Friday, 20 April 2018

Caerphilly news...

With the news that the long-running Caerphilly council pay scandal, involving three of it's most senior officers, including its chief executive, is set to rise to £3.6m, today's editorial in the Western Mail questions the system which has allowed this to happen, it's worth a read.

I have mentioned the situation in Caerphilly numerous times on this blog, and made parallels with Carmarthenshire, most recently here, and both situations arose following 'unlawful' findings by the Wales Audit Office.

The difference in Carmarthenshire, where there was a secret pay rise via an unlawful pension 'arrangement' and the unlawful libel indemnity, was that the council leadership were (and still are) so firmly in the pocket of the chief executive that they refused to suspend him, it was only when the pressure from outside the council began to mount that he eventually, and 'voluntarily', 'stepped-aside' whilst the police gave it all a cursory glance. On that point I find it incredible that the police spent a mere three months chewing over some paperwork (and did not correspond with either County Hall or the CPS) yet found a spare 18 months to investigate, question and eventually charge me, all of which was entirely fruitless.

Anyway, in some ways we are fortunate that no 'official' action has been taken against Mr James as the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire would be footing a similar bill.
At the end of the day it is cheaper, and easier all round, to allow him to get away scot free with the audit office findings, and the substantial associated costs of the scandals; allow him free use of council resources for his private interests; take no action over decisions which deliberately disadvantage the taxpayer; ignore the fact he has undeclared business interests; allow him to pervert the constitution to appoint his loyal disciples; allow him to economise with the truth, threaten the press, mislead and threaten councillors, interfere with and block democratic debate, etc etc.

As has been shown, with the farce in Caerphilly, getting shot of senior officers is such an extraordinarily tortuous and expensive process, it's virtually impossible. The protection afforded to senior officials is more or less total and way above the usual employment protection rules, and as the editorial says 'Our councils are simply unable to manage senior staff when things go wrong'.

It's also a matter of semantics. What is politely termed 'unlawful' in world of senior council officialdom, is quite simply illegal, fraudulent or downright immoral to the rest of us.

The editorial concludes by speculating on whether Mr O'Sullivan will be given a pay out and if so, it would, in general terms "be a shameful day for the politicians in Cardiff Bay and Westminster who have been unable to deal with the problems that undoubtedly exist in the most senior ranks of local authorities across the UK."

The "problem" certainly exists in the senior ranks of Carmarthenshire. It's time for the system to change and County Hall Carmarthen would be a good place to start.

FOI news - Office costs

A Freedom of Information response arrived today which shows that the Plaid/Independent executive spent over £8,000 on refurbishing their offices since August last year;

Click to enlarge

We can all recall those 'difficult decisions' made in February's budget yet this decision didn't seem particularly troublesome did it? £8,000 could have been spent on some books for our schools, fixed a few potholes or contributed to the care of a vulnerable resident or two, the list is endless.

And another point, during a discussion over the council's new Local Housing Company at last week's council meeting, Cllr Dole argued that it would help local builders 'prosper' and Executive Member Linda Evans said "We want to keep the Carmarthenshire pound in Carmarthenshire".
With at least three of the providers in the above FOI response based out of the county, it seems that these noble gesture are little empty, unless of course there are no carpet fitters, printers or furniture suppliers in Carmarthenshire....

Monday, 16 April 2018

Council epetitions - is the four year wait nearly over? - updated

Update 18th April;

It would seem, from the webcast, that my post below had been read and noted.
Cllr Rob James presented the Motion and noted that approval had been given for an epetition page in June 2015 although it was first recommended in 2014, but we were still waiting. He cited recent examples of a lack of transparency including the incident with the BBC reporter last week.

Plaid leader Emlyn Dole demanded that the Motion be withdrawn as a vote had been taken 3 years ago. The proposer refused to withdraw. Mr Dole went on to say about the inadequate software (as I mentioned below) which didn't allow for a bilingual service. Cllr James noted that a member of the public (me) had been told (two years ago) that a solution to this issue was being looked at 'in house'.

Other Plaid councillors, and the chief executive, then claimed that an epetition page was not possible without a procedure to back it up. This is not only nonsense (paper petitions can already be presented) but merely a ploy to stall and frustrate further moves toward transparency.
If constitutional tweaks were necessary, then the council have had four years to sort this out, and to find a bilingual service. It's inexcusable.

Instead of embracing and reinforcing an an important principle of public engagement and transparency, Emlyn Dole chose to put it back in the long grass where it has languished for four years and his party, along with the Independents voted to reject the Motion by 31 votes to 22.

Why would anyone vote against this at all? Unless they were following orders... Shame on them.

Let's hope this particularly prolonged case of municipal constipation gets moving soon.

The debate can be seen here.

In a few other developments, Labour's Kevin Madge was nominated as Vice Chair of the council for 2018/19 (he will then be Chair the year after that), presumably this was a reward for years of loyal service rubber stamping the chief executive's unlawful activities. There was a long argument over whether or an amendment to another Motion was admissible or not, and the meeting ended with councillors voting unanimously to accept the Independent Remuneration Panel's recommendations and give themselves all a 1.49% pay rise.

* * *

Wednesday's full council agenda includes a Motion put forward by Cllr Rob James (Lab), elected last May, asking the Executive Board to introduce an epetitions facility on the council website.

There is, however, some history to this. The damning WLGA governance report published in 2014, stated, amongst the 39 recommendations, that an epetition page should be set up within three months.

In November 2014 the council's own IT Strategy fully supported the recommendation;

"Detachment from the political process is a big issue, with election turnout being as little as 23% in one area of Carmarthen in the last Council Election. Everyone can view e-petitions online and they are easy to sign. They encourage transparency when petitions are debated and increase public engagement with the Local Authority
E-petitions are not a new feature of Local Authorities but are not common in Wales. Carmarthenshire Council has a chance to get ahead in digital communication as e-petitions are introduced."

The WLGA recommendation was eventually accepted and approved by full council at an Extraordinary meeting in June 2015.

Several months later, in February 2016, I asked the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones when the epetition page was likely to appear and I was told that their software providers couldn't supply a bilingual service so in-house options were being considered, this was despite the website itself being bilingual and the Assembly providing a bilingual service for several years...

The process, if ever it should materialise, would be similar to the Assembly and parliamentary  epetition systems. Petitions with a certain number of signatures would trigger a council/committee debate, this might be a percentage of the electorate, or a fixed number. Guidance would be provided on the webpage and any rejected petitions, ie those which did not meet the approval of the chief executive, would be listed with brief, valid reasons why they were unacceptable.

It's all quite straightforward and would, quite simply, provide residents with a direct voice to raise issues, or even new ideas, with the council. Epetitions are, as I'm sure you are aware, increasingly popular and a quick and easy way for us to register our agreement, comment on and support a particular cause.

As this epetition page was recommended four years ago and the council has already agreed to do this three years ago, a vote next week is not really necessary. All that is required is a date when it will finally be up and running.
The 'inadequate software' argument is wearing a bit thin.

As regular readers will be well aware, even small measures to improve transparency, public engagement and accountability have been quite an epic struggle, and as Friday's shameful treatment of a BBC journalist shows, the nonsense continues. The obstacle to progress has always been, and still is, the control freak at the top.

