Friday 28 March 2014

The victory parade is over

The council's Audit Committee met today (28th) and learned that the bill from the Wales Audit Office for the two damning Audit reports and associated costs will be somewhere around £70,000. The council are arguing it might be a little bit less, as if that makes any damn difference.

Had the council leadership, which includes the Labour and Independents as well as the senior officials involved, accepted the findings in the first place, this additional cost would have been avoided. For the avoidance of doubt, those senior officials include Mr James himself, Linda Rees Jones and also the Director of Resources.

So as well as £55,000 in illegal payments, £15,000 for the QC (so far), and unknown costs in officer time, additional reports, use of the council website etc etc, there's another £70,000 to add to it all.

Plaid Cymru issued another strongly worded statement this afternoon which can be found, in full, here. Rhodri Glyn Thomas said "It seems the Labour party has not thought for one second about the cost to county taxpayers.  The council leadership has been more interested in covering its own back and trying to defend the indefensible"

The Independent Group are equally to blame, I just hope the idiotic nonsense about 'Duty of Care' spouted by Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer, Giles Morgan etc at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th February comes back to bite them, they should be ashamed to claim to represent the people of Carmarthenshire.

Residents of Carmarthenshire, who received their Council Tax demands this week must be feeling quite sick.
Incidentally, Caebrwyn has been paying to sue herself through her council tax for some time.

No matter how it's dressed up, all this money, and all this nonsense, is to defend one man, Mark James.

Last March, after the libel judgement came out, Mr James embarked on his lengthy victory parade and said, "My only regret is that Mrs Thompson has wasted a huge amount of time and money". No Mr James, I was scrutinizing this council, a task which has been proved entirely justified and necessary. You were not happy with that, hence your letter to the Madaxeman blog.

You are the one who has now been shown to be entirely happy for residents of the county to defend your indefensible position by wasting tens of thousands of pounds of their money, and endless hours of officer time.

Whatever the future holds for me Mr James, your victory parade is well and truly over. 

Thursday 27 March 2014

Mark James should be suspended, say MP and AM

As I reported in yesterday's post, ('The Returning Officer question...and another descent into farce'), Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM requested urgent ministerial intervention over Mark James' role as Returning Officer in the Commons and the Senedd yesterday.

In strong statements issued to the South Wales Guardian, they are asking the council leadership to formally suspend Mr James immediately, and explain why this wasn't done at the start of the police investigation.

If he is still not suspended, they confirm that the Plaid opposition will bring a Motion to full council to remove him from electoral duties as Returning Officer;

“....E-mail correspondence shown to me suggests the Labour-Independent leadership of Carmarthenshire council has intentionally not suspended the chief executive in order to allow him to continue in his electoral officer role," said Mr Edwards. 
“This contradicts the forceful position taken by a Labour AM who has called for the chief executive of neighbouring Pembrokeshire Council – also the subject of a police investigation – to be removed as Returning Officer in the upcoming European elections. 
“The complete lack of leadership and the failure to formally suspend the Chief Executive in the first place – for the benefit of both the council and Mr James himself – has left many important questions unanswered. It has highlighted further uncertainties about his departure and has the potential to undermine the integrity of a police investigation. 
“Following my question to the Secretary of State we now know UK Government is monitoring events in Carmarthenshire. This is a serious intervention from the UK Government which should make the council leadership sit up and think about the position it has taken. 
“Carmarthenshire residents deserve an urgent public statement from the Labour leadership of the council about the exact terms and conditions of the chief executive’s departure in which the council leader needs to explain why the chief executive was not formally suspended during this police investigation.” 
Mr Thomas said Ms Griffiths' comments exposed the "farcical decisions" taken by the leadership of Carmarthenshire Council Council "which has brought embarrassment on the county". 
He added: “There is a police investigation underway into two Wales Audit Office reports yet the person at the centre of those reports remains in office. 
"Carmarthenshire residents will understandably believe they have been misled by statements from County Hall which suggested the chief executive is no longer in his post while the police investigation was on-going. 
“It is clear the only way in which public confidence in County Hall and the electoral process can be restored is if the chief executive is formally suspended from his duties or if a motion to the full council is presented to remove the electoral duties from the Chief Executive’s responsibilities. 
“We call on the Labour leadership of the council to take the necessary steps or Plaid Cymru will not hesitate to act in the public interest and bring that motion to the next meeting of the council....”
          (Full article; South Wales Guardian)

Golwg - Profile of Jacqui Thompson

This week's edition of Welsh news and current affairs magazine Golwg features a profile of myself on the fifth anniversary of this blog...if you're so inclined...and is available from all good newsagents....Diolch yn fawr iawn Golwg.

Golwg; 27th March 2014
Follow Golwg on Twitter @CylchgrawnGolwg 

The Returning Officer question...and another descent into farce

Local politicians raised the question yesterday of Mark James' suitability as Returning Officer for the European elections, given that he is 'not at his desk because of a criminal investigation'. Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards raised it in the House of Commons and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas in the Senedd.

The Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones said that they are 'keeping a close eye on the situation'.

In the Senedd, Plaid's Rhodri Glyn Thomas asked the Labour Minister, Lesley Griffiths how, as Mr James is currently suspended from his duties as Chief Executive and is not supposed to have contact with staff, he can possibly carry out the functions of Returning Officer? He called for the Minister to intervene.

The Minister immediately corrected Mr Thomas and said that Mr James was 'NOT' suspended and was still Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service. Incidentally Mr Edwards used the word suspension in the Commons.

She then went on to say she was aware of the grave public concern and had been in discussion with Baroness Randerson, the lib dem peer, and had also written to Greg Clark, the UK Cabinet Officer who deals with these things.

Basically she said that no one had the power to step in, it was up to the Local Authority itself.

She was then passed the statement issued by Kevin Madge on the 14th February saying that Mr James was no longer undertaking his duties as Chief Executive.

She must be as puzzled as the rest of us.

What an unholy mess. Not even the Welsh Minister for Local Government seems to know whether Mr James is currently still Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service or not.

If he's 'no longer undertaking his duties' then one of those duties, according to the council's constitution, is the role of Returning Officer...surely this must logically mean he's no longer legally capable, nor entitled, to run an election.

In actual fact, it appears that Mr James might as well be sat in County Hall. It is understood that he remains in full contact with staff and has full access to the council computer network...and to all intent and purpose, remains in full control..

It beggars belief that despite the public outrage over the scandalous findings, and an ongoing criminal investigation, County Hall officials have continued to deliberately try and pull the wool over everyone's eyes.

The Electoral Commission said Returning Officers were the responsibility of the UK government, the UK government said they are monitoring the situation, the Welsh Government seems to think its up to the council.

What a bizarre affair.

There should have been an official suspension in the first place. Perhaps one reason, with an appeal on the counterclaim ongoing, is that the phrase 'stepped aside' sounds slightly better across the courtroom than 'suspended'.

Update 27th March;

Video links to questions in the Senedd here, and the House of Commons here (scroll to 11.55.00).

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Unlawful payments - the 'review' of democracy

One recommendation from both Wales Audit Office reports was the urgent necessity for a review into the council's governance arrangements, in other words, making sure the decision making processes are above board from now on.

Leader of the Council, Mr Madge, announced back in January that any review would be led by the Welsh Local Government Association. This brought audible groans all round as the public perception of the WLGA is that it is a lobbying group representing the interests of council officials rather than a protector of the democratic process.

The EGM on the 27th February saw an attempt by Plaid for the review to be undertaken by the council's own audit committee. If nothing else, it would be easier to keep an eye on.
At the meeting Mr Madge had his own way and the WLGA will be in charge.

This 'Review' crops up on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee as the Minutes of the Corporate Governance Group (which met on the 6th March) are up for approval. The minutes record a list of issues 'relating to the Democratic Process' which will be looked at by the group headed by the WLGA;

● Declarations of Interest

● Attendance of Officers with a potential interest in a Report

● Dealing with Urgent Items

● Dealing with Exempt Items

● Equality Impact Assessments

About time too.
The democratic process needs a complete overhaul, back in October calls were made for the council to be put in special measures. Proposals to remove Executive Board minutes from full council meetings and to turn the event into corporate powerpoint presentations need to be withdrawn. Inaccurate and selective Minutes need to become a thing of the past and webcasting should be extended to cover all open meetings.

There should be no more hour long pre-meeting meetings of the Executive Board which result in a fifteen minute rubber stamping exercise when the public and press are present.

