Monday 28 April 2014

Cllr Caiach calls for Leader's resignation over £850,000 land deal

(Update 1st May; Kevin Madge's reply to Cllr Caiach can be found here)

County Councillor Sian Caiach has called for the immediate resignation of the leader of the council, Kevin Madge, over the £850,000 land deal between Carmarthenshire Council and Scarlets Regional Ltd.
The whole issue, particularly the curious deductions and the 'allowable expenses', is now the subject of a complaint to the Wales Audit Office.

Cllr Caiach, who has also been trying to discover the truth of the matter has issued an open letter (below) to Kevin Madge following the revelations released under the Freedom of Information Act, which featured in an article in last week's Western Mail.

OPEN LETTER TO KEVIN MADGE , leader of Carmarthenshire County Council

Dear Kevin,

Your explanation of the actions in the Car Park sale is that it wasn't you, it was an Executive decision of all ten leading councillors, you hint, to give £650,000 quietly to the Scarlets and hope no-one noticed? Did they really indicate that it was their intention for Carmarthenshire County Council to give money from the sale to the Scarlets to pay a debt to Henry Davidson Developments Ltd to fit out the shop units in Eastgate?
I doubt it.

Even if it was a whole executive decision, you are still accountable. If it was an executive board project, why hide the resulting details from them?

When informed of the large share of £650,000 given to the Scarlets, you did nothing. You told no-one.

Also, since the £280,000 debt repayment grant, which surely could not be a legal expense of the sale, is above our EU State Aid three year threshold for donations limit to this private company, you should have informed the EU.
Did you inform the EU Commission before giving this exceptional disbursement to the Scarlets? No record of such action has been released.

I believe that you did not give a factual report of this allocation of the sale proceeds to your own Executive or to the Council as a whole, despite being made fully aware of the details of the sale division by Cllr Jeff Edmunds.
I have already suggested to you that you were deliberately hiding the news that the Scarlets had been given sums well over the amount our own officers recommended, finally backing down in the face of the firm insistence of our own chief executive Mr Mark James.

In fact Cllr Jeff Edmunds told me that he felt that had he not stood fast in supporting our £200,000 share, Mr James could well have pushed through a lesser sum for us and given more public money to the Scarlets. You pay Mark James a huge salary to work for us, not to give away our money to the Scarlets.

The Executive may have been under the illusion that the sale of the lease was going to be an open and lawful transaction and fair apportionment of the proceeds. It seems that you have fully supported Mr James in this matter from the start.

Your reluctance to release the facts about this sale, refusing my FOIA request as to where the "missing" £650,000 had gone when only £200,000 turned up in our accounts is deeply suspicious. It was only Cllr Jeff Edmunds, clearly dubious about aspects of the deal, who eventually decided to be open about where the money had gone.

What public good is served by all this concealment? When my constituents tell me that they cannot trust their council, as they have increasingly as of late, what can I tell them? What is the point of our code of conduct when neither the public nor your Councillors can trust what we are told?

You have not explained your actions in this case. As Leader of Council you are ultimately responsible for the actions of this Authority. You are responsible for this deal, a sale of a public asset primarily to support the local regional rugby team.

We could have got perhaps another £200,000 or more from this sale if you and the Chief Executive had actually cared for the needs of the people we serve rather than the desire of a sports team to reduce their debts through public funds?

We could have had more than £200,000 less to cut next year if you had decided differently. Have you not once considered the consequences of your actions? We are in an economic recession and many of our people are poor and suffering and frankly, we have neither the time nor the resources to waste on petty expenditures and political power games.

If the council were a business that could safely pursue profit and connections without a thought to the public, this would be nothing but a simple bungle. But we are not a business. We have a duty to serve our people first and foremost, and particularly those who are weakest and most in need of our aid. Not private sports teams, not building companies, and not ourselves.

Whatever motivations there were for this stupid, stupid decision and all the wasted efforts of covering up and hiding the details that have followed, it needs to end now.

To me this appears to be maladministration in public office. You were not there when the decision was made and may not have had prior warning of what idiocy was planned. But when informed of it you deliberately concealed the transaction from both Councillors and the public.

You could have stopped in hours what has wasted a year of our time and money, but you chose not to. Why did you do this?
If you were bullied, if you were ashamed, fearful of reprisal, or even if you are really more sympathetic to giving money to the Scarlets than keeping it for the people who elected you, it doesn't matter.

You have acted despicably, ignoring your commitment to the Nolan Principles of honesty, accountability, openness, objectivity, transparency and leadership.

I ask again for your immediate resignation.

Councillor Sian Caiach  

People First - Gwerin Gyntaf
Carmarthenshire County Councillor for Hengoed Ward,

Sunday 27 April 2014

Libel appeal hearing next week

29th April - hearing is listed for tomorrow, 30th April at 11am


Re; Thompson v James and Carmarthenshire County Council

Last September I was granted permission to appeal on an issue relating to Mark James' counterclaim for libel against me.

The appeal has now been listed for next week, on either Wednesday 30th April, or Thursday 1st May at the Court of Appeal in London. Two hours have been allowed for the hearing.

Saturday 26 April 2014

The Archives and the mould

(Please also see later update 20th June 2015)

The Archive Service at Parc Myrddin, Carmarthen, managed by the county council, is one of only twenty two official repositories in Wales storing thousands of documents along two miles of shelving - a treasure trove of historical material relating to the whole county, comprising official records and deposited private collections.

The council webpage proudly states that 'The Archives Service has in its care documents which date from the fourteenth to the twenty-first century. These unique records are the raw material for evidential historical and family research. They form the written memory of the County.'

Unfortunately there is a problem. The strongrooms which hold all the original material are now closed due to a 'serious outbreak of mould', although the webpage is less specific and refers to it as a 'problem'.