We'll see what happens.

Friday, 13 April 2018

BBC reporter barred from council Executive Board Member decision meeting

An interesting issue developed this morning over press access to Executive Board Member (EBM) Decision meetings.
A BBC reporter had been covering a story about plans to reroute a public footpath which happened to pass through the midst of a nudist campsite up in the hills of Llanllwni, the story had even featured on the news. There were various objections and arguments put forward and a full report, which also included all the names and addresses of neighbours and objectors, had been published on the council website prior to the meeting. In other words, there was no exempt information.

However, the reporter was barred from attending and tweeted;

Under present legislation it seems that there is no requirement for a council to allow access to these meetings, which is rather different to saying that the public and press are actually barred. The 'no requirement' loophole is being used by the council as a barrier to transparency, and should be closed.

It was only after the WLGA report in 2014 on the dire state of the council's governance arrangements that non-executive councillors were finally allowed attend individual EBM meetings, prior to that it was virtually impossible to call-in or scrutinise, or even observe, a decision taken by an individual Executive Board member and was a convenient route to a quiet rubber stamp.

There have been some very odd and secretive EBM meetings, including a notorious one in 2013 on 'press freedom', and a whole series where Meryl Gravell dished out millions of pounds in questionable grants.
These meetings make decisions on RIPA/Data Protection policy, social care charges, HR policy, housing policy, fixed penalties, more grants, to name but a few

The subject of this meeting this morning had already been reported in the press, the report was on the council website, and even included directions of how to get there. The council's constitution, for what it's worth, allows public access to all open meetings, so unless there is exempt information, there is no reason whatsoever why these EBM meetings should not be designated as public meetings and open to all.

I hope the reporter makes a formal complaint. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Town Hall rich list - Carmarthenshire

With the annual Taxpayers Alliance Town Hall rich list published yesterday Carmarthenshire's entry, for senior officers pocketing over £100,000 per year, with pension contributions, looks relatively brief, even with two over £150,000:

However, the figures were taken from the 2016/17 council accounts which showed a somewhat confusing picture, muddled by in-year restructuring and retirements. A more realistic picture can be found in the annual pay policy approved last month:

Chief Executive, £171,539
Corporate Directors, £123,218 x 5 (one is also deputy chief executive)
Assistant Chief Executive, £102,917
Heads of Service, £90,709 x 14

If we add the annual pension pots, roughly about 12%, the 14 heads of service hover towards £100,000 apiece, and so the total bill for the 21 top brass, (at the top end of the pay scales), in this largely rural county, is somewhere in the region of £2.4m, give or take a few grand.

The chief executive is not part of the local government pension scheme, not since the unlawful pension pay rise 'arrangement' exposed by the Wales Audit Office, and bloggers, in 2014. The second officer over £150,000 is the Director of Communities, Jake Morgan, who receives an extra 10% for being deputy chief executive, a deputy is essential of course as Mr James is a busy man.

The chief executive's pay is bumped up by returning officer fees and the fees for the May 2017 local elections will show up in the next accounts. In 2012 it was £20,000 and, controversially, paid in advance and before the number of contested seats were known. And more than many residents could hope to earn in a year. Fees from other elections (and there's been an election bonanza over the past couple of years) are paid to him direct by Welsh or Westminster governments, so do not show up in council accounts.

Mr James also enjoys the fringe benefits of having publicly funded staff, resources and computer facilities at his disposal to pursue his private legal battles, as I have discovered.
When he nearly retired a couple of years ago he almost walked off with £446,000, a remarkable reward for a rap sheet which included illegal payment scandals and the creation of a toxic, bullying, anti-democratic culture. In the end, he decided to stay.

So, as the potholes grow and multiply, so do the wallets of the top brass. If nothing else, this is probably one of the arguments for reducing the number of councils as these figures, in greater or lesser degrees are replicated across 22 local authorities in Wales, serving a total population roughly the size of Greater Manchester.

The Welsh Government are still considering a £95,000 cap on exit packages, and a few years back Plaid tried unsuccessfully to stop the extra cash for returning officers for local elections, arguing that it was part of the job description anyway. Attempts by the Labour group to reduce the pay of two new directors, to about £110,000, were defeated last year. The CEO joined the 'debate' in the council chamber and proceeded, shamelessly, to influence the vote.
Any post with a remuneration of over £100,000 requires the approval of full council, so although we have seen this process manipulated more than once in Carmarthenshire, control over senior pay, whilst subject to national pay scales, ultimately lies with the councillors.

When a Labour councillor raised the subject of eye-watering levels of chief officer pay a few weeks ago Mr James took to his keyboard to write an angry email berating the councillor for publicly embarrassing him and his colleagues. Presumably Mr James is burning the midnight oil sending another one to the Taxpayers' Alliance...

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Those unlawful libel indemnity clauses....a call to arms

The council AGM, coming up next month, often provides the opportunity to 'update' the council's constitution with any amendments which may be deemed necessary. As we know this is currently the remit of the 'cross-party Constitution Review Working Group', aka, chief executive Mr James and Legal Linda.

Back at the AGM of 2008, buried within a mound of papers and assorted subsections was the libel indemnity clause. This went unnoticed by council despite, in 2006, having adopted the Order preventing the public funding of defamation claims by officers.

My attempts to highlight this anomaly fell, for a while, on largely deaf ears. This was until a simpler, and indeed more accurate description was suggested to me to describe what was, essentially, an unlawful fund, or a public resource if you will, which could be used to try and silence critics, and the press.

Mr James, as has been recorded in depth, then availed himself of this unlawful facility in his 2012 counterclaim, suing me, as a defence tactic, for referring to this very facility in terms which he found distasteful ...though not for several months after I had published the two words...

Just a day or two prior to the 2012 meeting, (in which he remained whilst the then Labour/Independent Executive Board kindly, and illegally, bankrolled him for whatever he wanted), he had discussed and amended the report, recommending his own funding, with Linda Rees Jones. As a sweetener, he added that if he won any damages, the award would be handed over to the council, he didn't want to personally benefit. Bless.

The rest, of course, is history. I got stuffed in court and Mr James immediately started pursuing me for his damages. They have always been 'his' damages by the way, the promise to his employers in 2012 meant nothing.  The damning Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report was published in January 2014 (there were two, let's not forget the secret pay rise pension scandal) and led to the criminal investigation and the Extraordinary council meeting the following month when it was decided to 'suspend' the offending clauses from the constitution, but not remove them.

The matter of the indemnity came up last year at the hearing where, due to my inability to pay and his rejection of offers, Mr James was attempting to take my home. To date, his pursuance of these damages has cost more than the damages themselves.

The judge, last year was, shall we say, surprised that Mr James had promised to hand over the damages elsewhere, and led him to comment that he clearly wasn't in urgent need of the money. There were more surprises as it was revealed he'd changed his mind and was, in fact, keeping the money himself.

Move forward to last month's hearing and it happened to be in front of the same judge, and he had remembered the indemnity stuff.

