be revealed next week.

The Chief Executive felt it necessary to explain that he had only published the letter of resignation from Cllr Thomas on the agenda after he had fully consulted with whole family. Perhaps this is one of many salutatory lessons he's learned from recent legal proceedings.

Anyway, the Chair proposed that Cllr Dai Thomas be granted the Freedom of the County in honour of his service, a sentiment, as you will imagine, embraced all round. Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) mentioned that this wasn't on the agenda.

As you may know, the 'It's not on the agenda' tactic is a very selective excuse to not allow controversial debates in the Chamber. Non-controversial items are fine whether they're on the agenda or not.

This was in the latter category so all that was required, as Cllr Terry Davies well knew, was some legal conjuring from the chief executive who decided that really they were only considering bestowing the honour at this meeting, not actually granting it, so it was all ok.

Moving on to the WLGA report, my comments can be read here; WLGA Report - Toxic culture recognised. The report was required following the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the council reaction to this report is being closely monitored by the Wales Audit Office.

The WLGA team presented the report in the same polite manner it was written. The message, as we know, was far from polite. The council leadership was always going to have to accept the findings and the 39 recommendations, well...in public anyway.

Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer (Ind) attempted to confine the essence of the report to the pitiful state of the constitution rather than the wider culture change that was urgently required and they wondered whether all the changes might not quite 'fit in' in Carmarthenshire.....and there were 'other issues' to consider...whatever they were. Oh dear.

Given the past performance from Kev and Co over the unlawful payment reports they had little choice but to accept it to fend off the Wales Audit Office and to try and save face, albeit begrudgingly.

Kevin Madge said he could 'live with' the 39 recommendations; Cllr Emlyn Dole, the Plaid opposition leader pointed out that Cllr Madge needed to 'embrace' the sentiment rather than just live with it if the council was ever going to become the 'most transparent in Wales'.

The cultural barriers had to come down. Cllr Dole added that he felt that the strong criticism over recent years were fully justified by this report.

It was a pity that the Plaid group didn't take the opportunity to put forward the strong views of their colleagues, Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM.

Labour Cllr Bill Thomas described the constitution as having been slowly 'strangled', along with the councillors voices. He also acknowledged that it was the compliance of councillors which had allowed this to happen.

Cllr Pam Palmer wished to emphasise the 'good' points, as you would never know there was anything 'good' if you read the local press, she said....Pam, as Executive Board Member for Censorship has played her own part in supporting County Hall's desire for editorial control...with varying degrees of success.

The issue is so grave that respect for the independence of the local papers and refraining from threatening behaviour form one of the recommendations of the report itself.

Pam also informed everyone of her continual pride in her own openness and transparency, a quality she has kept remarkably well hidden. Anyway, I'm looking forward to Pam enthusiastically agreeing to allow the public to film meetings..

One name which was politely left unsaid, but hung in the air like a bad smell was that of the chief executive and his role in all this. The councillors may have been largely compliant, but this descent into total disarray in matters of governance has, in my opinion, been driven by Mr James, aided and abetted by that 'cavalier and incompetent' internal legal advice. A toxic combination.

Fortunately for the top brass this was a 'peer review' and not an 'investigation' in the 'heads-should-roll sense. Pity.

The Wales Audit Office have refused to endorse the council's capacity for improvement until this report has been accepted and urgently rolled out. It is up to the councillors now. The chief executive is going, with his severance package under one arm, and his charge on my home under the other, happily leaving them sort out his legacy of democratic destruction..

Mr James only contribution to the debate was on a procedural matter but he couldn't resist a sarcastic swipe at the review team on his right saying he didn't want things to appear "officer-led" nor appear "overbearing"...
It is obvious that our chief executive found the whole review exercise at best an utter bore and at worst, a complete joke, a view he seems happy to share.

Mr James reacts to the WLGA report

The report was accepted and a cross-party committee was to be set up to examine the findings and recommendations, and draw up an action plan with a 'culture change' in mind. The WAO and it seems the WLGA team will be monitoring progress and any developments. So will I.

The group will then report back to council in January. Cllr Caiach suggested that an extraordinary full council meeting be convened to discuss the report in detail but this was considered to be just a little too hasty and what better way to kick things into the long grass for a couple of months than to form committee and insist it produces a report.

Forgetting, of course that the report, from the WLGA, has already been written.

Also on the agenda were several 'councillor questions'. Readers will recall the fiasco at the last meeting when councillors voted 30 - 27 to stop themselves from asking those all important supplementary questions.

Perhaps realising how idiotic that vote looked to the webcast watching public, and knowing that Cllr Dole was going to request the vote again, Cllr Madge decided to quickly propose a motion allowing supplementary questions himself, which was then approved. Embarrassment avoided.

The details of the questions along with everything else which was discussed today can be seen on the archived webcast, but I must just mention the deflection of Cllr Caiach questions to Executive Board Member for dog dirt and sewage, Cllr Jim Jones. Silencing Cllr Caiach's attempts to spoil the genteel surroundings of the Chamber by mentioning raw sewage has become something of a hobby on the top table.

Both Cllrs Bill Thomas and Sian Caiach had declared their usual interests at the start of the meeting. Namely their opposition to planning policy in relation to pollution in the Burry Inlet.  Cllr Thomas warned council that the authority itself could be fined now that the UK government had accepted the EU findings that regulations had been breached.

Clearly Jim was fully primed with a a strictly-to-be-adhered-to script. How long had Cllr Jones knew that EU pollution rules had been breached? Could the council put the 'please wash your hands after using this beach' signs a little nearer to the ice cream shop and cafe on Llanelli beach? Asked Cllr Caiach. Clutching his script and mindful of obeying strict orders from above, Cllr Jones insisted he would only reply to Cllr Caiach IN WRITING.

It is not clear just how much grasp Cllr Jones has on his £29k per year portfolio. He said that he had yet to speak to his new departmental head, so when he does, presumably he'll be told what to write.

