Wednesday 27 August 2014

Rearranging the deckchairs; Part 94...

Back in July (see 'Getting Engaged') I mentioned that a report had appeared by the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee to improve public engagement. Well, a month later, the minutes for that meeting have finally been published and the Committee appear to have come up with an additional suggestion.

The suggestion was, that prior to Executive Board and Executive Board Member (EBM) decision meetings, there should be a fifteen minute slot for the public and councillors to ask questions relating to items on the agenda.

Seems a great idea to me and with regards to EBM meetings, for example, would give added scrutiny to the many millions in grants which Meryl has been doling out for the past umpteen years.

As for Executive Board meetings, some public scrutiny prior to the usual pat-on-the-back (and occasionally unlawful) rubber stamping sessions would certainly be refreshing.

However, acting head of law, Linda Rees Jones was on hand to try and put the kibosh on such a revolutionary suggestion by using the threat of "added financial cost" which would be required for simultaneous translation (all fifteen minutes of it) and reminded the committee that EBM meeting were closed to the public, full stop.

Also on hand was one of the Assistant Chief Executives to remind the committee that such things were currently being looked at by the governance review panel, which (according to these minutes) was reporting its findings to the group leaders on the 28th July; nearly a month before the deadline for public contributions...let's hope it was 'initial' findings and not the final thing.

The governance review panel is actually due to report to council in the Autumn and amongst the suggestions put forward is for a drastic improvement in the quality and quantity of Minutes, which are notoriously brief and often deliberately misleading. Without webcasting all meetings, or allowing the public to make their own recordings, the minutes are all we have. This particular meeting was no exception - little more than a side and a half of A4 for a meeting which lasted two hours and forty minutes.

The trouble is, with Carmarthenshire council governance "not fit for purpose" this is all reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, a change of culture is necessary and that will not happen until there's a change at the top.

Unlike Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire seems to be grasping the nettle and another Extraordinary meeting of full council has been set for Friday 19th September (rescheduled from the 10th, ed) where votes of No Confidence will be held in the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams and, significantly, the Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones, currently languishing on gardening leave.

Friday 22 August 2014

Carmarthenshire Council governance "in disarray and not fit for purpose" - Sir David Lewis

Cneifiwr has had sight of a letter from the co-opted voting member of the council's Audit Committee, and former Lord Mayor of London, Sir David Thomas Rowell Lewis to the WLGA Governance Review Panel. For reasons which Cneifiwr explains, he, like ourselves and members of the public had to put pen to paper despite his request to address the panel personally.

He is writing from an independent position and without political motivation, and has, crucially, identified the crux of the problem. The content of his letter is explosive.

Here are some extracts from Cneifiwr's blog, the full post is here

'There has been a breakdown in trust between the electorate and the Council, he says. "The governance of the Council is in disarray and not fit for purpose".  
The values of any well governed Council include openness and transparency, honesty and integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality and fairness. "In recent years these values have evidently not been applied or followed". 
Sir David believes that this is not the fault of the general body of councillors but that responsibility lies in the hands of the Executive Board and the Chief Executive. "There needs to be a change in culture". 
It is not that the rules are procedures are not adequate, more a case that they are not applied in practice because of "the internal culture in County Hall". 
Basic rules and values concerning conflicts of interest which should be obvious to all have not been applied by some members of the Executive Board and senior management. "They are not mere technicalities as some have suggested"

As for 'recent events', he says they "will not happen if there is a proper professional relationship between the Chief Executive, the Executive Board and the Council generally and if the Scrutiny Committees are given the full facts."

As for the notoriously brief Minutes of meetings, he states that "there is a culture of hiding difficult or troublesome items" and goes on to say, "It is unclear to me whether or not the committee clerks are instructed to adopt this unhelpful approach and if so by whom."

As for internal legal advice, and particularly over the Wales Audit Office reports he is scathing; "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst". 

Without naming names, Sir David's letter reflects what both myself and Cneifiwr have been saying for some time, no amount of tinkering around the edges of protocols and constitutions will be effective; there needs to be a dramatic overhaul of senior management.

As Cneifiwr eloquently puts it,
"...changing the culture of the council without changing the senior personnel is doomed to failure."

Update 14:18
The consensus of online opinion seems to be that if this letter from Sir David, who also happens to be a senior lawyer, doesn't cause something of an earthquake in County Hall then nothing will. I hope the majority of councillors will be made aware of its message and act on it forthwith.