Once again he remarked that Mr James was not in need of this money.
This wasn't a reference to his large salary of course, nor his business and property empire, that would be inappropriate, but his promise (now broken) to hand the cash elsewhere.

Anyway I am digressing.
Next month is the ideal opportunity for any strong minded and law-abiding councillors to call for the final removal of these illegal, and profoundly unhealthy clauses, currently in their fourth year of suspended animation. It is only the arrogance of Mr James, not the law, which keeps them on this important, defining document. The removal might give him a bloody nose, metaphorically speaking of course, but it won't be the end of the world.

The clauses, which remain unique in local government circles, can be found here, but to clarify, they are as below, giving the Chief Executive (he is also the Head of Paid Service), the Director of Resources and the Monitoring Officer the delegated power to sue, and for the good taxpayers of Carmarthenshire to pay for it.

The 'legal position' has long been 'clarified'; it was unlawful, illegal, ultra vires, however you want to put it, and given that money was indeed involved, potentially fraudulent. As it backfired so spectacularly last time, it will never be used again. We hope...

Emlyn Dole, firmly under the guiding hand of the manipulative Mr James, has refused to remove them. Unless someone puts their head over the parapet they will remain as a lasting legacy to local government idiocy and a chilling memorial to that toxic culture, bred and lovingly maintained by the chief executive.

I look forward to a Motion appearing on the agenda of the AGM to remove these clauses once and for all.

* * *

Whilst I'm on the subject of lasting legacies, and in other news, the planning process for the latest County Hall vanity project, the Wellness Village, is well underway. As part of the Swansea Bay City Deal, this vision of private health care, drug trials and holistic therapy pods looks set to form, potentially, one of the biggest PFI-style taxpayer-draining misadventures we have seen for a while. It also involves our cash-strapped NHS health board.The business case for the project is currently with the UK government.

As for the planning permission, this, well, interesting graphic from the official documents reassures us that we can look forward to a state of deep spiritual joy and enlightenment down on the Delta Lakes swamp, or a weird cult...I'm not sure which..!

Saturday, 17 March 2018

County Court hearing - the outcome

My application to reduce the monthly instalments which I am paying to chief executive Mark James was heard at Carmarthen County Court yesterday. I was asking to vary the Order made on 23rd March 2017 when Mr James was granted an Order for Sale of my home, the Order was suspended as long as I made monthly payments to him of £250 for fifteen years.

I represented myself at the hour long hearing yesterday, along with my husband.

Mr James, who was opposing my application, and was not present at the hearing, was represented by a legal team of three from Cardiff Bay.

I am pleased to say that the judge decided to reduce the instalments from £250 to £165 per month; it's still a lot, and wasn't quite what I'd asked for but this reduction helps us a great deal.

Attempts were made, a few days before (see letter below), and immediately prior to the hearing to persuade me to withdraw my application under the threat of costs. However, after the ruling the judge decided that I only had to pay £500 towards Mr James' £2500 costs bill, to be added onto the total debt. (See also below)

Mr James will have to pay the balance of £2000 to his lawyers himself.

I am pleased with the outcome of the hearing.

In light of the whole case, is was, perhaps, a small victory, but a hard fought and significant victory nonetheless.

* * *

Letter from Mr James' solicitors dated 5th March;

Mr James' Statement of Costs (extract) dated 12th March;

The Court Order following the hearing on the 16th March;

* * *

I won't be publishing comments on this post, but once again, many thanks for the messages of support.

Posts on the March 2017 hearing can be found here and here. Please search this blog for further background to the libel case and unlawful indemnity.

Update 27th March; The Carmarthen Journal has reported on the hearing here.

The total amount I am to pay Mr James is now around £43,000. As I have said previously, he broke his promise about handing over the damages to the council and neither has he repaid the unlawful public funding of £30,000.
The Journal asked Mr James for a comment but he has not provided one, to date.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Happy Birthday Blog - Nine years old today

I can't let this moment pass without a brief comment. When I first started writing this blog I expected it to last a couple of months, not nine years and it's as much a surprise to me as anyone else, including, I guess, Carmarthenshire Council.

As I said when the blog reached it's seventh year, it's certainly had it's ups and downs, to put it mildly and there were, and are, times when I think it's come to an end. Can't quite seem to do it though, not just yet, there's always, in the words of Lieutenant Columbo, just one more thing...

On the plus side it has shone a light into some of the dark recesses of County Hall, I also think it was influential in bringing about the webcasting of Carmarthenshire council meetings. It has exposed a scandal or two, or three, or four, and given a platform to some of those on the receiving end of the toxic culture and sharp practice exercised by County Hall. It even won an award.

It has also, by partially prising the lid off, engendered an interest for some in the workings of the council, encouraged public engagement and wider press interest, though not always in the manner most welcomed by the authority. Endless reading and deciphering of minutes and reports, and use of the freedom of information act has meant that sometimes, well, you read it here first.

The aim has been to improve, in a simple way, transparency, accountability and democracy for the residents of Carmarthenshire, but it has been an uphill struggle. Political 'power' might have shifted slightly but the toxic culture flourishes; the malign influence of the chief executive remains as strong today as it ever was. You may have observed, over the years, that I am not alone in this view.

It was the South Wales Guardian, not me, who summed things up pretty well a couple of years ago "...his reign will ultimately be remembered for libel actions, pension deals, Wales Audit Office condemnation and one of the most unpleasant, unproductive atmospheres ever witnessed at County Hall.
The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

So, despite attempts to have me locked up, take the roof from over my head and relieve my purse of it's very last shilling, I'm still here, just about and I'll carry on for now.

With grateful thanks, as ever, to those who read this blog, for the positive support, and for the input,

Friday, 9 March 2018

March meeting...and other news

Update 16th March - With regards to the use of Welsh Government cash for free parking pilots being spent by the council on new pay-and-display machines instead (see post below), the council, in a very embarrassing U-turn, have now reversed their decision, it seems that Welsh Government had a word....

* * *

I'm not sure what it is about full council meetings...perhaps it's the prayer at the start, a desperate plea for a higher being to bestow some guidance upon the gathered crowd, or just the crass hypocrisy from certain quarters. It rather sets the scene. Yesterday's webcast started with a problem with the colour, everyone had a yellow tint and so it resembled an episode of the Simpsons, in more ways than one.

The main event was the power point presentation, now a regular part of each meeting eating up time which would be better spent on some actual debate. However, this particular two hour extravaganza was delivered by Hywel Dda Health board and provided some detail (for more, see the archived webcast or an earlier news report here) to their forthcoming shake-up, or, 'Transforming Clinical Services Programme'. The Health Board is currently running at a deficit of £70m.

The plans, which will go out to public consultation next month, involve various options - essentially shifting the patients who use Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli to Morriston in Swansea, turning Glangwili into a community care hub, with no doctors, and building a big new 'state of the art' hospital, with a trauma unit, somewhere between Narbeth and St Clears. A long way to travel if you are in north Carmarthenshire and sadly, none of the councillors from that neck of the woods could summon up the energy to ask a question or raise a concern.

