Monday, 8 October 2018

Full council and planted questions


After noticing a pointless question about tourism figures from a Plaid Cymru backbencher to the Plaid administration at last month's full council meeting, I see there are two more highly suspect, planted questions on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting. One question concerns the affordable housing 'journey' and the other relates to school performance. This is a worrying trend.

Spontaneity and topical debate was stopped a couple of years ago when the chief executive removed Any Other Business, and relegated all the committee minutes to the tail end of the agenda, just for 'noting'. Much of each meeting is now taken up with death-by-power point presentations, leaving little time for any serious debate. It is largely a sanitised, polite and dull affair.

There are usually a handful of tightly controlled 'Councillor Questions' and Motions covering issues which are often unrelated directly to the Council, and, as the administration has seven days to come up with an answer to any questions, not exactly cutting edge stuff. Public questions have dwindled to zero. The agenda is, of course, controlled by the chief executive, as is the council itself.
Full council meetings have become little more than a platform for propaganda, a showpiece of spin and half truths. 

This latest trend, where a Plaid councillor asks a Plaid Executive Board Member to 'explain' the 'wonderful success' of something-or-other, is such a blatant piece of propaganda as to be laughable.
Wikipedia informs me, reliably I'm sure, that in Australian politics, such questions are know as 'Dorothy Dixers'

Opposition questions can be equally staged of course, although last month a Labour councillor came up with an interesting supplementary. His question, on homelessness and affordable housing prompted a lengthy response from Emlyn Dole's sister-in-law, Exec Board Member Linda Evans who waxed lyrical over their achievements and commitment to accommodate those less fortunate than themselves. (perhaps Emlyn's got a couple of spare rooms at Pontyberem's very own Southfork..).

He then asked how many young people were currently holed up in unsatisfactory HMOs. Ah, there were some, she said, unavoidable, I'm afraid, er, something we're addressing, she faltered.
Mind you, she could always ask Mr James for advice, he knows a thing or two about trying to make people homeless..

As for the council's Scrutiny Committees as hotbeds of executive questioning, they were recently subject to a review by the Wales Audit Office which found that they were still officer-led; Executive Board members were not being held accountable and presentations from external bodies took up a disproportionate amount of time. They found little evidence that Scrutiny took forward either internal audit or Wales Audit Office reports; public engagement was minimal and the meetings are not webcast; some members wandered out before the end of the meetings and attendance at training sessions was low.

Of course Caebrwyn can think of lots of questions to put to full council, from plunging the county into terminal debt for Mr James' Wellness Dream, to wasteful complaints to the Ombudsman, to the latest nonsense over the unlawful libel indemnities. And everything in between.
Including a £3.9m black hole in the revenue budget.
Though I was one of the first, in over ten years, to ask a public question back in 2015. Essentially it concerned a bung to Scarlets Regional Ltd by the chief executive, contrary to the advice of his own Finance Director.

If political groups want to put out propaganda, which obviously they all do, and at any opportune moment, they have their own party machine and means to do it, and in Carmarthenshire, the current, and indeed previous administration, also have a well-resourced, and publicly funded press office who will happily oblige.
Whilst an element of political grandstanding and cross-party bickering at full council meetings is to be expected, full council meetings are not the place for these questions and take the already dire proceedings to a new low.
It would seem that the Plaid leadership are perhaps composing the 'questions' for their own councillors to read out. This is not what 'Councillor Questions' are for and are an abuse of the provision.

Perhaps it's time for the great Carmarthenshire public to get back down to County Hall ask a few questions ourselves. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

FOI Review, the Monitoring Officer and the declaration of interests


Last week I received the outcome of the internal review following the refusal, by the council, to disclose the officer's report to 'CRWG' on the subject of unlawful libel indemnities.

The unsurprising upshot of the 'review' being that the council are still, (despite all this arising from the WAO public interest report), refusing to release the CRWG report under Legal Advice Privilege. One of the reasons given against the disclosure of the report was, incredibly and hilariously, 'The significant public interest in the observance of law and the administration of justice'
My previous post concerning details of the request is here.

I have now appealed to the Information Commissioner.

Interestingly Mr Edgecombe (council solicitor who responds to FOI reviews) confirmed in his response, that Head of Law/Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones was the author of the report to CRWG.

Ms Rees Jones
One can only wonder whether she declared any sort of interest given that she was a witness in the libel proceedings. It would, of course, be highly improper to declare such an interest several weeks after the meeting (and as we know with historic allegations against Mr James, tampering with documents is not allowed...)

It is a safe bet that both she and Mr James closely monitored the freedom of information request and, as I have said, it is they who are reluctant to disclose the report. Not only does Ms Rees Jones provide a legal rubber stamp for the chief executive's nefarious activities but owes her position as Monitoring Officer directly to his, erm, warm generosity, rather than the inconvenient formalities of Appointment Committee 'B'.

Ms Rees Jones was not just a witness for the council in the 2013 libel trial but also for Mark James and his unlawfully funded counterclaim. Her Witness Statement, of which I still have a copy, was concerned, incidentally, with an attempt to defend the thorny issue of libel indemnities and the constitution...

Mr James and Ms Rees Jones, High Court 2013 (Pic source @BrokenBarnet)

Ms Rees Jones has appeared to have forgotten this small matter of her being a witness over recent years, and whilst she has been keen to mention, as recently as last year to the Ombudsman in Mr James' failed complaint, that Sian Caiach, and Cneifiwr were witnesses for myself, her role in the proceedings is conveniently brushed over.

She will, no doubt, have an absurd and implausible get out of jail free card which, for reasons best known to her and Mr James, exempt her from having to make such a declaration. It was Ms Rees Jones who found absolutely nothing untoward with Mr James remaining in the Exec Board meeting, and not declaring any interest, when he was personally and unlawfully bankrolled for the counterclaim. The Appointed Auditor thought differently... Neither did she see anything wrong in 'informally' co-writing the report with Mr James, prior to the meeting, recommending his own indemnity.



You can guarantee that the report to CRWG was 'informally' co-written with Mr James in exactly the same way. Mr James was, I understand, not present at the CRWG meeting in July, well, not in body anyway. He didn't have to be, he was there in the dutiful spirit of Ms Rees Jones, and of course the now equally dutiful Cllr Dole.

The Members of CRWG should be made aware of Ms Rees Jones' interest, surely they are already aware of Mr James' direct involvement. If she has not declared an interest then CRWG should make a formal complaint.
Declaration or not, she shouldn't be advising on this matter full stop. It is quite remarkable.
If a letter is ever written to the WAO, as was decided at the CRWG meeting, then Ms Rees Jones and Mr James should definitely not be the ones to do it.

In fact the ability of Mark James and Ms Rees Jones to advise council on anything related to the issue of libel indemnities is completely compromised, and biased, by their own direct involvement.

Whilst the issue remains live it is in their personal and professional interests to ensure that no one challenges their unique view that they have done nothing wrong. From defrauding the public purse to manipulating councillors with misleading advice, from failing to declare interests to downright dishonesty, Mark James is the culprit but Ms Rees Jones is his taxpayer funded personal defence lawyer.