Cllr Bill Thomas tried to raise a Point of Information over what had been said but....Ah! There is was! The 'Not on the Agenda' tactic, swiftly deployed, end of debate.

 The Chair....

Archived meeting here.


The agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting has been published and the latest budget proposals, and the timescale for consultation, are on the agenda.

The draft proposals can be read (or deciphered given the bad formatting) here, proposals include permanently switching off 9100 streetlights and, in an unprecedented move, reducing the number of official chauffeur driven executive motors from two, to just one...desperate times here in Carmarthenshire...
More on that in the near future..

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Update 13th November;

Local news coverage

The local papers, the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian have both covered the WLGA findings. The Journal has a two page special report and includes an article on the petition, 'Hundred's join drive to block chief's pay-off'. (Petition here)

The group leaders on the council voice their opinion on the WLGA report.

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) describes the erosion of democracy as power has been passed from elected members to chief officers and he promises that the group will do its 'utmost' ensure the report is implemented;

"...if there is any backtracking on this, we will move a motion of no confidence in the whole executive board"
.
Judging by Kevin Madge's comment, that backtracking may have already begun,;

"...There are a few issues I have with the report which I will expand upon after the full council meeting and later down the line. However, the view that the council has been too officer led I cannot agree with. Decisions have always been taken by councillors"

(was that ok Mark? Yours, Kev)

The South Wales Guardian carries an opinion piece on that very issue and the use of the word 'perception';

"..According to the report, it has also been 'widely perceived' that this council has been 'officer led'. 
Widely perceived' is an interesting choice of words - it is what people think, but gives little indication of the reality. 
While perception is massively important, the true nature of events is just as crucial. 
The Guardian would go one step further than the report: for the past years Carmarthenshire County Council has been officer led, with the elected representatives having little control over the decisions and the purse strings. 
This paper's battles with the local authority are well documented. However there does now appear to be a change in the air.
The Guardian welcomes that shift. 
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating - not just this week, but next week and long, long into the future." 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Unison statement on Mark James' pay off


Statement issued Monday 10th November from Unison Carmarthenshire:

"It has been publicly declared that Mark James CEO of Carmarthenshire County Council has applied for severance. When the CEO of the fourth most populous county in Wales applies for severance particularly given recent events this is of interest to the public and our members. 

Unison is by far the biggest union in Carmarthenshire County Council and we have been asked by many members to comment in the media about these developments.

We start by saying that our branch has consistently advocated that Carmarthenshire County Council needed to operate in a more transparent and open manner. We warned about making decisions behind closed doors and having pre-executive meetings where in effect the decisions were made with the Executive meeting ratifying and making official the decision that already made. 

Away from the public’s gaze this way of running the council is in our opinion undemocratic and clearly could leaand has led to decisions being made by a few individuals without proper scrutiny. We believe these decisions were a result of this culture and the effect of giving so much power to the CEO by the Independent led and Labour led councils 

From some councillors and ex-council leaders we have witnessed what can only be described as hero worship. Mark James was paid (in our opinion) extremely generously- his pay is virtually the same as the Cardiff Council CEO. Cardiff has a population of 351,000 and Carmarthen has a population of 184,000! 

To put it another way the CEO of Carmarthenshire County Council is virtually paid around a pound a year for each resident of Carmarthenshire. Unison has highlighted the pay the CEO receives compared to the low pay many of our members receive (70% of Local Government workers earn less than £21,000 a year.) 

Many of them earn a lot less -often members have two or three jobs in a school to earn a lot less than the CEO would receive in payment for being the presiding Officer in an election year! For many of our part- time members they would have to work for three years to earn the amount the Chief Executive was given as a lump sum because his pension pot was full. 

This option is not available to those of our members who find themselves in the same positionSome ex-council leaders have claimed Mr James has earned every penny -we can all recall being told by Meryl Gravell that Mark James was the best CEO in Wales

From their perspective the CEO by acting as their spin doctor has earned his money however that would not be the view of the majority of our members or we suspect the public. 

The CEO has never been shy of promoting himself and his picture had adorned many a page of the local newspapers and internal correspondence in the council material sent to employees. Unfortunately the CEO has been receiving publicity for all the wrong reasons recently- the spin doctor has become the story and we all know what results when that happens. 

Whether the CEO was ill advised or did not listen to advice we believe some fundamental errors of judgement have been made recently- the decision to counter sue Jackie Thompson for libel for one and the decision to be given around £29,000 tax free because his pension pot was full another. While many of our members would have to work a number of years to earn that kind of money the Executive Board could not see how granting this would be seen as unfair by our members

Mr James was no fan of the trade unions and in particular Unison who have been to the fore in fighting the cuts. Unison successfully stopped this attempt to stifle our ability to defend our members’ interests. 

But this attack sums up the predicament that the Labour led council got themselves into -Mark James was it seemed directing councillors decisions but it was Kevin Madge as council leader that was having quite rightly to take the responsibility for these decisions. 

Unison have highlighted our concerns about the governance (how the CCC was being run) of CCC for years. Recently the Welsh Local Government Association was asked by CCC to conduct a peer review of CCC and published a report into its Governance

While CCC asked for this we think this was the result of the adverse publicity CCC had received. This public document states that ‘despite the council’s ambition, the council must address a number of significant constitutional and cultural barriers’. (WLGA Review). 

Given that this is a peer review it is in our opinion a very critical of some of the governance of CCC. How else would you interpret 39 recommendations! Carmarthenshire Labour Led Council states that it has the ambition of becoming ‘the most open and transparent Council in Wales’. A laudable aim but if Carmarthenshire County Council is to have its own ‘glasnost’ we would agree with the review that there would need to be a significant cultural and behavioural change to achieve this

We and the public will judge by results and we wait to see if the council’s leadership attitude to openness extends to the trade unions

Our Branch at our last AGM had a vote of no confidence in the CEO and the Executive and we feel our stance has been vindicated by events. The Executive summary of the above report commented that the perception ‘has been that the Chief Executive and senior officers have dominated some of the decisions of the Executive board to the extent that the balance of governance has become disjointed and the council is widely perceived to be officer-led’. 