I could go on but perhaps while they're at it they could look into the comments made by the former Chair of the Council Sian Thomas on the Byd Y Bedwar programme. Her position was continually compromised by the remarks and comments from Mr James sitting next to her in meetings. I know how she felt, I also experienced something similar from Mr James across the courtroom when I was giving evidence.

Anyway, back to the Corporate Governance group minutes which also records that the WAO will be closely monitoring the authority, culminating with a follow-up report, a Corporate Assessment Review.

As for the setting up of a cross-party group to look at, and receive further advice on, libel indemnities, so far there is no news.

Also on the agenda is a 'things to do' list from the WAO.

Top of the list are the Public Interest Reports. The Auditors are still waiting for 'formal confirmation of agreed actions from the Council and advertisement in the local newspaper'. I have no idea what the newspaper ad will say, it must be a Statutory requirement or perhaps it will be a full page apology. Not.

The WAO will also be discussing the Audit Fee in relation to the Public reports with the Director of Resources.
This fee is yet another cost incurred by the unlawful decisions.

The WAO state that they are also in receipt of a 'significant amount' of correspondence with local government electors. Their work is 'ongoing' and is likely to add to the fees.
That suggest to me that there is a heightened awareness and interest in the financial affairs of our council and people are starting to ask questions. Where else can they go?

Meanwhile, Gloucestershire police continue with their investigation.

Monday 24 March 2014


A couple of days ago I noticed, and tweeted, a Freedom of Information request to the Welsh Government asking for the cost, and the guest list, for their hospitality box in the Millenium Stadium. I'm not sure who made the request but an article has appeared in today's Western Mail.

The response states that the WG pays an astonishing £45,000 per season for the box. The 'guest list' of individuals and corporate entities was refused under Data Protection. I would say that the refusal is highly questionable, maybe the requester will appeal. 

I find it quite staggering that this sort of public/private sector corporate entertainment is still flourishing. Never mind the cost. I'm sure that when people of Wales voted for devolution, some may have imagined that things may have been different, it was an opportunity to break away from the Westminster culture of vested interest and undercover lobbying. It didn't take long though did it.

One rugby fan summed it up; “Grassroots supporters who clearly struggle to cover the costs of tickets – which is evident from the frequent spectacle of swathes of empty seats – now have to stomach the sight of the Welsh Government entertaining the great and good using the public purse.”

Not to be outdone of course, Carmarthenshire Council ensured it had its own hospitality box in Parc Y Scarlets stadium 'to promote the county'. We don't know how much the costs associated with that are, but they are probably buried within other assorted payments in FOI responses, one of which which showed a total expenditure in back door subsidies to Scarlets Regional Ltd of £164,000 between 2010 and 2012.

To determine which businesses and individuals wine and dine our council officials, and vice versa, it takes further investigation, again through FOI. A disclosure, in 2011 of the Register of Officers' Interests, Gifts and Hospitality threw up a few items of interest (see Just the Ticket) as it listed the companies and individuals who had sent invitations to officials. One I particularly like, under 'gifts', was a 'Presentation Box containing Champagne and Port' for the Director of Regeneration from the developer at Machynys Homes. Cheers! 

Carmarthenshire Council are not unique of course in conducting their business in the hospitality boxes of Parc Y Scarlets, the Millenium Stadium and even Wembley, it seems to be common practice. It's unlikely though that your local grocer or your local builder will be quaffing champagne whilst watching the match anytime soon, unlike Carillion, Mott McDonald, Geldards, Liberty Homes, the WRU etc etc... 

Personally, I don't think this is an appropriate way for public bodies to do business, no matter how much it's dressed up as 'encouraging investment'. It might be a method the business world understands but when public money is involved surely it's sending completely the wrong message, especially to the taxpayer.

As for the Welsh Government, perhaps it was a typo, maybe they meant to say spend £45,000 on a hospital, not hospitality.

Friday 21 March 2014

Police Commissioner pulls funding from Council rag

There was a welcome move from Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon today as he announced that he was pulling the £5000 funding the force gives to the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News, giving his public backing to "independent" local media.

It must have come as a bit of a shock to County Hall which scratched around for a statement from anyone but themselves. They succeeded in getting a statement from the Chair of the Health Board, another organisation which could probably find better things to spend it's money on. The hurried statement appears on the council website but carries no introduction as to what it's all about.

The council, which masterminds the publication, and which naturally retains editorial control,  insists it's a product of the Local Service Board, a two monthly gathering of senior representatives of local public bodies which, incidentally, hasn't published a set of Minutes for over two years.

The latest edition of the Carms News contains a double page spread of council propaganda detailing the sprinkling of services which were 'saved' at the eleventh hour by the Executive Board. Of course, it had nothing to do with 'listening' to the public but everything to do with desperate PR in the midst of the unlawful payments scandals.
Funnily enough, there's no mention of course of the tens of thousands of pounds spent on legal advice to defend the chief executive and the aforementioned scandals.
No mention either, strangely, of the extraordinary council deal which saw one private company pay off a large loan to another private company.

The 'Children's page' continues to be sponsored by County Hall's fundamentalist evangelical partners at the Towy Community Church in the guise of the Xcel 'bowling alley'. There are clearly some at County Hall who would rather like to raise an entire generation of Carmarthenshire born again christians.

Pleased to see that Mr Salmon includes Caebrwyn as independent 'local media'...maybe he could tell that to the judge...

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Mark James - 'Not to have contact with any member of staff'

As Gloucestershire police continue with their investigations, further information relating to the elusive details of the terms and conditions of Mark James' 'stand down' emerge.

The front page of tomorrow's South Wales Guardian, which has just been tweeted, reports on the latest developments. As we know, Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards has been calling for 'ministerial intervention' regarding Mr James' role as local Returning Officer in the forthcoming European elections. (see call for ministerial intervention here, and for the Parliamentary Questions tabled to the Cabinet Office, here)
Mr James' fee for the role of Returning Officer is around £20,000 (see update below).

Mr Edwards states;
“The public may well have questions about the suitability of the Chief Executive to undertake the role of Local Returning Officer while the police investigate whether any criminal activity has taken place. 

“Whilst not dismissing those concerns, for me the matter boils down to whether the Chief Executive can undertake the role logistically and maintain the integrity of a police investigation whilst not at his desk.

“Councillors have been told the Chief Executive is not to have contact with any member of staff – it is therefore impossible to see how he can conduct the election properly if that is indeed the case.

“The complete lack of leadership and the failure to formally suspend the Chief Executive in the first place – for the benefit of both the Council and Mr James himself – has left so many important questions unanswered.  It has highlighted further uncertainties about his departure, has potentially compromised the position of staff who must follow his instructions as election officer, and has the potential to undermine the integrity of a police investigation.

“It is because of these serious matters that I have requested intervention from the UK Cabinet Office which coordinates the European election.”
(Jonathan Edwards website)


With regards to the legal costs incurred by the council to defend the pension scandal a Freedom of Information response states that the '2013 Advice on the pay supplement policy was £11,935'.

This figure, nearly £12,000, appears to be just for the written document from Mr Kerr QC. It doesn't include cost of the original advice from Total Rewards Project Ltd in 2011, nor the cost of Mr Kerr's attendance at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th, nor the officer time taken up with defending the scandal.
The claim that the 'pension arrangement' will not cost the authority a penny seems a little wide of the mark.

Nor does the cost include, of course, Mr Kerr's advice concerning the libel indemnity. Or Mr Goudie's from 2008.

The cost of the January 2012 legal advice relating to the counterclaim from Mr Adam Speker, lawyer for Mr James and the council in the libel case, which the council claim was 'independent', is also unknown.


The Local Returning Officer fee for the European election is, I understand, around £5000.

A FOI request was made at the end of February for the cost of the Total Rewards Project Ltd advice in 2011; Mr Kerr's November 2013 advice on the libel indemnity and the total cost to the authority, including expenses, of his attendance at the meeting on the 27th February.
A response is due by the 28th March.

Email snooping and misuse of the press office - sterilised and repackaged

Aside from recent scandals, this council has a proud history of kicking uncomfortable and embarrassing issues into the long grass. Two such issues were the email snooping episode and the misuse of the council press office. Both matters, dating back to 2012, have been sterilised and repackaged in the form of 'policy reviews' and finally appear on the agenda for next Monday's Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting.

You may remember that in June 2013 Cllr Caiach discovered that her email account had been tracked in July 2011 by 'officer unknown' without her knowledge.

This was despite a bar on individual senior officers directly accessing the emails of others 'unless they have been given permission to do so by that person'. The 'tracking' was related to the libel case, and as Cllr Caiach went on to become a witness against the council and its Chief Executive in the case, the question arose whether or not this was actually common practice. 

