Saturday, 16 December 2017

2017 - A year on the blog



January

For the first couple of months of 2017 Caebrwyn's mind was pretty much preoccupied with hanging on to the family home. The council had acquired a charge of £190,000 in December and Mr James, one step ahead of them, and, after threatening everyone with contempt of court for having the temerity to try and bring about a resolution, was all set to take my home.

Meanwhile, the very very exiting Wellness Thing was underway with 3D visualisations of what, to the uninitiated, looked like a herd of white elephants around a watering hole. Luxury spas, private health care, massive debt....all awaited the good taxpayers of Carmarthenshire as, apparently, the NHS had had its day. With Meryl Gravell waffling vaguely about sea air and wellness, the scene was set and the City Deal on its way..

The first whiff of an arms length housing company appeared on an executive agenda. The opposition finally picked up on the wheeze eleven months later asking a few polite questions last week. Scrutiny never has been a strong point.

Towards the end of the month and thanks to Private Eye, our most respected chief executive had yet another honour to add to his CBE:



The Herald celebrated the honour by publishing a collage of Eye appearances over recent years.

February

With the May local elections now firmly on the horizon the council budget was the usual pre-election campaign, this time being the turn of the 'ruling' Plaid/Indie coalition. The budget was finally approved on the 23rd February

The Carmarthen West Link Road was back in the news as the council were wrangling with landowners, developers and compulsory purchase orders, and they're still wrangling today. One piece of land, around 20 acres, was bought by the council in 2016 for £570,000 which will be repaid from 'future S106 money', or, in plain English, 'when our ship comes in'.

The lumpy carpets of county hall were put to the test as the Pembrey Park scandal had a bit of an airing at a whistleblower's employment tribunal in Cardiff. The story has been covered on this blog over the past couple of years. There certainly appeared to be a County Hall cover-up by senior officials with one of them memorably recorded pleading 'for f***s sake don't go to the police'...




I also made my annual enquiries to Linda Rees Jones about removing the suspended libel clause from the constitution. (NOT a slush fund of course..).

March

Following a brief lull in police stuff, apart from the lingering harassment warning, a Sunday morning phone call from Dyfed Powys' thin blue line informed me that Mr James had made another complaint and if I didn't arrange to go 'Voluntarily' for an interview I'd be arrested at 'any given moment'. The interview was on the 17th, a week before Mr James was going to try and force sale of my home in the county court.

The hearing itself revealed the fact that Mr James had broken his promise to hand over any damages to the council and was, his barrister said, free to stuff it in the gutter if he wanted. This charming turn of phrase was immortalised in another edition of Private Eye. The upshot was that as long as I gave Mr James £250 a month for 15 years he'd let me keep the keys.



The judgement for the Pembrey Employment Tribunal was issued this month, with whistleblower Eirian Morris stating that the council had 'put him through hell'. We can well imagine it Mr M.


The Swansea Bay City Deal was signed in March providing a photo opportunity for  the great and good of south west Wales, and Carwyn Jones, with Theresa May...



April

Local election fever was hitting a crescendo and the fallout from the court hearing revelations was in the Western Mail and the Herald and, as I've said, Private Eye. Local politicians also expressed their views and wondered whether Mr James would do the 'honourable thing'...

In other news, the council found £350,000 down the back of the corporate sofa to bail out Llanelly House. This was a few weeks before they went into a voluntary insolvency arrangement (Llanelly House that is, not the council, not just yet). A BBC report on the incident appeared six months later...

The last full council meeting before the election was held and a strong stomach was required to cope with Meryl's farewell speech...



May

A month of contrasts - it kicked off with Caebrwyn's attempt to live blog the Carmarthenshire local election results. It ended with a visit from the police to inform me, after some delay, that I was going to be charged with harassment.

Plaid won 36 seats but still needed the support of the somewhat depleted Indies. Meryl and Pam, now retired, had passed the baton to the steely grip of Mair Stephens, and they survived. Emlyn Dole announced that the deal had been done with the Indies whilst Labour were still undoing the safety pins on their rosettes. All this culminated at the AGM on May 20th.

I added my own thoughts here.

News also reached Caebrwyn that the chief executive's business interests weren't confined to wheeling and dealing with public money in Carmarthenshire but extended to property management in Cardiff Bay.

June

Blogger Jac o'the North took up the previously mentioned property interests and affairs, business affairs of course, of Mr James CBE. Some wondered how did he have the time? Had he made a declaration of interest about all this? Questions needed to be asked...


The general election came and went, rows over Parc Howard rumbled on and the Wellness Village/City Deal became even more very very exciting, if that was possible; behind the scenes however there were rumblings of discontent amongst the partners, and also rumours that a certain 'lead chief officer' was keeping them in the dark...

BBC Wales Online decided to highlight the fact that Mr James had failed to repay the unlawful monies taken from the council to fund his libel counterclaim, they even produced a short but amusing video. I eventually managed to upload the video to a later post, here.

July

The first couple of weeks was, for Caebrwyn, taken up with an forthcoming hearing at Llanelli Magistrates Court to answer to a charge of harassment, I intended to plead not guilty of course. A few days before the date I was told that the CPS had dropped the case. The 'insufficient evidence' later turned out to be a little more specific; the comments were not oppressive and in any event did not amount to a course of conduct. I did try telling the police that in the first place..

There was an excellent post on the decision, and Mr James' witness statement by Cneifiwr and an opinion piece by Cadno of the Herald.


It also transpired that Mr James had used, or had instructed others to use council computers to provide 'evidence' for the police for his private complaint to the police. I sent my evidence of hours of council hits on the blog to the Wales Audit Office to see what they thought about it. More on that later.

The council's accounts revealed a few figures on exit packages and generous senior pay. Soon after there was an attempt by opposition councillors to reduce the salary levels of two new Directors from £123k to £112k. The chief executive intervened in the debate to sway the vote and the motion was defeated by Plaid and the Independents.

One of the 'new' directors turned out to be assistant chief executive Wendy Walters who breezed rapidly into the 'Regeneration' post, with the resulting £20,000 pay rise, thanks to on the recommendation of the chief executive...More on this post written in August.

Internal audit reports revealed continuing problems with the council unable to follow its own contract procurement rules. Reassurance was given that all was now progressing well with the Supporting People Grant although I noticed, just the other day, that the council failed to spend a whopping £257,539 of the grant last year and it was clawed back by the Welsh Government. Same thing happened with £26k meant to help people facing eviction.

August

A Freedom of Information request revealed that the council had spent £32,000 on the 'Wellness Village' to date. This didn't seem quite right to me given the prepwork which was underway, let alone the hefty consultancy and legal bills and the whole business of planning permission (which has yet to be applied for).
I asked for an internal review and the 'revised' response came back at, erm, a slightly higher figure of £564,000.

