Tuesday, 4 November 2014

WLGA report - The toxic culture recognised


(WLGA report was later discussed at November 12th council meeting here)

My analysis of the WLGA report can be found below this press release just in from the office of Plaid politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP:


'Culture change needed at County Hall'

AM and MP comment on WLGA review at Carmarthenshire County Council

Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards have warmly welcomed the publication of the 'Governance Review' undertaken by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), established as a result of Wales Audit Office reports in the public interest which stated payments made to the Carmarthenshire Council's Chief Executive were 'unlawful'.

The Plaid Cymru elected members said the report's findings are constructive, present a clear way forward for the council, and vindicate the position they have taken in challenging the authority over the last two years.

Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards have been strong critics of the Labour and Independent leadership of the council.  Their criticism has centred on the way in which legitimate debate is stifled, how the authority has been senior officer-led, and how public trust in the leadership of the council is at an all-time low.

Amongst other things, the WLGA review team confirms it heard that:

1. Internal systems of governance and constitutional processes were either not consistently followed or were perceived to be designed to constrain democratic debate and public engagement;
2. The perception has been that the Chief Executive and senior officers have dominated some of the decisions....to the extent that the balance of governance has become disjointed and the Council is perceived to be officer-led;
3. The Council's member and officer leadership was viewed as defensive and did not encourage or respond constructively to challenge.
4. There was widespread concern about the way the Council conducted business from many internal and external stakeholders.

The WLGA report, Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards say, entirely justifies the strong position they have taken in speaking out on behalf of county residents.

AM Mr Thomas says a complete culture change is needed at the heart of the council and the democratic deficit needs to be addressed.  MP Mr Edwards says a political reboot is needed at county hall if public trust is to be restored.  He questioned whether the council leadership should remain in post.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

"We warmly welcome the publication of the WLGA's review.  It is a fine piece of work and presents some positive and clear ways forward for the council.  But let us be in no doubt, it is a very damaging report, and shines a spotlight on the toxic culture which has been allowed to fester under successive years of Labour and Independent political mismanagement. 

"The concerns that Jonathan Edwards, myself and others have raised about the lack of democracy, openness and willingness to except criticism are completely justified in the publication of this report.  

"If implemented, the WLGA recommendations will go a long way to help restore trust in the council.  It can go a long way to restore the democratic deficit which has developed.
But the County Council is in desperate need for the strong political leadership which it has lacked for so many years.  Regrettably, though, the current Labour and Independent Executive Board has been exposed as not being up to the job."

 Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards added:

"The report will be welcomed by almost all in Carmarthenshire as an open and honest assessment of the worrying culture which has engulfed the council.  It is a vindication of the independent free press we have in Carmarthenshire which has rightly held the local authority to account.

"The county council has had the same councillors at the helm of the council for the best part of a decade.  It is a lack of political leadership, and certain over-bearing senior officers which have contributed significantly to the position in which the council finds itself today.

"As I said during the publication of the damning Wales Audit Office reports earlier this year, it is only with a complete political reboot and change of personnel will we be in a position to restore the good name of the county.

"Carmarthenshire, its rich heritage, history, culture and crucially, its future is more important than any one individual or any political party.  The review's findings should make those at the top of county hall seriously consider whether they are the best people to move Carmarthenshire forward."


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My comment on the WLGA Report

The long awaited Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) report was published yesterday, it was required following the two Wales Audit Office reports concerning the pension payment and libel indemnity scandals but covered the dire state of governance throughout the council.

As I have said, there were 39 recommendations; these are not recommendations to fill in a few more potholes - these recommendations go to the very heart of governance in Carmarthenshire.

The WLGA have, very politely, concluded that the council is a complete shambles, 'in disarray and not fit for purpose' to use the words of the lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis.

The Wales Audit Office have said that they will not declare Carmarthenshire Council fit for purpose until the outcome, and the council's response to, this review.

The rationale put forward by Kevin Madge for the WLGA to carry out the review was to ensure complete independence. This has been brought into question given the way in which the review has been carried out. The WLGA describes itself as a 'critical friend' to the council and has briefed and consulted with senior council officers and group leaders (yes, including the 'independent' group, but not unaffiliated councillors) throughout the process.

I wonder just how more damning the report would have been without consultation with the perpetrators.

However, I think they have been able to sort the wheat from the chaff and, reading between the lines, have recognised, in the main, the deep rooted problems in how this council has been run.