The fungal contamination was discovered back in November and it is not known whether any original documents have been affected. Although the searchroom remains open, no original documents are accessible, not even by staff. The cost of treatment is also unknown but will certainly not come cheap.

Back in November 2011 The National Archives Inspectorate, which had accredited the Archives as an official repository of records, recommended urgent capital investment to 'meet environmental criteria'. Again it is not known whether any urgent work was carried out but given the current problem it seems whatever was done or not done, was inadequate.

During 2012 Carmarthenshire's libraries, museums and archive service were all transferred from the Education department to Leisure; management was restructured and various 'overarching' objectives were dreamt up. One current idea floating around County Hall is for the whole Leisure section to be run by some sort of trust. The digitisation of the archives is also apparently on the cards, as long as the archives don't disappear in a fungal cloud before they get round to it I suppose.

River Towy, Carmarthen

Historic records and archives are not the be all and end all of life, but are accessed by several thousand visitors every year for numerous reasons, and the archive is also a Statutory service provided by the local authority.
The service currently employs four full time and three part time relief staff with a controllable budget for this year of £186,000 to safeguard and preserve an irreplaceable priceless heritage, roughly the equivalent of the chief executive's salary.

It's a pity that whilst money was found to fund various legal exploits on behalf of senior officials, or even to pay off third party loans for private companies, the "written memory of the county" seems to have been allowed to moulder away.

In 1799 when the first records office was opened in Carmarthen, the clerk, a Mr Charles Morgan kept a fire going to prevent the documents becoming mouldy.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Carmarthenshire Council and the Scarlets land deal - The Western Mail reports

Further to my post last week (April 16th), 'The Council, the Scarlets and the 'allowable expenses' - a revelation', today's Western Mail has published this article;

Call for investigation into £850k land deal between Scarlets rugby region and Carmarthenshire council 
Apr 23, 2014
By Martin Shipton 
There was a disagreement over the split in proceeds, documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

The Wales Audit Office is being asked to investigate a controversial £850,000 land deal which saw the Scarlets rugby region benefit significantly more than the council whose plot it was. 
Documents disclosed by the council under the Freedom of Information Act reveal there was disagreement among senior officers within Carmarthenshire County Council over the split in proceeds when a car park next to the Parc y Scarlets stadium in Llanelli was sold to a pub company. The freehold was owned by the council and the rugby region held a lease. 
They show that Jonathan Fearn, the council’s head of corporate property, was unhappy with the Scarlets’ proposal that around £260,000 of the proceeds should be used to pay off a loan it had taken out to fit out a shop and restaurant in a new shopping complex. 
Mr Fearn stated that paying off the loan was “a private matter for the Scarlets from their share of the proceeds... and is nothing to do with the council”. 
Mr Fearn also questioned a £27,250 fee paid from the proceeds to the Scarlets for “finding” Marstons, the pub company that bought the site, as did Roger Jones, the council’s director of resources, who wrote: “I cannot accept that the club gets any cost recovery and certainly no ‘profit’ from introducing the scheme. In fact I cannot support any of the deductions put forward.” 
No agreement was reached and a meeting took place between the parties in November 2012. Just prior, documents show that the council’s chief executive Mark James got in touch with Mr Fearn. 
Mr Fearn then emailed Roger Jones, saying: “Roger, the Chief rang me earlier to ensure I was able to reach agreement on the basis that he has instructed ie £200k to CCC [Carmarthenshire County Council]. Perhaps we can discuss again tomorrow morning before I meet with Nigel [Nigel Short, the Scarlets’ representative].” 
What had been envisaged as a 50/50 split in proceeds ended up with the council getting £200,000 and the Scarlets getting the rest. 
Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson, to whom the council released the documents, has reported the deal to the Wales Audit Office, asking for it to be investigated. 
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Plaid Cymru spokesperson for local government, said: “Local authorities need to appreciate that they are dealing with public money and public assets. Transparency in all transactions is absolutely crucial to ensure confidence in the council. 
“On the face of it, the disclosure of information suggests questions need to be answered about this particular arrangement and how, despite two of the authority’s senior officers expressing their objections to the terms of that arrangement, another officer can ‘instruct’ otherwise. 
“Given the unfortunate lack of confidence in Carmarthenshire County Council at present, I do have concerns regarding the content of the information released. I would say it is in the interests of both the local authority and Carmarthenshire taxpayers for this matter to be looked at thoroughly, not least to determine why such a decision – worth around £800,000 – was not taken by elected members.” 
A council spokesman said: “The decision of the executive board to sell the land also included the recommendation that an independent valuer be jointly appointed to determine the appropriate percentage split of the proceeds. The District Valuation Service was utilised and through negotiations, which are normal in a commercial transaction of this nature, agreement was reached on the appropriate split.”
(Western Mail)
I have little to add at the moment other than there was nothing 'normal' or 'appropriate' about these negotiations and it shows yet again, a systematic and deliberate prevention of proper scrutiny and process from Carmarthenshire's County Hall.
And, for that matter, who is the mysterious council 'spokesman'?
The full Freedom of Information response can be read here.

Update 13.49pm The Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star have now updates their websites with the story. As you might have come to expect, the headlines, and articles are, erm, somewhat different to that of the Western Mail;
The Journal headline reads; 'Scarlets land sale split appropriate, says Carmarthenshire Council', followed by this paragraph;
'Documents disclosed by the authority reportedly revealed Carmarthenshire Council senior officers were involved in some disagreement over the proceeds'.
'Reportedly'? Did the Journal not have a look at the publicly available documents themselves?
'Some disagreement'? Er...was the article passed by County Hall for approval prior to publication? It's the only explanation I can think of.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Caerphilly Council bosses appear in court

As readers will be aware, this blog has been following events in Caerphilly Council concerning the Chief Executive, his Deputy and also the Head of the Legal department, Daniel Perkins.

