Sunday, 23 July 2017

'Cadno and the rule of law' - This week's Carmarthenshire Herald

See below for this week's Cadno opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald. An interesting article, self-explanatory, and well worth a read;

Cadno and the rule of law
Cadno believes in the law. 
He also believes that the law is nothing to do with justice. 
If you seek justice, look to philosophers and those who are concerned with abstracts. 
The law is a set of acts of parliaments, precedents derived from case law, judicial interpretation of statute and common law, regulations, and rules. 
And because laws are made by human beings, laws can be fallible. 
In 1996, the then Conservative government introduced the Criminal Procedures and Investigations Act. It was so badly written and conceived that it created absolute chaos. If you were charged with separate offences relating to a course of conduct allegedly committed either side of the date the Act became law, then under the Act’s terms you were subject to separate committal proceedings. In one, the evidence could be tested by hearing and cross-examining witnesses under oath; in the other, all the Magistrates had to find that there was a prima facie case based on the papers. 
So, and this happened, readers: in the old-style oral committal the prosecution case was revealed as more full of holes than a fisherman’s landing net; in the ‘paper committal’ – using exactly the same evidence in the form of police statements – the Magistrate was compelled to find there was a prima facie case to answer and the case headed off to trial. 
That was not just. It was the law. 
In the end, the House of Lords decided the law was indeed an ass and imposed some common sense. But not before a number of people had been subjected to pointless trial by spineless prosecutors too afraid to pull the plug on hopeless compromised cases. 
Or, try this one for size: under the same Act, a duty fell upon the officer in charge of disclosure to list all evidence the police had considered, both used and unused. The unused evidence could be requested by the solicitors representing the Defendant. In one case it emerged that part of the evidence that the disclosure officer had certified he had read, considered, but which the prosecution was not relying upon, did not exist. It had never existed. The police officer concerned had merely made an enquiry of a third party, been told it had material, and listed it as though he had read it. 
What kind of plonker would do that, readers? 
Cadno knows, but wild horses and the fear of being hunted down by humourless rozzers carrying truncheons and set on vengeance would not tear the officer’s name from his lips. 
So, we can be clear, readers: not only can the law be an ass, but even high-flying police officers contemplating truly stellar careers can be wrong and wrong cubed, to boot. 
Last week Jacqui Thompson had a case brought against her by Dyfed Powys Police at the behest of Carmarthenshire’s County Council’s most special snowflake, much-loved and admired CEO Mark James CeebeeEee, dropped for lack of evidence. Mr James claimed he had been harassed by the content of Mrs Thompson’s blog. 
It’s an interesting Act, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Also a creature of the same legal geniuses that dreamed up the Criminal Procedures and Investigation Act (above). 
Section One opens with the deathless statement, a person must not pursue a course of conduct—
(a) which amounts to harassment of another, and
(b) which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other. 
And yet those seeking a definition of what constitutes ‘harassment’ are bereft of guidance from the words of the statute as to what harassment is. 
Thankfully, the Courts have stepped in to provide sense where the plain words of a statute provide none. 
The CPS prosecutors’ code states: ‘The definition of harassment was considered in Plavelil v Director of Public Prosecutions [2014] EWHC 736 (Admin), in which it was held that the repeated making of false and malicious assertions against a doctor in connection with an investigation by the GMC could amount to a course of harassment. The Court of Appeal rejected the argument that malicious allegations could not be oppressive if they could easily be rebutted. 
‘A prosecution under section 2 or 4 requires proof of harassment. In addition, there must be evidence to prove the conduct was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress, and was oppressive and unreasonable’. 
In the case against Mrs Thompson, therefore, the prosecution had to prove that the alleged harassment of Mr James was calculated to cause him distress and was oppressive and unreasonable’. Not and/or – both oppressive AND unreasonable. 
Despite combing Jacqui Thompson’s blog, the CPS determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation. 
Last week, Herald columnist Matthew Paul neatly skewered the Erewhon nature of the allegations against Mrs Thompson. Having read some of the posts concerned in the initial complaint – curse those IP addresses – Cadno can only conclude that Mr Paul was seized with uncommon generosity of spirit not to lampoon the meagreness of the complaint’s subject matter in terms of its capacity to cause offence to anyone, other than those with their nerve-endings situated so close to the surface of their skin that even wearing clothes must be the most exquisite agony. 
There is also the question of the Kafkaesque harassment warning issued to Mrs Thompson before the last complaint. That warning was issued by the Police, and one can only suppose that it was not issued with the backing of the CPS or any oversight of the process. 
Let’s hope that the officers involved in that decision thought long and hard about issuing the notice. 
It comes back to one of Cadno’s nagging and persistent concerns about Dyfed Powys Police’s involvement in the whole imbroglio concerning the County Council’s CEO and a lone blogger. And it is this: when the potential target of a criminal investigation was most senior council employee, the Police recused themselves from acting because of the authority’s close relationship with the Force. 
When the complainant was the Council’s most senior employee, there was no issue. 
That cannot be right. Because while the law has nothing to do with justice, enforcing the law has everything to do with fairness and consistency. Those who are under investigation are entitled to certainty and consistency – the Force did not act consistently and that is not good enough. For the public to have confidence in the Police it has to be like Caesar’s poor wife Pompeia: it was not enough for her to be blameless, she had to be above suspicion. 
So should the Police. As a bare minimum.
Republished with permission from The Carmarthenshire Herald

Monday, 17 July 2017

CPS decision - Y Cneifiwr's analysis. And a complaint to the Wales Audit Office.

Further to the decision by the CPS to drop the prosecution against me, Y Cneifiwr has written an excellent analysis of it all here, including a dissection of Mr James' witness statement;

* * *

Further to ''Evidence' accessed from council computer - the Carmarthenshire Herald' I have now asked the Wales Audit Office to look into the matter. The email below was sent this morning and also copied to Adam Price AM and council leader Emlyn Dole.
I have had an acknowledgement from the WAO (see end of post), so when, or if, there's a response, I'll post it on this blog.

To; Wales Audit Office 
Dear Sirs, 
I wish to make a formal complaint concerning the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mr Mark James, relating to the use of public resources to support a private legal case. 
Mr James made a complaint against me for criminal harassment to Dyfed Powys Police in April 2016. This related solely to a blog of which I am the author [], and was in a private capacity, a position confirmed by the Council press office itself on 12th July 2017 to BBC Wales []. 
I am in possession of police reports (attached) which state that the police visited County Hall, Carmarthen on the 18th April 2016 to take Mr James' initial formal complaint. The same day there was an extensive search of my blog from a council IP address. At the time, as this was a very unusual search, I saved the log. I have attached a printed version for your information. 
I believe that the contents of my blog was either saved or printed, by persons unknown on a council computer to support Mr James' private legal action and to supply information to the police for their criminal investigation. 
On the 20/21st June 2016 there was another similar unusual search of my blog from a council IP address, this was a few days prior to the police again attending County Hall to take Mr James' full statement on the 27th June. This date is corroborated in another police report. Again I believe this search was undertaken to provide support for this private criminal complaint. I attach to this email the saved log from this search, as a file.
Searches similar to these have been carried out before that date and since, most notably around the time a renewed complaint of harassment made by Mr James on the 15th December 2016 and a day or two prior to a County Court hearing held on 23rd March 2017 where Mr James was enforcing damages personally awarded to him from an earlier court case. My blog was again used in evidence at that hearing.
I did not save the logs relating to these two instances but I understand that this information could be retrieved from the council, by yourselves, if you decide to investigate the matter. 
The criminal charge of harassment against me was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service on the 10th July 2017. 
I would be very grateful if you could investigate this matter. It is highly inappropriate for the highest ranking officer in a public authority to instruct another officer to provide information, via the council IT infrastructure, for a private legal case, not only is it unethical but it is also an improper use of council time and resources. 
In addition, it is of paramount importance for the administration of justice, and the right to a fair trial, that the parties are on an equal footing in terms of representation and resources. For the chief executive to have access, and to use, public resources in this way is a breach of both the conduct expected of him as well as the basic tenet of our justice system, placing myself at a distinct disadvantage. 
With respect, I look forward to your confirmation that you will be investigating this matter, and I would also be grateful for a brief acknowledgement of this correspondence and the attached evidence. 
If you require any further information please contact me via this email address, or by post. 
Yours sincerely
Mrs Jacqui Thompson 
10 Attachments;
Blog stats for the 18th April 2016 (6 pages)
Blog stats for 20/21st June 2016 (one file)
Police crime report for 18th April 2016
Police report (following my complaints to Dyfed Powys Police); Relevant dates confirmed on Page 5

