Tuesday 8 July 2014

Libel indemnities - today's Western Mail - Updated

Update 19.07; Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas raised the matter in the Senedd today. He questioned Carmarthenshire Council's position that Ms Griffiths' letter justified the indemnity. The First Minister was also questioned and given their initial reaction, it is not looking good for County Hall.

I would imagine that the last thing the Welsh Labour leaders need today is to be seen as giving the all clear for councils to sue members of the public.

More soon...


Ahead of tomorrow's full council meeting, which will be discussing the issue of libel indemnities, today's Western Mail covers the controversy.

As I said in my post on Friday (Libel indemnities), Mr James and two of his senior colleagues are making a concerted effort to ensure that full council rejects the Wales Audit Office report which found the libel indemnity unlawful.

The attack began last week with the publication of the aggressive staff newsletter written by Mr James and was followed by the disclosure of the letter from Welsh Minister Lesley Griffiths. Mr James claimed that the letter gave the seal of approval to the unlawful funding, in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, it did no such thing.

The Welsh Government have responded to further questions by reiterating the contents of the letter, it does not say that they support the actions of the council, it says it is is ultimately a matter for the courts. Perhaps the Carmarthenshire Labour leadership should take note of the Labour Minister's warning.

The Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett has yet again stood firmly by his unlawful findings.

It seems that as the required categorical rejection didn't happen at the EGM in February, (when the report was 'noted') its reappearance has been contrived for another attempt tomorrow. The issue is certainly not going away.

Tomorrow's meeting, which will be webcast here, starts at 10am and if this vote goes ahead, it promises to be a very interesting item.

(Update 15.44; I understand that the WLGA 'Governance Review Panel' set up in the aftermath of the WAO reports - see previous posts - will be in County Hall tomorrow to observe the meeting....and will be conducting interviews in the afternoon)

Watch this space.

Western Mail;
Council insists it was RIGHT to use taxpayers' cash to fight chief executive's libel action 
Carmarthenshire councillors are being asked to reject the advice of the Wales Audit Office in relation to chief executive Mark James' libel case 
A row over a council decision to indemnify the cost of a libel action brought by its top officer has taken a new twist with councillors being asked to reject an auditor’s advice that such a course of action was unlawful. 
Anthony Barrett, the Assistant Auditor General for Wales and Appointed Auditor of Carmarthenshire County Council, issued a public interest report saying the authority had acted unlawfully in indemnifying chief executive Mark James’ libel counter claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson. 
Mr James won a High Court battle with Mrs Thompson, but there has been continuing disquiet over the council’s decision to offer him a financial guarantee. 
Tomorrow a report on the matter will be considered at a full council meeting, and councillors will be asked to reject Mr Barrett’s ruling that their earlier decision was unlawful. 
It has emerged that Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths wrote to the council in May, reminding it of legislation passed in 2006 which said: “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to the alleged defamation of that member or officer but may be provided in relation to the defence by that member or officer of any allegation of defamation made against him”. 
In the report to tomorrow’s meeting, two senior officials of Carmarthenshire council – director of resources Roger Jones and acting head of administration and law Linda Rees-Jones – argue that an earlier piece of legislation dating from 1972 allowed the authority to back Mr James’ libel action financially. 
County councillor Sian Caiach of the People First group has written to Ms Griffiths expressing her serious concern. She states: “This opinion by these two officers who were themselves instrumental in giving the original guidance to the Executive Board in 2012 is that your letter supports them, and does not endorse the Wales Audit Office report saying the payment was unlawful. 
“I do not agree with this interpretation, but as most of the councillors do not have experience of reading legal reports and may not even try to wade through the rambling ‘explanation’ in their report of why these officers were right to promote the policy of supporting Mr James in a libel claim against a blogger, and the reasons they regard your letter as agreement and confirmation that they were right to do so. 
“In 2012 we backbench councillors were not given copy of the legal advice from James Goudie which supposedly supported the decision to pay Mr James’ legal costs. When eventually given to us in the WAO report, it did no such thing. Now the same officers who advised the executive in 2012 are asking us to approve a report which exonerates them on the basis of your letter. 
“I ask that you urgently make your true position known. A Labour-led council is otherwise very likely to vote to approve this report rubbishing the views of the Wales Audit Office and therefore setting a precedent for Welsh councils to take libel actions against bloggers using their officers as proxies.” 
Last week Mr James wrote an article in a council staff newsletter which said: “The legal advice the council had from two QCs was very clear, it could indemnify its officers in exceptional cases. 
“They granted that indemnity to me, as chief executive, on behalf of the officers, to not only defend an action for defamation brought by a local blogger, but to counter sue. 
“Following a six day trial last year, the blogger’s action against the council was thrown out in its entirety.” 
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said “We have nothing to add to the letter the Minister sent to the council in May. It is for the council to satisfy itself that it has acted within its powers and any issue over statutory interpretation is, ultimately, a matter for the courts.” 
A spokesman for the Wales Audit Office said: “The Appointed Auditor stands by the findings in his report in the public interest. In his view the decision was unlawful.
          (Source here, there are background links in the article)

Update 10am; Some Twitter reaction;
@GarethLlewe "Absolutely staggering";
@RMisstear; "A law unto themselves?";
@Welshdelboy "Easy to spend others money";
@JohnStroud2 "this Council is WELL out of control";
@MaureenJenner "Public servants should not dip their hands into public funds";
@jbsandown "Welsh County Council rubbishes Audit Office findings over libel action costs!"
@wezlangdon "an on-going disgrace, services cut, jobs lost, James gets a free ride"
@ShiptonMartin "Carmarthenshire councillors urged by their own officers to tell Wales Audit Office to get lost" 


Anonymous said...

I'd like to know 'the exceptional circumstances' which Mark James felt gave him the right to use taxpayers money to silence a critic. The only 'exceptiona'l aspect in this disgusting saga was his own wayward decision to make a very personal attack against a member of the public on 'a blog'!!!

Anonymous said...

Good grief. The chief executive is not a bit concerned with the reputation of the council, just his own. He's almost single handedly dragging them further and further into disrepute.

Anonymous said...

The Lance Armstrong of local government. His time will come just like it did for Lance.