The three appeared in Bristol magistrates Court this morning charged with Misconduct in Public Office relating to the prevention of proper scrutiny.
The matter has now been referred to Crown Court. No pleas were entered.

The background can be read here and on this blog, but you may remember the charges followed a police investigation after Wales Audit Office findings of unlawful payments were published in public interest reports.

This is the article from the Western Mail;

Caerphilly council bosses appear in court charged with misconduct in a public office

'A council chief executive and his deputy have appeared in court charged with misconduct in a public office.

Michael Anthony O'Sullivan, 55, chief executive of Caerphilly council, and his deputy Nigel Barnett, 51, appeared alongside Daniel Perkins, 48, who worked in the council's legal department, at Bristol Magistrates' Court.

The three men each face a single charge that they "wilfully and without reasonable excuse or justification misconducted yourself by deliberately engaging in course of conduct intending to circumvent provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 and prevent proper scrutiny of the senior officer pay award process".

The offence is alleged to have been committed between June 1 and October 10 2012 at Caerphilly council.

During a brief hearing the defendants spoke only to confirm their names, ages and addresses.

The court heard the case could only be tried at Bristol Crown Court and District Judge Joti Bopa-Rai ordered the three men to appear there on May 13.

O'Sullivan, of Ashley Grove, Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil; Barnett, of Cwrt Neuadd Wen, Aberbargoed; and Perkins, of Tudor Crescent, Brynmawr, were all released on unconditional bail.'

Mr Barnett and Mr O'Sullivan (pic source; Western Mail)
Now also on the BBC wales website

The webcasting pilot - 26,420 total views

Next Monday's Executive Board meeting features the summary of the twelve month webcasting pilot. A resounding success I'm sure you will agree. The figures for live and archived views are detailed in the report, they total 4520 for live views and 21,900 for the archived meetings.

The options put forward are to continue with the webcasting for at least another three years (there are funds remaining from the Welsh Government grant to put towards the contract) or to discontinue with the webcasts.
I cannot imagine they will opt for the latter. I hope not anyway.
As for rolling the webcasts out to other open meetings, it doesn't look promising at the moment but I'm sure they will welcome interested members of the public filming or recording meetings on their own devices with open arms. After all, the Welsh Government are 'encouraging' it, and we know how much notice they take of them.....

Also included on the agenda are two items which unravelled out of the budget decisions; the decision to defer the increases in sports charges and fees whilst further consultation takes place, and the six month deferment of the axing of paid Trade Union secondments. Both being evidential of the inadequacy of the budget consultation process in the first place.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Public and press can film planning appeals in Wales

Thanks to enquiries made by Mr John Butler, (@jbsandown) it look like the Planning Inspectorate Wales is happy for the press and members of the public to film, record, tweet and otherwise report from planning appeals in Wales.
This must surely set an precedent for all civic processes in Wales, including council meetings, of course.

Another coincidence?

Update; Disappointingly I've realised the 'Setting it Straight' page has not disappeared but now appears in the drop-down menu on the Media page. Thought it was too good to be true, apologies for getting your hopes up.
So the notoriety of the Kremlin on the Towy remains intact, the only slightly promising thing is that these days, it's less likely they'll sue you for saying so.


Back in January the media section of the council's website underwent a revamp, it also heralded several bizarre statements (which remain) attacking anyone who disagreed with County Hall's world view of the unlawful payments scandal.
Just to add to the flavour, the newly branded and ironically named 'Newsroom' included a rather sinister 'Setting it Straight' page.

I noticed last week that the page has now been removed.

For the record, it said;

"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."

Given the track record of Carmarthenshire Council I suggested at the time that my translation below showed the true meaning and intent;

"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"

The press and media protocol is now under a much needed cross-party review, but I wonder if the removal of this page, and for that matter, last week's revealing disclosure, has anything to do with the fallout from the events of February 14th?

Purely coincidental I'm sure.

pic source; Y Byd ar Bedwar

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The Council, the Scarlets and the 'Allowable expenses' - a Revelation

(Update; please also see later post, 23rd April;' Carmarthenshire Council and the Scarlets land deal - the Western Mail reports')

In a curious turn of events, a decision to refuse part of a Freedom of Information request has been overturned via an internal council review. In my experience, this is a first.

I had requested the District Valuers' Report (DV) and inter-party correspondence leading up to the deal between the Scarlets' and the Council over the sale of a car park to Marston's Inns, adjacent to the Parc y Scarlets Stadium in Llanelli. The land is owned by the council and leased to the Scarlets.

I was given the final DV Report (dated January 2013) but not the correspondence.

I have now been given the email correspondence as well as an earlier draft DV report. I have provided links to the responses at the end of this post.

Last year the Executive Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds revealed the details of the deductions prior to the split of the proceeds. Previous requests as to how the council taxpayer ended up with £200,000 from a pot of £850,000 in a supposedly 50/50 split had been repeatedly refused.

The figures 'spilled' by Cllr Edmunds last year were;
Fees to agents and architects                      £50k
Allowable expenses to Scarlets                  £280k
Finders fee for buyer  to Scarlets                £30k
Compensation to club for loss of lease        £76k
Share of remainder :-             Scarlets  -      £220k
        Carmarthenshire County Council  -     £200k

The figures revealed that among the deductions was £280,000 in 'allowable expenses' made available to the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan to the developers of the Eastgate complex, Henry Davidson Developments Ltd (HDD Ltd) for fitting out the Scarlets shop/restaurant within the new complex, The Red Room.

This seemed to me to be an entirely inappropriate 'deduction'. The council had made noises about it being a contribution to improve footfall in the town centre, I don't think even they believed what they were saying.