The Chief Executive, at a meeting of full council stated that this particular 'tracking' incident was all part of the disclosure stage of the case and was 'ordered' by the High Court. It wasn't. The disclosure stage of the case happened in the Autumn of 2012, the 'tracking' was over a year earlier. Another memory lapse from Mr James perhaps.

The press office has much to answer for and has long been seen as the propaganda arm of the unelected senior officials who run the council. The matter came to a head when Kevin Madge, the current political arm of the ruling junta was found, in March last year, to have breached the code of conduct by using a press release to launch a political attack.

The recent scandals have seen the press office throw caution to the wind and repeatedly use the press office, and it's online form, the ironically named 'Newsroom', to defend the illegal payments made to the Chief Executive.

Anyway, like the email snooping, councillors have been patiently waiting for a report 'relating to the process followed and officer involvement in preparing and agreeing the press release'. There are two reports on the agenda for Monday's scrutiny meeting 'Review of Email usage and monitoring policy' and 'Press and Media Protocol' which should give councillors the opportunity to ask some serious questions, given that the monitoring and tracking of emails is up specifically for a closer look.

The current policy states that 'The Council will automatically monitor email including both the text of a message and any attachments. The Council will monitor both incoming and outgoing mail.'. Which is probably standard stuff I suppose. The problem occurs when 'The Council' is in fact an individual, and when that individual is allowed to access emails for improper purposes.

Another issue to consider is the possibility that the privacy of residents was (or is) being violated as they often communicate sensitive and personal information to their elected representatives.

Neither report, of course, actually mentions the two incidents which gave rise to the concerns in the first place.

Also on the agenda is a mention of Car Parking charges. A 7% loss in parking revenue last year, which gave rise to a challenge as to whether or not there would be any benefits to bumping up the charges, has been jiggled around by the council bean counters and turned into a 7.5% increase! Amazing!

Unison Carmarthenshire - Anger at Labour council's double standards

Update 26th March; According to @UNISONCarms twitter feed, the council has now suspended the decision to axe Trade Union secondments. Good news.


Last Monday Unison Carmarthenshire launched a petition to reinstate council funded trade union secondments at Carmarthenshire Council, my post is here and includes a link to the petition.

Unison Carmarthenshire, thanks to the tenacity of branch members such as Mark Evans, knows exactly how this local authority operates. It held its AGM last week and voted unanimously for the Chief Executive Mark James to repay the illegal payments as found by the Wales Audit Office. They also passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in the Chief Executive, the Leader and the Executive Board.

Unison also called for all support to the Labour group in Carmarthenshire to be withdrawn until such time as the corporately funded trade union secondments were reinstated.

Whatever your politics, the statement will resonates with many in the county, including council workers. After all it was only in 2012 that the previous leader, Meryl Gravell (ind) publicly blamed the 'problems at the council' on the laziness of 9000 staff in the infamous 'Mark and I' speech.

Here's an extract from Unison's statement;

Anger at Labour council's double standards 
".....Given the attacks on our branch (removal of the trade union secondment) and the cuts and threats to jobs that our members are facing there was an angry mood amongst members whose anger has been further fuelled by the double standards applied by the Labour led council. 
The Chief Executive (CEO) is on very expensive gardening leave due to receiving nearly thirty thousand pounds agreed by the Executive Board because his Local Government pension pot was full. He was given this money in the view of the branch as a tax scam. 
The CEO was also indemnified quite recently to take out a libel case against a local blogger and thorn in the side of the Local authority Jacqueline Thompson. Both decisions were according to the Welsh audit office illegal. 
Our branch for a number of years has warned that the cabinet system lacked transparency and accountability and these payments and the behaviour of the CEO are in part we think a consequence of this. Decisions are made behind closed doors and not in the public arena of a full council meeting. 
What angers our members is that the present and previous council leader sing the praises of the CEO. The previous Independent (Tory) leader apparently said the CEO was the best in Wales! And this justified paying him nearly £190,000 a year. 
Well if he is the best I would hate to see the worst! 
After much hand wringing and trying to front out the criticisms of the above payments it was agreed that the CEO could have a break while Gloucester police investigate the matter. One of the motions passed at our AGM stated that there appeared to be one rule for the CEO and cabinet members and another rule for the hard working people working for the Local Authority. 
The view was expressed that if one of our members was accused of illegal activity in work they would not have the option of going on gardening leave but would be frogmarched out and suspended. 
Another motion that was also passed unanimously called for all illegal payments as deemed by the Welsh Audit Office to be repaid and that all council officers to be judged on the balance of probabilities as other employees would be. 
The meeting voted again unanimously a vote of no confidence in the current CEO; the leader of the council and the Executive board who voted for and sanctioned these unlawful payments.
In regard to the removal of trade union secondments (that is where the council pays for a trade union officer to carry out their trade union duties) the AGM was told of the on-going campaign for the reinstatement of the above. 
The AGM voted unanimously to call on Unison in Wales including the Labour link to withdraw support and assistance from Labour Party activity within Carmarthenshire until the Labour Led Carmarthenshire County Council reinstates the corporately funded Trade Union Facility Time for its branch officers and Shop Stewards or agrees a way forward with our Unison branch. 
Finally but most importantly the branch voted unanimously to mobilise the full strength of the branch and members to defend our jobs when compulsory redundancies are threatened. The motion also called on all Local Government branches in Wales to take action on the same day against compulsory redundancies....."
(Source; Socialist Party Wales)

Thursday 13 March 2014

Minutes of the Extraordinary meeting....and a birthday

The Minutes of the Extraordinary meeting of Carmarthenshire Council on the 27th February have now been published and can be found here.

I'm not going to comment further at the moment but as the votes for both the libel indemnity report and the votes of no confidence were recorded, here is a list of councillors who decided to spend even more of your money on legal advice to defend the indefensible and who refused to 'Accept' the auditor's findings;

Labour Party Councillors;
Kevin Madge, Pat Jones, Ryan Bartlett, Calum Higgins, Peter Cooper, Jeff Edmunds, Shirley Mathews, Derek Cundy, Tegwen Devichand, Colin Evans, Keith Davies, George Edwards, Sharen Davies, Jan Williams, John James, Louvain Roberts, Anthony Jones, Terry Davies.

Independent Party Councillors;
Pam Palmer, Meryl Gravell, Mair Stephens, Jane Tremlett, Giles Morgan, Ivor Jackson, Tom Theophilus, Andrew James, Philip Hughes, Hugh Richards, Irfon Jones, Jim Jones, Susan Allen, Hugh Shepardson, Edward Thomas, Anthony Davies, Wyn Evans, Joseph Davies, Ieuan Davies, Theressa Bowen, Daff Davies, Dai Davies, Kim Thomas,

These were the same forty-one councillors who also gave their vote of confidence to the three Exec Board councillors, Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell who were complicit in the unlawful findings.

The 'forty-one' also includes Cllrs Madge, Palmer and Gravell of course, who were clearly never going to vote against themselves and their current respective salaries of £47,500, £31,120 and £28,780 plus expenses.

On a brighter note, I'd just like to say that today is the fifth birthday of this blog. Contrary to the views of County Hall officials, the purpose has always been to shed a little light on this surprisingly secretive and dictatorial little council. It's certainly had the occasional spotlight on it's activities, and even reached the world's stage from time to time. For all the wrong reasons.

A lot has been said about me over the past few weeks and months, all of which has achieved nothing other than give the appearance of an increasingly desperate council. I've made my views clear and stand by everything I've said, and everything I've written.

I shall carry on and I know one thing, I am still at my desk, and nothing I have been responsible for is currently being investigated by Gloucestershire Police.

Returning Officer suitability; MP tables Questions to Cabinet Office

Further to Monday's post; 'MP calls for 'intervention' as Mark James confirmed as Returning Officer for Euro Elections', Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has tabled the following written Parliamentary Questions to the Minister for the Cabinet Office to be answered next week;

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office;

i) what representations he has received from (a) the Electoral Commission, (b) the Welsh Government and (c) Carmarthenshire County Council on the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council and his responsibilities as Returning Officer.

ii) what assessment he has made of the suitability of the chief executives of Carmarthenshire County Council and Pembrokeshire County Council acting as returning officers in future elections.

iii) will the Minister meet the Electoral Commission to discuss the suitability of the chief executives of Carmarthenshire County Council and Pembrokeshire County Council for their roles as returning officers at the forthcoming European election.

iv) will the Minister amend the guidance given to the Electoral Commission on whether prohibiting public officials who are suspended or under criminal investigation retain their responsibilities as returning officers.

v) what discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on Returning Officer responsibilities in Carmarthenshire at the forthcoming European elections.