WAO acknowledgement;

Case reference – 020/17
Thank you for your recent email dated 17 July 2017, I also acknowledge safe receipt of the attachments.
I can confirm that your email has been passed onto the relevant audit team and you should receive a direct response from them, once they have had the opportunity to consider the issues you have raised.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

News round-up; back to business - Updated

Update 19th July - Senior salaries

Full council met today and an amendment was put forward by the Labour group to cap the two new salaries, referred to in the main post below, at £112k each, rather than £123k. As per this post, Labour leader Jeff Edmunds used the firefighters salary for comparison. He also mentioned the Cardiff Plaid '£1m Motion' to cut senior pay (which failed because, er, Labour voted against it)

Political point scoring/motives aside, both Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales have railed against these ridiculous levels of senior pay - and this was the chance to do something about it (despite it being a very modest reduction), or at least send the right message.

The chief executive appeared to break into a cold sweat, decided that this was not going to happen and proceeded to go all out to influence the vote. The only time to review senior pay scales was, he said, when he goes, (he being on £171k + RO fees, perks and unlawful legal expenses) and insisted that the lowest paid workers in the council had by far the best deal...

This complete nonsense, coupled with the usual display of arrogance pushed the council into voting against the amendment which was lost by 32 votes to 18 with 14 abstentions. Plaid and the Indies voted, by and large, against. I would expect this from the Independent group, but Plaid? I hope it was some of them who at least abstained.

Whether or not, as an employee, the chief executive should have even been entering a discussion around senior pay, let alone trying to influence the vote, is quite another matter. He should have been stopped in his tracks.

Anyway, you will be able to see it all for yourselves when the webcast is archived, and the details of how each councillor voted will eventually appear in the minutes.

* * *

So, after all that, to which we will return in the very near future, it's back to business. 

One of the questions on the agenda for next Wednesday's full council meeting is to ask why the expressions of interest for the commercial development of Parc Howard has not been put out to open tender, such as on the Sell2Wales website, and it seems that the arrangements are being made in house. This is surprising and you might think that the old meaningless phrase 'lessons learned' might have come into play after the fiasco a couple of years ago when the 'arrangements' for commercialisation appeared to revolve around secret meetings in hotels and undisclosed emails from Meryl Gravell.

Someone might also want to flag up another proposed development which seems to have passed under the radar located on an acre of car park in Pembrey Country Park. The council are seeking expressions of interest to develop an 80-bed temporary, demountable motel (whatever that is), with a lease of around 15 years.

The Pembrey Masterplan (County Hall are partial to Masterplans) was approved last year, with various facilities marked out on a glossy cartoon map. There is no mention of an 80-bed motel, temporary or otherwise. Nor has there been any hint of planning permission. All a bit odd. This, I would think, another good candidate for an open tender process and particularly after (yet another) fiasco over the catering tender, other financial irregularities and allegations of a top-level cover-up, concerning the Park last year.

A sympathetic development it might be ok, who knows, but as the Park is still publicly owned you might have thought it would at least be polite to ask the public what they thought of the idea.
And the trouble with keeping these decisions comfortably in-house is that some suspicious souls may wonder what sweeteners will be on offer, and whether the 'preferred developer' has, in fact, already been lined up...

* * *

Also on the agenda is a decision by the chief executive to create another directorship. The current post of Assistant Chief Executive (Regeneration and Policy), which attracts a salary of around £100k per year, will be made redundant (we have another Assistant CEO so don't panic) and the new post, Director of Regeneration and Policy will attract a salary of £120k per year. So technically it will be a net cost to the taxpayer of around £20k, roughly an above average annual wage for most Carmarthenshire residents.

The new directorship will have the responsibility of herding the White Elephants and in particular the once-in-a-generation Wellness Shed proposed for the mangrove swamp at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. The development will involve unknown ££££ of generous contributions from our council, universities and local NHS services. They're still keeping quiet about the mysterious private investors. Should it go ahead it will be one to watch with interest and, like the whole City Deal, will undoubtedly provide a few well paid jobs, and contracts, for the boys.

Anyway, back to the new Directorship and as the salary is over £100k is has to be advertised nationally so the council must approve the job description as well as the job advert.
The post which will be made redundant is currently occupied by Ms Wendy Walters and, as the report states, the council are duty bound to redeploy the redundant postholder into a similar position or else face possible action for unfair dismissal. It would seem, possibly, that the scene is set. Unless Ms Walters is going to pastures new, the cynics amongst us might think that, 'national advertising' aside, Ms Walters may well end up with the directorship and the associated pay rise of £20k.

On the upside, if the chief executive creates many more top jobs to oversee our little rural county he may find his own job is the one which is made redundant...

* * *

At the other end of the scale, or 'the real world' as it's known, the council had to return £25k back to the UK government after it failed to spend all of it's Discretionary Housing Payment grant, a grant to help families who are struggling with their rent and facing possible eviction. This is the highest clawback in Wales. Various excuses have been given to the press in that attempts to promote uptake of the DHPs had failed, effectively blaming the residents.

I would suggest that they should make as much effort in reaching those in need as they do with cosseting and promoting the top brass. As I mentioned last week, the Director of Communties had an extra £14k last year for being deputy chief executive and the permanent appointment of the Head of Legal and monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones a couple of years ago illustrated the Mark James interpretation of the constitution at its most convoluted.

* * *

Finally, today's Sunday Express reports on an appalling story covered by this blog back in 2012 concerning a deprivation of liberty case involving a young lady, then a 19 year old teenager, Carina Burn.

Carina, who is profoundly autistic, cannot speak and has very limited communication skills, was taken from her parents following false allegations of sexual abuse made by two carers employed by a firm commissioned by Carmarthenshire Council. Carina's parents, Robin and Julia, have now spoken out for the first time.

They have asked Dyfed Powys Police to re-open the case and reconsider whether any action can be taken against the carers who, for all anyone knows, are still working in the care system. Since the initial investigations found insufficient evidence to charge the two carers, both the council and Dyfed Powys Police have admitted their own failings in formal reports and confirmed that the allegations against Robin and Julia were completely fabricated, this, in itself is new evidence.

In an Ombudsman's report the council admitted it's failings led to the wrongful deprivation of Carina's liberty but as with so many cases involving the council no one was disciplined, key figures in the case secured promotion, enquiring councillors were told to keep out of it, and it was all swept under the carpet.
Worst of all has been the trauma wrongly inflicted on Carina's parents and most of all on Carina herself who continues to be deeply affected by the experience.

The solicitor who represented Carina in her civil claim for the contravention of her human rights said;

“This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

CPS discontinue blog 'harassment' case - updated

Later post 17th July; CPS decision - Cneifiwr's analysis. And a complaint to the Wales Audit Office

I was informed, late yesterday afternoon (10th July) that the CPS have discontinued the case against me for the alleged non-violent harassment of chief executive Mark James. It's been dropped. I was due to attend court on Thursday 13th.
I am waiting to have this confirmed in writing - I understand a discontinuance notice has been posted to me by the CPS.
It was a police decision to charge and a CPS decision to throw it out.

After what has amounted to 18 months of indescribable stress I am, of course, relieved and I will update this post and write in detail about this whole episode as soon as I can.

In light of all this, I intend to challenge, again, the 'warning letter' (Police Information Notice) issued to me last August. It is still on the record.

