Thursday 28 November 2013

'Allowable expenses'?

Update 17th December - BBC Wales investigates the issue of EU State Aid Rules and whether they may have been breached by Carmarthenshire Council, Cllr Caiach again raises her concerns over this in her statement below

For sometime now attempts have been made to extract the detailed breakdown of the split of the proceeds of the car park at Parc Y Scarlets sold to Marston's Inns earlier this year.

The Land Registry records the sale figure as £850,000, this was to be split between the council (who are the landowners) and the Scarlets who have a 150 year lease on the land (with no rent payable until such time as the club makes a large profit).

According to Executive Board minutes of July 2012, in an exempt report, outline approval for the sale was given and "an independent valuer be jointly [Scarlets and Council] appointed to determine the appropriate percentage split of the proceeds." The Head of Corporate Property in consultation with the Executive Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) were delegated to finalise the details.

It was confirmed earlier this year, in a written answer from the head of Corporate Property to Cllr Caiach that the money was split equally after the allowable costs and expenses were deducted.

What was not revealed at the time though was how much of the proceeds were actually left to split 'equally', and what precisely those 'allowable costs' were.

Cllr Sian Caiach requested this information through the Freedom of Information Act but it was refused, as was her subsequent appeal. She has continued with her enquiries.

The Executive Member for Finance, Cllr Edmunds apparently under considerable pressure not to do so, has now decided to disclose the details himself (figures rounded off);

Fees to agents and architects                      £50k
Allowable expenses to Scarlets                  £280k
Finders fee for buyer  to Scarlets                £30k
Compensation to club for loss of lease        £76k
Share of remainder :-             Scarlets  -      £220k
        Carmarthenshire County Council  -     £200k

The figure which is interesting is the £280,000 of 'allowable expenses'. It seems that this was used by the Scarlets to pay off a loan to the developers of the Eastgate development, Nottingham based Henry Davidson Ltd  for fitting out the new Scarlets shop and restaurant, The Red Room, within the development.
According to the council this was 'allowable' as it would increase footfall and trade in Llanelli town centre.

Just in case there was any 'viability' concerns with the council's 'flagship' Eastgate development readers may remember that the council decided to rent office space in the new build from Henry Davidson Ltd on a 20 year lease at £250,000 per year. This, apparently, was to save money...

Anyway back to the car park and it all raises some interesting questions;

1. Was the reluctance of the council to release the details of the 'split' through FoI on the grounds of 'commercial sensitivity' an incorrect exemption? Would the disclosure have compromised either party, or would it have actually raised unwelcome questions over the 'allowable expenses'?

2. You would think that any 'allowable expenses' should be directly related to the sale of the property, so should the council have sanctioned it to be used by the Scarlets to pay off a loan from a private company? If the council wishes to increase footfall etc it has proper channels of funding at its disposal.

3. Out of the £850,000, the council had £200,000. The Scarlets had £600,000.
Were all the Executive Board members aware of this windfall prior to reviewing the three year financial agreement on terms favourable to the Scarlets a few short weeks ago?

Of course, councillors who have continued to question the council's financial arrangements with the rugby club and the stadium are considered to be committing nothing short of high treason; threatening the rugby region, the council's investment and economic well-being of Llanelli. This was evident at even the most recent meeting of full council.
Also, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths' Motion for two items; the review of the financial package for the Scarlet's and the vastly inflated charges for other council sports facilities, to be debated at full council was jettisoned off to the Executive Board last week where it was rejected out of hand.
A discussion at the last Audit Committee meeting on whether or not the council had sufficient security on the Scarlets' lease should they go into administration was omitted from the minutes completely. Pity it hadn't been filmed.

The reality is that the council is encouraging hundreds of its staff to take severance packages and every single 'non-statutory' service is being examined with a view to cuts, whilst the rugby club remains not only untouched, but enhanced.

It would seem that this may well be another late contender for the Wales Audit Office inbox.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Webcasting - is the end nigh?

Next Friday's Democratic Services Committee will consider a report detailing the staffing resources required to webcast council meetings. The committee's remit is to ensure there is sufficient support to enable the council to carry out its democratic functions. Unfortunately, it is not there to determine whether there is a sufficient level of democracy, which is another story of course.

According to the report, savings in Democratic Services have to be found and by not filling a currently vacant part time post, this might be achieved. The report considers the impact on the level of support offered to Members and cites the webcasting as an enormous burden which takes up everyone's time and uses 'already scarce resources'. The Business Management Group were recently 'reminded'  about the 'ongoing cost' and viewing figures 'tailing off'.

In a roundabout, insidious and determined way, the case is gradually being put forward to end the pilot after a year and failing that, definitely not to extend it to other meetings.

Perhaps I could suggest that the council seeks some advice from the numerous other authorities who manage to regularly webcast a variety of meetings without bankrupting themselves.

With the proposal to reduce the number of meetings, and to change the format of full council agendas working its way through the system, County Hall may well be on target to achieve a total shutdown of all democratic debate, and any remaining rays of transparency, by the spring.  

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Three wheels on my wagon....

