Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Hengoed by-election

Here's a list of the candidates for the County Council by-election for Hengoed ward to be held on the 19th February. It is a two-Member ward near Llanelli, the other seat being held by Cllr Sian Caiach (People First)

In alphabetical order;

Martin Davies (Plaid Cymru)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Penny Edwards (Labour)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Edward Skinner (Independent)

Here are the candidates for the spare seat on Llanelli Rural Council which is run by a Plaid/Independent coalition, the election will also be held on the 19th February;

Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Heidi Elizabeth Jenkins (Independent)

Susan Philips (Plaid Cymru)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Cneifiwr has a brief example of the calibre of the UKIP candidate here.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Pothole news

With budget proposals to cut nearly £3.3m from highway maintenance over the next three years, the state of Carmarthenshire's roads is likely to get worse. As far as the Welsh Government are concerned, the cost to bring back our roads to perfect condition, the 'zero defects backlog value' as it is known, is £17.47m. The council, by comparison, has a probably more realistic figure of £54m.

A recent scrutiny committee looked at the figures presented in a report. Amongst the reasons for this huge difference is that the WG figures were collated in 2009 and used a different method of testing and sampling.

The WG review of backlog figures has been put on hold and the committee wondered whether in fact it "did not wish to acknowledge the true state of the Welsh highway network and its lack of financial support for local authorities sufficient funding". The committee agreed that the WG should be lobbied to restart their review and address the lack of funding for road repairs.

So concerned were the committee with regards to the authority's own budget plans in relation to road defects they decided they needed a seminar in corporate manslaughter. This was agreed and it was also decided that all members would benefit from such a seminar and not just in relation to road conditions....

Coincidentally the RAC published results today from Freedom of Information requests across England and Wales for figures relating to claims made against local authorities for damage to cars from poorly maintained roads. The total bill is around £3.2m. The figures for Wales show that in Carmarthenshire, out of 39 claims made in 2013/14 only one was successful, costing £89.

One reason for the low figure is not that our roads are perfect, far from it (despite the best efforts of the road repair crews, who's numbers will further diminish in the planned cuts), it's that very few drivers actually bother to make an insurance claim against the council for such damage.

The other reason for this low figure, revealed in the scrutiny minutes, is that the current internal code of practice ("vetted by a QC") makes it difficult for motorists to bring claims and the success rate for deflecting all claims so far is currently 75%.
However, Carmarthenshire is not alone with such an approach and across the UK only 23% of all claims were approved.

The RAC suggests that these figures are the tip of the iceberg and central government should think twice about funding projects such as the HS2 scheme whilst the UK road infrastructure crumbles away.
As for the Welsh Government, the plans and feasibility studies for the proposed M4 relief road had cost over £15m by 2009, goodness only knows what the costs have reached now, with still not an inch of tarmac laid.

In Carmarthenshire, with its £54m backlog and £3.3m cuts to highways, the council has just put in several planning applications for 'Gateway displays' on the various highway approaches to Llanelli. These involve ornate stone structures, floral displays and decorative signage. The total cost of the projects, and ongoing maintenance, is unknown but likely to be a considerable sum.

Still at least they'll look nice as we negotiate our way round the worsening potholes....

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A damning report from the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's report which I referred to the other day, and which is a public interest report, has now been published and can be found on the council's website here;

Ombudsman's Report

Public Interest reports are rare and are only issued when there are matters of significant public importance. The council has to publish it.

This one is no exception and involves a complete failure to follow child safeguarding procedures and describes the council's shortcomings in the handling of the complaint as "inexcusable and fundamental". In short, the council failed to investigate risks to a four year old girl.

The details of the case can be read in the report and it was clearly a sensitive case. The complaint was brought by the father of a four year old child who was concerned about the welfare of his daughter who was living with her mother and partner.
The family had moved several times and the previous local authority, Warwickshire, had contacted Carmarthenshire Council highlighting several concerns in an 'urgent' email. There were issues of drug taking and concerns about possible domestic violence in the home.

The Ombudsman concluded that there was an "abject failure to appreciate the significance of, or investigate properly, the referral from Warwickshire Children’s Services, requesting “an urgent welfare check.”

The report details the ensuing catalogue of failures by the council to properly respond to the child safeguarding issues that were present and which the father, quite rightly according to the Ombudsman, insisted should have been properly assessed. It was not until months later when the police carried out a drugs raid did the council decide to visit the child's home and even then failed to implement the proper safeguards.

At one point, in 2013 the council sent the father details of an investigation; According to the Ombudsman "There was no evidence of any investigation carried out".

The Ombudsman also highlighted "very poor complaint handling and found that Council staff were defensive and lacked objectivity" in dealing with the father's complaints. 

"The overall impression is that staff were either blocking [the father's] complaint or did not understand the objectives and requirements of the process"

The Council failed to deal with the complaint under the Children’s Complaints procedures which it should have done, and missed an opportunity to investigate the service failings in respect of the four year old child. A complaint that a social worker had made inappropriate remarks was also upheld.

The Ombudsman was clearly concerned with the council's responses to his own investigations and also concluded that;
"the Council has failed to acknowledge what should have been obvious shortcomings. Complaint handling is a process through which its service users can express their concerns and feel they have been listened to and taken seriously....

...in this case the Council’s poor service performance was compounded by inadequate and
ineffective complaint handling and the Council missed an opportunity to put things right." 

He has made several recommendations to the council including a full independent audit of referrals to its Children's Services Teams and a review of it's complaint handling procedures. They have also been told to apologise to the father.

This is a very critical report and aside from the grave child safeguarding issues, will undoubtedly strike a chord with many who have embarked on Carmarthenshire Council's complaint procedures; and neither is it the first time those procedures have been slammed by the Ombudsman.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Returning Officers and elections on the way

If nothing else, our local prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Calum Higgins (Lab) seems to have realised his best election tactic is to distance himself from the Labour leadership in County Hall.

A couple of weeks ago he announced that the Labour group would be blocking a big pay-out for the chief executive; with Calum quoted in the papers, Kev was left in vague agreement and grumbling because someone had leaked the details he'd been sitting on for five weeks.

Another point which appears to have been the subject of recent 'doorstep chats' is the matter of Returning Officer fees. Calum is back in the South Wales Guardian tonight calling for a Wales wide review.

The public, he said, felt that chief executives should receive no extra payment for the role. It was part of the job and in fact, in Carmarthenshire appears in the official job description.
It is a curious fact that Cllr Higgins has only just formed this view.

A Welsh Government report has recently been published about the regulation and monitoring of public sector senior pay and includes reference to Returning Officers. It recommends that any fees are clearly stated in the council accounts.

It is no coincidence that this is something of a hot topic in Carmarthenshire.

Back in July 2012 I noticed in the councils accounts that the chief executive appeared to have a £20,000 pay rise. Initial enquiries established it as Returning Officer fees. Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas followed it up and it took until January 2013 for the full details to come out.

Incidentally I was accused by Mr James of "even asking about my election expenses".

The fees, it transpired, were for the local elections in May 2012 and were paid several weeks before the election and before the number of contested seats were known. A freedom of information request established that the council didn't even know exactly what date the money was paid.

The Plaid MP and AM said at the time;

“I’m sure the residents of Carmarthenshire will be asking serious questions as to how funds were available to pay the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive a cash advance of £20,000 at a time when services were facing, and continue to face unprecedented cuts.

“...the role of Returning Officer should be incorporated into the existing duties of a Chief Executive and constitute part of their job description to put an end to these hefty elections fees which are paid almost every year."

They then reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.

In March last year they called into question Mr James' role as Returning Officer whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the pension and libel scandals.