The matter came up at a full council meeting last year and the buck was passed around the Chamber until it came to the Director of Resources, Roger Jones, who seemed to put the responsibility onto the District Valuer. He made it quite clear that Jonathan Fearn, the Council's Head of Corporate Property, who had been delegated to finalise the details of the deal, was in the clear.

The newly released information contains the draft District Valuer's report (September 2012) with a list of deductions put forward by the DV, the Scarlets, and the council.

Click to enlarge

What is very clear from the email correspondence is that Jonathan Fearn and Roger Jones were adamant that there should be no payment to HDD Ltd.

The two parties put forward their submissions which were considered by the DV prior to his draft report. The DV then put his suggested deductions alongside those put forward by Jonathan Fearn and the Scarlets' agents (As in the table above).

The DV suggested a payment to HDD Ltd of £82,000 although it is not clear why any of it should have been paid.
The Scarlets were insisting HDD should have £175,000 + VAT, plus their legal costs of £50,000, this amounted to £260,000.

Mr Fearn said that payments to HDD Ltd were "a private matter for the Scarlets from their share of the proceeds..and is nothing to do with the Council. The Council would happily wait for a few years for the disposal of the site rather than have to pay HDD anything"

The Scarlets, via their agents were saying that if HDD Ltd weren't paid in full, they wouldn't be able to go ahead with the Marston's deal.

In fact the Scarlets wanted an 80/20 split, including £80,000 'profit', with a mere £74,000 ending up with the council.
Mr Fearn, on the other hand, put the total deductions at £20,000 which would have left £830,000 and a 50/50 split, with over £400,000 coming to the council.

There was clearly intense disagreement between the two parties and this is illustrated in the email correspondence.

Both parties then put forward their views on the DV draft report, including the deductions.

Mr Fearn questioned nearly all of it. Interestingly he queried the £27,250 agent's fee (Finder's fee which was eventually £30,000) to the Scarlets for 'finding' Marstons.
He said; "My agreement to these being included would require disclosure and verification of the fee arrangements. To back up my point, Marstons' have subsequently advertised in the Estates Gazette that they will pay £30k introduction fees to agents"

Incidentally, HDD Ltd have had previous relations with Marstons and have sited them in their other mixed use developments around the UK.

As for the payment of £82,000 suggested by the DV to HDD Ltd, it seemed to defy logic. Mr Fearn also questioned why on earth the Scarlets should 'profit' from the deal any more than the council.

At this point the views of Roger Jones, the Council's Director of Resources are also made very clear. He said, in an email to Mr Fearn and Mr James that;
 "I cannot accept that the club gets any cost recovery and certainly no 'profit' from introducing the scheme. In fact I cannot support any of the deductions put forward"

There was clearly no agreement reached and a meeting took place between the parties in November 2012, the day after planning permission had been granted for the pub.
In fact, throughout the correspondence there is a repeated assumption that 'acceptable' planning permission would be forthcoming.

Just prior to that meeting, Mr James got in touch with Mr Fearn. Mr Fearn then emailed Roger Jones;
"Roger, the Chief rang me earlier to ensure I was able to reach agreement on the basis that he has instructed ie £200k to CCC. Perhaps we can discuss again tomorrow morning before I meet with Nigel" [Nigel Short, Scarlets representative]

So there we have it. Somehow the Scarlets more or less got what they wanted, despite the protestations of the senior officer delegated to finalise the deal, and despite the grave misgivings of the Director of Resources. Remember, Mr Fearn initially recommended a deduction of only £20,000 from the whole of the proceeds.

There will always be 'negotiations' in any business deal of course but somehow the Council ended up with £200,000 and the Scarlets £650,000 an 'agreement' which appears, given the information which has been released, to have been on the "instructions" of the chief executive, Mark James.

Why the council have decided to release this information is odd. I think, on balance, it was released to make it clear that both Mr Fearn and Mr Jones were not happy with the deal.

They seem to have fought the council's corner only to have the rug pulled from under them at the last minute. Who pulled the rug? It doesn't appear to be the District Valuer. Were the final instructions, which clearly were not in the best interests of the council or the taxpayer, the responsibility of Mr James?

It is not clear from any of this whether correct procedure was followed or not, but there is a strong smell of something and this whole matter deserves further investigation.

While I'm pleased that this information has been released it begs the question why my similar request for correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church was refused. In fact, I was classed as 'vexatious' in that request, they even managed to convince the Information Commissioner of this.

This was no different to the Scarlets' request, the only difference I can possibly think of is that, at the moment, Mr James is not at his desk.
Today's response from CCC solicitor detailing reasons for overturning original FOI refusal here.
New information released today here
Full thread of Freedom of Information request here
Earlier blog post; Allowable expenses from November 2013 

A Point of Order

During the lengthy preamble at the start of each meeting, a warning is given that the Minutes from various committees are to be 'received' only. The contents of the Minutes, and any decisions made, must not be discussed, only the accuracy. In practice, there is usually some matter brought up which is discussed.

It all depends on what the 'matter' is.

When the minutes of the Extraordinary meeting held on the 27th February were up for approval at the start of yesterday's meeting, Cllr Caiach asked whether the libel indemnity was still being provided to Mark James as the case was ongoing. (I believe the indemnity has actually been withdrawn, as it is unlawful of course).

Executive Board Member Cllr Pam Palmer immediately called a Point of Order as the question was not related to accuracy. The Chair hastily agreed and Cllr Caiach's query therefore remained unanswered and the meeting moved very swiftly on to less controversial topics.

During the approval of numerous other committee Minutes, assorted discussions arose relating to subjects within the various reports. Unrelated to accuracy.

Not once did Cllr Palmer call another Point of Order and stop anyone else from asking a question or prompting a discussion.

The meeting has been archived and is available to view here. The main event was the approval of the Welsh Language Census group report which Cneifiwr has covered in detail.