This week's South Wales Guardian (@SWGuardian) yet again dares to tread where others fear to go with another opinion piece on the 'unlawful' payments scandal, with an appropriate analogy;

South Wales Guardian Opinion 
Wednesday 20th November 2013 (Link here
No disrespect intended, but Amman Valley councillor Glynog Davies was – in the words of Basil Fawlty – “stating the bleedin’ obvious” when he opined that Carmarthenshire county council has been “damaged” by allegations of unlawful payments made in relation to their chief executive. 
Yes, this is a hot topic among county residents many of whom are watching events unfold at County Hall with a mixture of incredulity and mounting anger. 
No wonder Cllr Davies is “embarrassed” by the situation – judging by the glum expressions in the council chamber last week, he is not alone in his discomfiture. 
The few putting on a brave face increasingly resemble the hapless cowboys in ‘Three Wheels On My Wagon’ who, with Cherokees closing in, continue to limp along while re-assuring themselves that “...a mile up the road there’s a hidden cave and we can watch those Cherokees go galloping by...” 
Unfortunately for County Hall there’s no sign of a hidden cave, nor any indication that the Cherokees will abandon their pursuit. 
While some sort of compromise is likely, who’s to say the remaining wheels won’t come off? 
The Wales Audit Office will issue a public interest report shortly to which the local authority must respond within a month – regardless of the interminable Christmas break' 
Meanwhile, the charade goes on and the council has provided us with an online survey to cast our opinion on the proposed frontline budget cuts. Cuts to upper management have also been promised so, for example, it remains to be seen whether we still have two Assistant Chief Executives and a Deputy Chief Executive this time next year.

If you want to strongly agree, for instance, that lollipop ladies should be axed, or funded out of school funds (despite the promise to protect the education budget) you can. Likewise, if you think that ratcheting up car park charges will bring in extra income, despite a 7% drop in parking revenue last year, then go ahead.

You are also asked whether you think the precious council rag, the Carmarthenshire News should be cut from six to four editions per year, it doesn't ask if you think it should be consigned to history altogether.

Many are wondering if the paper is now the propaganda rag for Hywel Dda too with latest edition announcing that 'Hospital services improved' with regards to the A & E downgrade row at Prince Philip Hospital, Llanelli. This was a extremely controversial and strongly opposed decision and the subject of a 33,0000 name petition.

If nothing else the timing is particularly poor with the decision currently the subject of a Judicial Review application in the High Court. The legal challenge has also been extended to the Minister himself, Mark Drakeford.

Anyway, back to the survey and, as is usual with any Carmarthenshire consultation it doesn't really matter what you say, the decisions have already been made, hence the list. Its a curious fact that, for a Labour run council the first item on that list is to cut trade union facilitation time and support. The proposed rise in council tax is already 4.9%, and you will be duly warned that any objections will bump this up even higher, and it'll be all your fault...
Usefully, each section provides a comment box, and at the end of the survey you are invited to make your own suggestions, apparently they have to be "reasonable".

You may wish to suggest that a little more is taken out of council reserves, or maybe that the council reconsiders its expenditure on expert advice to defend unlawful payments. You may just wish to reflect on previous profligacy, or why the loan to the Scarlets wasn't called in last month but instead was extended on such favourable terms...

Or, on the assumption that no one's likely to bother to read it, let alone take note, you might wish to take this opportunity to say exactly what you think about this rotten borough....reasonably of course.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

A 'highlight' from the press office, and the 'no-eviction' Motion rejected

If you cast your mind back to June you'll remember the grand opening of the Xcel Bowl centre in Johnstown, Carmarthen. Photos of Meryl and Kev snapped in 'mid-bowl posture' graced the pages of our local papers, well some of them anyhow.

As we know, Xcel Bowl is part of phase one of the ambitious evangelical aspirations of the Towy Community Church, phase two will include, amongst other things, a church auditorium and, if we're really lucky, a Mercy Ministry to deliver Carmarthenshire's vulnerable young women from the devil.

The Council has, as we also know, thoroughly and without question embraced this fundamentalist evangelical church as its 'partner' and they even form part of the Team Around the Family social care initiative.

Buried within the 'Departmental Reports' for the next Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting is a summary of the achievements of the Council press office, for a summary of its more embarrassing moments you'll have to search the local blogs. One "highlight" is the "Organisation of the opening of the Xcel Bowl in Carmarthen. This included a marketing campaign leading up to the opening plus a competition"

It is not entirely clear whether Xcel Bowl/Towy Community Church (the church now has its address at the bowling alley site) paid for this comprehensive media promotion service, which included a front page spread in the Council rag, the Carmarthenshire News. If not then it would seem that the council is not content with bestowing £1.4m of land, grants and loans on their evangelical partners, (as well as an alcohol licence) but delivered a tailored press service too.

It was only a couple of weeks ago the council website was advertising jobs on behalf of Scarlets Regional Ltd. If these adverts were bought and paid for then perhaps the press office might like to let the rest of the county, and the local papers know it provides this service. However, it would seem that as long as you fulfil the criteria of being the council's preferred rugby team or even the council's preferred branch of evangelicalism, their willingness to help out knows no bounds.


For reasons best known to the Chief Executive 'in consultation with the Chair of the Council', a Plaid Cymru motion for the council to adopt a 'no evictions' policy over the bedroom tax was deemed unsuitable for debate at full council. The reality is, in my opinion, in practical terms it is very much a political issue and should have gone to full council.

