Monday, 20 February 2017

A couple of updates; The libel clause, and the Employment Tribunal


In what is becoming an annual event I made enquiries with Monitoring Officer and joint guardian of the Council's Constitution, Linda Rees Jones, as to what progress had been made, if any, to remove the unlawful, and still suspended libel indemnity clause from the constitution.

The clause was suspended, but remains struckthrough 'until the legal position is clarified' (pages 12, 17 and 27) , following the Extraordinary meeting on February 27th 2014. Almost three years ago. And before Emlyn Dole acquired 'power', but, unfortunately, lost his memory.

Back in 2015 Ms Rees Jones claimed that the cross-party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) would look at the matter in due course. Naturally, they didn't as this is clearly, for Mark and Linda, a no-go area.

This time round she claims that "CRWG has had enough business to consider without prioritising something that’s already marked as “withdrawn". That busy schedule is reflected in the fact that the group have only met once since June 2015. They met in July 2016 when, aside from a few minor tweaks, the main concern was to tighten up, even more, the availability of exempt reports following an embarrassing leak.

CRWG, you might recall, was set up to chew, reluctantly, over the 39 recommendations set by the WLGA Governance Review. The Review, which recognised the toxic officer-led culture, had been required following the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports on the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

The role of the Monitoring Officer, also enshrined in the constitution, is to keep the constitution up-to-date and to monitor and review the operation of the constitution and 'compare practices in this authority with those in other comparable authorities, or national examples of good practice'.

Indeed, following the Governance Review, and as and when required, changes, amendments and deletions to the constitution have been made, and as for 'good practice' I've yet to find national examples, or comparable authorities which include such a sinister clause, withdrawn or otherwise in their constitution.

Clearly the clause would never be used again; it is impotent, obsolete and unlawful but the problem for the Monitoring Officer, and the chief executive is one of finally admitting illegality, and the implications that complete removal would mean.

The constitution places a duty on the monitoring officer to ensure that all decisions, and her advice to Members, are lawful, in this case it most definitely wasn't. As for the chief executive, his legal position would be further compromised, if that's possible, by its removal. This blog has often remarked on the curious interpretation of the constitution by the Monitoring Officer and chief executive, one such example being the permanent appointment of Ms Rees Jones herself.

As for the offending clause, the 'legal position' has of course been clarified, Welsh Government legislation (adopted by the council) prohibits the public funding of libel claims by officers. It is of note that, so far, no attempt has been made, by Mr James, to take enforcement action against me for the unlawful counterclaim costs, which would then bring the matter before a court.
An additional issue is that this all flies in the face of the Derbyshire Rule which prevents a governing body from suing for defamation, by itself or by proxy. The previous Labour and Independent administration, mainly Meryl, Pam and Kevin Madge are equally culpable.

Whether or not the enforcement of damages is, in effect, an attempt to profit from an unlawful decision in public office, is an interesting point. Incidentally, the majority of the damages were awarded for my reference, on the blog, to this very clause.

The clause remains, for now, as a monument to bad practice, a banana republic council, and a tin-pot dictator. Quite a legacy. As for the '39 steps' to perfect governance, the use of good old threatening behaviour, as we saw before Christmas, is still a preferred tactic.


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


Further to my earlier post The Pembrey scandal - An Employment Tribunal, the judgement has been reserved until the near future so this week's Carmarthenshire Herald (not online) covers the final couple of days of the hearing and features the evidence given by Ms Stephanie Thomas. Ms Thomas held the catering contract at the park for a number of years and was, in March last year, subject of an assault by the Council's Countryside and Coast manager Mr Rory Dickinson. Mr Dickinson was allowed to resign his post a few days before pleading guilty to the offence.

Ms Thomas's evidence further corroborates Mr Morris's claim that the knowledge of serious mismanagement, bullying and underhand tactics went up the corporate ladder.

The closing statements were interesting. The council's barrister suggested that the idea that the restructuring plan was engineered to deliberately remove Mr Morris was fanciful, and the witnesses were unreliable. Counsel for Mr Morris rather turned that on its head.

You may recall that a very similar post to Mr Morris's was advertised shortly after he was made redundant. Mr Morris's barrister suggested that there had been no proper business case, nor consultation with the union, in an £800,000 efficiency plan, a plan which, curiously, placed Mr Morris in a redundancy pool of one. The new post was titled Active Facilities Manager, something which, as Ski Centre Manager, Mr Morris would have been eminently experienced and qualified for.

The Panel asked the Council's legal team how the point scoring for the new post, and for Mr Morris, was worked out, and how they had come up with 'Five' for Mr Morris, "Five out of what?" they asked, the council's team didn't know. The Panel had also asked, several times, how long Head of Leisure Ian Jones knew of the potential new jobs in the very short pipeline after Mr Morris's redundancy, he couldn't give a definitive answer. The Chair of the Panel observed that he should have known as it was he who wrote the job descriptions.

It is understood that Ms Stephanie Thomas has also brought a case against the council.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fanfares


With potentially uncomfortable revelations down at the Employment Tribunal this week you could forgive the council for going full throttle with it's good news press releases. And there's also the small matter an election looming ever closer....

It's been a week of wonders, first up was the Executive Board's deliberations over the budget and the 'shock' news that money had been found to 'inject' into the soon to be depleted school budget. The actual figures have yet to be seen and the announcement was shrouded in spin and some complicated arithmetic but by my calculation a three year cut of £11m will now be about £9,5m. Interestingly it was also murmured that a new post of 'Schools Efficiency Officer' is to be created, at cost unknown to assist the schools with the cuts efficiencies.

With the budget spin it's easy to forget the 'efficiencies' and 'savings' which will go under the radar, for example the rise in school dinners, the cuts to care packages, day centres, school music services, SEN services, libraries, etc etc. Another 'we've listened to you' announcement was to postpone the proposed closure of St Clears Leisure centre, all very well but on closer inspection the actual proposal reads 'asset transfer (or possible closure) of St Clears Leisure centre'. So it wasn't definitely going to close anyway, not yet, but deposited on to the community instead.

The whole of the Leisure Services, and Housing, are in the process of being outsourced to trusts or arms-length companies, and so is social care although I understand that plan is being put on ice until after the election, being of a sensitive nature.

It's at times like this when one begins to question the monumental amount of cash paid to senior council officials, well over £2m to the combined top brass and heads of service. One in particular coins in more than your average Prime Minister, plus perks. One wonders if he'll be advanced another £20,000 Returning Officer fees ahead of the May elections, like he was in 2012, before the number of contested seats is known, in the previous financial year and because, we were told, it was just 'there'. In the biscuit tin I suppose.

It also brings into question the actions of senior councillors and whether they have now completely left reality behind them. A recent update to the register of gifts and hospitality records an invitation to council leader Dole, and a plus one, to the Liberty Stadium, with pre-match offerings, from the leader of Swansea Council. It is not clear whether Cllr Dole went but as the entry informs us that a 'car and driver' were ordered, it seems likely he did.

This is not unusual of course across Wales (or anywhere), and also across all political parties, and often includes senior officers as well as councillors, as my efforts to have Carmarthenshire's information released will attest. It is not time for these practices to be cast into history? It does not sit well with a struggling electorate and to label such events as a 'regional networking opportunity' when council leaders are on £48k+ per year is to treat residents, particularly those struggling to afford family tickets to rugby matches, with total contempt. It is also a form of lobbying without one jot of transparency. I would far rather decisions were made in the council chamber, however poor and manipulated, than in the various council hospitality boxes around Wales.

Topping even the council's exciting, transformational, visionary and mind-bending (I made that one up) capital programme press release extravaganza was the once-in-a-generation-envy-of-the-world, 'the NHS has had its day', fanfare over our old friend, the Wellness Village. The only bright spot was BBC Wales calling Meryl Gravell the leader of the council, oops. Having blogged about this for a couple of years, each blast of the 'Wellness' PR trumpet has reinforced my opinion that this, basically, is pouring public money into private health care behind closed doors. Worryingly, the chief executive and leader have now been given that familiar taxpayer-funded book of blank cheques to spend, as they wish.