With one eye on the requirements of the WAO, the recommendations are to be implemented within six months.

I am pleased that the report recognised that a change in culture is necessary, not just tweaking around the edges, a 'culture change programme' must be commenced as a matter of urgency.

It also recognises that the council's constitutional arrangements have been a barrier to legitimate challenge and scrutiny. There was recognition that the constitution had been used to deliberately 'deflect and diffuse debate and disagreement'.

One paragraph (3.37) makes reference to the chief executive's role in bringing the council to this dire state of affairs. Again, the wording is polite and professional but to the observant reader, the meaning is very clear.

The attitude of 'defensiveness' is also recognised and this is also mentioned in the context of whistleblowing. As a blogger I have been approached by a number of staff, in all areas of council business, who have suffered under a culture of fear and bullying. It is pleasing to note that the report recommends that this area comes under the culture change programme. Not before time.

The council's relationship with local media also comes under deserved attack and concludes that an open and transparent council, the stated aim of the review, will respect the independence of the local press and will not "suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media".

As for scrutiny by local bloggers (paras 3.51 -3.53), the report makes it clear that with the 'significant' resources the council invests in its reputation, it has sufficient channels already available to itself to respond properly and reasonably to criticism. It now needs to learn how to use them.

The chief executive's application for severance also get's a mention and states that it will subject to independent advice. This process should not interfere with the urgent recommendations, and my own interpretation of this section is that once he's gone, members should strike whilst the iron is hot.

The Local Service Board, a 'strategic' talking shop of local service executives has been under fire for not producing a set of minutes since 2010; the report recommends that minutes are published and meetings are webcast.

Fortunately the proposals put forward by the chief executive that full council meetings should be sterile affairs with open debate replaced by endless power point presentations have been scuppered and the review states;

Our recommendations relating to Council meetings therefore have the objective of allowing the Council meeting to become an open and transparent arena for debate and challenge on the direction being taken by the Council and its Executive Board with opportunities for input from councillors, scrutiny committees and the public.

After the supplementary question fiasco at the last meeting, it is recommended, as it should be, that they should be allowed forthwith.

There is also an interesting section on Motions on Notice. You may recall that these have often been concerned with matters of public interest (eg Freedom of the press) and, to avoid airing a controversial debate in the chamber, have either been refused point blank with spurious reasoning or headed off at the pass and referred to a distant committee.

There was also the appalling amendment to the constitution, masterminded by Mr James, that seven seconders were required for each motion rather than the usual one.

The recommendations are that;

The revised constitution should relax the requirement for signatories for Motions on Notice e.g. proposer and seconder. The constitution could include a safeguard such as numbers of Motions per councillor per meeting/per year.

and

The revised constitution should not include the reference to allow Motions to be referred to another committee/Executive Board.

In another rather telling paragraph the review team were told that members of the public in the gallery have their details taken for 'fire safety' purposes. Those who remember the lengthy 'undertaking' farce after the #daftarrest episode will recognise this as utter nonsense. I don't think the review team were taken in either.

The recommendations with regards to public participation are to be welcomed, and hopefully welcomed by the council.

They are;

Promote the opportunity available to members of the public to table questions at Council Meetings

Have a standard item on the agenda for public questions even if none are tabled

Table all public petitions on the Council meeting agenda

Include a dedicated online petition page on its website

Review its approach to monitoring attendance in the Public Gallery in the Council Chamber

Consider allowing the public filming of council meetings.

Many submissions highlighted the undue influence exerted by the chief executive on the Chair of council. The review team have remained polite over this but have recommended extra training for chairs, presumably so they can hold their own against such influence and shin-kicking. The 'influence' should be going soon anyway.

It is also recommended that Minutes contain more detail, that they include both sides of an argument, not just the council spin. For accuracy, consideration should be given to audio record all meetings. Again this is a polite way of saying that currently the minutes are sometimes misleading.

Interestingly the report recommends that Executive Board meetings are webcast. It also expresses surprise that ordinary backbench councillors, who are present at Exec Board meetings are thrown out when exempt reports are discussed and neither are any non-executive members given copies of exempt reports.

Not only does this practice inhibit the ability of ordinary councillors to scrutinise decisions, It was partly this practice which led to the two public interest reports. Some interviewees, the ususal suspects, were worried that some councillors might divulge details of these reports to the world at large. The review panel reminded them that code of conduct rules already regulate against this.