We could quote copiously from the above report but perhaps the elected council leadership should take a good hard look at this report and draw the necessary conclusions. We do not assert that the CEO did not achieve good things but surely that should be expected, unfortunately he will not be remembered for the good things he did.

If Mr James was successful in this application for severance it would mean many others would not get it. The question needs to be asked who gets priority. We have been told the Full council will make the decision. 

We believe that Mr James would not be applying for severance if he did not think he would get it. If he was unsuccessful he would still have to go as you cannot have a CEO in place who has indicated they want to leave. The council needs to open and transparent about the process of severance and the public and employees need to know how the decision is arrived at.

We think the CEO has a chance to leave a lasting legacy and that is not to take severance but to resign and leave the significant sum he would have received to keep services such as youth services from suffering cuts."

Carmarthenshire County UNISON Branch Committee



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If you wish to, and have not already done so, please sign and share the petition to not pay disgraced chief executive Mark James a golden handshake. 

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On the subject of cuts, one of the 'councillor questions' listed for Wednesday's meeting slates the Welsh Government for clawing back education grants 'in-year', this means a budget loss to CCC of £215,000 equivalent to £8 per child. 

Whatever the corporate response to the question might be, it is perhaps worth noting that as far as CCC are concerned you can never have enough senior managers...and an advert has just been published for a 'Head of Learner Programmes'; not only is this a decidedly poor job title, but it is a brand new post with a salary of between £82,542 and £88,042 per year. 

Personally I think the kids would be better off with a few more text books, a couple of iPads and a teacher or two.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Next week's meeting...and a council by-election


Update 8th November;
I hear that Pam's independent group have a candidate lined up for the Trelech by-election...more on that when officially confirmed.
All candidates have to get their forms in by next Friday (14th) and once they are checked, the list will be published the following week.
The election will take place on the 11th December.
Notice of Election

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As expected the WLGA governance review report features on next week's full council agenda, in fact the WLGA are going to present it. There is no mention yet of Mr James' severance deal, presumably that 's still in the hands of the lawyers...

A council by-election is on it's way with the announcement that one of Pam's independents, Cllr Dai Thomas, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday is standing down. Known as Dai Trelech, (as he represents Trelech ward of course), his resignation letter suggests that representing the ward has been a family occupation since before the war...

With the Labour and independent groups currently on 22 councillors apiece, and the winds of change blowing against the ramparts of County Hall, it could be an interesting election....

There are no less than three notices on motion, one to support the campaign to re-open the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway line, one to relax rural planning policy and one to provide more lorry parks.

As you can see, councillors questions appear on the agenda again and you will remember the fiasco at the last meeting (and the one before that) where the usual suspects voted to bar themselves from being able to ask supplementary questions.

The WLGA report recommends that councillors, as in any other democratic arena, should be allowed follow-up questions but I suspect this will be stalled yet again with more legal bluff from Mark and Linda.

Cllr Dole (Plaid) who proposed the vote at the last meeting has said he will try and call for a vote again this time, hopefully the usual suspects won't make complete fools of themselves yet again.

Cllr Caiach has pre-empted the possible block on follow-up questions by asking two, both concerning pollution on the Llanelli coastline. Observers of council meetings will know that this is a subject which Cllr Caiach, and Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) feel passionately about and have raised in conjunction with the council's planning and development ambitions in the Llanelli area.

The last time both she and Cllr Bill Thomas took this principled stand the Chair laughed and the chief executive sneered.
I hope she has the last laugh.

The meeting will be webcast of course and as I have mentioned a few times, the Council's Planning Committee was webcast for the first time yesterday, the archive can be found here. Sadly the council Twitter account forgot to mention it beforehand....

However, the press office has given it the works today and 'quotes' Cllr Pam 'I don't want any sort of filming' Palmer saying that the "move is in the interests of encouraging people to become more involved in council business". As long as you're not critical I guess.
Interestingly, there have been over 60,000 views of the live and archived webcasts of full council meetings since May 2013.

It looks like Mr James' pay-off will feature in the December meeting where a full debate has been promised. Please keep signing and sharing the petition and leaving your comments, it is now approaching 600 signatures.

The main event next week will undoubtedly be the damning WLGA report. Be sure to tune in at 10am to see how it all goes....

My post on the subject is here; The WLGA report - The toxic culture recognised and award winning blogger, Owen Donovan has today published his take on the WLGA report here;
Carmarthenshire - The rot laid bare




Tuesday, 4 November 2014

WLGA report - The toxic culture recognised


My analysis of the WLGA report can be found below this press release just in from the office of Plaid politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP:


'Culture change needed at County Hall'

AM and MP comment on WLGA review at Carmarthenshire County Council

Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards have warmly welcomed the publication of the 'Governance Review' undertaken by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), established as a result of Wales Audit Office reports in the public interest which stated payments made to the Carmarthenshire Council's Chief Executive were 'unlawful'.

The Plaid Cymru elected members said the report's findings are constructive, present a clear way forward for the council, and vindicate the position they have taken in challenging the authority over the last two years.

Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards have been strong critics of the Labour and Independent leadership of the council.  Their criticism has centred on the way in which legitimate debate is stifled, how the authority has been senior officer-led, and how public trust in the leadership of the council is at an all-time low.

Amongst other things, the WLGA review team confirms it heard that:

1. Internal systems of governance and constitutional processes were either not consistently followed or were perceived to be designed to constrain democratic debate and public engagement;
2. The perception has been that the Chief Executive and senior officers have dominated some of the decisions....to the extent that the balance of governance has become disjointed and the Council is perceived to be officer-led;
3. The Council's member and officer leadership was viewed as defensive and did not encourage or respond constructively to challenge.
4. There was widespread concern about the way the Council conducted business from many internal and external stakeholders.