The Western Mail picked up on the curious developments within Mr James' property management empire in Cardiff. Residents were complaining of rowdy stag parties and hen dos and overnight lets. Mr James' response was typically charming and diplomatic, calling the complaining residents a 'cancer'. Interestingly he also said he'd had consent from the council to embark on these extra curricular activities....a Freedom of Information request for details on senior officers' declarations and consents was submitted at the end of the month...


September

On the 1st September I had a meeting with the Police Commissioner where I raised various concerns over the police decision to charge me with harassment; I wanted the harassment warning removed and raised again the issue of their conflict of interest with the council. I also enquired if the police would consider investigating Mr James for wasting eighteen months of police time, and for misconduct in public office...these were passed on to the chief constable for his deliberation...

In council news there was controversy over a planned car park at Parc Howard, Llanelli and there was some City Deal rebellion in Pembrokeshire where doubts were expressed whether the whole thing was viable, or even a good idea. The burden on the council, and the taxpayer was becoming a real issue.

There was more on the budget, licensing news, Llanelly House, and a trip back in time covering County Hall's attempts to control the local press.

Another subject this blog has covered has been the council's refusal to fly the Rainbow Flag. something that other public bodies appear to do without a great deal of fuss. It's a rather convoluted story, which seem to involve the chief executive rather than the council leader, but I eventually asked for a copy of the council's 'flag policy', which can be seen here. The most recent development is that the policy will be 'reviewed' by the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG).
Nothing's simple in Carmarthenshire.

October

The chief executive of Neath Port Talbot council put the cat amongst the pigeons by issuing a damning report to his councillors on the progress, or lack thereof, of the City Deal to date. It was publicly available and revealed that, amongst other snags, the Carmarthenshire Council commissioned 'Joint Working Agreement' was useless and another one had to be drawn up. There seemed to be some disquiet amongst the partners over Mr James' plan to funnel extra funds into the Wellness vanity project.

The Wales Audit Office got back to me to say that there was nothing wrong with Mr James using council computers for his private use, it was, apparently perfectly OK for senior officials to use your money and your resources to further their private interests....the story wasn't quite over yet though...

There was news of a planning application to store extremely toxic chemicals at a site in Llangennech...the site itself had a curious history...

There was more on CRWG and libel indemnities and a response from the Police Commissioner. The harassment warning had expired all by itself, however, the details about its issue remained on police records....I am currently challenging this with the Professional Standards Department of Dyfed Powys Police.

November

The plight of the Burn family, Robin, Julia and their autistic daughter Carina have featured on this blog several times. Robin is still trying to get justice from the authorities who let the family down so catastrophically.


Another long standing scandal has been the treatment by the council of Patricia Breckman. She received a full apology from the former police commissioner for the actions of the police but no such apology, nor justice, has been forthcoming from Mr James and County Hall. Quite the opposite in fact and Mr James is taking his usual preferred action of issuing legal threats to the pensioner. I understand the threats are continuing.


A freedom of information request revealed that eight members of staff had been disciplined over the past few years for using council computers for personal use. The request was made after the Wales Audit Office soothed Mr James' brow and dismissed my complaint over his personal use of council computers. You couldn't make it up really could you?

Another surprising Freedom of Information response revealed that Mr James had not made any declarations of interest relating to his business and property interests in Cardiff. It's worth a read, as are the comments.

A news round up at the end of the month included a refusal from council leader Emlyn Dole to consider removing the suspended libel clause from the constitution. Confirmation, if we ever needed it, that he sings from the same hymn sheet as Mr James.

December


Apart from the possibility that Llanelli residents have been identified as an ideal source for clinical drug trials, or lab rats, at the Wellness Village, blogging has been light this month. So far anyway.

Investigations carry on though. I've emailed Democratic Services to enquire when Councillors' hospitality and gifts will be published as this information hasn't been published online since May. I also asked when senior officers' interests will make their first appearance online.

They have told me my enquiry has been sent to the appropriate person to deal with. I daresay this is the legal/chief executive's office. I've also enquired what 'FOI whistleblowing investigation - complete - no report issued' is all about in an internal audit report. I'm intrigued but again they've gone quiet and I expect it's been sent in the same direction.

I've also emailed Linda Rees Jones asking her, as a supposedly independent Monitoring Officer when she will be instigating a disciplinary investigation into Mr James, outlining much of the above. And more. I've saved her the bother of using the internal email service and sent a copy to Mr James.

If anything else happens before 2018 I will update this post, or even write another. If not then best wishes for Christmas and the new year to all, and thank you to those who have supported me throughout the year, and for all who continue to read this blog. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Drug trials at the Wellness Village?


Back in March one of the most powerful drug manufacturers in the world, Pfizer, based in the US  but with 'offshore' interests, announced it was collaborating with Swansea University to set up an 'innovation hub', all of which is connected with the City Deal and the ARCH Project (A Regional Collaboration of Health, which also may, or may not, still include Meryl Gravell on the 'Wellness' bit).
As with everything else associated with the ARCH Project there is little in the way of detail but plenty of 'exciting journeys' and assorted bland waffle. The 'Wellness Village' site has been earmarked for private healthcare by the council for at least three years...

Like most global drug companies, controversy follows in its wake and recently Pfizer surprised the NHS by raising the price of an anti-epilepsy drug by 2000%. As with other drug companies Pfizer carries out extensive paid clinical trials worldwide and over the years there have been the usual big successes, big failures and class action lawsuits, this example from Nigeria a few years ago was just one that caught my attention.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Carmarthenshire. Well, at a recent 'confidential briefing' to councillors at County Hall, a very senior officer, and I understand it was the chief executive, gave the usual spiel about the wondrous Wellness Village and the City Deal, and as he listed the enthusiastic global companies who are, he claims, champing at the bit to throw their millions into the Delta Swamp Wellness Dream, the name Pfizer came up.

I understand, from a reliable source, that some councillors wondered why on earth a global drug manufacturer would want to set up an outpost at the Wellness Village; after all, despite an element of research and development, the place is being plugged as an oversized leisure centre, with 'assisted living', 'alternative therapies' and a luxury hotel, (the words 'private health care' are deliberately avoided)

In response, the chief executive apparently referred to Llanelli as having a 'stable' population and suggested, in so many words, that its residents would be an ideal source for clinical trials.
We must assume, of course, that the chief executive's response was showing a deep concern for the financial fortunes of Carmarthenshire's residents, rather than the the ramblings of a crazed mind...

So, along with the temporary construction jobs and numerous low paid cleaning jobs, impoverished locals will be able to submit themselves for paid drug trials for a few extra quid! This should do wonders to improve the economy of Carmarthenshire!

Incidentally, the chief executive addressed an Assembly meeting early this year and noted that the Wellness Village would be "right next door" to a Communities First area of deprivation, though it's not entirely clear now whether this was a reference to 'sharing the wealth', or to a steady queue of willing subjects. Indeed, further digging revealed a reference to 'Commercial Trials' and 'Trials Recruitment' in a Wellness Village briefing document for the NHS.

