Tuesday 30 September 2014

Final Charging Order...and Mr James is off

Update February 2015; Mark James is staying...

The telephone hearing was held at 2pm this afternoon and Mark James was granted his final charging order on my home for his damages from his unlawfully funded counterclaim.

The other news this afternoon is that Mr James will, at some point over the next few months, be clearing his desk and moving on, or retiring, or whatever. The council issued a statement today
that "....an application for severance has been received from the Chief Executive, Mr Mark James....there is a process to be followed to consider each application over the next three to four months. During this period, it will be business as usual for Mr James who will continue in his role as Chief Executive..."
As I understand it the post of chief executive will also become redundant and Mr James could potentially walk off with a hefty deal.

Interesting. If he is moving on to greener pastures, then he should carry a compulsory government health warning. Talk about leaving a trail of destruction...

As for today's hearing, my original request to the court to have this heard in locally, in Wales was refused. In addition, a last minute mix-up by the court meant that a different judge heard the application. He did not have any of the paperwork, or details of the case in front of him, including my objections which I have copied, in part, below. I was able, however, to give a summary of the main points.

Mr James now has a couple of options; to leave the charge in place, with interest of £166 per month accruing or to make a further application to the court to force sale of my home so he can get his money. The judge did not agree to freeze the interest.

As I have explained, this sum of money, over £30,000 relates to the damages, it has nothing to do with the costs which were awarded against me, £190,000 for the claim and £41,000 for the unlawful counterclaim. Mr James has, if nothing else, ensured that he has secured his money first, there is nothing left for the Council or for that matter, the taxpayer.

I add that should I have been successful with my claim, Mr James was at no risk as he had made sure that any damages he would have had to pay to me were going to be provided by the Carmarthenshire taxpayer.

As I have also said, on numerous occasions, I do not agree with the findings of either the trial judge nor the appeal court. However, I have little choice in the matter but I hoped today that the court may have given me the benefit of the doubt given the unlawful findings. Clearly not.

It leaves me with little else other than to say how I feel and I make no apologies for what I am about to say. I am in no doubt that by securing this charge on my home Mr James has gained financially from an unlawful action in public office; not just unlawful in principle but in practice as well.

You may remember he was present, and took part in the meeting when the indemnity was granted and used his own lawyer to provide 'independent' advice.

Quite clearly, public vindication was not enough for Mr James and if nothing else, this ongoing battle has revealed to me that he is a vindictive dishonest bully, and a control freak of the highest order, and has failed miserably to follow his supposed Christian faith.  All I can do is reiterate that I will fight this to the bitter end; I do not acknowledge the debt, either the damages nor the costs and as long as I have breath in my body I will try my damndest not to hand over one penny to either Mr James nor the council.

At this stage I do not particularly care about what has been said against me over the past couple of years, I know in my heart that all I have ever done is criticise a tin pot council, when necessary and try and bring some light and local interest into the dark corners of the local authority. I have never made false allegations about anyone, unlike Mr James. He will not be missed.

Neither have I hid behind a mask of anonymity.

If you are wondering why I am being so outspoken, it is the truth, plain and simple.

I shall, of course be continuing with the blog, whether it be from my home or from a bloody tent.

As I have said, I have copied the first part of my objection to the charge below, the second part consisted of personal, financial and family details which I will not be publishing.