I don't remember Cllr Higgins standing up in the Chamber and calling for any Wales wide reviews then...or the year before.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly taking political sides, but the point needs to be made that the Labour leadership, supposedly the champions of the working man, have, along with Meryl's Independents, been championing only one of them, their highest paid employee.

The Returning Officer 'advance' was actually 'advanced' in the previous financial year; the unlawful pension payments were a way of avoiding tax; how other benefits-in-kind such as legal costs are calculated remains unknown.

According to Cneifiwr's blog, rumours that the chief executive had requested his severance to start in the next financial year, after the scheme had finished, appear to be confirmed.

Whether the Labour leadership will remain true to its word and block a severance deal remains to be seen but one thing is sure, there's definitely an election on the way and although by then we may have a new Returning Officer, it's not hard to guess the main topic of conversation.


The Dylan Thomas wind turbine

Judgement has been reserved in a one-day Judicial Review held in Cardiff today. It concerned a planning application for a wind turbine across the water from Dylan Thomas' boathouse.

The planning officer recommended refusal but the committee approved it following the curious intervention of Cllr Daff Davies, who you recall from the webcasts is also Chair of the Council. Campaigners against the turbine brought the case. Whatever the outcome, it will be an interesting ruling. The Western Mail has the story.


Once again I'd like to thank everyone for all their messages of support and good wishes.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Ombudsman - A public interest report

An official notice has been published on Carmarthenshire council's website announcing that the Ombudsman has made findings of maladministration/service failure following a complaint.

The report, which I understand is a public interest report, must be published on the council website for three weeks starting from the 22nd January.

No further details are currently known other than "The complaint related to opportunities that were missed to follow up reports regarding the welfare of a child and to subsequently assess the child’s needs."


Thursday, 15 January 2015

January meeting

The new year kicked off with almost full attendance at yesterday's monthly council meeting with only a handful of absentees. As usual everyone was upstanding for the entry of the Chair, Vice Chair and chief executive. A word here to any possible new chief exec; standing for the Chair and Vice Chair is archaic and bad enough, but standing for the CEO, any CEO, is met with ridicule and disbelief across the nation.

The meeting passed without major incident and the chief exec seemed particularly subdued. Perhaps, after last week's revelations from Cllr Higgins, he's realised there are more traitors in the chamber than he first thought....

I'm only going mention a couple of points, as the whole event is now available on archive.

The newly appointed Director of Environmental Services was welcomed along with the astonishing news that she is a woman, the 'first female Director' the council had ever had apparently. You would think the authority would be a little embarrassed to admit to such a 'first', but not at all, even mentioning it in the titkle of their press release. Welcome to 2015. Incredible.

Next on the agenda was a presentation from the ladies of the CSSIW, the social care inspectorate, with their annual report. Seasoned observers will note that the annual round of jargon-bingo can be played at this point as they triangulated and evaluated for twenty minutes or so.

Joking apart this is an important document but, surely it wasn't necessary for the CSSIW to take over twenty minutes to explain their role and the contents of the report, which has been floating around since October. It should already have been read and the time devoted a to a brief summary and a lot of questions.

Although there was room for improvement, apparently the council were moving in a sustainable strategic collaborative direction, you get the drift. The first question came from Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who reminded everyone that there was a human element to all this and wondered when an autistic gentleman in his ward would get the help he needed. Obviously this threw the ladies off their performance indicators and the chief exec stepped in to remind everyone to avoid individual issues.
In social care the human element is what its all about not projected outcomes or national thematic reviews.

The meeting eventually moved on to the first of two notices on motion. The first, put forward by Cllr Sharen Davies (Lab) was for all councillors to undergo DRB background checks. For reasons which remain unknown, Cllr Davies had withdrawn this motion and referred it to the executive board instead..

The second motion was from the Plaid group leader Cllr Emlyn Dole for the authority to become a 'paperless council', or at least make the effort. I mentioned this here. He pointed out that it had cost the council around £300 to send out the papers for that meeting alone, roughly the cost of an iPad, and the total cost for last year was £44,000.

The motion was pretty much supported with Kev saying it was a 'journey' and wouldn't happen overnight. They might still need paper said another. Ah, true. Cllr Sharen Davies, giggling, said she hoped councillors wouldn't use iPads to record or film meetings. God forbid.

I can imagine a similar conversation when they moved from quills to ink pens a couple of years ago. By the way, Executive Board members have all now been supplied with iPads.

The Council''s Modernising Education Programme came up later in the meeting with opposition councillors questioning, in so many words, whether the mass closure of rural schools and the creation of several shiny new buildings was having the desired result of an improvement in educational standards. No one ever seems to know.

One proposed new build school in Llanelli required approval for a consultation exercise and the local member voiced residents' concerns that the access route which the plans showed, was not the best option. The Director of Education said that the matter was out of his hands as the Welsh Government would not now fund any works outside the boundary line of any proposed new school.

Cllr Caiach supported the local member and made the point that the newly-opened-with-a-fanfare Furnace School in Llanelli varied considerably from the plans which originally went out to consultation - resulting in a daily traffic nightmare.

This was all getting too much for some and the Chair, as if controlled by an unseen hand from his left, came out with the 'it's not on the agenda' silencing tactic.

Another opposition councillor wondered why £150,000 was being dug out of the apparently precious reserves to part fund a private developer to construct a public car park in Laugharne, the territory of Executive Board Member Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind). Why, he wondered, wasn't this part of a S106 agreement? I mentioned this last month (at the end of this post) and was equally curious,

Unfortunately there was no straight answer forthcoming from anyone and "there's nowhere in Carmarthenshire that needs another car park as much as Laugharne does" was as good as it got.

It was also revealed that the council paid £35,000 for a plot of land near Jackson's Lane in Carmarthen. According to the chief executive the original asking price was £100,000 so this was a "snip". It's a little worrying to Caebrwyn that he considers thirty-odd grand a 'snip'...

It was also confirmed that 'Public Questions' will now be a permanent feature on full council agendas. They have to relate to a matter for which the council has responsibility or affects the county.

The current arrangements are that your question  must be delivered "in writing or by electronic mail to the Chief Executive no later than midday 7 working days before the day of the meeting. Each question must give the name and address of the questioner and must name the member of the Council to whom it is to be put."
The contact details can be found on the council website - get asking!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The long and winding road

Way back in May 2013, following a Wales-wide survey which found that residents in Carmarthenshire felt least able to influence decisions made in County Hall, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee set up a cross-party group  to look at how 'public engagement' could be improved.

It was not just the survey of course, there was the unhealthy relationship between the County Hall and the local press, the question of email snooping and the fact that it was not just the public who felt 'disengaged' but the majority of councillors as well; all of which, and more, was raising awareness that governance of the council was officer-led and not fit for purpose.
Some of us had been saying that for some time.

In Janaury 2014 the shocking Wales Audit Office reports were published over the pension and libel indemnity scandals. This added to the remit and urgency of the committee's work. The WAO report concerning the libel indemnity joined the list of background papers for consideration.

The committee issued a draft report in July 2014 (see blog post 'Getting Engaged') which included the interesting graphic from an unnamed councillor;

Although several recommendations were made including improving executive board minutes, reviewing the restrictive call-in procedure and training Members to use social media, the report didn't go nearly far enough nor sufficiently make the link between public engagement and good governance - nor that a change of culture and therefore a change of executive, was necessary.

July 2014 also saw the WLGA governance review and when their damning report was published in November, the toxic culture was finally recognised and council governance found 'not fit for purpose'.

As you will recall, yet another cross party group was set-up, this time to consider the 38 recommendations in the WLGA report and the 'change of culture' required. Meetings have been held but astonishingly they've been held behind closed doors and no minutes nor agendas have been published... 