Whatever your views on it all, and of course there is good news along with the bad, you should always bear in mind that whatever is presented by our council press offices might just be a dog's dinner and not the top cuisine it appears. Or, in modern day parlance, Carmarthenshire Council continue to break new ground when it comes to alternative facts.

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

14th February; Interesting post from county councillor Sian Caiach, well worth a read; Plaid's Poisoned Chalice - the Leadership of Carmarthenshire Council.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Pembrey scandal: An Employment Tribunal - updated


Update 10th February; Report in the Carmarthenshire Herald

With the Employment Tribunal expected to conclude today (Friday) the Herald has provided a detailed report on the main events, up until the time it went to print. The article is not yet online.

What appears to have emerged over the past few days is, to quote the Herald; '...that a key consideration of Carmarthenshire County Council's officers concerned in Pembrey and the serious and serial malpractice at the Park was to preserve the council's reputation at all costs and conceal the extent of the bad news'. The failure to involve the police, the treatment of whistleblower Eirian Morris and the bland assurances given to councillors suggests this was indeed the case.

Here are some of the key points, though I would urge those interested to read the full article in the Herald;

In response to questions as to why the council (key witnesses were Helen Pugh the Audit and Risk manager and Head of Leisure, Ian Jones) failed to involve the police, it was claimed that the unfolding scenario before them was so chaotic they were unable to formulate a complaint. This was despite potentially criminal acts in that very scenario.

A disciplinary hearing in early October which could have resulted in the dismissal of the Country Park manager Mr Dickinson, who had already received a final warning, was 'postponed'. He was then allowed to resign immediately prior to pleading guilty to the assault of the catering franchise holder.

As Mr Dickinson's line manager, Ian Jones came under questioning as to the extent of his knowledge and any alleged involvement in the removal of Mr Morris. Mr Jones denies involvement.

Despite Mr Morris making allegations against Mr Dickinson, and at least one against Mr Jones, Mr Jones remained as Mr Morris's line manager throughout the council's investigation. A 2014 email from Mr Jones to the then Director, and deputy chief executive, Dave Gilbert states that both he and Mr Dickinson were unconcerned about the allegations against them. This confirms that Mr Gilbert was aware of the allegations.

Despite being in line for a new management post, the interview was postponed. Mr Morris found himself instead being made redundant following his whistleblowing disclosures. Mr Morris then noticed that a post similar to his own was being advertised six weeks later. Mr Jones stated that the postponement of Mr Morris's interview was down to advice from the Council's HR and Legal department.

Part of Mr Morris's case is that a restructuring exercise was used to create a bogus redundancy procedure. In evidence a recording was played between Mr Dickinson and a third party which appears to confirm this (see Herald article from June 2016). Mr Jones admitted that the source of Mr Dickinson's information with regard to restructuring must have been from himself but although he admitted to discussing Mr Morris's redundancy with Mr Dickinson, he didn't know why Mr Dickinson stated, in so many words, that the restructuring was rigged to remove Mr Morris.

Mr Morris also alleges that following his disclosures he was subject to pressure and harassment as manager of the ski centre. Mr Jones claimed that this was due to 'audit issues' which had been flagged up. Who flagged them up is not clear. However, as the Herald points out, Mr Jones told the Council's Audit Committee only last month that there were no audit issues at the ski centre.

The panel asked whether any attempt was made to get Mr Dickinson to attend the hearing but were told that he was no longer an employee and had resigned. Personally I find this a little odd as during the libel case the chief executive dragged the former Head of Legal out of nearly two years of retirement to give evidence on his behalf.

Under cross-examination it was put to Mr Morris that he had no evidence of wrongdoing and that his disclosures were anecdotal. Whatever the case, it was these disclosures which led to the uncovering of mismanagement and misconduct at the park. The real issue is what those council officers chose to do about it, or not do, as the case may be.

The hearing continues.

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


There's an interesting Employment Tribunal due to take place over the next few days (starts 6th Feb) concerning Carmarthenshire County Council. The claim is being brought by a former leisure manager at Pembrey Country Park, Mr Eirian Morris, against the council for unfair dismissal, and detrimental treatment. He blew the whistle over historic, and not so historic, 'issues' at the Park.

The case put forward is for unfair dismissal and that the complainant  "Suffered a detriment and/or dismissal due to exercising rights under the Public Interest Disclosure Act"

In other words, he blew the whistle and paid the price, County Hall style.

The case, which is being held in Cardiff, is, I understand, open to the press and public.

The background is well documented and began with allegations and rumour of severe management problems at both Pembrey and the Millenium Coastal Park over the past few years. However, nothing emerged until early last year when a brief, but damning summary (and only the summary) of an internal audit report, commissioned following the retirement of the previous Director, appeared on a committee agenda.

Amongst the findings were, to use plain English rather than councilspeak; money and assets going missing, failure to follow almost any proper procedure, health and safety issues and conflicts of interest.

Rather than report matters to the police or the Wales Audit Office as requested by some councillors (not, however by leader Emlyn Dole who thought the suggestion was impertinent...) the sordid affair was kept in house and the usual whitewash began.

One councillor, Bill Thomas (Lab), has consistently called for a forensic audit and has been less than convinced by the usual 'lessons learned' flannel updates to the committee, which he says, has been duped by officers over the past financial chaos. The amount of money which has gone walkabout is not known, but it's not chickenfeed.

Despite the council claiming there was no evidence of fraud or theft, the audit report stated that "It was not possible to place an assurance that all income due has been collected, recorded, banked, monitored and accurately reflected in the Authority’s accounts." rather suggests to me that it was exactly that, fraud. 

Essentially, the internal audit was a means to keep the lid on a far wider scandal and control the release of information.

Far from reporting all this to the police, the chief executive reported me to the police for my reference to lumpy carpets in county hall.

The scandal deepened when details emerged over the March 2016 park catering tender, which was later abandoned when it became clear that it had been somewhat 'compromised'. The council's Countryside and Coast manager Rory Dickinson, who was in charge of the tender, was allowed to resign just a few days before pleading guilty in October to the common assault of the incumbent contract holder for catering services, Ms Stephanie Thomas.

All in all its been a very sordid affair, and smells distinctly like a long and tortuous cover-up by senior officers, further amplified when recorded conversations, reported in the Herald, revealed a senior official pleading "for f****s sake don't go to the police."

Documents were eventually passed to the police by Nia Griffith MP and we wait to see what comes of that.
It is also understood that further legal action might be on its way against the council, possibly relating to the tender, and other unspecified claims as it now appears that other employees lost their jobs via underhand tactics.

This whole business has been kept well under wraps by County Hall, as best they could, and enquiring councillors fed the usual lies, spin and half-truths, but the big question remains that given the length of time over which this serious fiasco rumbled along, exactly how far up the pecking order had the knowledge of the scandal reached, and when?
And this case also brings into question, yet again, the council's treatment of whistleblowers.

Whether or not the council will make a last ditch attempt to settle, or if not, whether further details will emerge and the whistleblower will get justice, remains to be seen, but as with this case, my case, and many others, the least we can hope for is that the uneven floor covering at County Hall may eventually even out, though this will only happen once the Sicilian cartel have finally moved on.

Currently, the claim by this council that it has turned a corner and is on course to be the most transparent and wholesome council in Wales remains a massive standing joke.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Court date


Further to council chief executive Mark James' claim to force sale of my home, the matter has been listed for the 23rd March 2017, although it appears from the letter below that the details may be provisional. 
As I have provided background to all this, and my views, in earlier posts I will not comment further at the moment.



My apologies, but I will not be publishing comments on this post.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Carmarthen West Link Road news


A planning application relating to the Carmarthen West link road is due to be considered at next week's planning committee. The construction of the road was considered essential to alleviate traffic problems as the Carmarthen West Development Brief for 1200 homes progressed, and would also link up the new S4C headquarters, when that is eventually built. The cost of the road is supposed to be paid by the various developers, in stages, as the homes are built.