Queen's Bench Masters
Queen’s Bench Division
Royal Courts of Justice
Case Ref; HQ11D04250 
Dear Sir, 
This letter and accompanying documentation is filed and served as my
objection to the Interim Charging Order, granted to the benefit of Mr Mark James on the 19th June 2014, being made final. 
Hearing date; 30th September 2014 at 2pm, by telephone. 
I object to the Charge on Title CYM**** being made final on the grounds detailed below. 
1.  The funding of the counterclaim which gave rise to the damages which forms the greatest part of this judgement debt has been found to be unlawful by Carmarthenshire council’s independent auditors, the Wales Audit Office (WAO).  
I enclose copies of the ‘Indemnity for Libel Counterclaim - Carmarthenshire County Council - Report in the Public Interest issued by the Wales Audit Office January 2014.  
I also enclose the legal advice from Browne Jacobson LLP commissioned by the WAO in respect of the libel counterclaim dated 19th September 2013. 
2. The decision to indemnify Mr James was found to be unlawful on two grounds;
Firstly, it was specifically prohibited under 6.(3) of the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers)(Wales) Order 2006 (“ the 2006 Order“) therefore the decision was ultra vires. 
I enclose a copy of the 2006 Order. 
3.  Secondly, Mr James failed to declare a personal and pecuniary interest, or leave the Executive Board (Council cabinet) meeting on the 23rd Jan 2012 when the indemnity was discussed and approved.  
This also rendered the decision void and unlawful. 
Mr James also had input into the report recommending his indemnity prior to the meeting of the Executive Board in 2012. 
4.  Although the Wales Audit Office is unequivocal in its finding of unlawfulness, even the Council itself (meeting of full council 9th July 2014) has determined that the issue is unresolved and remains a matter for the courts to decide on a principle of public law. 
5.  As a result of the Wales Audit Office Report, the clause in the council’s constitution which allowed such indemnities, contrary to the 2006 Order, was permanently suspended at an Extraordinary meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council on February 27th 2014. 
6.  If Mr James is successful in this application then he would be benefiting financially from a decision which was found to be unlawful in principle and in practice. 
7.  In addition, the First Minister of the Welsh Government, Carwyn Jones AM publicly stated on the 8th July 2014 that “…we as a government have said that it is not right to provide any sort of indemnity in terms of what has happened here” 
8.  The Appeal Court judges in their judgment issued on the 14th May 2014 (Thompson v James [2014] EWCA Civ 600) specifically chose not to make any observations on the lawfulness of the indemnity provision, clearly recognising the controversy, and, after having seen the Wales Audit Office report. 
9.  The grounds above relating to the unlawful funding in Carmarthenshire could have been subject to a claim for a Judicial Review. Despite the prospect of further court action and possible cost risk I am still exploring the possibilities of a Judicial Review over the decision. I am hopeful that the time limit for bringing proceeding could be extended in these unique circumstances.  
10.  I ask the court to recognise this whole matter as an abuse of process and that the unlawful funding is highly relevant to the judgment debt for damages arising from the counterclaim and accordingly I am asking the court to set aside the Charge and any other enforcement proceedings and dismiss Mr James’ application.  
As a matter of principle, there is still an important point of public law yet to be resolved. 
At the very least, I believe that such a drastic step of a Charging Order on my home should not be made whilst this legal controversy is ongoing.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Meryl's grants - the press office to the rescue!

With the increasing interest in what have become known as Meryl's Millions, the council seem to be going to some lengths to assure the enquiring public that everything is above board.

As I have said, the Wales Audit Office remains less than satisfied with the council's grant management system, for the third year running.

Yesterday's publication of the most recent speculative award of £302k from the South West Wales Property Development Fund includes an explanation using warm words such as 'due diligence', low risk', and 'satisfied the agreed procurement rules'. There is nothing unusual in these grants of course, what is unusual is the sudden desire to add the explanation, it's as if a nerve has been touched somewhere...

What probably doesn't help matters, in the transparency stakes at least, is that these meetings are held in private and the agenda isn't published until several days after the event.

Just to be on the safe side, and to stave off those..erm..enquiring minds, Meryl and Co have today called in the help of the propaganda division, the council press office.

The press release announces the start of an office development in Carmarthen which had benefited from another speculative £400k SWWPDF grant to Hacer Developments Ltd.

The press release hails the possible creation of 17 jobs, which is slightly overshadowed by the fact that the offices will be occupied by Bro Myrddin Housing Association who are relocating from the other side of town and presumably relocating the jobs in the process.
For good measure, the press release goes into some detail about the structure and benefits of the SWWPDF

As I said, there is nothing unusual in these grants, nor am I suggesting there is anything wrong with the successful applicants. Personally I find it odd, in these austere times that the fund is prepared to give large grants to entirely speculative projects, you would think that the element of risk would be too great.

However, the press release quotes an enthusiastic Meryl; “I am pleased that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help take forward this venture which will provide high quality office space in Carmarthen.”

Which is not dissimilar to this quote in January 2013 (another speculative grant to a sister company of Hacer Developments Ltd) “It is good news that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help bring about this venture to provide industrial space at Llanelli Gate which is a major hub for business in Carmarthenshire with the advantage of excellent transport links.”

..and remarkably similar to this quote, also in 2013;“I am pleased that the South West Wales Property Development Fund has been able to help take forward this venture which will provide high quality office space in Carmarthen. The end occupier and their customers, have the benefit of excellent transport links to and from the site.” referring to an earlier grant to the same company featuring in yesterday's decision.