With the project already underway; prior to a full business case, a joint agreement, or even the usual good manners of planning permission, it seems to me that some proper open and transparent scrutiny is urgently required rather than confidential briefings. One can't imagine the incentives on offer to these companies, or what exactly the benefit will be to you and me.
And neither can we imagine the possible rewards for the key players who set up the 'Wellness' vision, Carmarthenshire style...a lifetime supply of Viagra maybe?



For further background posts, of which there are quite a few, please search this blog.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

News in Brief - Council budget and other news


Council budget

The council's budget for the next couple of years puts in an appearance on Monday's Executive Board agenda as the proposals are rubber stamped for consultation. The budget report shows that, for next year at least, the cuts to the schools budget are avoided by a cash injection (taken from other grants, not new money) from the Welsh Government, although in real terms there are no extra funds to cover inflation, pay awards etc so in effect there's a £2.3m cut. The following year there's a planned cut of £4m. Nor has the chopping and changing to assorted grants by the Welsh Government, such as the school uniform grant, been taken into account.

Reading the report there seems to be a real problem with clarity from the Welsh government over it's various funding pots but the council have had a better than anticipated deal which means that instead of around £36m of cuts ('efficiencies') required over the next three years the figure is around £31m. For 2018/19 it's £8.5m instead of £12.5m. Council tax is due to rise by 4.12%.

The proposals themselves can be found here (See? I'm assisting the council in it's consultation process) The managerial cuts seem a little optimistic and depend heavily on restructuring, reviewing and rejigging existing arrangements, particularly a £1m cut next year to domiciliary care and support for those with learning disabilities.

The actual service cuts ('Policy proposals') kick off with another rise in school meals, with Carmarthenshire the joint highest in Wales. The continuing price increases are showing a drop in uptake, which can't be good.

The main points which struck me were a couple of proposals which have reappeared after being dropped in earlier budgets. First is the plan to start charging for sixth form/college transport. The provision is non-statutory, and, indeed, some other authorities make charges but getting from A to B is hard enough as it is, from the cost of running a car to the very limited rural bus services and for most families in the outlying areas a charge could easily be the decider over whether a 16 year old continues their education or not.

The second proposal is a £400k cut to the respite centres for profoundly disabled children. Previous plans to close the two respite centres were permanently abandoned last year so I can't imagine closure is on the cards, well, I hope not. This is what the proposal says;
"Consultancy (IPC) engaged in full review of disability services. This suggests that families would
benefit from greater flexibility of service and more personal discretion would lead to a more
diverse range of respite provision thereby requiring less residential respite"

I would like to know how much the consultants are charging for all this and I also hope that the families are being fully consulted rather than being the subject of a desk-top exercise to arrive at the council's preferred outcome.

It will be interesting to see how the City Deal and 'Wellness Village' translates into figures, or should I say borrowing, in the capital budget. The cash set aside for the leisure centre and care home could well disappear into the black hole of this latest vanity project. The council debt is already £388m with a quiet £20m borrowed in August. The luxury spa Wellness thing and could well provide a lasting legacy of insurmountable debt whilst our roads crumble and day centres for the elderly are 'reviewed'...

It remains a disappointment that Carmarthenshire Council, and other Welsh council still refuse to publish their monthly spending details. This is a legal requirement in England and provides the public, and, of course, 'armchair auditors' with a greater financial insight and enables better scrutiny.

National Botanic Gardens

The next item on the executive board agenda is a plea from the Botanic Gardens to extend the time to start paying back an interest free £1.35m loan from March 2018 to March 2020. Despite years of mismanagement, nobody wants to see the Gardens fail and recent reports claim a slight improvement in it's financial fortunes. However, it has always required public money to keep going and probably always will; the council itself now gives the Garden around £50k a year, though let's face it £1.35m would certainly help with respite care, etc sooner rather than later. (Update 27th; Exec Board agreed to the extension)

Interestingly the report states that 'questions need to be asked' over the Garden's proposals to turn the farmhouses into holiday lets and student accommodation. The four farmhouses on the land are the security for the council's interest free loan and were supposed to be sold off to repay it, but never were.

Mind you, questions need to be asked about a lot of things, unrelated to the Botanic Gardens....

Council Owned Housing Company

Also doing the rounds of press releases and agenda items (and also mentioned briefly in my previous post, Nothing to declare!) is the plan to set up a council owned housing company. As Carmarthenshire Council is the latest in a long line of councils to do this then one would hope that lessons have been learned over the years and little could go wrong. Let's hope that is indeed the case, because as it will be trading as a company there will be 'commercial sensitivities' which preclude too much in the way of scrutiny. The set up costs will be at least £100,000.

The idea is to find 'new ways' to deliver affordable and/or market housing though the report is not entirely clear how this will be achieved (or it could be me who's not clear, I'm not exactly an expert). I'm presuming that, in part, it will be subsidising the private rented sector via loans and schemes and land transfers from the council. For a snapshot of another council's, erm, arrangements for housing those in need, this blog post about Barnet Homes is worth a read...

At the moment the company would continue to use existing council staff and resources but, as with any commercial entity, and "without significant intrusive Council controls", after a time it would look to save costs, maximise profits and branch out into the 'market' and source cheaper options from elsewhere.

The justification for the company is in part, based on the Welsh Government populations predictions for future demand for housing, which formed the Local Development Plan which were never going to be met. These predictions were, in fact, soon found to be way off the mark across the whole of Wales and have now been reassessed to much lower figures.

Anyway, it will be one to watch.

Councillors' salaries

On the agenda for next week's Democratic Services Committee is the annual Independent Remuneration Panel Wales' recommendations over councillors allowances. This year a £200 rise is recommended putting up the basic allowance from £13,400 to £13,600; the Leader, deputy, Chairs and Chair of council also get the extra £200 within their 'senior salaries'. All the details can be seen in the report here.
Meanwhile, the salaries of senior officers remain at eye-watering levels. Topping the chart is the chief executive at £170,000 plus assorted perks, and his Deputy on £134,000 plus £17,000 pension contributions.

I note that Mark James has resigned from his role as lead chief executive of the regional education board (ERW), I wonder if this is the start of a pattern? Rumours have also been circulating that Chez James, otherwise known as the Presidential Palace, is having a bit of a refurb and might soon be on the market....a golden handshake on its way? Golden handcuffs might be more appropriate.

Webcasting and 'CRWG'

To see whether you are getting value for money for your councillor (£48,000 for the leader etc etc) webcasting has been a useful guide. Though, as this is a subject I have taken a particular interest in, I must remind readers that in the control freakery world of County Hall recordings by the public are still banned, unless the meeting is already being webcast.
Unfortunately, Wales has yet to catch up with England in enshrining our democratic rights.

