Wednesday 6 March 2013

March council meeting - senior pay and horsemeat

Back into the parallel universe of Carmarthenshire County Council again this morning to observe a meeting of full council.
With the parish notices over with, the Chamber was treated to a report from the lady from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW). It was an 'over-all' report and non-specific, in other words compiled from data provided by the council. A similar report last year was peppered with ridiculous jargon which amused us bloggers, particularly the use of the word 'triangulation'. I was listening out for it today but I was disappointed. Instead the report 'highlighted key aspects' and was an 'evolving process' to provide 'alignment' and the service was being restructured to 'implement a citizen-led approach'. Blah blah.

So, equipped with the council's figures and a few 'participation' meetings, the areas of concern to the CSSIW were a failure to carry out regular annual assessments for older people and a poor level of support for carers. There were actually, several more recommendations for improvement within the report itself but these were not aired at the meeting. One councillor asked whether this report dealt with child abuse issues, no, apparently it didn't, as this report wasn't the result of any actual inspections, more a 'wider comment'. How useful.

Council Leader Kevin Madge then rose with his usual "I'd like to thank the officers.....moving in the right direction....the envy of Wales....hope Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion eventually catch up with our excellence...can sleep at night knowing our officers have everything under control..." The usual. Cllr Tremlett, Executive board Member then purred her 'personal' thanks to the lady for coming here 'personally' to present the report. How kind, and I expect she did it, personally, out of the good of her heart too....

The Plaid Leader asked for the CSSIW's view about the privatisation of 75% of Carmarthenshire's social care services; she didn't have a view, it was up to the authority, they just dealt with 'outcomes'. Cllr Jenkins asked whether the council had the necessary finance and capacity to cope with the 'stormy waters ahead', the Director of Social Services told the Chamber that corporate responsibility and partnerships were very important, so didn't really answer the question.
There was no mention, or questions of course about any uncomfortable ombudsman reports or protection to whistleblowers and, as it is with these reports, it was nothing more than meaningless, and probably very expensive, waffle.

Anyway the meeting moved on to set the council tax for the forthcoming year. As this was discussed at last week's budget, there was no debate, although I could probably think of a 1001 questions about the wisdom of how some of it is spent. No one was asking anything though. In fact the whole meeting seemed a little quiet, had instructions been given not to rock boats in front of the press? Were they practising for their stage debut?

The next item up was the 'Localism Act', not the whole thing you understand, but just the requirement to publish an annual Pay Policy. We heard that it had to be published annually because the Act insisted on councils being 'open' about pay, especially senior pay, damn that Eric Pickles.

Peter Hughes Griffiths was puzzled that although the statement required approval by full council it was all pre-determined by the Executive. The whole thing was too general, he then put forward an amendment to defer the decision until a cross-party Pay Policy Advice Panel had been set up to take a closer look. He was particularly concerned about the high wages, external fees etc for chief officers, in the current financial climate  and mentioned today's reports about the unlawful actions of Caerphilly Council's Chief Executive, one of the reasons why it was deemed unlawful was because the Chief Executive failed to declare an interest and leave the meeting when the decision was made.

Plaid's complaint to the Audit Office about returning officer fees and concerns about the council's financial management wasn't mentioned - but I think it was hovering in the air somewhere...

Just in case any senior officers on the elevated podium felt a little uncomfortable the Chief Executive rose to the challenge to explain what it was all about.  Although full council had to approve the pay policy, salaries and terms were decided by the Executive Board. So, effectively, full council was just one big rubber stamp.

The Chief Executive, quite rightly, said there was an awful lot of fuss about chief officer pay in the press and lots of FOIs, whether he though there was good reason for it or not he didn't elaborate. It is of course a controversial topic.  He did say though that all this came from Westminster and Eric Pickles (also know for his support of bloggers filming meetings, not a favourite in County Hall). He went on to quote Tony Blair who had said at some point that no chief officer should earn twenty times more than the lowest paid council worker; Mr James said that as his pay ratio was 1:13 it was 'well down on that'. He also said that if there were any pay rises this year, they would all find out when next year's Pay Policy was published next March. Doesn't sound a very 'open' system to me.