Anyway, it seems that what Meryl may lack in the way of original quotes she has more than made up for in the latest photo shoot. Keen to assure her adoring public, she appears (2nd from right) to have rushed straight out of bed and turned up in her dressing gown; 

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Friday's Audit Committee (aside from the elephants)

The council's Audit Committee meets on Friday and the rather dry looking agenda hides the fact that there are serious issues on the cards. Not least of all the letter from the lay member of that very committee, Sir David Lewis to the WLGA governance review panel in which he described the governance of the council as "in disarray and not fit for purpose" and the internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The statement of accounts has again been marred by the chief executive's pension and libel indemnity scandals (incurring an audit fee of £51k) and furthermore, the accounts will not be finally signed off by the Appointed Auditor until 'enquiries arising from matters raised by members of the public have been formally completed'.

One of those enquiries concerns the peculiar deal between the council and the Scarlets over the sale of a car park. We also know, from press reports, that work is still ongoing in relation to Meryl's millions.

So, aside from various elephants in the room, the Wales Audit Office have again raised general concern over the council's grant management procedures. There have been some improvements but the council still falls well below the Wales average in terms of the numbers of audited grants which need qualifying and amending. The findings of the WAO include ineligible expenditure, a lack of audit trail/insufficient evidence to support transactions and infringement of procurement rules.

A sample of grant claims which are not subject to external audit were also looked at and the WAO concluded that there were "weaknesses within the Council’s grants management arrangements which increases the risk of poor decision-making and inappropriate expenditure".

In conclusion, I would imagine if this was a school report it would say 'could do better' or maybe even, 'see me'...

There are also, interestingly, a couple of reports from the council's own internal audit review programme which show 'fundamental weaknesses', One concerns claims for travel and subsistence, and another relates to homecare (domiciliary) payments.

The council paid out over £2.4m last year in travel and subsistence (meals) to staff. It appears from the internal report that claims and reimbursement are not always compliant with the current travel policy, and agreed procedures not always followed. Quite how this problem has manifested itself in detail remains unknown but clearly there is something of an issue.

The homecare payments (over £17m last year) report, is even more worrying as there appears to be a difference of opinion between the council's internal auditors and their own department of social care as to how payments, which are largely to private healthcare providers, are monitored and whether the elderly and vulnerable at the receiving end are actually getting the hours that the providers are under contract to deliver.

The council's internal auditors recommended and assumed that the electronic 'call logging system' was used to check on staff attendance and therefore the actual time spent delivering care in the home, and therefore the subsequent payment to the care provider.
The Social Care department took a different view in that the call logging system should not be used to check that payments were appropriate to the hours worked.

The internal audit issued a report finding 'significant variances' between the contracted and invoiced hours, and the start and finish times recorded on the “call logging system”. This gave rise to "serious concern from both a care and financial perspective".

In light of this internal audit, the social care department then conducted its own 'review' and decided that the concerns flagged up by the internal audit report were 'not borne out' by their own experience and feedback.

However, out of this confused internal stand-off, the audit report recommended that a "complete review of the internal Homecare contract monitoring arrangements should be undertaken" to ensure "the proper use of Electronic Call Monitoring Systems ... to ensure care is delivered as expected and payments made are accurate."
I should think so to.

Finally, the decision record for one of Meryl's meetings was published today and included in the list of grants from the Mynydd y Betws Community Benefit Fund (wind turbine) was a couple of grand for the Llandybie Male Voice Choir.

The footnote to this grant was that it was 'Subject to the proviso that the piano will be returned to the Authority should the choir fold'. Will Meryl be looking out with anticipation for the demise of the choir and hauling the piano back to county hall for an executive board sing-song?
I wonder if other grants include such provisos?


Update 21:49 
Plaid Cymru Councillor Darren Price has commented briefly today on the £27,000 paid to Mr Tim Kerr QC for legal advice over the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments paid to Mr James. 

You may remember leader Kevin Madge (Lab) announced the figure in response to Cllr Price's 'councillor question' at the last council meeting. 

Cllr Price points out today that 'Meanwhile, Labour county councillors are threatening to take to court pensioners who put out their rubbish bins too early'

There's something very wrong somewhere. The Statement of Accounts referred to above confirms that Mr James' salary for 2013/14 was £180,889 plus the indemnity payment.

