Friday 31 January 2014

County Hall Meltdown; Plaid opposition to discuss 'No Confidence' votes - updated

Following yesterday's revelations here's a press release from the Plaid Cymru opposition on Carmarthenshire Council calling for heads to roll, further updates and links can be found below;

Opposition Group meet to discuss ‘no confidence’ votes

‘Extraordinary meeting must be held’

The leader of the Plaid Cymru Opposition Group on Carmarthenshire Council, Councillor Peter Hughes Griffiths, has announced his group will be meeting on Monday (3rd February) to discuss presenting motions of no confidence in three members of the Council’s Executive Board (Leader Kevin Madge, Former Leader Meryl Gravell and Deputy Leader Pam Palmer). 
The Plaid group will also be discussing no confidence motions in two of the Council’s most senior officials, namely the Chief Executive, Mark James, and the Head of Administration and Law, Linda Rees Jones. 
Plaid Cymru is the largest group on the council with 28 elected Councillors.  It sits, however, as the opposition group to a Labour and Independent coalition which runs the County Council. 
The no confidence calls have come following two damaging Wales Audit Office reports which state the Council acted unlawfully in relation to two matters of a libel indemnity and pension arrangements for the authority’s Chief Executive.  The reports are highly critical of the way in which information was presented by senior council officers to the Executive Board, and how members of the Executive Board took decisions to spend tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money without sufficient information. 
Councillor Hughes-Griffiths strongly criticised the Labour Leader of the Council, Councillor Kevin Madge, for his complete lack of leadership in the matter, claiming that the Leader should have at the very least suspended the council officers pending further investigation. 
Councillor Peter Hughes-Griffiths said: 
“It is imperative that these two extremely damaging reports are discussed as a matter of urgency.  Carmarthenshire residents deserve answers and the council group I lead is not prepared to wait. 
“We cannot go into a meeting to discuss the authority’s budget next month when we have no confidence in the political leadership and some of the council’s senior staff. 
“Carmarthenshire Council has been bereft of political leadership which has sadly continued since the publication of these reports.   It appears that every member of the Executive Board has gone into hiding and has not taken an ounce of responsibility for their actions. 
“If I was leading this authority I would have at the very least suspended senior officers pending further investigation.  It is the bare minimum which should be done given the seriousness of the Auditor’s findings.  Furthermore, if I was responsible for spending tens of thousands of pounds unlawfully, I would do the honourable thing and stand down. 
“The opposition group will meet on Monday evening to discuss presenting motions of no confidence against three Executive Board members and two senior officers.  There is overwhelming evidence from the Wales Audit Office to say these people cannot continue in their posts. 
“I emphasise that an extraordinary meeting must be held.  The people of Carmarthenshire will rightly expect their local councillor – irrespective of political party – to agree to this meeting without hesitation.

"Council did not seek legal advice over indemnity," - In a further update, the South Wales Guardian reports that the council did not actually take separate legal advice when it approved the libel indemnity in January 2012, this was against the advice of the auditors who told them at the time to obtain legal advice.
The only advice they had was the legal opinion sought when they amended the constitution in 2008.

As we now know, that legal opinion was 'sexed-up' and misrepresented to councillors and the public - in effect the Chief Exec, Mark James and the Head of Law (which in 2008 was Mr Lyn Thomas and in 2012 was Linda Rees Jones) have been misleading councillors that their 'libel cost amendment' was lawful since 2008.

I also happen to know that Mr James was threatening to bring the counterclaim in November 2011.

As I have said, I have been questioning and challenging the lawfulness since 2008. As far as I am concerned, I have been proved right.

The Carmarthen Journal also has also provided an update;

"The Wales Audit Office has rebutted Carmarthenshire Council's statement that auditors changed their mind over the legality of the indemnity to fund legal action against blogger Jacqui Thompson.

In its statement yesterday, the council said: "We have been completely open and consulted the Wales Audit Office at the outset, prior to granting the indemnity, and they did not advise against the action we took. Some months after the indemnity had been granted, the Wales Audit Office further confirmed to a member of the public who queried the decision that they felt the council’s action was lawful. Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock."

But the WAO has today said this is not the case, adding: "When the council took the decision to grant an indemnity to its Chief Executive in January 2012, we advised the council to take their own legal advice on this particular issue, which they did not do. Instead, they referred to general legal advice dating back to 2008.

"In August 2012, some four months after the council had already started paying legal costs, the Appointed Auditor provided a response to a member of the public, in which he referred to the general legal advice that the council had obtained."


As everyone will now be aware the council issued a statement yesterday afternoon claiming that the auditor has got it all wrong and they have done nothing unlawful.
There has been some curious chopping and changing to the statement which was first published on the Carmarthen Journal website, but I note the complete version has now appeared on the council website.
Cneifiwr has covered all this here.

The council's statement is a perfect example of the total arrogance we've come to expect, I'm not going to even guess who wrote it. It's the first time I've heard such allegations of financial impropriety described as 'honourable intentions'.

I say 'the council' but of course the council hasn't actually met yet to discuss the auditor's report. Someone has obviously decided exactly what the 74 councillors want to do, before even asking them.

It suggests that the council are quite content to take their battle with the WAO all the way to the High Court. Apart from being enormously expensive it could also, once and for all, mean an end to Carmarthenshire 'special' powers to indemnify officers.

The Appointed Auditor is standing by his reports and has given a reaction to the council's statement;

"Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, the process was significantly flawed, thereby rendering the policy unlawful. In particular, the council have not demonstrated proper exercise of discretion in setting ‘reasonable remuneration’.

In relation to the granting of an indemnity to the Chief Executive, the Appointed Auditor firmly remains of the view that the decision was unlawful.

If the Council does not accept this view, the Appointed Auditor may apply to the courts for a declaration that the item of account is contrary to law."

Another development yesterday was the raising of the matter in the House of Commons by MP Jonathan Edwards, the response was that they were fully aware of these reports. As far as I know there has been no reaction so far from the Welsh Government.

The news has been excellently covered by numerous blogs including Mrs Angry at Broken Barnet, award winning Owen Donovan at Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and fellow Carmarthenshire bloggers (yes there are more than two of us), Towy71 and West Wales News Review

More soon.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Libel and Pension scandals - Auditor issues damning reports

Updates 07.35; Dyfed-Powys Police said: “We can confirm that we are aware of the reports issued by the Wales Audit Office, and while the matter hasn’t been referred to us, we are in discussions with the Auditor and will be making an assessment in relation to any appropriate action by the police.” Western Mail

This morning' articles; The Times (£), BBC Wales, South Wales Guardian, Carmarthen Journal and interviews with Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM, Janet Finch Saunders AM and Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths on BBC Wales news and radio. All calling for heads to roll.


The Appointed Auditor (Wales Audit Office), Anthony Barrett, has today published two damning Public Interest Reports relating to Carmarthenshire County Council. One concerns the libel indemnity and the other, the pension payment. They both relate to the Chief Executive, Mark James CBE.

The full press release can be found at the end of this post. There is also a very strongly worded press release from Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid Cymru) above it.

A similar report has also been published today concerning the pension arrangements in Pembrokeshire County Council.

The reports have found all the issues to be unlawful.

For reasons that I'm sure you'll understand, given my personal involvement, I will concentrate on the libel indemnity for now.

The auditor has found that it was unlawful in principle and also because of the circumstances of the Executive Board meeting where it was granted. The main findings were that;

"The decision taken by the Executive Board was unlawful as, in view of the specific publications in Articles 6(3) of the 2006 order, the Council is not authorised by statute to grant an indemnity in respect of bringing a claim or counterclaim for defamation. The Council may not rely on section 111 of the 1972 Act to avoid that limitation on its powers 

There were failings in governance arrangements and processes adopted by the Council 
The decision was unlawful as the Chief Executive participated in the decision-making process whilst having a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision

The decision failed to take into account relevant material considerations (Wednesbury unreasonable)


The Council should rescind the decision and withdraw the indemnity granted to the Chief Executive."