* * *

BBC Wales Online have reported that the case has been dropped here; Criminal case against blogger dropped

The CPS have issued a statement to say that I had been charged with a harassment offence as
"Following a review, prosecutors were no longer satisfied there was a realistic prospect of conviction due to insufficient evidence and therefore made the decision to discontinue the case."

The council did not give a comment as they said it was a private matter for Mr James, which is odd as it appears copious amounts of 'insufficient evidence' were sourced via council computers.

The Carmarthen Journal have also reported on the matter; Harassment case against Carmarthenshire blogger dropped

The Carmarthenshire Herald features an excellent and detailed piece on these latest developments (print only) and for those who like a bit of satire, 'Carmarthenshire's Most Wanted' by Herald columnist and barrister Matthew Paul is well worth a read.

* * *

My comment

I'm not sure where to start with this, it has been a very difficult 18 months. I have spent most of the time wondering if the police were going to make an unexpected visit, wondering if I was going to be arrested or if they were going to seize my computer etc. I had no idea what to expect. I have continued the blog with trepidation but also with an element of defiance that what I was writing was, and is, legitimate comment.

I'll start with some background.
The chief executive, Mr Mark James, reported me to the police last year alleging harassment via this blog. There was nothing else, there never has been, it was just the blog. No action was taken but I was eventually issued with a warning letter in August. I refused to sign for it and I denied harassment but as this letter (a Police Information Notice - 'PIN') had no legal force I was not able to counter the allegations.

An additional complaint by Mr James, after the finding in the libel judgement that I was guilty of perverting the course of justice, was also investigated last year, then dropped. The police report issued after I challenged the warning letter noted, in relation to this other allegation; "It was also considered that Mr James could be looking at having 'two bites of the cherry' in making a criminal allegation as the civil case was finalised some three years ago and the timing of the allegation when Carmarthenshire Council and Mr James are actively pursuing Mrs Thompson for the outstanding monies from the civil action must be questioned"

In April 2016 Mr James then instructed solicitors to threaten me with a High Court action with regards to the blog, and later on, in October 2016 he instructed them to force sale of my home.

I challenged the PIN (which stays on record for 14 months) as far as my resources and ability allowed, arguing that what I had said did not constitute criminal harassment and that the notice should be removed from the record.

I also believed there had been a conflict of interest given that Dyfed Powys Police had recused themselves from an earlier investigation into Mr James himself due to their 'close working relationship', handing the task to Gloucestershire police instead.
Neither of my complaints were upheld.

I have already mentioned the substance of the first batch of complaints in earlier posts eg, the lumpy carpets.

Mr James then made another complaint in mid-December last year. This is the case that has now been thrown out.

It appears to have been triggered by the attempt by elected members to bring about a resolution to the county court action to seize my home, brought by Mr James for his damages. Or, as Mr James saw it, pesky politicians meddling in his 'private affairs'.

This 'private affair' arose from the unlawful use of public money to fund his counterclaim. My only 'crime' was to have asked my MP and AM for help.

I am left in no doubt as to Mr James' opinion of Adam Price AM, Jonathan Edwards MP, and Plaid Cllrs Alun Lenny and Cefin Campbell for attempting to bring their motion forward. If their ears have been burning, I know why. Must have been on fire.
It is quite telling that the proper democratic process should be deemed as harassment by Mr James. I can't imagine what was said in County Hall in mid-December but Cllr Lenny's Facebook post ridiculing the notion that this was a 'private' matter soon disappeared..

On a brief lighter note, Mr James' witness statement gives us a surprising insight into the previously unknown, and extensive legal expertise of veteran councillor, Eryl Morgan. You may recall his, erm, Chairmanship of the Council and his confusion over such quaint terms as abstentions and amendments... Who knew that the elderly gentleman he had memorised Tugenhat's judgment with such clarity and was able to use it to reject the Motion on the spurious grounds that everyone would be in contempt of court?
I nearly choked on my cornflakes...

The complaints also included a reference to the Private Eye 'Shit of the Year' award made to Mr James in January 2017. The alleged harassment arose because I posted the article on this blog. The article was not written by me and it was also published online by Private Eye itself, the Herald, and elsewhere online. I understand that Private Eye have never had so much as a whiff of a complaint from Mr James.
I knew someone in primary school like that, they never took the dinner money off the big boys, just the little kids...

Another complaint concerned an article written by the Carmarthenshire Herald about the Pembrey Country Park scandal. I had reported on the article on the blog.

There is reference to the peaceful 'pound of flesh' 'Shylock' demo, from last December, this was a few people who have been kind enough to support me, on their own initiative, exercising their legitimate right to protest against the actions of a council.

My comments that I found Tugendhat's judgement to be a miscarriage of justice and my continued defence over the contents of my blog were both deemed harassing by Mr James. In what world are we not allowed to disagree with a judgement?  Too right I disagree with it but, it's still there and I can't do a lot about it but the findings of perverting the course of justice (Mr James' police statement was deeply and deliberately misleading on this point), and harassment, which have now both been subject to 18 months of criminal investigations, have failed the test.
In that respect I feel vindicated.

I was questioned by the police in March about all this, (under threat of arrest if I didn't agree to interview) I was particularly struck by the accusation over the Eye article, and the rest of it for that matter. I gave no comment at the time but indicated in a statement that I would be pleading not guilty.

The police decided to report me for summons in May. Advised, I believe, by the CPS.

In the past week, the case appears to have gone up the chain of command in the CPS for review, and has now been discontinued.

The police time and resources which have been wasted over all this, on and off for 18 months must be considerable.

As I have said, this action against me was misguided and ridiculous. The complaints, within Mr James' sworn witness statement, ranged from the weirdly self-absorbed to the downright absurd. The statement was deliberately misleading and economical with the truth.

Over the past couple of months Mr James has reneged on a promise to his employers (that's without the 'gutter' comment from his lawyer) at the forced sale hearing in March. Where clearly not even the judge saw it as a 'private matter', and in an unusual move threw open the doors to the public and press. Mr James is now under fire for using public resources to support his criminal legal case. I will be pursuing that issue with the appropriate authorities.

I intend to return to the issue of the PIN as that is still hanging over me and also, in due course, challenge the monthly instalments I'm paying to the chief executive, it was never means tested in any shape or form, and believe me, it needs to be.

I also intend to continue with the blog, it will be business as usual.

My thanks as ever to those who have supported me and special thanks to barrister Matthew Paul who has been dealing with this matter for the past few weeks.

It's the first 'proper' meeting of full council next week since the local elections so I'm sure there'll be plenty to write about.

Carmarthenshire Herald 14th July 2017

Saturday, 8 July 2017

'Evidence' accessed from council computer - Carmarthenshire Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald reports that a council computer was used to trawl through this blog immediately prior and during the time that the chief executive, Mr James, was making his first complaint of alleged harassment against me to the police last year.

The two saved logs show very extensive searches, either to download or print blogposts on the 18th April 2016, the same day that the police visited County Hall to take the chief executive's initial complaint and collect 'evidence', and again on the 22nd June 2016. This second trawl was a couple of days before police again attended County Hall to take his full detailed statement.
These searches strongly suggest that the council were involved in compiling a dossier for the police.

So, this is either an astonishing coincidence or your council tax is being used, yet again, to pursue and support the chief executive's 'private' legal manoeuvres.

As Cneifiwr recently pointed out;

'Of course, it would be outrageous to suggest that council staff and resources were used to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune because, as the council likes to remind everyone, this is an entirely private matter between Mr James CBE and a resident.'

And as The Herald notes it would be

"wholly inappropriate for any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so"

The council failed to respond to the Herald's enquiries.

The article is not online, please click to read

Audit woes

The Council's Audit Committee meets next week (not webcast, and recordings are banned) and on the agenda, alongside the draft Statement of Accounts which I mentioned last week, are a couple of worrying internal audit reports.

As is usual, the details are sparse and the language sanitised, and it will be up to the Committee to ensure they are fully briefed rather than simply accept bland assurances from the attending officers.