Monday 15 September 2014

Public Question Time

After the 'Questions from councillors' fiasco at last week's council meeting we look forward to next month's gathering when the long awaited WLGA governance report is supposed to be on the agenda. It remains to be seen if the 'panel' agrees that council governance is 'in disarray and not fit for purpose'.

I hope, of course that there will be further questions from councillors and that they will be given the democratic courtesy of a supplementary question.

Whilst on the subject of questions, given that the last time a member of the public asked a question was in 2005, it is worth remembering that as long as you either live or work, or own a business in Carmarthenshire, you can put a question to an Executive Board Member at a full council meeting.

Although 'Public Question Time' does not appear on the agenda for full council meetings, if questions are put forward, it will do, as it is required by the constitution.

This is what you have to do;

You can ask one question, and this must be delivered in writing or by email to the Chief Executive by midday, seven working days before the meeting.
The email address is MJames@carmarthenshire.gov.uk or by post to; Chief Executive, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP.

You must include your name and address and the name of the Executive Board Member to which the question is to be put. For details of the areas of responsibility for each of the Exec Board Members there is a list here.

If you have a question for the meeting on October 8th, by my reckoning it must arrive by 12 noon on Monday the 29th September.

The question needs to be worded with care as the chief executive will reject the question if he decides it;
1.  is not about a matter for which the county Council has a responsibility or which affects the County;
2.  is defamatory, frivolous or offensive;
3.  is substantially the same as a question which has been put at a meeting of the Council in the past six months; or
4.  requires the disclosure of confidential or exempt information.

That's the 'official' list anyhow.

Each question will then be entered in 'a book' open to public inspection and sent to the relevant Member so they can formulate their reply. If a question is rejected, the reason for rejection must be recorded.

If you have got this far, well done - you are now able to ask your question at the meeting, by which time, all councillors will have a copy of your question.

If at all possible, it's a good idea if you can attend. The Chair will invite you to ask your question to the Member you have named. If the member is absent then you will receive a written answer. The same applies if the meeting is running short of time.

If you cannot attend, the Chair will either ask the question on your behalf and a written answer will follow, or he may decide not to ask the question at all.

If you actually manage to ask your question, and get a reply, then you can ask one supplementary (follow-up) question which must be directly related to the question or the reply, and must not breach the four 'official' points of rejection above.

There will normally be no discussion over the point you have raised in your question, but any Member can propose that it is referred to the Executive Board, or a relevant committee for further deliberation.

Suggestions have gone to the WLGA panel to simplify this process and for the council to actively encourage public questions. A straightforward page on their website would help rather than the information being buried in the depths of the constitution.

Meanwhile, fire away!

A way with words

The next meeting of the council's Community scrutiny committee meets on Friday and one item on the agenda is an update on the tendering process for minor works, up to £150,000.

The council uses a 'framework' of contractors who are appointed for a period of around four years. This is supposed to save time and money by not having to re-tender for each job. However, this particular 'framework' appears to have cost quite a lot of time and money.

The report to the committee details the extensive procurement and advertising exercise, (which must also be compliant with EU rules) which started June 2012, and was due to be 'operational' by April this year. Included within the process is a ten day period to allow for a challenge.

In this case, an unsuccessful contractor did put forward a challenge and although the details have not been published, the report states that it was;

'prudent on a commercial basis that the process would stop and that the authority would re-tender. In view of the content of the challenge it was felt that the time would be best served to improve the documentation and adjust the framework to meet the needs of the Authority.'

In other words, the challenge was successful because somewhere along the lengthy line the process was flawed. It was going to take another stab at the whole tender to get it right. However, this is really a huge advantage as we can now 'improve our documentation' and 'adjust' the framework.

The framework eventually became operational on the 1st September, over a fortnight before this report goes to Scrutiny.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Gloucestershire Police - Freedom of Information review

Update 26th September 2014; I have now made a complaint to the Information Commissioner


Back in May, the 12th to be exact, I made a Freedom of Information request to Gloucestershire Police for details of the criminal investigation relating to Carmarthenshire County Council.

The investigation followed the Wales Audit Office public interest reports concerning the unlawful libel indemnity and pension payments and also followed a request for a police investigation from Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards.

Gloucestershire Police conducted the investigation as the local force, Dyfed Powys were considered to be to 'close' to the local authority.
The investigation was concluded in early May.