Parliamentary Questions 

Carmarthenshire County Council said yesterday (Wednesday) that Mr James will still be fulfilling the role of Returning Officer as it is different to that of chief executive of the council.

Although the Council's Constitution states that;
The Chief Executive shall be the Head of Paid Service under Section 4 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, having responsibility for the following functions.... 
...acting as Returning Officer and Electoral Registration Officer for local government, National Assembly for Wales, Parliamentary and European elections

Also, the Electoral Commission Wales issued this clarification to Cneifiwr yesterday;

"The role of a Returning Officer is an independent position and the Electoral Commission are not responsible for, and have no legal power relating to, the appointment or the removal of a Returning Officer for any given election. This is a matter for the relevant Government department (in the case of the European Parliamentary elections, this would be the responsibility of the UK Government) and accompanying legislation.

"The position of Local Returning Officer (LRO) for the European Parliamentary election is determined by legislation. The person who is the Returning Officer for local government elections (appointed by the individual county or county borough in Wales) is automatically appointed the LRO for the European Parliamentary elections in that area (Regulation 6 (2) of the European Parliamentary Election Regulations 2004, as amended in 2013)."

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The District Valuer's report sheds no light on the 'Allowable expenses'

Back in November I reported that the details of the deal between Scarlets Regional Ltd and the Council over the sale of a car park to Marston's Inns had finally spilled out from the Executive Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds. I say 'spilled' as previous attempts to extract this information through FOI had been flatly refused.

The total proceeds were £850,000 and the remaining spoils, after deductions, were split 50/50. The Council ended up with £200,000 and Scarlets Regional Ltd, £220,000. No, not exactly 50/50 but that mathematical puzzle still remains a mystery.

In fact, the Scarlets ended up with around £600,000  and the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, £200,000.

What was of interest were the deductions prior to the split, as revealed by Cllr Edmunds;
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

Without a doubt the most curious figure is the 'Allowable expenses' of £280,000. This was made available to the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan. This was a loan from Henry Davidson Ltd, developers of the Eastgate centre in Llanelli, for fixtures and fittings for the Scarlets shop/restaurant within the development.

Henry Davidson Ltd have had business deals before with Marston's Inns Plc, we don't know whether they 'found Marston's' this time, but if they did then the £30,000 finders fee to the Scarlets may also be questionable.

£76,000 compensation for loss of lease isn't bad either considering that the Scarlets have yet to pay any rent for it, not so much as a peppercorn.

(Update 13th March; With regards to the agents and architects fees, Cllr Sian Caiach has provided us with a little more information in the comments section below...)

Anyway, back to the curious £280,000 allowable expenses. You may remember that at December's Council meeting, where, incidentally, councillors were treated to a presentation from Scarlets Regional Ltd, Cllr Caiach had called for the resignation of leader Kevin Madge over whether other councillors were aware of this generous windfall to the Scarlets prior to a decision, several months later, to continue with reduced payments on a £2.4m loan.

There was considerable buck passing at the meeting and eventually Director of Resources  insisted that the decision 'had been based on the findings of an independent valuer'  and conveniently passed the buck outside County Hall.

I requested a copy of the District Valuer's report which duly arrived yesterday. The response, and the report can be found here. Although it doesn't help solve the puzzle.

I also requested email correspondence between the parties, exchanged prior to the deal, in an attempt to determine exactly how these 'expenses' were arrived at.

That part of my request was refused under Section 43 'Commercial interest' and it was decided that the public had to be protected from such revelations as it may in future jeopardize the negotiating position of the council.
I doubt that's quite the case in this instance.

Digressing briefly, the council were equally coy over requests for similar information relating to the Towy Community Church. It seemed to touch a nerve somewhere in County Hall. My own efforts to understand the process of how this small group of fundamentalist evangelical christians were given £1.4m to build a bowling alley/church were deemed vexatious.

My appeal to the ICO was also dismissed with the council responding to the ICO by waving Justice Tugendhat's judgement under the nose of the investigator, embellishing it with words such as , 'political blogger', 'critical blog' and 'criminal offences'. As for the latter, I have never been investigated, let alone charged or found guilty of any 'criminal offences'.  Anyway, they seemed to have convinced the investigator.

Back to the District Valuers report (dated 7th January 2913) and it contains some interesting information, including reference to an earlier draft but for the purposes of this post I have copied the section relevant to the 'split' here (my underlining);

4.8 Determination of Apportionment of Proceeds

I have been instructed to calculate the percentage apportionment between the parties of any proceeds that a long leasehold disposal of the property may realise. 

I am of opinion that the percentage apportionment between the parties is weighted equally - 50% to Carmarthenshire County Council and 50% to Llanelli RFC.

Whilst any split is based upon the negotiating position of the parties, it is well established in valuation case law that proceeds between parties are split equally. Precedent of an equal split was held in the ‘ransom’ land case of Stokes v Cambridge (1961). An equal proportion split was also held in the case of Myers v Milton Keynes Development Corporation (1974).

My above opinion of market value of £850,000 represents the gross value. Against this figure there are numerous deductions to be borne (by both parties) to arrive at a net value. The deductions relate to various payments to be made by both parties, in order to engineer the transaction.

Given the negotiating position of both parties, I am of opinion that the value of the net sum is £400,000. Accordingly, the 50% apportionment of the net sum to be split between both parties is £200,000. Both parties have agreed the £200,000 apportionment

There is no mention of the details of the deductions, including the £280,000 to pay off a third party loan, not something which I would imagine could be said to 'engineer the transaction'. In other words, any expenses should be directly related to the sale of the property.

The council's 'excuse' was that the £280,000 deal would increase 'footfall' but this is simply nonsense and without evidence, and in any event, grants relating to regeneration are a separate channel of funding with very particular criteria. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyhow.

So, although the valuer advised on the value of the land and lease and also suggested the proceeds should be split 50/50 (which is an arguable point in that the club haven't really paid anything for the site), there is no published information regarding the deductions which, minus the professional fees, are a cool £400,000.

It would appear from the Report than the District Valuer was not privy to the details of the deductions, or negotiations, and was presented with the final figure of £400,000.

I am no expert on these matters but common sense tells me it is all worth a second look, particularly the £280,000.

To the casual observer it looks very much like the origin of this highly favourable arrangement (favourable to the Scarlets of course, not the taxpayer) began long ago, probably in the council's hospitality box at Parc y Scarlets.

We also know that a meeting to decide on the 'deductions' was held at some point before the final deal was struck, persons present at the meeting included, amongst other unknown attendees, Cllr Kevin Madge and Mr Mark James.

Monday 10 March 2014

MP calls for 'intervention' as Mark James confirmed as Returning Officer for Euro Elections - updated

Update 17.40;
The Electoral Commission Wales have been in touch with Cneifiwr with a clarification as to their position. They state that they are not responsible for the appointment or removal of a Returning Officer for any given election. The full text can be found on Cneifiwr's blog.

In a further update, Jonathan Edwards MP has confirmed, via Twitter, that he has tabled a series of Parliamentary Questions to the Cabinet Office which should be published on the Order Paper tomorrow.

Update 12 March;
According to a spokesperson from Carmarthenshire Council, Mr James will still be fulfilling the role of Returning Officer as it is different to that of chief executive of the council.

Strange then that under the council's constitution it says;

The Chief Executive shall be the Head of Paid Service under Section 4 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, having responsibility for the following functions.... 
...acting as Returning Officer and Electoral Registration Officer for local government, National Assembly for Wales, Parliamentary and European elections.

Doesn't sound particularly 'different' to me.

So, as for 'stepping down' pending a criminal investigation by Gloucestershire police, it seems that he will be back in County Hall, not only for voting day but in preparation for the election as well.