Last December discussions took place to start webcasting all the other meetings, including Scrutiny and Audit Committees in addition to full council, Planning and Executive Board meetings which are currently screened. As it would have meant an increase in hours from 100 to 230 the idea was shelved. Not helped I'm sure by having the now-retired Pam Palmer, who hated any sort of filming, sat on the Group. One concession was made however and that was to webcast special meetings, such as when Scrutiny Committees discuss the budget. As these meetings are coming up over the next couple of months let's hope the concession is honoured.

This information came from the 'Decision Notes' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) which I had requested from Ms Rees Jones. The Group meets a couple of times a year. I still find it highly ironic that this group, which grew from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the WLGA governance review and, essentially, the council's aim to be the most transparent in Wales, refuses to publish it's agendas and minutes online.

One of my somewhat repeated enquiries has been the request to remove the 'suspended' libel clause from the constitution. It's approaching it's fourth year of 'suspension' and Mr James and Ms Rees Jones are, given their dilemma, reluctant to let it go. It seems they would prefer to leave it there as a permanent memorial to their professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour... I recently wrote to Emlyn Dole, who 'Chairs' CRWG to ask for the matter of its complete removal to be placed on the agenda for discussion at a future meeting.

Sadly Mr Dole refused my request having changed his mind since his opposition days and now sings from the same distinctly un-Christian like hymn sheet as Mr James. As to who actually Chairs the CRWG meetings, well, it is notable that Mr James and Linda Rees Jones are both present to impart their wisdom. Which might just explain things...
Anyway, I'll keep trying. Before they un-suspend it, blow next years budget and sue someone.

In other news, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Response from the Police Commissioner, the harassment warning issued against me in August 2016 expired last month, but the chief constable has refused to remove the details concerning its issue from police systems. It's a bit like having some sort of 'criminal' record with no crime ever having been committed and having no means whatsoever to defend myself.
I have now made a complaint to the police that they are holding information about me that I do not agree to. I'll let you know what happens.  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Mark James Business Empire - Nothing to declare!


After a lengthy three month wrangle with the council, and some nudging from the Information Commissioner's office, I finally had the outcome of my request for Senior Officers' Declarations of Interests. The full details, up to the point where I asked for an internal review, can be seen here.

The review response is quite extraordinary. I did not ask specifically about the chief executive but it seems that without naming names it was his sensitivities that Ms Rees Jones was focusing on. It was unusual that it was her, the ever faithful head of legal ironing, who carried out this particular review...

Incidentally, the letter was dated 16th November but clearly needed approval, and quite possibly a contribution from the, erm, chief executive so I didn't receive it until today, the 21st, via email...and also incidentally, and unlike previous requests, I was not sent the register of interests, redacted or otherwise.

So, back to the response, and despite the fact that the chief executive runs a property management company and is a director of four companies; and aside from the fact that he owns leaseholds on several flats and is also a registered landlord, he has not declared anything.

I am told, in so many words, that this is because it's all based in Cardiff, not under the 'jurisdiction' of Carmarthenshire. An interesting, if flawed concept to say the least.

As an aside, Mr James claimed in the Western Mail that he'd had 'consent' from the authority for his extra-curricular activities down in the Bay. Seems that this consent must have been the usual nod and a wink variety from a dutiful disciple, rather than anything 'official', or something which might have surfaced on an auditor's radar. Here we have the same old problem; Mr James making all the decisions, even about his own role in the council.

The issue is whether there are any potential conflicts of interest and this can be looked at in two ways.

Whilst he is not tending to business in Cardiff or pursuing his hobby of legal posturing, Mr James manages, somehow, to squeeze in a bit of chief executive stuff, for which he's paid handsomely. According to my own sources, and Cneifiwr's recent post, Mr James devotes quite a bit of time to his business dealings and he's rather more hands-on than he's led everyone to believe. If any of this time impinges on his day job then there's a conflict.

Then there's the council's own business, which is overseen and often led by Mr James. For instance, the council are currently planning to establish a separate Housing Company which will involve contracts and business dealings outside of the county, and the authority are also part of the RentSmart register of landlords, a government scheme led by Cardiff Council.
Is there a potential for decisions taken in Carmarthenshire that set precedent to have influence beyond the county's borders?

What if the council takes a position on anti-social behaviour from short term holiday lets - Is it not relevant that the CEO operates in this industry? What guarantees do we have that he will not conduct business within Carmarthenshire? His business partner operates letting and property investment companies which operate across the UK, including Swansea.

The council are also privy to private discussions with national housing and property developers on a regular basis. Mr James is also the lead chief executive of the Swansea City Deal which involves top level discussions with government officials, developers and property management companies.

Of course, we won't even contemplate whether he uses any council facilities, staff or resources to run his Cardiff empire, that would be highly improper...

Then we can look at it from the Cardiff Bay perspective. I was told by a reliable source that Mr James claimed, to them, to be advising Welsh Government ministers on the development of landlord and housing policy. Whether he does or not we don't know, maybe Mr James was just using his position as council chief executive to impress his business associates...

We also know that Mr James business interests have made it into the press with reports of residents' complaints over raucous stag parties, overnight lets and vomit left in the corridors. This delightful scenario directly involves the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council as Chairman of the Right to Manage company - you might think he was in danger of bringing the authority into disrepute...though he has already done quite enough of that over the years, notwithstanding the vomit.

One thing is unarguable, Mr James has a lot of contacts, in both walks of life, and surely common sense, let alone transparency would dictate that there is the potential here for conflicting interests.

Public perception is everything, so how do the public - who pay Mr James around £700 a day - know he's not using council time, council contacts, inside information on future policy, or anything else, to further his private interests? In short, we don't. And neither do the council. Do we take his word for it? Most definitely not.

The idea that interests 'out of county' are not declared seems total nonsense to me and continues the game of smoke and mirrors which shroud and protect the chief executive. The declaration of officers' interests should be a requirement as it is for councillors, not left to some sort of flimsy voluntary arrangement, wide open to abuse to those who believe they're a law unto themselves...

Furthermore, ICO guidance on the matter doesn't specify whether declared interests are out of county or not, what is of utmost importance is avoiding conflicts of interest, wherever they are, let alone the importance of public trust in our local authorities. Sadly though, neither of these fundamental concepts of the principles of public life appear to trouble Mr James. Ever.

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 

A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 

If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities." (Extract from ICO guidance)


Pic source; WalesOnline

Monday, 13 November 2017

Misuse of council computers - One rule for one...


Last month, following my complaint to the Wales Audit Office in July, I was given the outcome of their lengthy 'investigation' concerning the chief executive's extensive misuse of council computers for private use. Specifically this related to detailed and prolonged searches of this blog to provide 'evidence' to the police for his private complaint of harassment and for evidence to pursue his 'personal damages'.

To my astonishment, the Wales Audit Office decided that there was no case to answer and said;  "I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day"
Something didn't ring right.