It was eminent lawyer and former lay member of the council's Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis, who described the council's internal legal advice in 2014 as 'cavalier' and incompetent', and not without good reason. This whole farce is a testament to that, and I, personally, would add the words 'deceitful' and 'unscrupulous' to the list.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Smoke and mirrors - Indemnities, restrictions and Ombudsman costs


The row over the unlawful indemnity clause, and the 'leak' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) meeting held at the end of July continues, with further coverage in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.
Cllr Rob James, Labour opposition leader who is pushing for the removal of the clause, claims that his group are now barred from all sensitive information related to decisions made by the Plaid/Indie coalition, scrutiny of spending will be limited. I have heard similar claims and, furthermore, council leader Emlyn Dole confirms it in a statement to the Herald saying that it was now questionable whether confidential information could be trusted to the Labour leader.

This restriction came about following my blog post here which revealed the fact that the libel indemnity clause had been discussed at the CRWG meeting. No graphic details were published, there were no personal or commercially sensitive material, nor did anyone imagine that the whole business was top secret.
CRWG, you may recall, was set up to improve governance and make the council more transparent, not, as it now appears, as a secret conduit for the chief executive to challenge the qualifications of the Auditor. Something he has tried before.

Clearly the auditor's findings are still keeping Mr James awake at night. Only last year, in his complaint to the Ombudsman against Sian Caiach he rambled on at length about his unlawful indemnity, not that it was unlawful of course. He attacked, yet again, the then Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett claiming, in so many words, that his findings were based on little more than shifting sands and a passing whim.
As we know, the WAO have not changed their view and their finding has never been overturned in court.

Cllr Dole's previous enthusiasm to fully accept the Auditors findings and remove the clause in 2014, and his 'pledge' to promote 'a new mindset as we seek to ensure full openness and transparency' in May 2015, all mysteriously evaporated when he was given the key to the Presidential Toilet. It must all be a bit embarrassing, poor man...
He probably hopes that the whole sordid business will find the long grass, or those lumpy carpets in Mark James' Presidential Suite, and as yet, no letter has been written to the WAO, as resolved at the CRWG meeting.

And as for the CRWG item on libel indemnities being 'confidential', it's completely ridiculous and entirely without basis - legal advice, information, reports, judgements and numerous press reports have all been in the public domain for five years. And as I have explained before, there is an inherent and significant public interest for transparency over this issue.
And who do you think is so annoyed with the 'leak' that councillors' access to information has been restricted?
The same control freak who restricted Sian Caiach access a few years back for 'asking too many questions' and who threatened councillors with court action, to give just two examples.
This secretive, controlling nonsense lies squarely at the door of Mark James and his personally appointed legal umbrella, Linda Rees Jones. Our Leader, Cllr Dole is just grateful for his £48k a year, and does exactly what he's told. Just like every other council leader since the chief executive arrived from Boston all those years ago.

* * *

Ombudsman investigation costs

Previous post; Mark James' complaints against Sian Caiach - the Ombudsman's conclusion

A few weeks ago I made Freedom of Information requests to the council, and the Ombudsman's office, for the cost of the investigation. With Mark James CBE having wasted 18 months of everyone's time, I wondered what it had also cost the taxpayers' of Carmarthenshire and indeed Wales.

The council's response

Remarkably, for the 18 months investigation, the only thing that the council had actually written down was an hour and a half of officer time amounting to £92.40.

This response was bizarre on so many levels. They could, for all we know, have spent £100,000 but if they only 'recorded' one little bit, ie £92.40, then that's all they have to disclose under FOI.

Mr James' complaint ran to 32 pages, assisted by free use of the council legal department rather than instructing his own solicitor; there was 'evidence gathering' in the form of statements from several council officers, there were documents obtained from the police, letters from council solicitors; the trawling of several blogs and assorted tweets, computer and printing costs, and whatever else occurred during the 18 months.
£92.40 probably just about covered the cost of printing out, yet again, Mr James' favourite bedtime reading, Tugenhat's lengthy judgement.

Mr James has form of course in using public resources, including hard cash, to pursue his personal vendettas and has habitually treated publicly funded resources as a mean to his own ends, or a means to failure, particularly in respect of his complaints to the police about me or his complaint against Sian Caiach.

What this deliberate omission to log expenditure means is that not only are the press and taxpaying public kept in the dark, but, more importantly perhaps, so are the auditors, and without a paper trail Mr James could have, and indeed did, spend and utilise whatever wanted. The true cost of this little exercise is probably the equivalent of at least couple of years pay for a junior council worker.

The FOI request and response can be seen here.

The Ombudsman's response

The Ombudsman's office would 'neither confirm or deny' that they held the information. This kind of response enables a public body to refuse to confirm that an investigation took place to protect sensitive information from disclosure and is usually reserved for FOI requests concerning police investigations or matters of national security.

The refusal by the Ombudsman to 'confirm or deny' in this case was somewhat unexpected, with their response bringing up issues of 'confidential investigations' and 'data protection'. I asked for the costs of course, not any documents or personal information about anyone. As for the investigation being confidential, the outcome was reported in the press.

I have now asked for an internal review which, along with the response etc, can be seen here.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Unlawful libel clauses - Cllr Rob James' video




Cllr Rob James, leader of the Labour opposition group on Carmarthenshire Council gives his views recent developments over the unlawful libel indemnity clause. Refreshingly clear and straight to the point, it's worth a watch.

* * *

I have made my views on the matter crystal clear and my efforts to obtain documents from the recent 'working group' meeting can be read here. There's plenty of background on this blog, including the CRWG meeting here.
(Just to be clear, the opinions expressed below, and on this blog are mine alone, not views expressed by Cllr Rob James)

I don't need to elaborate, I've done so many times but I will say, yet again that this clause is unlawful, or, in the real world, illegal. Despite the endless denials and desperate attempts to discredit the Auditor, and anyone else, Mark James knows it too. Since the Auditor's findings in 2014 he, and head of law Ms Rees-Jones have deliberately and continually misrepresented the legal position and misled councillors, and used precious public resources to do so.
What is worse, perhaps, is that our pious church-going chief executive 'persuaded' Plaid council leader Rev Dole to betray his own conscience, u-turn, and sing from the same, profoundly un-Christian-like hymn sheet.

It is very much in Mark James' interest, and it is his intention, to try and reinstate the clause or at least overturn the label 'unlawful'. Who knows, perhaps he's hoping for a knighthood... He has never repaid the unlawful cash and, without a pang of conscience, breached the undertaking to hand over the damages back to the council.

Whatever happens this issue will not go away, despite the administration's best attempts to muddy the waters, kick it into the long grass, or any similar metaphor.
Whatever your views on the libel case itself, it is extremely important that the clause is completely removed.
As for accountability, it is my honestly held opinion that Mr James and Ms Rees-Jones should both have been sacked over this fiasco four years ago. There's still time.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

FOI news - Carmarthenshire council and the culture of secrecy


Some interesting stats about Freedom of Information requests were released earlier this week after the Welsh Conservatives, via FOI of course, collected figures for Welsh government, councils and health boards. The full dataset can be found under the article 'Culture of Secrecy' on their website here, naturally there's a bit of a Tory slant, but never mind.

As I am a regular user of the Freedom of Information Act, Carmarthenshire-style, their stats were interesting. Out of 1235 requests made from January to December 2017 only 50%, were answered in full, ie full disclosure of the information requested. A grim statistic. Out of the remaining 50%, 317 were refused and 193 partly refused.
In 2016 the full disclosure figure was 58% so there's been a decline of 8%.