Instead, it was placed on the agenda for yesterday's Executive Board meeting where it was duly rejected by this Labour run council supported by its independent cohorts. It's strange because I'm sure I can recall hearing, numerous times, both Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer (Ind leader) expressing their utmost concern for the poverty stricken residents of Carmarthenshire and how they will do all they can to help. I must have been mistaken.
(Plaid press release here)

Thursday 14 November 2013

BMG minutes...and iPads, or I pads

A couple of interesting items have cropped up in the minutes from the latest meeting of the Business Management Group (October 3rd) released via a Freedom of Information request. The full thread of the request, which took six months, can be found here. (Also mentioned in earlier post Online Interests).

As I have explained, the BMG is a cross-party group (Plaid, Labour and independent) of senior Members and officers, but not unaffiliated Members, and Chaired by Cllr Pam Palmer. It makes 'recommendations' to the Executive Board. The minutes are not routinely published and there is nothing to vouch for their accuracy nor completeness. No officer reports were included in the response but that's probably my fault for not requesting them in the first place.

The first item of interest is a rather gloomy mention of the webcasting pilot which is coming to an end in May. With viewing figures settling down to a more realistic level, and money needing to be found for future operational and staffing costs, the future may not be looking bright, and I can think of several people who would dearly like to pull the plug.

I trust that the fact that so many more have viewed the meetings than would otherwise attended in person, and the principle of transparency, will tip the balance. It is worth remembering as well that the thorny issue of members of the public being free to film meetings is due to be reconsidered after the evaluation of the pilot.

The next item concerns the possibility of replacing councillors laptops with iPads, (or, as the minutes record, 'I pads'). A report on feasibility and cost (I reckon around £25,000) is due soon, the idea being that members could use them in the council chamber and therefore cut down on the amount of paperwork. I suppose if things get desperate they could always throw them at each other.

The budget proposals also have something to say on councillor paperwork and suggest that documents for meetings are no longer sent to members but are put in their pigeon holes on the day of the meeting. This would mean that members would be unable to study the papers, or seek the views of their constituents prior to a meeting. There is also a mention of charging for Freedom of Information requests which is something which needs keeping an eye on....

I am not sure how much the extra training would cost for some members to get to grips with an iPad. One 'veteran' councillor still handwrites official letters on ordinary, non-headed notepaper, presumably with a quill and by candlelight.

Regular readers will know that there has been a long running problem getting matters of public interest debated in the Chamber. Motions on Notice can bring an issue forward but are often rejected for no apparent reason and it was the BMG who decided that each Motion would require the support of seven seconders rather than the usual one. However, the Plaid group put forward a request to the BMG that the Standing Orders be amended to include the following;

(i) To allow for debates on matters of public interest to be debated in Council, regardless of the fact the matter was an executive function; 

(ii) That procedurally the decision as to where a Motion on Notice should be determined (e.g by Council, by a Committee, by the Executive Board or by an Executive Board Member) should be taken publicly in the Council meeting.

The minutes don't record whether this proposal found favour from other Members, only that it was 'noted', accompanied by a report from Ms Rees Jones outlining the current rules for submitting Motions on Notice. The fate of Motions on Notice seems to depend largely on the discretion of the chief executive.

Next we learn that the public are confused and foolishly believe that the role of elected councillors is to make informed decisions on our behalf. Apparently this is not the case at all and according to one of our two Assistant Chief Executives, the blurb on the Council's own website is potentially misleading (my underlining);
“The Council comprises 74 elected Councillors representing 58 Electoral Wards from a range of Political groups and they normally meet as a Council on a monthly basis. They are the decision makers and agree the Council’s policies, budget and spending priorities.”

The issue might relate the separation of Council and Executive functions, but given the officer-led way this council is run, with the ever loyal executive board, the Assistant CEO is quite right, it is misleading.

The alarming proposal 'Redefining role of Council, Executive Board and Scrutiny and contributing to the Efficiency Agenda' , already mentioned on the blogs, also appears in the minutes. As if the democratic deficit is not bad enough already, if this proposal from senior officers gets anywhere then the elected members will really become superfluous to requirements.

The suggestion, which will be discussed at a councilors' seminar, is to reduce the number of council and executive board meetings and make full council 'focus based', whatever that's supposed to mean, and to include 'presentations', similar to yesterday's BT Experience and the forthcoming lecture from the council's favourite rugby team, no doubt.

To be honest it sounds dreadful enough without the second part of the proposal which is to remove from council agendas the 'receipt of minutes of its committees', this would also include Exec Board, planning and Scrutiny minutes.
Perhaps the worst part is the use of the phrase 'efficiency agenda'. To view yet another further reduction in the ability of members to raise issues in the Chamber as a way of saving money is as perverse as it is disingenuous.
The accompanying report includes a 'suggested revised agenda'...I wonder if it looks anything like Cneifiwr's prototype?

(Direct link to minutes Oct 3rd)

With regards to webcasting Council meetings, it looks like the first one in Pembrokeshire will be screened next month (December). Councillor and blogger Jacob Williams is looking forward to the Pembs Council Christmas Panto with enthusiasm

Wednesday 13 November 2013

November's meeting - 'Have the police been in touch yet?'

The meeting will be available to watch on archive tomorrow but I have a few initial comments. You'll have to forgive me for starting at the end of the meeting as I have an obvious, and I hope understandable interest in the 'unlawful' payments scandal, namely the libel indemnity.