The delegates, which included clinicians, gave the options the hard sell, the current arrangements were at breaking point and were unsustainable as they were. In some respects the concepts were sound, ie a hospital environment should be the last port of call and care should start in the community, that sort of idea. In reality we have seven health boards in Wales, servicing a total population roughly the size of Manchester, all vying for extra funds.

One councillor, Deryk Cundy (Lab) asked where all the money was coming from for these plans, including the new hospital, the response was that once they had everyone's support, they would put a business case forward to Welsh Government, which, to be honest, didn't seem to be an entirely watertight plan.

The Board promised that the public consultation would be far reaching, and would ensure that all voices would be heard, although the options, whilst not finalised, all appeared remarkably similar...

After the visiting Board departed there was a brief comfort break and they were back in the chamber to deal with the usual raft of councillor questions and motions on notice, of which there were two, and one, respectively.

I occassionally glance at the council agenda for Pembrokeshire council whose list of Member topical questions extend over two, three  or even four pages, and unlike Carms, they are generally high on quality as well as quantity.

First up was a question from Cllr John Prosser (Lab) over school dinner prices. They've gone up regularly over the years, started by Labour and continued by Plaid, and they went up another 10p in February's budget although the Plaid Exec Board member has promised to 'revisit' the rise.

The question, from had, therefore, already been answered. They were still in the process of 'revisiting'. Perhaps it would have been better to look at the figures, school dinner take up has been gradually declining in proportion to the price increases and in the period April to December 2017, the drop in income was £37,000 with the council document itself stating that this was "possibly due to the price increase". He could even have suggested consideration of Scotland's approach - free school meals for the first three years for all children.

The next question concerned the new 'wholly owned by the council' telecare company Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd and repeated the question which the Director at the last meeting was unable to answer, which was how much had been spent on consultants, Care & Health Solutions Ltd, to set up the company.

Exec Board member Jane Tremlett, responded to Labour's Bill Thomas and said that it was £28,000. This is an interesting figure, as in the previous two financial years the same consultants were paid £62,000 to develop future delivery options for social care services. This suggests that the real figure is closer to £100,000. He may have also enquired why the new company was registered on Companies House (here, minus the Welsh, oddly) a week before it was approved by the executive board. But he didn't.

Next up was the Motion put forward by Plaid's Carl Harris for the council to support the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign. This was fine of course and had full support, as expected. Another motion however, which was rejected and never made it onto the agenda was to present an online petition to fly the Rainbow Flag, and query why the council epetition page, promised nearly three years ago, has never materialised. It is something of a standing joke that officially it's the 'Chair' who decides the agenda..unofficially, it's someone else entirely.

Some cross party squabbling ensued over the 'Setting of the Council Tax', all of which can be seen on the webcast. To the casual observer the Labour group, at each meeting, appears by and large to be disjointed, ill-informed and far from what you would expect an opposition group to look and act like. Plaid, on the other hand, particularly the leadership group, appears smug, self-satisfied and a little pompous. I suppose they can rest on their laurels now they're in 'power' and dutifully following orders from above.

Next up was the Pay Policy statement which required the mass declaration and exodus of officers (even the chief executive, who doesn't usually bother with such formalities...) and, as the Chair was left to flounder like a startled goldfish, Exec board member Mair Stephens (Ind) purred through the annual policy statement. It has, she said, some additions, including a short bio of Mr James, which, I presume is an attempt to justify the £171k a year, plus extras, and a pay ratio to the lowest paid staff of 11.16:1.

The Labour leader, Jeff Edmunds, mumbled his support for the policy for the sake of the staff but expressed "reservations" about the high levels of senior pay. Reservations?! Fat lot of good that is, and rather sums up the timbre of the opposition. There is, in fact, a cross-party group which discusses the Pay Policy but with Plaid in power, propped up by the Indies, those senior pay packets are safe for now...

At the budget meeting last month Labour Cllr John Prosser cited the excessive salary of the chief executive, "more than the Prime Minister", and other senior salaries, in his opposition speech, and this was reported in the Carmarthen Journal. According to sources, broaching this sensitive subject, out loud, prompted a somewhat frosty email landing in the inbox of Labour group members from the chief executive. It included, apparently, a reminder that it was the previous Labour/Independent executive board which approved these massive pay scales in the first place. All of which might explain Cllr Edmunds' muted response on Wednesday.
(Update 14th March; I have now seen the email, which was certainly frosty...outraged in fact. The reference to salaries obviously touched a raw nerve and described as 'entirely unwholesome and distasteful'. There was clear irritation that the matter had been picked up by the press and spread to the wider community. Who knows, maybe Mr James is embarrassed by the size of his pay packet.)

As I said, the whole thing, and last month's budget meeting, can be watched on the archive.

A couple of other things caught my attention this week, one was to spend a £180,000 Welsh Government grant for 'piloting town centre free car parking' on snazzy new Pay-and-Display machines. Great. Apparently it will 'improve customer experience'. Why wasn't it used for free parking? Why not give the smaller market towns such as Llandovery and Newcastle Emlyn one day a week free parking? That would definitely improve customer experience. (Now reported in the press, but you read it here first ;-)

'Improving customer experience' is often, as we know, a euphemism for cuts and the mobile library service was a recent victim. The vans used to rumble around the rural hinterland stopping at farms and hamlets and, aside from lending books, was a useful and friendly a point of contact for all and ticked all the 'Wellbeing' boxes.

The routes were then 'rationalised' last year and now just stop at fixed points in the main villages around the county.  New vans were bought, equipped with Wifi (when they can pick up a signal), and, well, hopefully they still carry books.

However, as Private Eye pointed out this week, there have been teething problems...

Private Eye, #1465 'Library news'

Finally, talking of inappropriate purchases, a planning application has gone in to replace the trees and shrubs planted a couple of years ago at the new secondary school in Ffairfach, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr. It appears that many of the original plants are dead; either waterlogged or ravaged by rabbits. The new planting will use 'native species' and use rabbit guards. The school was constructed right in the Towy valley basin, wet pretty much all year round.

Why 'native species' weren't planted in the first place is anyone's guess, surely with river flowing happily nearby, and the pumps running every time there was a shower of rain, the ground conditions were obvious. And furthermore, the council, who should know better, approved it. The Executive Architects, Austin Smith Lord have submitted the application, but it's not clear who is paying for the mistake.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Court hearing to reduce instalments

Later post 17th March; County Court hearing - the outcome

* * *

I have applied to Carmarthen County Court to reduce the monthly instalments of £250 I have been ordered to pay the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mr Mark James.
It is an application to vary the terms of the Court Order made on the 23rd March 2017 and there is a hearing listed for Friday, 16th March.

Mr James has instructed lawyers and is opposing my application.

For reasons which I hope are clear I won't be publishing further details, nor comments on this post, until after the hearing. Thank you.

Background here and here.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

ICO response - Police will retain my details for six years

Once more we return to the subject of the Police Information Notice, or 'harassment warning' issued to me by Dyfed Powys police in August 2016 in relation to this blog. The complainant was council chief executive Mr Mark James. This blog has recorded the details of the complaints, the police investigations and their decision to charge following his second complaint. It has also recorded the CPS decision to drop the case in July last year and my unsuccessful efforts, throughout, to have the PIN removed, and subsequently, to have my details removed from police systems.