I'm also pleased that the report suggests a pilot exercise to publish all spending details - this is something I've been calling for for a number of years. Similarly, the report recommends that the Register of Members' Interests is published online, instead of being locked away and viewed under exam conditions with an invigilator.

Further recommendations include giving ordinary councillors the opportunity to ask questions at executive board meetings and allowing them to be present at Executive Board Member Decision meetings. The recent revelations concerning 'Meryl's Millions' is mentioned and indicates that the WAO have made it's own recommendations for improvement.

Another recommendation was that Executive Board members should only attend Scrutiny meetings when invited to do so. Their continual lurking presence is seen by many councillors as a way of exerting influence, "big brother" style.

Similarly, Carmarthenshire's procedure for call-ins (a key back-up power for scrutiny members to examine executive decisions) was recognised as being, unsurprisingly, unduly restrictive. Not only do they have a mere three days to propose a call-in, but access to executive reports is restricted and the number of signatories required means that any call-in is dependant on the unlikely support of members of the ruling administration.
This needs to be reviewed.

The report also states that a public question time slot should be included at Scrutiny meetings.

I urge you to read the whole report. There are a few areas which fall short, such as the findings on the Business Management Group and the preliminary meetings of the executive board, but on the whole, and as the Plaid press release states, it recognises the toxic culture.

Incidentally I made a 10,000 word submission to the review team and many of my suggestions have been included. Also included are many of the issues I have highlighted on this blog over the past five years....I always knew there was something wrong...

Ii is now up to the councillors to ensure these recommendations are followed through. I believe this process will be eased by the departure of Mark James. There is no question that it is he who has deliberately sought to reduce democracy in the county; sought to control and silence the local press, councillors, staff and the critical public, and who was willing to compromise the Freedom of Information Act and due legal process.

Many of these proud achievements of Mr James CBE have been polished with the veneer of democratic agreement. The ruling junta has been cultivated and preserved, the ever ready cash cow moving seamlessly from the ever loyal Meryl to the embarrassingly weak Kevin Madge.

For the past few years the compliant head of law, Linda Rees Jones has been at Mr James elbow to give the gloss to his legal and constitutional whims and the press manager has acted like a cold war spy reporting overheard conversations and critical articles in a manner most dictators would have been proud of.

By removing a rotten apple doesn't mean the barrel won't still fester. With the next local election not until 2017 we're going to have to wait a while to express our opinions towards those elected members who have been complicit in bringing the council into such disrepute.

This report, which certainly goes some way, if politely, in spelling out what needs to be done, will be discussed at next week's council meeting, be sure to tune in. You will be able to watch the council spin machine in action...

Whatever which way you look at it, thirty nine recommendations, many of which call for a direct reversal of amendments dropped into the constitution by Mr James CBE and his crew over the past few years, is nothing to be proud of.
On that note, please sign the petition.

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Update 5th November;
The Western Mail has reported on the WLGA review here; Damning report into Carmarthenshire council finds balance of power has become 'disjointed'
and the Carmarthen Journal here; 'Carmarthenshire Council 'widely perceived to be officer led', according to report'.

Should be an interesting full council meeting next week....


Further analysis of the report, the background and the possible implications for the future can be read over on;
Cneifiwr's blog; Unprecedented upheaval and in disarray,
Oggy Bloggy Ogwr; Carmarthenshire - The rot laid bare
and Pat Racher's West Wales News blog.

15 comments:

Redhead said...

Jacquie, you have been vindicated. All the things you have blogged about over the last few years are things that the report highlights. However, it is a crying shame that it has cost you £30,000 plus, and years of stress, to be proved totally right.

Anonymous said...

Wow! These recommendations really lift the veil on the anti-democratic manipulation of Council meetings that Mr James has spent years achieving. Now that the emperor has been revealed to have no clothes, his cynical and self-serving abuse of power justifies his being booted out, not rewarded.

Tessa said...

Two things that surprise me here. One is that things have been allowed to get so very awful, over some 10 years or so. The other is that the problems are finally being recognised by those bodies who exist / have been commissioned to monitor and report on bad practise so as to prevent it. The bulk of the work done to raise awareness and to address the shocking state of our council has been done by those not only unpaid, but also who have stood to lose, and indeed have lost, so much (Jacqui and the whistleblowers). Morally it is these people who should be remunerated and receive the severance settlement that seems to be, unbelievably, being considered as a golden goodbye.