The original Freedom of Information request was for;
1. The final report following the conclusion of the investigation
2. A list of any persons interviewed, and /or job titles, and whether any of these were interviewed under caution
3. Whether or not the CPS were involved and if so, any relevant correspondence.
4. Correspondence between Gloucestershire Constabulary and Carmarthenshire County Council
5. A list, or summary, of all documents in either paper or electronic form which formed part of the investigation.
I was subsequently informed that the investigation did not involve any correspondence with Carmarthenshire Council, nor did they speak to anyone at County Hall and there was no involvement with the Crown Prosecution Service.
In addition, the list of documents used in the investigation, and the final report was withheld. The full original response can be seen here (pdf)

On the 17th June I asked for an internal review of their response. I said;
Points 1 and 5 were considered to be exempt from disclosure. As I said in my request I would have been satisfied with a list of individual documents rather than the documents themselves. I would like you to review your decision and reconsider whether any/all disclosure is possible either in full or as a list. 
As the investigation has concluded and no criminal findings were made, please also review your decision not to disclose the final report. 
With reference to my whole request, this investigation involved two public bodies and I would like to add that transparency is of the utmost importance
The response to this review, another refusal, finally arrived this morning. It can be read in full here (pdf)

Far from deciding to release either the list of documents or the final report, further 'exemptions' have been applied and the initial exemptions revamped.

When considering whether or not to release information, a public body considers three steps; factors favouring disclosure, factors favouring non-disclosure and then it applies the public interest 'balance' test. In other words, it weighs up the pros, the cons.

The response to my original request used a Section 30 exemption which, to put it simply, decided that if the list of documents and the final report were released it might alert potential criminals to the manner of police investigations and there is a danger that they might reduce their offending to an undetectable level.
The 'balance' test was then applied and concluded that;
'To disclose the requested information would hinder the prevention and detection of crime and lead to criminals avoiding detection. It could also undermine the effectiveness of procedures used by other agencies to prosecute offenders'. 
The response to the review, received today, states that in respect of this 'balance' test, 'some of the factors were not appropriate given the nature of the information requested'

The revised exemption now reads thus;
Section 30 – Factors favouring disclosure
Disclosure of this information would provide the public with an awareness of how the Police Service undertakes investigations and enable them to satisfy themselves that an investigation has been thoroughly undertaken.  
Section 30 – Factors favouring non-disclosure
Disclosure of information relating to the matters considered by Police as to whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing would involve the disclosure of a substantial amount of information relating to actual or potential civil litigation proceedings. 
Disclosure under Freedom of Information is disclosure to the world at large and it is not in the public interest to allow the open dissemination of information relating to civil proceedings, which is not already in the public domain. 
Balance test
The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve and there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations to ensure investigations are conducted appropriately. 
However, the Police are responsible for matters falling within the jurisdiction of the criminal law and it is firmly against the public interest for the Police to disclose information relating to civil proceedings in which the Police are not involved and have no responsibility in terms of the outcome. 
Disclosure in relation to civil proceedings is subject to the procedures and rules of the Civil Courts and that function should not be potentially usurped by the Police. 
In view of the above, it is our opinion that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
Two further exemption have also been applied, Section 40 which concerns third party personal data (this does not require a public interest test) and Section 42, Legal Professional Privilege (LLP) which protects correspondence between a client and their lawyer. In this particular case, the public interest test failed and the LLP exemption succeeded. Quite who, or which body was claiming LLP I'm not sure.

What surprises me is the revised Section 30. What 'actual or potential' civil litigation proceedings are being referred to? The libel trial? Any future civil action by the Wales Audit Office? Something else? And what information, relating to any of these, is not already in the public domain? The response seems suggests that to release the information could jeopardize the outcome of civil litigation proceedings.

As for the answers to those questions, your guess is as good as mine.

The full thread of the request and review can be read here and my earlier post on the subject, here.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

September Council meeting...and those 'councillors questions'

Today's council meeting was the first of the autumn term. With around eighteen apologies for absence, quite a few had yet to make it back. Including Meryl, unless she was being kept busy with the press.... I've only mentioned a few points here, so for the whole thing tune into the archived webcast tomorrow. (11th Sept; Now archived here)

As usual the meeting kicked off with Bill Thomas (Lab) and Sian Caiach declaring their interests in planning matters. The interest is their ongoing objections to council planning policy in relation to the problem of pollution in the Burry Estuary. The EU Commission has recently directed that the UK government is in breach of policies to protect certain areas, and names specifically the Burry Estuary.