This eventually evolved into a Data Protection issue and led me to appeal to the Information Commissioner that Dyfed Powys Police were retaining information about me, on their records, longer than was necessary. As you can see from the letter below, this was also unsuccessful.

A PIN is essentially a letter warning that your actions (in this case writing a blog about the council), if repeated, could amount to harassment. It stays 'live' for 14 months before it is reviewed. There is no avenue to defend oneself against the allegations made by the complainant and the only options available are to ask the chief constable to remove it or a judicial review - it is a verdict without trial. The chief constable refused and a judicial review carried a cost risk and would have required specialist legal representation. I understand that some police forces have now scrapped the use of PINs altogether, but not Dyfed Powys.

Mr James' second complaint led to threats of arrest, police questioning and a summons to court. At the last minute the CPS decided to discontinue the case stating that the comments were not oppressive, did not amount to a 'course of conduct' and as a public figure, Mr James should expect to receive some criticism. This second raft of complaints included, bizarrely, publications by Private Eye, the Carmarthenshire Herald, and representations made by Assembly Member Adam Price. As I mentioned, further details of the allegations can be found by searching the blog, most recently here.

Another concern I raised with the police was that, in 2014 when Mr James was under criminal investigation over the pension and libel indemnity scandals Dyfed Powys felt that a conflict of interest arose due to their 'close working relationship' and passed the case over to Gloucestershire police. Strangely, they denied that there was any conflict of interest when acting on behalf of Mr James against me.

The retention of information in not the same as a criminal record but is, in effect, a marker and has a similar effect - despite not being convicted of any crime nor having had a legal right to defend myself against the PIN. Though I can only assume that Mr James' details are similarly held on the records of Gloucestershire police after the 2014 investigation for misconduct in public'd be strange if they weren't, wouldn't it?

Anyway, I will be making enquiries as to how, or if, I can take this further.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

February's Council meeting - with updates

Update 25th February;'s gone. And on a Sunday, fancy that. Didn't even last the weekend.

Update 23rd February;

After three years, and intense media pressure over the past few days the council have rapidly backpedalled and are flying the Rainbow flag above County Hall this weekend. Good. It will also be flown every May 17th for International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

With the growing realisation that Carmarthenshire is being viewed as the only homophobic council in Wales, the Rev Emlyn Dole has released a statement claiming that he has 'intervened' in the debate and ordered that the flag is flown, he fails to mention that he has had the authority to fly the flag all along. The problem has not been Mr Dole, it has been Mr James.

Why this has taken three years is simply ridiculous. Let's not forget, as I have mentioned below, that it has been the chief executive, the devout Mr James, who has personally rejected several requests, but embraced, with £2m of public money, an evangelical organisation in Carmarthen. Make of that what you will.
I'd have liked to have been a fly on the wall in the Presidential Suite over the last few days.

County Hall 23rd Feb 2018...and it's upside down. Update 2pm; it's now been put the right way up. As with many things...Only in Carmarthenshire...

Update 22nd February; Flags

With the council's refusal to fly the Rainbow flag now in the news and across social media, it's worth re-stating that the policy states that ultimately it is up to the leader, Cllr Dole, whether a flag is flown or not (apart from the royal flags etc). On the other hand, the chief executive has stated that whilst the council is happy to support community ventures "this does not extend to flag flying at civic centres".

This begs that age old question as to who is running the council, not Mr Dole obviously, and why has the council spent over three years tying itself in knots to avoid flying the Rainbow flag, when no other public body seems to have a problem. Without spelling it out, I believe the answer lies, at least in part, in the main post below.
In effect the policy allows for the flying of the Rainbow flag, it is the personal preferences of the Leader, and chief executive to choose to reject the request.

Cllr Dole also stated, at last week's meeting, that the council are members of Stonewall. According to another FOI response, the council decided to 'pause and review' their membership last year. It is not known if they have now rejoined the network or if Mr Dole was stretching the truth.

* * *

There are a couple of points worth mentioning from yesterday's full council. For the connoisseurs, the whole epic can be seen on the archived webcast.
Firstly came the latest instalment in the County Hall flag saga. The saga largely involves repeated requests, over the past few years, by organisations and lately by a councillor, to fly the Rainbow flag during LGBTQ celebrations. The 'council', otherwise known as the chief executive, has resolutely refused and aside from a brief flutter after the Orlando massacre, the brightly coloured symbol of solidarity and inclusion has remained neatly folded in the Presidential drawers.

According to the council they were so inundated with flag flying demands they had to adopt a protocol in 2015, this was an officer decision with no record of it going near a councillor. I eventually got a copy of the protocol which I blogged about last September. Incidentally, there were only two recorded requests. (Please search this blog for previous posts)

A Labour motion to fly the flag before Christmas was kicked into the long grass to be discussed by CRWG. CRWG, you may recall, is the cross-party group set up following the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the damning WLGA report on the way the council was run. It's current membership is five Plaid; Emlyn Dole (Chair); Hazel Evans, Tyssul Evans, Peter Hughes-Griffiths and Dai Jenkins; two Independent coalition members Jane Tremlett and Mair Stephens and three Labour; Jeff Edmunds, John James and Rob James.
Four of the Plaid members and the two Independents are also Executive Board members.

True to form the group, which is supposed to promote good governance and transparency refuses to publish its agendas and minutes. Neither will the Chair, Emlyn Dole agree to discuss the complete removal the illegal and notorious, but currently 'suspended' libel indemnity clause. As CRWG is overseen by the chief executive and loyal legal Linda, this is, of course, not surprising. One of the criticisms reported by the WLGA was that the council was officer-led. It still is of course.

Anyway, it was left to Plaid leader Cllr Dole to respond to Labour councillor Andre McPherson's enquiry as to the outcome of CRWG's flag deliberations. As Cllr Dole drifted off into the council's efforts to promote inclusion it was clear which way this was heading. And there it was... apparently there was a unanimous CRWG decision to keep the policy as it was, there'd be no rainbow flag, or flags from any other organisations flown anywhere near County Hall. Cllr McPherson was then stopped from asking for a further explanation.
And, furthermore, the Union Jack will always be given prominence over the Welsh flag. Strange that, for a Plaid Cymru 'run' council.

Meanwhile the Welsh Government, police and other councils happily fly the Rainbow and other flags without even a hint of such complex and lengthy prevarication. There are some who wonder whether the Evangelical Christian zeal of certain senior officers, well, one in particular, is creeping into public policy. Readers might recall the gifting of millions to Carmarthenshire's very own evangelical bowling alley. It is notable that it has been the chief executive, Mark James, rather than the leader (as it should be, even under their own protocol), who has rejected requests to fly the flag...

(17th Feb; Cllr McPherson has started a petition to fly the Rainbow flag above County Hall during LGBT history month, you can sign here)

The next item of interest was to approve a £250k loan, and generally give the nod, to the newly formed arms length trading company, Llesiant Delta Wellbeing Ltd. This will replace the Careline 24 hour social care response service and, as I mentioned here, is the latest in a series of wholly owned ventures which include housing and waste services. As I also mentioned in that blog post, the company was registered at Company House a week before the Exec Board gave their approval, which begs the question as to who authorised it.