The WAO response prompted a third party to ask the following Freedom of Information request;
Dear Carmarthenshire Council, 
I would like to know, for each year from 2010 to present, how many occasions council employees have found themselves subject to disciplinary procedures concerning the use of council IT facilities for personal use, and what the eventual measures taken against the employee were. 
I am interested in any cases which had an outcome ranging from a note being made on the employee's HR record through to dismissal for gross misconduct. I am perfectly happy for this data to be anonymised. 
Please contact me if you have any queries.
Yours faithfully,
Martin Milan.

This was the surprising response;

Dear Mr Milan,

In response, we are only able to provide information from the financial year 2012/13;

To date there has been 8 allegations that have been dealt with formally;
1 employee resigned prior to a formal investigation commencing
1 employee resigned during the investigation
1 didn't go to a hearing as the employee had already been dismissed as a
result of a separate disciplinary allegation
3 written warnings
1 verbal warning
1 disciplinary transfer to another post.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman
Swyddog Gwybodaeth a Diogelu Data
Adran y Prif Weithredwr
Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin
Information & Data Protection Officer 
In case there had been any confusion, the requester then asked for confirmation that the data provided above did relate solely to the misuse of Council IT facilities for personal matters, and the reply came back as 'yes'.

I think this speaks for itself. There is clearly one rule for the chief executive and one for everyone else. Yet again. I suggest that the Wales Audit Office take another look, and maybe the Monitoring Officer might care to instigate disciplinary proceedings against Mr Mark James CBE? What a joke.

To use council staff and resources to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune is bordering on criminal, particularly as the council themselves have repeatedly told everyone that this was an 'entirely private matter' between Mr James and a resident.

After everything that has happened, what more do our councillors need, apart from a backbone, to bring a vote of no confidence against this tin-pot dictator? As for the police and the WAO, why are they still protecting him?
Outrageous.

The full thread of the FOI request can be seen here

See also this post from July; 'Evidence' accessed from council computers - the Carmarthenshire Herald. The Herald noted it would be "wholly inappropriate for any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so"

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Chief Executive threatens pensioner with legal action


The long running case concerning the dispute between pensioner Patricia Breckman and the council has been well documented. In a nutshell, the council chose to either turn a blind eye to her neighbour's developments at Blaenpant Farm or approved planning applications with no agricultural justification. The developments, which include massive sheds, the quarrying of rock, the formation of hardstand, and the running of an unauthorised haulage business have destroyed Mrs Breckman's life, her retirement and the peaceful enjoyment of the cottage which she shares with her partner Eddie Roberts.

Mrs Breckman has, over the past fifteen years or so, provided the council with evidence, which, on occasion, they themselves had asked for, that not only were the developments unjustified in planning terms but that some of their officers were simply ignoring what was going on. This was all backed up by a now-retired planning inspector on ITV's Week in Week Out who accused officers of turning a blind eye. Ombudsman findings have been mixed and the latest findings, which found in favour of the council, are downright bizarre and recognised as such by senior politicians who are challenging the report. The independence of our one and only public service watchdog in Wales is also being brought into question.

As the police had become involved and subjected Mrs Breckman to arrest, despite the fact that her neighbours were the aggravating party, the former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon issued Mrs Breckman with a full and unreserved apology on behalf of the police in 2015.

Last year Mrs Breckman sought a similar apology from the council chief executive Mark James for the actions of the council, and particularly the planning department. An audience was finally arranged with that master of manipulation, Mr James, who led Mrs Breckman to believe he was not only sympathetic but would also support a claim for compensation.

Mrs Breckman duly put in a claim only to receive a letter, some months later, from the insurer's solicitor that there would be no pay out, she had no claim and if she tried to go to court they would immediately apply to strike out her claim. The basis for this abrupt decision was that council officers' were protected as their decisions were discretionary and could override statutory duties. Or some such b******s.
In other words, far from being sympathetic, the chief executive had made sure there'd be no claim, and no apology.

To give just one example amongst the numerous questionable issues was the hardstand created by the neighbour which became the subject of an enforcement notice. This eventually went to court. Mrs Breckman later discovered that the proceedings had been dropped by the then head of planning as the hardstand had now been removed. It hadn't, and this misinformation had been conveyed to the court.

Mrs Breckman has continued to push for the truth and believes that County Hall continue to cover-up serious breaches of conduct, and at the very least expects the chief executive and head of legal to recognise that the actions of planning officers, including the former head of planning, Eifion Bowen, fell short of what was expected of them.

The Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones has a Statutory duty to prepare a report where evidence of malpractice, negligence or misconduct in public office is apparent. In this case - and I have had sight of all of the evidence, and the correspondence between Mrs Breckman and the Monitoring Officer - it's as plain as the nose on your face, and even in terms of local government games of smoke and mirrors it warrants independent investigation. Something definitely wasn't right, to put it mildly.

The latest twist to the whole affair comes in the form of a legal threat to Mrs Breckman from Mr James. "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action". The 'continuation' being Mrs Breckman's pursuit of straight answers through correspondence which has always been factual,  dignified and well argued, and one of which relates to the supposed independence of the Monitoring Officer.

The role of the Monitoring Officer is supposed to be impartial and not to cosset, and blindly take instructions from, the chief executive. In Carmarthenshire this is something of a long running joke, the libel indemnity being a case in point and even Ms Rees Jones permanent appointment as Monitoring Officer was a decision made by the chief executive alone - that should never have happened, and she depends on him for her job. We are stuck with a chief officer who, by fear or favour, exerts insidious and overwhelming control, even to the point where he controls the Monitoring Officer.

In Mrs Breckman's case the council have rendered her home unsaleable and destroyed her life, at best through negligence and incompetance and at worst through misconduct, and she continues to search for some honesty, integrity and accountability from those who are attempting to silence her - from my own experience let alone Mrs Breckman's, those three qualities are not part of Mr James' personality, let alone his vocabulary.
Legal threats are, as we know however, his speciality and quite what this one will consist of is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, he's out of control.

11th November;
Good to see this story on the front page of Friday's Carmarthenshire Herald, and an excellent article (print only) which concludes "The resort to law in a bid to silence critics and criticism is, however, nothing new in Carmarthenshire"


12th November;
For further comment and detail on this case see Y Cneifiwr's excellent post published today - Natural Justice 

The Burn family and Natural (In)justice


I am publishing below a brief statement from Mr Robin Burn, in his own words, in relation to recent calls for 'natural justice'. This blog has reported several times, (most recently here) on the failure of the authorities, including the council which led to the desperate situation which Mr and Mrs Burn found themselves in, and the profound effects these failures had on their severely autistic daughter, Carina.
Last year, Carina's solicitor issued the following statement; “This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

As you can see below, the fight for a full investigation, and natural justice, continues to this day.

