Sunday, 20 October 2013

Unlawful payments, the story so far

To be honest, other than a lot of comment and speculation, no one, apart from the council officers involved, the Wales Audit Office (WAO) and a few executive Members, from both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, know any more than the contents of the appointed auditor's original reports to the respective committees.

The reports identified the pension arrangements, and in the case of Carmarthenshire, the additional issue of the libel indemnity, as being unlawful and relate to the chief executives of each county.

We also know that the circumstances around the meetings where these decisions were taken are also in question. Whether the beneficiaries of the payments were present; the absence of declarations of interest; the failure to advertise the agenda items, and their degree of involvement in the decision making process is clearly part of the WAO investigation.

Complaints were made in March of this year, eight months ago, concerning the meeting where the libel indemnity was granted. I understand that the complaints are still outstanding.

The stand-off continues. Neither authority will disclose the legal advice it has received which it commissioned jointly back in August clearly when the auditors' alarm bells rang; neither will they reveal earlier advice which may, or may not exist, concerning the payments themselves. Nor the ongoing cost of such advice, which is to directly defend the two executives involved.

Whilst the WAO is considering publishing a public interest report and continues to stress that will not rule out court action, the two authorities will hope all can be resolved before that becomes necessary and the whole episode can be quietly forgotten with budget cuts taking over public attention.

But major spending decisions cannot be taken whilst there is a nagging doubt that the authorities can't keep their own house in order. There are too many low paid council workers whose' jobs are now on the line looking at the top brass and wondering why stronger action is not being taken over these alleged payments which exceed their own annual salary.

In Carmarthenshire, there are a many wondering whether a few other financial arrangements would be worth a second look. To give just one example, the advance payments of Returning Officer fees paid before the local election last year. (see WAO called as AM and MP question council finances). Small businesses must be wondering why they are made to wait for payment for services and goods whilst this payment was made before the service was delivered.

We don't know whether the Welsh Government is going to step in and do something about the dire democratic state of affairs in Carmarthenshire as requested by Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (see Another meeting, another travesty). Judging by the First Minister's comment that it was 'only three', implying that is was not worth worrying about, it seems unlikely.

As the speculation continues it is perhaps of note that both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire are now mentioned in the same breath as Caerphilly. Although parallels are not being drawn at this stage, it is down to our elected members to demand some answers, they must assert their right and their role to scrutinize executive decisions on behalf of the taxpayer. How far, exactly, the term 'unlawful' translates to 'illegal' needs to be established.

In Pembrokeshire, questions brought up at last week's council meeting remained unanswered as the 'discussions are ongoing...wouldn't be appropriate...' line was trotted out.

In Carmarthenshire councillors weren't even allowed to mention the issue.

They could bring the matters up at the November meeting by fielding some questions, use a notice of motion to demand a statement or even call for the suspension of those involved. But with the next meeting a few week's away and the obstacles to bringing such topics to full council well known, (one of which will be the agreement of those directly involved for the items to be placed on the agenda), perhaps more direct action is necessary.

Within the constitution of each council is the procedure to call for an extraordinary meeting. Pembrokeshire has already set the wheels in motion concerning their own pension scandal. The requisition for the meeting is;
 - that the pension arrangements are rescinded;
 - that the Welsh Government to appoints an independent panel to carry out a full inquiry
 - and to immediately suspend the Chief Executive pending the outcome of the above inquiry.

In Pembrokeshire a request can be made by five Members to the Chair of the Council. If the Chair refuses to agree to call a meeting within seven days, (and the Chair has already refused), a request can be made to the Head of Legal and Committee Services who, as I understand it, is obliged to agree to call the meeting within five days.

In Carmarthenshire the procedure is almost identical but it is not the head of legal nor the head of democratic services who must agree to call the meeting, it is the Chief Executive.

Neither is it certain what the procedure would be if the officer responsible for calling the meeting was directly involved in the subject matter on the agenda.

However, it remains open to Carmarthenshire councillors to give it a shot.


Cneifiwr said...

Which just goes to show how unbalanced and flawed the council's constitution has become, with all roads leading to the chief executive.

We can be sure that meetings have already been held to discuss this eventuality, and how to deal with it. Who knows, perhaps the words "may request" will be taken as implying that the flip side is "can be refused".

The time is rapidly approaching when the police will have to get involved.

Anonymous said...

CPR3...replace request with require.
No "request" should be made by an employer to an employee in matters over which the employee has no jurisdiction.

caebrwyn said...

@Cneifiwr Yes, all roads....

Here is the relevant part of Pembrokeshire's Constitution, unlike Carmarthenshire, there doesn't appear to be any leeway to refuse to call such a meeting. There is also a five day limit for it to be called;

Calling Extraordinary Meetings

(a) The Chairman, and the Head of Paid Service, Monitoring Officer and Chief
Financial Officer in pursuance of their statutory responsibilities, may call an
extraordinary meeting of the Council; or

(b) Any five members of the Council if they have signed a requisition presented to
the Chairman of the Council, and he/she has refused to call a meeting or has
failed to make a decision within seven days of the presentation of the
requisition, may on the expiration of those seven days write to the Head of
Legal and Committee Services in accordance with paragraph (c) below.

(c) Where any person(s) decide(s) to call an extraordinary meeting, he/she/they
shall signify, in writing, to the Head of Legal and Committee Services that they
have done so and the nature of the business to be transacted. The Head of
Legal and Committee Services shall thereupon ensure that the notices and
summonses required by paragraph 4(2) of Schedule 12 to the 1972 Act are
published and sent within the next following five clear days to convene a
meeting of the Council.

Anonymous said...

That seems clear enough.So opposition members do it.
If we are talking about openess and transparency though, the current administration should also be making a challenge.
Of course many of them want to keep their special posts so we won't hold our breath on that one.

Anonymous said...

The only problem with extraordinary meetings is that councillors can boycott them and any decisions taken have to be ratified by Cabinet. which, of course, refuses to do it So, good for publicity but useless foe decisions

Anonymous said...

As taxpayers have funded the Chief Executives libel indemnity, his pension pot and his returning officer fees, with the WAO deeming two of the three to be unlawful, may be it is going to be down to the taxpayer to involve the police.

Anonymous said...

yes perhaps that would be an answer.

Anonymous said...

England has failure to declare a pecuniary interest as a criminal offence if committed by councillors, but not sure if it applies to officers, if not, it should!