This puts Carmarthenshire towards the bottom of the public body barrel. The Welsh Government were worse with only 46% full disclosures. At the top of the tree was Gwynedd council with 95% full disclosures out of 1002, a comparable number of requests as were made to Carmarthenshire.

According to to the stats, Carmarthenshire has improved it's response rate to reply within the 20 day limit from 84% in 2016 to 97% in 2017. My personal experience of delayed responses would put this figure at around 10%, but perhaps that's just because it's me...

I acknowledge that the variables in the world of FOI can be endless, but the range of figures for full disclosure suggests that the legal criteria for disclosure or refusal are not being applied with much consistency across Wales.

One surprisingly quick Carmarthenshire response was to a request (not one of mine) for expenditure details for the month of June 2018. Over recent years I've suggested that Welsh councils should follow the legal requirement, now statutory in England, to publish monthly expenditure, but Carmarthenshire have consistently refused to do so.
This particular request, which was responded to in full in just three days, showed that publishing these details every month might not be such a problem after all...

The latest Caebrwyn FOI farce concerns my request for the officer's report to the Constitutional Review Working Group meeting held on the 27th July. The report related to the agenda item on the unlawful and notorious libel clause, recent posts, here and here explain the details, and the possibility that reinstatement of the clause is being sought.

I originally asked Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones for a copy of the report. She eventually replied to say that she had passed on my request to FOI as I was asking her to "divulge information about what might or might not have been discussed at a private meeting of councillors".
It is interesting that CRWG has now been classified as a 'private meeting of councillors'... I understand that calls are being made for CRWG, which is overseen by Mark James and Ms Rees Jones to become a properly constituted committee.

The predictable FOI response arrived on Monday stating that my request had been refused under the legal privilege exemption. There are two parts to this exemption; litigation privilege and advice privilege, the request was refused under the latter as no actual litigation was (or is) being contemplated. Which is something I suppose.

The basic principle that correspondence between lawyer and client is protected from disclosure is, of course, well established in law. Where it becomes something of a grey area is when the exemption is applied to reports written by council legal officers for councillors, committees or, in this case, a 'working group'.
The danger in a democratic society is that as a matter of convenience, the net can be arbitrarily widened to include anything written by a solicitor, including a council solicitor, about anything that elected members are discussing or deciding upon.

The exemption is also subject to a public interest test and in this case the council FOI officer, no doubt under the direct instruction of Mark James and Ms Rees Jones, decided that the public interest for transparency did not outweigh the need for secrecy.
Legal privilege is also a difficult one to appeal as there is such a long-standing presumption against disclosure. As the council well know.

Carms Council FOI Exemptions Department.
However, I have asked for an internal review of the refusal and will take this to the Information Commissioner if necessary. (Both the refusal and my request for an internal review are posted in full at the end of this post). So, we'll see.

In this case I believe that the document is being wrongfully withheld as a means to avoid public discussion on what is essentially a matter of significant public interest. The status of the clauses, ie the reinstatement, removal or the status quo (remain 'suspended') of the provision to use public money to fund officers' defamation claims has significant implications for the public and the press, financially and ethically, not just here in Carmarthenshire but across the UK.

The fact that this is sensitive and embarrassing subject matter for the chief executive and the monitoring officer, whose illegal actions sparked this long running scandal in the first place, should have nothing to do with a FOI response; but this is Carmarthenshire, with it's toxic culture of secrecy.



As I mention in my request for a review below, advice relating to the same issue was published in 2014, but this was when their backs were against the wall, so to speak. It does raise the question though of whether they have already waived their claim to legal privilege, or whether, as I have also mentioned in my email, it is engaged at all...
All in all I fail to understand why the report hasn't just simply been released. It is farcical.


The letter to the WAO, which I also requested, is 'not held by the council' which, in plain speaking, means it probably hasn't been written yet. Maybe they're getting legal advice...

On a wider point, it's about time that FOI legislation was widened to include commercial entities who carry out public services, from council owned 'arms-length companies, to housing associations and even City Deal partners, for example. If they're spending public money then they should be open to a degree of scrutiny.

Anyway, I am digressing, here's the refusal notice (3rd September), with my request for a review (5th September) below;

Dear Mrs Thompson,

I refer to your request for information, which was received on 3rd August, 2018 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The specific information you requested was as follows:

“1. I understand that at the CRWG meeting held last Friday (27th July) it was resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office concerning the unlawful libel indemnity clauses. I would be grateful for a copy of this letter or confirmation of its intended purpose if has not yet been composed.”

“2. … the officer's report which accompanied the item on the unlawful libel indemnity clauses which might or might not have been discussed at the 'private' CRWG meeting.”

In response to the first part of your request, the Council does not hold this information.

 With regard to the second part of your request, this information is held by the Council.

However, it is evident that the report in question is comprised of advice provided by a legal professional to the CRWG on this particular matter.

It is therefore a form of communication between a legal professional and a client. 
As we have advised you previously, a decision by the Information Tribunal, in Bellamy v the Information Commissioner and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (EA/2005/0023, 4th April, 2006), provided a clear definition of legal professional privilege:

“a set of rules or principles which are designed to protect the confidentiality of legal or legally related communications and exchanges between the client and his, her or its lawyers, as well as exchanges which contain or refer to legal advice which might be imparted to the client, and even exchanges between the clients and [third] parties if such communications or exchanges come into being for the purposes of preparing for litigation.”

The Bellamy decision also defined two types of privilege, namely litigation and advice privilege.  I believe in this case that the report is subject to advice privilege, which applies where no litigation is in progress or being contemplated.  This would include confidential communications between the legal professional and the client, for the main purpose of seeking or giving legal advice.  A report which in which a lawyer provides advice is by definition, legal advice.

Under Section 42 of the Act, a public authority may refuse to provide information where a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained.  In view of the above, I believe this exemption is therefore engaged.

However, the Section 42 exemption is qualified and subject to a public interest test.  In doing so, I must make a distinction between what is genuinely in the public interest and what may merely be of interest to a member of members of the public. 

I accept that there are public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a matter which has been subject to some publicity in the past. 

However, there is an inherent public interest in maintaining this exemption, which will always be strong due to the importance of the principle behind legal professional privilege, which is to protect the privacy of communications between client and lawyer to ensure access to full and frank legal advice, which in turn is fundamental to the administration of justice. 

I am not persuaded on this occasion that this is outweighed by the factors favouring disclosure set out above.  Accordingly, I believe the exemption should be maintained and the information withheld from disclosure.
                                                                                       
As I am refusing to provide the requested information, please therefore consider this email to be a formal notice of refusal under Section 17 of the Act.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman

And here's my request for a review;

Dear Mr Edgecombe

I am requesting a review of the refusal of  FOIA/11379, I have copied the response below for ease of reference.
My request for a review relates to the second part of my request, namely the officer's report relating to the unlawful libel clauses to the CRWG meeting held on 27th July 2018.

I believe that the public interest favours disclosure and the use of legal advice privilege is incorrect, if engaged at all. The report should be disclosed for the following reasons;

The council waived its right to legal privilege on February 27th 2014 when the legal advice, directly relating to this same issue, was published on the council's website. 

There has been a historic lack of transparency over this issue and the misrepresentation of previous legal advice, as documented in the Wales Audit Office Public Interest Reports 2014. This in itself is a compelling reason for disclosure.
The Monitoring Officer, who I believe is the author of the report, must ensure councillors are not misled and act unlawfully. Despite the overwhelming findings by the WAO, both she, and the chief executive, continue to misrepresent the legal position as 'lawful'.

