Friday, 18 October 2013

Questions and answers..

A meeting of Pembrokeshire Council was be held yesterday so I thought I'd have a quick look at the agenda, given the current spotlight on the 'pension arrangements' and joined-up legal approach to defending it by the two neighbouring chief executives.

What amazed me (so much so that I had to write this blogpost about it) was the marked difference in the contents of the agenda to anything I have ever seen in Carmarthenshire. It has questions! Questions from councillors to the Leader, which, I presume he is supposed to answer! Questions which, even if he doesn't answer to anyone's satisfaction, bring up controversial subjects in the public arena! Fancy that!

Here's a small selection;

Could the Leader provide Members with a brief summary of the Audit Office concerns in relation to the accounts signed off by the Corporate Governance Committee on Monday, 30 September 2013?

Could the Leader confirm if Council has had any further contact with the Wales Audit Office or their legal representatives since Corporate Governance on 30 September 2013 and if so, could he provide Members with a summary of any discussions or correspondence?

Could the Leader let us know whose idea it was for the Council to introduce the “pension arrangements” scheme which enables the highest paid Officers to receive their pension contributions as a cash sum, thereby avoiding tax liabilities?

Could the Leader tell us why no independent advice or legal opinion was sought back in 2011, prior to the tax-avoiding “pension arrangements” scheme being brought in?

During the Corporate Governance Committee on 30 September 2013, in response to a question about the propriety of holding public Council meetings in the Chief Executive’s Office, the Leader stated that “a number of Senior Staff Committee meetings have been held there over the years.” Could he provide a list of all previous meetings that have been held at this venue

Could the Leader confirm to Council who has been engaged to act on the Council’s behalf in relation to the Wales Audit Office report (specifically their concern in relations to changes to pension arrangements)?

Could he confirm the current bill (either invoiced or the anticipated amount based on time committed) for both Officers of the Authority and external agencies.  This should include all legal counsel?

The actual outcome of the meeting is covered here by Cllr Jacob Williams.

The question remains though as to why we never see such a raft of councillor questions in Carmarthenshire on a published agenda?

Both councils appear to have similar rules, in Pembrokeshire the question must be received by the Head of Legal, in Carmarthenshire it's the Chief Executive. I can't imagine there's any less interest in posing questions here than in Pembrokeshire next door. Is is a cultural difference? Do Carms councillors feel there's no point? Or are their questions rejected before they ever see the light of day? (answers on a postcard please)

As Cneifwr points out the democratic state of play in our own County Hall could become markedly worse (if that's possible) with the Chief Executive considering abandoning the current format and replacing it with a series of guest speaker seminars and powerpoint presentations. Apparently he is fed up with Chairing full council meetings where he has to deal with 'on camera' comments from discontented councillors and their attempts at bringing up embarrassing 'audit' issues and the like.

As Rhodri Glyn Thomas said recently he understands that, for starters, the Chief Executive has proposed changes which will prevent councillors from scrutinizing Executive Board decisions during meetings of full council.

As I have long predicted, the masterplan to do away with elected councillors altogether could be on the cards. To be honest, unless the Welsh Government step in with some urgency, Members will rapidly become superfluous to requirements anyway.


On the subject of questions, the First Minister Carwyn Jones was a guest on BBC Radio Wales Jason Mohammed show yesterday. He was taking calls from the public so I duly phoned up in the morning and lodged my question with the BBC. Much to my surprise I was phoned during the show to ask my question live on air. It was, as you may have guessed, to ask what the Welsh Government was doing to restore public faith and accountability in local authorities following the recent auditor's reports into Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly.

I don't suppose you become First Minister of anything by actually answering questions or by providing a relevant comment but I was surprised by the complete non-response, I even thought he was answering a different question from another caller. But he wasn't.

Firstly he said something about it being 'only three' and there were lots of local authorities. After he'd dropped that bombshell I found it difficult to concentrate on the rest of his response.

He continued by mentioning that there was a forthcoming commission looking at reducing the number of Welsh Councils. Well that's all very well but it had nothing to do with what I'd said.

However, my attempt to come back at Mr Jones was cut short as they had lots of people waiting to ask things. Like myself, they were clearly wasting their time.


Lastly, the minutes from a recent meeting (Oct 7th) of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny have just been published. It provided members with an update on the webcast viewing figures to date (to that date, so doesn't include the October's meeting). 5,500 had watched either live or on archive the first four meetings, which is 5,500 more than would have seen them.

Don't forget the pilot kicked off with the ridiculous ritual of the Council AGM which must have put many would-be viewers off for life. However, officers seemed pleased to note that figures were declining and only 66 had watched the September meeting live. With pilot due to end in April or May next year it's extremely important that we don't lose this small window into Carmarthenshire Council. There is nothing more that some senior officers and members of the council would like to do than to pull the plug.

The committee also wondered what had become of the promised reports on 'councillors' emails' and officer participation in formulating press releases (after Kevin Madge was found to have breached the code over the Sainsbury's fiasco). Disappeared into the long grass of course. According to the minutes the 'Senior Consultant agreed to circulate an update to the committee before the next scrutiny committee'.  How informative.


Anonymous said...

Like Reginald Perrins he could have said"I haven't got where I have today by answering questions,"but at least he said something about undemocratic councils-there are only three -that's alright then!!!!!!!!

That tells us everything about a welsh assembly whose members decided it should be called the Welsh Government.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

I had the audacity to write to the Chief Executive of Wrecsam complaining of maladministration she rejected my complaint and then made a code of conduct complaint against me. Seems that she and Mr James may well have attended the same seminar on openness & transparency.

Cneifiwr said...

The September viewing figures were disappointing, and it's clear that some of the top brass will jump on any opportunity to pull the plug (no doubt with expressions of "regret").

What we need to remember is that they got off to the worst possible start by making the AGM the first broadcast. That must have put a lot of people off. Two ordinary meetings followed, with a month off in August.

Viewed like that, it's no surprise that people forgot about it in September. Plus of course the almost complete lack of reporting on the council's shenanigans in most of the local press.

The end of the pilot will coincide with the new financial year. It will be interesting to see if councillors are asked to make a decision before April, or afterwards. If it's before April, expect to hear Pam and others saying this money could be used to fund respite care for disabled children, etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Rumour has it that opposition councillors have had a guts full of the lack of accountability in carmarthenshire council's chamber - expect councillor questions to be a permanent feature of council agenda's from here on in.

Anonymous said...

I sure as hell hope so.Bring it on I say.

Anonymous said...

Questions to the leader are have been available as a tool to question in Carmarthenshire since the days of Dyfed. Plaid just choose to use the urgent items (defined narrowly under the local gov act) because they know that the clerk and chair won't allow it... They dont actually want answers but enjoy being able to say they are being treated badly. Answers are available if the question is tabled correctly. I'm afraid this shows that plai are just as inept as any party.

Anonymous said...

I too am of the opinion that councillors apart from the obvious outspoken ones (all three of them) are only happy to be dictated to and then deflect the blame away from themselves for not carrying out their duties as elected representatives of their ward. There's no shame in Carmarthenshire. The councillors themselves would be only too pleased if the plug was pulled - who wants to be seen as spineless and ineffectual.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 23 08 says Councillors are using questions to the leader as a means of exposing the fact that they are being refused and being badly treated.

This argument suggests the questions are not valid or are not tabled correctly.
If it is a question of not being tabled correctly the reason should be given and question asked at following meeting.
This argument is illogical.From the web-cast it has become very clear who controls the council and it is not I repeat not the councillors.