Wednesday, 13 November 2013

November's meeting - 'Have the police been in touch yet?'

The meeting will be available to watch on archive tomorrow but I have a few initial comments. You'll have to forgive me for starting at the end of the meeting as I have an obvious, and I hope understandable interest in the 'unlawful' payments scandal, namely the libel indemnity.

Recent weeks have seen debates silenced, debates promised and finally, debates refused as those involved were, according to an email sent from Cllr Madge to all councillors, prohibited by the Wales Audit Office from discussing the contents of the auditors 'Consideration Reports'.

Fortunately this didn't stop a few councillors expressing their outrage with the ongoing scandal.

Cllr Lenny (Plaid) was first up and challenged the decision not to release the documents, he asked whether the council had considered the possibility of using The Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 (Relaxation of Restriction on Disclosure) Order 2005 in the public interest? The head of law, Ms Rees Jones, explained that each officer and senior member involved in the affair had received a letter from the WAO warning them against disclosure of the contents of the report. It was a 'very frightening letter' said Ms Rees Jones.

Cllr Darren Price was next, he pointed out that the WAO doesn't do this sort of thing very often but where they had done so in other local authorities, arrests had been made under potential charges of misconduct in public office. He was, of course, referring to Caerphilly council. He asked Ms Rees Jones to confirm whether the police had been in touch yet.

She avoided giving an answer and said that 'no final findings' had been made yet.... Mark James kept very quiet as did Kevin Madge, and Ms Rees Jones who was also involved in the 'unlawful' decisions was left floundering and having to deal with a few more uncomfortable questions, one of which was to ask why the council was spending money defending the chief executive's pension arrangements rather than protecting services. Ms Rees Jones was, er, unable to comment.

Trusty acolytes Giles Morgan (Ind) and Pam Palmer (Ind) were wheeled out to try and defend the council's honour...everything was fine! We wouldn't do anything unlawful! There's nothing to be embarrassed about! said Pam, who looked furious that anyone had brought this matter up at all.

Cllr Campbell (Plaid) then asked for confirmation that Mr Timothy Kerr QC was the legal advisor giving defence advice on the issues, or defending the chief executive, however you want to look at it, and more to the point, how much was it all costing?

Yes, it was he, said Ms Rees Jones.

If it hadn't been for Pembrokeshire Council's far more comprehensive minutes of its last meeting which included the reference to Mr Kerr, then I guarantee Carmarthenshire Council would not have disclosed it.

She couldn't provide the costs so far, naturally, as the matter was not over with... and it could possibly have made eyes water.

Interestingly, she also confirmed he was only advising on part of the matter. This confirmed to Caebrwyn that Mr Kerr was advising on the pension arrangement, not the libel indemnity. Separate and different expert counsel has clearly been instructed for that role. The ongoing costs of that also remains unknown.

Ms Rees Jones then came out with the second of her bizarre comments of the day expressing disappointment that councillors were critical of them for commissioning expert legal advice, I'm beginning to wonder whether Ms Rees Jones and Co have any sort of grasp of reality, and if they realise how it all looks to those outside the prison walls on Jail Hill.

Update 14th November; The South Wales Guardian has updated it's website and provides a report on the discussion here; Audit controversy has "damaged" local authority, claims councillor

'An Amman Valley county councillor has said Carmarthenshire county council has been "damaged" by allegations of unlawful payments made in relation to its chief executive.
Quarter Bach’s Glynog Davies described the situation – which has seen the Wales Audit Office question the legality of the authority granting a £23,217 indemnity for Mark James’ libel case against online blogger Jacqui Thompson and £16,353 paid in lieu of Mr James’ pension contributions – as “very disappointing”.

Cllr Davies told a meeting of the full council that the issue had become the hot topic amongst residents.
“There has been more talk out there about this than anything else,” he said.
“When people read of financial issues of this nature they begin to point the finger at the council itself.
“I am personally embarrassed by this situation.
"We cannot as a council afford to be damaged like this again.”
Last week, the Guardian revealed how the auditor general was expected to publish a public interest report into the payments in the coming weeks.
“The Wales Audit Office does not take this kind of step lightly,” said Cllr Darren Price of Gorslas.
“Obviously this matter is a very serious one.”
Cllr Price also raised the spectre of criminal proceedings should the auditor rule that serious wrong-doing had taken place.

“In other authorities arrests have been made,” he said.

“I would like to ask the leader (of the council) to confirm whether the police have made contact with this council or whether there is the potential that they will over the coming weeks and months”

Another update; The meeting is now available to view online . To view the discussion concerning the audit report click on the time 03:05:06


I'll now return, briefly, to the rest of the meeting, which, as you will see, started off quite amicably with prayers and a very worthy whip round for the people of the Philippines, via Christian Aid, of course.