The WLGA report, Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards say, entirely justifies the strong position they have taken in speaking out on behalf of county residents.

AM Mr Thomas says a complete culture change is needed at the heart of the council and the democratic deficit needs to be addressed.  MP Mr Edwards says a political reboot is needed at county hall if public trust is to be restored.  He questioned whether the council leadership should remain in post.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

"We warmly welcome the publication of the WLGA's review.  It is a fine piece of work and presents some positive and clear ways forward for the council.  But let us be in no doubt, it is a very damaging report, and shines a spotlight on the toxic culture which has been allowed to fester under successive years of Labour and Independent political mismanagement. 

"The concerns that Jonathan Edwards, myself and others have raised about the lack of democracy, openness and willingness to except criticism are completely justified in the publication of this report.  

"If implemented, the WLGA recommendations will go a long way to help restore trust in the council.  It can go a long way to restore the democratic deficit which has developed.
But the County Council is in desperate need for the strong political leadership which it has lacked for so many years.  Regrettably, though, the current Labour and Independent Executive Board has been exposed as not being up to the job."

 Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards added:

"The report will be welcomed by almost all in Carmarthenshire as an open and honest assessment of the worrying culture which has engulfed the council.  It is a vindication of the independent free press we have in Carmarthenshire which has rightly held the local authority to account.

"The county council has had the same councillors at the helm of the council for the best part of a decade.  It is a lack of political leadership, and certain over-bearing senior officers which have contributed significantly to the position in which the council finds itself today.

"As I said during the publication of the damning Wales Audit Office reports earlier this year, it is only with a complete political reboot and change of personnel will we be in a position to restore the good name of the county.

"Carmarthenshire, its rich heritage, history, culture and crucially, its future is more important than any one individual or any political party.  The review's findings should make those at the top of county hall seriously consider whether they are the best people to move Carmarthenshire forward."


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My comment on the WLGA Report

The long awaited Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) report was published yesterday, it was required following the two Wales Audit Office reports concerning the pension payment and libel indemnity scandals but covered the dire state of governance throughout the council.

As I have said, there were 39 recommendations; these are not recommendations to fill in a few more potholes - these recommendations go to the very heart of governance in Carmarthenshire.

The WLGA have, very politely, concluded that the council is a complete shambles, 'in disarray and not fit for purpose' to use the words of the lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis.

The Wales Audit Office have said that they will not declare Carmarthenshire Council fit for purpose until the outcome, and the council's response to, this review.

The rationale put forward by Kevin Madge for the WLGA to carry out the review was to ensure complete independence. This has been brought into question given the way in which the review has been carried out. The WLGA describes itself as a 'critical friend' to the council and has briefed and consulted with senior council officers and group leaders (yes, including the 'independent' group, but not unaffiliated councillors) throughout the process.

I wonder just how more damning the report would have been without consultation with the perpetrators.

However, I think they have been able to sort the wheat from the chaff and, reading between the lines, have recognised, in the main, the deep rooted problems in how this council has been run.

With one eye on the requirements of the WAO, the recommendations are to be implemented within six months.

I am pleased that the report recognised that a change in culture is necessary, not just tweaking around the edges, a 'culture change programme' must be commenced as a matter of urgency.

It also recognises that the council's constitutional arrangements have been a barrier to legitimate challenge and scrutiny. There was recognition that the constitution had been used to deliberately 'deflect and diffuse debate and disagreement'.

One paragraph (3.37) makes reference to the chief executive's role in bringing the council to this dire state of affairs. Again, the wording is polite and professional but to the observant reader, the meaning is very clear.

The attitude of 'defensiveness' is also recognised and this is also mentioned in the context of whistleblowing. As a blogger I have been approached by a number of staff, in all areas of council business, who have suffered under a culture of fear and bullying. It is pleasing to note that the report recommends that this area comes under the culture change programme. Not before time.

The council's relationship with local media also comes under deserved attack and concludes that an open and transparent council, the stated aim of the review, will respect the independence of the local press and will not "suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media".

As for scrutiny by local bloggers (paras 3.51 -3.53), the report makes it clear that with the 'significant' resources the council invests in its reputation, it has sufficient channels already available to itself to respond properly and reasonably to criticism. It now needs to learn how to use them.

The chief executive's application for severance also get's a mention and states that it will subject to independent advice. This process should not interfere with the urgent recommendations, and my own interpretation of this section is that once he's gone, members should strike whilst the iron is hot.

The Local Service Board, a 'strategic' talking shop of local service executives has been under fire for not producing a set of minutes since 2010; the report recommends that minutes are published and meetings are webcast.

Fortunately the proposals put forward by the chief executive that full council meetings should be sterile affairs with open debate replaced by endless power point presentations have been scuppered and the review states;

Our recommendations relating to Council meetings therefore have the objective of allowing the Council meeting to become an open and transparent arena for debate and challenge on the direction being taken by the Council and its Executive Board with opportunities for input from councillors, scrutiny committees and the public.

After the supplementary question fiasco at the last meeting, it is recommended, as it should be, that they should be allowed forthwith.

There is also an interesting section on Motions on Notice. You may recall that these have often been concerned with matters of public interest (eg Freedom of the press) and, to avoid airing a controversial debate in the chamber, have either been refused point blank with spurious reasoning or headed off at the pass and referred to a distant committee.

There was also the appalling amendment to the constitution, masterminded by Mr James, that seven seconders were required for each motion rather than the usual one.

The recommendations are that;

The revised constitution should relax the requirement for signatories for Motions on Notice e.g. proposer and seconder. The constitution could include a safeguard such as numbers of Motions per councillor per meeting/per year.

and

The revised constitution should not include the reference to allow Motions to be referred to another committee/Executive Board.

In another rather telling paragraph the review team were told that members of the public in the gallery have their details taken for 'fire safety' purposes. Those who remember the lengthy 'undertaking' farce after the #daftarrest episode will recognise this as utter nonsense. I don't think the review team were taken in either.