It made a refreshing change to see some opposition from the Labour benches. This might not be privatisation per se, but by putting 'Ltd' at the end of any council service it smacks of the thin end of the wedge towards outsourcing. They are right to be cautious, there are no guarantees. As with waste services etc it remains to be seen just how secure the transferred employees terms and conditions will be, let alone the accuracy of the predicted 5 year profits, and as these will be trading companies, scrutiny and monitoring will now be further hampered by claims of commercial sensitivity.

The director of communities and deputy CEO Jake Morgan was asked how much had been spent on consultants so far for this new company, he didn't know, which is disappointing as he's paid £134,000 a year to know. Perhaps he just didn't like to say. In fact up to the end of the last financial year it was £62,000 and that's without the specific remit this year to set up the company.

Predictably, both Pontificating Plaid and their Independent colleague, Jane 'your grandmother's safe in my hands' Tremlett, the exec board member for social care, accused the opponents of jeopardising jobs and the future of Careline. Let's hope this sentiment doesn't come back to bite them. Dear Jane is becoming more like Dear Meryl every day...
Whilst Plaid were quick to accuse Labour of scaremongering and political point scoring, they may recall, in March 2015, shortly before acquiring power, they were making similar attacks on Labour's 'outsourcing' plans; 'the obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services'. This was in reference to another of the council's supposedly 'wholly owned' companies.
C'est la vie.

Council webcast fans haven't got long to wait until the next instalment with the council budget up for the rubber stamp next Wednesday. There's been some backroom juggling and which shaves a few grand off some of the cuts, a pot of cash set up to help schools with their 'efficiency savings' and, for the third (or fourth?) year running the closure of respite centres has been dropped. Given the regularity with which this particular cut is proposed, then dropped, one can only wonder if it's a plant in the first place. Makes for a good press release though. If I remember correctly it was promised, a couple of years ago, that this would never appear on the budget proposals again.

It will be interesting to see what happens, the current Chair of the council has had an easy ride so far and will have avoided bruised shins from the gentleman to his left, (rumours circulated a couple of years ago that previous Chairs, of the female variety, earned a gentle pat on the thigh as a reward for silencing troublesome Members...). Hopefully there'll be some searching questions over the City Deal and the Wellness Thing, if not next week (why not?) then whenever some sort of update finally appears. If the Swansea Libdems can muster a few published concerns then so can a few Carmarthenshire councillors, before it's too late.

The bottomless money pit, into which taxpayers' money will be happily poured, will make the rest of the budget, with the hefty cuts to social care and the axing of free college/school transport for 16 to 18 year olds, to name but two, look like peanuts.

Update 21st Feb; After an hour of debate the budget was passed by a majority, there were no amendments. Labour did make a couple of proposals, with a view to preventing the rise in school dinners, to cut the Executive Board membership from ten to eight and remove some of the extra payments to committee Chairs. They also suggested that a cross-party group be set up to deal with the eye-watering levels of senior officer pay. All of which sound like a good idea, but are unlikely to happen. The meeting will be available to watch when archived.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Councils at war

It seems that the former police commissioner is not the only one to view our council as Wales' answer to a Sicilian cartel - an element of Pembrokeshire County Council have also expressed the same view, publicly, at a meeting of Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee this morning (30th)

The issue relates to Carmarthensire's refusal, some time ago, to allow Pembrokeshire's elected members access to crucial documents relating to the controversial South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF).

These were speculative property grants covering Pembs and Carms but administered by Carms. Carmarthenshire bloggers raised their own concerns over these grants, known as 'Meryl's Millions' (see previous posts) a couple of years ago and the outgoing Director of Resources reported matters to the Wales Audit Office as a parting shot.

As you can imagine, no information was released other than a few lines buried in reports. The Wales Audit Office did the final audit of the SWWPDF and Carms refused to accept the findings, which clearly were not good. Carms then took it off the WAO and gave the task to Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) instead and, surprise surprise, nothing more was said.
In 2016 I asked the WAO for all information and reports relating to their audit but it was refused as it would "prejudice the audit functions of the Auditor General for Wales" Hmm.
As WEFO also administered EU grants, it was not in their interests to find anything particularly untoward in Carms.
So, in brief, it was the usual cover up and secretive nonsense. The WAO have, in their annual reports, raised serious concerns with the council's management of numerous grants over the past five years.

Pembrokeshire Councillors (including the two blogging councillors Jacob Williams and Mike Stoddart) have been carrying out their own investigations into some of the SWWPDF expenditure in their county and in an attempt to get crucial documents, met the brick wall of Carmarthen County Hall.

Carms wouldn't even send documents to Pembs but insisted that Pembs officers trek to Carmarthen to view them, presumably under armed supervision. A request to include Pembs Cllr Mike Stoddart in the deputation to Carmarthen was refused. Carms suggested they submit a FOI request. As I mentioned, Cllr Stoddart happens to be the author of the Old Grumpy blog.

The issue at stake is whether, in a joint venture between partner councils, elected members can see contracts, audits and all documents held by the administering council.

As taxpayers money from Pembs is involved, of course they should and, in fact, their own legal department agrees that they should.

And if it is suspected, as it is here, that all is not as it should be then all the more reason that they should be available.

However, this is the Carmarthenshire cartel in action with the usual obfuscation, cover-up and chronically cavalier internal legal advice.

The murky waters of the SWWPDF were one thing, the multi-millions involved in the Swansea Bay City Deal are quite another. The four councils have still not agreed on a Governance Agreement; the previous draft was ripped up last October and apparently 'it is hoped' that the new draft will be 'presented to council' in March. That's over a year of disagreement as well as ongoing secrecy over private investment.
With Mr James as lead chief executive of the City Deal I understand that the other partners are finding his attitude a little arrogant to say the least. No surprises there then.

As for paying the interest on the millions which will be borrowed by the council, there is currently not a penny in the budget to cover it. Mind you, the £400k Respite care budget for profoundly disabled children is due to be slashed by half so perhaps that might contribute a few paltry quid towards Mr James' latest vanity project...

If Pembrokeshire councillors don't push now for free access to all documentation then they won't stand a hope in hell of seeing so much as a Post-It note from the Carmarthen catacombs.
If they do acquire documents, especially through the chief executive, it worth double checking their authenticity, just like you would for a second-hand car...just a precaution you understand.

Carmarthenshire councillors might also like to consider their own rights over access to information and stop taking 'no' for an answer...although I'm sure the majority have never asked for more than their monthly expenses claim form.

Anyway, kudos to Pembrokeshire for webcasting ALL their meetings, including their Audit Committee where the problem of Carmarthenshire's refusal to provide documents was discussed, in damning terms. After this, if they don't play ball Mr James may decide to build a wall between Pembs and Carms, and make Pembs pay for it...
As you can also see from the webcast, the matter has been referred to the Wales Audit Office.

I have been unable to find a way to embed the section of webcast into this post (can anyone help here?) so have provided a link to the relevant Item here. It's worth watching to the end of the item.

Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee

Friday, 26 January 2018

News round up - City Deals, 'Teckals' and more...