There are two reports, concerning the failure to follow the Council's Procurement and Contract Procedural Rules .

With a total annual budget of £200m for the supply of goods and services, the first report highlights failure to comply with Contract Procurement Rules. A specimen analysis of several contracts was undertaken and concluded that, in some instances;

  • Contracts or frameworks are not in place;
  • Where there are frameworks they are not always utilised correctly;
  • Contractors have not always been appointed in accordance with the framework call off policy,
  • Quotations were not always obtained or not always retained.

In addition, the cumulative level of spend across the departments is not known and could be failing to comply with EU tendering thresholds, and also failing to provide value for money.

The second report is similar. The total Capital Maintenance budget for the council is £3.25m per annum and again there are failures and a lack of clarity over how contracts are awarded, particularly under the Responsive Minor Works and Disabled Adaptions Contractors Framework.

A framework enables a contract to be awarded ('call-off) within the list of providers, either directly or through a mini-tendering exercise. According to the report, there appears to be little or no record of how the jobs were awarded, and neither was there any record of post-completion monitoring (ie was the work done, and was it done properly). The report states that "Given the significant amount of money spent on Capital Maintenance schemes it is imperative that the Authority takes responsibility for ensuring works are completed to the agreed specification. " Yes indeed.

This is not the first time there have been problems with proper compliance with the awarding of contracts and procurement of services. Similar issues were identified back in March 2014 and more recently with the Supporting People Grants and, most notoriously, with Pembrey Country Park. Worryingly, a £250m tender has just been published for 'partners' to develop the Delta Lakes luxury health spa 'Wellness Village', let's hope that process is correct, transparent and above board...

Given that only a sample of contracts were analysed, one can only guess what the true picture might be across the Authority. Incidentally, there is a third report on the agenda dealing with Coedcae Area Sports Centre, where management issues remain 'ongoing' and no guarantee can be given that all income is accounted for. As with the first two reports, no further details are provided.

So, Members of the Audit Committee, it's over to you.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Exit packages and senior pay - a few figures

I was interested to learn that the council have spent another £3m this year in exit packages bringing the total for the past three years to over £10m, paid out to 541 members of staff. The majority of this relates to low paid jobs and, again over the past three years, at the lowest pay grade, there have been 216 compulsory redundancies. A sizeable chunk though (£1.7m), was shared between just eighteen people at the higher end of the scale. Although some of these may relate to senior teaching staff, it includes two in the last financial year who left the authority sharing £235k between them.

The latest draft accounts show, as usual, the highest paid officers and their pension contributions. One surprising figure is the level of pay for the Director of Communities, Mr Jake Morgan, which has leaped from a meagre £120k per year to £134k in twelve months. With pension contributions listed as £15k and £17k respectively, there is no explanation in the accounts for the dramatic leap, perhaps it's the 10% 'uplift' for being Deputy chief executive? ..and we already have two Assistant chief executives on £100k each.
Maybe, with the chief executive himself busy with property management in Cardiff, he needs the extra help...

Due to his particularly high salary of £170k, the chief executive has his own little table in the accounts. There have been no pension contributions for Mr James over the past couple of years, well, ever since the pension-related unpleasantness with the Wales Audit Office anyway. Neither do the accounts show the Returning Officer fees which, with no less than five elections in the past three years, will have been substantial.

Only the returning officer fees for the local elections are paid directly by the council, and so will appear next year, the rest of it comes from central/Welsh government so does not appear in the accounts. In 2013, following a controversial £20k payment to Mr James as Returning Officer a political move was made to end these extra payments, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

A couple of years ago the Plaid Cymru opposition group at Cardiff Council, with a chief executive also on £170k, proposed a £100k cap on senior executive pay. The motion was defeated by the Labour administration. At the time Plaid leader Leanne Wood criticised first minister Carwyn Jones over the blocked proposal, with Mr Jones saying that although he 'deplored huge salaries in the public sector', it was a matter for the council. Ah.
Perhaps, as we now have a Plaid run council here in Carms, Cllr Dole (who, whilst we're on the subject, collects nearly twice the salary of a registered nurse and even has the brass neck to make a £20 claim for dinner) might like to suggest a similar top level cap here? Given her previous comments, his party leader Ms Wood would clearly support it and I'm sure their Independent Group friends would agree? Not.

National proposals to cap excessive exit packages to £95k still seem to be wending their way through parliament and the Welsh Government haven't even started chewing over it yet. This was the result of some obscenely high pay-offs for chief executives and senior officials in the public sector. Carmarthenshire's chief executive almost departed a couple of years ago with a similarly large golden handshake until it became clear there would be political opposition (we were, of course, heading for a general election...) For some completely unknown reason, Mr James decided to stay on a bit longer...

Extravagant public sector pay for senior officials, pretty much duplicated across twenty-two local authorities in Wales has always been something of controversial topic, and I won't even go down the accountability and responsibility (or lack thereof) road, but the only concession to 'do something about it' is now with the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales who can make recommendations against overly generous gold-plated pay awards.

The reality however is that these levels of pay are incomprehensible to ordinary residents, including myself. How and when did this gap in pay scales reach the ridiculous proportions they have? To put it into perspective, a full time firefighter earns £29k, and even an experienced Area Manager in the Fire Service can only achieve £56k. Something's wrong somewhere and I know who I'd rather give the big money to.
County Hall remains an austerity-free zone.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Updated; Magistrates' Court date

Update 11th July; I was informed yesterday that the CPS have dropped the case against me. A Discontinuance Notice is on its way. More later.

Update 4th July; The hearing has been adjourned for a week and is now listed for Thursday 13th July at 10am

I would like to emphasise at this point that the case against me relates entirely to the blog and no other kind of activity.

* * *

I will be attending Llanelli Magistrates' Court next Thursday, 6th July at 10am for the first hearing (plea and case management) of the charge against me of alleged non-violent harassment of council chief executive Mark James, relating to this blog.

For a brief background and my view of the case please see my earlier post; police summons, or search this blog for previous posts.
The details of the allegations against me will become apparent in due course.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Regional Boards - is big always better?

Interesting blogpost caught my attention this morning from a councillor in far-away Bradford, don't let the politics put you off, (he's a conservative councillor), as he makes a valid point. The post concerns the rebranding of West Yorkshire Combined Authority to the Leeds City Region Combined Authority. As there is already a Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, this array of names could be confusing to 'high-powered, multi-million pound wielding international business folk wanting to invest'. The councillor is concerned that with the name change, Bradford could, in effect, disappear from the civic map, let alone the village in which he lives. Decisions will be taken by remote and unaccountable officers rather than local representatives.

Here in Carmarthenshire we are used to decisions being taken by unaccountable senior officers with our county councillors nodding through anything they suggest, and plans to combine (ie reduce) local authorities were abandoned by the Welsh Government last year. However, 'Regional' arrangements are gradually creeping in with councillors and residents having even less say in the matter and the hybrid organisations themselves are showing little sign of transparency or local engagement.

A good example is the 'Wellness Village' proposed for Delta Lakes,Llanelli (see earlier posts). It is led by the council but is in fact part of the regional ARCH Programme. Councillors were told last year that they have no decision making powers over the development, importantly, this includes the costs.

ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) consists of the health boards and the universities and is in itself, somehow or other, part of the Swansea Bay City Region (SBCR). ARCH has board meetings, the SBCR has board meetings (featuring former Carms Cllr Meryl Gravell) but publication of minutes, agendas etc is sporadic or non-existent. ARCH has a sub-committee, chaired by Meryl Gravell, to oversee the Wellness project, no glimpse of an agenda there either.

These muddled organisations appear to be run on a PR basis and the resources which could have gone to informing and consulting with the public, let alone local health services, are spent on nonsensical press releases filled with meaningless puffery. Eg 'We should view ARCH as the wave on which we can all ride to help us achieve success - faster, and together'

(To be honest I'm thinking of setting up a consultancy business devising instantly forgettable titles at enormous public expense, how about the 'Carmarthenshire Regional Area Programme'?...sounds about right..and bound to get a lot of interest...)