Finally, for those of you familiar with the classic movie, Apocalypse Now, you may enjoy this superb post from award winning blogger, Owen Donovan, aka Oggy Bloggy Ogwr;

To highlight the substance of the posting, I have taken the liberty of pinching a graphic from his blog.

Thursday 21 August 2014

News in Brief - redundancy costs, executive jobs, filming and more from Pembrokeshire

I've been a little puzzled recently over information given out by the council press office about the total cost of exit packages as the authority sheds jobs, mainly low paid jobs.

There was something of a discrepancy between the amount quoted by the press office, £2.8m and the amount appearing in the latest Statement of Accounts (Page 95), £4.1m. The total costs relate to 197 redundancies in 2013/2014, 122 of those being the lowest paid workers.

After some enquiries it turns out that the difference, some £1.3m, is the amount the council must put into the pension fund to cover future entitlements, so, technically, it is part of the total cost of exit packages, it is also likely to be needed pretty soon, and it is public money. Whether or not by excluding it, it could be classed as 'massaging the figures' I wouldn't know....but when Carmarthenshire Council enters 'league tables' of local authority redundancy costs, they all really need to be singing from the same ledger...

The big argument put forward by councils as they shed jobs, is that these high short term costs of redundancy lead to huge efficiency savings in the long term. The trouble is, they need to be up front with the true cost in the first place.

The council has embarked on the second attempt to appoint a new director of technical services, (roads, potholes, refuse etc) after the fiasco last year. A committee of councillors is supposed to do the appointing of course but during the meeting last year it became apparent that the Members were not on course to appoint the, er,  'right' candidate and external pressure was brought to bear, resulting in the process being abandoned.

Hopefully, the WLGA governance review panel will be taking a look at the appointments process as a whole as the councillors, (the employers) have had no say in the appointment of head of legal and monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones who has been acting since 2011 and the Director of Education, who was brought in from 'special projects' a few years ago.

The advert is for a 'Director of Environmental Services' and suggests that this directorate will be 'reprofiled' and may take over the functions of the Director of Regeneration (planning) in the future. This may be a good plan given the salaries for each post are in excess of £100k.

The Welsh Government has issued new guidance concerning council newspapers, filming meetings etc etc. It is nothing new, council newspapers look set to continue to land on our doormats and councils are still only 'encouraged' to allow public filming. There is a reminder that the politicisation, and personalisation, of council publicity is wrong, but as with most 'Guidance' from Cardiff, it is ignored by our local authorities here in West Wales, unless it suits their own agenda. 
Another lost opportunity from Cardiff, in my opinion.

The Carmarthen Journal enquired this week whether Carmarthenshire Council would be lifting the ban on public filming in light of the new legislation in England, unsurprisingly the answer, from that mysterious anonymous council spokeswoman, was 'no'. It would, she said, be a matter for full council to discuss.
I shall be looking out for the webcasting of planning meetings in the autumn, as promised by the Executive Board in the spring..

Meanwhile, over in Pembrokeshire, there seems to be far more action going on over the chief executive's refusal to pay back the unlawful pension money.

What is striking is the contrast yet again between the Labour opposition group in Pembrokeshire and the ruling Labour group in Carmarthenshire where the level of protest and dissent is currently 'nil'.

Bryn Parry-Jones has now 'stepped aside' of course, and Gloucestershire Police are investigating the alleged extent of his involvement in the authorship of the report recommending the pension arrangement. The Labour group, led by Cllr Paul Miller who hosted a public meeting this week, are considering formal disciplinary procedures against Mr P-J over recent scandals and allegations.

Pembs councillor Mike Stoddart (Old Grumpy) has added his views regarding the slippery slope facing the ruling mob in Pembs, and also deliberates on the problems and pitfalls of permanently removing an unwanted chief executive.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Interim Charging Order

Update 18th September; My objections to the Charge being made final have now been filed with the Court and served on Mr James' solicitors. It will be heard by Master Cook, Royal Courts of Justice, by telephone on the 30th.

Update 2nd September; The Land Registry has rejected my objections and entered Mr James' Interim Charge on my home. The next step is the court hearing on the 30th September. The Land Registry does not tend to consider legal points which formed my objection, it remains to be seen whether the court will.


This, in italics below, is the interim charging order which council chief executive Mark James is attempting to enter on the Land Registry. I have until Thursday register my objections. I have already done so, in the strongest possible terms.

The next stage is the court hearing where Mr James will be seeking to change 'Interim' to 'Final', currently listed for the 30th September 2014. Due to the expense involved, I asked for it to be moved to Wales, but for it not to be a telephone hearing....the court has now directed that it will be a telephone hearing. So that's that, looks like I'll have to defend my home by phone.