Whether there was, or is, any demand for 1200 new homes on the outskirts of a town the size of Carmarthen is debatable and a controversial issue in itself.

Anyway, in 2015, to get the road going, and with no developer contributions forthcoming at the time, the council decided, in secret session, to borrow most of the £5m to fund the road.

Throughout 2016 there have been numerous council press releases, with suitably hard-hatted and hi-vis wearing officials pictured at the various stages of road building. All went quiet late last year when it emerged that there were wrangles with landowner(s) and compulsory purchase orders were set in motion. Although, given that the development brief has been around for about five years it's a wonder that such issues weren't ironed out years ago. The identity of the landowner is unknown.

The application next week has been submitted by one of the developers to increase the number of houses they can build before the new road is complete from 60 to 150. They have permission for 250 homes out of the 1200.
The landowner/developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd, which features landed gentry based in Norfolk, claims that the current agreement is not viable, (their most recent accounts can be seen on the Companies House website) so presumably no developer contribution to the road will be made until 150, rather than 60 of the homes are built, though this is not entirely clear.

The application (here, W/27776) features some technical wizardry which suggests there'll be little or no impact on traffic even if the road is not built. I suspect that residents local to Carmarthen, rather than Norfolk, might disagree.

However, despite the fact that the council has borrowed the £5m, (the Welsh Goverment also provided £1.3m towards it) the application is recommended for approval, and has also been given the nod from Cardiff. Whether any 'developer contributions' to the road ever materialise is clearly in doubt.

Amending S106 agreements or planning conditions due to apparent viability problems is fairly common and was the subject of this interesting Guardian article in 2015. What is not common is for the viability reports to be disclosed, although campaigners in Bristol have had some recent success.

An application by Ffos Las Ltd in 2014 to extend the life of the planning permission for 280 homes included a requested amendment to  change the S106 agreement due to 'viability' issues. My FOI request for a copy of the viability report commissioned by Savils was refused.
That particular application is still, according to the council website, 'under consideration' so I guess the extension of time was granted by default but what became of the S106 agreement remains unknown.

Budget, Stress Management and deja vu


Update 6th February;
As predicted, the local election was forefront in the minds of the Exec Board. The closure of St Clears leisure centre has been postponed and the grants to Citizens' Advice phased over three years rather than in one big hit. The school budget will have an 'injection' of £1,76m next year which will make the cut 'cash neutral', apparently. A 'Schools Efficiency Officer' will also be appointed. The school cuts will still be around £10m over three years.
The council bean counters are reducing the average balance by which the council's loans are reduced each year from 4% to 2.5% which will, if approved, release a few quid to fund the above 'injection'.

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

Next Monday's Executive Board will consider the budget for the next three years. By far the biggest cut will be to the schools' budget, around £11m, with additional slices taken off school improvement support and SEN services.

It remains to be seen whether, with the local elections just around the corner, a couple of red herring cuts might be dropped but it's unlikely that there will be room for much movement in the £11m. The council is facing an overspend of £1.3m this year but, digging a little deeper, we see that the quarterly budget monitoring reports are peppered with 'efficiency slippages', a quaint term to describe the failure to meet the cuts decided at previous budgets, all of which suggests that the cuts programme is not working, and with schools expected to deplete their reserves, the outlook is bleak. At the other end of the age scale, £1.2m is due to be cut from home care packages over the next three year.

But never fear, there's always the capital programme and the many opportunities for hard-hat high-vis photo opportunities they provide as yet another steel-clad out-of-town monolith emerges. The agenda includes the decision to build a covered cycle track at Pembrey Country Park. All very well but the council's borrowings, largely to fund the monoliths, is now approaching £400m with another £10m borrowed last September, goodness knows what for.

The director's report on the five year capital programme mentions the decision last week to give leader/chief executive a big blank cheque to sign off the city deal, which, crucially for the Carmarthenshire taxpayers, includes the Wellness Shed Village.

The unknown cost to the authority, and the hefty borrowing which will be required throws the council bean counters' calculations up the creek. And what of the interest payments on all this borrowing? Currently this stands at £14m per year and it is now clear this will rise significantly but no one has a clue by exactly how much. I'm still astonished how nearly all councillors fell for the hard sell 'Wellness pitch' at last week's extraordinary meeting, complete with a temper tantrum from Mark James when someone dared to politely challenge the wisdom of the whole project.

The budget will go to full council later this month where election fever, rather than future black holes, will be in forefront of the minds of most of our councillors.

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

With the council's recent £500,000 tender for stress management services in the news I thought I was having a deja vu/senior moment. After a couple of days the penny finally dropped and I remembered that a tender went out for exactly the same thing in January 2012, I even blogged about it briefly.

The 2012 tender was a little more explicit as to which 'partners' of the council would also benefit from the service and included Castell Howell Foods Ltd, a private hospital, a private school and a manufacturer of puddings. It is not specified which private companies might benefit this time round.

It's not clear whether anyone was ever awarded the 2012 contract and reports since that time suggest the service was kept in-house. In fact only a couple of weeks ago a departmental business plan stated;
'The use of the in-house stress management/Cognitive Behavioural Therapy services continues and is focused on supporting stress, anxiety and depression, alongside management interventions and support' 
There's no mention of outsourcing the service. In fact, a revised Stress Management policy was approved at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, again there was no mention of this tender or the half a million quid.
Furthermore, a planned budget cut of £135,000 is being proposed for health and safety 'restructuring' in general 'to yield savings from a reduction in expenditure on external contractors' .

I do not want to minimise the impact of stress, far from it, and of course, the council does have a legal duty of care towards it's employees but unfortunately, having been contacted by numerous current, and former, members of staff over the past seven years it seems that that duty of care is often disturbingly selective, with 'special' treatment being reserved for whistleblowers and opponents of regime.
Furthermore, it would be interesting to know exactly which private companies will be benefiting as 'partners' of the council, another very selective term.

Still, on a lighter note, if anyone is in need of some therapy, I can think of one person who should be at the front of the queue...




Monday, 23 January 2017

A Rotten Borough - a collection


This week's Cadno opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald features a guest contribution from his friend, Melvyn the Mole. Possibly inspired by last week's national accolade bestowed on a certain senior council employee by Private Eye, Mervyn was moved to obtain permission to reproduce a small selection of the numerous Eye articles relating to our council, mainly from the Rotten Boroughs section from over the past few years. The full Cadno piece is at the end of this post.

With grateful thanks to Anon for the graphic

This reminds us of those other honours achieved by the best council in Wales. Runners up in the Legal Bullies of the year, winners of the Hellfire award and PR Plonkers of the year. As for PR Plonkers, Carmarthenshire council has had quite a rap sheet with regards to the local press, from threats to withdraw advertising because of mildly negative press...and then actually doing it. From demanding the retraction of a reporters Freedom of Info request, to having its own unique, and unlawful addition to its constitution...currently suspended...

There has been much written about the council's relationship with the local media on here and elsewhere over the years and in particular the attempts by County Hall, well, the chief executive, to exert editorial influence over the local independent press.

The former Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon (Con), who recently labelled the council a Sicilian cartel, withdrew the police cash contribution from the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News a couple of years ago saying he'd prefer it went to independent media, trusted by the public. It is not known if the new Commissioner (Plaid) has reversed the decision.