Recent weeks have seen debates silenced, debates promised and finally, debates refused as those involved were, according to an email sent from Cllr Madge to all councillors, prohibited by the Wales Audit Office from discussing the contents of the auditors 'Consideration Reports'.

Fortunately this didn't stop a few councillors expressing their outrage with the ongoing scandal.

Cllr Lenny (Plaid) was first up and challenged the decision not to release the documents, he asked whether the council had considered the possibility of using The Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 (Relaxation of Restriction on Disclosure) Order 2005 in the public interest? The head of law, Ms Rees Jones, explained that each officer and senior member involved in the affair had received a letter from the WAO warning them against disclosure of the contents of the report. It was a 'very frightening letter' said Ms Rees Jones.

Cllr Darren Price was next, he pointed out that the WAO doesn't do this sort of thing very often but where they had done so in other local authorities, arrests had been made under potential charges of misconduct in public office. He was, of course, referring to Caerphilly council. He asked Ms Rees Jones to confirm whether the police had been in touch yet.

She avoided giving an answer and said that 'no final findings' had been made yet.... Mark James kept very quiet as did Kevin Madge, and Ms Rees Jones who was also involved in the 'unlawful' decisions was left floundering and having to deal with a few more uncomfortable questions, one of which was to ask why the council was spending money defending the chief executive's pension arrangements rather than protecting services. Ms Rees Jones was, er, unable to comment.

Trusty acolytes Giles Morgan (Ind) and Pam Palmer (Ind) were wheeled out to try and defend the council's honour...everything was fine! We wouldn't do anything unlawful! There's nothing to be embarrassed about! said Pam, who looked furious that anyone had brought this matter up at all.

Cllr Campbell (Plaid) then asked for confirmation that Mr Timothy Kerr QC was the legal advisor giving defence advice on the issues, or defending the chief executive, however you want to look at it, and more to the point, how much was it all costing?

Yes, it was he, said Ms Rees Jones.

If it hadn't been for Pembrokeshire Council's far more comprehensive minutes of its last meeting which included the reference to Mr Kerr, then I guarantee Carmarthenshire Council would not have disclosed it.

She couldn't provide the costs so far, naturally, as the matter was not over with... and it could possibly have made eyes water.

Interestingly, she also confirmed he was only advising on part of the matter. This confirmed to Caebrwyn that Mr Kerr was advising on the pension arrangement, not the libel indemnity. Separate and different expert counsel has clearly been instructed for that role. The ongoing costs of that also remains unknown.

Ms Rees Jones then came out with the second of her bizarre comments of the day expressing disappointment that councillors were critical of them for commissioning expert legal advice, I'm beginning to wonder whether Ms Rees Jones and Co have any sort of grasp of reality, and if they realise how it all looks to those outside the prison walls on Jail Hill.

Update 14th November; The South Wales Guardian has updated it's website and provides a report on the discussion here; Audit controversy has "damaged" local authority, claims councillor

'An Amman Valley county councillor has said Carmarthenshire county council has been "damaged" by allegations of unlawful payments made in relation to its chief executive.
Quarter Bach’s Glynog Davies described the situation – which has seen the Wales Audit Office question the legality of the authority granting a £23,217 indemnity for Mark James’ libel case against online blogger Jacqui Thompson and £16,353 paid in lieu of Mr James’ pension contributions – as “very disappointing”.

Cllr Davies told a meeting of the full council that the issue had become the hot topic amongst residents.
“There has been more talk out there about this than anything else,” he said.
“When people read of financial issues of this nature they begin to point the finger at the council itself.
“I am personally embarrassed by this situation.
"We cannot as a council afford to be damaged like this again.”
Last week, the Guardian revealed how the auditor general was expected to publish a public interest report into the payments in the coming weeks.
“The Wales Audit Office does not take this kind of step lightly,” said Cllr Darren Price of Gorslas.
“Obviously this matter is a very serious one.”
Cllr Price also raised the spectre of criminal proceedings should the auditor rule that serious wrong-doing had taken place.

“In other authorities arrests have been made,” he said.

“I would like to ask the leader (of the council) to confirm whether the police have made contact with this council or whether there is the potential that they will over the coming weeks and months”

Another update; The meeting is now available to view online . To view the discussion concerning the audit report click on the time 03:05:06


I'll now return, briefly, to the rest of the meeting, which, as you will see, started off quite amicably with prayers and a very worthy whip round for the people of the Philippines, via Christian Aid, of course.

Next was an endless list of declarations of interest, largely due to an item on rearrangements of seats on some town and community councils, upon which, most of them also sit. Although one felt the additional need to mention that he was a Scarlets supporter for some unknown reason.

The lengthy corporate powerpoint presentation from BT was next on the agenda where we heard that possibly, in 2016, some of us in the digital outback may get faster broadband. Please view the archived webcast if you wish to see the 40 minute presentation...including a slide show.

Cllr D Jenkins then brought up the subject of the council's severance scheme, expressions of interest had been invited from staff to help with the budget cuts. He pointed out that so far 650 members of staff had expressed an interest and if you took an average of £20,000 salary that would work out as costing somewhere over £7m. Was that going to help with the budget he wondered? The chief executive responded and mentioned that some staff had been confused over their pension entitlements and had been advised accordingly...fancy that.