The response minimises the importance of the issue which is significant enough for a councillor to place on the agenda for a group which reviews the Constitution.
There is also significant public interest in that the removal, resinstatement or status quo of the libel cost clauses has financial, legal and moral implications for public bodies, members of the public and journalists across the UK, not just in Carmarthenshire. This has been reflected in the widespread interest and publicity over several years.

CRWG is by definition a 'Working group' and is not properly constituted as a committee. Reports cannot be classed as 'exempt' without the publication of an agenda, the application of the public interest test and a formal vote on the exemption sought. Even if CRWG is classed as a 'client', as you maintain, then it is they who own that advice and for them to vote on whether it should be released or not.

Legal advice privilege is not engaged at all if the communications between solicitor and client are to further criminal purpose. This also extends to civil fraud or other conduct which is a breach of the duty of good faith, contrary to public policy or in the interests of justice.  In this case the matter was subject to a finding of unlawfulness by external independent Appointed Auditor. Further to this, the provision in the constitution is contrary to legislation and the subsequent policy was adopted by the council themselves in 2006.

CRWG was established following the WLGA Governance report which found serious failing in the way in which the council was run, including the lack of transparency. The WLGA governance review itself was a direct result of the findings of the Wales Audit Office in January 2014. It is ironic that a document relating to the very issue which was the subject of one of those public interest reports is now being withheld.

I believe that the refusal to release the report is based solely on a reluctance for this controversial issue to be subject to public engagement and wider discussion. My own request to Cllr Dole for the matter to be placed on a CRWG agenda last year was refused as he didn't want to 'resurrect' the issue. However, the matter remains unresolved, transparency over the process remains imperative and the report should be disclosed forthwith.

I would be grateful for an acknowledgement of this email.

Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson
* * *

The libel cost clauses, aka slush fund. Potential reinstatement on the cards.

Friday, 31 August 2018

News in brief - Wellness, Early Resolutions, and tax avoidance...


Wellness

With the Swansea Bay City Deal Joint Committee meeting for the first time today (Friday) the Llanelli Herald has marked the occasion, perhaps, with a steely look at the state of play of the Wellness Shed planned for the Delta Lakes swamp. More precisely it looks at the company appointed by the council as their 'private partners', Sterling Health. 

Much of the information was covered on this blog (with several interesting comments) last month - see Wellness Village 'private partners' - something oddly familiar? - but, given that our Mr James is due to be made King of the City Deal (lead CEO, Principle Adviser, Chair of the Project Board and yes, really, the 'Accountable Officer') it's worth taking another look.

Following a sprinkling of council press statements during the week the Herald reports that no less than two management consultancies have been appointed by the council, Faithful & Gould and Medparc Ltd.

F & G are clearly a massive multinational company with a track record of success, (apart from a no-blame hiccup over the abandoned InterCity West Coast franchise competition), in project management.

Medparc, as I mentioned in my last post, has no such track record, has minor assets and was dormant until 2016. The connection however is the director of Medparc, James Dickmann.  Mr Dickmann, along with Franz and Phyllis Dickmann, and bizarrely Meryl Gravell form Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd, the council's 'private partners', recording, as I said, a £137K deficit last year and zero income.

Another Dickmann enterprise is the 'Little Learners' Academy' which, according to Sterling's website, are planning to provide 'Wellness' creche facilities. As this company was only formed in August 2017 there are no accounts nor track record.

Sterling, and it's directors, grew out of Kent Neurosciences (KNS), the council's original development partners, when it dissolved earlier this year with a deficit of £128k. KNS had developed a private hospital in Maidstone, Kent until insolvency beckoned and a bail out was required.

The Herald continues;
"That hospital, built in Maidstone, is the Kent Institute of Medicine and Surgery and ultimate control of the entities concerned in it is based in the British Virgin Islands – no doubt ‘the city connections’ the Council is so proud to trumpet. And those ‘city connections’ all link to a string of other companies similarly vested in overseas tax havens.
No allegation is made regarding the tax status or practices of those companies.
Although it is something which, no doubt, the Council’s crack legal and compliance team took into consideration when choosing its partners."

Presumably the council's 'due diligence' process will have noted the track record of the Kent hospital and the involvement of the Dickmann clan who left before the bailout by investors began. It is on public record that as at April 2017 the three year old hospital's net liabilities were £33.5m. Projected success had not materialised and the crisis was a result of an 'overly optimistic' business plan in the first place.

The Herald concludes; "With two key partners’ heady track record of delivery and links to shady offshore tax havens, there is little doubt that the Wellness Village – when built - will be everything people expect it to be and more."

All this should be comfortably familiar to Mr James and perhaps why the "robust procurement exercise", Carmarthenshire style, always leaves more questions than answers. In his previous incarnation as chief executive, Mr James had been the originator of the Princess Royal stadium in Boston and by the time the auditors had been called in to figure out why the projected financial success story was nowhere to be found, he had moved on to build another taxpayer draining stadium in Carmarthenshire.

So, let's hope that the new term at County Hall sees our councillors asking some very pertinent questions, such as, for example, just what exactly is the criteria required for a company to become 'development partners', is a track record of financial success actually necessary? And how many millions will the council have to borrow, and just who exactly is going to benefit from the Wellness Village? Who knows, with Mr James' private property investment partners and his management empire in Cardiff, it might just be him...
More to the point, some searching questions right now would be better than an external forensic audit investigation further down the line, when everyone involved at the outset has long since buggered off.

As for the Council, the Herald's cutting columnist Cadno makes a few observations and suggests a few questions in this week's paper, well worth a read;




Here's an extract of a previous Cadno piece (apparently Boris the Brexit Fox stood in for Cadno this time) which dealt with the various impending political leadership elections here in Wales. It suggests, in fact, that Mr James already has all the fine accoutrements we would expect from an all-powerful Welsh Leader...;

"So we must rally to the flag of strong and decisive leadership and intolerance of rebellious voices so as to mould the Welsh nation anew.
The flag of Mark James.
Nobody in their right mind could claim that sinking millions of pounds on easy terms into a succession of failed projects was not adequate preparation for taking over the whole country.
Equally, nobody could say – at least not twice, unless it’s the Ombudsman – that the glorious leader is a vindictive petty bureaucrat who ought to grow a thicker skin if he’s going to interfere in the political process and eavesdrop on councillor’s emails.
Who else but Mark James could fulfil the onerous role of being involved in a property management company, chief executive of a County Council, lead chief executive for the City Deal, and all-seeing eye at the centre of Mordor?
One more finger in another pie and the set would be complete.
It is for that reason, not to mention Mark James’ ability to perform in the traditions of Welsh local government (mot ‘si scalpere dorsum, et digitis tuis’) that marks him out as a man apart. The sort of man who should be leading Wales instead of the current band of lollygagging ne’er do wells who populate Cardiff Bay.
Imagine for a moment, my friends, the sort of country we would have under the benign and ever-watchful Great Flaming Eye that is Mark James.
There would a bowling alley on every corner, a Wellness Centre in every village, and a bloody big stadium to host the Olympic Games – possibly at Cross Hands East.
It’s a compelling vision, isn’t it my friends. The sort of firm leadership for which Wales is crying out. And seated at his right hand will be Meryl Gravell and her representative on earth Emlyn Dole.
To those of you voting in various leadership elections this summer, the choice is clear. Write in Mark Vincent James’ name on your ballot papers.