This long and protracted process, kick-started, in my view, by events of June 2011, has taken place against a background of open hostility from the chief officer with the ruling executive veering to and fro from denial to reluctant acceptance.

The point of this post is that the final report (the original 2013 'public engagement' one I mean) is on the Executive Board agenda on Monday. A summary of the recommendations can be found here and will then be considered, (once approved by the Executive Board on Monday), by the group considering the WLGA report. (Sorry if I've lost you, I'm lost myself).

There is one late, but important additional recommendation to the 2013 report which I trust the Executive Board and the WLGA group will endorse;

“To increase public engagement in the Council’s decision making process, the Executive Board be requested to consider providing a 15 minute slot at the start of all Executive Board and Executive Board Member decision meetings to afford members of the public and Councillors an opportunity to raise questions / make comments on any agenda item before decisions are made.”

Amongst the 38 WLGA recommendations were calls for an urgent review over 'exempt' reports (when press public and even backbench councillors are booted out); not only whether it was actually necessary for some reports to be exempt but also the need to allow non-executive councillors to remain as observers and be given as much documentation as possible.

This includes Executive Board Member meetings which are all, bizarrely, 'exempt' as a matter of course; a couple of specific examples which show the clear need for urgent change include the signing -off of millions of pounds in grants by Meryl in fifteen minutes, and earlier, Cllr Pam Palmer, along with the press manager Debbie Williams deciding between themselves that there were no issues with the 'freedom of the local press' in Carmarthenshire whatsoever... 

A review is long overdue as Monday's Exec Board meeting itself has two reports recommended for exemption and which may or may not be connected...'Item 13. Danyrallt Estate, Llangadog and Item 14. 'Fishing rights'.

They could be about anything, there not even a hint on the agenda as to why they're there or why they will be exempt so we can only speculate....maybe Mr James is set to become Lord of the Manor as part of his severance deal...(I'm joking of course)

What with everything; the WAO reports, the WLGA review, press, media and email reviews; assorted cross-party groups and enough recommendations and findings to sink a battleship, from where I'm sitting, very little has changed yet, and nothing will until the old culture is removed once and for all.

We are stuck with the elected leadership as it is for now but as I mentioned here, the editor of the South Wales Guardian summed up the core of the problem in this week's paper;

"...The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

Hopefully that hurdle will soon be gone.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Agenda - January meeting

The agenda for next Wednesday''s full council meeting has been published and there is no mention of Mr James' severance or departure, early days perhaps although if you ask me, it is looking less and less likely that the issue will go to full council at all.

With at least two thirds of the chamber apparently rejecting a generous severance package and insisting he simply resigns, it looks like the strong possibility of defeat might persuade Mr James to go quietly, relatively cheaply...and quickly. Wishful thinking perhaps, but to many observers, this whole saga looks remarkably like a mass vote of no confidence (it is not, of course), and is hardly the grand exit he envisioned for himself.

This is all speculation of course and we will have to see what actually transpires, and whether Mr James and his lawyers will put up a fight.

What is on the agenda next week, and it can be read in full here, is a slot for public questions. There are no actual questions, but it is there. This is a commonplace agenda item for most councils but for Carmarthenshire, it's a minor breakthrough.

This is all part of the 'WAO/WLGA effect' which saw the appearance of councillor questions a few months ago. The proof of the pudding will be when someone tries to ask one, the current procedure involves sending your question in writing to the chief executive for vetting, seven days in advance of the meeting.

The last time a member of the public asked a question was in 2005. I gave details of the procedure here, should anyone wish to have a go.

Also on the agenda is an interesting notice on motion from Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) putting forward the concept of a 'paperless system of communication' with all councillors. This is seen by many councils as very much the way forward and, if it runs smoothly, a way of saving a few quid.

In fact, one of the current budget proposals is for councillors' laptops to be be replaced, eventually, with iPads (or similar) and these could be used at all meetings instead of printing and posting swathes of documents.

It would surely help bring the council into the modern world and, essentially, would keep Members up to date with all the latest news...

iPads would allow councillors to keep up to date with council news

It would all take some ironing out and may not be cost effective, but I notice a few already use their own tablets at full council meetings.
Unfortunately, for some Members, a tablet is still just something from the doctor to regulate their bowels or send them to sleep.

Cneifiwr reports that the council by-election for Hengoed ward in Llanelli will be held on the 19th February although no announcement has been made by the council yet. Should be an interesting exercise given the recent result in Trelech and proximity of the general election.

Also, with Labour and Meryl's Independents currently level pegging on 21 seats each, a win for the Indies, should they field a candidate, would give them a one-seat majority over their Labour coalition partners in the chamber... 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Happy New Year, Mrs Thompson

As I said on this blog back in September, Carmarthenshire council chief executive Mark James was granted a Charging Order on my home for his libel damages arising from the unlawfully funded counterclaim. The charge is for £30k+.

The Order, as below, was sealed by the court at the end of November and Mr James' solicitors sent a copy to me today.

The letter accompanying the Order states "We invite your proposals for discharging the debt and wait to hear from you by no later than close of business on Friday 16th January 2015" 

The next stage of enforcement would be for Mr James to apply to the court to force sale.
He has already said, and I quote, he will "vigorously pursue the payment of damages due to me, by all legal means"

You know there's an election on the way...updated (again)

..when the Labour group on the council, with its prospective parliamentary candidate for Carms East and Dinefwr, Cllr Calum Higgins in mind, decide to 'veto' an over generous pay-off for Mr James.


Update 22.33 - The South Wales Guardian has provided a little more detail this evening. Out of ten possible options to get shot of Mr James (ten??), only three have been deemed viable by officers; all three involve a lot of cash.

The paper reports that the Labour group have rejected all three and have the backing of Plaid leader Cllr Emlyn Dole to only accept the 'status quo' option

'Such an option would see Mr James’ request for severance rejected, forcing him to remain in post or resign.
The advice to councillors states that Mr James could attempt to sue the council for constructive dismissal should he decide to resign, but – even if successful – any payout would be limited in law to £72,400. The average payment in constructive dismissal cases is around £7,000'

Also, as the scheme ends on the 31st March and Mr James wants his severance on the 1st April, he has until the 10th January to alter his demands and bring it in line with the authority's scheme.

It would seem that the Labour group have been told by party bosses to distance themselves from Mr James; he is a liability and he also appears to be finally losing control...

However, it would be interesting to know just how much the council has spent on employment lawyers to date...

Update 16.30 - Council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) has now put his tuppence worth in. He hasn't backed up Cllr Higgins but taken a cheap and irrelevant swipe at the Plaid group, accusing them of 'leaking' the figures and severance options to the media. An odd statement given that the only councillor to publicly discuss this so far is Cllr Higgins...

Cllr Madge said; "We have been transparent and presented the figures and options to the opposition. Figures that we had for five weeks and that Plaid had for 24 hours before leaking them to the media. I am angry and disappointed."

FIVE weeks?? Transparent? Good grief, we're they ever going to tell anyone?)


Today's South Wales Guardian, with lengthy quotes from Cllr Higgins, confirms rumours that after several years of happily pandering to Mark James' every outrageous and unlawful whim, the Labour group will now block any attempt to pay him his desired 'golden goodbye'.

Gearing up for the election on May 7th, they have finally realised that this issue is in the forefront of the minds of the Carmarthenshire electorate.
Whatever their logic, the stance is of course welcome.

Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM have both called the prospective £446k pay off a disgrace in a statement on Mr Edwards' website. They have often been at loggerheads with Mr James and have been consistent with their remarks made last year that his departure shouldn't cost the taxpayers a penny, let alone £446,000. The BBC and Carmarthen Journal both report on the issue.