(Golwg360 reports)


Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards spoke at last week's Welsh Affairs debate at the House of Commons about recent events in Carmarthenshire.
He also called for urgent ministerial intervention regarding confirmation from the Electoral Commission that Mark James, "an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation" will still be the local Returning Officer for the forthcoming European elections. He has already 'stepped aside' from his various roles in the Welsh Government.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): 
Carmarthenshire has a very proud history. Some say it has a claim to be the birthplace of Welsh democracy, which is a reference to Carmarthenshire’s role in delivering a yes vote for the National Assembly in the successful 1997 referendum.  
However, a dark cloud has been hanging over local democracy in Carmarthenshire for far too long, with a ruling cabal of senior officials and executive board members repressively running the council, stopping democratic debate by the full council, pressurising local journalists, smearing opposition politicians, coercing a council chair who dared defy instruction and making financial arrangements to enable the chief executive, a man who earns almost £4,000 a week, to avoid paying his fair share of tax.  
A seemingly permanent back-room deal between Labour and so-called independent councillors—or the closet Tories as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) describes them—means elections are unlikely to lead to political change. 
At the last local authority elections, my party won the largest number of seats convincingly, achieving over 10,000 more votes than our Labour opponents. It is the same discredited personnel at the helm, however. 
Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message. 
However, unrepentant, the council and the executive board are moving towards darker waters. 
That is what happens when we have a toxic combination of weak executive board councillors and powerful senior officers. 
The warnings relating to recent events could not have been clearer. Local papers have lost advertising revenue, which could bankrupt their businesses, for daring to criticise executive board decisions.  
We have seen the steady erosion of the democratic process, with powers being taken away from councillors and put into the hands of unelected officers, and with the executive board rubber-stamping decisions and, to all intents and purposes, operating as the political wing of those senior officers. 
In the past month, a report from the independent Wales Audit Office has found that the executive board was guilty of sanctioning two unlawful payments for the benefit of the chief executive. Those payments totalled more than £50,000.  
One relates to the granting of a legal indemnity which enabled the chief executive to counter-sue a local blogger.  
The second relates to a tax dodge involving the redirection of pension contributions into the pocket of the chief executive.  
The report was damning, and any politician with a sense of integrity would have done the honourable thing and instigated an urgent investigation into the implicated officers before resigning on the spot themselves.  
Instead, we got a deliberate propaganda campaign from the publicly financed press department of the council to discredit the Wales Audit Office, and threats and smears against opposition politicians. 
Last week, the people of Carmarthenshire were subjected to a farcical extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. 
The executive board commissioned a QC, at a potential cost of thousands of pounds to Carmarthenshire ratepayers, to discredit the Wales Audit Office’s findings and protect its leaders from votes of no confidence. 
This has all been happening at a time when the executive board is pushing through huge cuts to council services and increasing council tax by almost 5%. 
The Labour party in Carmarthenshire is pushing through the privatisation of care services, increasing charges for school meals, reducing assessments for children with special needs, making financial cuts to welfare advice services and extending and increasing charges for social care, as well as introducing a range of other regressive measures. 
It is a matter of pressing concern that, despite being relieved of his duties, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council will continue to be the local returning officer for the forthcoming European elections.  
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that position. I fail to understand how an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation can be responsible for the democratic processes in my county. The same applies in Pembrokeshire, unless events in that great county have changed the situation today, and I ask for immediate ministerial intervention. 
(Hansard 6th March 2014)

Unison Carmarthenshire petition against Trade Union cuts

I have been asked , by Unison Carmarthenshire to link to a petition calling for the reinstatement of all Trade Union secondments at Carmarthenshire County Council, which I am happy to do. These cuts were proposed and implemented by this Labour run administration at the budget meeting on the 19th February.

The secondment agreements have been torn up and the Unison branch secretary has been told that there will be no allowances made to allow him to get cover from his duties to continue to play a role in defending members.

At the budget meeting, Plaid Cymru Councillor Alun Lenny spoke in opposition to the cuts;

"According to Unison Carmarthenshire this proposal to take away Trades Union secondment is an attack on Unions and their ability to represent and defend members' interests.

Indeed, it flies in the face of Welsh Government promotion of partnership working as a model for industrial relations. 

Unison further claims that representatives have encountered hostility and intimidation when requesting time off in the past, and if we remove the secondments, that is likely to increase.

Now, I can understand some members of the independent group being prepared to indulge in a spot of union bashing but it is truly sad..that the Labour group, with committed Socialists amongst you, union members amongst you, are willing to go along with this.

It's bad enough that this council is prepared to implement a raft of cuts...which may well include compulsory redundancies...and at a time when around 3000 of our staff still earn less than the Living Wage.
That's bad enough but at a time like this staff need Trade Union support more than ever.

Cutting union secondments may cause added misery to some of our most vulnerable staff, after all, they can't afford to employ an expensive London QC..."

..And indeed we now know that the council has spent somewhere in the region of £50,000 on legal advice defending the Chief Executive since the Auditor's findings of unlawful expenditure first emerged.

Please click on the logo below which will take you to the petition site to call on Carmarthenshire Council leader, Kevin Madge to reinstate Trade Union secondments;

Click on logo to access petition

Saturday 8 March 2014

March Meeting

Well yesterday's council meeting was a fairly brief and quiet affair, there were also quite a number of absentees, maybe they were all tuckered out after three meetings last month. By the way I'm not sure why I'm writing this as the meeting will be available on archive, force of habit I suppose.

Anyway, after praying for divine guidance, the usual webcasting warnings were made and again Cllrs were reminded that the various reports before them were to be received, they were not to discuss their contents.

Quite why there's not a raft of Questions from Members on the agenda like Pembrokeshire I don't know, I suspect they gave up long ago trying to get them approved by the Chief Executive's Office. Questions are asked about the reports of course, by a vocal few, as we have seen, but the Chair and corporation make it clear they are unwelcome. The last time a Public Question was heard was, I believe, nine years ago.

Although it doesn't appear on the agenda, your democratic right to present Questions still remains in the Constitution and perhaps the council might like to promote this fact to the residents of Carmarthenshire, and how to go about it. They could also remove some of the strategically placed obstacles designed to put them off.

Back to the meeting and what better way to start than with an award, and this one was something to do with the Dyfed Pension Fund. Quite remarkable really given that it's credibility is currently being dragged through the mud courtesy of senior officials of Pembs and Carms Council.
Still, as is usual with these awards, they can be a bit incestuous. In this case the awarding body was the Pension Age Awards, sponsored by a multinational pension administration software and consultancy company and presented at a glittering reception at a Mayfair Hotel.

The main event yesterday was the Motion to freeze the hike in sports charges. As this also involved the Community Asset Transfer scheme, (to offload parks and playing fields, maintenance etc onto the community, and as this usually involves Community Councils it is still actually public money) it required numerous declarations of interest as Members belonged clubs and Community Councils all over the place. Linda Rees Jones was on hand to impart advice on declarations of interest although, I  have to say, she wouldn't be my first choice for expert advice.... Fortunately there were sufficient members left in the Chamber to make it quorate.

Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths pointed out that when he saw the Report in front of the Executive Board last October as an observer, it was the first he, or anyone else, had heard about it. He hoped that such practices were now a thing of the past....

Another question arose wondering if the Exec Board Members who declared an interest at this meeting, had done so when the item was in front of them last October...

Cllr Emlyn Dole remarked that despite the original report claiming that all interested parties had been consulted over the charges, in fact, they hadn't been. In light of current concerns over 'procedural discrepancies', the relevant Exec Board Member, Cllr Evans (Lab) wisely decided to admit there may have been irregularities over the consultation process...

The continued funding of one particular sports club, Scarlets Regional Ltd didn't pass without comment and Cllr Eryl Morgan likened the council to a 'sugar daddy' in it's generosity...

Cllr Higgins (Lab), prospective parliamentary candidate for Carms East and Dinefwr seems to have realised he may actually need people to vote for him at some point and announced that he'd be supporting the Motion.

Controversy in front of the cameras was avoided as Kevin Madge, with some pre-emptive PR, and the future voting habits of his constituents in mind, had already announced this shift in council policy in Wednesday's Llanelli Star, (as you do) and, after a brief return to his oft repeated 'tough decisions' speech, (wearing a bit thin now as it didn't seem to be a 'tough decision' to pay tens of thousands of pounds to QCs etc to defend the illegal payments), the Motion to freeze the increases pending a 'review' was agreed unanimously.

The 4.77%  rise in council tax was then approved in the blink of an eye.

There has clearly been some sweating over the Pay Policy Statement (required by the Localism Act) as Exec Board Member Cllr Mair Stephens (Ind) had a little speech prepared about how they had checked everything out with the Wales Audit Office and everything was above board. The officer who had prepared the Statement was directly referenced in the report and the WAO had advised that no officer declarations of interest were required. Not that anyone had actually challenged it's legality, given that it was clearly a Statement rather than some sort of 'review'.
Still, good to know the WAO is keeping them on their toes, lets hope the police are too.