With the Plaid motion that full council should discuss the premature decision on the Scarlets financial deal and the increased charges for sports facilities rejected (and now mysteriously, and somewhat pointlessly given the leader's response, appearing on the Executive Board agenda for the 18th November), the Plaid leader brought it up anyway. 

He referred to that curious document, the Council's Constitution which said that if an Item under consideration by the Executive Board has an impact on the budget, which all this undoubtedly does, they can refer it to full council for debate. 

This was were Ms Rees Jones' other bizarre comment of the day cropped up. The Executive Board didn't have to refer things to full council, it was up to them - some councillors, she said, were clearly under the mistaken impression that the council was one big scrutiny committee! Our elected representatives, it appears, are not meant to ask questions - didn't they know that?

A row ensued with the leader railing against the Plaid members and accusing them of being 'anti-Scarlets' (how dare they?) and, even worse, of bringing politics into the Chamber! Politics in the council chamber, whatever next! Kevin Madge got up quite a head of steam accusing the opposition of causing trouble with their press releases and using their 'Mr Bloggy' - he couldn't possibly be referring to respectable fellow blogger Cneifiwr could he?!  

A comment by one member referring to 'Parc Y Shambles 'was met with shocked silence from the loyal ranks. Cllr Price pointed out that the central problem was the process - namely the big unseemly rush to rubber stamp these two items, the Scarlets and the sports charges, just before the budget cuts were announced.

During the discussion it was mentioned that Scarlets Regional Ltd would soon be making a presentation to the full council, presumably a similar exercise to the BT experience, just more matey. Members can look forward to hearing the Scarlets philosophy of 'Spirit, Humility, Ambition, Belonging, Honesty and Responsibility' but probably won't hear much about their accounts nor the continuing burden on the taxpayer.

Cllr Caiach wondered at the wisdom and mentality of a public body continuing to prop up a struggling private company, which, back in 2007, wasn't supposed to cost the taxpayers a penny. She asked yet again for a copy of the elusive 'legal opinion' which apparently excused the council from EU State Aid rules, Ms Rees Jones told her that councillors weren't entitled to see legal papers.... 

You may remember that the now infamous Audit Committee meeting on the 27th September discussed the fact that should the club go pop, there was nothing in place to protect the council's substantial interest, the lease, or whatever, from being sold on by administrators. The Director of Resources and the head of law were even called back to the Audit meeting to advise the members. 

However, none of this was minuted and when Cllr Caiach tried to bring this up during today's meeting it couldn't be discussed as apparently, it didn't happen, it wasn't in the minutes. Sadly neither the Director of Resources nor the head of law backed her up. It was shameful.

I'll not go on, you can see it all for yourself tomorrow. 

There's plenty more to see and yet again it's a perfect illustration of severely dysfunctional local government. A Masterclass in fact. 


I referred to next week's Executive Board meeting earlier in this post and there's quite a list of items to be rubber stamped including a much more detailed list of the proposed budget cuts for the next three years, job losses and 'efficiency savings'. How they're going to manage with only one Executive motor instead of two, let alone a £1500 cut in the corporate management buffet fund I'll never know.
There's also a Notice of motion from Cllr Lenny (Plaid) 'that the council will adopt a non-eviction policy over the 'bedroom tax', it will be interesting to see what the Labour administration make of it.  

The agenda for the meeting can be found here, the budget list can be read here, as usual it's badly formatted and takes some figuring out. 
More on all that soon.

Another controversial debate rejected...

As I have previously reported, the decision to continue the financial bailout of Scarlets Regional Ltd, and the decision to offload parks and sports fields and ratchet up the charges for any which might be left, were made, conveniently, just before the budget cuts were announced and the 'consultation' even began.

These were executive decisions and it is decisions such as these which, according to Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the chief executive is considering removing from council scrutiny.

The Plaid opposition group on the council put forward a Notice of Motion for these two controversial decisions to be discussed at this month's full council (today), it has been rejected and they have issued the statement below. As the opposition group, Plaid direct their criticism towards the Labour/independent administration.

Who is really running the show is another issue of course....

As for the extremely serious issues of the 'unlawful' libel indemnity and pension scandals relating to the chief executive, the promised public debate has been 'postponed' of course (see Friday's post).

Council Running Scared Of Public Debate 
The Labour-Independent regime which runs Carmarthenshire County Council has been accused by Plaid Cymru of “running scared” of debating crucial matters of finance and policy in public. 
Plaid points out that financial decisions relating to the Scarlets Region and the council’s sports grounds were made before the seminar at Llanelli in October, which was supposed to be the beginning of the Budget consultation process. 
“This Labour-led council’s decision to get rid of parks and other sporting facilities, while introducing a massive hike in charges for those that remain, threatens the very future of grassroot sport clubs,” say Plaid Cymru. “At the same time, a crucial decision about dropping interest rates on a multi-million pound loan to Scarlets Regional Ltd, following a three-year freeze on loan repayments, was made by the Executive Board - without referring the matter to Full Council, which approved the loan in the first place in 2007.” 
“The fact that these decision were made by the Executive Board a week before the Seminar to discuss Budget options at the Ffwrnes Theatre, proved that the consultation process is a farce,” said Cllr Peter Hughes-Griffiths, leader of the 28-strong Plaid Cymru opposition group at County Hall. “It makes nonsense of council Leader Kevin Madge’s recent promise about being ‘open and transparent’.”