The editor of the SW Guardian sums up the situation in his opinion piece;

"...his reign will ultimately be remembered for libel actions, pension deals, Wales Audit Office condemnation and one of the most unpleasant, unproductive atmospheres ever witnessed at County Hall.
The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

The devil is going to be in the detail and some of those details emerged yesterday. Whatever happens, Mr James needs to go....and preferably in the back of a police car.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Mark James' severance deal could be worth £446,000, the Western Mail reports

The Western Mail (WalesOnline) reports this evening on the possible options for the council to consider when deciding the size and nature of Mr James' severance deal.
The deal is due to be discussed by full council but whether this will be at next week's meeting is not yet known.
I'm sure there will be more developments and comment on this subject in the coming weeks although "resigning without a payoff" seems to me to be the only option worth considering.
You never know, the ruling Labour group on the council may have finally realised that agreeing to any further demands from Mr James will not be a popular move in the run up to the general election....

Here's the full piece with links as they appear in the article;

Carmarthenshire council could pay chief executive Mark James a severance deal worth £446,000, it emerges 
By Martin Shipton 
A council chief executive who was deemed by the Wales Audit Office to have received unlawful payments may be in line for a severance package which could cost the authority £446,000. 
It emerged in September that Mark James has applied for a package that would see him leave Carmarthenshire County Council more than a year after Anthony Barrett, the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, ruled that payments made to him directly instead of to a local authority pension fund were unlawful. 
Mr Barrett also ruled in a public interest report that the council had acted unlawfully by funding a libel claim Mr James won against blogger Jacqui Thompson. Together the two sums amount to more than £50,000. 
Wales Online understands there are 10 possible options the council has been presented with in relation to its employment of Mr James. 
It is understood he has asked for severance to take effect from April 1 2015, the first day of a new tax year. But the council’s severance scheme ends on March 31. 
It has been calculated that Mr James would be entitled to a payoff of £130,000. But pension payments would take the total cost to the council up to £446,000. 
(Related article; Petition to block Carmarthenshire council chief's severance pay gains momentum
Another possibility would involve discretionary compensation outside the severance scheme to Mr James. This could involve a discount to his pension and cost the council £230,000. 
End of employment on ill health grounds is not seen as a viable option. 
If there were a bona fide restructuring exercise undertaken and the post of chief executive was deemed redundant, Mr James would be entitled to redundancy pay and a pension. 
This is a statutory obligation with no negotiation. The chief executive would get £130,000 redundancy. The “actuarial strain” would be £315,000, also leading to a total cost to the council of £446,000. 
A negotiated settlement agreement on different terms is another possibility. 
Other options include Mr James remaining in post or resigning without a pay-off. 
The council’s assistant chief executive Paul Thomas said: “We are currently in the process of considering the severance applications, with a view to releasing eligible applicants at the end of March 2015. This is in accordance with our agreed severance scheme and timetable.”

Monday, 5 January 2015

Sound familiar?

Further details are emerging relating to the charges faced by the former chief executive of Caerphilly Borough Council, Anthony O'Sullivan, as he, his deputy and the council legal officer made a brief court appearance today. The case has been adjourned and no pleas have yet been entered.
The Western Mail has a report here.

There is a single charge of misconduct in public office. The police investigation (by Avon and Somerset), followed a public interest report in 2012 issued by the Wales Audit Office which found that a pay award for the council's top earners had been unlawful.

The charge includes the following allegations that the defendants;

“wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the said council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves”.

“deliberately failed to publish agenda and reports for a meeting of the said Council’s Senior Remuneration Committee in advance of said meeting”.

“deliberately introduced gratuitous material into one of the reports that was to be considered at said meeting so as to provide an apparent justification for exempting that report from public consideration”.

“deliberately applying a public interest test notice to the reports that were to be considered at said meeting when none was merited, thereby exempting the reports from public consideration”.

All sounding remarkably similar to events in Carmarthenshire?

Failing to leave a meeting, or even declaring an interest when directly gaining financially from a decision? Discussing the report with the 'author' prior to the meeting?

Wording the minutes of a meeting to deliberately mask the true nature of a 'pension arrangement'?

Omitting the libel indemnity from the published agenda on the erroneous grounds it was 'urgent' and thereby removing any possibility that it could be questioned?

Misleading the executive board by misrepresenting advice given in a previous legal opinion and so knowingly exposing the authority to the risk of legal challenge and censure?

Misleading the entire council that both the tax avoidance pension scam and libel indemnity were legal when, in principle and and in practice, they were most definitely not?

The only conclusion I can reach is that Avon and Somerset Police were a damn site more thorough than their colleagues at Gloucestershire Constabulary....

Cllr Sian Caiach stands for Parliament

Carmarthenshire Councillor Sian Caiach has thrown her hat in the ring and declared that she is standing as an independent candidate for Llanelli in the General Election on May 7th;

"I feel it is important that there is an alternative non-party candidate pledged to representing the local people on each issue with consultation throughout the parliament, not just interested in winning the vote and then playing a team game far away without even asking the opinion of the local people who officially one represents.
"People First/Gwerin Gytaf is a  radical concept, as we don't accept the party systems and focus only on the quality of representation in democracy.
"Voters often find their representatives do not exercise their powers in the best interests of those who put their trust in them. An example locally is the County Council Labour/ Independent Groups giving the Chief Executive, Mark James, a secret pay rise to compensate him for tax changes to his pension contributions." Sian Caiach

The Llanelli seat is currently held by Labour MP Nia Griffith, and so far, other contenders include Vaughan Williams (Plaid), Seline Saxby (Con) and Scott Jones (TUSC).

As readers will be aware Cllr Caiach has represented her council ward as an unaffiliated independent and has always spoken out in the council chamber in the interests of her constituents. Despite continuous attempts to silence her voice, she has consistently seen right through, and continued to challenge, the toxic culture and spin from County Hall.

The Western Mail has a report here.

Sian's election leaflet is below, (please click to enlarge), and her website can be read here.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Tales from the County Hall crypt - Freedom of Information ten years old

The Freedom of Information Act came into force ten years ago this month. In 2005 the public gained a new and crucial right to information which, nationally, has revealed a vast amount of data and specific information. To celebrate this milestone it's perhaps worth looking at a very small selection of the highs and lows of the use of the act here in good old Carmarthenshire.

The number of requests made to the council has roughly doubled from 449 in 2005 to 1028 in 2013 (we know this thanks to a FOI request).

There are criticisms of the Act in that it is costly to implement and is open to abuse from commercial 'fishing' to those 'wacky' requests about Zombie invasions. The former is par for the course and the latter is a very small minority, swiftly and inexpensively dealt with. Both are easily recognisable.
The cost is capped and a request can be refused if it entails an excessive amount of rummaging about.

It's a bit like the NHS; far from perfect for either the users of the service, or the practitioners but we can't imagine a world without it. It has undoubtedly helped to open up public services to greater scrutiny and accountability, it should now be extended to all providers of public services whether privately or publicly owned. And, whilst I'm mentioning it, to the royal family which currently has it's own royal veto exemption...

In ten years the internet has advanced to such a degree that the concept that disclosure under FOI is 'disclosure to the world', is exactly that. Sites such as What Do They Know have made requesting easier and puts the whole thread in the public domain.
Many councils catalogue all requests and responses on their websites in a 'disclosure log', even Pembrokeshire. Not Carmarthenshire yet though.

Here's a few examples of the world of FOI in Carms, some requests were made by me, some by others. One thing I've discovered is that it's not always the disclosure which is interesting but what is withheld and the reasons given for doing so.

A FOI request in April 2011 revealed that after the council held a public vote to name the new theatre in Llanelli, the one which was selected actually came second in the poll with 51 votes. The winner, with 88 was quietly ignored. There was a post on this blog about it...