Back in 2008 the council's constitution was changed to include the 'Libel cost amendment' This gave Carmarthenshire council the unique power to bring and fund claims and counterclaims for libel on behalf of it's officers.

The council said at the time that it had received expert legal advice recommending the amendment despite the move being contrary to a government Order, the auditor refers to the Orders in his report.

Today's report states that this advice (which has never been disclosed by the council) actually urged extreme caution, and the question whether powers such as the Local Government Act 1972 overrode the government Order were "merely arguable".

Today's report goes on to say; "The cautious and reserved terms in which Counsel expressed his opinion to the Council are not reflected in the report to the Executive Board. Instead, the report represents his advice in unequivocal terms – that the indemnity can be granted but only in exceptional circumstances, although these were not defined." 

It seems that this was also how the legal advice was presented to councillors back in 2008.

I feel that today's report fully justifies the concerns which I have raised over this issue for a number of years.

It is my view that the 'Libel cost amendment' should be withdrawn from the Council's Constitution forthwith.

With regards to the meeting and Mr James' failure to declare an interest, the auditor was critical of the council's submission that prior to the official meeting, the Executive Board held an hour-long 'pre-meeting'. As I have mentioned before, this occurs before every Executive Board meeting.
The auditor said;

"There is no formal record of this pre-meeting which does raise concerns over the openness and transparency of the decision-making process. The minutes of the Executive Board meeting on 23 January identify that the actual formal meeting took only 15 minutes (to consider three items of business). This suggests limited discussion of the matter in the formal meeting but the minutes disclose that the decision was taken at the formal meeting.

I have considered the views of the Council and based on the evidence provided, I am satisfied that the Chief Executive was present at the Executive Board meeting, did not declare an interest in the item on the agenda, and therefore in my view took part in the decision-making process whilst having a disqualifying financial interest in the outcome of the decision. In my opinion, the decision of the Executive Board is unlawful for this further reason."

The Chief Executive, Mr James still appears to be fighting the appeal on the counterclaim. It is also reasonable to assume that the counterclaim would never have gone ahead without the public funding. As the report states, as the matter is ongoing the final costs are unknown.

The report is also contrary to the views expressed on the public funding of  by Justice Tugendhat's in his judgment on the case as to whether or not the counterclaim was an abuse of process.

The PIR concerning the pension payment is equally damning and is summed up in the press release below.

Readers may draw similarities from these reports to those relating to recent events at Caerphilly Council.

We will have to wait and see what unfolds over the next few days in relation to all those involved, and I will update this post and provide further comment as and when. I will link to all the reports as soon they appear online.

Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas have issued the following statement and have called for instant dismissals;

Politicians respond to damning Wales Audit Office reports into Carmarthenshire County Council

Senior officers and elected leadership must go, say Plaid Cymru MP and AM 
Following the publication of two damaging Wales Audit Office reports into the indemnity and pension arrangements of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive, Mark James, Plaid Cymru politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP have issued the following statement.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

“There is no way in which the council can gloss over what are two significantly damaging reports.  This is a very dark day for Carmarthenshire, a dark day for democracy in Carmarthenshire, and is an example of what happens when you have a very weak executive and a council controlled by powerful unelected officers. 
“The decision taken by the political leadership of the council to approve an indemnity for the Chief Executive was based on a sexed-up dossier that did not reflect the legal advice provided.  The gross misconduct of the council officers involved in drawing up the report has brought the council into disrepute and should be countered by instant dismissal. 
“Councillors were misled into spending taxpayers’ money doing something the Council was to all intents and purposes cautioned against.  Members of the Executive Board have been exposed as incompetent in safeguarding public money and inept in holding highly-paid officers to account.  They further approved unlawful expenditure to suit the tax arrangements of the Chief Executive.

“The reports reaffirm our grave concerns that Carmarthenshire council has been gutted of all democracy as pre-meetings of the ruling Labour-Independent Executive Board take place behind the scenes before tokenistic rubbing stamping exercises follow in public, if at all. 
“To restore public confidence there must be political accountability.  The Leader of the Council and former leader of the council should accept responsibility and do the honourable thing to enable a political reboot. 
“Plaid Cymru has worked hard over the last year to introduce greater accountability into the remuneration packages of local authority chief executives, and has been successful in seeing changes to salaries being scrutinised by the independent remuneration board. 
“We’ve done what we can to bring greater transparency on payments to senior council officers.  The Welsh government must now get a grip of the situation.”

Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards added:

“For almost four years we have raised concerns with both Welsh & UK governments about the legality of the council’s indemnity for the Chief Executive’s counterclaim.  The Welsh government’s refusal to intervene in a council run by its Labour colleagues has seen Carmarthenshire taxpayers’ subjected to these unlawful expenditures when this could have been stopped.

“The unlawful indemnity and unlawful pension arrangements have seen over £55,000 of public money spent for the benefit of the Chief Executive who, on the basis of these reports, can no longer continue in his role.

“We agree with the Auditor that the indemnity should be withdrawn and we believe the almost £30,000 spent on this indemnity should be paid back in full.

“The Executive Board has acted wrongly in both instances – approving decisions worth tens of thousands of pounds without raising any formal questions or concerns.

“We pay tribute to the Appointed Auditor for his thorough report and his determination in bringing these issues into the public domain when Carmarthenshire Council had the audacity to tell him to keep his nose out. 
“The Welsh government should immediately put the council into special measures to enable a new cross-party coalition to be set up to bring an end to this dark chapter in the history of local governance in Carmarthenshire. 
“We call upon all Labour and Independent councillors whose parties run this council to look seriously at these reports and join us in restoring democracy to the county.  Carmarthenshire needs a complete reboot and new political leadership which it has so desperately lacked.   (Link here

Here is the full press release issued today, 30th January by the Wales Audit Office;


Appointed Auditor publishes two separate reports in the public interest 

Carmarthenshire County Council acted 'contrary to law' by making a decision that allows senior officers to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) – to avoid potential tax liabilities – and be paid a „supplement‟, equivalent to their pension contributions, to enable them to make their own arrangements for retirement. It also acted unlawfully when it decided to grant an indemnity to the Chief Executive to bring a libel counterclaim against an individual. 
The Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett, today publishes two reports in the public interest to highlight his concerns on both matters. 
The Appointed Auditor's report on senior officers' pay and pensions concludes that the decisions were unlawful on a number of grounds: 
· The Council does not have the power to remunerate staff to mitigate the effect of pension‟s legislation
· In making the decision, relevant considerations were not taken into account (in breach of Wednesbury principles). 
· The Council failed to have due regard to the public sector equality duty. 
· The decision amounted to indirect discrimination. 
A senior officer who had a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision, participated in the decision making process.
Last month, the Council rescinded its decision to offer a pay supplement in lieu of pension contributions and announced that no further payments will be made to the Chief Executive from January 2014. 
Over £27,000 was paid to the Chief Executive under the Scheme since 2012.While the Council‟s Executive Board does not agree that the decision was intrinsically unlawful, it did accept that there may have been shortcomings in the procedures adopted. 

In his report on the indemnity for the libel counterclaim, the Appointed Auditor concludes that the Council does not have the legal powers to make such payments and there were inadequacies in the processes adopted by the Council when making the decision. 
The Council has paid out over £26,000 in external legal costs since 2012 under the decision to indemnify the Chief Executive. The libel counterclaim is still on-going and it is unclear what the final external legal costs to the Council will be. 