The recommendations with regards to public participation are to be welcomed, and hopefully welcomed by the council.

They are;

Promote the opportunity available to members of the public to table questions at Council Meetings

Have a standard item on the agenda for public questions even if none are tabled

Table all public petitions on the Council meeting agenda

Include a dedicated online petition page on its website

Review its approach to monitoring attendance in the Public Gallery in the Council Chamber

Consider allowing the public filming of council meetings.

Many submissions highlighted the undue influence exerted by the chief executive on the Chair of council. The review team have remained polite over this but have recommended extra training for chairs, presumably so they can hold their own against such influence and shin-kicking. The 'influence' should be going soon anyway.

It is also recommended that Minutes contain more detail, that they include both sides of an argument, not just the council spin. For accuracy, consideration should be given to audio record all meetings. Again this is a polite way of saying that currently the minutes are sometimes misleading.

Interestingly the report recommends that Executive Board meetings are webcast. It also expresses surprise that ordinary backbench councillors, who are present at Exec Board meetings are thrown out when exempt reports are discussed and neither are any non-executive members given copies of exempt reports.

Not only does this practice inhibit the ability of ordinary councillors to scrutinise decisions, It was partly this practice which led to the two public interest reports. Some interviewees, the ususal suspects, were worried that some councillors might divulge details of these reports to the world at large. The review panel reminded them that code of conduct rules already regulate against this.

I'm also pleased that the report suggests a pilot exercise to publish all spending details - this is something I've been calling for for a number of years. Similarly, the report recommends that the Register of Members' Interests is published online, instead of being locked away and viewed under exam conditions with an invigilator.

Further recommendations include giving ordinary councillors the opportunity to ask questions at executive board meetings and allowing them to be present at Executive Board Member Decision meetings. The recent revelations concerning 'Meryl's Millions' is mentioned and indicates that the WAO have made it's own recommendations for improvement.

Another recommendation was that Executive Board members should only attend Scrutiny meetings when invited to do so. Their continual lurking presence is seen by many councillors as a way of exerting influence, "big brother" style.

Similarly, Carmarthenshire's procedure for call-ins (a key back-up power for scrutiny members to examine executive decisions) was recognised as being, unsurprisingly, unduly restrictive. Not only do they have a mere three days to propose a call-in, but access to executive reports is restricted and the number of signatories required means that any call-in is dependant on the unlikely support of members of the ruling administration.
This needs to be reviewed.

The report also states that a public question time slot should be included at Scrutiny meetings.

I urge you to read the whole report. There are a few areas which fall short, such as the findings on the Business Management Group and the preliminary meetings of the executive board, but on the whole, and as the Plaid press release states, it recognises the toxic culture.

Incidentally I made a 10,000 word submission to the review team and many of my suggestions have been included. Also included are many of the issues I have highlighted on this blog over the past five years....I always knew there was something wrong...

Ii is now up to the councillors to ensure these recommendations are followed through. I believe this process will be eased by the departure of Mark James. There is no question that it is he who has deliberately sought to reduce democracy in the county; sought to control and silence the local press, councillors, staff and the critical public, and who was willing to compromise the Freedom of Information Act and due legal process.

Many of these proud achievements of Mr James CBE have been polished with the veneer of democratic agreement. The ruling junta has been cultivated and preserved, the ever ready cash cow moving seamlessly from the ever loyal Meryl to the embarrassingly weak Kevin Madge.

For the past few years the compliant head of law, Linda Rees Jones has been at Mr James elbow to give the gloss to his legal and constitutional whims and the press manager has acted like a cold war spy reporting overheard conversations and critical articles in a manner most dictators would have been proud of.

By removing a rotten apple doesn't mean the barrel won't still fester. With the next local election not until 2017 we're going to have to wait a while to express our opinions towards those elected members who have been complicit in bringing the council into such disrepute.

This report, which certainly goes some way, if politely, in spelling out what needs to be done, will be discussed at next week's council meeting, be sure to tune in. You will be able to watch the council spin machine in action...

Whatever which way you look at it, thirty nine recommendations, many of which call for a direct reversal of amendments dropped into the constitution by Mr James CBE and his crew over the past few years, is nothing to be proud of.
On that note, please sign the petition.

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Update 5th November;
The Western Mail has reported on the WLGA review here; Damning report into Carmarthenshire council finds balance of power has become 'disjointed'
and the Carmarthen Journal here; 'Carmarthenshire Council 'widely perceived to be officer led', according to report'.

Should be an interesting full council meeting next week....


Further analysis of the report, the background and the possible implications for the future can be read over on;
Cneifiwr's blog; Unprecedented upheaval and in disarray,
Oggy Bloggy Ogwr; Carmarthenshire - The rot laid bare
and Pat Racher's West Wales News blog.

Western Mail reports on the petition to block Mark James' pay-off - updated


Update 5th November; Prospective parliamentary candidate and county councillor Calum Higgins (Lab) has popped up and joined the debate over the chief execs pay-off. Cllr Higgins is quoted in the South Wales Guardian urging councillors to put the interests of the county before the interests of Mr James.

You would think this goes without saying and I can only imagine that unlike his colleague and leader of the council Kevin Madge, Cllr Higgins has finally realised that a hefty pay-off for Mr James, voted through by the Labour/Independent administration isn't going to win him many votes next May....

Update 4th November; The Llanelli Star is also reporting on the petition and the council confirms that Mr James' pay-off will be the subject of a vote of full council 'later this year'.

The Welsh Government recommend that any pay-off over £100,000 should be voted upon, exactly how much over the £100k threshold Mr James is intending on pocketing remains to be seen. Current estimates are between £250k and £300k.

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I will be returning to the newly published WLGA report later on, but meanwhile I see that the Western Mail has published an article concerning the petition, which is approaching 500 signatures and can be signed here.