A request for the register of councillors' interests, (which most authorities routinely publish online) was met with a flat refusal and entailed a visit to view the register under a very unwelcoming escort. One of the 38 recommendations of the WLGA report is that this should be published online.
I thank you.

There was another tortuous request for details of fees paid to the Returning Officer for the 2012 local election. Although the figure was supplied, £20,000 the council 'couldn't remember' when it was paid to Mr James. This was a little odd and it took further digging to reveal it had been paid well before the election, in a previous financial year and before the number of contested seats became known.

Requests I made for credit card spending details were disclosed, as were, eventually and reluctantly the register of senior officers' interests and hospitality. Requests for payments made to Scarlets Regional Ltd showed the council providing back door subsidies to the tune of £1000 per week.

In 2013 it was disclosed that the council had just two officers to deal with FOI requests and data protection issues. The same request revealed that the press office had at least seven employees, job descriptions included an ability to 'improve' the council's image.

Without FOI we wouldn't have known that almost 3000 employees in this Labour run council were, as of January 2014, paid below the Living Wage.

Another request, in 2012, revealed that the council paid Odeon Cinemas Ltd, worth about £2bn, a £20,000 contribution to a sound system for the new cinema in the council led Easgate development, Apparently it was given on the grounds that it would 'safeguard jobs'. It was at one of those 'Meryl's meetings' of course....

However, when it came to an 'exempt' report concerning 'the transfer of public toilets from county to town councils', mysteriously, they wouldn't budge and never have. Top secret.

Another curious matter was County Hall's bloody minded determination not to disclose correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church over the £1.4m bowling alley project. It seemed to touch a nerve. Even I was surprised with the degree of venom towards me in their response to the Information Commissioner.

Oddly, a very similar request for correspondence leading to the deal between the council and the Scarlets to sell off land to Marston's was disclosed. I'm sure it was entirely co-incidental that at that time, the chief executive was on his gardening leave.

Another request queried the position of an employee, who, according to the council's Statement of Accounts was on a salary of over £150,000. Legislation requires that details of any posts over that salary band are published in the Accounts.

The response was that there had been an "error in the notes to the Statement of Accounts...We are therefore grateful that you have brought this to our attention via your request as this has enabled us to identify this error, which will be raised with our external auditors".
What would they do without Mrs Thompson eh?

More recently, Gloucestershire Police were not giving anything away about their investigation into Carmarthenshire Council, just in case there was more civil litigation....I've covered that here.

I would have to say that my own experience in Carmarthenshire is mixed. As a blogger, FOI requests are simply a way of obtaining further information for research, the same principle applies to journalists and not a day goes by without a news story in Wales based on FOI request. County Hall has a bit of a 'thing' about bloggers though...and inquisitive reporters as well for that matter.

It's part of life and demanding that reporters withdraw requests, or being defensive and preoccupied with 'image' is not the way forward and therein lies the way of duck houses...

The way forward is to routinely publish as much information as possible and to change the default setting to open, it will not necessarily reduce requests, but it will complement the system. Exemptions and public interest tests should be used consistently and fairly - for example, reasons for refusal shouldn't be changed at a different stage of a request.

Finally, responding to requests should not be seen as a burden on public bodies but part of their new found drive for transparency and public engagement. With the 'change in culture' apparently imminent in Carmarthenshire, fully embracing the spirit of FOI after ten long years can only help it reach its stated aim of being the 'most open council in Wales"

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year from Caebrwyn

Just a brief message to wish everyone a very happy and healthy new year.

When I first started writing this blog in March 2009 I didn't think I'd write more than a few posts, I thought it would dwindle away after a couple of months. How wrong I was....

In many ways, 2014 was the year when what I'd been saying for so long finally received official recognition. I'm referring of course to the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the toxic culture recognised in the WLGA governance report.

Personally I think there should have been mass resignations after the Wales Audit Office reports and at least two senior officials charged with misconduct in public office.

The months that followed showed shocking arrogance from Mr James and shocking ignorance and desperate weakness from the elected leadership.

However, despite the poisonous press releases, corporate denials, arrogance and weasel ways, mud sticks. The electorate will remember exactly who was complicit in approving a tax dodge for the highest paid earner and unlawfully funding his legal bills.

After creating this unholy mess the chief executive himself will be moving on, all that remains to be decided is, unbelievably, the size of the golden handshake he's going to take with him - he's already got part of my home.

As for the WLGA report, as I said, the message was clear, there was a toxic culture and the council have been given six months to sort things out.

However, let's look forward to 2015 and all the municipal delights that await us...there's the forthcoming council budget, the implementation of all the 38 WLGA recommendations (I'm optimistic if nothing else) and not forgetting the prospect of a new Returning Officer for the general election!

Many thanks to everyone who continues to read, comment and share this blog and to all who continue to support the ongoing effort to open up Carmarthenshire council.

I've listed a small selection of popular blogposts below (in chronological order) relating to the 2014 scandals. The year also saw plenty more tales from the county hall crypt including a parting shot from Roger, sermons from Mark James and the curious case of the allowable expenses....
Who knows what 2015 will bring?

Libel and Pension scandals - Auditor issues damning reports

MP calls in police to investigate Chief Executive's possible Misconduct in Public Office

Gloucestershire Police to investigate Carmarthenshire Council

Mark James goes on gardening leave

February's Extraordinary Council meeting

Libel Appeal dismissed - my statement

WLGA announce Carmarthenshire Governance Review

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

Blogger will "fight to the bitter end"

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

Final Charging Order - and Mark James is off

WLGA report - Toxic culture recognised

Gloucestershire Police remain silent

February 2014, police at County Hall (pic; Y Byd ar Bedwar)


Friday, 19 December 2014

The Governance working group - Cats and Pigeons

Ten days or so ago I emailed the acting head of law and Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones asking for details of the membership of the working group set up to consider the 38 recommendations of the WLGA governance review.
I also asked her when the minutes of the first meeting, held on December 9th, would be published.

The WLGA review of the dire state of governance, ie how the council is run, was required further to the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports concerning the pension payments and the libel indemnity scandals relating directly to the Chief Executive, Mark James.

The constitution has, over recent years, been deliberately engineered to form a barrier to democracy.

The damning WLGA report was published at the beginning of November; WLGA Report - The toxic culture recognised

Here's Ms Rees Jones response to my email received today;

"Members of the group;

Plaid (4): Cllr. Emlyn Dole; Cllr. David Jenkins; Cllr. Tyssul Evans; Cllr. Hazel Evans.

Labour (3): Cllr. Kevin Madge; Cllr. Derek Cundy; Cllr. Terry Davies (chair)

Independent (3): Cllr. Pam Palmer; Cllr. Mair Stephens; Cllr. Hugh Richards.

All were present at the first meeting except for Cllr. Hugh Richards, who tendered his apologies.

The officers at the meeting were the Chief Executive, myself, Robert Edgecombe, Elid Morris, and Gaynor Morgan. The first meeting started working on an Action Plan for taking the recommendations forward.

Notes of Working Group meetings are not published because their recommendations will in due course be published when they're referred to the appropriate body eg County Council, but I will ask the members at their next meeting whether they are prepared to release them."

I have a few comments;

1. The very people identified as part of that toxic culture are involved in this committee. Those responsible for the unlawful actions which prompted the review are now in a position to steer the group how they wish.
I am talking about the chief executive of course, along with his trusty aide Linda Rees Jones. Mr James treated the whole WLGA exercise with utter contempt.
Add Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer to the mix and all that's missing from this unholy alliance is Meryl Gravell.
There shouldn't have been any Executive Board members on the group at all.

Perhaps the chief executive, at least, will have left the authority before long. As for the internal legal advice, the lay member of the Audit Committee Sir David Lewis described it as 'cavalier at best and incompetent at worst.