Appointed Auditor and Assistant Auditor General, Anthony Barrett, said today: 
“Carmarthenshire Council has acted unlawfully on two fundamental issues, both of which the public need to be fully aware of. The authority has taken decisions and used taxpayers money in areas that they do not have the legal powers to do so. I welcome the fact that the Council has rescinded its decision over the pensions issue, it now needs to do the same in relation to the libel indemnity granted to the Chief Executive. 
It is also of vital importance that the Council addresses procedural weaknesses in its decision making, as highlighted in my two reports today, so that it exercises its discretion and authority properly on such important matters.”
Note; After a report in the public interest is issued, the Council is required to consider the report at a full meeting of the Council within one month of the date of issue. At the meeting, the Council must decide whether the report requires it to take any action; whether the recommendations in the report are to be accepted; and what action (if any) to take in response to the report and recommendations. 

Monday 27 January 2014

The Care Homes...and the £7m mystery

In February 2011 a proposal to close two care homes in Llanelli, Caemaen and St Pauls suffered a rare defeat in the council Chamber. The campaigners and residents who had fought a bitter battle, were understandably delighted. I happened to be there as an observer in the gallery. The horrified reaction of officials, and the then leader, Meryl Gravell made it obvious that this was only going to be a temporary measure and there has been determination, ever since, to justify closure.
Since then, despite Carmarthenshire's burgeoning elderly population the homes have remained underused. I can only imagine there were cheaper alternatives for the council. Or that is how it has been presented...

Not surprisingly, the two care homes appeared back in the budget consultation in November 2013.

Fast forward to last week's Llanelli Star and Executive Board Cllrs Madge and Tremlett are 'delighted' to announce that, suddenly, £7m has been found 'within the capital budget' to fund the Llanelli Extra Care scheme, well a phase of it anyhow which will replace the council care homes. And today, the same press release appears on the council website.

Also, back in November 2013, the council's draft five year Capital Programme was published. It contained, believe it or not, no provision whatsoever for funding for this new 'Llanelli Extra Care Scheme'.

To be clear on this, Extra care units are small bungalows or tiny apartments designed for frail elderly people. They pay the council rent and their own council tax and utilities, like any other tenants, but the idea is that rather than having the social life and 24 hour care of the "expensive" council care homes, where staff are trained and have contracts with paid holidays and a pension, the Extra Care places are looked after by short visits from cheaper private carers without the standards of council care homes in either staff training, continuity or availability.
The only 'extra' will be the profits for private firms and their zero hours contracts.

Let's just remember, at this point, that the Executive Board doesn't officially meet until next Monday (3rd February) and the full council doesn't consider the budget until February 19th.

Who was so confident that the Exec Board, and the council as a whole, would approve this that they released the details to the press before the decision was actually made?

And the big question is, where on earth has this mysterious £7m come from?

Cllr Sian Caiach, as a Member of the Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee which had discussed the budget cuts in December thought she ought to ask, as it was all news to her.

She was told that the £600,000 which will be 'saved' by closing St Pauls will be used to service a loan of £4.5m, and £2.5m will be coming out of the council reserves. (Earlier this month the Plaid opposition group's suggestion that reserves could be used to protect against cuts was rejected as 'not prudent')

Should the Extra Care Scheme take off, Caemaen Care Home is also likely to close.

So, basically, the council are closing a care home in order to spend £7m. The £600,000 is not a true 'economy'  but a source of funding for service privatisation. Not an arrangement the Scrutiny committee were aware of back in December.

The council currently pays around £16m per year in interest on a debt of around £250m. All capital projects now involve considerable borrowing. If borrowing to fund the council's penchant for public buildings (some might say 'vanity' projects) had been a little more 'prudent' and kept to essential development only, that £16m in interest might be a bit less and the council wouldn't have to cut anything at all.

The council would have been well aware that there was going to be opposition, maybe even within the ruling administration again, to closure of these care homes. What better way to deter another rebellion than by producing £7m out of thin air and using the council press office to push the proposal home, all before any decisions were supposed to have even been made.

Friday 24 January 2014

Cuts, closure and...oh, a PR revamp

As the final decisions on the council budget are fast approaching many residents are now realising that, as usual, the County Hall cuts steamroller fired up long ago.

One striking example is the apparently unstoppable closure of council run care homes in Ammanford and Llanelli - whilst local residents were busy expressing their views in the 'budget consultation' form on this very topic, the consultants, architects, planners and council executive have been busy locating sites and progressing with the private investors to develop new 'Extra Care Schemes' for our elderly. Planning permission for the facility in Ammanford has already been passed yet the budget is not finalised until the 19th February. (Also see my comment below)

As some have already mentioned, should anyone wish to challenge closures through a Judicial Review, the evidence that decisions were made before the consultation concluded will not be hard to find.

Another issue which has angered locals in this neck of the woods is the possible closure of the recycling site in Llangadog. The council appear to have decided not to renew the contract with AWS Ltd who run the site, The other four major sites in the county are run by Cwm Environmental Ltd which is owned by the council.

The site in Llangadog, as can be seen from this map, serves a huge area;

The closure of this facility will result in only one thing - fly-tipping throughout the forests and mountains of north Carmarthenshire. At the beginning of 2012 a report identified the necessity of this site, its high recycling rate, and even the possibility of creating another in the north of the county.

The Llangadog site is dependent on the £250,000 contract it has with the council and provides an essential and well organised civic amenity site covering at least 4524 households and hundreds of rural businesses.
It also has a small but highly efficient Aerobic Digester, installed in 2012.

The people of the area have seen their primary schools close; their secondary school in Llandovery close and and now it looks like they'll lose their recycling facilities too.

There have been public meetings and a petition and several articles in local papers but in the end it will be down to your county councillors to make a stand. They didn't make a murmur against the closure of Pantycelyn School and have been complicit by their silence over highly questionable spending decisions such as £20m to the Scarlets.

Don't you think its about time we heard one of our local county councillors put their office, and allowance, on the line and demand that local voices are heard? I have said often enough that this is an officer-led authority, which it is, and it will stay that way unless local residents put pressure on their county councillors to change things.

Sadly, we don't have a Cllr Caiach in north Carmarthenshire, I wish we did. Instead we have the Members for Llandovery, Llangadog, Cilycwm, Manordeilo & Salem and Cynwyl Gaeo - their contact details are on the council website though - so get lobbying!
And on the 19th February you will be able to see them 'speak for you' on the 'budget special' webcast.....

Update 26th Jan; Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards has issued a statement - 'Communities ignored by County Council', referring to north Carmarthenshire including the possible loss of the recycling facility;

“...But the wider issue here is that the people I represent believe their voices are ignored in county hall.  That is the clear opinion given to me when speaking with residents and businesses in the area...."


Meanwhile, as services for the elderly, the vulnerable and the young are 'reconfigured', 'realigned' and 'restructured'; County Hall and its extensive well-funded Department of Spin, as preoccupied with its reputation as ever, has given the PR section of the website a bit of a revamp.

Someone in County Hall must have grasped the concept of irony as it's been rebranded as 'The Newsroom'. There is still no actual news of course.
Of interest though is a new section called  'Setting it Straight', it contains the following paragraph;

Occasionally we may have to correct or clarify an article that has been published which contains inaccuracies, or does not reflect the facts. We work closely with media to resolve any issues, and most of the time corrections or clarifications are made quickly. However in rare circumstances we use this page to set the record straight and provide you with the correct information.

Which translates as;

"Sometimes the independent press, or an individual, might publish something we don't agree with or is vaguely critical of the Council. If we can't persuade them to remove or edit an article to our satisfaction through legal or financial threats, then we will highlight their subversive behaviour and endeavour to remove their credibility on our publicly funded website"

Thursday 23 January 2014

Penny pinching

There is precious little spending information published by Carmarthenshire Council and the councillors' expenses 'database', which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, is about all you get. Everything else has to be laboriously extracted through Freedom of Information requests. Eric Pickles' suggestion that we all become 'Armchair Auditors' hasn't quite got off the ground in Wales, especially not in Carmarthenshire.
So anyway, we're left with the 'database', which, to be fair, has an interesting entry or two.