The Cadno article stresses the importance of robust, independent local journalism, listing several examples from the latest edition of the Eye;
"One can only gasp in awe at the sheer arrogance, brazenness, contempt and disdain some people have for the general public. The very people who toil so hard and pay their taxes to keep said Council Leaders, Chief Executives and Executive Board Members of councils all over the UK in employment. They'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those pesky news people"
It is those pesky news people, or rather their decline (apart from the Herald), which feature in an article over on Press Gazette, an interesting read with a warning, from a former local newspaper editor, that the growth in PR officers, cushioning those in authority, is now outnumbering local investigative reporters:
"...And this is having a profound effect on society, reliant as it must be on the checks and balances that govern the relationships between its institutions and its citizens. 
“I can tell you having recently returned from that front line, with only a mild dose of shell shock, that whole areas of life that should be public and debated and questioned are now in danger of disappearing from public consciousness. Town halls, trust boards, courts, quangos all going about their business unhampered by tiresome questions with no light being shone in the corners. 
“We are in danger of losing the ability to hold people to account, speak up for the powerless, those lost in the systems. 
“It is still the case that when people are in trouble, cannot get answers, do not know where to turn, think they are a victim of injustice, have exhausted all avenues for recompense, they turn to a journalist. 
“And in places where rumbustious journalists – I call them affectionately troublemakers – still exist, the psychological effect that has on institutions cannot be underestimated. 
“How many chief exec’s, chief constables, trust chairman, communication managers, union bosses, council leaders, politicians of all sorts factor this sublimely into their decision making: ‘what if this gets into the press?’.” 
“My real fear now is those bosses and decision makers are beginning to rest a little easier, often surrounded as they are by a phalanx of communication officers (often fleeing journalists) who taken together now outnumber journalists working in the patch..."
County Hall has always considered its extensive media empire, or Department of Spin, a priority cause. There is nothing wrong with disseminating essential information of course but Carmarthenshire has always gone above and beyond with the notorious press office sometimes considered to be the first line of defence, or attack, notably against the Appointed Auditor over the unlawful payments. The press manager even joined the County Hall detachment to London for the duration of the libel trial. (However, it was Thompson, not James who featured in The Times leader on the final day ;)

Unlike schools, social care and other frontline services, the council press office has usually escaped the worst of the cuts, and with a tender just gone out for photographic and video services, it seems that it's business as usual.

Usefully for County Hall, the Sell2Wales Codes required for the tender are very explicit with regards to the duties which will be expected from the lucky bidder (my circling);


From Sell2Wales


Cadno - Carmarthenshire Herald 20th January;

Click to read (apols for the poor scan)

Most of the Private Eye articles, and the background to the stories can be found throughout this blog, and another, from November last year, can be found on Mrs Angry's excellent Broken Barnet blog.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Allowances, Penny-Pinching and City Deals - updated


Update 26th January - City Deal

With depressing predictability, all but two councillors (one against and one abstention) voted to plunge the council into unknown debt and unknown deals with private companies, including private health care, for the next fifteen years.
Clearly dazzled by the chief executive's presentation and the presence of other members of the 'Pitch Team', including the CEO of Pembrokeshire, Ian Westley, and Prof Marc Clement from Swansea Uni, formerly a director of Kent Neuroscience Ltd, (the company with which the council have entered an exclusivity agreement to develop the site), and the liberal deployment of some very impressive buzzwords ('Ideas harvesting' was one of my favourites), and some highly subjective statistics and figures, this was always going to sail through.
With the clear threat that Carmarthenshire would descend into medieval oblivion if they didn't agree, the questions nearly all began with glowing tributes and grateful thanks, robust scrutiny didn't come into it.
The chief executive, and the others, responded to the polite enquiries (Will there be buses to the wellness village? asked Kevin Madge) with more buzzwords and b******s until it was Cllr Caiach's turn to ask a few questions. Her questions were a little more searching and concerned the interest payable on the loans, the equity in any future assets, the suitability of the land and the fate of those currently trading from the site. At this point Mr James' mask slipped and he was reduced to snarling. I can just imagine his peptalk to the 'Team' prior to the meeting, something along the lines of  'there might be one awkward one, but don't worry, the rest'll be a walk-over'  ...and indeed they were.
If you fancy a game of bullshit bingo, or want to watch Meryl talk dreamily of sea air and wellness, the archived webcast will soon be available.

Update 24th January - City Deal

After watching the webcast of Monday's presentation of the City Deal, the Wellness Village etc to the Exec Board, by the Chief Executive, I would hope that councillors will have some very searching questions ready for tomorrow's full council.
It appears that the four constituent councils will be borrowing the money up front in the hope that it'll get fed back from central government, as I said below, Carmarthenshire is already in debt to the tune of £376m, how much more can be sustained?
There was a couple of oblique references to 'the developer' in relation to the Wellness Village, but who it was and what arrangements/deals are already in place was not defined.
There was reference to the setting up of a separate team to carry this thing through, how much will this cost the authority? Will it be a case of jobs for the boys?

Cllr Pam Palmer couldn't resist pre-empting criticism or even questioning, by saying that there are people probably blogging about all this already. Yes Pam. We all have a right to criticise but more importantly, proper scrutiny is vital, not something she can either tolerate nor understand.
Meryl seemed a little miffed that the very, very excited chief executive was so overcome he forgot to allow her to introduce the presentation.

The presentation, which will be repeated tomorrow (Wed 2pm) was full of hyperbole, scaremongering and more 'buzzwords' than you can shake a stick at. The scaremongering, which was delivered with several dramatic pauses to give the assembled Executive Board members time to gasp in horror, was that productivity had been in decline since 1999 and, without the City Deal, it would take until 2030 to reach the level achieved in 2010, or something like that, sounded like complete nonsense, as it all did.

We heard many councillors speak at length last week, from both sides, over the Welsh/English language issue and Llangennech school, I hope to hear the same attention paid to this, before the county is plunged into a twenty year arrangement with assorted, and possibly short term, private investors, it's saddled with a massive debt, and the auditors are called in.

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

No doubt, after the election in May, there will be the usual unseemly scramble, back room deals, and vows of loyalty to the chief executive in the pursuit of special responsibility allowances, now known as senior salaries. Carmarthenshire councillors are allowed eighteen such positions by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW).

They range from £22,000 per annum for committee chairs, to £48,000 for the leader of the council. Plus expenses. The make-up of the council might change in May but the scramble will undoubtedly still happen.

Last year, when the final IRPW report went to the Executive Board, and in her usual were-all-in-it-together form, an indignant Cllr Pam Palmer (£32,250) grumbled that they were all worth far more, and the Panel's shock-horror recommendations that some Executive Board members should take a meagre 10% cut needed to be "banged on the head".

The Democratic Services Committee (not webcast, so not allowed to be filmed) were recently tasked with conveying its thoughts on the draft IRPW report for the 2017/18 municipal year, to start in May.

Not content with just eighteen senior salaries they wanted to extend the coveted rewards to the committee vice chairs as well. No sign of belts being tightened there then.

As sound justification to extend the quota of senior salaries has to be put to the IRPW, it's unlikely to get very far. It's pretty difficult to justify the ones they've already got.
Disappointing that it was even considered though.

Although a £100 rise in the basic allowance of £13,300 is recommended by the IRPW it states that there'll be no rise in senior salaries. But as the basic allowance forms part of the senior salary, they will receive the extra hundred quid anyway.

I'm not against a basic, reasonable allowance and the sums are relative small compared to executive officer pay, and although modest, no doubt the extra £100 will come in handy. It'll cover the new executive-board-approved £48 grass collection charge I suppose...and it will help our councillors with those increased car parking charges....

So, as Members recommend themselves a £100 pay rise and grumble that there's not enough lucrative senior positions, in another scrutiny committee, and to put things into penny-pinching perspective, a proposal was put forward to stop a planned 30p increase in the price of meals on wheels. This proposal went to a vote and was, incredibly, defeated.

The final IRPW report will go to full council in a few weeks time and I daresay, by then, some of them will have remembered that there's an election in May...

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

Next Wednesday (25th) the council will be asked to give the Chief Executive and Leader delegated powers to sign off the various arrangements for the Swansea Bay City Deal (SBCD). Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot councils are also part of the deal.

This a £1.3bn package consisting of long term grants from central and devolved government, local authority, and health board borrowing, and private investment. Cardiff Council recently agreed to their city deal and other deals are in different stages of development across the UK. The Swansea City deal features, amongst other projects, the Llanelli Wellness Village which will feature private health care and involve a contribution from Carmarthenshire council of £32m.

This blog is concerned with Carmarthenshire and the report for the Executive Board can be found here. As usual it is couched in glorious, visionary, no-other-option terms, heavy on PR and low on detail.