2. It is not a politically balanced group. The Independents are a group and act as such, whipped by Pam Palmer. Cllr Palmer referred to the WLGA report as a 'distraction'. Kevin Madge was equally lukewarm.

To put it simply the ruling administration can outvote the opposition..hardly balanced.

Yet again there are no unaffiliated independents in the group, of which there are two. Cllr Caiach and Cllr John Jenkins. They should have been invited to sit on the group.

3. The Plaid group have a grasp of what needs to be done and I expect one of the Labour members has a pretty good idea too.
The least said about the Independent contingent the better. One of them didn't even turn up. .
As for Cllr Terry Davies in the Chair, his contributions in council and planning meetings seem to be confined to hurrying everyone up to end debate and go to a vote. Or lunch maybe.

4. The minutes, or 'notes' of this particular working group should be published as a matter of course. No one needs to 'ask' anyone. Whatever conclusions they come to, it is essential that we see how they were reached.
In fact the meetings should be webcast but I'm not even going to bother mentioning that.

The WLGA found that a change of culture was necessary and in my view that is not possible without the wholesale removal of the prime suspects named in point 1, so far only one of them is thinking of going. To involve them in this review is disturbing.

However, the Wales Audit Office have said they will be monitoring progress, and so will a couple of bloggers.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Scarlets - Palpitations in County Hall

There was some confusion on Monday morning regarding a winding-up Order listed in the High Court for the Llanelli based regional rugby club, the Scarlets. HMRC had brought the case suggesting it related to an unpaid tax bill. The press reported that the bill must have been paid as HMRC withdrew the case.

Later in the day the Scarlets issued a statement saying that HMRC had made a mistake, there was no tax bill, the club knew nothing about the hearing which was merely the taxman officially withdrawing the case. This is not unknown of course.

Due to annual heavy losses, or at least the capacity to offset any profit, the club does not pay any corporation tax (or rent for that matter) so presumably if they'd been sent a tax bill for that, they would have noticed immediately. Whether the mix-up related to tax and NI contributions for staff and players isn't known.
HMRC are refusing to comment citing client confidentiality

Whatever the confusion was, it seems that all was well in the end.

This incident, prior to the all-clear later on, must have sent a few palpitations through County Hall, Carmarthen.  Given the precarious nature of the club's finances, a net loss of over £600,000 according to the most recent accounts and an excess of liabilities over assets of £3.5m, the question of what would happen to the stadium should the receivers ever be called in must have flashed through several executive minds... and one in particular.

The council have said in the past that as the stadium is leased to the club, if the Scarlets went pop, it would revert back to the council. All well and good if that is the case but the council would then be saddled with a large useless stadium, in which they had invested millions, which they would then have to market or maintain (which they do anyway).

The stadium appears in the Scarlets' accounts as a fixed tangible asset worth £10m. As of course the council own the freehold, this figure must relate to the long 150 year lease, although the club's independent auditors have always questioned its value and presence as an asset given the 'material uncertainty' of the club as a going concern.

As it is of no use to anyone other than the Scarlets, it is really theirs to keep as long as they don't fold. With the current arrangement this £10m 'asset' is sent back and forth from County Hall to the Scarlets depending on which way the wind's blowing and who needs it on their CV.

Those who have observed council meetings will know that anyone who raises concerns over the council's financial involvement in Scarlets Regional Ltd is immediately, and unfairly, accused of knocking the team.

Whatever the mix-up was on Monday, it should act as a wake up call to the council to safeguard its assets and investments, which, when it comes to the Scarlets, have been extremely generous in loan interest deferments, back door subsidies and deductible expenses.


Entirely unrelated to the above, I noticed that @CarmsCouncil retweeted a tweet this morning highlighting the problems of alcohol fuelled violence. Very commendable.

However, only last week, @CarmsCouncil's Licensing Committee approved a licence for a new 'Bargain Booze' franchise in Lammas Street, Carmarthen.

This was despite Carmarthen Town Council objecting on the grounds that it was a 'hot-spot for anti-social behaviour', therefore aggravating the problems of alcohol fuelled violence...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Grants - a 'clean bill of health'? Not just yet

Last week I mentioned that EU auditors had paid a visit to County Hall (Grants, Agendas and a reminder) specifically to look at the South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF). Their findings were translated into the Executive Board minutes as 'a clean bill of health'. It appears that this claim may have been a bit premature.

The Wales Audit Office has, for the last three years raised serious concerns about the council's grant management procedures and in their Annual Audit Letter dated 10th December, which is on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee, they again raise those doubts.
However, this time they specifically include the EU funded SWWPDF.

Followers of this and Cneifiwr's blog will be aware that we have raised our own concerns about these, and other grants. These concerns include, amongst others, whether one one councillor (Meryl Gravell in this case) should be rubber stamping millions of pounds in grant money behind closed doors, with backbench councillors, public and press under a blanket ban, and should over £3m in speculative grants go to companies set up so recently that they do not have to present a set of accounts.

One grant in particular had caught the attention of the now retired Director of Resources, who flagged it up with the Wales Audit Office in the summer. When the press reported on the matter the council went into its usual defensive overdrive, even using the council press office, as it does. The spin suggested that the exercise was merely a WAO 'health check' and things just needed a bit of tightening up...

The Annual Audit Letter suggests a little more than a 'health check';

"....our initial findings are that the council's grant management arrangements still need to be improved. In particular we have reported that the council needs to improve its arrangements for the awarding of Property Development Fund grants under the European Union's Convergence grant scheme. The results of our work will be reported to the Audit Committee when complete"

The WAO isn't due to complete its report until March 2015, So it would seem that the 'clean bill of health' claim was, as I said, somewhat premature.

You will also note from the letter that the Wales Audit Office is keeping an eye on the council's response to the WLGA governance review. It has become obvious that the chief executive has treated the whole exercise with arrogant disdain and unfortunately he appears to be in the driving seat of the newly formed committee addressing the issues.

Last week I asked the acting head of legal and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, which Councillors are on the committee and when we will be able to see the minutes of the discussions... So far there's only been a stony silence.

Given that the aim is to be the most open council in Wales, we're not getting off to a particularly transparent start.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Gloucestershire Police remain silent

(Update 1st Jan 2015; The ICO has now published the decision notice which can be read in full here)

A couple of months ago I contacted the Information Commissioner and challenged the decision by Gloucestershire police not to disclose documents used in the criminal investigation into Carmarthenshire County Council. The investigation was over the pension and libel indemnity scandals relating to the chief executive.

Incidentally, contents of the various responses suggests that the main focus of police attention was the libel indemnity rather than the pension scam.

The Commissioner has issued a decision and agreed with the police...or the council. I'm not sure which, the lines are a little blurred.

Anyway, the original response from the police back in May, after the criminal investigation had been dropped, revealed that no one had been interviewed during the three month investigation and there had been no correspondence with the council. I could go no further with that, as they were telling me there was no information to be had.

I had also asked for documents relating to the investigation as well, (even if it was just a list) including the final police report. They said, in a nutshell, that to disclose these documents could compromise the detection of crime by revealing police tactics.

I asked the police to review their decision due to the clear public interest that an investigation by one public body into another should be open and transparent, and in this particular case there had already been unlawful findings.

The police then changed tack and, without elaboration, said it was because it might prejudice ongoing or future civil proceedings. It was not the police's role to disclose documents which might prejudice civil proceedings.

As Gloucestershire Police refused to specify, even in general terms, what civil litigation they were referring to I asked the Information Commissioner to review their refusal under that particular exemption.
To be clear, other exemptions were used which the police could fall back on if this one failed. However, I pursued the point.