The claims are varied with some claiming nothing or very little. Some, on the other hand, seem to claim for stepping outside their front door. Take Cllr Tegwen Devichand for example, as an Executive Board Member and deputy leader, she has a generous allowance of £31,120 per year. I noticed three claims, each for five miles one of which was to attend an 'Executive Board informal meeting' (a what? how often do these informal get togethers of the Cabinet take place?). She also claimed four miles to the Eastgate development and two miles to a Community First update meeting.

Another Executive Board Member, Cllr Colin Evans (allowance; £28,780) claimed four miles to attend a photoshoot in Johnstown, Carmarthen, three miles to go to Ammanford Town Hall and seven miles to drive out to the wilderness of Llandybie.

The Chair of the Council, Cllr Terry Davies (allowance; £21,375) claimed for a five mile trip to an AGM of the Carmarthenshire Scouts.

Perhaps the one that stands out the most is a claim for one mile by Cllr Ivor Jackson the elected member for Llandovery. The entry on the claim form read 'task and finish group - education and scrutiny', location; 'Llandovery' which must have been a meeting at one of the schools, both of which are within a 2 minute walking distance from Cllr Jackson's home. He has claimed £1260.45 so far this financial year.

Nobody expects councillors to be out of pocket and the rate of 45p a mile is set, I believe, by the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales. however it is not against the law to be a little frugal in these 'we're all in it together' times.

Take another example, the representative of Cilycwm, veteran councillor, Tom Theophilus (allowance; £21,910). To be fair he lives the furthest distance from Carmarthen and is subsequently amongst the top expenses claimers. He frequently, and in my opinion pointlessly, trails up and down to Carmarthen at a cost last year of £2129.85.

The distance has been worked out as a 60 mile round trip for which he can, quite legitimately I add, claim £27. Unless the councillor is driving round in a Chieftain tank, there is no way that it costs £27 to drive to Carmarthen and back. On one particular occasion he did the round trip twice in one day, to two meetings a couple of hours apart. Maybe he would have whiled away the time over a long lunch had they not decided to axe claims for dinners 'in-county' last year.

Anyway, perhaps I could make a couple of suggestions. Maybe, to set an example of corporate belt-tightening, claims under ten miles are axed altogether, particularly for those on generous senior salaries (and Ivor Jackson). And maybe the IRPW wants to have a rethink about the whole 45p per mile rate. I live a couple of miles nearer to Carmarthen than Cllr Theophilus and can do it easily on a tenner, there and back, with fuel to spare.

The official corporate advice to councillors is that they "should always be mindful of choosing the most cost-effective method of travel". Chieftain tanks are out then.

As for the travel arrangements of senior officials, that's another story. I remember not so long ago sharing a squashed train carriage to London with a lady I recognised to be Baroness Randerson, who sits in the House of Lords. We were both in the cheap seats. A very senior officer from Carmarthenshire Council however was spotted languishing in the virtually empty, luxurious surroundings of a First Class carriage..... 

Monday 20 January 2014

Back to June 2011, a police response

Someone sent me a link this morning from the September 2011 Quarterly Report for the Dyfed Powys Police Authority, before the 2012 Police Commissioner elections. It contains this extract;

'Protest - At 10.20 am on Wednesday 8th June 2011 Officers received a telephone call from County Hall Carmarthen stating that they had a female in the public gallery who was filming a council meeting which she did not have permission to do. The female is well known to council members and has in the past been abusive to members. Officers attended and spoke to the female who refused to stop filming and was arrested to prevent a breach of the peace. The county hall legal executive was happy that Police had taken positive action and were not making any formal complaint. She was therefore released from custody with no further action being taken against her.'

Aside from the fact that I have never been abusive to anyone in my life, the actual response from the then Deputy Chief Constable in a letter to the council Chief Executive Mr Mark James dated the 24th June 2011 was somewhat different in tone.

The letter was highly critical of the council's involvement of the police at all, largely due to the bad publicity the incident attracted and said, in no uncertain terms that they would not be doing the council's dirty work for them in the future. The Deputy Chief Constable was disappointed by the incident and "the role my officers were required to undertake". The letter went on to say;

"I am further disappointed to hear that when Mrs Thompson was removed from the public gallery some council officials within the Chamber sought fit to 'heckle' and 'cheer' at her arrest and removal. My officers were naturally upset and frustrated by such behaviour given that they had executed an arrest to prevent a breach of the peace.

I have made my position clear in my public response that Dyfed Powys Police is not responsible for the actions taken by Carmarthenshire County Council in respect of the 'prohibition' on filming."


Jan 21st; In response to a comment below, here is a copy of the undertaking I was required to sign before I was allowed to be released from custody. It followed discussions the police had with the council during the afternoon of June 8th 2011;

Schools...and dinners

The Education and Children Scrutiny Committee meets next Thursday (23rd Jan) and will be considering the proposal to delegate school closures to the Executive Board.

You'll remember that this further erosion of democracy was the subject of an embarrassing climbdown for the leader, Kevin Madge, at the last council meeting when he was forced to withdraw the idea when some of his Labour colleagues felt a little uncomfortable with it and proposed that it should go back to scrutiny. This sign of weakness must have greatly displeased his senior unelected officials as well....

After the Plaid amendment that the status quo should remain (all decisions retained by full council) was unfortunately defeated by one vote, the decision to send it back to scrutiny was passed.

So it's now back at scrutiny, where there are five Plaid, four Labour, four Indies and three voting parent governors.

If they all turn up next Thursday and vote the same way they did at full council (two Indies voted for the Plaid amendment), the proposal to delegate to the Executive Board should be defeated by one vote.

However, there are also three parent governors who can vote so we can only hope that as parents they recognise the democratic importance of rejecting the proposal to delegate their children's future to Carmarthenshire's puppet Executive Board.

Of course, that will not be the end of the matter and whatever the outcome of this scrutiny meeting it will then be passed to the Executive Board as a recommendation. It will then, eventually, return to full council. It's just a shame the Plaid amendment was not approved at the last council meeting.

Whilst on the subject of children's services, there's some confusion over the proposed rise in school dinners. Currently they are £2 and the 'suggested' rise is 20p which, according to the council bean counters is 'inflation + 5p'. Unless, unlike the rest of the UK, the rate of inflation is different for Carmarthenshire's schoolchildren and has mysteriously rocketed to around 8%, they've got their sums wrong.

In fact, this anomaly was noticed at the last meeting of this scrutiny committee and officers were challenged. The response was that the proposed rise of 10p per dinner in the 2012 budget was 'not implemented' (ie rejected) and had 'confused' the issue, but also admitted it was 'inconsistent'.
Incidentally, in 2013 primary school dinner prices in Carmarthenshire were the second highest in Wales.

The question is, if a 10p rise is rejected one year, is it particularly ethical to raise it by 20p the following year? It will also equate to roughly an extra £120 per year for a family with three children. 

The Williams Report - Carmarthenshire

The much anticipated Williams Report has just been published and can be found here although I'm sure there will be plenty of media comment and endless expert analysis throughout the coming days. The report recommends the reorganisation of local government (and health boards and police authorities) in Wales and to merge the current twenty two local authorities to form roughly half that number.

The anticipated merger of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion doesn't appear in the list of 'minimum' urgent measures but appears as more of an 'additional' option. The merger of Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire however, does appear in the urgent list.