A Notice of Motion seeking to have these matters discussed openly by all members in Full Council on November 13th has been rejected by the Administration. The Plaid motion read: 
“As the new Financial Charges for Sports Facilities and a new Parc y Scarlets Financial Agreement were decided by the Executive Board on 14th October, in advance of the Ffwrnes Budget Seminar, in advance of any formal discussions and decisions on the 2014-15 Budget and in advance of any relevant Scrutiny Committee recommendations, full Council should be given the opportunity to discuss and decide on the new Financial Charges for Sports Facilities and the changes to the original Parc y Scarlets Financial Agreement.”

“It’s obvious that the Labour-Independent regime are running scared of debating these issues with Plaid Cymru in the public eye,” said Cllr Hughes-Griffiths. “They will do their utmost to ensure that decisions are made by a small group, giving the 74 elected members little or no chance to debate crucial issues in Full Council.  Such behaviour insults the democratic process. We assure the people of Carmarthenshire that Plaid Cymru will apply increased and relentless pressure on the administration to stop conducting the council’s affairs in such a disgraceful manner.” 
          (Source here

Update; This week's South Wales Guardian reports briefly on the 'unlawful' payments and also covers the issue in its opinion piece which says there has been a 'distinct change of mood' in County Hall over the past week as the seriousness of the situation is beginning to sink in......

The SW Guardian has no less than three articles relating to this story, bringing readers as up to date as possible, the Carmarthen Journal has none.

Y Cneifiwr reports that, with regards to the 'unlawful' pension arrangements, it seems the trustees of the Dyfed Pension Fund were not privy to what the council were up to.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Complaints in Wales - A candid view from the Ombudsman

There was an interesting and candid discussion last week between the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall and the cross-party Welsh Assembly committee for Communities, Equalities and Local Government. Mr Tyndall, who was presenting his annual report, announced last month that he was stepping down and taking up the position of Ombudsman for Ireland.

The full transcript of the meeting can be read here.

Mr Tyndall was concerned about the rise in complaints across Wales, at 12% he felt this could no longer be explained by the growing public awareness of the role and remit of his office; undoubtedly the public were becoming very dissatisfied with the public services they received.

He was particularly concerned with the rise in complaints against health boards and social care services, and as the health service lurches from one crisis to another, he's right to be concerned.

Health complaints have increased by 290% since 2006 and he warned that, at this rate and without an increase in funding for the ombudsman's office, the current level of service they provided would be unsustainable after one year.

As a representative of Carmarthenshire, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, (and speaking from bitter experience), disagreed with Mr Tyndall's view that, unlike health complaints, the number of complaints against local government appeared to be holding steady. Mr Tyndall's memories of wrestling with Carmarthenshire Council must have come flooding back and he reminisced; 
'Rhodri Glyn and I have enjoyed conversations about Carmarthenshire County Council. I understand some of the issues that we have seen with complaints that have come from there—there have been some particularly intractable ones, and some quite high-profile ones'.

Back to health and he felt there were two main causes for the rise in public dissatisfaction, first of all was the increasing pressure the health service is under but more importantly that the health boards were not dealing with complaints properly themselves, partly due to lack of staff and resources but also due to the way complaints are handled, he said;
"...many of the complaints that come to my office are exacerbated by the fact that, when first asked what went wrong, they ask the people who made the mistake, ‘Did you make mistakes?’, and those people say, ‘No, guv, we got it right’, and they then simply repeat that to the person who is complaining."

Many will recognise the same pattern when complaining to the local authority, well Carmarthenshire anyway. In June 2012 the ombudsman referred to our best council in Wales in less than complimentary terms;
'I have serious concerns that where complaints are not taken seriously at a senior level and where issues they highlight are not addressed because of an excessively defensive approach, service standards will suffer and errors will be repeated'

Rhodri Glyn Thomas felt that in his dealings with health boards and local government the problem was a refusal to accept an error had been made, even a simple issue becomes magnified into a huge problem, when the public body refuses to simply admit to a mistake and try and resolve it at ground level using independent advice where necessary.
Mr Tyndall agreed that there was a culture of defensiveness which needed to be addressed.

Community Health Councils who took on an advocacy role for patients were not fulfilling their potential, and there needed to be 'people on the ground in hospitals whom patients can go to talk to, whom they feel are independent of the doctors and are on the patients’ side'. The health complaints system seems to be a ticking time bomb.

The discussion moved on to Code of Conduct complaints, and whilst his local resolution process for minor complaints was beginning to filter out the trivial political banter complaints, dysfunctional town and community councils continue to be a problem and some, he said, caused more harm than good, "some of them have been conducting disputes since the dawn of time and they no longer even remember why they cannot stand each other".

Recent ombudsman guidance following the Calver judgment basically suggested that both Members and senior officers needed to grow a thicker skin to ensure robust scrutiny and democratic debate, maybe this example from Carmarthenshire helped the ombudsman formulate his guidance....

Another AM raised the point that in some councils, scrutiny by members was extremely difficult and becoming almost non-existent due to 'implicit and sometimes explicit' threats to report members to the ombudsman for vigourously challenging officer decisions and corporate policy.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas echoed this and added that opposition members had a harder job, as these days it appeared that chief executives and senior officers represented the executive board rather than the whole council. (I think he probably had Carmarthenshire in mind and was being polite because in Carms of course the executive board represents the chief executive and senior officers, and as for the 'whole council', they might as well go home).