Unfortunately, soon after the announcement, a problem with the publicly funded Welsh language support organisation Menter Cwm Gwendraeth emerged.
The BBC reports that Chief Executive, Cathryn Ings (former editor of the Carmarthen Journal) and Chair, county councillor Sian Thomas have both resigned. Details are sketchy but the interim chief executive Nerys Burton confirms that there is "absolutely no financial worry". Let's hope that her reassurance is not a precursor to the arrival of the auditors...

Meanwhile, with the countdown to the European election underway it looks like there's no shifting Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry Jones and Carmarthenshire's Mark James as Regional and Local Returning Officers respectively.

As we are aware, there is currently a police investigation ongoing in relation to unlawful payments made to both men and there have been calls for both to stand down from the roles (see previous posts). The Western Telegraph reports that Mr Parry Jones will receive £12,000 in fees (Mr James will receive roughly half that amount) and calls, which appear futile, have been made for his salary to be reduced to reflect the fee.

The appointment of Returning Officers is made by the UK government and the Cabinet Office gave another rather ambiguous statement, similar to that received by Jonathan Edwards MP in Carmarthenshire: “We are closely monitoring developments but it would not be appropriate to comment while a police investigation into this matter is ongoing.”

It would seem that only an Act of Parliament or divine intervention could have prised the two away from the job.

And, just to remind those following events in Caerphilly, the chief executive, Anthony O'Sullivan, and his deputy, Nigel Barnett will both be appearing at Bristol Magistrates court next week, on the 22nd April.

They have both been charged will alleged Misconduct in Public Office following a police investigation. The investigation, by an outside force, commenced after findings of unlawful payments were published by the Wales Audit Office.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Twisting the truth

The issue of email snooping, which has been rumbling around for months, finally reached the Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting at the end of March and the minutes of that meeting have just been published. (see Email snooping and misuse of the press office - sterilised and repackaged) .

To recap, Cllr Caiach discovered, in June 2013 that one of her emails had been 'tracked', without her knowledge, nearly two years previously, by officer 'unknown'. One of the troubling aspects was exactly how commonplace this sort of activity was, and whether constituents emails to their representatives were routinely read. Cllr Caiach's statement can be read here.

Equally concerning was that Cllr Caiach then went on to become a witness for myself, against the chief executive and the council. Whether her email activities were 'monitored' throughout the litigation remains unknown.

The matter was brought up at the full council meeting in June 2013 and Mark James, chief executive, stated to full council that there was no routine snooping of emails and the email tracking was on the orders of the High Court during the the litigation.

The email 'tracking' had happened on the 2nd September 2011. The disclosure stage, which Mr James was referring to in the full council meeting, was in the autumn of 2012.

So the 'tracking' was not on the orders of the court at all.

Mr James also deflected responsibility away from himself by accusing Cllr Caiach of pointing the finger at a junior officer in the IT department, something which neither she, nor anyone else had ever done.

Now we come to the minutes of the Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting from March this year which state;
"Responding to a question the Head of Administration & Law explained that a pre-action letter had been received by the Council during 2012 [actually it was August 2011] notifying it that a blogger intended to sue the Council based on the content of an e-mail the Chief Executive had sent to all Elected Members. Wishing to establish who had forwarded his email to an external destination, the Chief Executive, under Paragraph 5.15 of the Policy, had requested that his e-mail be tracked."

So the unknown officer was, of course the chief executive. The email to 'all elected members' was the same as he had sent, earlier that day, to the Madaxeman blog.

Cllr Caiach was, I believe, the only person who responded critically to the chief executive's email in 2011.

Why, after all this time Mr James should be saying his email was tracked is astonishing, and to say that he had used paragraph 5.15 as 'authorisation' is very odd. It would require prior knowledge that an email had been forwarded to the 'outside' world;

"Internal email and other internal materials must not be forwarded to destinations outside the Authority unless this is done in the course of performing the business of the Carmarthenshire County Council".

To put it simply, he was particularly interested in what Cllr Caiach was saying, and who to. The recent 'explanation' is twisted, to say the least....

I can only imagine the internal chaos which must have ensued after someone 'forwarded' the 'blacklisting' email to the South Wales Guardian in December 2012.

As for the monitoring of constituents emails, the 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.

The committee decided that at the very least residents should be aware of this blanket monitoring and suggested a disclaimer be placed on the council website. Be warned.

The other matter of interest which arose at the scrutiny meeting concerned the press office, and the question of who was actually controlling some of the output. Recent attacks on the Auditor and MP suggest the Department of Propaganda and Spin is still in full swing.
The minutes of the whole meeting can be read here, and a review of procedures has been promised, or 'strengthened' as the Assistant Chief Executive puts it. The committee have in fact decided to set up a cross-party group to review the press and media protocol, which is not before time. 

The origin of this whole matter was the level of officer involvement in the 'sainsbury's press release' in 2012 attacking two Plaid politicians. The ombudsman subsequently found that Cllr Kevin Madge had breached the code of conduct by using the council press office to launch a political attack.
Others felt that the chief executive himself exerts undue control. 

The brief minute relating to this, (from the recent March meeting) says;

"In response to a question the Committee was informed that a press release regarding two planning applications had been issued in accordance with the protocol in that it had been 'signed-off' by both the Leader and Chief Executive."

Oddly, back in November 2013, whilst the scrutiny committee were still waiting for answers the head of law said this;

"...although the press release was issued by the press office the statement was requested and approved by the Leader.....It was clearly issued as a statement by him and did not quote any officer of the Council."

and in January this year she said;

"...that there was no decision for the Committee to scrutinise." 

No, it didn't quote any officer of the council but it is now known that Mr James approved it and signed it off....and therefore there was a decision to scrutinise.