Then you have the Public Service Board, again administered by the council but includes health boards, fire service, police, councils, NRW, etc etc. From it's origins as a talking shop it has evolved into a statutory body and can now make decisions, as well as being, to all sense and purpose, still a talking shop. The website is engagingly titled 'The Carmarthenshire We Want', I'm not sure it's the Carmarthenshire everyone wants but just in case you have doubts you are invited to 'GET INVOLVED'.

I suggested sometime ago, to the PSB, that publishing the agendas and minutes might help to inform any resident who chanced upon the organisation what exactly they could get involved in. Eventually the documents appeared, in limited form. A few '#Ideas exchange workshops' for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act have been arranged which shows, if little else, that someone knows what a hashtag is. I say little else as, to quote the council "the PSB has already developed draft Well-being Objectives for the Plan based on the Assessment of Local Well-being" (whatever that's supposed to mean). The PSB also churns out the Carmarthenshire News, led, again, by the council.

Education has also gone regional with ERW, Education through Regional Working. Not to be confused with Estyn, the school inspectorate. The aim of ERW is school improvement and to funnel grants to the schools, and is made up of the six local authorities. Again, no agendas or minutes have been published since last Autumn.

Regional working groups such as ERW come at a price, the managing director enjoys a salary of a shade under £100k and various 'Challenge advisers', presumably to challenge schools to do better, have to be employed by the individual local authorities. That's without the websites, logos and headed notepaper. It seems to me to be little more than an extra, and unnecessary tier of bureaucracy between local education authorities and the Welsh Government and the funds would be better spent in the classroom.

Whilst Welsh councils themselves will stay geographically intact, for now, more and more services will be delivered, or administered by Joint Committees or Regional Boards and whilst the concept of regional working is not all bad, (shared costs, economies of scale, joined-up thinking, blah blah,) they need to be accountable and not duplicate the organisations we already have.
The involvement of private companies, particularly in the SBCR also precludes any assumption of openness let alone actual local decision making.

I think the councillor from Bradford sums up the prospect pretty well;
"So us councillors, for example, get pressure to put in speed cameras but have precisely zero say in whether and where such cameras are actually installed. Somewhere in the documentation of the soon-to-be Leeds City Region Combined Authority there'll be a line of budget referring to the West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership. That is what 'member decision-making' means most of the time these days."

As we know, we have basket-case councils, well, one anyway, but at least we can see the problems and exert local pressure for change, or at least try to; in the case of distant and opaque Boards and Regions, that process becomes much trickier. Big doesn't necessarily mean better.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Public audit time

Its that time of year again when the public are allowed to enter County Hall and inspect the council's accounts, and should you unearth evidence of creative accounting and/or slush funds, or an abnormally large consignment of brown envelopes, you can report your findings to the Wales Audit Office.

The public inspection period, by appointment only, lasts from 5th July until the 1st August and includes all books, receipts, invoices, contracts etc, well, not quite all but better than nothing. The contact details can be found on the council website here. In all seriousness, this public audit exercise is an important right and especially so when the council refuses to routinely publish its spending details, a legal requirement in England.

A few years back a small group of us decided to take the plunge and pop along to have a browse over several areas of interest. The council were far more concerned about who was coming, demanding NAMES in advance, rather than assisting us with our enquiries. We got the feeling that this was a very rare occurrence and no one else had had the cheek to be so intrusive in living memory. It was all a bit of a muddle but at least we had an experienced accountant in our group to help us wade through some of the mire. In fact, unless the process has become a bit more user friendly, taking your own accountant might be advisable...

One area of spending which was of interest at the time was the council's well resourced, and notorious press office and in particular it's very own recently established commercial PR company, SirGar PR and it's 'team of twenty'. Despite the finance department being a matter of yards from the press office, the bean counters had never even heard of SirGar PR, never mind how much it was costing. Eventually we gave up with it all, went home, and submitted various freedom of information requests instead. No idea what happened to SirGar PR.

Mind you, that was a breeze compared with the horrors of viewing the Register of Councillors' Gifts and Interests. Back in 2011 fellow blogger Cneifiwr and I were escorted to what appeared to be a broom cupboard in the depths of County Hall where the now retired head of democratic services passed us the dusty files, one at a time, returning each to its sacred position on the shelf before presenting the next, whilst pretending to write notes a matter of inches away from the uncomfortable bloggers. A second council officer also remained confined to the room, perhaps as a witness, just in case we told the Russians about Pam Palmer's silk scarf and box of tea...

Eventually the council were kicked into action and the Register is now online. The Register of Senior Officers' Interests, Expenses etc can still only be obtained via tortuous freedom of information requests, a quest I've embarked on once or twice. And as I said, spending details are not routinely published, and some spending will never be found; either deemed too 'sensitive' or lurking under the corporate mattress....

So if you have an interest, and know roughly what you're looking for, it is worth dropping by. If you do, please let me know how you get on...

* * *

Before I go, the Executive Board kicks off its business next Monday and one item on the agenda is an update on the Community Asset Transfers. This was a lengthy list of council owned parks, playgrounds and Recs which have been transferred to local Town and Community Councils to fund and run. 

Most transfers have been completed but its last chance saloon for twenty-one of them, covered by eleven Town and Community Councils (see here page 4, group D). A 'consultation' will now be held with 'various stakeholders' on the final fate of these playgrounds, but what will be uppermost in the council's mind is the valuable development land they sit on... 

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Police summons

July 2nd 2017; Later post here, hearing is on the 13th July

* * *

I have now been served with a written charge and postal requisition from Dyfed Powys Police to attend Llanelli Magistrates Court at the end of this month. However, a brief adjournment has been agreed as my legal representative is unavailable on that day. The hearing will be relisted  - probably for next month (July) and I will then confirm the date.
The notice tells me I am charged with one alleged offence of non-violent harassment of Mark James relating to several posts on this blog. The details will become apparent on due course should this matter progress to a trial.

I was interviewed under caution in March giving a brief prepared statement in my defence, followed by no comment responses to all the questions.

As I did not comment then, it would not be appropriate for me to comment in any detail now prior to prosecution proceedings but I will be strongly defending my position in this, as I have with everything else that has happened.
Given my knowledge of the content of the police questions, and amongst other things, I repeat what I said a couple of weeks ago; it's ridiculous, misconceived and misguided, on every level.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Council news in brief, and a BBC report

I'm sure many of us have been a bit distracted, or perhaps driven to distraction, by the general election campaign but the polls are now open so please go and vote. My Twitter timeline has been bursting at its cyber-seams for weeks with polls, predictions and gaffes (from all sides), but, with distractions of my own, and non-aligned to boot, I've left the political analysis to others.
Anyway, all will be revealed early tomorrow (Friday) morning.
(Update; no change for Carms East and Dinefwr or Llanelli with Plaid's Jonathan Edwards and Labour's Nia Griffith both holding their seats)

Meanwhile that old chestnut Parc Howard is again causing controversy. Recent plans put forward by the council include a two-storey car park and the 'sensitive commercialisation' of the historic house and grounds in Llanelli. Just how 'sensitive' it will be remains to be seen. The expressions of interest were due in by the 25th April but so far all is quiet on the council's choice of 'preferred partners'. Let's just hope we don't have a repeat performance of the fiasco we saw earlier with clandestine meetings and peculiar potential partners.

Talking of friends 'preferred partners', also rumbling away in the background is the super-dooper Wellness Centre at Delta Lakes, Llanelli, or the 'luxury spa and private healthcare village' as it's otherwise known. Plans have already been approved to prepare the land, well, to raise it high enough to avoid the thing floating away on the next major flood.

Expressions of interest were invited back in March to deliver the £200m+ scheme with the council. As with Parc Howard, all is quiet even though the formal tender was due to go out mid-May. So far, there's no sign of it. You get the feeling that the partners will actually be chosen at the EoI stage, or in fact, already have been, a couple of years ago.