Whether this is because no one really wants anything to do with Carmarthenshire Council is anyone's guess although the report identifies that the merger of the three councils would, geographically, be 'very large and diverse' and 'delivering services across such an area and generating fair and effective democratic governance would be challenging. It might require some form of lower-tier structure to ensure effective local delivery and responsiveness'

Back in 1974 the three counties became Dyfed County Council with a myriad of smaller district councils, it was split back up into the three authorities again in 1996. Whether or not Carmarthenshire will stand alone or merge with the other two remains to be seen but, given that the headquarters of the old Dyfed County Council were in Carmarthen, what we don't want is an extension of the current Empire and an 'annexation' of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, and neither, I'm sure, do they.
Anyway, it doesn't look like I'll have to change the name of this blog just yet.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Wales Audit Office - a brief update

I understand that, with regards to the two 'unlawful' payments, the Wales Audit Office and the appointed auditor are still considering the issues and taking advice.

If he should decide to publish public interest reports, this is likely to be during the week commencing the 27th January.

The background to this, briefly, is that back in September 2013 the appointed auditor found two items in the council's accounts which he found to be unlawful relating to payments to the Chief Executive. One was an indemnity to bring a counterclaim for libel and the other was a payment in lieu of a pension contribution.

On the 4th December 2013 the Executive Board reversed the arrangement concerning the pension contribution although remain of the view that it was not 'intrinsically' unlawful.

A BBC Wales article from September outlines the issues and further information is available by searching online.

Friday 17 January 2014

Who runs the council?

A couple of weeks ago the Plaid opposition group put forward a set of alternative budget proposals and the residents of Carmarthenshire have, according to the council, been busy, responding to the public 'consultation' and having their say on where the axe should fall. A completely pointless exercise of course.

Next month, the full council will meet and have a political debate (of sorts) and make political decisions on the final budget. Ultimately they will be responsible for whether, for instance, a respite centre for disabled children will remain open or not.

The fact is though, this 'list' has been drawn up by the unelected officers of the authority, it has little to do with political debate, or even for that matter the ruling administration, they have been tasked with pushing the whole thing through.

The budget is supposed to be a political measure with politicians debating the issues. In Carmarthenshire this is something of a joke and the farcical situation is further illustrated in the pages of this week's Carmarthen Journal.

In what appears to be a lengthy press release from the pen of the Chief Executive, whose role is supposed to be, and is in fact dependent on, being entirely non-political, he sweeps aside "point by point" the proposals from Plaid. The senior management of the council really does seem to have made the Journal their very own....

Shouldn't this response have come from the Labour/Independent coalition? Kevin Madge perhaps? The article claims, vaguely, to come from 'the council' and 'leaders' whilst concluding with a picture of Mr James.

Whilst the Journal has given the Chief Executive his own editorial opinion piece, I notice that the independently minded South Wales Guardian have recognised that this is a political issue and actually asked the Labour leader of the council for a response to Plaid's proposals. He naturally follows orders from above but it is unmistakably Kev-like. If you know what I mean.

The big giveaway is in the final paragraph of the Journal article which deals with the necessity to retain highly paid senior officers for their wonderful work. Mentioning not only St Catherine's Walk shopping centre but the 'glowing' presentation from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) at last week's council meeting.

I have to digress briefly here. The minutes from the last week's council meeting have been published, and is, as usual, a very brief outline of the decisions made, or not made. My observations on the meeting are here.

I compared the length and content of the minutes with that of Pembrokeshire Council's last meeting, their draft minutes run to thirty-seven pages and include detailed exchanges and argument. Both meetings lasted over three hours, from Carmarthenshire's version of events you would think it was all over in twenty minutes. Fortunately, of course, the meeting was webcast (as was Pembrokeshire's for the first time).

The Carmarthenshire minutes record one brief glowing comment from the CSSIW report. It does not include any of the criticisms of the service presented to the council from the report, nor any of the points raised during the 'debate'. It is, as usual when you compare minutes to the 'real thing', misleading.

The minutes from the Executive Board of the 6th January are similarly brief, the item concerning the libel case records that the report was 'noted'. It doesn't include the inaccurate Kevin Madge waffle which was reported in the press. This is probably just as well, given what he said. As Mr James left the meeting during this item, he was forced to leave it all in the dangerously unpredictable hands of Kev....

Anyway, back to the budget and as you are aware, this blog is more concerned with trying to get some transparency over what is actually decided and spent and the council's financial mismanagement of public funds, than the political arguments over the budget, at the moment anyway.
Hence my campaign for webcasting, and next month budget debate will for the first time have a very wide audience rather than the one or two intrepid observers in the public gallery. I hope so anyway!

Unfortunately the ban on filming or photography remains which means that there is no record of any other meeting such as Executive Board, planning, scrutiny etc.

I know some budget cuts are necessary and I also know that officers and staff in each department often have a better knowledge of where savings can be made than elected councillors. But for those councillors to make informed decisions, they must have a) impartial, truthful and accurate information, and b) be in no doubt that the basic rules are being followed.

In my opinion, and as I have consistently and repeatedly reported, County Hall fails miserably on both counts.

Someone decided that it was a splendid idea to give £1.4m to an fundamentalist evangelical church (surely such generosity has to require the understanding of a kindred spirit....).

Someone, partial to vanity projects, decided to give a large chunk of prime development land in Llanelli to a company based in Nottingham, and then agreed to give them £250,000 a year for 20 years for offices it doesn't need. The same person(s) perhaps, that decided Odeon Cinemas Plc, worth £2bn, needed £20,000 of Carmarthenshire's public money to help towards the sound system.

Someone decided that the way to save money over a loss making golf course was to give a private company £160,000 and hope for the best. It didn't quite work out that way did it?

Someone decided to risk £750,000 buy up a bit of ex-MOD land and sell it immediately to an unregistered company, councillors were told not to worry as the purchasers were 'known to officers'. One of the directors turned out to be the Chair of the Wales Rugby Union. (original Western Mail article here and the Cneifiwr treatment here)

And of course the mention of rugby brings me on to the sorry saga over that other great vanity project, the stadium and the funnelling of funds to Scarlets Regional Ltd, approximately £20m over the past seven years. I'll not repeat it all again but as well as complaints to the European Commission, someone, somewhere made the decision that it was better to spend £000s kitting out the Scarlet's shop than fixing the leaking roofs of several primary schools.

Someone also decided that it was entirely appropriate to give a senior officer a publicly funded blank cheque.

And who decided that the Returning Officer should be paid his £20,000 fees five weeks before the election giving the feeble explanation that 'the money was there'. It's not there now.

As for the 'unlawful' pension arrangement, is County Hall so entrenched in it's belief that it is so unaccountable no one would query it, or even notice? That may well have happened ten years ago, but not now.

Of course if any blame or criticism is to be made, that 'someone' will be the elected councillors. Whether it is the puppet Executive Board or a majority vote in the chamber, the responsibility is carefully passed on to give it that veneer of democracy and to absolve the unelected decision makers should anything hit the fan. All I can suggest is that they always read the small print, carefully.

I have trouble being convinced by anything which comes out of County Hall. They are, if you hadn't noticed by now, masters of spin and manipulation, more concerned with corporate reputation than telling the truth.

There is also, as I have pointed out throughout this blog, been deliberate and consistent attempts to remove the last vestiges of democracy from the authority, in all it's forms; through changes to the constitution to threats to the independent press and critics of the authority.

Most recently, and only last week, there were two examples of where 'democratic' decisions didn't go according to the masterplan. The rebellious decision by the Democratic Committee not to reduce the frequency of meetings was duly ignored and a 'seminar' arranged instead. Reminiscent of those dictatorships where dissenters are sent to camps to be 'educated'...

The proposal to avoid awkward local objections over school closures by delegating the decisions to the Executive Board alone, all went a bit wrong, you may remember. It has now gone back to scrutiny, but not, as happens to so many other issues to be swept under the committee carpet for months or even years, but it pops up next week and senior officers will be instructed to persuade scrutiny councillors that it will 'save money' and is all part of 'new legislation' which must be obeyed.