My objections and arguments to the final Charging Order must be filed with the court at least seven days beforehand. If my objections are not successful then Mr James can apply for the next stage of enforcement.

Interim Charging Order;
"RESTRICTION; No disposition of the registered estate, other than a disposition by the proprietor of any registered charge registered before the entry of this restriction, is to be registered without a certificate signed by the applicant for registration or their conveyancer that written notice of the disposition was given to Mark James at [address]. being the person with the benefit of an interim charging order on the beneficial interest of Jacqueline Thompson made by the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division on 19th June 2014 (Court reference HQ11D04250)"

Recent posts;
Blogger will "fight to the bitter end"
Western Mail reports on libel enforcement

Meryl's Meetings

Individual Executive Board Member Decision meetings have always been closeted affairs with the public and press excluded. Most deal with fairly standard stuff although the more notorious ones include Cllr Pam Palmer's 'deliberations' over the freedom of the press and some of those related to Regeneration.

Regeneration is Meryl Gravell's portfolio and she has, for years, given the final approval to millions of pounds given out in various grants. The brief minutes, or 'Decision Record' is not published until after the event so any questions or scrutiny is nigh on impossible.

Often the recipients are named only by their initials so, for example, it took a Freedom of Information request to find out that £20,000 to O C Ltd was an unnecessary £20k to the multi billion pound company Odeon Plc as a contribution towards the new sound system in the Eastgate development. Other grants have included various hot tubs and boilers and such like to promote tourism, and some of them have been questionable.

At the most recent meeting the council's old friends and evangelical christian partners at the Towy Community Church pop up under the snappily titled Welsh Church Fund 'Axis 3 Rural Community Inclusion Fund', in receipt of a modest £2135, modest compared to the £1.4m they've already had anyway. You never know, perhaps the 'community inclusion' bit is to set the bowling alley up as a venue for LGBT weddings....

The budget cuts for next year include a proposal to scrap these meetings altogether, to save on printing costs, and to have all decisions made by the Executive Board, although most would be in private session. This may be quite a good idea as at a Regen meeting in June Meryl, accompanied by one Regen officer, signed off a whopping £2.6m grant from the South West Wales Property Development Fund, the decision record states that it was for a 'proposed development of a food grade industrial unit on Plot 3, Cross Hands Food Park'.

I am not questioning the validity or business case of the grant, the SWWPDF appears to be a European funded pot covering selected parts of west Wales; a consortium of local authorities led by Carmarthenshire Council. It can fund speculative ventures but does exclude 'primary food processing', but maybe this particular grant, which went to a development company, is something different, who knows. A search for the official website for the Cross Hands Food Park turns up an 'Account Suspended' message.

Anyway, the point here is whether or not there should be a limit on just how much money the Executive Board Member, in this case Meryl, can sign off without it being referred to the Executive Board at the very least. £2.6m? Seems a staggering amount, and all done and dusted in exactly 15 minutes. The agenda for these meetings also states that; 'The Executive Board Member, having considered the reports on the under-mentioned items and taken into account the views of Local Members and interested parties where applicable, made the following decisions...' 

So are the local members and any 'interested parties' ever consulted? I guess the key phrase here is 'where applicable' which gives plenty of scope not to consult anyone.

Cllr Meryl Gravell (Ind)

Sunday 17 August 2014

Third Sector to 'feel the pain'

As Carmarthenshire Council, like other Welsh Councils, looks to find extra cuts over the next few years, it seems it's going to start with third sector organisations; voluntary and community groups, charities and the like.

The actual 'volumes of funding' to these groups, councillors are told, is somewhere 'in the region of £35m', clearly the council is not sure of the exact amount...but, they are also told, it is now time for third sector groups to 'feel the pain'.

At a Policy and Resources committee meeting held April, members were given the figure of £19m, to be paid out in 2013/14. This Third Sector spending review is not new, the Policy and Resources committee has been looking at reducing funding for sometime, the upshot being that actually the whole system is so disorganised, scattered and mismanaged that no one is entirely sure who is getting what, what for, and what exactly they're doing with it.

The Wales Audit Office has yet again this year repeated it's concerns over the "weaknesses in the Council’s grant management arrangements which present a significant financial and reputational risk to the Council"

Over the past few years the council has been looking to charities and volunteers to take over the running of services such as Luncheon Clubs and day centres for the elderly, and cuts to Citizens Advice and Women's Aid, for example, have also been part of recent budget decisions. Although there is undoubtedly room to sort the wheat from the chaff, to further squeeze these suppliers of frontline services is a little counter productive.