Here's the article;

Petition to block Carmarthenshire council chief's severance pay gains momentum
By Rachael Misstear

Carmarthenshire Council chief Mark James is one of 400 employees to apply for severance to end his 12 year employment with the council

A petition calling for Carmarthenshire Council not to not pay its chief executive a “golden handshake” is gaining support, having already attracted hundreds of signatures.

Mark James is one of 400 employees to apply for severance to end his 12 year employment with the council.

It comes less than a week after Pembrokeshire council’s chief executive walked away from his job with a severance pay deal worth more than a quarter of a million pounds.

Bryn Parry-Jones, who stood down following a vote of no confidence is to receive around £280,000 – smaller than the £330,000 originally planned.

Both Mr James and Mr Parry Jones have come under increasing pressure since the Wales Audit Office ruled cash payments given to them in lieu of pension contributions were unlawful.

In January this year Anthony Barrett, the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, ruled that Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire councils had acted unlawfully when they authorised a tax avoidance scheme to benefit their heads of services.

The auditor also said Carmarthenshire Council acted unlawfully when it indemnified Mr James in a libel counter-claim he brought against blogger Jacqui Thompson.

The scheme enabled Mr James to avoid tax he would have been due to pay after a change in the law relating to pension contributions for high earners.

Instead of paying employer contributions to the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), “pay supplements” were credited directly to Mr James on top of his salary.

However, a police investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of either chief executive.

A petition set up by Carmarthenshire resident Lyndsey Maiden, and which had gained 450 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, states that Mr James should not receive any more public money through a severance pay-off when he leaves the authority.

Meanwhile Carmarthenshire Council has dismissed claims that Mr James has already accepted another job in the west of England. Paul Thomas, Assistant Chief Executive, said: “This is speculation.”

Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said in his view it would be wrong for Mark James of Carmarthenshire Country Council to receive such a payout but any decision which is made “must be transparent” and “brought in front of all elected councillors for discussion and scrutiny”.

“That Carmarthenshire residents are signing a petition should be ringing alarm bells with the leadership at county hall,” he said. “It is a striking example of the low level of faith local residents have in the leadership of the council to look after their money.

“Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire councils have appeared joined at the hip over the last 12 months in approving unlawful payments for the benefit of their respective chief executives.

“The involvement of the Wales Audit Office once again in the latest twist of Pembrokeshire Council wanting to pay tens of thousands of pounds extra to their departing chief executive should be a warning to Carmarthenshire.”


Carmarthenshire Council has been asked to comment.

Source; Western Mail

                                 

Mark James



WLGA Governance Review final report - Carmarthenshire Council


Update Nov 5th - My further comment, and a press release from local Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas and MP Jonathan Edwards can be found here; WLGA Report - The toxic culture recognised

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As this long awaited report, required, you will remember following the Wales Audit Office reports, has only just been published, I have not had time to study the contents. I have provided a link to the report below along with the 39 recommendations and will comment further later on today. It is definitely in need of interpretation.
The recommendations are to be implemented between the next three and six months.

http://www.wlga.gov.uk/publications-and-consultation-responses-imp/report-4th-november-2014/

Organisational Culture, Leadership and Values

Recommendation 1: The Council should implement a cultural change programme that
addresses the vision and values of openness and transparency, how it undertakes its business,
and its commitment to provide services for citizens and communities. As part of this
programme, the council should:

- Develop, agree and promote a set of public service and leadership characteristics and
values that should apply to members and officers’ role descriptions;

- Develop and establish a consistency on the respective leadership roles of elected
members and officers;

- Designate or establish a cross-party Constitutional Review Working Group to develop
the new Council Constitution based on the new modular constitution and the
recommendations from the Peer Review.

Recommendation 2: The Council should ensure that the ongoing review of the Press and
Media Protocol fully considers the implications of the new statutory Code of Recommended
Practice on Local Authority Publicity in consultation with media stakeholders on the Media
Protocol, and clarifies the Council’s policies on advertising through local media.

Recommendation 3: The Council should review its approach to public engagement in line
with the recommendations of the Scrutiny Task and Finish Review of the Council’s Consultation
& Engagement Mechanisms.

Recommendation 4: The Council should ensure that the new senior management team
arrangements are established in accordance with a clear policy mandate for a cultural change
programme set out by the Executive Board and Council.

Recommendation 5: The Council should introduce and communicate revised guidance on
report writing for senior officers who should take responsibility for drafting and checking
relevant financial and/or legal implications

Recommendation 6: The Council should review its approaches and issue guidance around the
criteria for ‘Exempt’ and ‘Urgent’ Items and handling of Declarations of Interest with an annual
register of interest for Members and any senior officers reporting to or advising Members on
decisions.
Recommendation 7: The Member Development Programme and Strategy should be updated
and led by members through Democratic Services Committee.

Recommendation 8: Member Personal Development Reviews should be led by members, with
appropriate support from Training Managers

Recommendation 9: The Council should consider the appointment of a Member Development
Lead within the Executive Board to work with Chair of Democratic Services on championing and
coordinating member development and support.

Recommendation 10: The Council should promote and support members’ use social media
and provide a social media training programme.

Recommendation 11: All members should produce Annual Reports in order to promote
openness and transparency about the role and contributions of councillors

Recommendation 12: The Council should communicate Business Management Group terms
of reference to all members and external stakeholders through the Council website.

Recommendation 13: The Council should endorse and implement the recommendations of
the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Task and Finish Review of the Council’s Consultation and
Engagement Mechanisms

Recommendation 14: The Council should publish the Register of Members’ interests on its
website

Recommendation 15: The LSB should consider webcasting its meetings to encourage
engagement and ensure greater transparency of decision-making.