Next was an endless list of declarations of interest, largely due to an item on rearrangements of seats on some town and community councils, upon which, most of them also sit. Although one felt the additional need to mention that he was a Scarlets supporter for some unknown reason.

The lengthy corporate powerpoint presentation from BT was next on the agenda where we heard that possibly, in 2016, some of us in the digital outback may get faster broadband. Please view the archived webcast if you wish to see the 40 minute presentation...including a slide show.

Cllr D Jenkins then brought up the subject of the council's severance scheme, expressions of interest had been invited from staff to help with the budget cuts. He pointed out that so far 650 members of staff had expressed an interest and if you took an average of £20,000 salary that would work out as costing somewhere over £7m. Was that going to help with the budget he wondered? The chief executive responded and mentioned that some staff had been confused over their pension entitlements and had been advised accordingly...fancy that.

With the Plaid motion that full council should discuss the premature decision on the Scarlets financial deal and the increased charges for sports facilities rejected (and now mysteriously, and somewhat pointlessly given the leader's response, appearing on the Executive Board agenda for the 18th November), the Plaid leader brought it up anyway. 

He referred to that curious document, the Council's Constitution which said that if an Item under consideration by the Executive Board has an impact on the budget, which all this undoubtedly does, they can refer it to full council for debate. 

This was were Ms Rees Jones' other bizarre comment of the day cropped up. The Executive Board didn't have to refer things to full council, it was up to them - some councillors, she said, were clearly under the mistaken impression that the council was one big scrutiny committee! Our elected representatives, it appears, are not meant to ask questions - didn't they know that?

A row ensued with the leader railing against the Plaid members and accusing them of being 'anti-Scarlets' (how dare they?) and, even worse, of bringing politics into the Chamber! Politics in the council chamber, whatever next! Kevin Madge got up quite a head of steam accusing the opposition of causing trouble with their press releases and using their 'Mr Bloggy' - he couldn't possibly be referring to respectable fellow blogger Cneifiwr could he?!  

A comment by one member referring to 'Parc Y Shambles 'was met with shocked silence from the loyal ranks. Cllr Price pointed out that the central problem was the process - namely the big unseemly rush to rubber stamp these two items, the Scarlets and the sports charges, just before the budget cuts were announced.

During the discussion it was mentioned that Scarlets Regional Ltd would soon be making a presentation to the full council, presumably a similar exercise to the BT experience, just more matey. Members can look forward to hearing the Scarlets philosophy of 'Spirit, Humility, Ambition, Belonging, Honesty and Responsibility' but probably won't hear much about their accounts nor the continuing burden on the taxpayer.

Cllr Caiach wondered at the wisdom and mentality of a public body continuing to prop up a struggling private company, which, back in 2007, wasn't supposed to cost the taxpayers a penny. She asked yet again for a copy of the elusive 'legal opinion' which apparently excused the council from EU State Aid rules, Ms Rees Jones told her that councillors weren't entitled to see legal papers.... 

You may remember that the now infamous Audit Committee meeting on the 27th September discussed the fact that should the club go pop, there was nothing in place to protect the council's substantial interest, the lease, or whatever, from being sold on by administrators. The Director of Resources and the head of law were even called back to the Audit meeting to advise the members. 

However, none of this was minuted and when Cllr Caiach tried to bring this up during today's meeting it couldn't be discussed as apparently, it didn't happen, it wasn't in the minutes. Sadly neither the Director of Resources nor the head of law backed her up. It was shameful.

I'll not go on, you can see it all for yourself tomorrow. 

There's plenty more to see and yet again it's a perfect illustration of severely dysfunctional local government. A Masterclass in fact. 


I referred to next week's Executive Board meeting earlier in this post and there's quite a list of items to be rubber stamped including a much more detailed list of the proposed budget cuts for the next three years, job losses and 'efficiency savings'. How they're going to manage with only one Executive motor instead of two, let alone a £1500 cut in the corporate management buffet fund I'll never know.
There's also a Notice of motion from Cllr Lenny (Plaid) 'that the council will adopt a non-eviction policy over the 'bedroom tax', it will be interesting to see what the Labour administration make of it.  

The agenda for the meeting can be found here, the budget list can be read here, as usual it's badly formatted and takes some figuring out. 
More on all that soon.


Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Jackie - all local authorities have Financial Regulations, one of them normally is the requirement to publish annually the cost of external consultants and external legal advice. It might be an idea to read ALL of CarmsCC Financial Regulations to see what openings there are there. The WAO will check these every year as part of the Annual Governance Statements and the Annual Accounts. As an elected member I despair at what is withheld in Carms. Nothing less than a revolt is needed.

Anonymous said...

"Have the police been in touch yet?" If not then it is time they were!