Mr Tyndall, in response, said his guidance was clear, the role of members to hold the executive to account is paramount and indeed, exactly what the electorate expects; 

"the notion of a strong political challenge to a chief executive or a planning officer on a particular issue is something that we would never regard as falling outside the bounds of the code of conduct; that is a member’s job"

Councillors might want to bear this last comment in mind at tomorrow's meeting of full council should they wish to enquire about any 'unlawful' payments....

Friday 8 November 2013

'Unlawful' payments - Email from Leader to Councillors

Below is an email from council leader Kevin Madge dated 4th November 2013 addressed to all councillors. It confirms that, despite promising a 'full debate', there will actually be no debate at all over the 'unlawful' payments scandal at next Wednesday's meeting;

To all elected members of Carmarthenshire County Council

Dear Colleague,

Wales Audit Office Review of Indemnity for Libel and Senior Officers Pay and Pensions

I promised to keep members up to date with developments on the above matter, as reported recently to the Audit Committee.

It had been my intention to arrange for a full report on both matters at next week’s meeting of Full Council. In the meantime I along with my colleagues on the Executive Board, and a number of senior officers who have been involved in advising and presenting reports on the two matters, have received correspondence on both matters from the Wales Audit Office which makes it necessary to postpone this report.

We have been asked to respond to two separate detailed ‘consideration documents’, to comment on the factual accuracy of the contents and to offer any observations thereon. We are required to respond on or before Friday 22 November.

Specifically the letter relating to each report states that:

The consideration document is confidential and has been provided to you to enable me to confirm the factual accuracy of it’s content. Under Section 54 of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 (The Act) you are not permitted to share this document, or extracts from it, with any third party. Unauthorised disclosure is an offence under the Act and could prejudice the audit process.

It would be impossible to report on these matters at the present time without dealing with the same detailed information contained in the documents and for this reason, having taken advice on the issue, I will need to postpone reporting the matter to full council for the time being. I have made the Wales Audit Office aware of this decision and they concur that this advice is sound.  To do otherwise would present the danger that it might ‘prejudice the audit process’ as suggested in the warning from the Auditor’s letter quoted above.

I would assure you, however, that a report will be made to Council as soon as it is permissible to do so and, as promised, I will inform you of any significant developments in the meantime.

Yours faithfully

Cllr Kevin Madge


The ongoing cost to both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Councils of the jointly commissioned external legal advice to defend the pension payments are not known. 

It is not known either if Carmarthenshire County Council have retained a different legal expert for advice regarding the libel indemnity. 

However, at the last meeting of Pembrokeshire Council questions were asked regarding the legal advisor and associated costs over the pension payments, the draft minutes record the response; 

"The Leader responded that the Head of Legal Services at Carmarthenshire County Council had retained Mr Timothy Kerr QC to give advice on the matter. This Authority’s Head of Legal and Committee Services had then joined with his colleague in submitting joint instructions to Mr Kerr. 

Mr Kerr's costs had not been settled as he continued to be retained. 

The relevant legal and financial officers of this Authority did not time record their various activities and internal Officers were at Director or Head of Service level. 

In response to a supplementary question by Councillor Miller, the Leader stated that as discussions were still ongoing with the WAO, it was not possible to make any assumption on the length of time for the outcome of those discussions."

Wednesday 6 November 2013

'Unlawful' payments - Next week's agenda..

The Agenda for next week's full council meeting has just been published. It is the very meeting during which the 'unlawful' payments will be 'fully debated', according to council leader Kevin Madge in last week's South Wales Guardian;

'Carmarthenshire County Council leader Kevin Madge has repeated his pledge that there will be “a full debate” on two transactions involving chief executive Mark James at next month’s meeting of full council.

The Wales Audit Office has alleged the granting of a £23,217 indemnity to pay Mr James’ costs in his libel case and counter claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson, plus £16,353 paid in lieu of pension contributions, are unlawful.

The county council maintains it sought legal advice prior to the payments being made and that both transactions were lawful.

Cllr Madge has now stressed the importance of a debate on how and why the transactions were made. “The public have a right to know and we will make all the necessary papers available,” he told the Guardian. “We clearly need a debate on this – and I look forward to that debate.”
(My post here)

Looking at the agenda you might be led to believe that they'd forgotten all about it. The only clue to the fact there may be debate is if you track down to Item 10; 'Receive the reports of meetings of the following committees', where second on the list at 10.2 is 'Audit Committee held on 27th September', where the 'unlawful' payments first came to public light.
Neither are there any 'necessary papers', as promised by Kev, available online.

Of course it's quite a long agenda and one hopes that three hours haven't passed before Item 10.2 comes up, or there is the danger that the audit meeting report will be hastily swept through in time for lunch. I suspect that some will be hoping that those watching the webcast will have drifted off long before the item comes up. You may remember the 'webcast' preamble at the last meeting delivered by the Chief Executive which included a new warning that the broadcast could be stopped at any time. Perhaps it should also be noted that it is the Chief Executive who has the final say as to what is placed, or not placed, on the agenda, and the draft minutes of previous meetings are passed by his office for approval.