Despite involving ££££ of public money, you may recall the chief executive stating some time ago that councillors need not trouble their pretty heads about this taxpayer funded extravaganza, it was out of their hands and a matter for far more important people to decide upon. He might, he promised, let them have the occasional progress report. In the end they were treated to a massive PR show, complete with a sales pitch which would have been the envy of Arthur Daley, and 3D Video in dreamy conceptual white.

After all, given the chief executive's track record in creating more white elephants than a safari park, I'm sure all is safe in his hands....and usefully, Meryl's still moving and shaking in the Wellness Dream of course...

These are all items and issues which will be coming up in the future. It takes Carmarthenshire Council, post-local election, a little time for the wheels of democracy, if you could ever call it that, to lurch and stagger into action, and the whole circus shuts down again for August anyway.
Full council will next meet on the 21th June when business will get underway and we can judge the mettle of our new councillors. (update 14th June; this meeting has now been cancelled..). Meanwhile the only notable gathering in the near future is the Standards Committee tomorrow (9th June).

On the agenda is the annual rubber stamp review of the council's Whistleblowing Policy. This is a standard item, with the document, theoretically, ticking all the right boxes, including the warning that going to the press might exclude you from the 'protections' of the policy... In practice however, experiences can be less than satisfactory. It was only a few short months ago that a former manager of Pembrey Country Park explained how the council turned his life upside down and put him through hell after blowing the whistle on malpractice.

Appearing for the first time is a list of recent whistleblowing complaints currently being 'dealt with' under the policy. Details are (understandably) in outline only, but one in particular stands out as being potentially worrying;

And finally...

BBC Wales reports today (online and on tv) that the chief executive has not repaid the legal costs of his unlawfully funded libel counterclaim back to the council. The figure they have is £29,414 although the figure I was given was a shade under £41,000. The true amount, and I guarantee that taking officer time, reports, legal advice etc etc into account, it's a lot more than that.

The costs, which he's not repaying, are not of course, to be confused with the damages, which he's not repaying either. You may recall that at the court hearing on the 23rd March 2017 it became apparent that Mr James has breached his undertaking to hand the damages over to the council.

Furthermore, the BBC have obtained a statement from the council which says; "As far as we are aware, Mr James has yet to receive payment of any damages by Mrs Thompson.". I am not entirely clear when this statement was obtained but as I said to the BBC, I've made two payments so far. I am supposed to pay £250 per month until 2032. If I don't, Mr James will be demanding the house keys forthwith and adding to his burgeoning property portfolio, as his solicitors have made clear;

"For the avoidance of doubt, should you fail to make any payment in accordance with the attached schedule, our client will immediately invoke the Order for Sale without further reference to you"

Perhaps he has put it in the gutter after all.

The BBC online report features a short video about the unlawful costs, and if I had the tech skills I'd put it on here. Here's a screenshot instead, with a link below (have now found a Facebook link to the video here);

Blogger libel: Council boss's £30k legal bill not repaid

14th June; The failure by the chief executive to repay this money was also reported (print only) by the Carmarthenshire Herald and Carmarthen Journal.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Cardiff connections - Jac o' the North's post - updated

Update 19th June 2017; A further post from Jac o' the North - Baywatch 2

* * *

Last week I made a passing reference to council chief executive Mark James' business affairs relating to property in Cardiff.
Jac o' the North has also picked up on these recent developments, via Companies House, so, for quite a bit more than a passing reference, have a read of his latest post; Baywatch

Friday, 26 May 2017

Reported for summons

Later post, 17th June; Police summons

Further to matters outlined here, and subsequent to a formal interview on the 16th March, two police officers called at my home yesterday (25th) to tell me that they have made a decision to prosecute and I am being reported for summons.
I understand that I will receive a summons in the post to attend a magistrates court in due course.
This is ridiculous, on every level.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Carmarthenshire Council AGM, a few points

(31st May - see added link)

Yesterday's AGM was quite a subdued affair, these things usually are, more a formality than a means of debate. The whole thing can of course be viewed on the archived webcast.
After the preliminary chain swapping ritual and speeches, with visiting dignitaries in attendance, the new Chair, Cllr Irfon Jones (Ind) stumbled into action.

New Chair (for clarity, it's the one with the chain)

Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid) was also invested with chains of office as Vice-Chair. It'll be his turn to be Chair next year.
The nomination for Emlyn Dole as leader went unchallenged and he was duly 'elected' although the Labour group abstained.
Cllr Dole then announced the new Executive Board, adding economic regeneration and 'marketing and media' (including the press office) to his own portfolio.

There are seven Plaid members and three from the Independent Group giving Plaid overall control. Mair Stephens was reappointed to the board and, as leader of the Independent Group, which appears to be still going strong, has boosted her salary as deputy council leader.

A new portfolio of culture, sport and tourism was created for Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths and Glynog Davies (Plaid) has education. Jim Jones has been cast aside and replaced by fellow Independent Phillip Hughes on dog fouling duties and Plaid's Cefin Campbell leads on rural affairs and countering terrorism.

Dai Jenkins (Plaid) retains the portfolio for money, Hazel Evans (Plaid) retains roads and rubbish and Jane Tremlett (Ind), social care. Plaid's Linda Evans will be back in charge of housing once the Standards committee have given their nod of approval, due to the fact that she is Emlyn Dole's sister-in-law.
She might also be grateful for advice from the Chief Executive, now expanding his own portfolio with business interests (link added 31st May) in property management in Cardiff...

Emlyn Dole delivered his carefully crafted leader's speech which rambled on for some time, those listening to the English translation (it's very good btw) might have noticed the sound of a yawn half way through. Most of it was spin and naturally, with the general election only a couple of weeks away, resembled a party political broadcast on behalf of Plaid Cymru. Still, he was hardly going to say things were actually all a bit cr*p. To give an example of the spin, the wonderful new mobile library service with it's up-to-date vans was mentioned when, in actual fact, the service is being drastically cut and people will have to travel miles to one of the designated stops, so not so 'mobile' any more. And so on.

Much was made of the Swansea Bay City Deal of course with pictures of the cosy signing ceremony with Theresa May. No mention was made, however, of the as yet unknown millions the council will have to borrow to attract the (also as yet unknown) private investors.

The Labour leader Jeff Edmunds responded to the speech by reminding Cllr Dole that Plaid were just carrying on the policies started by Labour. True to form it wasn't exactly an inspiring response but was, he explained, without the benefit of a script. He sounded one warning bell over the £7m earmarked for a new care home in Llanelli. Was this £7m now going towards private health care in the Wellness Thing? A good question..

Everything else breezed through apart from a small hiccup during the amendments to the constitution item. Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny, clearly referring to the public speakers and the row over Llangennech School, wanted 'public questions' to be limited to a question plus a supplementary. Any preamble would be on the agenda but not spoken. It was not fair, he said, members of the public acted disgracefully, giving long speeches, and elected members were unable to respond.

In actual fact, elected members have numerous ways of responding, access to their own press team for one thing. His amendment, which will be passed on the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) for consideration, is disappointing. Whilst allowing public questions might be occasionally challenging, there have been very few public questions at all and until 2015, when I popped into the Chamber with a question about that curious case of the car park deal, there'd been none for ten years.

The constitution itself (See Standing Orders Part 10) already restricts public questions to a question and a supplementary. I suggest extreme caution over any further restrictions and I suspect that such an amendment would never have been suggested whilst Plaid were in opposition.

Linda Rees Jones was 'embarrassed' as she'd forgotten to add to the rule book, back in June 2015, that members of the public were only allowed to film or record meetings which were already being webcast by the council. She thanked Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) for drawing it to her attention...
This leaves a ridiculous filming ban on all scrutiny meetings and the Audit, Democratic Services and Standards Committees. Presumably prison awaits any who dare record any of those.

It seems her shame didn't extend to the unlawful libel costs amendment which, for the third year running, remains, as I mentioned last week, in the constitution in suspended form, but maybe she's got her boss to thank for that. Something else for CRWG to consider...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Revisiting that car park deal...