Let him do for Wales what he has done for Carmarthenshire.
And then pull the chain."

* * *

Early Resolutions

Carmarthenshire Council makes no less than three appearances in the latest Ombudsman's quarterly casebook with all the findings dealt with under the 'Early Resolution' scheme.
This scheme avoids the need for a protracted investigation and is used where the Ombudsman and the council can agree to a quick turnaround for things to be put right. In an ideal world, a satisfactory and quick result is of course preferable for the complainant, cheaper for the Ombudsman and less in the way of 'reputational damage' for the council.

With these three findings against the council unlikely to appear any time soon on the corporate website it's worth noting that, aside from the specific failings, the theme across all three is the council's reluctance and inability to deal properly with complaints, or even recognise and log them as such. It presents a snapshot of a wider problem; as many of us who have tried to bring the council to account will know;


Carmarthenshire County Council – Children in care/ taken into care/ ‘at risk’ register/ child abuse/ custody of children
Case Number: 201706555 – Report issued in April 2018
Ms A complained about the Social Services Team at Carmarthenshire County Council (“the Council”) and, in particular, a lack of care towards her daughter’s safety when using social media. Ms A also raised concerns over a lack of communication and the fact that she had not received a formal response to her concerns.
The Ombudsman found that although Ms A has not been through the Council’s complaint procedure, the Council should have noted her dissatisfaction from her correspondence and dealt with Ms A’s concerns as a formal complaint.
The Council agreed to undertake the following actions, in settlement of the complaint:
a) Within 28 days from the date of the Ombudsman’s decision, arrange a meeting between Ms A, her daughter and the Social Services Team.
b) Within one month from the date of the meeting, issue a Stage 1 written response to the complaint.

Carmarthenshire County Council – Special Educational Needs (SEN)
Case Number: 201706608 – Report issued in April 2018
Ms X complained that Carmarthenshire County Council (“the Council”) had continuously failed to provide a Physics tutor for her 15-year-old daughter. Her concerns were as a result of her daughter’s school mishandling her education which led to a breakdown and several suicide attempts. Ms X’s daughter has been diagnosed as having Atypical Autism.
Although the Council had taken steps to resolve this complaint, since the Ombudsman’s involvement, it had failed to formally acknowledge and deal with the complaint under its complaints procedure despite Ms X clearly indicating that she was raising a formal complaint. The Council agreed to write to Ms X with its apologies.

Carmarthenshire County Council – Social care assessment
Case number: 201700171 – Report issued in June 2018
Mr A’s complained about Carmarthenshire County Council’s (“the Council”) response to his Stage 2 complaint investigation. This included the Council not detailing the measures it had put in place to address the identified failings around assessments, statutory and non-statutory services and eligibility.
The Council acknowledged shortcomings in its complaint handling and agreed to take the following actions:
a) apologise to Mr A for the failings identified and pay him the sum of £250 for the time and trouble caused to him in pursing his complaint.
b) revise its Complaint Process flowchart so it meets the requirement of the Welsh Government’s guidance on complaint handling and representations by local authority social services (2014).
c) provide evidence of the training programme it has drawn up in relation to complaint handling.
d) provide an explanation of the Eligibility Criteria for the Transition Team and update the details displayed on its website accordingly.
e) provide the Ombudsman with copies of the revised policies, accompanied by an action plan, which should include appropriate timescales for ensuring implementation and monitoring of compliance.


An added bonus for County Hall is their possibly erroneous assumption that the shorter Early Resolution scheme must leave the Ombudsman with plenty of cash and time on his hands with which to spend sifting through the self-obsessed, deranged ramblings of our chief executive for 18 months. But as we already know, Mr James clearly considers himself a far more important and deserving recipient of scarce public resources than vulnerable children, worried mothers and their irritating complaints...

And finally...

Tax avoidance and the CBE

Interesting news out today that the Honours system takes a dim view of nominees involved in tax avoidance schemes and takes advice from HMRC.

You may recall that around the same time as chief executive Mark James was given a CBE he was also involved in a tax avoidance scheme.

For two years he took a secret pay rise (totalling nearly £30k) in lieu of his pension contribution for the purpose of avoiding tax, a matter deemed unlawful by the Wales Audit Office in their 2014 Public Interest Report (there were two reports, the other being the unlawful libel indemnity).

Mr James' honour from Private Eye was richly deserved, and his own concept of honour, dignity and integrity has been called into question before.
As for the CBE, the Honours committee states; "poor tax behaviour is not consistent with the award of an honour".
Oh dear.
                                                            
                                    

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The unlawful libel indemnity clauses - part two


For part one, please see earlier post; Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate unlawful libel indemnity clauses...really?!

Following the CRWG meeting held at the end of July I asked Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to clarify Plaid's stance on the subject. Their reply, which I received on Monday is reproduced below, in full;

EDWARDS, Jonathan <jonathan.edwards.mp@parliament.uk>
To: kthompson855@btinternet.com
6 Aug 9:53AM

Dear Mrs Thompson,

Many thanks for your e-mails. 

I’ve taken a bit of time to try and establish what has happened these past few days.  I respond to you today on both my and my constituency colleague, Adam Price’s behalf.

I’m afraid the information I have is based on informal discussions, rather than anything which has been published.

As I understand it: 

·         There was a suggestion by the Labour group leader at a recent meeting of the council’s CRWG meeting to remove the particular clause from the constitution.

·         The response from a Plaid Councillor was that there remains a grey area as to whether the council is or isn’t allowed to provide an indemnity following recent proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council.

·         The Plaid Councillor proposed writing to the Wales Audit Office for clarity on the matter.

·         This proposal was supported by the Labour group leader.

You’ll appreciate that my understanding is somewhat different to the noises which have been made in the press since the meeting!

 As far as Adam and I are concerned, this is not a matter which has been discussed within the party and we would not personally support the re-introduction of the clause.  Furthermore, we don’t think there is any appetite whatsoever in the Plaid Council Group to re-introduce such a clause. 

 We maintain the position that it is right and proper for a public authority to indemnify officials for proceedings brought against them in the course of their duties, but not the ability to initiate proceedings or for counter-claims.

 If I get any more information I’ll be sure to get in touch, but as far as I’m concerned there are no attempts to re-instate the clause.

 I hope that’s useful for now.

 Cofion,

Jonathan

This week's Carmarthen Journal also features an article on the subject which does not yet seem to be online, so here it is;



First of all I'd like to say that I believe Mr Edwards and Mr Price are sincere when they say they would not personally support the reintroduction of the clause. Having read their remarks over the past few years, including in correspondence I can't imagine they would think this was a good idea, to say the least.

Unfortunately, they do not run the council, and neither, for that matter, does Emlyn Dole, or his Independent colleagues.

We know who does.

I would imagine that when the Motion to remove the clauses landed on the chief executive's desk for inclusion on the CRWG agenda there was a rapid flurry of activity.

As we know, a report was written to 'advise' CRWG. That report has not been published and, according to the Journal article the whole Item was 'exempt' and confidential. There is no reason for this at all.

I am fully aware of the historic, and flawed arguments put forward by Mr James that the clauses are, in his opinion, lawful, but there also appears to have been some scratching around to include unspecified proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council. I am not currently aware of such proceedings directly related to this issue.