On a related note, we know just how far County Hall will go to prevent criticism and negative stories appearing in the press, and elsewhere. Back in late 2011, the council press manager felt it necessary to report a conversation she had with a local reporter to the chief executive. I have a copy of the email.

It concerned a statement made by two councillors to the same reporter. I will not go into the details, for reasons that will be apparent, but basically, their main concern was that Notices of Motion they had put forward to full council were being deliberately blocked 'at source'. Democratic debate was being prevented.

Their argument was, I believe, well founded and based on first hand knowledge. In fact, observers of this council would call it common knowledge and common practice. 

The reporter had obviously phoned the press office for a comment. However, sensing the whiff of a negative story, the press manager rushed an email off to the chief executive alleging slander and, if the story went to print, it would be libel.
I don't suppose the reporter got his comment.

Presumably, the thought crossed their minds to sue the newspaper if it printed the story.

In 2012 of course, the constitution was 'amended' so that all Motions on Notice to full council required seven seconders rather than the usual one.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Sunday ramble; Chairs, Salaries and Webcasting

Carmarthenshire Council has a quaintly traditional way of nominating Chairs and Vice Chairs of the council, a ritual which will start at the meeting on Tuesday (webcast here, starting at 10am) with the actual 'election' taking place at the AGM on the 21st May. The AGM will also be the twelve month anniversary of webcasting, and the end of the pilot.

The position of Chair, and Vice Chair comes with an attractive Civic Salary and various trips around Wales to assorted charity events and civic get-togethers in the chauffeur driven motor. In my view it's archaic nonsense which perpetuates the tugging forelock twaddle of a bygone era. Better to save the cash on the cars, regalia and civic dinners and give it all to charity in the first place.

May 2013 Chairing ritual; Cllr Terry Davies on the left and Cllr Daff Davies on the right
The two civic salaries have yet to be determined this year due to a novel recommendation from the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales. The IRPW has said that the amount should be within a £19000 to £24000 band for Chair and £14000 to £18000 for Vice Chair; the full council must decide the salary depending on 'activity' and 'anticipated workloads and responsibilities'. Incidentally, the Leader is in for a £500 rise, 'rounding-up' his salary to £49000 per annum.

Of course these figures pale into significance when you consider the our chief officers' pay, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they're present and correct, or not. Or, given recent events, whether some of that pay was illegal. I have no idea if deputy chief executive Mr D Gilbert receives extra payment for filling the shoes of Mr James, so to speak; if he does receive such an 'honorarium' payment this would be on top of the extra 10% he already gets for being deputy.

I do hope we're not currently paying for two chief executives.

The selection of Chair of the Council is run on a rotational basis and has been since time began, with the three main political groups, Labour, Independent and Plaid taking turns. So any unaffiliated Members, such as Cllr Caiach, will never have a look-in.

The Chair in 2011/12, you may recall, was Cllr Ivor Jackson (Ind), a memorable stint, for all the wrong reasons. I'll say no more.

The difficulty, for the ruling cabal, arises when it's Plaid's turn for Chair and in 2012/2013 the quite capable Cllr Sian Thomas took over. With Plaid in the Chair, the control freakery coming from her left became even more apparent, something she was clearly relieved to publicly disclose after recent events.

The current incumbent has been the safe Labour Councillor, Terry Davies who has dutifully read from the script, and shown his loyalty to the ruling junta by jumping up and down every time Cllr Caiach spoke.

Next in line, traditionally, is the Vice Chair, and in this case it is Cllr Daff Davies (Ind). You may remember from last year's event that he was nominated largely on the strength of his shooting abilities, or this was how it came over. This may come in handy of course if there is any nonsense from the public gallery.

I suspect, like his immediate predecessor, his shins will remain largely unbruised should the person, usually on the left, return.

Unless there's a revolution before Tuesday, it will be Plaid's turn to take Vice Chair and it will be interesting to see who they put forward.
Who knows, perhaps while the cat's away.....

Back to webcasting and, as the pilot is coming to an end, I'd be interested in readers' views on the subject. I believe there will be a report to council sometime in the next few weeks.

Obviously I think it's been a resounding success and firmly believe it should continue and be extended to every meeting possible.There's no greater detergent than sunlight and this council, like no other, needs a prolonged heatwave; webcasting meetings plays an important part in effecting both transparency and democracy.

I also firmly believe that the public should be allowed to film and record every open meeting - the current arbitrary ban (Definition of arbitrary; based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system) is also coming up for review.

Over 2500 watched the extraordinary meeting on the 27th and whatever the figures for the ordinary meetings, either watching live or on archive, it's guaranteed to be a whole lot more than ever braved the hard wooden benches and other assorted perils of the Public Gallery.

Scenes from the EGM on the 27th Feb 2014

Thursday 10 April 2014

Carmarthenshire council and Data Protection

The BBC reports today that breaches of data protection by Welsh councils has more than doubled this year from last, from 60 to 135. Of interest to us of course is Carmarthenshire. The figures from 2012 are unknown but 2013 records five breaches, including, according to the BBC, going over the 40 day limit and two cases where information should have been released but wasn't.

A closer look at council minutes from November last year reveals further details; a CRB disclosure was sent to the wrong address; a client's personal details, including sensitive medical history was lost and a report concerning a child, prior to 'imminent' court proceedings, was emailed to the home address of a NHS employee to complete, the employee then sent the completed report to the wrong email address.

With regards to the latter, consideration was given whether such highly sensitive material should be sent to home email addresses at all. Probably not.

Another issue which arose after an internal audit in 2012/13 was that over 160 employees emailed information from the office to their own computers when working from home leading to the risk of personal data being potentially accessible to anyone who happened to use the home PC.

Of course, ensuring compliance in such a large organisation, with such an array of devices around these days is not easy and I'm sure the vast majority of staff take great care with personal data, but with a staffing compliment of two dealing with DPA and FOI, compared with a 'team of twenty' in the press office, priorities given to monitoring these issues might be a little skewed.