MuppetMan said...

I wonder if, under the circumstances and in light of the findings, dropping all claims against Jacqui might be made a condition of any severance deal. Such a move might serve as an indication that people genuinely accept the errors that have been made in the past...

Also, since Mr James is widely suspected to have already got himself another role to walk into, why are we even considering a severance payment? I thought the intent of such schemes was to provide an incentive to get people to voluntarily leave post so as a post can be made redundant.

This guy is going anyway, so why lo we need the incentive?

Anonymous said...

You have most certainly been vindicated Jacqui - a good read for Judge Tugendhat who in my view got it all so wrong.

Anonymous said...

The most telling thing for me here is the role of the Labour Party in all this.

They have been the most useless lot imaginable - Consider how they have behaved. They have allowed themselves to be used and abused over the years by a Conservative group masquerading as independents and have just rolled over at every turn.

They have supported (unlawfully as it turns out) one of the wealthiest blokes in the county while our own people suffer cuts after cuts.

Mr Madge has been completely out of his depth - he should compare himself with the Labour bloke in Pembs who has earned many plaudits for standing up for the common people against the unlawful payments to the CE.

The prospective candidate for carms - Callum, has not covered himself with glory. He could have made a real name for himself but instead went along with things.

How a democratic organisation can ignore the biggest group in the county also stinks - Politics demands that they be included.

It is now time to re-boot the governance of the council but also the politics. There must be inclusivity which means forming a coalition with Plaid.

I am not a Plaid supporter but a Labour/Plaid coalition at the moment sounds quite appealing.

To the labour Party in Llanelli I would say this - Find your backbone - remember your roots. Llanelli was and still is a proud town and needs socialism more now than ever. Consider how your recent moribund performance would be viewed by your forebears.

For god sake stir things up a bit !!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 09:49 makes a number of really good points. Councillors have really taken their eye off the ball, but Labour members in particular have really failed the people of Carmarthenshire. It is a fact of life that no-one likes criticism. Mr James's assurances that his politburo style of running Council meetings had a superficial attractiveness, saving lots of time, and avoiding having to deal with awkward pesky questions that might upset the smooth running of the officer-led authority. But Labour members have all signed up to a constitution which has as one of its values an open democracy, in which government is held to account by the people (Clause IV, 2C of the Labour Party rules). Kevin Madge has shown feeble leadership and has allowed lamentable governance to damage the reputation of the Council. The Labour members who went along with him should be ashamed. Jacqui should receive a standing ovation next time she manages to overcome the obstacles placed in front of those wishing to stand in the public gallery - thoroughly vindicated.

Anonymous said...

“Overall Whistleblowing arrangement are good ..." How insulting to EX employees who were persecuted for doing just that ...WHISTLEBLOWING.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear Tessa!

Redhead said...

Be afraid, people, be very afraid:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2823752/Axed-Harrow-council-cheif-executive-given-big-money-payout-pension-rehired-months-later.html

Jessica Bwlchyrhyd said...

Just to repeat what everybody else says, which I normally don't bother doing, but in this case Jacqui, I don't think we can repeat it often enough that you were right and you said all this ages ago! Well done for persevering and hopefully this is the beginning of something truly good for all of us...

caebrwyn said...

Thanks for all the comments and especially the words of support.
As for the report, we'll have to wait and see just how committed County Hall will be to seeing it through. As the report says, in that respect, there is an overall sense of cynicism. I assume it will be on the agenda for next week's meeting so we may get an idea.
I also understand that a pre-meeting gathering of a select few was held today, presumably to devise a tactical approach...

@Redhead with regards to the link to the story of the re-hired chief executive...don't even joke about it!

Redhead said...

I wish it was a joke!

Anonymous said...

Knowing the tone and the understated (very British) way in which these WLGA reports are written, findings of this report could not get any worse.

If things run true to form in a few years, when the old guard of the council have gone, Jacqui Thompson will be presented with a democratic award by the then democratic officer and the chair of the Council in the very chamber in which she was arrested.

Hopefully by this time she herself will be a Councillor.

Wavell said...

A high percentage of the CCC mess has been caused by the Councillors "them and us" attitude when making any decisions.
Until such time that they start making more democratic and true decisions the mess will most certainly continue, irrespective of whether Mr.James has gone or not.