The other danger of course is that senior officers are not happy with the format of council meetings, and continue to stress that these committee reports are NOT FOR DISCUSSION, only to be 'received'. As Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said last month, the chief executive hopes to remove the opportunity for executive decisions to be scrutinised at full council anyway.

Having said all that, I am confident that there are councillors, even if it's just a few, who will not let this matter pass without question. We will have to wait and see. We will also have to wait and see whether the Wales Audit Office issues a Public Interest Report in time for next Wednesday so that the councillors who were promised a 'full debate' are armed with both sides of the story.

There's a week to go until the meeting, if there are any further developments, I'll post them here.

(for previous posts please use the searchbox on the right - 'unlawful payments' are probably the best search terms)

Local papers, local assets

The parliamentary group of the National Union of Journalists met with culture and communications Minister Ed Vaizey MP yesterday as part of Stand Up for Journalism day. They put forward the idea that local independent newspapers should be given community asset status.

Incidentally, my own MP Jonathan Edwards proposed this over eighteen months ago.

As a reader, I don't think its such a bad idea. Local independent reporting is an asset and an invaluable service to residents and readers. Many local papers are struggling, largely I'm sure to the dominance of online news and instant social media. The plan, which would be covered by the Localism Act could prevent overnight closure and put the future of the paper out to public consultation allowing interested parties, including perhaps the local community, to consider a take-over.

It would also involve a degree of public funding of course and some will see it as yet another public subsidy for a failing business but others, including myself, will see it as a means of protecting vital investigative and independent journalism. The practicalities would naturally need considerable ironing out, and one suggestion was a 'public benefit test' with requirements such as "a commitment to reporting council meetings and courts and providing a forum for the local community".

As for public expenditure, I would rather it helped to secure the future of my local paper, the independently minded South Wales Guardian than used to churn out the Carmarthenshire council propaganda rag six times a year as is currently the case.

With the possibility that the requirement for councils to advertise public notices in the papers will soon be dropped, there could be a further marked drop in revenue adding to the problem, but on the up-side, councils would no longer have local papers over a barrel. Community asset status would provide something of a safety net and also help prevent editorial independence being compromised by reputation conscious Town Hall dictators. Which is also currently the case.

Monday 4 November 2013

'Unlawful' payments - still in the dark..

The current 'elephant in the room', or should I say mammoth, at our favourite local authority remains the issue of the 'unlawful' payments. Although I doubt you need reminding, this involves the pension arrangements and the libel indemnity, both relating to the chief executive.

With regards to the pension arrangements, which also involves the chief executive of Pembrokeshire Council, Assembly member Janet Finch-Saunders (Con., Conwy) asked a couple of written questions to the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Lesley Griffiths (Lab);

Q What discussions has the Minister had over the alleged unlawful Chief Executive pension payments in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire County Councils?

A I have discussed this matter with the Auditor General for Wales. The matter is subject to an ongoing audit process.

Q What action is the minister taking to ensure that information, in relation to the alleged unlawful pension arrangements to the Chief Executive in Carmarthenshire County Council is available for scrutiny by Councillors and residents?

A This is a matter for the local authority. Arrangements already exist for scrutiny by both Member and residents.

So, it seems the Welsh Government are not taking much of a view on the subject so far, not publicly anyway, and as for 'arrangements already exist', there's no further elaboration as to what one might do if those arrangements don't actually work.

With regards to the request to the Minister from Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas for Carmarthenshire Council to be placed in 'special measures' (dated October 10th), I understand there has been no response to date.

The waiting continues and councillors and residents continue to be kept in the dark. Will the audit office issue a Public Interest Report? And if it does, will it be before the promised 'full debate' on the payments at the council meeting on November 13th? Will the councillors be provided with sufficient information, by officers involved in the issues, to lead a proper debate?

Of course, Caebrwyn has some burning questions of her own she would like answered but given her particular situation and ongoing appeal, they can wait.
Meanwhile, both Cneifiwr and Madaxeman provide some food for thought.


Grillo news

In other news, a High Court Judgement was handed down on Friday over the decision by Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant, to refuse planning permission for the development of the old zinc oxide Grillo site in Burry Port due to the risk of flooding.

Carmarthenshire Council, jointly with the developers, Castletown Estates took the matter to court to challenge Mr Sargeant's decision. At a hearing on the 14th October their case was dismissed, and so the refusal stands.

Who will pick up the legal bill is not clear.

This is a significant decision and will also have a bearing on the Stradey homes development which was recently called in by Mr Sargeant, again over flood risks.

I'm hoping the minister will have another look at the site chosen by the council for the new superschool in Llandeilo, otherwise known, for good reason, as the 'Ffairfach swamp'.

The full Judgement on the Grillo site can be read here;

Calling all Carmarthenshire businesses!

There continues to be some curiosity as to how the council's favourite rugby club have managed to advertise for jobs on the publicly funded council website. Have we all missed something here? Are all Carmarthenshire businesses entitled to do this? Are the local papers, mindful of their advertising revenue, aware of this arrangement?

The heading, 'vacancies at Parc Y Scarlets' is somewhat misleading, the five posts are with Scarlets Regional Ltd, not the council, so have they paid for the advertisements? If they have, then what's the going rate, why is this service not advertised? If it's for free, and given that they are the only private company to appear in the 'jobs' section, then what's the deal? Perhaps it was some unwritten clause of the recently renewed financial bailout....