Considering that the council 'needs' to charge pensioners an extra 30p for meals on wheels; has trouble running a small country park; an appalling track record in grant management, and a history of unlawful decision making, councillors should approach the deal with caution and an appropriate level of scrutiny before giving the CEO and Leader the power to sign off millions of pounds, or go headlong into la la land, if that is your view. The council is already £376m in debt.

Some might find it equally concerning that the SBCD has featured the, er, expertise of Meryl Gravell as a Member of the Board and the manoeuvrings of Mark James, lurking in the corridors of power.
Although perhaps confidence should be buoyed by the chief executive's recent national accolade...

A few points in the report should be of concern to councillors, not least of all the lack of detail about the various projects. The level of borrowing required by the council has not yet been calculated, nor have the terms and conditions. Governance and accountability arrangements appear to be still at the 'legal advice' stage and the long term financial commitment needs to be quantified. The aim appears to be to lock the council into the deal before the May local election.

As for transparency, the involvement of the private sector precludes openness from the start and in relation to the Wellness Village for example, the council have already gone behind closed doors and signed an exclusivity agreement with a private medical company from Kent, some background to the company can be found here.

A useful and simple general summary, including the pros and cons of the City Deal 'model', can be found here as Australia considers whether the concept will be suitable for them. The article concludes by saying "adopting the model without careful scrutiny and analysis feels more like taking a punt than backing a certainty"
At worst it could be one of the most disastrous PFI style deals in history. On a massive scale.

Friday, 13 January 2017

A New Year Honour from Private Eye


The Rotten Borough Awards for 2016 have been announced in the latest edition of Private Eye, here's one of the winners;




Sunday 15th January:

It must be heartwarming to see that the local press, the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, have acknowledged this important national accolade....



Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The 'Wellness' Village; The cost escalates

With the news dominated by stories of our A & E departments at breaking point, patients in corridors for hours etc etc and our NHS in general facing huge funding issues a disturbing snippet emerged from some recent scrutiny minutes concerning our council's foray into private health care. 

Wendy Walters, an Assistant Chief Executive (we have two of those, and a Deputy Chief Executive) informed the committee that the cost, or 'investment' as the council prefers to call it, for the 'very very exciting' 'Wellness Village' proposed for Delta Lakes, Llanelli is now £200m. 

This is twice the £100m estimate from last summer, but, she says, £127m is 'anticipated' to come from the private sector. I'm guessing no one's got a clue how much it will cost. And even if private investment materialises, that still leaves at least £70m. 

For background to this project, which is Chaired by Meryl Gravell as part of the ARCH collaboration programme and led by Carmarthenshire Council, (well, Meryl and Mark), please see my post from August; Wellness Centre - or a luxury spa? and Cneifiwr's post Merylmania - return of the undead from June. 
Otherwise, please google, there's some spectacular 'Wellness' life-coaching jargon out there.

With the £7m put by for a new Llanelli care home, and a £3m pot for repairs both being funnelled into this public/private venture it's time for some serious questions to be asked. The Welsh Government has already stumped up a couple of million for scoping exercises and consultants reports. 
Fortunately, Ms Walters has offered to arrange a seminar on the project for all councillors. This will be for their information only of course as the Chief Executive has already declared that councillors will not be making the decisions. 

So before councillors get swept away by motivational, 'futurist' conceptual b******s, and a '3D architectural visualisation' of how the vision in white might look, perhaps they should consider doing a bit of research and asking a few pertinent questions;

For example;

1. Doesn't a decision to funnel public resources into private health care fly in the face of moral and political commitment to preserve and invest in the NHS?

2. Given the financial crisis currently faced by the two health boards, the county council and the Welsh Government, where is the £70m coming from?

3. How exactly will this benefit the people of south west Wales? Would they not prefer Carmarthenshire's public money was 'invested' in helping our hospitals, extra staff for A & E perhaps, rather than meditation rooms and conference suites? Have they been asked?

4. How much of this project is based on the conceptual ideology of the Global Wellness Institute, the promotion of luxury 'health and beauty tourism' and alternative therapies?

5. Who exactly are the private investors coughing up the 'anticipated' £127m? 

6. Will this be another Parc y Scarlets, bleeding the taxpayer dry for years to come? Or even another Welsh Government Technium Project, defunct after ten years? 

7. How much taxpayers' money has already been spent? Including the value of the land?

Visualisation from ARCH
A wholly private enterprise would be a different matter but this involves public cash and at the very least, and given the current crisis in health and social care, never mind the highly questionable track record of County Hall vanity projects, the involvement of the County Council should be open to scrutiny, challenge and democratic oversight. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

'Lumpy carpets' and other comments


Cneifiwr's latest post, 'Undulating Axminster' brings us up to date with the state of play over the Pembrey Country Park scandal. Along with evaluating just how level the Axminster actually is, Cneifiwr also comments on the priority amongst some corporate bodies, and one in particular, towards reputation management rather than openness and honesty. I have covered the progress of the emerging scandal in Pembrey several times and, as Cneifiwr points out, was reported to the police early last year by the chief executive for my reference to 'lumpy carpets'.

As a footnote, and as I didn't refer to Mr James personally wielding the broom, his complaint to the police, which I suspect was drafted by a media lawyer rather than a criminal barrister, included a reference to a stock photo, and reads thus;
"This post contains a photograph of a man sweeping something under a carpet.  Mr James believes that any reasonable reader would associate the reference to “lumpy carpets” with the phrase “sweep under the carpet” with its associated implication that the carpet hides something embarrassing that he didn’t want people to know about."

I am reminded of a couple of other allegations to the police which, in Mr James's view, constituted criminal harassment and which, in my view, certainly do not.

Prior to the Police Commissioner and Assembly election in May 2016 there was something of a cock-up over the postal ballot papers, Mr James was the chief Returning Officer and the incident was widely reported at the time. More to the point, electors had contacted me because they were confused over the postal ballot papers.

Within the post I had made this comment, subsequently reported to the police by Mr James as evidence of criminal harassment;
"The Returning Officer, Mark James, is no stranger to controversy of course and it was only a couple of years ago that Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards called for 'ministerial intervention', questioning whether Mr James should preside over the European election whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the unlawful payments scandal.
Earlier, in 2012, there was controversy over an 'advance payment' of £20,000 to Mr James for the local elections, a payment made before the number of contested seats were known, and in the previous financial year."

It remains unclear whether Mr James reported Mr Edwards to the police for harassment in 2014, or those who flagged up the returning officer fees in 2012. I suspect not.

Interestingly, recent controversy over the blocked Notice Of Motion put forward by Cllr Alun Lenny, with the curious reasoning that it might constitute contempt of court, has led to several suggestions, here and there, whether the role and remit of Head of Administration and Law/Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones, includes sheltering the chief executive with an occasional legal umbrella.

I suggested that this might be the case back in March when Ms Rees Jones refused to consider a complaint I had made following the chief executive's remarks, to the Western Mail, falsely accusing me of lying over offers I had made regarding the damages from his unlawfully funded counterclaim.
Given her involvement in every aspect of the case so far (and since), it seemed odd that she suddenly decided that the matter was 'private'.
My comment, in the same vein as that umbrella effect, was also reported to the police.

As per the format of the harassment warning I received back in August, the police made no judgement as to whether Mr James's complaints were worthy of not only their own time, but also the council resources and facilities it took to cobble them together. However, they were happy to issue it, and the warning still stands and could be used in court should Mr James make further criminal allegations.

In effect the warning is akin to a high court injunction against legitimate comment concerning the business of a local council, without the accused being able to dispute or formally counter the allegations.

And, unlike the accuser, I am not in the position of having a publicly funded legal department at my disposal.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Rhodri's Return?


The announcement earlier this week that former Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid) intends to stand for the St Clears seat in the May council elections is an interesting one, the seat is currently held by Independent Group member Cllr Phillip Hughes (who, I hear you ask? Ah, former member of the executive board during the pension and libel indemnity scandals).