When the shoe is on the other foot though, and there is anything remotely 'sensitive' in a council meeting, such as public toilets or evangelical churches, the press and public are booted out forthwith. A request to view the register of councillor's gifts and interests involves a very closely supervised appointment in County Hall and for eighteen months all visitors to the public gallery were forced to give their names and addresses and signatures, even children.

'Out!' they said.
Of course, everyone should double check the email address before clicking 'send'. I had an interesting email from Mr James a couple of years ago which was intended for the FOI officer and related to a request for information I had submitted. What was interesting was that the Chief Executive had been involved at all given the subject matter of the request...common practice I expect.

A response from the council to another request made via the What Do They Know site in 2011 included my name and address, it took over two months for the head of administration and law to alert the website and have it removed.

In what I had better describe as 'threatening noises' made to me last year, it was suggested that as a blogger I was in breach of data protection as I was not registered as a data controller with the Information Commissioner and was publishing personal data. This was a little odd as a precedent had already been set in 2011 when an attempt by Barnet Council to attack a local blogger in this way was thrown out by the Information Commissioner.

I'm not sure where covert 'tracking' of councillors' emails fits into all this...but constituents should be aware of this if they should wish to contact their elected representative about any matter, data protection gets a bit blurry and anyone in County Hall could be reading it....

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Message to Miliband

Anyone from Carmarthenshire listening to Ed Miliband today during PMQs over the Maria Miller scandal must surely be wondering if Welsh Labour are existing as a separate entity to their London party bosses.
He said;

"The reason the public were so appalled was that if it had happened in any other business, there would have been no question of her staying in her job. Why was he the last person in the country to realise that her position was untenable?"

Has Mr Miliband actually seen the sorry mess in Carmarthenshire, and Cardiff for that matter? His Labour colleagues in Carmarthenshire Council happily agreed to make two payments to a public official which have been deemed unlawful by the Welsh Government's own auditors.

Even though the Carmarthenshire public are as "appalled" as the general population are over Maria Miller, the council Labour leadership proceeded to (expensively) defend these payments and refused to suspend the public official. Even the prospective Labour candidate for the next general election gave the council leadership his blessing over the scandals.

Then, despite the police launching an investigation, the public official has been allowed to casually 'step aside' on full pay and now appears to be continuing with his duties away from his desk.

The Welsh Labour Government has also refused to publicly condemn the scandals, a situation which is being seen simply as a Labour government refusing to criticise a Labour council.

The public official in Carmarthenshire is not supposed to be a politician, but he is a public figure and has consistently put himself forward as one. What is important is that the unlawful payments, and the cost of defending them, has come from the same pot of public money which Ms Miller has used.

The total amount is also a damn sight more.

Perhaps Mr Miliband should get on the blower and communicate with Wales, or does "in any other business" exclude Carmarthenshire and its long suffering residents?

Ed and Carwyn

Pension scandal - Trustees kept in the dark

Former Chair of the Council and a trustee of the Dyfed Pension Fund, Cllr Sian Thomas (Plaid) has spoken out again over the pension scandal relating to the Chief Executive Mark James. She also spoke at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th February to say how devastated she was that the reputation of the Fund, which is administered by Carmarthenshire County Council, had been reduced to tatters by the scandal.

Cllr Thomas, you may remember, appeared on the Byd ar Bedwar programme and revealed how Mr James continually sought to influence her position as Chair, and effectively control full council meetings himself, by making comments, remarks and gestures from the seat next to her.

In today's South Wales Guardian (the article is not yet online) she expresses her concern that the trustees of the pension fund were kept in the dark about Mr James' 'pay supplement', (as County Hall like to refer to it), well, all the trustees that is apart from the one who happened to sit on the Executive Board.
She said;

"Cllr Wyn Evans (Ind), as well as being Chair of the Pension Fund, was a member of the Executive Board which approved the unlawful payments to Mr James, so it is very disappointing that he did not inform the trustees of the decision....When I requested a meeting, on several occasions, to discuss the Wales Audit Office report regarding the pension changes I was told it was none of my business. 

The pay supplements to the Chief Executive have annoyed my constituents considerably. I have had people stopping me in the street to complain about these unlawful payments"

The County council 'response', from an anonymous spokeswoman, is typically defensive saying that a decision to offer a 'pay supplement' was 'a matter for the employing body, and not the pension fund' and, as the Audit Reports were issued to the Council and not the fund they could not be referred to the trustees.

However, the Appointed Auditor was unable to sign off the Statement of Accounts for the Dyfed Pension Fund last year due to the unlawful payment so it would seem it was very relevant to the trustees;

Anthony Barrett, Appointed Auditor, Dyfed Pension Fund, 1st October 2013
Of course, what it boils down to is that it all stinks. Although no one is committed to remain with the fund it was only the Chief Executive who left in such personally beneficial and spectacular circumstances. The Executive Board decision in 2011 was, as we know, shrouded in deliberately vague terms. Incidentally, given that the Council's Director of Resources (and Section 151 officer), plays a 'key role' in the financial management of the Fund and is also an 'active member' of the said fund, he has been surprisingly quiet on the subject.

Mr James has 'stepped down' from his post on full pay whilst Gloucestershire Police continue with their investigations into the two reports concerning the pension and his libel indemnity but he is still going to take the role of local Returning Officer for the European election.

As this will mean extensive involvement in council business and contact with staff, it makes the 'stepping down' position something of a mockery.

Incidentally, the agenda for next week's full council meeting has been published and up for approval are the Minutes of that very extraordinary meeting on the 27th February.... 