The two main issues which arose related to excessively high salaries for senior officers, including the Chief Executive (currently on gardening leave) and the Labour administration's failure to introduce a Living Wage.
Any uncomfortable lengthy deliberations on the subject of senior pay were avoided by reference to the Welsh Government's current consultation on the subject and the establishment of an independent panel to determine the levels. Guidance was awaited...

There was still some defensive waffle about having to recruit new senior officials with attractive pay deals as many of the current crop are due for retirement.....I believe this argument was kicked out last Thursday over the pension scandal. I await the Minutes from that Extraordinary meeting with interest.

The Pay Policy item would, perhaps, have been an opportunity to ask for the elusive details of the Terms and Conditions of the Chief Executive's ongoing gardening leave; including pay terms, restrictions (or not) on contact with elected Members and County Hall in general , computer and network access, corporate phone use, etc etc.

As for the Living Wage, Cllr Madge was reminded that this was a Labour promise should they win the next general election, so where did he stand now on the issue? He announced that this would be achieved by the end of this council (2017), just in time for the next election...

Another Cllr brought up the fact that the Pay Policy stated that anyone leaving under the Council's Severance Scheme could not be re-employed by the council for twelve months, but in the next paragraph it said that they could. However, this would only be in 'exceptional circumstances' and with the agreement of the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council.

They are fond of their 'exceptional circumstances' aren't they, an excuse for anything...

That was about it, done and dusted in exactly two hours.

(Archive webcast can now be accessed here)

Friday 7 March 2014

The Rogue States of west Wales

The reputations of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire as rogue states was further confirmed yesterday as the Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer of Pembrokeshire survived votes of No Confidence. Both authorities are currently under investigation be Gloucestershire police. Like Carmarthenshire, it was the ruling administration, who closed ranks and outvoted the opposition. Only it wasn't the opposition, it was public opinion and anger which was treated with contempt. I'll put a link to the archive when it appears and I'm sure the blogging councillors from Pembs will enlighten us further.

We learnt that Pembs has spent around £27,000 on legal advice from Tim Kerr QC and a pensions expert to defend Bryn Parry Jones, in Carmarthenshire we can roughly double that as there is the libel indemnity as well as the pension scam.

The Pembrokeshire leader said that the situation in Carmarthenshire was worse as there were the two reports and a 'personal element' regarding the indemnity paid to the Chief Executive. In Carms of course, the indemnity has been stopped, whether this was before Mr James' legal team took part in the appeal process or not is unclear. What is clear is that the indemnity was unlawful.

What is most striking are the attempts to defend the presence of both Chief Executives in the meetings where they stood to directly benefit financially from the decisions. Mr James' presence in the indemnity meeting was described by one member of the independent group as a 'schoolboy error', I still can't quite believe he said that.

Listening to Executive Board members, Kev, Meryl, Pam and co at last weeks emergency meeting in Carms, it is very unlikely that any of them would have remotely understood the complexities of the two decisions or to put it simply, what on earth was going on. They would have been presented with the legal advice marked 'This way up', and told what they had to do. In this case I suggest that ignorance will probably be their best defence, if and when they need one...

In both authorities the scandals have completely overshadowed anything else, including the all important budgets. There is an enormous public anger over all this as residents and staff are realising, partly through the power of webcasting, how the arrogance and bullying tactics of senior officials, in Carmarthenshire at least, have made a complete mockery of democracy in their county.

As for bullying tactics it appears, from a document, that the training ground was many years ago, in an borough council far away...

The situation in Carmarthenshire has been dire for years and it was my observations of the monthly farce in Carmarthenshire which was one of the things which first led me to try and film a meeting. I felt it was quite unbelievable and that as many people as possible should be aware of what was happening. The minutes are still selective and inaccurate; for instance, the minutes from the meeting of the 12th February completely omitted the exchange between Cllr Caiach and Linda Rees Jones over the libel case 'update' in early January.
It has cost me dear but with around half of Welsh counties now webcasting, which is something of a result.

There's another instalment this morning, Carmarthenshire Council live;

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Carmarthenshire Council scandals - Today's papers

Today's Carmarthen Journal covers last Thursday's Extraordinary council meeting which discussed the two Wales Audit office reports. The financial irregularities are currently being investigated by Gloucestershire Police.

It leads with the possibility that the Chief Executive, Mark James may have to repay nearly £29,000 unlawfully acquired via the pension tax dodge. Of course, despite 'stepping aside' from the post, to the Journal, he is still the 'Council Chief'.

(Pic; Carmarthen Journal)

The paper reports that a cross-party group of councillors is being established to look at the pension scandal and that the possibility of repayment will be discussed, a move backed by Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards. 

The libel indemnity, as we know, is a different matter. The Labour/Ind councillors refused to 'accept' the report and voted merely to 'note' it. (see 'Thursday's Extraordinary meeting'). According to Cllr Madge the council will seek (more) legal advice relating to the lawfulness of libel indemnity payments and set up yet another group to examine it...

However, despite not 'accepting' the report, the indemnity has now been stopped and the clause in the Constitution suspended. (see 'Libel cost Amendment').

I was also present throughout the meeting and it is a shame that the reporter from the Journal didn't ask me for a comment on the day, particularly as I was named several times during the meeting. Never mind, I've still got my blog, just about.

The Journal also contemplates the future and that;
Blogger Jacqui Thompson remains liable for the costs and Carmarthenshire Council maintains the authority will not be expected to bear any costs as the High Court judgement went against her.
Blogger Jacqui Thompson currently has an Order against her totalling around £255,000.
No comment.

For information; as the position stands at the moment, my outstanding appeal relating to Mr James' counterclaim will be heard on either the 30th April or the 1st of May at the Court of Appeal. 

Anyway, I'll leave you for now with the independent opinion of today's South Wales Guardian;

          'It's a funny old world...
On Thursday, members of the public, representatives of the press and a couple of thousand observers watching via Carmarthenshire County Council's webcam, were treated to the grisly spectacle of Independent and Labour (yes, Labour) seeking to justify a tax avoidance scheme for their £180,000-a-year chief executive against the backdrop of thousands of potential job losses, swingeing cuts to public services and steep rises in sports pitch charges. 
Anyone doubting the strength of public feeling on this issue should look no further than this week's letters column – people are not just concerned about the depressingly predictable events in County Hall, they are very angry indeed. 
Given the fact that councillors voted strictly on party lines what exactly was the point of Thursday's six-hour meeting anyway? Members obviously knew how they were going to vote when they filed into the council chamber so why persist in such a stage-managed charade? 
We had hoped our elected representatives would vote according to their individual consciences.This, we had argued, was their big chance to stand up for their electorate Instead they well and truly blew it. 
The immediate crisis enveloping Carmarthenshire County Council may have receded, but such collective cowardice will come at a high price. 
The public have long memories and – come the local elections in May 2017 – councillors will find the decisions they reached last week coming back to haunt them. 
If Thursday was a sad day for democracy, it was an even sadder day for Carmarthenshire." (South Wales Guardian)
Update 20.34
Jonathan Edwards MP, who spoke after the meeting, is quoted in the Journal;
"When the Wales Audit Office reports were published almost a month ago, the Labour and Independent executive were intent on challenging the report findings and disputing the lawfulness of granting an indemnity to the chief Executive. 
"Today, having been dragged kicking and screaming, the council has voted to remove the indemnity from its constitution. 
This is something both I and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM have pushed in Westminster and the Assembly for the best part of four years [As I have, since 2008. Ed], and we're very pleased with that achievement. 
"The council did not, however, vote to withdraw the indemnity already granted to the Chief Executive.
I believe the council could still be liable for any costs which may not be recovered. 
"The people of Carmarthenshire will find it deeply regrettable that the Labour and Independent councillors have shown no remorse today on their decision to spend the best part of £30,000 of taxpayers' money for the benefit of the chief executive's legal costs."

As for this week's readers letters, there is one mildly critical of Kevin Madge in the Journal, but the SW Guardian published no less than four with titles such as 'Sitting like Zombies', 'Backing Tax Avoidance' and 'A Complete Farce'. You get the drift.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

A Public Notice - Is it legal?

A sharp-eyed reader has contacted me after reading a Carmarthenshire Council Public Notice in last week's Carmarthen Journal. It is an official Highway Order for a temporary speed restriction whilst the new school is being built in Ffairfach.

The 'sign off' in the Notice reads;

 "Mark James, Chief Executive, County Hall, Carmarthen DATED the 26th February, 2014"

Didn't Mr James stand down from his job on the 14th February 2014?

It raises a couple of questions; Why wasn't it withdrawn by the council before the Journal went to print?
And, is the Order legal? 