Sian Caiach reminds us yesterday of that mysterious car park deal back in 2013, and the financial, erm, ingenuity with which, in the words of the former Police Commissioner, our very own Sicilian cartel in County Hall "extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

With the prospect of millions being poured into a luxury spa and private health care down on Delta Lakes, it's worth revisiting the tale of the car park, if nothing else, for the importance of transparency. As Ms Caiach points out, it's not just the initial investment in County Hall pet projects which sail through, despite questionable viability, but the ongoing costs and bailouts.

To give just a couple of examples, the Parc Y Scarlets stadium doesn't have to pay any rent to the council for the land until such time as it makes a substantial profit, so far this hasn't happened and isn't ever likely to. So, instead, the council pays rent to Scarlets Regional Ltd for office space and functions in the stadium. The Eastgate Centre in Llanelli was another council led project where not only did the council give many millions to the developers in land deals etc it cut a deal to provide the private owners with £5m rent, for more office space, over the next twenty years.

It's only a matter of time before the council rents 'office space' in the evangelical bowling alley for compulsory morning prayers...or the 'Wellness Village' for Executive aromatherapy sessions...

But back to the car park. Adjacent to the stadium and surplus to requirements, the car park was owned by the council but leased to the Scarlets Regional Ltd. To provide the company with some cash, and after some planning 'adjustments', the car park was sold off to Marston's Inns to develop a hotel.

The land was sold for £850,000 and with the split in the proceeds declared as 50/50, you might expect, after some minor deductions roughly £400k apiece for the council and Scarlets Regional.

This wasn't the case.

Efforts to get to the actual details of the deal went on for some time but to no avail. In 2013 Cllr Jeff Edmunds, who was the Exec Board member for resources finally decided to reveal the details to Sian Caiach. As she points out, 'When I walked into his office to hear the explanation he was actually on the phone to chief executive Mark James who, even at the last minute, was trying to talk him out of spilling the beans.'

It turned out that out of the £850,000, roughly £650,000 was going to Scarlets Regional, a private company, in 'allowable expenses' and their share of the proceeds.

Eventually, the following year, during Mr James' 'gardening leave', a series of emails were released under FOI. What they revealed, very clearly, was that two senior officers, one who was delegated to finalise the deal and the other being the now retired Director of Resources, had been deeply opposed to most of the 'deductions', especially a hefty £280,000 to pay off a third party debt for the company.

One of the officers stated that the debt was "a private matter for the Scarlets from their share of the proceeds..and is nothing to do with the Council" and the Director of Resources was crystal clear; "I cannot support any of the deductions put forward"

Unfortunately, they're protestations were to no avail and at the last minute, the day before the deal was struck, the chief executive got on the blower to the delegated officer to ensure that his, Mark James', 'instructions' that the council got £200k went through, leaving Scarlets Regional Ltd with £650,000, the lions share, quietly shortchanging the taxpayer by a few hundred grand.

I wrote about all this is detail at the time, The Council, the Scarlets and the 'Allowable expenses', How this payment was ever considered appropriate, never mind legal, beggars belief and the more cynical amongst us might consider it a favour. After all, how many other businesses could rely on the council pulling out the stops to pay off one of their debts?

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Agenda; Carmarthenshire Council AGM

The agenda has now been published for the council's AGM, which will be held on Wednesday (24th) at 11am. Act One of the proceedings is entirely missable and involves the pomp and nonsense of swapping chains of office in front of several guests in military fancy dress. Following that, the Chair of Council and Leader are 'elected'. Like children taking it in turns to sit in the front seat of the car (mine used to 'shotgun' it) each group takes it in turns to be Chair each year. This year it's the Independent Group's turn with Cllr Irfon Jones taking the front seat (although we all know who the driver is).
Subject to any post-election surprises or subterfuge and anyone else being nominated, Cllr Dole is likely to be re-elected as leader of the council.

Things become slightly more interesting after lunch, in Act Two, when the Executive Board is announced (see my comment below previous post here), and the lucrative (£22,100) posts of committee Chairs are divvied up.

All but one of the 'new' Chairs up for nomination are councillors re-elected on May 4th, the one interesting exception being newcomer, and deputy leader of the Labour group Cllr Rob James (Lab) who up for the post of Chair of the Democratic Services Committee. Alun Lenny (Plaid) will return as Chair of the Planning Committee.

One of the annual items for the AGM is to approve changes to the constitution. This bit always interests Caebrwyn, since a few years ago when buried deep within the unread pile of documents was an alarming and unlawful addition to provide indemnities to sue...

This time round there's a little backward step via a change to the time limit to submit questions, motions, petitions etc by the public and councillors. All will have to be on the chief executive's desk a full seven working days before the meeting (not including the day it's received, nor the meeting day itself), some used to be a straight five days.

All in all, once you've factored in a bank holiday or two and possible rejection on spurious legal grounds, it's probably best to start preparing your question a good six months prior to a meeting...

The decision a couple of years ago, enthusiastically promoted by the chief executive, to remove urgent business and to list all committee minutes 'for noting' at full council, effectively removed any spontaneous, and therefore uncomfortable questions from the public glare. The plan was for councillors to put formal, vetted, questions forward, days in advance, based on the minutes of committees. In practice this rarely happens and it doesn't help that sometimes the minutes 'for noting' are not even available, as I noticed at the last full council with regards to the Audit Committee minutes. The delay in publishing minutes has been solved by a get-out amendment adding the word 'normally';

Due to Welsh Government legislation there will no longer be substitutes on the planning committee. For purposes of probity this is probably a good idea. The rather fluid arrangement whereby a member can duck out of a meeting (for a multitude of reasons...) to be replaced by his or her nominated, and suitably primed, substitute is an area open to abuse, not that that would happen in Carms of course...

Another little gem is about to be immortalised in the constitution and that concerns the filming of meetings by the public, a controversial topic at the best of times. Those councillors who included a drive for 'transparency', less control-freakery, and all that jazz in their election leaflets might want to raise an objection to the bit marked in red?

Caebrwyn was disappointed that yet again there is no removal of the illegal libel indemnity clause mentioned above. It remains suspended for the third year running due to the intransigence of Mark James and his legal rubber stamp Linda Rees Jones; you'd almost think their jobs depended on it.... It will clearly remain as a lasting memorial to local government idiocy and unlawfulness, or perhaps it's just easier to leave it there...less of a palaver to 'unsuspend' it perhaps, should they want to sue someone. Caebrwyn will continue to push for its complete removal and challenge the implications of it all, even if it forms part of my last will and testament...


It's perhaps worth remembering what the Welsh Government had to say on the matter, let alone the Wales Audit Office;
" terms of the situation in Carmarthenshire, we as a Government have said that it is not right to provide any sort of indemnity in terms of what has happened there.." 
First Minister Carwyn Jones, June 2014

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Email to the Chief Constable

Update 26th May; I was indeed contacted, and was told I was being reported for summons, ie being prosecuted.

Update 18th May;
Response received this morning - seems like a standard reply...

Dear Ms Thompson,

Thank you for your email which I have read with interest. From the details you have provided I will liaise with the Officer dealing with your case and request that they contact you and update you with the current position of the enquiry as soon as possible.

Kind Regards
A------ E----
Inspector / Arolygydd
Staff Officer to Chief Constable / Swyddog Staff PG
Dyfed Powys Police / Heddlu Dyfed Powys


Email as sent this morning, 17th May;

To; Mr Mark Collins, Chief Constable
Dyfed Powys Police

Dear Mr Collins,

In January, 2016 I was reported to the police by the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mr Mark James. After eight months, I was finally given a letter, a warning letter I believe, which I then challenged. An investigation into a further allegation made by Mr James had, I discovered, been discontinued several weeks earlier.

In March of this year I was contacted again by Dyfed Powys police and asked to attend interview as the chief executive had made another complaint. If I didn't agree to attend voluntarily I was told I would be arrested. I attended the voluntary interview on March 16th. I was told by the officer in charge that he would inform me, by phone, whether or not matters would be taken further or not, within a week or so.