I would hope that the collapse of Carillion has, if nothing else, put the brakes on the PFI-style arrangement known as the Swansea Bay City Deal, or Techniums Part 2 for those with longer memories..... Before the four councils, or even the health boards (currently considering hospital closures) commit to million of pounds of public debt in joint initiatives with private investors, due diligence should be reviewed and public accountability and transparency strengthened.

One of the key City Deal developers, so far, is national construction company Kier Group. The firm set up an outpost in Swansea in 2016 and have already joined with the University of Wales Trinity St David, and the council, to develop the Yr Egin/S4C cultural 'hub' in Carmarthen and various Uni 'hubs' on the Swansea Riviera. Whether they'll be involved in the exciting Wellness private healthcare vanity project on the Delta Lake swamp remains to be seen...

Yr Egin, Carmarthen
Kier is not Carillion of course but an interesting article caught my attention in this week's Private Eye and it would seem that there are some troubling parallels:

Private Eye No.1462

Oh, and for an enlightened take on one of the Pembrokeshire 'City Deal' projects, have a read of Pembs councillor Mike Stoddart's 'Old Grumpy' blog here.
And for more on the City Deal/Wellness Shed, please search this blog.

* * *

Up in North Wales, Wrexham to be exact, councillors have been ordered by officers not to share extracts of council webcasts. It would seem that they've been taking lessons in control freakery from our own County Hall, though I doubt they'll actually be arrested...

Claiming copyright of such material as a means to prevent dissemination, for whatever purpose, is a profoundly backwards step and clearly the real issue is a fear that someone might edit a titbit and make someone look silly. In Carmarthenshire they do that all by themselves, no need for editing.
As Wrexham Council have the 'Master copy' they've no need to fret. Same in Carms, who have also taken the extra step of banning public filming of anything which isn't webcast...

* * *

On the subject of transparency, or lack thereof, the council have been busy recently setting up various arms length companies for housing, waste services and the Careline social care 24 hour helpline, and no doubt there are more in the pipeline. The latter two will apparently be 'Teckal' compliant which means, in a nutshell, that they will be controlled by the council (to start with anyway) and will be able to trade privately for around 20% of their income. It also removes the necessity to openly tender for these services.

Whether this is the thin end of the wedge towards back door privatisation remains to be seen. The emphasis will shift to profit and over-ambitious predicted 'savings' may never materialise. The new Careline company, which has yet to be politically approved, has already been named (Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd) and appears to have been registered on company house on the 15th January by the Wolverhampton based consultants brought in to advise the council a couple of years ago; their costs, by 2016 were £62,400, and, presumably, are still rising.

The waste service, discussed in private at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, is currently run by Cwm Environmental, also wholly owned by the council but whose contract has come to an end.

The council have been poring over the problem of renewing the contract for around three years and have brought in Geldards lawyers, Eunomia Consultancy and KPMG to advise. The cost of all this advice is unknown but unlikely to be cheap. KPMG have recently been in the news for signing off Carillion's accounts as all fine and dandy a few short months ago...

* * *

I notice that Carmarthenshire council is in a shortlist of ten for a Chartered Institute of Housing award for tackling homelessness. I don't want to take any credit away from hardworking staff but is the esteemed Institute aware that the chief executive of this council spent a small fortune (of his own money, we are led to believe), used council facilities and employed three barristers to try and render myself and my family homeless last year? He's clearly not a team player...

Interestingly, and according to the CIH website, it costs around £2000 to book a table for the glittering London awards ceremony in May. That's without train fares and hotel bookings. Let's hope none of the attendees trip over the homeless people sheltering under the canopies of the Park Plaza.

* * *

Finally, news that Labour MP for Wansbeck, Ian Lavery is in hot water for using House of Commons notepaper and postage to issue legal threats to local constituents on Facebook also caught my attention (well, it would wouldn't it). According to the MPs' Code of Conduct such facilities, ie taxpayer funded facilities, are not to be used for financial gain.

How different things are in the Wild West of Wales where our chief executive used considerably more than the cost of a publicly funded postage stamp for his own financial gain, and illegally to boot. Lesser mortals might have been had up for fraud.

County Hall is not the House of Commons though, it has its own rules, devised or flouted according to the personal requirements of Mr James CBE...such a trustworthy individual.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Boston Diaries....leopards and spots

Chief Executive, Mr James, in his witness statement to the police last year, accused me of saying that he had been 'tampering with documents before a tribunal'. In fact, what I had said, here, was that this had been an allegation made several years ago when he was employed by Boston Borough Council. The reason why I made the comment is set out below.

From time to time this blog has mentioned a few of the legacies left at Boston Borough Council following the departure of its chief executive, Mr Mark James in 2001 to Carmarthenshire. One of the main, and well publicised legacies, was a stadium which, as Mr James said at its inception, wouldn't cost the taxpayers a penny. He was quite right, it didn't cost them a penny, it cost them millions. 

Aside from stadiums, the text of an Affidavit copied and partially anonymised below, dated 1997, makes some very serious allegations about Mr James, who was, at the time of the events described, the head of legal. As you can see it is a sworn statement, an affidavit, and the full copy has been in my possession for some time. 

Enquiries with Boston Council confirmed that documents relating to all these matters had long since been destroyed so, whatever the case, it seems that the matters will remain a mystery. However, additional enquiries with some of those named confirm the integrity of the writer and none cast aspersions on the genuine nature of the document. 

As for Mr James, in court he 'couldn't remember' relatively recent events so I'm sure that whatever transpired in Boston are long erased from memory...

You can make your own mind up, but given my experience, and the experiences of others, including Carmarthenshire staff and whistleblowers, over the past few years, I know what I think.