Friday's agenda - A Motion to halt rocketing sports fees

(Update 5th March below)

Meanwhile, like a creaking ship riddled with woodworm, council business continues with a meeting on Friday (7th). The agenda can be found here and the webcast, starting at 10am, here.

One issue which has infuriated many local people is the decision to inflate fees and charges for sports facilities over the next couple of years, in some cases by more than 2000%.  To give a couple of examples, the cost of using a cricket pitch is currently £28 but by 2016 this will rise to £590. Children's rugby will jump from £25 to £95 and junior cricket from £18.59 to £110.

What makes it even more difficult to stomach is the blinding hypocrisy from County Hall. Kevin Madge (yes, still leader of the council) recently said;

"....we are facing our toughest budget yet, and we simply cannot afford to continue subsidising clubs to pay their maintenance fees. Whilst being mindful that over 70 clubs operate on their own, with no taxpayer subsidy, we want to make things fair for everyone"

What must strike many of course, apart from Kevin Madge, is the 'continued subsidising' to Scarlets Regional Ltd, tough budget or not. To continue to subsidise one club and of course the stadium, whilst basically asset-stripping the rest is simply an untenable situation. As for maintenance fees, an agreement in 2008 that the Scarlet's contribute to a 'sinking fund' (maintenance) was 'waived' for three years and now starts at a much reduced level, thanks to the Exec Board.

The European Commission is currently in receipt of a complaint that the council may have breached State Aid Rules by subsidising the club with public money. Late last year we discovered that a deal over the sale of a council owned car park, leased to the Scarlets resulted in £280,000 of 'allowable expenses' being deducted from the proceeds to be used by the club to pay off a third party loan.

Using Parc Y Scarlets as glorified council offices means that whilst the club doesn't have to pay rent until such time as it returns a huge profit, the council, bizarrely, pays them rent instead, and in various and imaginative forms.

The Scarlets are of course important in the sporting world of Carmarthenshire but their survival, and more specifically the stadium, shouldn't be to the detriment of the hundreds of youngsters and volunteers who enjoy all sports in towns and villages across the county. Which is, unfortunately, exactly how it looks.

The continuing unlawful payments scandal doesn't help either, not just the financial generosity show to the well paid Chief Executive but the cost of legal advice and representation, officer time, etc etc which has been frittered away to defend those payments over recent months on behalf of the aforementioned Chief Exec.
With the annual Pay Policy Statement also appearing on the agenda, listing the top earners, including one sat at home on full pay, the rocketing sports charges are even more unjustifiable and downright unfair.

The increase in charges was decided by the Executive Board alone; Kevin Madge, Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and co, and as we know, they are not renowned for their reasoned and responsible decision making.

However, Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) has put forward a Notice of Motion for Friday's meeting asking for a freeze on the increase in charges so that representatives from the various sports organisations can enter 'meaningful discussion' with the council. At least the subject will have a public airing.

The council Executive may have engineered their survival at last week's No Confidence vote but, had it been up to the people of Carmarthenshire, they'd be OUT.


Update 5th March;
Kevin Madge, in an attempt to salvage some credibility and yet another embarrassing showdown on Friday has announced, via the Llanelli Star of course, a full review and further talks over these price hikes.

He has promised to 'go back to the drawing board' - let's hope he is serious. The increases planned for year one, 2014/15, will go ahead but the increases for years two and three will be 'reviewed'.

Monday 3 March 2014

The 'Libel Cost Amendment'

The decision taken last Thursday to suspend the 'libel indemnity' clause in the Constitution was, as I said in my previous post, quite a significant move.

As far as I am aware, Carmarthenshire Council is still the only Local Authority to have given itself this explicit power, back in 2008, and it is a power with a flawed legal basis.

Several references on this blog to the 'libel cost amendment' have had to be removed.

Part of the legal justification for the clause was based on the 'Comninos' decision, mentioned last Thursday and quoted in the auditor's report, the QC advice and even Linda Rees Jones' report.

One point which wasn't mentioned was that that particular indemnity cost Bedford Borough Council taxpayers £500,000.

One reason the Judge in that case refused the District Auditor's appeal was that it would cause financial ruin to the senior officials if they had to pay back the indemnity.

If we go back to May 2008, the libel indemnity amendment was buried at the bottom of a whole raft of other amendments in a report by the Chief Executive, Mark James titled 'The Report of the Chief Executive on Amendments to the Constitution of the Council'.

The 'Summary' of the report refers to whether the combined amendments, (which included, don't forget, the unmentioned libel amendment) had any financial implications for the authority. It says 'NO'. This is despite the author of the report, the Chief Executive, and the former Head of Law, Mr Lyn Thomas, being aware of the Comninos decision.

Neither are there any 'Risk Management' issues or even 'Staffing Implications'. As regards to the last one, they currently seem to be minus one Chief Executive.

The 'Summary' also states that the report required a decision by the Executive Board; I have searched the Exec Board agendas and minutes throughout the relevant time period and can find no mention of the report, perhaps it's so well hidden that it is invisible to the naked eye.

Neither, in 2008, was there any mention of the fact, that less than two years earlier, in October 2006, Carmarthenshire Council had, as we know, adopted the The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 without any mention of 'exceptions', 'guidance' or anything else;

As adopted by Carmarthenshire Council 2006. Incidentally, the 2006 Order provides for an indemnity to cover the cost of a criminal defence, but this must be paid back if the officer or Member is subsequently found guilty.

Clearly the 2008 libel cost amendment itself, and the potential implications, were obscured from view and misrepresented in the report. Rather like the pension scam, there is nothing in the explanatory notes, accompanying the report which specifically refers to this highly controversial unique power;

"This document sets out the functions that are delegated to officers, either from the Council, its Committees or via the Executive Board. It is an essential document that ensures the smooth running of Council business, enabling officers to take the everyday operational and management decisions that would otherwise burden elected members.
The document has now been thoroughly reviewed and a variety of amendments are suggested. These amendments fall into the following categories:-

· typographical and grammatical corrections or improvements
· updating legislation
· moving delegations between departments
· transferring delegations from table 5 (see above)
· expanding the detail of a function
· clarification
· emphasising particular requirements

The bullet point which was missing was that they could now, as a council, sue members of the public using an officer as proxy. They could now sue, or threaten to sue, the local press, politicians, campaign groups, critics...the possibilities were endless.

The power granted to the Chief Executive is even listed under the official General Functions of the Head of Paid Service;

The legal advice from James Goudie QC, which was obtained in 2008, and finally disclosed a couple of weeks ago, was that a move such as this was, to quote the Auditor, 'merely arguable', so not in any shape or form a basis for altering something as important as a Council's Constitution.

Here's the entry for the official functions of the Head of Law, which is the same as that for the Director of Resources;

Presumably the 'Counsel's advice' didn't have to be independent either, given that in 2012 Mr Speker supplied it. And given that he was representing Mr James in the case I daresay the action was definitely supported by Counsel's advice.

I believe that the clause is unlawful, plain and simple, on any grounds you like.

I am also of the opinion that the process by which it was quietly inserted to the Constitution was highly questionable.

I remember that councillors complained during that particular AGM in 2008 that they had not received the documents in time, and that in some cases the documents were too bulky to fit through the letterbox and involved a last minute dash to the post office.

Meryl Gravell, who was Leader of the council at the time dismissed their concerns and insisted on urgent approval, there and then, and that if they had a problem with anything they could bring it up at a later date.

Of course after a decision is made by full council, often the only way to challenge it is through a prompt Judicial Review, not by 'bringing it up'. Though often when your body realises it's swallowed something poisonous that is exactly what happens. I think it finally happened last week. Not exactly projectile vomiting but partial regurgitation at least.

If the legal advice from the Welsh Government differs from before, and suggests to the council that the libel clause should be retained in the Constitution, it would be a dark day indeed.

And meanwhile, if it's suspended then it should be removed from the published Constitution...

Whilst I'm on the subject, you may remember from the #daftarrest that, within the pages of Carmarthenshire Council's Constitution, there is no ban on members of the public filming meetings. The ban was imposed because they felt like it. And still remains.

Things have moved on in England though and the Draft Regulations have just been published (I have selected the parts relating to filming, the whole thing can be found here as a pdf document), my emphasis added;

Draft Regulations laid before Parliament under section 43 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.