Monday 7 April 2014

News round up; Parks, schools and care homes

The South Wales Guardian reports on the latest saga over the council's 'Community Asset Transfer' programme, not quite the community spirited vision the title suggests, but a cost shifting exercise to persuade town and community councils to take over the parks and playgrounds. If they are unable to raise the funds through the local precept or find another way to maintain these public amenities then it is quite possible they will be lost.

'Tempers flared' at a recent meeting of Llandeilo Town Council when the matter was discussed and advice from One Voice Wales (the advisory body to local councils) urging extreme caution and consultation with the local electorate, was produced. Fortunately, Town and County councillor, Edward Thomas, a member of Pam's ruling Independent Group in County Hall, was on hand to ensure One Voice Wales was ignored and the correct path of One Voice Pam was followed....

Penlan Park, Llandeilo
If further proof should be required that it is the school itself rather than shiny new premises which ensure a sound education the latest Estyn report for QE High in Carmarthen confirms it. Overall, the standard is 'adequate', which is nothing to shout about. QE High was opened in 2008 as part of the County's 'vision' for education.

In Llandeilo, work has commenced on the controversial new secondary school in Ffairfach, (although irritating roman and bronze age artefacts keep turning up which are delaying matters). Apparently the contemporary design will provide a 21st century education....who needs teachers when you've got top spec aluminum cladding eh?

Site of the new school in Ffairfach where concerns regarding flooding were dismissed.....
....and work has now commenced... (pic source; West Wales News Review)
....and incidentally, my grammar is far from perfect but shouldn't official council reports relating to education always be double checked for grammatical accuracy?

It looks like the council have finally had their way and closed St Paul's care home for the elderly in Llanelli. (This information is published in a report to next week's Social Care Scrutiny Committee). Campaigners have fought hard over the last few years to retain the council run facility but the 'reconfiguration' of elderly care came up again in the budget.

In attempt to avoid further opposition the Executive Board made a premature announcement in the Llanelli Star in January that £7m had suddenly been plucked from thin air to fund an Extra Care Scheme in Llanelli to replace the homes. This was before any final decision on closure had been made. I blogged about this here.

St Pauls, Llanelli

Pembrokeshire Council is again in the spotlight as the BBC reported that EU funds for commercial property grants are being withheld from Pembrokeshire businesses until the outcome of an investigation by Dyfed Powys Police. The discrepancies were uncovered through the investigative persistence of blogging councillors, Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams.

In Carmarthenshire, the Wales Audit Office have already raised concerns over the the way this council awards and monitors grants. Our County Hall, naturally, publicly dismissed the criticism as petty. Hmm. It still remains to be seen whether the European Commission will launch a full investigation into the possible breach of EU State Aid rules over the funding of Scarlets Regional Ltd.

Carmarthenshire council would definitely benefit from a couple of similarly curious blogging councillors...

And finally, I stumbled upon a set of Minutes from Carmarthen Town Council from March 2013 where it was noted that the Mayor had written to the Chief Executive, Mark James following the libel case in the High Court. It would seem he either had a poor grasp of location, or there was something else going on we knew nothing about...;

Friday 4 April 2014

Wales Blog Awards 2014 - Finalist

I'm really delighted to say that this blog has been shortlisted as a finalist for the 2014 Wales Blog Awards in the Best Political Blog category, alongside Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and Blog Menai.

The final will be held on the 15th May in Cardiff.

Many, many thanks to those who nominated the blog and hopefully the trophy will return again to Carmarthenshire!

The full list of all shortlisted blogs, and details of the People's Choice Award can be found here;
Wales Blog Awards 2014

Thursday 3 April 2014

Council; 'We have acted to minimise costs...'

The print version of the South Wales Guardian has given the '£70,000 audit costs bill' front page treatment. The print version of the Carmarthen Journal appears to have omitted it altogether. It does give the Returning Officer row a mention though, tucked away on page seven.

The SW Guardian has also published a comment from an unnamed 'council spokesman'. Remarkably, but unsurprisingly, the council, (for they speak as one) do not feel responsible for the fees as they consider that they were in the right all along. In fact to suggest otherwise is 'untrue'.

The fact that they have withdrawn the pension arrangement and suspended the libel amendment clause in the constitution is not because anyone had done anything wrong, oh goodness me no.

The best bit is at the end, "We have acted to minimise unnecessary costs throughout", Really? I suspect that with the £55,000 in unlawful payments, all the legal advice, officer reports, meetings, the audit fees (even if the final figure is less than £70,000), bringing Mr Kerr QC to Carmarthen for the day, the time and expense involved in using the press office as an attack dog, etc etc the final cost will be well over £100,000.

What the council officials seem to forget is, to the majority of people, that's the price of a modest family home. A sum of money most of us spend a lifetime paying for. To have used this to defend a very highly paid senior officer is completely unjustified. (see previous post)

With regards to the press office, the council's Media and Press Protocol was the subject of discussion at a recent meeting of the Policy and Resources committee. (I have explained the actual reason for its appearance here).

The minutes haven't been published yet but I understand that Executive Board Member and official guardian of Carmarthenshire's free and independent press, Cllr Pam Palmer, was present as an observer and offered her tuppence worth. Apparently she was concerned about 'fairness and balance'. You have to remember that anything published in the local papers other than an official council press releases is considered to be subversive and worthy of a variety of threats.

Cllr Palmer

One interesting line in the protocol concerns social media  With the growth of social media, many members of the public, organisations and politicians are now using sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. The Press Office monitors social media sites daily, and will occasionally engage by posting a response.comment on blogs". I'm sure extra care is taken these days and lessons have been learned since the contribution to the Madaxeman blog; Mr James admitted during the trial of course, that in hindsight, this was a contribution he probably shouldn't have made....

However, despite the looming presence of Cllr Palmer, I understand that the committee have decided to review the protocol as, according to one of our assistant Chief Executives in the understatement of the year, there are 'weaknesses in the system'.