Natural (In)Justice 
The recent departure, allegedly by his own hand , of Carl Sargeant, has led to an outpouring of national displeasure into the handling of this affair by the leader of the Welsh Government. The cries of anger in the lack of natural justice, and calls for investigations are extremely loud. 
The lack of clarity into what were the allegations of his misdemeanours, apparently led to his own actions. 
What a difference to the situation faced by the Burn Family when on October 15th 2010, allegations were laid against the parents of Carina Burn for sexual assault against their disabled autistic. daughter. 
We were denied any explanation by Carmarthenshire County Council and Dyfed Powys Police until the end of October after we had been arrested for the alleged assault. 
There was no national outcry and we here parents who knew we had committed no such offence, were never given any support by anyone save for two brave County Councillors. 
There were no cries of natural justice not being applied, and still to this day both the Authority and the Police have denied the Burn Family a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into the conduct of the authority and the police. 
Natural Justice has never been applied in our case, unlike the vociferous requests for a government minister. 
This is the real injustice.    
Perhaps now is the time to reflect and improve attitudes and procedures as a result of these unfortunate incidences? 
Mr Robin Burn

Sian Caiach has supported the Burn family throughout and provides a detailed account of their ordeal at the hands of the authorities on her blog in three parts; here and here and most recently here. She names all those who should be held accountable for their actions.

Carina at home with her parents, November 2017

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Response from the Police Commissioner - updated


Update 16th November; I have now had a response from the chief constable most of which is the same as below. He also tells me that that the harassment warning (PIN) has expired but as he is of the opinion it was reasonably issued, he is refusing to remove the record of its issue from police systems. He is so wrong but as I can't afford to fight it in court, it looks like I'm stuck with it 'on record'. So much for innocent until proven guilty.

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

Previous post; Meeting with the Police Commissioner

After liaising with the chief constable of Dyfed Powys Police, the Police Commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn has sent me a response which can be read in full at the end of this post.

The most interesting and significant part, amongst the flannel which I will deal with below, was a little more detail on what the CPS said when they threw out the charge of harassment back in July; Mr James is a public figure and criticism goes with the job, the 'comments' were not oppressive and did not amount to a course of conduct.

  • So, the essential ingredients of a criminal charge of harassment were completely absent - how the police couldn't see this is one of life's mysteries. 
  • The harassment warning, or 'PIN', appears to have expired at some point last month. According to police guidance it stays on record for fourteen months. Throughout this time I've been trying to have it removed. I will be seeking confirmation that it has now been removed from police databases.
  • When the PIN was issued I had no option other than to receive it, and, more to the point, had no avenue to challenge the allegations made by Mr James with which I strongly disagreed. A PIN is a verdict without trial. The PIN was then used as evidence following his second complaint, which was as nonsensical as the first, and again related entirely to the blog, as well as, bizarrely, Private Eye and the actions of various senior politicians. 
  • A conflict of interest? Undoubtedly. A close working relationship applies whether the chief executive is a suspect, or if someone is being investigated at his bidding - particularly in a case like this. Mr James made his initial allegations against me via a letter to the chief constable, not by dialling 101 like the rest of us. If that didn't raise a 'close working relationship' flag when it landed on the chief constable's desk I don't know what will.
  • Mr James has absolutely wasted police time, two years of it. His allegations have been unfounded, malicious and menacing at a time when he was pursuing me through the civil courts for money. Even the police wondered if he was trying to have "two bites of the cherry" over his allegations of perverting the course of justice.
  • As for misconduct in public office, What further evidence would they like? I would have thought that cheating the taxpayer by tens of thousands of pounds would have been sufficient, and there's already plenty of documentation available; Deliberately misleading your employers with dodgy legal advice? Dishonesty over your intentions? Using public resources to further your own personal agenda? I could go on. 

When Carmarthenshire council name and shame those who have made fraudulent benefit claims on the 'News' section of their website, the same stern line is trotted out by the appropriate executive councillor;

"These offences take money from the public purse that could otherwise be used for funding essential services. It is taking money from every council tax payer.”

What's the difference? It's been going on right under their noses for years.

I have no issue with the Police Commissioner and I am grateful to him for meeting with me. I do have issue with the police and have found the whole experience to be simply unbelievable, but for now I'll repeat an observation (another observation memorably, and accurately, likened the council to a Sicilian cartel) left by the outgoing former Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon from his list of "what I won't miss";

"The police mob. By far the majority of officers are wonderful...But there’s a strain of police thinking, present in all forces and – at least in part – at all ranks, which, frankly, still does not understand who the police work for."

For Mr James, they've dutifully applied an extra coat of Teflon.

Here's the letter;



Friday, 27 October 2017

The Caerphilly farce continues. And then there's Carmarthenshire...


The three suspended Caerphilly Council senior officers, still on full pay, are back in the news today, (WalesOnline and BBC) reporting that two of them are set to receive substantial pay offs, and so will the third, the chief executive Anthony O'Sullivan, eventually. The dispute, which started with a Wales Audit Office finding of unlawful payments, in the form of pay rises, and included a lengthy police investigation, is said to have cost the authority over £3m since 2013, which includes half a million in legal costs.

I have drawn parallels with the situation in Carmarthenshire and this blog has followed the dispute in Caerphilly, but, unlike Caerphilly, our CEO was allowed to carry on regardless. Pembrokeshire managed to get shot of theirs but only with a golden handshake of £330k

As I said back in 2015, essentially the three from Caerphilly were alleged, in 2012, to have 'wilfully' prevented proper scrutiny of a pay rise for senior officers, they were alleged to have;

- wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves. 
- deliberately failed to publish agenda and reports for a meeting of the Council’s Senior Remuneration Committee in advance of a 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.

In Carmarthenshire, the circumstances surrounding the unlawful, illegal, ultra vires payments, exposed by the Wales Audit Office in 2014, were equally shocking and deliberate. Proper governance was manipulated to avoid the possibility of scrutiny and challenge;

- The chief executive failed to leave the meeting, or even declare an interest when directly gaining personally and financially from the decision to approve his libel indemnity. And discussed and amended the report with the 'author' prior to the meeting. 
- The wording of the minutes of a meeting deliberately masked the true nature of a 'pension arrangement'. The report was authored and presented by a senior officer, the assistant chief executive, with a personal and financial interest in the decision. 
- Failing to publish the pension 'pay supplement' on the executive board agenda, again to avoid scrutiny and challenge. 
- The libel indemnity was omitted 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. 
- Insisting that the lawyer representing the chief executive and the council in the libel litigation was a source of 'independent' legal opinion - commissioned to give 'impartial' advice to the executive board.

Mr James went further and reneged on an undertaking to his employers, refused to repay the unlawful payments and continues to use council facilities and resources, at will, for his own private purposes.

Rules is rules of course and the only reason the Caerphilly saga has gone on so long is that it is probably easier to unseat the queen of England than a council chief executive in Wales. In most walks of life their behaviour, and that of Mr James, would have resulted, potentially, in instant dismissal for gross misconduct. No one would have pussyfooted around with words like 'unlawful' payments, it would have been 'illegal'; theft and fraud.
The investigation by Gloucestershire police lasted three months during which time they didn't speak to Mark James, or anyone at County Hall, or the CPS for that matter. It took Dyfed Powys Police eighteen months, and a charge, for the CPS to decide there was no case against me.