The police argued that the press release regarding the outcome of the investigation should "satisfy the public interest in transparency and in knowing that a proper investigation had taken place"

The police also said that I had publicly stated my intention of pursuing a Judicial Review against the decision to indemnify Mr James. It was this which appears to be, partly anyway, the 'potential civil litigation' referred to.

In fact, this particular reference did not appear my blog until three weeks after the second police response (actually I said I was "exploring the possibilities").

The police have argued that it was 'not in the public interest to allow the open dissemination of information relating to civil proceedings, which was obtained as a result of a criminal investigation and which is not already in the public domain'

The police also provided (to the Commissioner only, as it was confidential) additional "specific public interest arguments which reveal information it considers to be exempt from disclosure"

The Commissioner, when weighing up the arguments, recognised that this particular case had all the essential ingredients for disclosure;
"In this case, the fact that the subject of the police investigation was the council's decision to fund a civil action against an individual who had been highly critical of it, and that there were questions as to whether this decision, add considerable weight to this [public] interest"

However, along with the predictable counterbalance that police investigations should be 'free and frank' without the threat of FOI, as well as the unknown arguments within the 'confidential' attachment, what the Commissioner saw as the "key" factor against disclosure was the "timing" of my request.
Whilst noting my 'intention' to bring a Judicial Review, as "stated on her blog", he has also considered the;

"ongoing nature of the complainants dispute with the council....which shows no sign of being resolved...she has actively fought to have the [libel] judgement overturned".

"In light of all this, the Commissioner considers it reasonable to believe that further civil litigation is a strong possibility, and that the constabulary's concerns about prejudicing that process by disclosing information relating to its criminal investigation are credible"

There is agreed recognition by all sides that the indemnity "could be subject to challenge by way of judicial review on conventional public law grounds" (WAO report) but it is quite clear that the council are covering all possible bases in their instructions to the police over the disclosure of documents.

Whatever the council's concerns are, all this begs the question whether information recovered during the criminal investigation, or created during the investigation itself, would further damage the council's case should further civil proceedings occur.

Much of the legal opinion and documentation relating to the libel indemnity is already in the public domain but clearly there is more and the council, and the police, are very reluctant for anyone to see it. So for now, at least, it will have to remain a mystery.

To be honest I won't be bringing a judicial review any time soon, this is something the Wales Audit Office should have done. I have more pressing issues to deal with.

I only have the Information Commissioner's decision letter in hard copy and as it runs to several pages I am unable to put it on the blog. The ICO will at some point in the next few weeks upload it onto their website here. The case reference is FS50556313.

Meanwhile, the thread of the original request and review to Gloucestershire police and their responses can be found here, and for reference, the Wales Audit Office report into the libel indemnity is here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

December council meeting - A test of stamina

Update 12th December: The Trelech by-election result was a significant Plaid Cymru gain over Pam Palmer's Independent party. Plaid now have 29 seats and Labour and the Independents (in coalition) have 21 each. The Hengoed by-election will be held in the new year.
Trelech results:
Jean Lewis (Plaid) 598
Hugh Phillips (Ind) 181
Selwyn Runnett (Libdem) 96


Yesterday's meeting was definitely not for the faint hearted viewer. With the first three hours taken up with assorted tributes including granting the freedom of the county to retired veteran councillor Dai 'Trelech' and a lengthy round of cheers for the departing Director of Technical Services. The onslaught was only interrupted by a death-by-powerpoint presentation from Welsh Water.

The Chair, Cllr Daff Davies was even more bewildered than usual and wheezed and stumbled through the script. Executive Board member Cllr Wyn Evans announced that the Dyfed Pension Fund had won some sort of award and was not, as stated earlier in the year 'in tatters'.

The same pension fund that Cllr Evans and his executive colleagues provided an opt out tax avoidance arrangement for Mr James.

I presume this was a dream agenda for the chief executive who only became squeaky and cross when deliberations over accepting a scrutiny report threatened to overrun into the 'freedom' ceremony. Again he thought it hilarious to say he didn't want to appear 'overbearing or officer-led'. He demanded they move on. The Chair did as he was told.

In fact it was rather disturbing to hear Mr James say that he'd be glad when this was sorted out once and for all when 'we' in the governance working group (following the WLGA report) got round to dealing with this point; ie 'noting' previous reports and minutes, not discussing them.

Mr James ruling the roost in the working group, which met on Tuesday for the first time, doesn't bode well for a 'change of culture'. Not only is he part of the problem but he has viewed the WLGA exercise as a massive joke.
In any event, you'd think he would understand that some councillors are now a little wary of accepting any minutes or reports without question, not wanting to be unwittingly approving illegal decisions again...

The local papers must have become curious as to when he's actually going to go and must have posed the question. Apparently councillors will be discussing his severance in the 'New Year'. According to the papers the post of chief executive could be deleted or there could be a 'bumped severance' which means a post is deleted 'within two or three tiers' of the released employee’s level. Whatever that might mean. Maybe it will be farewell to Linda Rees Jones too...

Back to Welsh Water and they seem to have been instructed to make sure the Cllr Caiach was told there was 'no pollution' in the Burry Estuary and that the planning committee would stop getting jittery about approving applications from large developers in this sensitive area.  Cllr Caiach wasn't convinced and given that Welsh Water are investing £25m in various drainage schemes in the Llanelli area over the next few years, neither were they.

Mr James was very keen for all the members to visit the sewage plant in Bynea and mentioned it several times. He seemed particularly interested in the treatment of 'solids' and thought that the Chamber might be as well. Perhaps we've solved the mystery of Mr James new job...I'm sure they'll provide him with a gold-plated shovel.

The main event, after a fortified lunch in honour of Dai Trelech, was not, as you might expect, a corporate nap, but the adoption of the Local Development Plan which, after it's lengthy and tortuous journey through consultations, inspections for soundness, focussed changes, delivery agreements etc etc was finally adopted at the meeting.

The details of the discussion (and the whole meeting of course) can be seen on the archived webcast here, but it began with Meryl insisting they adopt the LDP 'or else' the Welsh Government would force it upon them anyway. Which rather set the tone. Essentially, the plan is based on a disputed housing projection for a staggering 15,000 more homes in the county over the next few years. Looks like they'll have to reopen all those village schools after all...

Kevin Madge talked about jobs, as he does, and seemed to be predicting a pan-global financial boom based in Carmarthen. You never know I suppose. Helpfully he suggested that people "need to move into jobs where they can find work". A very sensible idea.

It was all a bit depressing and it is clear that nothing has changed. It would have been far more informative to have seen the budget seminar earlier in the week, or even the meeting of the Governance review committee. I have asked Linda Rees Jones when the minutes of the latter will be published, I presume, as an officially constituted group, minutes will have been taken...

The truth is of course that with webcasting meetings such as those, or even opening them up to the public, the subsequent spin is much harder to manipulate.

The executive board meets on Monday where, amongst other things, they will be paving the way for a Hilton hotel for Machynys golf club; taking £150,000 out of the reserves to build a public car park to assist a developer in Laugharne and then going behind closed doors to buy a plot of land in Carmarthen.
As for a report on the libel costs, like Mr James' pay-off, it's obviously all to much to stomach just before Christmas.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

More from Oggy Bloggy Ogwr - Robochief

Fans of the silver screen will have undoubtedly enjoyed Oggy Bloggy Ogwr's take on the classic movie 'Apocalypse Nawr' back in August. It told the story of the secret mission to advance up the River Towy to infiltrate the hideout of a certain Colonel James...

Award winning blog author, Bridgend based Owen Donovan has again treated us to another interpretation, this time it's 80's movie hit Robocop.
So, for fans of the cult movie, council mergers and our own fair county, he presents....

I find the movie poster at the top of his post particularly evocative...