Not all our elected councillors are blind to all this and the handful who stand up to the authority deserve huge credit for battling against the odds.

As for saving money, on the strength of last week's edition alone, the council press office could quite simply shut up shop and move directly into the editorial offices of the Carmarthen Journal.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Email snooping...still avoiding the issue

At a recent meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee concern was expressed as to the mysterious whereabouts of the promised report into council email snooping.

Readers will remember that early last year Cllr Caiach became aware that her council email account had been 'tracked', without her knowledge, back in July 2011 by 'officer unknown'. The issue was brought up at the June 2013 council meeting where members were told that it was all part of the disclosure stage of the libel case and so it was on the orders of the high court.

This was not true. The disclosure stage of the case was late in 2012, eighteen months after the email was tracked.

Councillors wanted reassurance that surveillance such as this wasn't a common occurrence. And as Cllr Caiach became a witness against the council during the case, this question is all the more important.

Anyway, the Head of Law told councillors at this scrutiny meeting that a report had indeed been prepared but they wouldn't be able to see it until the Executive Board had considered it first.

Kevin Madge, at last week's Executive Board made it clear that there would be a full report on the libel case. He added that it would "show the truth" regarding Cllr Caiach and the case. We can't wait Kev.

I am also looking forward to being able to enlighten councillors as to what has been happening over the last two and a half years.

A couple of other interesting points also cropped up at this scrutiny meeting concerning the forthcoming budget. When asked whether the council could do without the executive motor + driver altogether, (rather than reducing it from two to one) officers insisted that the poor Chair works 'extremely long hours' and this mode of transport was essential. All those civic dinners across Wales, poor soul.

Similarly, there are no dramatic cuts to the department of spin on the horizon either. The press office, understandably I suppose, needs all the resources it can get to try and improve the reputation of the council. Kevin Madge's little outburst last week didn't help. Interestingly, councillors were told that parts of the press team were 'grant funded'; maybe it's available from the North Korean Overseas Development Fund...

Meanwhile the £3.94m black hole in the Social Care budget also came up for discussion, the only option, they were told, was 'political support' for the officers' proposals to close care homes, respite centres and day clubs....

Councillors at this meeting have also been patiently waiting for over a year for a report on 'the process followed and officer involvement in preparing and agreeing press releases'. This goes back to the ombudsman's findings in March 2013 that Cllr Kevin Madge had breached the code over the 'Sainsbury's' press release. It also relates to the general disquiet over who is actually controlling the output of the department of spin...

Conveniently, senior officers seem to have decided that the best course of action is not to write a report so that the scrutiny committee has nothing to scrutinize and cannot ask any awkward follow up questions and hold anyone to account...they were told 'there was no decision for the Committee to scrutinise'. 

Funny that, because through a Freedom of Information request I was told that 'Press management meetings' are held every Thursday, attended by the Leader Cllr Kevin Madge, Deputy Leader Cllr Pam Palmer, Press
Manager Debbie Williams and occasionally other officers as required. I also asked for minutes or meeting notes from these meetings but was told that 'These meetings are informal therefore there are no agendas or minutes'. Surprise surprise.

As for news on the unlawful payment scandals, things remain quiet. The Wales Audit Office were present at the last meeting of the Audit Committee in relation to other matters. Those other, non controversial matters, are reported in the minutes but as for the unlawful payments, or 'procedural issues' as the council prefers, all we have is this;

"In addition to the above reports the Audit Manager (Wales Audit Office) took the opportunity to update members on procedural issues which remain under consideration with the Appointed Auditor".

The wait goes on.

As for the EU State Aid queries concerning the Council and the Scarlets, the BBC reports today that the European Commission has acknowledged that it is looking into the complaints regarding possible illegal state aid funding. 

Garnant Golf Club...and yet another inquiry?

Update 4.04pm; There is now confirmation on Garnant Golf Club website that it has run out of cash and gone into liquidation
15th Jan; BBC Wales has now picked up the story; Garnant Golf Club liquidation: Call for inquiry by Rhodri Glyn Thomas 

A couple of years ago Carmarthenshire Council decided to offload Garnant Golf Club to private management. It was developed by the council in 1992 at a cost of around £1m and losses were, by 2011 around £150,000 per year. The council failed to find a buyer despite twenty six bidders coming forward, one of the final bidders was rejected because they "didn't provide value for money for the council" Eventually, in September 2011, a decision was made to hand over the management of the club to Wrexham based Clay's Golf on a 25 year lease with a £200,000 subsidy to the firm over the first three years, and no rent payable until 2018. Clearly this was considered to be value for money...

A couple of years and £000s of public money later, the South Wales Guardian reports that the club has closed and Clay's Golf rumoured to have gone into receivership. Opposition to the deal was voiced back in 2011 . Other clubs in the area wondered whether the council had breached EU competition rules with the subsidy...

At the time, although, to be clear, there was no criticism of Clay's Golf, there was considerable astonishment over the financial arrangements combined with the usual lack of transparency over the business case. It appears that the company had already gone through various changes. .

Cllr Kevin Madge, however, accused critics of the deal of making 'cheap political shots' and enthusiastically predicted it would 'take Garnant on to the next level'.

Oh dear.

The South Wales Guardian reports today that Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Cllr Dai Jenkins, Chair of the council's Audit Committee are calling for a full inquiry;

Rhodri wants inquiry into Garnant Golf Club closure 
AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has today said a full inquiry is needed into the closure of Garnant Golf Club just weeks after the £160,000 taxpayer subsidy ended. 
Mr Thomas said serious questions need to be answered about the business case for the club and the decision to give away the best part of £200,000 of taxpayers’ money. 
The 25-year lease tender put out by Carmarthenshire County Council promised a maximum subsidy of £200,000 for the first five years. The final deal resulted in £160,000 subsidy over two years with rent free of charge until 2018. 
When Plaid first raised concerns about the deal in October 2011, the then Deputy Leader of the Council and Garnant County Councillor, Kevin Madge – now Leader of the authority – dismissed Plaid’s concerns and accused his opponents of “clueless electioneering”. 
Mr Thomas said such concerns have now been been justified and suggested that taxpayers’ money was not being spent responsibly by the Labour and Independent-run county council. 
“There is a worrying picture being painted that taxpayers’ money is not being spent responsibly," said Mr Thomas. 
“On the face of it, the closure of the golf club looks like another private project which is being underwritten by public money. The decision to provide a substantial public subsidy and six years free rent rests squarely with the leadership of the county council and the leadership must now take responsibility for its actions. 
“Residents throughout Carmarthenshire, irrespective of their political persuasion, will share Plaid Cymru’s concerns as to why money can be found for such questionable expenditures at a time when public services are being threatened. 
“Our concerns regarding the mismanagement of the golf club and the £160,000 subsidy were dismissed in 2011 as ‘clueless electioneering’. It is regrettable that our concerns have been justified.
“I would like to see a full inquiry in to the arrangement, and the initial assessment of the deal’s viability which justified such large sums of taxpayers’ money being given away. I would also like to know whether a claw back agreement was put in place to protect taxpayers’ money in this scenario. 
“The time has come for Carmarthenshire residents to say ‘enough is enough’ to this continuing mismanagement of their money.” 
MP Jonathan Edwards said it appeared golf club staff had been "kept in the dark" by Wrexham-based company Clay's Golf who have been running the club.
"This is no way in which to treat the workforce or the members who have paid to use the facility." 
David Jenkins, Chair of the county council's audit committee, is also calling for a full inquiry.
“When this deal was announced in 2011, I remember vividly saying that the only reason the golf course had become unsustainable was due to the poor management by the Labour and Independent County Council," he said. 
“Once again, it is the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire who are footing the bill for the highfalutin' ideas of the council leadership."
(Link here)

Sunday 12 January 2014

Living Wage and other stories

There's an interesting response to an enquiry concerning the Living Wage on the What Do They Know website. Out of 8744 Carmarthenshire council workers, a staggering 2876 are currently paid less than the Living Wage (which now stands at £7.65 per hour), even more disturbing is that 2583 of those are women. Presumably this Labour led council feels really proud of itself.