However, instead of simply agreeing to remove the offending and unlawful clauses, a counter-motion to reinstate was, it seems, put forward. Eventually, a vote was taken whether or not to write to the Wales Audit Office, presumably for legal clarity. I understand that the Labour leader abstained another Labour councillor voted against.
I have asked Linda Rees Jones for a copy of that letter.

As the quote from the Wales Audit Office states, their position remains unchanged.

Mr James, has, for the past four years railed against the findings of the then Appointed Auditor Anthony Barrett and I imagine his correspondence with the auditor was as arrogant and as irritatingly righteous as his correspondence with me. In 2016 he used Mr Dole to question the Wales Audit Office as to whether Mr Barrett was suitably qualified to make his findings. Mr James was sent off with a flea in his ear.
Even in his complaint to the Ombudsman concerning Sian Caiach he challenged, at considerable rambling length, the findings of Mr Barrett.

If the council were run by councillors I have little doubt that these clauses would have been quietly removed. But, as I said back in 2015, our dynamic duo, Mark and Linda, are in something of a dilemma, if they remove the clause completely, then Mrs Thompson would have won a small but significant victory - they would be conceding that it should never have been there in the first place. They would also be agreeing with the Wales Audit Office. Their positions would be untenable.

Hence the continuing prevarication, and undue, and unlawful, influence on councillors.

If they leave it in the book, in its 'withdrawn' state, never to be used, then it looks ridiculous and serves no purpose within the constitution; a permanent reminder of professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour.

As I have said, regardless of political nuance or pointing the finger of blame, the clauses remain unique to Carmarthenshire, a memorial to local government idiocy, and in particular, the self-centred idiocy and unbelievable arrogance of Mark James.
Perhaps he's considering raiding the council coffers again, and suing someone...

Please search this blog for further background, of which there is an abundant supply.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Mark James' complaints against Sian Caiach - the Ombudsman's conclusion


After eighteen long months, the Ombudsman, Nick Bennett, has concluded his investigation into a series of complaints made by chief executive Mark James against former county councillor Sian Caiach. In short, the Ombudsman has decided that no further action is required and the file is now closed.

Nick Bennett, Public Service Ombudsman for Wales
Mr James' complaints against Cllr Caiach run to sixty-one rambling paragraphs, with numerous repetetive sub-paragraphs and a file of evidence weighing the equivalent of a large turkey. He complained that Cllr Caiach breached various parts of the council's Code of Conduct through blog posts, emails, the 'pound of flesh' protest and a letter published by the Western Mail.

In essence, it all related to the support Cllr Caiach has shown to me over the past couple of years, particularly when Mr James was trying to force sale of my home. You may recall a similar reaction to others who tried to intervene and of course his complaints to the police.

The Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Caiach was entitled to do, and say, what she did, it was political comment from an opposition councillor concerning the actions of the council and its chief executive. There was no breach found, and none of it was considered by the Ombudsman to be serious. There was one minor issue that the Ombudsman thought Cllr Caiach should reflect on, but, again, no further action was required.

The Ombudsman applied Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the Calver judgement in respect of the extra protection afforded to political expression and concluded that in Cllr Caiach's case freedom of expression included the right of political expression through public protest, she was also perfectly entitled to criticise council policy and show support for a cause or individual.

He added that he expected a chief executive to have a 'thicker-skin' when under general criticism.

Cllr Sian Caiach, currently Chair of Llanelli Rural Council

My personal view

There are a few points arising from this investigation which are worth making.

Mark James became personally embittered and outraged when Cllr Caiach acted as a witness for me, against him and the council, at the libel trial in 2013. It later transpired that he had tracked her emails.

Cllr Caiach, as followers of this blog will know, continued to question the legality of the libel indemnity and to criticise the council's pursuit of costs and Mr James' pursuit of damages.
However, she did not challenge the legal outcome of the trial, just the moral compass of Carmarthenshire Council.

Whether or not Mr James has a personal vendetta against Cllr Caiach is not known, but, as with me, the volume of 'evidence' and the detailed complaints also give rise to another concern. It appears that Mr James has either spent an awful lot of time (when not controlling his property empire in Cardiff) tracking quotes and comments from blogs, including this blog, and Cneifiwr's, scrutinizing emails, memorising chunks from Tugenhat's judgement, and god knows what else, or he instructed other council staff to do this laborious and repeated task.
Not once did he discuss his complaints with Cllr Caiach before going to the Ombudsman.

Incidentally, my police custody record from the 2011 #daftarrest incident was included in the 'evidence', I can't think of any reason why this was sent to the Ombudsman, its inclusion was completely irrelevant.

It seems to me that, yet again, Mr James' personal mission has not only cost the council an arm and a leg in staff time and resources but clearly an eighteen month Ombudsman investigation, including the taking of statements, interviewing witnesses, etc doesn't come cheap. This money would have better spent addressing concerns of dissatisfied hospital patients rather than the inflated ego of Mr James.

Mr James is the Head of Paid Service and his remit does not include assembling dossiers, by whatever means, on backbench councillors. Or bloggers or members of the public for that matter. It begs the question as to whether he has a similar obsessive compulsion with the musings, and the data, of any other councillors....

Interestingly, this is not the first Ombudsman to suggest that Mr James grows a thicker skin. He has previous. Back in 2012 he made another set of complaints against Cllr Caiach to the former Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, and he, Mr Tyndall, threw them all out.
Maybe Mr James should be registered somewhere as a vexatious complainant.

Come to think of it, Mr James hasn't had much success elsewhere either, his complaints to the police against me were thrown out by the CPS, and the judge who has dealt with the various civil enforcement proceedings was, shall we say, surprised at some of Mr James' actions, he was also as fair to me as he could be under the constraints of the circumstances.

As for the Code of Conduct, there's another one for Officers. As I have mentioned before, Mr James has taken payments and a pay rise which were deemed unlawful, he has used council resources and staff for his own purposes and breached an undertaking to his employers to pay the damages to the council. And more.

I think that this time, the Ombudsman got it pretty much right, although personally I wonder if he's been investigating entirely the wrong person.


Mr James doorstepped by reporters during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, 2014

Friday, 27 July 2018

Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate the unlawful libel clauses...really?!


Please also see later posts, including The unlawful libel indemnity clause - part two.


Please read this earlier post for background; Those unlawful libel clauses - a call to arms

I understand that a meeting of the council's Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) was held earlier today. On the agenda was an Item on those infamous and unlawful libel indemnity clauses in the council's constitution.

The matter had been raised, I understand, by the leader of the Labour group Rob James who was pushing for some sort of decision as to what the administration intended to do, it was his express intention for them to be removed completely, rather than remain as 'suspended' for yet another four years.

It seems that the Plaid and Independent majority on the group, including Emlyn Dole, out-manoeuvred the three Labour members and resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office to ask if they could, legally, reinstate the clauses, on the basis that they consider them to be lawful.

If this is indeed the case, and I have asked Plaid politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to confirm Plaid's stance, then it is astonishing.

In 2014 the same Plaid councillors voted to accept the Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report which declared that it was unlawful for officers to be publicly funded to bring defamation claims, and, in fact, legislation expressly prohibited it anyway. At that time it was the Labour and Independents who voted just to 'note' the report and suspend the clauses.
All to save the skin of Mark James and Legal Linda who have refused to accept the findings.
They have claimed that the provision is lawful under case law and the vague powers under the Local Government Act of 1972.
Neither the case law, which in fact does not support such action, nor the LGA 1972 override the express prohibition in section 6(3) of the Indemnities Order 2006.