Recommendation 16: The LSB website should be updated to include agendas and papers of
forthcoming meetings and an archive minutes of meetings

Council Meetings 

Recommendation 17: The Council should produce a ‘Councillors Guide’ to the Constitution
and ensure all members are provided with appropriate briefing/training in advance of
introduction of new constitution

Recommendation 18: The Council should produce a public guide summarising key aspects of
the Constitution

Recommendation 19: The Council should undertake a survey of councillors regarding
preferred meeting times every two years and encourage Committees to meet flexibly at times
convenient to the members.

Recommendation 20: The revised constitution should allow members to ask a supplementary
question. Members’ Questions on Notice should also be a standard item on the Council Agenda
even when no questions are tabled.

Recommendation 21: The revised constitution should relax the requirement for signatories
for Motions on Notice e.g. proposer and seconder. The constitution could include a safeguard
such as numbers of Motions per councillor per meeting/per year.

Recommendation 22: The revised constitution should not include the reference to allow
Motions to be referred to another committee/Executive Board

Recommendation 23: The Council should:

• Promote the opportunity available to members of the public to table questions at Council
Meetings
• Have a standard item on the agenda for public questions even if none are tabled
• Table all public petitions on the Council meeting agenda
• Include a dedicated online petition page on its website
• review its approach to monitoring attendance in the Public Gallery
• Consider allowing the public filming of council meetings

Recommendation 24: The revised constitution should place greater prominence of the role of
Council Chair, in particular in receiving and determining the validity of and acceptance of
Motions or Questions on Notice (in conjunction with the ‘Proper Officer’)

Recommendation 25: The Council should ensure that all Committee Chairs and Vice Chairs
undergo chairing skills training and are encouraged to participate in peer observation and/or
coaching

Recommendation 26: The Council should review its approach to producing minutes of
meetings.

Recommendation 27: Whilst the reports of Scrutiny Committees should be on the Council
Agenda allowing further deliberation by the full Council, minutes of scrutiny committees should
be included en bloc ‘For Information’

Executive Board

Recommendation 28: The Executive Board Forward Programme should be regularly updated
and communicated widely

Recommendation 29: The Council should promote and publicise ‘travelling’ Executive Board
Meeting, with an option for a set time period of public questions.

Recommendation 30: The Council should introduce webcasting of Executive Board Meetings
held in County Hall

Recommendation 31: The Council should ensure that all members receive information
relating to exempt items and that non-executive members should remain for exempt items, as
is practice at most other councils.

Recommendation 32: Non-executive Members, with permission of chair, should be able to
ask questions at Executive or comment on an agenda item, as is practice at some other
councils.

Recommendation 33: The Council should allow non-executive members to observe Executive
Board Member Decision Meetings.

Overview and Scrutiny

Recommendation 34: Executive Board Members should only attend Scrutiny Committees
when invited by the Chair and must attend when invited.

Recommendation 35: Executive Board Members should present reports and answer
questions on policy at Scrutiny Committee, supported by senior officers on matters of policy,
procedural or technical clarification.

Recommendation 36: The Council should clarify and/or review the respective terms of
references and relationships of Audit and Scrutiny

Recommendation 37: The Council should revise the call-in process when developing the new
constitution in line with least restrictive practice in other authorities and allow the call-in of
exempt items.

Recommendation 38: The Council should introduce a set time-period for public questions at
each Scrutiny Meeting.

Recommendation 39: The Council should review its approach to scrutiny of the Local Service
Board

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Pembrokeshire; Wales Audit Office stops Bryn pay-off - Updated


Final update Friday 17:21 The application for an injunction was unsuccessful. The revised pay-off stands and Parry-Jones is gone, with £280,000.

So now we'll see what happens here in Carmarthenshire. Please sign and share the petition, well over 400 people already have, it only takes a minute, and if you have time, have a read of the comments....

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Update 16:32 Court papers have apparently been filed this afternoon by Labour group leader Cllr Paul Miller for an injunction preventing the revised pay-off to Parry-Jones. Cllr Miller believes that the revised deal should have been put before full council for another vote and not decided behind closed doors.

Can you imagine Carmarthenshire's Labour leader Kevin Madge having the bottle to do anything like this?

Update Friday 12:30; Reports are coming in that the severance deal has been reduced, removing the unlawful pension elements, and the auditor has withdrawn his advisory notice. Instead of £332,000 Bryn Parry-Jones now get around £280,000, poor thing.

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Update Wednesday - Pembrokeshire Council have issued a statement which suggests that the matter has been resolved;

"Pembrokeshire County Council and its legal advisors have been in discussion with the Wales Audit Office since before the meeting of Council on the 16th October and have reached a consensus on the phrasing of the Settlement Agreement with the Chief Executive.
"This resolves the concerns of the Auditor.
"The Council has been advised by the Wales Audit Office that the Advisory Notice will be withdrawn tomorrow, Thursday, 30th October.
"The Council will not be incurring any unlawful expenditure.

However, Cllr Paul Miller the Pembs Labour group leader says he has spoken to Mr Barratt this evening who stated that the matter is not resolved and the stop notice still stands;

"I have spoken personally to the Deputy Auditor General for Wales, Mr Anthony Barrett, twice this evening and he has confirmed that he has not agreed to remove the stop notice and will not be doing so while the element relating to the Chief Executives pension remains in the agreement.”

There is plenty of discussion over on Pembs Cllr Jacob Williams' blog who has also now spoken to Mr Barrett and confirms that no resolution has been reached but a number of 'options' identified which may require another extraordinary council meeting for approval. 


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Pembrokeshire Council are back in the news as the Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett issued a formal notice this afternoon to stop the £332,000 pay-off to Bryn Parry Jones, Mr Jones was due to depart on Friday.

Mr Barrett said;

"After careful consideration, I have reason to believe that Pembrokeshire Council will incur unlawful expenditure if it continues its current settlement agreement with the Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones. 
For this reason, I feel I have no option but to exercise my statutory responsibilities and take this unprecedented action."

The auditor considers that the pay-off, as it stands will be unlawful as the settlement took into account the unlawful pension payments, the tax dodging scandal he shared with Carmarthenshire's Mark James. The auditor had also found Mr James' libel indemnity to be unlawful.