Mr Thomas remarked to the BBC that he wants to challenge the "democratic deficit" where "officials run the council", adding, "We need to ensure elected members run the council."

This is in contrast to the corporate world view adopted by his Plaid colleague and leader of the council Emlyn Dole who, bathed in the warm embrace, or, perhaps, clutches, of Meryl and Mark, has convinced himself, but no one else, that everything is now fine.

Perhaps Mr Thomas noticed that only last month, the 'ruling', and largest group on the council, Plaid Cymru, couldn't even get a Motion on the council table and, worse still, didn't seem to have the bottle to try and assert their authority.

In May, Plaid will be hoping, clearly, to break the grip of Pam's Independents and their cosy relationship with the chief executive, defeat Labour, and assume full control In my view the current Plaid leadership is not helping matters, quite the opposite in fact. Meryl is standing down in May and the chief executive is rumoured to be off at the same time, though whether this rumour is based on anything more than collective wishful thinking we'll have to wait and see. A £20,000 returning officer fee might stall him for a while.

To the observer the Plaid politicians outside the council have been a little more forthright in their views over the years than their councillor colleagues; joining the toxic culture in County Hall rather than defeating it was a bad error of judgement. Maybe Mr Thomas has been brought in to try and pick up the pieces for Plaid...

He is, however, regarded by Mr James as a very unwelcome irritant. He (Mr Thomas, not Mr James, obviously) has consistently supported calls for inquiries into the planning department, most notably in regards to the Breckman case; he has called for the council to be put in special measures over the democratic deficit; called for Mr James to resign over the unlawful payments scandal called for his formal suspension as returning officer and along with Jonathan Edwards MP called for the police to investigate. He has also campaigned for some level of control over chief officer pay and was openly critical over the dodgy payment to the Scarlets and the proposed half a million golden handshake to Mr James.

None of this has endeared him to Mr James, as you can imagine. If elected, it will be interesting to see if he follows up his words with actions, we might even see a leadership challenge to Emlyn Dole, better still would be to see the chief executive finally held to account; if Mr Thomas seriously wants to end the democratic deficit then Mr James has to go.
If nothing else, I can't see our chief executive's bullying tactics, legal posturing and bluff having the desired effect on Mr Thomas.

Interesting times ahead.
Oh, and someone has started a petition, please sign if you wish.

And with that, a Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cadno sets the Scene - The Carmarthenshire Herald


As a festive treat, here's another splendid offering from Herald columnist Cadno;


Cadno Sets the Scene

What is Christmas, if not a time of tradition? You know, readers: the rising of the sun. the running of the deer, holly, mistletoe, the warm glow of festive cheer. All of those things and Boxing Day: Revenge of the sprouts.
And panto,
Ah, panto, readers! 
When Cadno was a wee young cub, panto was very much part of the period around the Christmas festival. It always struck Cadno as very peculiar that Mr Hopkin, the village's lonely Anglican, who spent most of the year looking like he sucked lemons for a living, threw himself into womens' clothing with such abandon as soon as the stage was dressed in the village hall. Odder still that Cadno's grandmother, a woman of strict rectitude and devoutness, chortled mightily to all those double-entendres about farting, which Cadno was sure she should not get. 
There was something about pantomime that was both hearteningly old-fashioned and compellingly modern. The best pantos mocked the events and personalities which were in the news or - as we used to say  - 'on the telly', while remaining old-fashioned. And they haven't changed much, readers: at least, the best of them. 
But Cadno's favourite bit was the oldest remnant of staging a performance: the prologue that set the scene. These are, of course, fossils from very old comedies indeed - the concept would have been familiar to those who sat in the rickety temporary theatres of Rome in the centuries before what is now regarded as the first Christmas. Playgoers watching the Roman equivalent af a Carry On film penned by Plautus would understand the stock characters and elaborate smutty jokes. And so we come to Cadno's own effort to add to the ouevre.
The houselights are dimmed. And before the curtain goes up on Gaol Hill's stage on comes, well, readers, see if you can guess who it is...

I am neither fool nor knave
In fact, I think I am quite brave
Are you surprised I'm quite cranky?
Working with Trimsaran's Widow 
Twankey

Believe me, I'm not the vengeful sort
Brandishing contempt of court
Around my head like a shroud
To keep you local heroes cowed.

Two thousand and seventeen, in May
That;s when there will be hell to pay
At ballot box, in public vote
And on this you can me quote

The Indies patiently their chance bide
All the blame they'll put on Plaid
While Labour hope you have forgot
That they achieved precisely squat

In fact they're pulling a confidence trick
Because they believe you're all quite thick
And will not begin to wonder how
Their policies they've abandoned now

High principles they now proclaim
In truth they should share the blame
With Meryl and her Indie gang
For bankrolling me without a pang

Too late, too late, now to repent
Once the public money's spent
With Meryl telling me I'm great
Labour gave me on a plate

The keys of Carmarthenshire
And now put all the blame on her
For not restraining my ambition
And leading the Council to perdition

With Labour's help Meryl indulged
My sense of self-worth 'til it bulged
And bursting out from every pore
Led me to the High Court's door

There the judge ruled in his decree
That there are no strings on me
A vile calumny, His Honour said
And poured opprobrium on the head..

On her who]swore upon the Bible
That she had not poor me libelled
Yes, her criticism I'll now douse
By sending bailiffs to her house

At this festive time of year
I'll see her out upon her ear
To fund my action I have spent
Council cash on a learned gent

To make sure I shall have my way
And Councillors shall have no say
Upon my scheme to make her homeless
With the aid of those quite boneless

And I will bend their will to mine
In lieu of them possessing spines
From criticism I shall be exempt
By threatening all with contempt

Of court for it is plain
That for all I have disdain
So long have I been their king
I've got them all for me to sing

From the hymn sheet of my choosing
While oleaginously oozing
Wise words of guidance as I sit near
The Council Chairman's very ear

Words which are told to me
By those who advise legally
Upon what it is I want to do
To make sure nothing can get through

Displeasing me to raise my hackles
By those from the tin tabernacles
Which sit upon the hillside green
Who want me to control my spleen

And show that surprising rarity
Acting with Christian charity
I'll take no lessons from their sort
With derision I shall snort

To add to my position sheen
I'll get advice from the team
Described as hopelessly 'cavalier'
For their arguments most queer

Of legal issues small and great
To make sure discussion shall abate
A biddable counsellor I'll seek
To give the council's rules a tweak

Bereft of independent thought
They'll do for me just as they ought
A panto horse, each end a sphincter,
My faithful steed, the Erylinda

And now, electors, on with our show
But do not worry, feel not low
Whatever happens at the next election
The council shall not change direction

Your new reps will all play along
As I plan to go on and on
For truly friends, is it not written
It is better to reign in hell...
than serve in heaven?

(The Carmarthenshire Herald 23rd December, reproduced with permission)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cadno's Complete Contempt - from this week's Carmarthenshire Herald


Here, to reach the parts that the printed version of the Carmarthenshire Herald doesn't, is this week's Cadno opinion piece;