The about-turn of Plaid 'in-power', particularly Emlyn Dole is shocking and prior to today he has informed me that he now considers the clauses to be lawful. Anyone would think he owed his position to the, erm, generosity of Mark James...

I have written many times about these clauses and the sinister, chilling effect that the provision has on critics and the press alike. I will not repeat it all again here. A senior officer can still sue of course, like anyone else, but must use their own money, apart from in Carmarthenshire.

I find it remarkable that Plaid Cymru are apparently considering such an illiberal, unlawful and anti-democratic step. Let alone the potential cost risk to the taxpayers which can be (and was) hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If they are seriously going to try and do this then of course there is a lengthy process to follow. The response from the Wales Audit Office will eventually turn up on the agenda of a CRWG meeting, a recommendation will then be made which will, in turn, go to full council. It will run and run.

CRWG could have voted today to remove them completely and recommended this to the next meeting of full council.
It seems they did the exact opposite.

Carmarthenshire Council remains the only council in the UK to have this notorious provision in its constitution, it should be an embarrassment to them all. The failure to remove the clauses, and now, apparently, to seek reinstatement, shows the length they will go to protect the illegal actions of the chief executive and Monitoring Officer.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

'Cadno and the Nightmare on Emlyn's Street' - from the Carmarthenshire Herald


This week's Carmarthenshire Herald features another observant and entertaining opinion piece from columnist 'Cadno', it's self-explanatory, particularly to followers of this blog, so here it is;


Cadno and the nightmare on Emlyn's Street

Mark James CeeBeeBies ™ is a man on a mission. Having blown public money at the Princess Royal Stadium and Parc Y Scarlets, he has now decided that his next wheeze will involve mugs from the private sector soaking up the pain of failure at Delta Lakes. 
Although, and let's face it, given Marky-Mark's way with investing gargantuan sums of public dosh in pale pachyderms it would take a small miracle for the public not to end up paying out if the great swamp proves a money pit. 
But let's all try to be positive. 
Maryl Gravell has returned like a boomerang kebab on a Friday night in Llanelli town centre to lend the imprimatur of her own spotless reputation on doling out public money to the Llanelli Wellness Thingummy. 
With Meryl the Peril back on board we cannot help but wait for the excitement to start. There will be exciting announcements of exciting news and exciting sums of money being spent on exciting things, some of which could turn out to be excitingly real, for a change. 
You can imagine, readers, there was Emlyn, fast asleep one morning at Capel Ifan's own Rancho Grande when the phone rings. A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and wanders to the kitchen - stops to pour himself a cup of ambition - and answers the ringing phone. 
It's Mark James. 
Quickly Emlyn stands to attention and salutes, dinging himself with the receiver in the process. 
"It's good news Leader"
For the sake of clarity, Cadno points out Mark James is the speaker of the last sentence. 
A visibly relieved Emlyn genuflects. 
"It's Meryl Gravell." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasssion. 
"No Emlyn, Meryl's back. And this time it's Wellness." 
An ashen Cllr Dole stares unbelievingly at the handset mouthing like a stranded trout. He feels one of his headaches starting; one of the ones that end with him sitting in the corner of the kitchen with a cup of cocoa, armed with a sand wedge to repel boarders and keep the voices at bay. 
"Meryl!?" He eventually croaks into the handset. Through the earpiece, he can hear Mark James whistling 'Happy Talk' from South Pacific. 
"Yes, Emlyn. Meryl. Please try to keep up. She's a director of the company we're entering into a partnership with to build the Wellness Centre, Life Sciences Centre, Wellness Village, Wellness Resort Hotel, Wellness Golf Course, and Wellness Sheltered Housing complex for discrete and well-off gentlefolk who don't want to end up living in a cardboard box on Station Road in their declining years." 
Attempting vainly to recover his equilibrium, the Council Leader murmurs the words 'Leisure Centre'. 
The narked voice at the other end of the line snaps back, "Well if we must, Emlyn. But we're talking about big money here. Hundreds of millions pumped into Delta Lakes. I'm sure we can manage to squeeze in a ping pong table and paddling pool to keep the locals on side. After all, they'll need something to do in their lunchbreaks after a hard morning on minimum wage with a dustpan and brush or serving coffees in the Wellness Coffee Shop attached to the Wellness Conference Centre." 
"But Meryl?!" A faint plaintive note enters Cllr Dole's voice. 
"Look she was at a loose end having had the Shitty Deal gig go south when Cardiff Bay decided that she and the other mugs who fronted the deal were disposable. But look on the bright side, with Meryl on board everyone will be excited. I'm excited, Meryl's excited, it'll stop you having to bear the burden of the blame if it all goes tits up, too" 
Emlyn cannot help himself; "Blame? Tits?" 
"Listen Emlyn, this is my last big chance to enter the annals of public finance and local government as the man who delivered three whopping disasters without getting sacked. 
I've been dreaming of completing the hat-trick in order to cement my position as the man to whom the Welsh Government will be able to turn to head the Assembly Commission when the time is right. I can't risk a success. It'll go against the best traditions of local government in Wales and could ruin my legacy. It's notoriety that counts, not competence. A word in the right ear was all it took and Fanny's your aunt, Meryl is back." 
"I don't understand. Are we planning to fail?" A desperate Emlyn clutches to the prospect of disaster like it was a life preserver. 
"This is Carmarthenshire, Emlyn!" 
The exasperated tone with which the Council Leader is familiar is in CeeBeeBies' voice; "For goodness' sake, if we succeed every other county council will think it can succeed. We can't let down Cardiff Bay by allowing that. Remember what the City Deal is for; it's to ensure that when ill-costed, poorly thought out projects fail, the Welsh Government can pass the buck. They pass the buck to us, we pass the buck to Meryl. It's a win for us no matter what happens." 
"Winning?" A faint note of hope enters Emlyn dole's voice and he sits down on a kitchen stool by the breakfast bar to steady himself. 
"Yes, winning Emlyn. Everyone's a winner. Well, apart from Llanelli of course. They'll be left with a rotting building site around a leisure centre slowly sinking into the water." 
Emlyn brightens up; "You mean Llanelli loses?" 
A hollow chuckle comes down the other end of the line; "Oh yes Emlyn. That'll teach the ungrateful bastards." 
There's a click and a whirr, the audience is over. Emlyn's world begins to spin with the possibilities. He begins to feel dizzy. Everything goes black. 
He wakes up to the sound of ringing. I's the phone in the kitchen.
A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and answers it. 
It's Mark James. 
"It's Meryl Gravell, Leader." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasion. 
"No, Emlyn. Meryl's back. Back again." 
Emlyn swallows and feels rising dread.
It all seems so familiar...is there no end to this nightmare?
He looks around for his sand wedge. The voices are coming again....


 


(From The Carmarthenshire Herald, 21st July 2018, reproduced with permission as currently in print ony)


Please search this blog for background, including here, here, and previous post here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Wellness Village 'private partners'...something oddly familiar?


Later post, 31st August, here.


A minor flurry of press releases yesterday announced the identity of private sector partner who will be developing the 'Wellness Village' at the Delta Lake swamp, Llanelli, with the council and Swansea University, all part of the PFI-style Swansea Bay City Deal.