Several weeks passed and on the 21st April, I contacted Dyfed Powys Police and was told by the officer in charge that the police were not able to make a decision and he was preparing a file for the CPS.
A further four weeks have now passed.

I find this prolonged delay completely unacceptable and I fail to understand why a decision has not been made.
I have been under investigation, in some shape or form, on and off, for 16 months. Whilst I appreciate that your officers have a job to do, the delay seems to me to be completely unnecessary.
I am considering making a complaint of criminal harassment against the chief executive as his actions with regards to the police have, in my view, been made in direct relation to various enforcement proceedings he has taken against me in the civil court.

If the matter has in fact been passed to the CPS, please tell me exactly when this was and provide me with a reference number so I can make my own enquiries.

If the matter is still with Dyfed Powys Police please explain why this has been such a drawn out matter, given the extended period going back over a year, and inform me when this process will be concluded and when I will finally be informed of your decision.

I do not wish this correspondence to be treated as a formal complaint yet as I do not want another protracted investigation, I just want an explanation which I believe is a reasonable request under the circumstances.

As I was told by Dyfed Powys Police that the chief executive made his initial allegations in a letter direct to the Chief Constable, I believe it entirely appropriate that I address my concerns to you.

Please kindly acknowledge this correspondence and I look forward to your very prompt reply, preferably via email.

Yous sincerely

Jacqui Thompson

Monday, 15 May 2017

After the local election - a few thoughts

Despite the general election campaign lurching along for a couple more weeks, played out on social media, all round, like some sort of pantomime, the local election is over. We've got what we've got for the next five years, pending any dramatic mid-term changes, which, as we saw with Plaid taking over in Carmarthenshire in 2015 was more akin to a quietly revolving door rather than a 'political reboot'.

I haven't got any party axe to grind and most residents and voters will not really be interested in the general background of their councillor, what they may have tweeted five years ago (within reason) nor what their wives/husbands or children do, or did. In politics, no matter who is accused of what, there is usually an equal measure of 'baggage' to be found trailing behind the accuser, it all depends on who can shout, or tweet, the loudest.

The issue of manipulating the postal vote, which, as usual, gets a mention at local election time, is an interesting one as it has gone on for years, pretty much everywhere and practised, in varying degrees, by all sides.
If your ward is blessed with, for instance, a care home for the elderly, a sheltered housing complex, or a substantial ethnic population, the potential is there to 'help' postal voters with the forms and in return gain a few extra crosses just for being the kindly, thoughtful candidate who provided 'assistance', maybe even popping along to the post box on the voter's behalf.

After the rapid rearguard action by Plaid to retain power by joining up with the remnants of the Independent group within hours of the end of the count (did voters realise their 'Independent' candidate was going to join with Plaid?), Labour are consigned once again to the opposition bench.

The importance of a strong opposition cannot be underestimated. Opposition for oppositions sake; for political point scoring or personal attack is counter-productive, even if it means a few column inches in the local paper. All parties should strive for the good of the whole county, and all communities, and should work together to achieve this. Well, in theory anyway.

A good opposition in any council chamber, in my view, provides checks and balances and most of all scrutiny of decision making by those in power (whether it is elected or, in the case of Carmarthenshire, unelected power). This is why no executive board members sit on scrutiny committees, and why transparency is so vital.
All parties have good and bad ideas depending on your viewpoint but the general direction of travel is laid down by the financial constraints on the authority balanced against the demands and demography of the population.

Take for instance the proposed Wellness Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli (please search this blog for earlier posts). This has actually been in the pipeline for around five years. The council have been paying consultancy firms (mainly Arup in this case) since 2012 to devise various masterplans; they've chosen a preferred developer and even made preparations in the hope that the whole development won't be under water in a few years time, a perfectly realistic possibility.

We don't know how much has been spent on any of this as the council refuses to publish its spending details. Neither has there been any public consultation.
We also know that money set aside for a new care home in Llanelli has been withheld as the movers and shakers in Wellness try and shoehorn it into Delta Lakes instead. This has been to the detriment of elderly and vulnerable who didn't have time to wait for unknown private investors to possibly sign joint ventures with public authorities, arrangements entirely dependent on those public authorities borrowing a shedload of extra cash.

Take this with the fact that the emphasis for development in the Wellness Village is for private health care (mentioned in Arup's brief and the Local Development Plan) and it's quite incredible that both Plaid and Labour have swallowed the spin, described the project as an unmissable opportunity and signed up to invest your money in private health care. I don't think that appeared on anyone's manifesto.

What the whole Swansea Bay City Deal will mean for Carmarthenshire, apart from, undoubtedly, a couple of well paid jobs for the boys, is a completely unknown level of borrowing, adding to the near £400m it already owes. Extra borrowing, or any spending for that matter, to reel in private investment should always be treated with extreme caution and at least be the subject of proper, transparent procedure and efficient scrutiny, especially when it comes to promises based on spin rather than evidence.

If nothing else it doesn't appear to be a development based the demands and demographics of the population

A good opposition group should ensure that they are very well informed, and, to put it simply, cut though the spin and expose policy, plans and even masterplans for what they are. Get back to the basics and look at the evidence, look at the costings, the business plans, the projections etc Check that the independent advice is actually independent and not provided by a consultancy firm looking simply to further it's own financial interests. Never accept that there's 'No other option' as there always is, even if it's in how the target is reached and not just the hoped for outcome.

The problem facing most elected members is how to deliver promises made on the doorstep. In a 'pothole' analogy there are only a certain number which will be fixed in any given year, it will depend on the persistence of your local councillor, and the refusal to take no for an answer which will determine whether your particular pothole will be fixed any time soon. Promises made concerning wider, and more intangible policy issues such as the delivery of affordable housing, social care or education can be safely abandoned to the slowly turning wheels of local government once the votes have been safely cast.

What cannot be avoided is the perception that councillors, and not just the opposition, are nothing more than nodding donkeys. No one wants to oppose plans to provide more affordable and social housing of course and the Plaid group, and Labour before them have tried to improve the housing situation by starting to build a few council houses, removing the Right to Buy, local lettings policies, buying derelict houses etc etc which is all well and good.

What I am trying to point out is that, in the case of housing for instance, how much more could have been done, and could be done, without funnelling millions into a boggy field in Llanelli for the past five years, a rugby stadium for the past ten, or, for that matter, quietly bailing out Llanelly House to the tune of  £350k a few weeks ago. That in itself would have provided enough cash to build four council houses. These decisions, whilst officer-led, were happily endorsed by both Labour, Plaid and the Independent Group. Some spending decisions, as we know, were downright illegal.

Councillors have rights to access a wealth of information and this includes a system to ask officers questions relating to ward issues, or anything in fact related to council matters or decisions. A few years back Sian Caiach had her access to officers restricted for asking too many questions. I also came under criticism, from the same source (guess who), for making too many Freedom of Information requests. The fact that the questions and requests related to a variety of topics, and all related to council business didn't seem to matter, in the present culture, exercising such rights are seen as intrusive.

The problem in Carmarthenshire has been that those who challenge, and those who demand proper and open scrutiny regarding the more fanciful officer-led projects are labelled as misled and misinformed, or as troublemakers acting against the interests of the communities in which they live or represent. This culture needs to change, particularly before the county is unceremoniously plunged into a 'once-in-a-generation' (to use the 'Wellness' hype, of which there is plenty), black hole.

So to conclude, I guess the message for new councillors, the public, the opposition, and even backbench councillors from the 'ruling' groups, is to be informed and never be afraid to challenge anything which even faintly whiffs of spin. You were not voted in to be a useful, pliant, democratic rubber-stamp for the benefit of senior management.
If you find yourself accused of asking too many questions or suddenly depicted as an obstacle to the greater good of Carmarthenshire, you're quite possibly on the right track.

(previous post - Carmarthenshire Council election results, 5th May)