The third sector groups will be asked to complete an Impact Assessment questionnaire which will form the basis of future decisions, those that can afford to pay a professional to fill it in, and those who have a 'close relationship' with the council, will be at a distinct advantage.

It's again a matter of priority, will the council be looking at their funding to that other great charity, Scarlets Regional Ltd? Will they be asking them to start paying some rent for the stadium or will they continue to pay them rent for 'office space'?

Will questions be asked over the twenty year, £5m, commitment to pay the owners of the Eastgate development for renting even more office space?

And rumours are circulating that questions have very much been asked over an alleged £2m payment to Sainsburys relating to their new store in Cross Hands.

And what about the unfortunate deal over the car park sale between the council and the Scarlets, where value for money and the public pound were the least of the council's concerns. It smacks of hypocrisy when the terms of this new review into third sector funding is to "Ensure that grant funding given to the 3rd sector delivers value for money for our citizens and the public pound"

I could go on about the unlawful payments and the costs to defend them and fees incurred, including £3k+ just for Mr Kerr QC to turn up at the emergency meeting on the 27th Feb. But I won't.

Savings will have to be made but there is a wider picture here and one of priority, and scrapping the council propaganda sheet would be a welcome start. Then, for instance, is the amount the council spends on private consultants, around £2.68m in 2012/13, and that's without expenditure on external legal advice which was just shy of a quarter of a million in 2013/14.

The Auditor General, in his statutory 'Annual Improvement Report' stated that due to the failures in governance highlighted by the two Public Interest Reports it is of the utmost importance, with regards to the forthcoming financial challenges, that public confidence is fully restored in the decision making process. He also refers to the ongoing governance review being undertaken by the WLGA;

"...The increasing financial pressures (and potentially the changing face of local government in Wales) will mean that the Council is likely to have to make some difficult policy decisions and all officers and members have a key role to play in this, and in ensuring that any trust and confidence lost as a result of weaknesses in arrangements is rebuilt. 

Until the WLGA has concluded its work and we have completed forthcoming improvement assessment work, the Auditor General will be unable to conclude whether the Council can put in arrangements to continually improve." 

Can I remind readers that there are only a couple of days left to send in your contributions to the WLGA review, (link here), the deadline is Wednesday 20th August. 

Friday 15 August 2014

Further coverage; "Blogger will fight to the bitter end"

Carmarthen Journal 13th August

Further to my previous post about the article in the Western Mail, this week's Carmarthen Journal reports on the ongoing attempt by Mr James to enforce payment of the damages arising from the unlawfully funded counterclaim. Although, unlike the WM, the Journal doesn't mention the unlawful funding;

Llanwrda blogger will fight to the bitter end to save home

I will indeed fight to the bitter end; as I said in the article, I have no choice.

The article quotes Mr James from earlier in the year, as apparently he is currently away. Therefore the acting head of law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, provides a statement which can be read in full on the above link.

I do not want to reiterate what I've already said about the outcome of the case, I've already made my views very clear but Ms Rees-Jones reminds us that it was I who instigated the initial proceedings; I did so of course because of the defamatory comments which Mr James decided to send to the Madaxeman blog.

Ms Rees-Jones also reminds us that 'all litigation carries a risk'. She is quite right but for Mr James there was never any personal risk, it had been arranged that if I had won, any damages awarded to me arising from Mr James' comments, would, like his legal costs for the counterclaim, have been paid by the taxpayer, not him.

One of the more interesting points which has recently come to light concerns something Mr James said in his sworn witness statement for the trial. He claimed that a former councillor, who he named fully, had personally praised him for his comments on the Madaxeman blog. The former councillor was astonished by this claim and has offered to provide a notarized statement that such a conversation never, ever took place.

The Welsh language current affairs magazine Golwg also features an article in this week's edition and does mention the unlawful funding;

As I said, I will fight this to the end, whatever the end might be.