Reprieve for the childrens' respite centres

Further to last week's post 'Budget cuts - Respite care for disabled children?', I understand that a councillors' budget seminar was held yesterday and Cllr Caiach and others forced a vote to remove the two respite centres for profoundly disabled children, Blaenau and Llys Caradog, from the list of proposed cuts.

I'm pleased to report that the vote was successful and they will not be cut.

They should never have been on there in the first place and hopefully they will not reappear next year, but good news all the same.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Grants, agendas and a reminder

The minutes of last Monday's Executive Board meeting have been published and include reference to what can only be described as a timely visit from the EU auditors, specifically looking at grants approved under the South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF).

The visit may have been by invitation or be purely co-incidental but you may recall that these awards have come under recent scrutiny for several reasons, including;
Should one councillor (Meryl Gravell in this case) be rubber stamping millions of pounds in grant money? and
Should those 'meetings' be held behind closed doors, with backbench councillors, public and press under a blanket ban?
Should over £3m in speculative grants go to companies set up so recently that they do not have to present a set of accounts?
Why does the 'job creation' appear to actually be shifting of jobs from one side of town/county to the other?

The EU auditors, it turned out, found nothing wrong.

A warm welcome for the EU auditors

A 'clean bill of health' said the council minutes. All boxes ticked I imagine.

In his letter to the WLGA panel, Sir David Lewis, lay member of the council's Audit Committee pointed out that the rules and procedures are all there, it is the application which is the problem due to the "the internal culture in County Hall". I don't suppose the European Auditors looked at that.

As has been said before, correctly worded protocols, policies and procedures are one thing; interpretation and implementation are quite another. Just ask anyone who has tried out the whistleblowing policy for example.

It takes more than an official audit sometimes to get to the bottom of things, there are wider issues. Take the allowable expenses nonsense for example. It appears, on paper (though I'm not sure it was the same paper I was looking at) that to the WAO, all was satisfactory and that the proper procedures were followed. There was no value judgment on this particular use of public money.

To even a casual observer, there was something very clearly wrong.

To anyone digging a little deeper, and looking at the wider picture of governance, you can have all the audits in the world, something will continue to stink. It takes a very determined councillor to get through the clouds of smoke and walls of mirrors to get the truth. Pembrokeshire councillor Mike Stoddart (Old Grumpy) has a very good example on his latest post.

"Just one more thing..."

Despite the absurd findings from the WAO over the allowable expenses (and for that matter the £1.4m to the evangelical church. but not, of course, the pension payments and libel indemnity) they have expressed concerns over the council's grant management procedures for the past three years, this doesn't just cover the SWWPDF grants of course but all those hot tubs and sets of patio furniture Meryl's been sprinkling around the county.

The council, as far as we know have been told to 'tighten up' procedures by the WAO, quite what that means we don't know other than they are currently, er, loose.

As for the 'Executive Board Member' meetings where these grants are given the final approval, even backbench councillors are barred from attending, let alone anyone else. There is no scrutiny at all. The recent  WLGA governance report made the following observations and recommendations;

Executive Board Member Decision Meetings

5.17 The Review Team heard from a number of non-executive members and members of the public who expressed concern about the transparency of Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. There was no apparent non-executive member witnessing of and therefore limited opportunity to call-in or scrutinise delegated decisions made by individual Executive Board Members. 
5.18 Similarly there was some confusion and lack of clarity around delegations to individual Executive Board Members and concerns that some individuals had significant delegated authority regarding funding and the distribution of grants to external bodies. The Wales Audit Office has for a number of years made recommendations for improving the Council’s grants management arrangements. The Review Team was advised that the Wales Audit Office has recently completed a review of a £2m grant application and has made a number of recommendations for improvement. The Council have established a review group to respond to these recommendations. In the meantime, the Review Team makes the following proposal: 
Recommendation 33: The Council should allow non-executive members to observe Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. 

The agenda for Wednesday's full council meeting has no reference to the application for six-figure severance by the chief executive on the agenda, something Kevin Madge suggested would be finalised by Christmas.
There is also nothing on the agenda to suggest that the WLGA governance report was anything more than an unfortunate blip in the great Carms Council PR machine.

Some of the WLGA recommendations (all accepted at the last meeting) are very simple and straightforward. Not rocket science as it were.

We also know however, from Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer's guarded comments at the last meeting that the ruling administration is far from committed and sees the WLGA report as a 'distraction'. The chief executive went one step further and sneered at the whole exercise.

The last meeting eventually saw a resolution to set up a politically balanced cross-party working group to look at the recommendations. Has this been constituted yet? Has it met? Who's on it? will it be minuted? I suspect the answer is no to all the above, if I'm wrong then they've kept it very very quiet.

There will be no sense of urgency, no sense from Kevin Madge that these serious issues of governance have to be addressed, public faith in the council is at rock bottom, or is that the preferred background to drive through a difficult budget? It probably is. There's no local election until 2017.

Constitutional changes are supposed to be taken by full council so Wednesday's meeting is a missed opportunity for a brief report to show urgent commitment to being the most open council in Wales.

There were 38 recommendations to be implemented within six months, some of them three months, so why not sort a few out now? I expect there are many of us ordinary folk who could have got together several urgent proposals to present to full council, we could probably have even shrouded it in unnecessary jargon.

As you can see from a few examples below (my 'amendments' in blue), it's quite a simple matter of deleting or adding brief clauses to the constitution, something the combined legal minds of Linda Rees Jones and Mark James have been very adept at doing for several years over coffee and a packet of custard creams.

Reversing the 8 signature requirement for Notices on Motion?

12.1 Any members of the Council may give notice of not more than one motion for
consideration at any meeting of the Council, subject to the notice indicating the support of
not less than 7  1 other members.

Allowing councillors supplementary questions?

Subject to Rule 11.4, a member of the Council may ask:
(a) the Chair of the Council;
(b) a member of the Executive Board; or
(c) the Chair of any committee;
(d) a question on any matter in relation to which the Council has powers or duties or
which affects the area of the authority, or part of it, or the inhabitants of that area, or
some of them
addition - (e) Councillors can ask a supplementary question.

Delete of the reference which allows Motions on Notice to be referred away from public debate;

12.11 The Chief Executive shall in consultation with the Chair of Council refer, whereappropriate Notices of Motions upon receipt to the Executive Board, Executive BoardMember or the relevant Committee unless the content requires consideration by theCouncil.
See what I mean? 

Why is the recommended Item 'Public Questions' (even if there aren't any) not on December's agenda?
Why not also, for that matter, allow the public to film meetings? The dreaded 'protocol' could even be copied and pasted from Pembs council.

They could even permanently remove the suspended clause which provides, now...how shall I put this, an unlawful fund for unlawful purposes (the libel indemnity)

Oh, really? The legal position is not yet clarified? I think it is.

Where's the register of members' interests on the website? A far better use of limited publicly funded webspace than telling us that Kevin Madge is dressing up as a snowman.

If it wasn't for one 'councillor question' pointing to the Local Service Board's lack of transparency, there'd be nothing.

So here's a reminder that, to date, nothing has changed, and before the 38 recommendations get quietly brushed under the civic carpet, we'll go back again to Sir David's letter;

 "The governance of the Council is in disarray and not fit for purpose".

"In recent years these values [openness and transparency, honesty and integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality and fairness] have evidently not been applied or followed".

The responsibility for this is with the Executive Board and the Chief Executive, not the body of councillors. "There needs to be a change in culture".

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 the notoriously brief Minutes of meetings, he said 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 the pension and libel indemnity scandals, "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.", they may not have happened.
On the quality of internal legal advice, particularly over these scandals he was scathing; "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

Incidentally, the legal department no longer has the accreditation of the ISO British Quality Standard. Apparently it de-registered itself due to the cost...

Here endeth my Monday sermon.