The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014
Admission to and Reporting of Meetings of Relevant Local Government Bodies
Amendment of the 1960 Act
The 1960 Act is amended as follows— 
“(d) Where a meeting of a relevant local government body is required by this Act to be open to the public during the proceedings or any part of them, any person shall be permitted to attend that meeting or part for the purposes of reporting as defined by subsection (9).” 
“reporting” means— 
(a) filming, photographing or audio recording of proceedings; 
(b) using any other means for enabling persons not present to see or hear proceedings of a meeting as it takes place or later; and 
(c) reporting or providing commentary on proceedings of a meeting, orally or in writing, so that the report or commentary is available as the meeting takes place or later to persons not present.”
I understand though that Eric Pickles and his Transparency Agenda are banned from crossing the Severn Bridge, there are lookouts posted along the M4. If he should managed to get past Cardiff and be spotted approaching the borders of Carmarthenshire, County Hall have granted themselves new powers to have him shot on sight. Apparently though, they are saying that the controversial shoot-to-kill powers already existed under the Local Government Act of 1066, Subsection 94, para 98.... 

Still, grateful for small mercies, we do have our webcasting of full council meetings, there's another one on Friday (7th March). 
Pembrokeshire Council's next instalment is on Thursday (6th March) where we will see if they manage, unlike Carmarthenshire, to officially suspend their Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones and Monitoring Officer, Lawrence Harding.

Recent weeks have definitely proved the point that sunlight is often the best disinfectant. In west Wales anyway.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Thursday's Extraordinary meeting

I'm a bit late reporting on Thursday's meeting so I'm sure all those interested are already aware of what transpired on the day. As reported, two plain clothes officers from Gloucestershire Police observed the meeting from the public gallery and as Cneifiwr has mentioned, two boxes of papers were removed from County Hall by the police on Friday as part of their criminal investigation. Only two boxes I hear you ask.

Tim Kerr QC was present to defend Mark James, in his absence, and also the Executive Board over the unlawful libel indemnity. He left immediately afterwards and was not present to 'advise' during the debate over the pension scandal. A freedom of information request has now been made to find out the total cost of Mr Kerr's personal services. I expect it's already more than what was spent on the unlawful counterclaim, or at least the equivalent of the annual salary of a primary school teacher.

The libel indemnity report was debated first. The ruling administration were clearly under strict orders from above that the indemnity report was not to be accepted, even though every man and his dog could see it was profoundly unlawful, both in principle and process. The plan was to satisfy the remit of the Auditor whilst at the same time rejecting the principle of the report.

Kevin Madge proposed that they 'Note' the report. An attempt by Plaid to amend this to 'Accept', was defeated. As was their amendment for the council's own Audit Committee to look at the 'Governance' issues. The reason executive officers and members wanted the council friendly quango, the Welsh Local Government Association to oversee a review was because, by all accounts, the Chair of the Audit Committee (who is a co-opted member and not a sitting councillor) is none too impressed by their dubious spending activities.

The payments under the indemnity have stopped, it is not clear when that happened but the truth is, that this was because it had been finally exposed as unlawful, not because the 'exceptional circumstances no longer applied' as per Linda Rees Jones' report for the meeting.

As I have said in numerous previous posts, there were no 'exceptional circumstances', the counterclaim was entirely tactical. As both the Executive Board, and the officials who asked them to rubber stamp it, well knew. The ability of Executive Board members past and present to do anything other that what they are told knows no bounds, even if involves unlawful actions. They are not selected for their inquiring minds. Or intellect.

Perhaps the most interesting move was to suspend the clause in the Constitution which allowed the indemnity to be granted, the 'libel cost amendment', as I must now call it. It will be suspended whilst advice is sought from the Welsh Government.

They do not need advice, it was prohibited by the 2006 Order and again in correspondence in 2010. It is unlawful, simple as that and has been an implied threat, since 2008, to anyone who criticises, or attempts to investigate, the council. Proxy publicly funded actions to avoid the rule that a government body can't sue are unlawful and that is exactly what happened here.

This little addition to the constitution appears buried beneath a raft of amendments for the council meeting of 15th May 2008 in a report by the Chief Executive, Mark James. There is no specific mention of it in any explanatory documents and it went through unnoticed by everyone, it seems, apart from Mr James and the former Head of Law, Mr Lyn Thomas, and myself. For obvious reasons they didn't mention the legal advice they'd had from James Goudie QC which didn't exactly recommend the move.
This was another decision which was deliberately hidden from view and scrutiny.

The WAO findings on the pension tax avoidance scam was accepted as, of course, the policy had already been reversed.
It was reversed because those that have been defending the decision, even yesterday, knew it was indefensible. If they'd been confident that it was anything other than a way of assisting a senior official to top up his pay, they wouldn't have hidden the decision from councillors and the electorate.

Nobody would have known about the £20,000 Returning Officer fees either, paid in 'advance' five weeks before the local election, and in a different tax year, it was only because someone had bothered to look and ask.
There's no such thing as a Chief Executive pay freeze in Carmarthenshire.

It became apparent around lunchtime, after the indemnity report, that the three Executive Board Members who were guilty of making illegal decisions were not going to lose the no confidence vote. The Labour/Independent councillors had no intention of voting in the interests of the electorate, or even in the interests of morality. Those that did have a conscience, and I know there are a few there with integrity, were whipped with the threat of being kicked out of the party.

There were undoubtedly some strong principled voices from the opposition on Thursday, valiant efforts were made to try and persuade Labour and Independent backbench councillors to show a grain of integrity.

As usual the main speakers from the Labour/Independent front benches, Meryl, Pam and Kevin and co were a national embarrassment. Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) was a particular embarrassment to local government in general as he excused the Chief Executive's failure to leave the indemnity meeting as a "schoolboy error". Incidentally, Mr James' memory had temporarily failed him during cross-examination at the trial when asked if he'd been present at the indemnity meeting...he couldn't remember.....

The findings of the two Public Interest audit reports are just the tip of a very large and unpleasant iceberg.

I understand 2,350 people watched the live webcast on Thursday, if you missed it, it's archived here. It features several personal attacks against myself, sitting quietly a few feet away, as desperate attempts to justify their illegal actions were trotted out, this attack has now continued onto the council website 'Newsroom'.

However, Mr James, sitting a few miles away, also came under fire; Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) referred to Meryl's 'You pay peanuts and you get monkeys' defence to her beloved Chief's large salary and he reminded dear Meryl that "the top monkey in this place is not here swinging from his perch this afternoon, he's home, watching in front of his monitor and is being investigated by Gloucestershire Police".

As a footnote, another example of this deeply dysfunctional council appears on the agenda for Monday's Executive Board.
An item concerning school closure decisions pops up again. You may recall that a couple of senior officials are attempting to have all school closure decisions reserved for the Exec Board only, instead of full council. Which in effect means that the couple of officials themselves will have full control. The problem being that pesky objectors, concerned parents and troublesome malcontents keep interfering in the council masterplan to close every village school in the County.

At the full council meeting a couple of months ago Kevin Madge dutifully proposed this latest anti-democratic wheeze on behalf of his masters, but in a rare moment of Labour rebellion and protestations from the opposition the decision was eventually shuffled off to the relevant scrutiny committee.

The scrutiny committee then recommended that these decisions should stay with full council.

Which brings us back to next week's Exec Board meeting where the issue re-emerges.

The Exec Board have 'noted' the recommendation of the scrutiny committee, but, true to form, have completely ignored it.

It will now go back to full council with exactly the same recommendation as at the original meeting. The whole scrutiny exercise having been completely pointless, other than to have given Cllr Madge the time to have stern words with any wavering Labour colleagues.

Ceredigion council have recently managed to keep their school closure decisions with full council. We can only hope that Carmarthenshire Councillors follow their lead.


2nd March; A great post from Owen Donovan on the latest developments in Carmarthenshire, which includes an excellent summary of the council's attitude towards the Welsh Government;

"They've made AMs and MPs from all parties look like chumps. They blatantly disrespected Anthony Barrett and the Wales Audit Office. They've spat in Lesley Griffiths' coffee, farted in Carl Sergeant's face and kicked Carwyn Jones in the balls. They've made the National Assembly look like muscleless wonders and left a flaming bag of dog poo on the steps of Cathays Park.
"The Welsh Government can either restore good order themselves by sending in more sheriffs, or they can let it go, giving other local authorities in Wales a green light to try the same thing in future."
Oggy Bloggy Ogwr blog; Bandits control the Wild West


Update 6th March - According to the Minutes of the Exec Board 3rd March Kevin Madge is not going to risk another embarrassing backlash in public, and almost all the scrutiny committee recommendations will be put forward to full council, ie all school closure decisions, unless there are no pupils on the register, will be decided by full council. Good.