Cadno’s Complete Contempt

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence, stated at a Defence Department briefing: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.’
Poor Donald 
Rumsfeld rather had the mickey taken out of him for that little lot, but careful examination suggests that what he said has both logic and is a sound way of testing hypotheses. You insert a hypothesis in one end of Rumsfeld’s statement, and at the other end it emerges either intact or in pieces. 
Here’s a hypothesis to test, readers: never mind what councillors and the public think, Carmarthenshire County Council, as a corporate entity, has no interest in
attempting to extract itself from what has rightly been described as a ‘toxic’ situation with blogger Jacqui Thompson. Cadno is not chewing over what Mr Justice Tugenhadt said and whether he was right, wrong, or both. Neither is Cadno remotely interested in how the case ended up in court in the first place. You play the ball from where it lies, not where you want it to be. We are now at the sticky end of litigation, everything that has been said has been said; everything that has been done has been done. Now is the time to pay the piper for the dance. 
The Council has no interest in the public relations cost of its present situation and, if one accepts that Mr James’s action against Mrs Thompson for damages is entirely a private matter (and Cadno is proud to have kept a straight face writing that phrase), then it has no interest in how, when, or whether Mr James chooses to
extract his pound of flesh. 
Except it does. 
Mr James would not have defended Mrs Thompson’s claim against him – offers to settle had been made – and would not have launched a counterclaim without the Council writing their Chief Executive a blank cheque. 
Moreover, the complaint by Mrs Thompson would not have arisen had not someone at the Council authorised Mr James to write the comments about Mrs Thompson and her family that he put – in his own name but with his employer’s authorisation – on another blog. 
The Council will not say who gave Mr James that authorisation, but three scenarios present themselves:
(1)   A senior councillor, possibly on the Executive Board, gave him the nod;
(2)   Mr James used his delegated powers to grant himself the authority to do so;
(3)   Some unminuted meeting took place in which a combination of senior officers and councillors signed off on the deed. 
Now, we know – because it is minuted (and the minutes have not been challenged) – that Mr James was authorised ‘by the Council’. 
That rules out number one, because even a leader of the council could not authorise Mr James to do as he did; we can rule out number two, because that would be an unconscionable action for which Mr James would already have been disciplined, if not dismissed; that leaves number three. The presence of councillors – or at least one shy and retiring type – would also be essential for three to work, due to the problem of officers using ‘delegated powers’ to bind the council to a course of action that they would or should have realised on any assessment would have led to at least the threat of litigation. 
So, the Council is as bound up in Mr James’s legal travails as Mr James is. 
Last week, the Council – through the unlikely personage of Eryl Morgan (aka Linda Rees Jones) – claimed that Mr James’s action was wholly private in nature. 
Don’t make me laugh, readers.
That’s comedy gold on its own. 
What the Chair of the Council determined (hahaha) is that the Council should not discuss matters in which it has spent the money for the benefit of a private individual who just happens to be its most senior employee. 
But what got Cadno was the suggestion that somehow even bringing forward the matter for discussion could constitute contempt of court by Cllrs Alun Lenny and Cefin Campbell. 
Umm. You’re having a laugh, is Cadno’s response to that.
‘Publication made as or as part of a discussion in good faith of public affairs or other matters of general public interest is not to be treated as a contempt of court
under the strict liability rule if the risk of impediment or prejudice to particular legal proceedings is merely incidental to the discussion’. Contempt of Court Act 1981 s5. 
Obviously an aspect of statute law of which Cllr Eryl Morgan was unaware. Cadno suggests asking Cllr Morgan about it when you see him out and about. Your discussions of what is and is not contempt of court with Eryl Morgan should be refreshing and enlightening. 
Of course, Eryl Morgan might have had in mind the provisions Part 81.12 of the Civil Procedure Rules, expressly ‘interference with the due administration of justice
in connection with proceedings’. But that wouldn’t even come close to biting in the case of the councillors’ rejected motion. 
Thankfully, Cadno is prepared to help Eryl Morgan out. In 2012, Appendix F of the Law Commission’s report 209 provided a list of all the statutory and regulatory
provisions under which it is possible to commit contempt of court. 
The ‘Thou Shalt not Annoy Senior Council Officers Act’, or the ‘Sabre-Rattling (Causes) Act’ were not among them. 
With nigh on a quarter of a million pounds of public money spent on court costs in support of Mr James (including the counterclaim costs, which seem to have vanished), plus hundreds – if not thousands – of officer hours spent on the matter, the idea that there is no public interest in what happens next is bonkers. The idea that a public employee who could benefit to the tune of £35K in his own right as a result of that money being spent should not have his promise to remit the money to his employer (curse those unchallenged minutes!) discussed in public by the body which bankrolled him is similarly crackers. 
Any suggestion that contempt of court is even possible in these circumstances is not only nonsense but nonsense on stilts. Nonsense on stilts on stilts on top of scaffolding poles. 
The law of contempt, however carelessly waved around, is not a cloak behind which a body like the Council can try and hide things it does not want discussed. 
Now we look at those known unknowns, readers: how many councillors are prepared to do something about it?
(Reproduced with permission)

See also recent posts on this blog, including, The Vice-like grip and from Cneifiwr's blog, Contempt and Mr James's legal glacier

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

I'd also like to add the following - an observation, received from a correspondent, and included in a letter to a Member of Parliament;

"Whenever I think that this matter has reached rock bottom and can’t possibly sink any lower events disabuse me of this conclusion.  There is a sinister irony of Orwellian proportions when democratically elected representatives invoke the rule of law to undermine it.  These acts of abuse and, put in religious terms, desecration of the rule of law, are risible and reprehensible. This travesty applies to the denial of Sian Caiach’s question and the denial to allow the motion to be put by Cllrs Lenny and Campbell; a motion that was limp and pathetically inadequate and yet even this miserable offering roused the angst and paranoid thuggery that masquerades as democracy in County Hall.  
I am not privy to every aspect of the current chief executive’s behaviour, nor his performance in carrying out his public function, but from what I know of it, he seems to have a cavalier approach to compliance with the law and an unhealthy disrespect for democracy.  As such he should be dismissed for gross misconduct...."

An Oops from the Ombudsman

In non-council news I had some interesting, if rather odd correspondence with the Ombudsman's office. A couple of months ago I requested an ombudsman's report which partially upheld a complaint against Carmarthenshire council concerning an adult social services issue.

These anonymised reports are available on request and are usually sent within a couple of days, sometimes a summary is sent instead. They happily sent me the full report, anonymised but unredacted. However, I felt that it was of a particularly personal nature and, more to the point, the content of the report didn't really raise matters of wider public interest. So I left it at that.

Two weeks ago I received another email from the Ombudsman's office telling me that my Freedom Of Information request for this report had been refused. The refusal stated that;
"having taken into account the interests of the person aggrieved and the extent to which redactions could be made, we do not consider that it would be appropriate to disclose the report in question. Consequently, on the basis that disclosure would not be made in line with the provisions of section 21 of the PSOW Act, we therefore consider that the report is exempt from disclosure by virtue of section 44 of the FOI Act"
As they'd already sent it weeks ago, this appears to be something of a data protection hiccup, and I'd never made a FOI request anyway.

Tender troubles


One issue which has been troubling our council in recent years has been the problem of how to put the recycling service out to the required tender when, aside from a private operator in Llangadog, the service is run by its own arms-length company, Cwm Environmental.

The waste and recycling service five year contract expired a couple of years ago but with confusion and complications over conducting a fair tendering process, the contract with Cwm was extended 'informally' for three years. This was retrospectively approved by councillors and fortunately for them, wasn't challenged by potential bidders given that the three year extension was worth several million quid.



Further issues then arose with the conflicting role of the Director of Environment who would be overseeing the bidding process at the same time as having roles and responsibilities with the governance of Cwm. The Director's role had to be amended, temporarily, so as to be legally impartial in the bidding process. How this was achieved is not clear, perhaps the Directors responsibilities no longer involve Cwm. There is precious little scrutiny or democratic oversight of Cwm, and quite possibly even less now.

Moving forward, a soft marketing exercise was carried out to invite expressions of interest, cost, as usual, unknown.

Clearly, ensuring that no bidder gets an unfair advantage is one of the problems with arms-length companies, and the council is looking to do the same, or similar, with leisure, housing, and social care. Of course, they could just try and do it through the back door, but with the disastrous, illegal, and now abandoned catering tender for Pembrey Country Park, it's probably not the best option.

What exactly would happen if Cwm happened to be unsuccessful in bidding for the contract are not known, especially given that the company's considerable assets are technically owned by the public. Or that's how I understand it with a company wholly owned by the council.

However, the problem is not just causing a prolonged scratching of heads, it seems to be costing a small fortune as well.

A report to scrutiny last week provides some detail, though not the figures of course. A Project Board of senior management has been set up to oversee the process, and a dedicated project manager, along with external legal, financial and technical experts are all being appointed...cost, again, unknown.

The report also states that given the complexities associated with owning Cwm, which include employment issues, the external legal and financial advisors may well find that the current process needs to be 'reviewed' or, in simple terms..sent back to the drawing board. Oh dear.
Another shambles in the making.