Calls for the Living Wage were rejected last year even though the pay ratio between the lowest and highest earner (the Chief Executive) in the authority is 1:13. Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid) highlighted the discrepancy, particularly as it also emerged at the time that the Chief Executive, for his role as Returning Officer for the 2012 local election was paid £20,000 in advance  - five weeks before the election, in a different financial year and before the number of candidates was even known.

The latest addition to the Chief Executive's pay was the £16,353 in lieu of pension contributions which the appointed auditor has deemed unlawful. Whether or not certain legal expenses could also be considered as some sort of 'pay supplement' remains unknown.

Meanwhile I suspect that many of the low paid female staff will be the first in the firing line when it comes to axing jobs.

Update 13th Jan - Plaid Cymru Carmarthenshire, who's proposals to introduce the Living Wage were thrown out by the Executive Board in September 2012 have today issued a press release reacting to the FOI response above:
Almost 3,000 Council jobs paid less than Living Wage

The Wales Audit Office published its annual report the other day on the 2012 - 2013 Local Government Accounts (pdf). It is a brief overview of the general findings of the external auditors' work related to local councils, local government pension funds and the police. Carmarthenshire is one of a handful of public bodies which has a special paragraph due to the fact that there remains a 'difference of opinion' over the pension and libel indemnity scandals;

"Carmarthenshire County Council received an audit report drawing attention to the appointed auditor’s view on the lawfulness of a ‘pay supplement’ for senior officers  and an indemnity granted to a senior officer for a libel counterclaim. The appointed auditor is considering whether further audit action is required in relation to these issues."

As for the libel indemnity, I assume that the Wales Audit Office are aware that the figure they have, £23k, differs from the one I have, which is £41k. Also, further funding is required, and indeed has been spent, in relation to the one ground of appeal relating to the counterclaim.
(Most recent post here; Libel case - Executive Board meeting)

It's perhaps worth remembering that the council also has itself in financial turmoil over the Scarlets funding arrangements. Not only the question over whether the £20m of public money channelled to this private company has breached EU State Aid (competition) rules but the blindingly bizarre £280,000 'allowable expenses' relating to the Marstons' car park deal. I trust someone, somewhere is looking into that little gem.

Still on the subject of the council's pet rugby club, back in November I mentioned that County Hall's generosity even extends to advertising jobs on behalf of Scarlets Regional Ltd on the council's publicly funded website. This arrangement seems to be continuing with further posts advertised this week. Do you think that this useful service stretches to all Carmarthenshire businesses? Answers on a postcard.

Thursday 9 January 2014

January Council meeting

(Update 12th January; at end of post)

Yesterday's meeting has now been archived for you to view at your leisure, so I only need to provide some commentary...

Over an hour was taken up with a presentation from the ladies from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) and their triangulations, collaborations and their robust annual reporting frameworks.

The gist of the whole thing was that some parts of social care services were ok and some weren't. The dreaded words 'worst in Wales' cropped up a couple of times, for example initial assessment procedures for vulnerable children were slow and there were and delays over 'safeguarding' investigations in adult services. The report itself is online, if you're so inclined.

Meryl Gravell and Kevin Madge took the opportunity for a bit of PR waffle in that the report justified the council's 'visions' for the future of our vulnerable residents, including, of course, the highly contentious issue of the closure of council run care homes. I am not sure the report did any such thing.

What emerged was that most of the social care services were privately run anyway and, according to budget proposals further outsourcing was likely.

Exec Board Member for Social Care Jane Tremlett, recently attended a conference on the 'Delivering Sustainable Services for Older People in Wales' run by none other than Capita Plc, (that large outsourcing company now dominating Barnet Council services), who happen, enterprisingly and conveniently, to have its own event company called Capita Conferences Plc.

Anyway, I'm digressing, the next point of interest was the proposal that all  decisions concerning school re-organisation should be delegated to the Executive Board (EB), and all small school closure to be delegated to senior officers.

Procedural chaos and a split in the Labour group ensued. Cllr Caiach and Plaid members all made it very clear that these decisions should be made by full council, school closures affected the heart of our communities and the electorate had the right for their views and opinions to be fully represented by local members in the Chamber.

(This doesn't apply to Llandovery of course where the local members decided to remain silent over the closure of Pantycelyn secondary school, so no local representation there).

Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) said;
"When I read this report, 'disappointed' was one word, 'surprised' I wasn't, because unfortunately the general thrust within this report ties in with the direction of travel that I've seen since being elected to this council in 2012. The default position seems to be that if you can refer it to a small body of individuals to make a decision quickly and quietly then, let's do it. personally that goes against the grain as someone who is a firm believer in democratic values and freedom of speech"

The proposal was further evidence of the dictatorial nature of this council and nothing short of a deliberate avoidance of objections and opposition.

After further comments from the opposition, Labour Cllr Anthony Jones broke ranks and moved that the proposal should be referred back to the relevant Scrutiny Committee.

Kevin Madge heartily disagreed with his Labour colleague, the decision should be made there and then - they didn't have the money to squander on unviable schools and associated nonsense..They had, after all, 'extensive experience' in these matters.

When Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) asked for evidence of this 'extensive experience' he was told off for making personal attacks...

Cllr Price proposed that the status quo should remain and such decisions remain with full council. There was then a recorded vote on his proposal which was lost. The count was 31 votes to 30 with one abstention.

Then there had to be another vote on Cllr Jones' proposal should go back to scrutiny, this was passed (39 to 21 with one abstention). So back to scrutiny it will go. I don't suppose Cllr Madge was very impressed at having to withdraw his motion because of the antics of his Labour colleagues. Incidentally, both votes were recorded.

You can view the chaotic muddle on the webcast.

The subject of whether the council should have a Presiding Officer rather than a Chair was up next and Cllr Caiach pointed out that it might perhaps be a good idea.

The current arrangement, which dates back a thousand years or so, was an annual rotation of Labour, Independent, Plaid Chairs with no hustings, no election and of course no chance of any truly independent members ever being Chair of the Council.

If adopted (and the Business Management Group had already decided it wasn't going to be), the Chair would continue with purely ceremonial duties but a Presiding Member, elected on actual ability, would Chair council meetings.

Cllr Caiach suggested that any additional cost could be funded by a redistribution of the Special Responsibility Allowances currently allocated to existing Chairs.

She might as well have sworn loudly in the Chamber.

The Chief Executive soothed the assembled and now deeply troubled Chairs by saying that SRA's were set in stone, couldn't possibly be reduced and the idea was quietly shelved. A pity really, I seem to remember the current Vice Chair (who will automatically become Chair in May, with an extra £9000 and the 'car') was nominated largely on the strength of his shooting abilities.

Lastly was the thorny issue of the EB minutes from December 4th. You may remember this was the exempt meeting where the pension scandal was discussed. There was a climbdown over the 'arrangements' but the EB insisted that 'at this stage' it was not 'intrinsically' unlawful.

To see yesterday's discussion click on 02:33:14 on the webcast. Kevin Madge said that he couldn't say anything and Mr James said that although he had been advised that didn't have to declare an interest now, he would leave the Chamber for the duration of today's non-discussion.

Cllr Price wanted to know, as we all do, exactly what 'intrinsically' meant in this context and what did 'at this stage' mean when they seemed so confident of their ongoing legal advice.

Kevin was saying nothing and left it to the head of law to remind everyone of the instructions from the WAO not to discuss it all in public before the investigation was concluded.

Incidentally, the annual accounts for the Dyfed Pension Fund cannot be finally approved either due to the pension scandal.