I, Ms A, of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Lincolnshire MAKE OATH and say as follows; 
1. I was employed by Boston Borough Council from 1985 until May 1997 when I was retired on the grounds of ill-health. During my period of employment I was engaged in various posts, but from 1992 until my retirement I was employed in the Personnel Section. 
2. During the period August/September 1993 various members of staff were interviewed regarding the restructuring of certain departments. Included in these interviews was Officer A who was employed as Assistant Solicitor to the Council. I was present throughout his interview with Mark James (Director of Administration and Legal Services) and Officer B (Director of Finance). It was clear from the discussion which took place after the interview that Mark James did not want Officer A to continue to be employed by the Council in any capacity. 
3. Officer A was made redundant by the Council sometime between September 1993 and May 1994. Officer A subsequently took his case to an Industrial Tribunal, the hearing of which commenced on the 16th May 1994. One of the arguments put forward by Officer A was that the Council had never written to him offering a particular post and with details of the job specification. 
4. The day before the hearing of the Industrial Tribunal, Officer C the then Personnel Manager (and my immediate superior officer) told me that Mark James had given instructions that I was to type a letter addressed to Officer A offering him a particular post with the Council, and enclosing with it a job description. I was told that the instructions from Mark James were that the letter was to be back-dated to a date in September 1993. I told Officer C that what I was being asked to do was wrong and I was not prepared to comply with Mr James' instructions. I was informed that if I did not comply with such instructions it was very likely that I would be dismissed. As I was in fear of losing my job I carried out the instruction, but to safeguard myself I typed on the disc containing the letter words to the effect that "this letter was actually typed on the .....". I was told to file a copy of the letter on the appropriate file in date order but that the original was to be destroyed. 
5. I am informed that at Officer A's Industrial Tribunal, Mr James gave evidence on oath that the letter in question had been typed and sent to Officer A in September 1993. This was not possible as Mr James knew full well that I did not type the letter until May 1994. 
6. I have to say that when passing on the instructions from Mr James, Officer C was also very concerned that what I had been told to do was not correct, and as a result of him refusing to carry out tasks of a similar nature thereafter Officer C was squeezed out of his post on payment of compensation. 
7. In view of the above information, Mr James appears to have; 
a) Instructed a member of staff to carry out an act which he knew as unlawful in its intent.
b) Destroyed the original of a letter, or gave specific instructions for its destruction, knowing that it was vital evidence in a case against the Council and
c) Deliberately lied under oath at an Industrial Tribunal by saying that a letter had been sent to Officer A in September 1993 knowing that such a letter had not been typed until May 1994. 
8. In November 1994 a Personnel Assistant (Officer D) was appointed. From the very beginning she harassed me in various ways, and on many occasions this harassment was of a sexual nature. This harassment seriously affected my health, and by October 1996 I had had enough. I accordingly saw Mark James and reported to him some six or seven complaints of a serious nature against both Officer D and my departmental head, Officer E. Mr James did not want to know, and merely told me to repeat my allegations to Officer E (one of the perpetrators) for him to deal with. I could not believe that as the Director of the Council fully responsible for staff matters and the Monitoring Officer, and in view of the seriousness of the allegations, he did not commence an immediate investigation. 
9. Two days after my interview with Mark James I had to see my doctor because of the stressful affect the actions described were having on my health. My doctor issued a certificate, and I did not return to work after that date. 
10. There are both current and former members of staff who can verify that the facts I have stated above are correct. Officer C has confirmed to me that he is prepared to attend any inquiry to confirm the facts regarding the typing of the backdated letter. If I am given access to the discs in the Personnel Department I can easily identify the one containing the letter and my note thereon. This is providing the disc has not been destroyed. 
Sworn before a Commissioner for Oaths, and signed by both.
December 1997

Monday, 8 January 2018

'Blindingly obvious' - and those missing declarations of interest...

As I mentioned in my end of year post (scroll down) I emailed the head of legal/monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones before Christmas raising a few concerns. One of these concerns was the revelation that the chief executive had not declared his 'Cardiff' interests which, in my opinion, he should have done; namely that he runs a property management company, he's a director of four private companies, owns leaseholds on several flats and is a registered landlord.

Ms Rees Jones (the email could have been written by Mr James of course) attempts to remove herself from the equation by saying that it is up to him to consider whether or not there is anything within these extra-curricular affairs which may be in conflict with the authority's interests. In my view, the problem with such a voluntary arrangement, for Carmarthenshire anyway, is that this is dependent upon the honesty and integrity of the senior officer concerned...
Ms Rees Jones also notes that there has been much 'blogging' about it all. Quite.

Whilst I have set out my reasons why I think this failure to declare could lead a potential for conflicting interests, and even costly judicial reviews, let alone the significance of the bad press which emerged over the summer, I also made a comparison with the failure, by the chief executive, to declare an interest when being bankrolled for his legal costs by the Executive Board in 2012.

That 2012 failure to declare was one of the reasons why the decision was declared illegal (or 'unlawful', if you like), this was in addition to the fact that such an indemnity was unlawful, full stop. It also led to an independent review of the entire way the council was governed and the conclusion from former lawyer and lay member of the Audit Committee that the council's internal legal advice was 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'.

Ms Rees Jones is of course, unwavering in her defence of Mr James, as if her job depended on it... and continues to argue that the Wales Audit Office were entirely wrong. Quoting various 'counsel's opinions', namely Mr Tim Kerr QC (who was brought in to defend Mr James and the Labour/Independent Exec Board at the time), one of the bizarre excuses was that as it was "blindingly obvious" to the Members that Mr James had a direct interest, a formal declaration was not required. The leap of logic continues with the unverified claim that it was she who gave the advice and not him.

I have pointed out that it is also "blindingly obvious" to Members that officers have a direct interest when pay policy or pensions are being discussed at full council, but those officers duly, and correctly file out of the chamber when such items arise.
In the real world anyone with a shred of integrity would have made a formal declaration and left the meeting. As for the 'advice', I have suggested that his presence alone was sufficient to influence the decision and, furthermore, she discussed the report with Mr James, and sought his advice and approval three days before the meeting, this was highly inappropriate to say the least. It didn't matter whether he spoke at the meeting or not, he'd already influenced the decision.
Oddly, when questioned about his presence at the 2012 meeting at the libel trial he had a sudden memory lapse and 'couldn't remember' if he'd been there or not. Yeah really. Far be it for me to suggest of course that he was not being entirely truthful when in the witness box.

As for the current state of affairs, and undeclared interests, it appears to me that governance is still dire and legal advice remains both cavalier and incompetent. In fact, it's blindingly obvious.


In an unrelated issue, the legal department are, it seems to me, currently taking it upon themselves to extend the Freedom of Information Act exemptions to prevent the release of the now scrapped City Deal Joint Working Agreement.

The 70 page document, covering the governance arrangements between the partner local authorities, led by Carmarthenshire, was scrapped in the Autumn and a new one commissioned. In refusing my request for the original draft the council acknowledged there were "public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a high profile project involving the expenditure of significant public funds", but used legal professional privilege to prevent its release.

Legal professional privilege (in this case relating to legal advice rather than impending litigation) is, in theory a reasonable and well tested means to protect lawyer/client correspondence and advice, but this is not a bundle of legal letters in the true sense of the law but a complete draft document not only of significant public interest but one that has also been made available to councillors elsewhere.

What this means is that the council can refuse to release documents which may, or may not have been wafted past a lawyer at some point. We wouldn't know. This could even be applied to documents and agreements which have been adopted such as the council's own constitution. Clearly that would be an extreme example, but the council are attempting to set a dangerous precedent regarding the legal exemption and as this is an important principle, I will be taking the matter up with the Information Commissioner in due course. (10th Jan; complaint has now been sent to the ICO)
The full thread of the request and the responses can be read here.

Whilst I'm on the subject of the City Deal it seems that despite the questions hanging over governance arrangements (the new agreement has not yet been approved), the level of public funding, etc, council staff are being redeployed to work for the City Deal, and as recent advertisements for media and office managers show, this is on the council payroll. It seems that not only are 'cash-strapped' councils required to borrow (and pay interest on) unknown millions but will be funding the staff themselves.

Or perhaps it's just Carmarthenshire, whose chief executive happens to be the lead chief executive for the Deal and who is perhaps busy creating a personalised offshoot of the Kingdom of County Hall, leading us all up the garden path to, er, Wellness...or oblivion.
Councillors may wish to check for themselves that staff and resources are not being diverted away from frontline services to an organisation, a quango of sorts, which has yet to show its hand, let alone democratic accountability.