Whilst I'm here don't forget that budget time is approaching and the council have an online consultation running until the 8th January. Out of £25m cuts over the next three years just under half the 'savings', £11.2m, are planned to be cut from education. A £3.4m cut this year is likely to equate to the loss of 60 teaching jobs.

The online consultation states that if this cut isn't made your council tax will go up by 14.6%. A scary figure designed to send most people reaching for the 'agree' button. In reality I would question the wisdom of the council putting so many efficiency eggs in one basket, a very risky move, let alone the potentially devastating effect on your child's education.

The budget will be decided in February, and by then the May local election campaigning will be well underway. So look out for those pre-election u-turns and planted red herrings which will creep back in once the 'new' administration settles in for the next term of office.

With the focus on cuts, Plaid blaming the Labour Welsh Government, and Labour blaming the Tories in Westminster, what the council is actually spending your money on remains something of a mystery as, unlike English councils, those itemised spending figures are not released. Clearly even the tendering process for recycling is straining the finances, let alone the drip-drip feed to the 'visionary' and 'trailblazing' Wellness Shed, or 'luxury spa' as it's otherwise known.... Armchair auditors out there need the tenacity of Sherlock Holmes. A disproportionately overstuffed legal department and press office might be a good place to start, along with our astonishingly overpaid chief executive....

Anyway, more on the budget, and other council matters, in due course.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The vice-like grip


December 16th; A further post from Cneifiwr; Mr James's Legal Glacier, well worth a read....

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

As I'm sure many of you are aware, the Motion put forward by Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny (see end of post) for the full council meeting on December 14th was rejected. As was, for the second month running, a question from Cllr Sian Caiach asking for clarity about Mr James' intentions should he ever succeed in getting the damages. It remains unclear whether he's going to give it to the council, charity, or pocket it himself.

It wasn't the Chair who rejected the Motion, he neither knows, nor wants to know, anything about all of this, this was Head of Law and Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones acting on behalf of the person who gave her the job, the person with a vested interest. Impartiality doesn't come into it.

Let's not beat around the bush, as Cneifiwr puts it so well in his latest post, 'Contempt' ;

"The last 24 hours have brought a powerful reminder that for all the talk of reform and change in County Hall, and despite the WLGA-led review of governance, the chief executive retains a vice-like grip on the running of the council, with councillors reduced to being impotent onlookers.

The checks and balances which are supposed to prevent abuses and protect the interests of the wider public have been subverted and corrupted." 

As for Ms Rees Jones, she likes to remind Cllr Caiach, somewhat scathingly, that she, Cllr Caiach, was a 'witness for Mrs Thompson' in the libel trial. What she fails to mention, as she imparts her legal advice, is that she herself was a witness in the trial, for Mr James and the Council, her witness statement consisted of her attempt to justify the libel indemnity clause, a clause found to be unlawful, and now suspended.

As Cllr Caiach has been single-handedly raising questions concerning all this, or trying to, for years, , I felt that Cllr Lenny's Motion was a little late in the day. However, despite some misgivings, and clearly I do not agree with the second paragraph, I gave it a cautious, but sincere welcome. In fact, prior to the Motion appearing I had a letter from Adam Price AM (Plaid) explaining that he had spent a couple of weeks speaking to colleagues in County Hall, and had made representations to the leader of the council, all of which had led to this Motion.

Indeed, I hope Cllr Lenny can find a way forward. The threat that the Motion could be contempt of court is, in my honest view, nonsense. Courts will look favourably on efforts by the parties concerned to resolve matters prior to trials and hearings or during litigation, which was all this motion was suggesting.
Legal threats, of one kind or another, are used by the chief executive and his legal department, in a variety of scenarios, to persuade enquiring councillors to back-off. This is a perfect example of that behaviour.

Mr James has, basically, slapped them down, and not for the first time. A couple of years ago former Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas called for intervention in Carmarthenshire Council, and that was when Plaid were in opposition...

The chief executive's actions, aided by the legal rubber stamp of Ms Rees Jones, and a very pliant Chair, have totally undermined the democratic process. Something he has been doing since he first arrived in Carmarthen, he started by threatening and trying to control the local press. This is not just about me and the libel case, this is about the toxic culture created and led by Mr James for fourteen years.

This culture was recently described, by former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon, as "Wales' answer to a Sicilian cartel....It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

If you're wondering where Plaid council leader Emlyn Dole stands on all this I received a letter from him this morning confirming that 'we now have a charge on your property'. He invites me to contact his office if I have 'constructive proposals' to repay £190,390.... He doesn't elaborate on what will happen next if I can't.
However, if Cllr Dole is prepared to remove the Charge, he's welcome to contact me.
So hopeless is the prospect of recovery that the judge didn't even make an order for costs for last week's hearing.

A few days ago, welcoming the Motion as a possible glimmer of hope, Cneifiwr wrote a blog post titled 'Common sense v Revenge'.
It is now clear to me, as if it wasn't already, that Mr James prefers revenge, and will let no one, no one at all, stand in his way.

Here's Cllr Lenny's response to the rejection;

"Cllr Cefin Campbell and I had submitted a Notice of Motion to next week’s full meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council urging the Executive Board and Chief Executive to seek means of settling the libel issue involving Jacqui Thompson in a way which would not result in her being forced to sell her home to pay damages and costs. The NoM was drawn up with the best of intentions, in an attempt to bring a conciliatory note to a toxic issue which has dragged on for several years. I’m sorry to say that the Chair has refused to place our NoM on the Agenda. The Chair was guided by the legal department, who e-mailed us in his name. Basically, it said we had no business to interfere in the Chief Executive’s “private and personal” affairs and legal rights. It warned that such action could constitute contempt of court. Cefin and I were also accused of showing “extreme discourtesy” to the Chair by making the Press aware of our Notice of Motion before he had time to consider it.  
For now, I will just say this.
Many would perceive that the Chief Executive’s action was hardly “private and personal” as his counter-libel action was publicly funded by the Council, an indemnity deemed unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office. As regards “extreme discourtesy” shown towards the Chair, that it utter nonsense. An elected member has the democratic right to make public an intended Notice of Motion at any time. Giving the public an opportunity to discuss such NoMs – or intended NoMs – is a key part of the democratic process. Cefin and I discussed seeking independent legal opinion, but came to the conclusion that enough money has been pocketed by lawyers and barristers in this matter already. We shall leave the court of public opinion to make its own judgement for now. But this is not the end of the matter…"

Here's the rejected Notice of Motion;
NOTICE OF MOTION 
Carmarthenshire County Council expresses concern about the way in which its reputation has been tarnished in recent years by the court actions involving our Chief Executive and Mrs Jacqui Thompson. 
We fully accept that the previous council was obliged to defend its most senior officer in the High Court against a libel accusation. We also accept that it was the Chief Executive’s prerogative to launch a personal counter-libel action to protect his reputation. 
The judicial outcome clearly vindicates these actions. 
However, we are now concerned that the pursual of damages and costs is having the
perverse effect of causing damage to the reputation of this council and its Chief Executive. 
We urge the Chief Executive and the Executive Board to seek means of settling this matter in a way which will not result in Mrs Thompson losing her home. 
We believe that such a conciliatory approach would enhance the reputation of this council and its Chief Executive and help bring closure to this toxic issue.
-----------------------------------

The council acquired a final charging order for £190,390 last Friday and the chief executive is currently trying to force sale of my home for his damages. There has been no mention of the £41,000 unlawfully funded counterclaim costs.

There has been press coverage on BBC Wales and the Carmarthen Journal.
This week's Carmarthenshire Herald has again reported on these matters in detail, and includes full coverage of last week's delivery to County Hall of a pound of flesh.





13th December; A post from south Wales blogger Owen Donovan; FMQs: On Strike
Thanks Owen, aka @oggybloggyogwr

14th December; Carmarthen Journal; Motion to protect blogger Jacqui Thompson's home blocked over contempt of court concerns