In part it is the mechanism of the disciplinary process for chief officers which is at fault, a tortuous system of special disciplinary panels, designated independent persons (probably a QC) and basically a lengthy, expensive legal fight. They should, of course have all the usual protections as employees, but it should be the same as it is for everyone else, the 'special protection' afforded to chief officers needs to be urgently reviewed. The expensive farce in Caerphilly is testament to the fact that it can't come quick enough.

* * *

The last full council meeting included an interesting item concerning the council's constitution. To be honest the constitution could be something of a niche interest, but here in Carmarthenshire it has often been suspected that there are two versions, the one published on the website and an official version locked in a drawer in the presidential suite to be tweaked and interpreted by Mr James and Legal Linda lest an awkward matter arises. It also contains the spectacularly unlawful, but currently suspended, unique libel indemnity clause.

Labour opposition leader Jeff Edmunds proposed amending the Standing Orders (meeting rules) to give equal importance to the answer to a councillor question as is currently given to the question. In effect, an answer should be brief and directly relate to the question, ie a straight answer.

Council leader Dole (Plaid) protested that a) it wasn't necessary, b) it was a matter for the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) and c) although he didn't necessarily disagree, Plaid would vote it down so Jeff might as well withdraw it. The chief executive then joined in to say that in all his 15 years at the council, Standing Orders had never been amended by full council, muttering that they could, if they dared wanted...

Once it was confirmed that a CRWG meeting would be held the following week Cllr Edmunds threw in the towel and withdrew the motion. Personally I'd have ploughed on, and asked for a recorded vote.

The background to CRWG, readers may recall, arose originally from the scandalous WAO public interest reports and the damning WLGA review into failed governance in 2014/15. All of which was treated with hostile contempt by the chief executive, and by smug self-satisfied complacency by most of the councillors.

Anyway, part of the 'aim' was for Carmarthenshire Council to be the most 'open' in Wales and toward that aim, you might think that agendas and minutes for these relatively infrequent CRWG governance meetings would be routinely published on the website.

I have been asking the head of legal, Linda Rees Jones, about this since CRWG first evolved, I have requested, and been sent copies of the 'Action Notes' but nothing is published.

The latest reasoning was that as this is a working group, technically speaking, publication is not required.
Never mind good practice, or the farcical aim to be 'transparent'.

I also asked, yet again, when the suspended clause (for well over three years now) would be permanently removed. Ms Rees Jones stated "As you know, we do not regard the libel indemnity provision to be unlawful; we consider it to be lawful. However, as you also know, the provision is marked as “withdrawn” on our Constitution."

I have asked her to define exactly who she means by 'we'. Her and Mr James? The entire council? He's played them like a fiddle and I'm guessing it's staying put, until Mr James goes.

As Cllr Emlyn Dole is the Chairman of CRWG, I have asked him to confirm his agreement with the WAO and the Welsh Government that the clause is indeed unlawful, (you may recall him becoming suddenly and inexplicably 'unaware of any unlawful payments', the u-turn oddly coincidental with his elevation to the position of leader), and to place the issue of its complete removal on the agenda for the next meeting of CRWG.

I await their replies.


As you will be aware, this blog has mentioned the WAO reports, the WLGA review, CRWG and the Caerphilly saga several times on this blog, all can be found by using the search box on the right hand side.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Hazardous chemicals and a history lesson


An interesting planning application caught my attention the other day, not just because it was seeking consent to store highly toxic chemicals (Arsine and Phosphine, six tons and one ton of each respectively, with regular lorry movements) at the former MOD site, now Stradey Business Park, in the middle of Llangennech, Llanelli but also because the applicant, R & A Properties rang a bell.

Back in 2008/9 the MOD wanted to sell off the 37 acre site, a well established military depot with buildings and infrastructure. Negotiations with the council came to an unexplained abrupt end and the MOD decided to sell at auction. Immediately prior to the auction, the council bought the site and sold it straight away to R & A Properties for, it was reported, around £845,000.

The proposal went to full council where councillors' doubts (eg why didn't R & A buy it directly from the MOD, and who were the investors behind R & A) were soothed by the chief executive who told them not to worry as the investors were "known to some officers", ie him and possibly a couple of others. How reassuring...

It certainly seemed to be a bargain for the investors, after all only a couple of years later the council's 'independent' valuers reckoned an undeveloped 1.1 acre site at Parc Y Scarlets could be sold to Marstons for roughly the same price.

Cneifiwr's post from April 2014, here, gives a far more detailed account of the dealings around the Llangennech site and more, and is well worth a read. At the time, the council claimed it was being entrepreneurial, if by that they meant making pots of money for those 'known' to them, rather than the taxpayer, then they certainly were. Incidentally, in 2011 the council gave R & A a £281k grant to  'refurbish' a couple of buildings.

Later in 2009 R & A Properties, who were "known to officers", revealed themselves as David Pickering, who, at the time, was Chairman of Welsh Rugby Union, and his business partner, Nigel Lovering. All this was reported in the press at the time.

Although no one is suggesting that there was anything untoward in the deal, one can only wonder whether the council would have brokered a similar arrangement for anyone who wasn't fortunate enough to be "known to officers".

Cneifiwr's post mentions some interesting 'gatherings' and photo opportunities between senior council officials and R & A and associated companies, and my efforts over the years to extract information regarding hospitality showed, for instance, that the chief executive accepted an invitation from the Chair of WRU, Mr Pickering, to attend an international rugby match a couple of weeks after the deal was sealed. Entirely coincidental I'm sure.

I can only assume, and I could be wrong (as R & A are a partnership not a limited company so does not have to reveal its information on Companies House) that R & A are still the same gentlemen who were "known to officers" back in 2009. This makes the current planning application interesting and illustrates the importance of maintaining and publishing a senior officers register of declared interests, gifts, hospitality.
No one is suggesting that anything is wrong but public perception is everything, and it's best for a public body, in the interests of transparency to at least try and remove all doubt.

I happened, for an entirely unrelated reason, to be surveying the declared interests of some Welsh MPs, and one entry for Stephen Crabb, Tory MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire was for four tickets to an Autumn International rugby match, with hospitality late last year, worth £833.36. The invite was from Hydro Industries Ltd based at Stradey Business Park, Llangennech. The Directors of Hydro Industries Ltd include the same two gentlemen who make up the partnership of R & A Properties.

No one wines and dines MPs or council chief executives for the simple pleasure of their thrilling company...well, it's remarkably unlikely. And, more to the point, these gifts and invitations are not accepted naively, but in the full knowledge of the implications.