The Leader (after thanking the officers again) agreed that Mr Pickles was not his favourite politician either but a Pay panel was a good idea (even though they could only advise the Executive) and agreed with the Chief Executive that it would be unlawful not to approve the policy by the end of the month.
In fact there was all round agreement for a Pay Panel and the document was duly stamped.

Fortunately, and just in case there were those who didn't realise that senior pay was a taboo subject, Meryl Gravell was back on the bench after being indisposed for a couple of meetings, and was able to reassure and remind everyone (Starting with, "I know the press are here") that we are very, very lucky with the quality of the senior staff and were in fact the envy (again) of every local authority.
Referring to senior officers pay, she gave us her monkeys and peanuts quote again and gushed that we 'needed' that leadership that had made Carmarthenshire the best council in Wales'......

Back momentarily to reality with the conversation turning to horsemeat and the Executive Board minutes from the 18th Feb, where a very short lived reassurance by the Leader that there was no contamination was minuted, only to be disproved a week later. The Leader responded (paying tribute to the officers first) by saying that 'events' had taken over, and treated us yet again to his youthful reminiscences about nights out at Top Rank and his 3am visits to the dubious takeaway over the road where he may well have been eating cats and dogs.

One councillor suggested that it was a wake up call and perhaps they should consider buying locally, even if it cost a few pence more. Unfortunately council policy to establish multi-national supermarkets in every corner of Carmarthenshire means that there's not much opportunity to buy locally.

The meeting moved on to the public funding of organisations such as the Coleshill Centre, a subject of the Executive Board minutes, and Steps, Chooselife, and other organisations were also mentioned. I would imagine, the Towy Community Church comes under this too. The funding which was of concern was to enable these charitable organisations to set up cafes, shops, etc, essentially 'opening up for business', in direct competition with local retailers. Despite the good work carried out by some of these organisations, was it right that public money be used to fund businesses in this way?
Kevin Madge responded and paid tribute to the officers for their work (I hope you've noticed a pattern here). This was the way forward apparently, the council wouldn't be able to provide these services for ever...he hoped they would break even and be self-funding...eventually. Anyway, there was nothing wrong in using public money in this way. Naturally.

A lengthy discussion followed about the dire consequences of the Tory Welfare Reform Act. There was general agreement that it would further impoverish those already in dire need, which I daresay it will. Pam Palmer was worried that the arrangements for Universal Credit meant that people would be paid monthly and, even worse, in arrears.

Anyway, Cllrs Pam Palmer and Jane Tremlett were given the task of arranging a seminar, they sounded rather excited...another booking at Parc Y Scarlets on the way perhaps...with refreshments...?

And that was about it...back out again into the real world.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - I bet they hate you being there telling us all whats going on. It really must piss them off !

As regards funding I see a letter in the Llanelli Star this week challenging "Chooselife" in Llanelli to prove some success - any success actually.

Should be easy for them as according to you know who, if only she and Mark had staff like theirs we wouldnt have any problems !!

Anonymous said...

Did you say the Director of Social Services might be retiring? I wonder why?

caebrwyn said...

Anon 19.21
My intention is certainly not to p*** anyone off! Far from it, I am merely recording my observations from notes taken at the meeting. Hopefully everyone will be able to watch soon from the comfort of your home computer.

Anon 19.22
It is only a rumour at the moment and maybe he's reached retirement age of course.

Delyth Jenkins said...

I hope the Director invesigates the assault on me by a member of his care staff (who went on to hit a service user over the head) before he goes! Information I received from the Council leading up to the Tribunal doesn't add up!

Delyth Jenkins said...

I note from the ITV evening news tonight that changes will be made to the way investigations are carried out in general following the Jimmy Saville complaint. It also stated that many investigations could be reopened.

Anonymous said...

Love reading your posts on council meetings. Sooooo can't wait to watch them on my computer.

Peter Barton said...

Whilst working in local government we used to play "Bullshit bingo". Let me explain. We each drew a card with a number of Local government doublespeak words like, overarching, portal, reputation, direction of travel, etc etc - you get the drift.
We would then go into meetings and tick off the words on our cards as they came up. Of course we couldn't shout "HOUSE" so we used to simply put a time on our card.
It passed the time in those tedious drivel filled hours.