Mr Barratt's reasoning for today's decision concerning Pembs is here;

"In taking that decision, the Council are relying on and have taken into account the (unlawful) pay supplements.
The proposed settlement agreement approved by the Council on 16th October 2014 involves the Council unlawfully taking into account the said (unlawful) pay supplements in calculating a payment to the Chief Executive in lieu of 3 months‟ notice, in calculating an enhanced severance payment to the Chief Executive and in making payment of further (unlawful) pay supplements to the
Chief Executive in respect of the period April 2014 to October 2014."
(from Wales Audit Office Statement of Reasons)

The last sentence suggests to me that the council have been making further unlawful payments to Bryn Parry-Jones over the last six months or this could be the compensatory element of the settlement for not paying the pension.

This will be an interesting one to watch. I suspect Carmarthenshire are also keeping a very close eye on it all and recalculating Mark James' pay-off as we speak...

Please keep signing and sharing the petition.

The lost VAT


Last month I mentioned a report on the agenda for the council's Audit Committee which recorded a mysterious ongoing problem with officer travel claims.

A 'fundamental weakness' had been identified by the internal audit in 2012/13 because departmental managers were "failing to ensure claims were compliant with current policies and failing to follow agreed procedures". Despite numerous 'reminders' from central office a further review found that the problem was continuing. The report is here, it's the second item.

The committee was clearly unimpressed and made a rare decision to 'hold to account' those departmental managers who continued to fail but the significance of this failure remained a mystery, even after the minutes were published.

I have now heard that what was omitted from the minutes was, that through this lack of control and compliance with the Financial Procedural Rules, the council had apparently lost £90,000 in unreclaimable VAT. If this is the case, and I'm no expert, the upshot of this must be either insufficiently detailed receipts for over £400,000 being submitted, or no receipts at all...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Carmarthenshire council; A leisure trust on its way?


Although it doesn't appear to have been discussed in a democratic fashion anywhere, it looks like Carmarthenshire council has decided that the 'alternative mode of delivery' (in other words 'how can we save money') of leisure services will eventually be through a new arms-length trust.

A tender has already been published to find a leisure consultant "to assist with the delivery of an alternative trust management arrangement for its Leisure Services". How much this 14 month contract is worth is unknown, it's unlikely to come cheap.

Carmarthenshire's leisure services do not just include the leisure centres but country parks, theatres, museums and libraries as well. Whether the intention is to hive the whole lot off is not clear.

The 'money saving' notion stems from the fact that this trust will have charitable status, a loophole exists exempting the trust from the usual business rates and VAT. The idea is that it also (hopefully) attracts grant funding which would not otherwise be available although this carries it's own uncertainties. The council will retain the freehold but will lease the properties to the trust and give it helping financial hand in the first few years.

It all sounds ideal and the launch of these trusts, which also involves the wholesale transfer of staff, is often accompanied with a fanfare of 'social enterprise' and 'community ownership'.

In reality the trusts are usually made up of unelected business and community representatives and a handful of councillors and essentially mean that direct control is lost and influence over council services is left to an independent body, protected from scrutiny by 'commercial confidentiality'.

The chief executive has now informed councillors that the council is going to sell off all property, even if on a lease, which isn't 'vital' to the council. What will constitute 'vital' is anyone's guess, presumably the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and evangelical bowling alley will both be essential for the smooth running of carmscc...both currently paying nil rent.

An arms-length trust can also be a useful tool for selling off assets without the irritating scrutiny of full council.

The commissioning of a trust itself can also be an expensive exercise and the trust can find costs increasing as it lacks the local authorities' ability to use economies of scale. Educational links and improvement projects can also become sidelined as trustees are bound by law to act in the best interest of the board rather than the priorities of the local authority...

There are, I'm sure, many examples of good practice and maybe this is preferable than a complete outsourcing exercise to a distant private company although ultimate control over a leisure trust could still be managed by such an arrangement.
However, before the plan is trumpeted by CarmsPR as a 'no-other-option-possible' fait accompli it's always worth checking out the pros and cons, a good plain summary of the cons can be found here (EU Strategy Paper 2008). Further ups and downs of leisure trusts can be googled.

A move such as this to transfer control of such a large chunk of council services should be subject to public consultation. Presumably this will happen after the consultant reports back with the recommendation County Hall prefers...

Still on the subject of off-loading services, a report from earlier this year from the council's TIC team ('Transform, Innovate, Change', or in plain English, the cutback squad) shows that a report had been commissioned from Neopost Ltd (at unknown cost);
 'to undertake a review of Carmarthenshire’s postage, correspondence and communication activity with a view to presenting a full proposal of potential efficiency savings to TIC Programme Board'. 

Clearly Neopost Ltd, a company whose services include printing and postage for local authorities, unsurprisingly advised that outsourcing was a distinct possibility.

Lo and behold a tender has now gone out to supply all the postage and printing needs for everything related specifically to Council tax and housing benefit.

The tender has yet to be awarded but not only is this a time of considerable change within the welfare system but this is a highly sensitive responsibility. The tender notice itself warns that 'These are sensitive and time-critical mailings with legislative requirements, including strict bill despatch deadlines, document merging and data protection safeguards'.

What could possibly go wrong....?
Clearly the council are not ready to entrust the publication of the precious propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News to anyone else just yet.

One of the problems with outsourced services is that all the usual checks and balances of publicly delivered services, including accountability (not much of that in Carmarthenshire admittedly) becomes fractured as suppliers are shrouded in matters of business confidentiality and are not subject to Freedom of Information requests. At the moment, around 70% of home care services are farmed out to the private sector.

But most of all, like any private company, they are driven by profit, not public service and whilst savings are I'm sure possible in some areas, Carmarthenshire council needs to tread very carefully. Aside from anything else, the council already seems to be spending significant sums on external consultants in it's bid to 'save money'.