I ventured out into the monsoon this morning to have a meeting with the Wales Audit Office. For those who have been following things, the WAO preferred to discuss the matter in person prior to writing a reply. The matter is of course, the use of your money (Carmarthenshire taxpayers) to fund the Chief Executive's counterclaim for libel. So armed with some general questions, and acting strictly on behalf of the taxpayer, I headed down the M4 to a bleak looking business park/Industrial estate on the outskirts of Swansea. When I eventually found the correct building (not one sign saying 'Wales Audit Office' anywhere, unless they'd been carefully removed earlier in the morning..) I was greeted by two pleasant gentlemen who explained that the offices in Carmarthen and Swansea centre were now closed and the WAO had saved 'tens of thousands' by relocating to this windswept corner. Well, that was something I suppose.
As the WAO have tried to make clear, their role appears to be one of monitoring a particular road taken by the council, but they do not make a judgement on whether they should have taken that road in the first place. They said that they had enjoyed my analogy about the 'rocking horse s**t', which was nice. The WAO rely almost entirely on the internal auditors employed by the council to present them with the figures to check, and they meet every month with council officers to monitor the various strange roads they have taken. They will disagree with me on that I'm sure but the other thing I pointed out was the issue of public perception. No one expects them to make a value judgements down to the last paperclip but there was a general expectation that the WAO was an independent body who would hold council spending to account. We know the council has a massive budget to spend but as Caebrwyn's granny always said, look after the pennies..... Although they were adamant that the body was independent, they were, I informed them, not quite the watchdog that people assumed. There were, they said, legal frameworks and remits to be followed which rather brought us back to the rocking horses again.
I asked their view on how the council had used the Local Government Act to justify the funding of the counterclaim, given that it allows a council to do anything 'conducive to it's functions', this means that I was somehow preventing the council from exercising it's 'functions' eg emptying bins, allocating council houses, cutting the verges etc. The gentlemen didn't appear to be entirely certain about this and didn't take a view. I was also wondering what the 'exceptional circumstances' were that the council used to justify the funding - oddly it had nothing to do with the details of the case but just that the council were funding a claim against one person, in other words, if the council were suing six or seven at a time then the WAO would have something to say about it. There we are then.
They had, they said, seen all the 'core documents' of the case and were monitoring the costs, I am not sure when they were last 'updated' with the costs but I'm guessing it was sometime ago. They said they'd follow that up. I asked general questions about value for taxpayers money but of course, they didn't want to be judgemental on either side so this thorny question remained unanswered. Perhaps eventually the taxpayer will be the judge of that. I was interested to learn however that the council are not using an insurance policy to fund the defence. As I understood it, they have some form of self-insurance with a £1m excess. A bit like your excess on the car windscreen policy, but bigger.
I also asked hypothetically, whether given the potential cost, they would consider stepping in at some point, rather like the district auditor did in the Bedford case (another string to the council's bow of justification), yes, they said, they would consider it but...erm...that was along way off yet....
Another point which arose was Council Tax. The bill for that is in Mr Caebrwyn's name and he rather wanted to know whether he was contributing towards a claim to sue his wife. Yes, they said, in principle, he was. It may be a very small amount in the grand scheme of things (at the moment), but yes, he was right. I promised to pass on their comments to a curious Mr C.
We moved swiftly on to some speculative questions. One of which was whether, in the event of the Chief Executive being awarded damages, they would go to him personally, yes, they said, they would. He would then, apparently, donate the money to the council rather like a gift. The gentlemen told me that some people even bequeathed money to local authorities in their will, Caebrwyn couldn't quite understand such devotion and assured them that Carmarthenshire County Council was definitely not going to benefit from all her worldly goods...well maybe they could have her lucky rabbit's foot as it hadn't brought much luck and was starting to smell.
As the time came to leave, the forthcoming 'Inspection of Public Accounts' was mentioned and I reassured the gentlemen that I, and others would be sifting through the invoices down at County Hall very soon and this could quite possibly result in another visit to the auditors. I detected a couple of slightly forced smiles at the prospect but they remained very professional and polite and left the swearing until I was well out of earshot. Anyway, they were very nice and Caebrwyn rather wishes she was a little younger and hoped that our paths will soon cross again, perhaps in the romantic glow of the gaslamps in the dusty catacombs of Carmarthenshire's Department of Finance....