The vow of silence didn't seem to stop Kevin Madge talking about the libel case on Monday despite the unlawful libel indemnity but he was in the Exec Board arena of course, safe from probing questions.

The last point was the recommendation by the Democratic Services Committee that there should be no reduction in the frequency of council and committee meetings.

Bizarrely, our acting head of law said that this recommendation did not require a decision, they were going to have a seminar on meetings and procedures soon anyway.

So this sensible recommendation to protect the remnants of democracy was neatly swept aside with another curious interpretation of the constitution. Councillors can look forward to a meeting about meetings.

By now the clock was ticking and there was no time to discuss the remaining agenda and the rest of it was zipped through in approximately 30 seconds. This was a shame as some of us were wondering about the reasons for the delay on the report on 'email snooping' which formed part of the minutes of a recent scrutiny committee. We'll just have to wait...

Well, next month, council meetings are buy one get one free with two on the horizon, the usual gathering on the 12th February and the Budget Special, which should be a riot, on the 19th.

As you will be aware, the ruling officers administration have already put forward their budget proposals for 'consultation'. For your information, budget discussions from three scrutiny committees have been published so far: social care, environment and community.

The Plaid opposition published their alternative budget yesterday;

Update 12th January; 
I mentioned above that Exec board member for Social Care, Cllr Jane Tremlett attended and spoke at a conference put on by Capita Conferences Ltd, a useful subsidiary (with all prospective clientele gathered in one handy room) of those well known outsourcers of council services, Capita Plc. It's worth noting that the delegate pack alone costs £95 plus vat. Attending the conference? £350 plus vat. She's off to another one in March this year. As a speaker perhaps her fees and expenses are paid by Capita itself...if so, she might as well join the Capita payroll...

Monday 6 January 2014

Libel case - Executive Board meeting

I was not present at today's Executive Board meeting where the libel proceedings were being discussed but there is an early report from the Carmarthen Journal which I have copied in full below.

I have to assume that as I have one ground of appeal relating to Mr James' counterclaim still ongoing a rubber stamp is required for further council funding. Hence today's discussion and further 'justification' for the ears of the Wales Audit Office.

The publication of the WAO report concerning the unlawful payments (one of which is the libel indemnity) is imminent.

Aside from the fact that I have always felt justified in my criticism of the council - and do not forget that this council has a 'special' amendment to its constitution to enable it to fund libel claims - there are two points I must take issue with in the report below.

Firstly, Cllr Madge says that 'an out of court settlement was considered but Mrs Thompson declined to discuss it'. I am not sure what Cllr Madge and the nine Exec Board members have been told, or actually shown, but 'discussions' went on, to and fro, for the entire length of the litigation.

I did not 'decline to discuss' anything, this is very misleading, as the senior council officers involved must be very aware.

The correspondence was detailed, complex and sensitive and, to give an example, the council insisted on a gagging clause throughout.
Clearly the details of the correspondence between the parties will have to be disclosed.

The council refused to accept offers to settle on reasonable terms as early as 2011, before the counterclaim was issued.

The second point is the comment '...the legal action against Mrs Thompson of Llanwrda “was not somewhere we (the council) wanted to go but we were proved right.” So, according to the Leader of the council, it was 'we', the council who sued me in the counterclaim - so were they funding Mr James' personal counterclaim to circumvent the 'Derbyshire Rule' that a government body can't sue for libel?

That would be an abuse of process.

Nobody needs to justify criticism of a 'council', Cllr Madge clearly has no understanding of the basics.

Here's the article;

'Leader of Carmarthenshire Council Kevin Madge has said no member of the public has a right to criticise the authority without justified reasons. 
His comments come after blogger Jacqui Thompson Council lost a High Court bid last month to all further grounds to appeal a lost a libel case against the council’s chief executive Mark James. 
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s executive board, Mr Madge said: “Nobody has the right to say what they want about the council. 
“We are here to be held to account yes and that is fine.” 
He added the case proved “enough is enough” and criticism of the council has to be justified. 
He added the legal action against Mrs Thompson of Llanwrda “was not somewhere we (the council) wanted to go but we were proved right.” 
Mr Madge said an out of court settlement was considered but that Mrs Thompson declined to discuss it. It follows the judgement last this year by Mr Justice Tugendhat who dismissed Mrs Thompson’s claim in its entirety and upheld Mr James’s counter claim for libel, awarding him £25,000 damages. Claims of corruption made against Mr James by Mrs Thompson were dismissed. 
She faces a bill of around £230,000. This includes £190,000 to cover the council’s legal defence costs and £41,000 for the council’s counter claim. 
She has been ordered to pay the substantial amount after losing her action against the council and its chief executive Mark James. 
Last month Mrs Thompson said the appeal hearing in December was “another devastating blow” and she will have to live with the judgement and costs — but will never agree with the judge’s findings.'

Thursday 2 January 2014

2014 kicks off: Next week's agendas

Whilst backbench councillors and observers wait interminably for reports on 'unlawful payments', email 'snooping', consultants fees, ombudsman reports, freedom of information requests and the like, there's no such wait for a public report on the libel proceedings; Jacqueline Thompson v Mark James (1) & Carmarthenshire Council (2) and the counterclaim, James v Thompson.

The report on the agenda for next Monday's Executive Board meeting requires neither a decision, nor a recommendation by the Board although it does mention that I have been granted permission to appeal on one ground relating to the counterclaim. I'll leave you draw your own conclusions concerning the timing and the sudden flash of transparency. Perhaps this is a first and we can look forward to all court cases involving the council given such treatment...

The Wales Audit Office report concerning 'unlawful' payments is due, we hear, mid-January.

I'm not going to comment on the numbered paragraphs in the report as I have already made my views clear, several times. As for the reference to Without Prejudice (not shown to the court) correspondence (No.5), I trust that elected members will be able to see all the communications, from both parties, when they receive "a fuller report of the outcome of the whole proceedings" as there are issues concerning this correspondence which I believe they will find surprising.

The agenda for next Wednesday 's full council meeting has also been published and includes the minutes of the Executive Board meeting of the 4th December. You may recall that this was the meeting where, behind tightly closed doors, the begrudging u-turn over the 'unlawful' pension arrangements took place, with the council executive still refusing to admit to the auditor's finding that it was 'intrinsically' unlawful.

Described by opposition councillors as an 'incredible situation' raising a multitude of questions, it will be interesting to see whether those questions will be allowed to be asked next Wednesday. If the recommendations of senior officers to remove all scrutiny of executive decisions, including Executive Board reports, from council agendas goes through (as a cost cutting measure, believe it or not...) then this might be one of the last opportunities they'll get....

We will see, of course, what next Wednesday's webcast brings but there are a couple of other items worth an early mention. Firstly, a 're-structuring' of the decision making process will see all school reorganisation proposals decided by the Executive Board only. This blanket delegation, if approved by full council, will see the future education of Carmarthenshire's children placed squarely in the hands of a couple of senior officers, the Executive Board being the rubber stamp.

The second point concerns the recommendation by the Democratic Services committee that there should be no reduction in the number of council and committee meetings. Full council should not allow itself to be sweet talked into disagreeing with the Committee's recommendation; the proposal to reduce meetings is not about 'saving money' but a further attack on the ability of elected members to scrutinise executive decisions and those taken by senior officers.

The last item worth a mention concerns the All Wales Communicable Disease policy. Carmarthenshire has drawn up its own 'local strategy' and, in the event of a plague of pestilence, all junior staff and members of the public (who may have strayed in) will be immediately ejected from County Hall and an electrified force field automatically raised around the inner sanctum. Champagne and caviar will be stockpiled from now on to ensure the survival of the ruling junta, and if it turns out that any of the chosen few are not yet 'born again', a special red telephone will be installed for direct communication with the Towy Community Church.

Happy New Year. .