As for Carmarthenshire Council and its senior officials, this behaviour has traditionally revolved around the world of rugby and its hospitality boxes, it has involved exposing the taxpayer to unquantifiable risk, and behaving, in the words of ex-police commissioner Christopher Salmon, like a Sicilian cartel.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Teflon Mark, and other news


After three months I finally had a response from the Wales Audit Office to my complaint that the chief executive had used, or had ordered others to use, council resources to gather 'evidence' for his failed complaint of harassment to Dyfed Powys Police.

The WAO have reached the following conclusion, and I have underlined the relevant bit;

Dear Mrs Thompson

Carmarthenshire County Council: Audit of accounts for the year ended 31st March 2017

Thank you for your email dated 17th July 2017 in which you raised concerns about the Chief Executive officer at Carmarthenshire County Council potentially utilising Council resources to progress a legal case against yourself.

I have now had the opportunity to review the papers you have presented to me and make some enquiries at the council. 

The powers and duties of the Auditor General set out in the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 are limited. Although you have a right to ask me questions as an auditor acting on behalf of the Auditor General, I can only consider questions about the accounts that are currently being audited. I cannot answer questions about the council’s policies or procedures, or anything else not relevant to the accounts. I have enclosed a link to the Auditor General’s publication ‘Councils’ Accounts: Your rights’. 
http://www.audit.wales/access-councils-accounts
This document explains: your rights to access local council body’s accounts, your right to question the Auditor General or appointed auditor about the body’s accounts, and your right to object to specific items within the accounts.

Whilst the issues you have raised do not directly relate to the 2016-17 financial statements, the Auditor General can also undertake audit work to enable him to make recommendations for improving the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Council services.  It is under these powers that we have reviewed the issues you have raised. Having reviewed the information provided by yourself and the Council in this regard, I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day.
Unfortunately, I cannot give you more help with this matter.

Yours sincerely
Jason Garcia
Audit Manager

So, apparently, no policy was breached. The 'papers I presented' to him were pages and pages of logged hits; systematic and repeated trawls through the blog. There is, I would have thought, a big difference between using a council computer to pop onto Facebook for five minutes during your lunch hour to conducting lengthy research at all hours of the working day, for your own private legal case. But there you have it. Interestingly the officers' code of conduct prohibits the personal use of any council resources unless authorised to do so. I suppose Mr James authorised himself.

On the upside, Mr James has set something of a remarkable precedent to other employees; why go to the expense and bother of employing a solicitor when you can use local authority staff and resources to do the job free of charge? Well, at the expense of the taxpayer rather than your own bulging wallet.

We can only speculate whether or not any other council employee, found to have exhibited similar behaviour and total disregard for the public wallet would have, in fact, found themselves on the wrong side of a disciplinary panel. No doubt Chaired by Mr James.

The irony is that a hefty chunk of Mr James' criminal complaint against me related to the intervention of my MP and other named politicians, in his 'private' affairs. He has consistently insisted, and instructed the council press office to confirm, that this is all a private legal matter between Mrs Thompson and himself, including his relentless pursuit of his 'gutter' money. Therefore, his blatant use of precious and ever-shrinking public resources, none of which has been denied, reveals someone who cares not one jot for the taxpayer and, quite simply, a shameless hypocrite.

Using your public position to further your own ends, whether its by using council computers or having a publicly funded legal department at your disposal is one thing; directly pocketing tens of thousands of pounds of public cash, on the other hand, through unlawful pension arrangements or legal costs, for example is quite another matter.
Trust and honesty in public life? What a joke. How he's still in post is a bloody mystery.

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

Further to this post published in August, yesterday's Western Mail reports again on the continuing problems encountered by residents of Century Wharf, Cardiff Bay, an apartment complex under the management of the 'moonlighting' Mr James who also owns several flats. The problems concern the behaviour of hen and stag parties, Airbnb and other overnight lettings which, according to the long term residents are prohibited under the original terms of their lease. They are taking their concerns to Cardiff council. 
Mr James, in his inimitably charming way referred to the complainants as a 'cancer'.

One commenter on the article wondered  'How on earth is the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council  allowed  to also manage a large housing complex in Cardiff, for personal gain ?'. Well, it's a question you might well ask.

I also wondered, and in broader terms, and with the officers' code of conduct in mind, who else amongst our unelected top brass had similar potential conflicts of interest outside of the council, and how they were managed by the local authority. 

A freedom of information request was duly dispatched (it can all be seen here) and although I thought they may have a register of such declarations and interests fairly close to hand, the twenty day limit came and went.

A week or so later I emailed the ICO to say that there was no sign of a response, I also copied in the council. Twenty minutes later I had this unexpected and strange response from the council; 
"the Council does not hold any declarations of interest in relation to such matters in Carmarthenshire".

Really? None? Are you kidding me or are you deliberately misinterpreting my request? Anyway I decided to ask for an internal review, (ie look again please, before I take this further) quoting the following extract from official ICO Guidance;

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 
A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 
If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities."

I await their reply.

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


Further to my earlier post regarding the swiftly unravelling Swansea Bay City Deal and 'Wellness Village', it seems that things are going from bad to worse. It also seems that the whole thing is now officially, or unofficially, run by Mr James.

As suggested in the previous post, the 70 page draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA), commissioned by Mr James, is now dead in the water and, as the forwarded email below confirms, Carmarthenshire Council have commissioned a new one. The cost of this is undoubtedly eye-watering. However, the draft agreement, albeit virtually useless, does exist and I'm sure Carmarthenshire Council have a copy, so to say they 'do not hold information relevant to your request' is not entirely true and perhaps the request could be pursued.

There has been no word either about the meeting which was supposed to be held last week to 'brief' Carmarthenshire councillors on the City Deal and the Wellness Village; they've either been sworn to secrecy or it was cancelled and they remain in the dark; though at the moment the City Deal has effectively collapsed with no governance structure nor a clear way forward. The biggest problem, aside from the involvement of Mark James, for us mere mortals, is the level of borrowing each council will have to undertake, and in Carmarthenshire this exposure to risk will be to fund private health care and a luxury spa hotel...

The Neath Port Talbot report exposes some of the disagreements, which appear profound, but part of the problem could be Carmarthenshire's plan to siphon off some of the funding for other projects and to charge the other three local authorities a very hefty 'administration' fee. None of which will inspire confidence in either the public partners nor any potential private investors, for more details see Cneifiwr's post.

Dear Mr D.....,

Thank you for your request for information, which was received on 15th October, 2017 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).
The specific information you requested was as follows:

Please could you email to me, by return, a copy of the latest Joint Working Agreement of the Swansea Bay City Deal.

I wish to examine the current proposed governance arrangements relating to the initiative.
I understand that Neath Port Talbot County Council has some concerns over governance of the initiative, and I wish to be aware of any exposure that may be experienced to the council taxpayers in Carmarthenshire.

In response, we do not hold information relevant to your request as currently we do not have one since fresh instructions were sent through to our external solicitors last week for a new Agreement.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman 
(Freedom of Information Officer)