The latest news from Pembrokeshire is that Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones has (finally) taken a 'leave of absence', gardening leave to you and me, whilst the police continue investigations concerning the unlawful pensions scandal.
The last straw was a revelation by two councillors from the Pembs ruling Independent group that they were subjected to a 'foul mouthed' tirade from Mr P-J after they voted in favour of Jacob Williams' motion to ask for the unlawful pension money to be returned, back in May.
It is a fact, often forgotten in a couple of west Wales counties, that councillors can vote any way they like, not as the chief executives expects them to.
More details, can be read on Jacob Williams blog, today's Pembrokeshire Herald and  BBC Wales

Monday 11 August 2014

Electoral Registration - Cabinet Office #fail

The Caebrwyn household and every other voter in the county, if not Wales, has received notice that voter registration is changing. Basically it means that every individual is now responsible for registering themselves, rather than the 'head of the household'.

After being contacted by a bemused resident who had noticed a glaring contradiction, I took a closer look and the information with regards to the 'Open Register' is indeed contradictory, as you can see underlined below. 

To be clear (as mud) it says; "Your details are not on the open register. To be added to the open register please contact us using the details at the top of this letter". 

Further down the page you are then told; "Your name and address will be included in the open register unless you ask for them to be removed". The 'open register' is the list which can be sold on to third parties.

The resident took the trouble of contacting the council and then the Electoral Commission and the latter told him that it was the Cabinet Office who were responsible for drafting the letter, and that councils had to send it out, presumably at considerable cost, despite the glaring error. Both the council and the Electoral Commission said it was 'contradictory' and 'confusing', the word 'wrong' is not included in public sector vocabulary of course.

Click to enlarge

A Letter in today's Western Mail

A letter from a resident of Carmarthenshire published in today's Western Mail;

Do these councillors feel threatened? 
Sir – That a public servant should be allowed to sue a local council taxpayer out of public funds is as astonishing as it is amoral, but it seems that in Carmarthenshire it is endorsed by the local gaggle of county councillors. 
Perhaps they view the possible demise of their chief executive as a threat to themselves? We all know that when certain people fall out, ordinary people benefit. Similarly, the one accused can so often bring down those with similar faults. Maybe the county councillors of Carmarthenshire are running scared of what might be revealed? I can think of no other reason that they should throw out the decision of the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, Anthony Barrett in his public interest report in which he said the council acted unlawfully in underwriting Mr James’s counterclaim. 
There can be no getting away from the fact that Mr James, and those councillors who backed his actions, acted against the best interests of the council taxpayers of Carmarthenshire. His was a private action and he should have paid the price of hiring top London lawyers. It was not for any county councillor to underwrite his expenses. Had the litigant had to consider his intentions at greater depth, undoubtedly he would have thought rather more deeply about bringing a case against the blogger who was seeking to highlight his failures, as well as those of the local county council. 
Maureen Jenner
(Source; Western Mail)

Recent posts;
Western Mail reports on libel enforcement
Enforcement of counterclaim damages

Wales Audit Office; Indemnity for Libel Counterclaim - Carmarthenshire County Council - Report in the Public Interest, published January 2014

Friday 8 August 2014

Western Mail reports on libel enforcement - updated

Link to article in today's Western Mail;

Blogger fears she will lose home as Carmarthenshire council boss seeks libel winnings
by Martin Shipton

(blogpost 30th July; Enforcement of counterclaim damages)


10th August

Friday saw a 200-strong protest outside Pembrokeshire county hall, organised by the three main trade unions. Staff and councillors joined the protest where the main message was 'Bryn Out', referring of course to the chief executive Bryn Parry Jones.

The behaviour of Mr Parry Jones over the pension scandal is well documented and Pembs councillor Jacob Williams provides further evidence of the bullying tactics employed by their chief exec, which led to the resignation of the chair of the audit committee who felt his position of neutrality was severely compromised.

Readers may remember Sian Thomas, the previous Chair of Carmarthenshire Council saying exactly the same thing back in February.

It is clear to me from the comments on this, and my previous post, that feelings are just as strong in Carmarthenshire where there was not just one damning WAO report, but two. Of course, unlike Pembrokeshire, we can't rely on our Labour group leader, Kevin Madge to galvanise the voice of protest as he is merely the nodding dog on the mantlepiece of the presidential suite.

I am in a difficult position, in fact I despair. However, I can take an objective stance and after years of observation, reporting, and contact with staff; councillors; independent journalists, and of course the long suffering public, documented on this blog, (what is left of it), I can categorically state that when it comes to bullying, intimidation, downright arrogance and moral turpitude, both Mr James and Mr Parry-Jones are clearly from the same school, from which Mark James CBE graduated with honours.


This morning, Cneifiwr has provided further comment on the current situation Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. (12th August; the author of the Madaxeman blog, Martin Milan who appeared as a witness on my behalf at trial, has left a comment on Cneifiwr's post)