The 'Sterling' photoshoot
The company is called Sterling Health, trading as Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd. The company was set up in 2015 and has sister companies called Sterling Health Security Property Ltd, Sterling Health Security Operating Ltd and Sterling Health Security International Ltd, set up last year.

There is something oddly familiar with all this.

In 2016, in secret session, the council's Executive Board entered a twelve month 'exclusivity agreement' with Kent Neurosciences Ltd to 'develop' the Village.
By May last year the 12 month agreement had not been renewed and had been quietly dropped. The company subsequently dissolved itself in May 2018 with the last set of accounts showing a deficit of £128k. Professor Marc Clement (who is the Swansea University part of the deal, pictured above on the right) was a director until 2015. Other key directors included Mr Franz Dickmann, James Dickmann and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann, clinicians and business people.

Carmarthenshire blog, West Wales News Review took a good look at Kent Neurosciences in 2016 and there were some interesting connections, not least of all to a loss making private hospital in Kent and offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The hospital opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.

The 'official' reason why the 12 month Wellness Village deal with Kent Neurosciences Ltd was not renewed was that the project was SO BIG that a wider net had to be cast to incorporate a more diverse developer.
They also had to be able to come up with £127.5m to chip in to the project...

It was somewhat surprising therefore to see that Sterling Health appears to be Kent Neurosciences by another name and includes the same directors, ie the Dickmann clan. The 'Sterling' group of companies have yet to submit any detailed or useful accounts. However, as the council press release states, it "leads a prestigious consortium of global companies", whoever they may be, and searching Companies House certainly takes you down an endless rabbit warren of linked companies and directors, and the Kent connections.

A very recent addition to the list of Directors of both Sterling Holdings, and Sterling Operating is none other than our old friend, former council leader and loyal rubber stamper of the chief executive's unlawful behaviour, Meryl Gravell. Meryl has been loitering in the background ever since as Chair of the 'Arch' health board collaboration thing.

How the same company re-emerged under a different name within a myriad of companies, and the consequential lack of clarity over business track records, will probably remain a mystery, under the helpful shroud of 'commercial confidentiality' and all that. As will the secretive procurement process and the details of the financial deal which has been struck with the council.
Clearly, as has been said before, the emphasis is on private health care, and a luxury health spa, in which the council, under the lead of Mr James, will be investing heavily.
All quite remarkable.

West Wales News Review ends its 2016 piece with another important point; "..could the Wellness Centre be a conduit for public money to flow through networks of companies into far-away entities registered in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens?"

I would imagine that is entirely possible.

This blog is not suggesting, not for one moment, that there is anything wrong with the arrangement, merely suggesting that it might benefit from some democratic scrutiny... Unsurprisingly there has been none at all so far, and, as ever, Carmarthenshire's taxpayers deserve better.


For previous posts on the Wellness Village and Swansea Bay City Deal please use the search box on the right hand side of this blog

Monday, 9 July 2018

Audit reports, and more


A couple of reports, worthy of a mention, are on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee. First up is an internal audit report identifying 'fundamental weaknesses' in the council's management of its leased property. As usual the report lacks detail, it is not even clear if the reference is to residential or commercial property, or both.

A sample test of leased properties was taken and the report "identified concerns in the management and administration of the Authority’s assets" and found that "agreements were not always up to date", neither were they reviewed or renewed on time" and furthermore "evidence was not always available to demonstrate that best value had been obtained for the authority"

The report concluded that the procedures and controls were not "sufficiently robust" to "demonstrate adequate clarity and accountability over the lease of the Authority’s properties...Adequate monitoring of properties with agreements / leases is not always undertaken. In particular, the finance element of leased properties is not being managed appropriately".
Income isn't being collected promptly (if at all perhaps?) and records are not being properly maintained.

It is remarkable that that the council, with it's apparently shrinking budget; raising council tax, cutting services and shedding jobs, has failed to collect or properly manage and record the valuable income it gets from leased properties. Let's hope the Audit Committee will be given some honest detail for once, and can determine whether there have been and fraudulent or unlawful transactions and/or financial losses to the taxpayer.

As I have mentioned, Carmarthenshire Council and it's chief executive are currently the 'Accountable Body' for the City Deal, administering and managing the finances...they may want to get their own house in order first. Then again, deals enabling corporate entities and business associates to suck the lifeblood out of the taxpayer for years to come are right up Mr James' street...

Obtaining 'best value for the authority' does remind me of a certain deal with Scarlets' Regional Ltd where the chief executive, Mr James, certainly secured 'best value', unfortunately this was for Scarlets' Regional, not the authority...

The second report is from the Wales Audit Office which is also difficult to decipher. It appears to stem from two cases where "failings in people management had led to employee dismissals; losses in revenue or assets; and negative publicity for the Council.". One of the cases might well refer to the fiasco and cover-up at Pembrey Country Park (please search this blog for background, including here) though this is not stated in the report.

To 'review' what had happened, the council raided the Dictionary of Council Jargon and put several random words together, creating a "Corporate People Performance Management Review Working Group". The WAO have helpfully called it the 'review group'. The group met and discussed 'lessons learned' (of course) and, presumably, the management of people performance, whatever that might be.

As an aside it is worth remembering that there are a plethora of working groups, review groups, 'task and finish' groups, strategy and policy boards and other similarly titled bodies within the council who, by their nature, are not required to publish any agendas, minutes or decision notes, the most notorious being CRWG, set up to make the council 'more transparent'. This trend is growing and is a convenient way to subvert transparency and public engagement.

Anyway the WAO seemed pleased with the process of the 'CPPMRWG' review which made no less than ten recommendations. One of the recommendation was to review and update the guidance on declarations of interest, which is something we can all agree on...

However, despite the recommendations being formally proposed seven months ago, none of them had been implemented. The WAO concluded that this delay meant that the failings identified in the two review cases could be repeated.
Oh dear.

You can read the report here

* * *

The latest version of the council's Social Media policy was up for approval at last Monday's Executive Board meeting. The policy is nothing out of the ordinary and is an updated version of those which have been in place for the last ten years or so.

The policy, which is specifically for employees, restates a certain clause which prohibits the use of the internet for personal use during working hours. No one will mind, presumably, if you pop in to check twitter for five minutes in your lunch break, but hours of trawling blogs to acquire 'evidence' for your own private grudge, for instance, is not allowed and could lead to serious disciplinary action.

This is exactly what happened in 2016 when the chief executive trawled, or, more likely, instructed staff to trawl, through this blog for hours to cobble together his failed complaint to the police. I happened to save the hit logs from a couple of these unusually lengthy visits.

There have been many more instances where clearly Mr James has saved himself the tiresome expense of instructing a solicitor to do this lengthy exercise and used council staff and computers instead, but as I had happened to have saved this particular evidence, I raised it with the Wales Audit Office. After while they replied and said that what he had done was acceptable, staff were allowed to do this.

You may think this was unusual, being able to pursue your private interests using publicly funded resources, bloody astonishing really, but more was to come. Further enquiries, via freedom of information revealed that this generous money-saving perk didn't actually extend to any one else other than Mr James.

In fact, in the past few years, no less than eight members of staff had been disciplined for using council computers to pursue their private interests.

Astonishing.

Anyway, from unlawfully pocketing tens of thousands of public money, to breaching an undertaking to his employers, we know that Mr James prefers to spend other people's money, he said so himself....


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