Also as usual, attempts were made to silence the two councillors who were spoiling the party with metaphorical buckets of raw sewage. What is more, as the meeting progressed, the Chair, Daff Davies (Ind), for reasons known only to himself, found Bill Thomas' principled stand increasingly hilarious. What a gent...

Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Caiach declared an interest in a planning committee report and responded to a critical statement from Kevin Madge who had just slated her for her stance over the pollution issue and planning policy. She was again silenced by both Cllr Madge and the Chair. When it was suggested she write to Cllr Madge, the chief executive can be clearly heard to say, sarcastically, "something to look forward to".
I remember, at the trial last year, Mr James remarking on letters of complaint from members of the public, he said that usually, after one letter, they give up. A quick deflection of criticism, not an early resolution to a problem, is considered a victory in County Hall.

Back to the meeting again and tributes were paid to the retiring Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon. Uneventful aside from a brief faux pas from Exec Board Member Cllr Jane Tremlett who purred her thanks to the Director for taking them all through the good times and the bad. Forgetting momentarily that there are no 'bad times' when it comes to Carmarthenshire Council she quickly changed 'bad' to 'not so good'. Oops.

The misleading minutes of the previous full council meeting were then approved.

Next up were the changes to the constitution required by new legislation, (see shuffling the deck). Cllr Dole (Plaid) brought up the point that if the chief executive no longer had the power to scold and/or fire the Monitoring Officer or the head of Democratic Services, who would?

According to Linda Rees Jones, a 'Disciplinary Panel A' would have to be constituted if there was a disciplinary matter to be dealt with... Fortunately for her, her involvement in the libel indemnity scandal came under the old rules....

One of the new rules is that an interim appointment of a senior official can last no longer than twelve months. Cllr Caiach questioned this rule and, as an example, mentioned Ms Rees Jones' three year 'interim' status. The reply didn't divulge anything further on Linda's mysterious employment status nor it's apparent conflict with the new legislation.

The main event, for Caebrwyn, and which I enthusiastically mentioned last week, was the new slot for 'councillors questions'. It wasn't the content of the questions which was so important; it was the faint ray of hope that, in matters of transparency and scrutiny, things might have been changing for the better.

However, all hopes were quickly dashed as the carefully prepared bombshell was dropped that there would be no supplementary questions. That meant that once the (rigorously vetted) question was answered, that was it, no comebacks, no debate. Nothing.

Cllr Dole asked for clarification. The constitution allowed members of the public a supplementary (follow-up) question, but the position as regards to councillors was 'silent' but there was nothing in it to say they couldn't.

In every other public scenario it is usual for follow-up questions to be asked. The initial answer to a formal question will have always been prepared days earlier and, in normal democratic debate it is the follow-up which is the real question.

However, nothing is normal in County Hall and clearly Mr James and Ms Rees Jones had been burning the midnight oil over this. Linda started by saying it wasn't her fault, she'd 'inherited' the constitution. This was an odd statement given the number of time it's been changed. Anyway, because it didn't specifically say anything about supplementary questions, then they didn't exist.

Cllr Dole used a Shakespearean analogy to illustrate his point, referring to Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh, and that it was usually the villain who insisted on the letter of the law, eventually thwarted by the hero who argued for the spirit of the law.

The situation reminded me of the ban on public filming, the constitution was silent (and still is) on that too, but the 'silence' was conveniently interpreted to justify an arbitrary ban.

The situation clearly reminded Mark James of another scenario, not entirely unrelated to filming, and suggested that Emlyn Dole had missed his vocation and should be at the Bar of the High Court...
They had no choice, insisted our chief executive, they just had to stick to the letter of the law...
Unlike the libel indemnity then Mr James.

So with the constitution nicely interpreted to suit the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the Executive Board members, the charade continued.

The first was from Emlyn Dole who wanted reassurance that the final report from the WLGA review would come straight to full council. (see previous post). The Chair, known as the Elmer Fudd of local government, had been given a script to try and read informed Cllr Dole that the report would be coming in the next few weeks and that the WLGA panel may even present it to full council.
That was that. If Cllr Dole had anything else to say about it, he couldn't.

Alun Lenny's question was next and he asked whether Kevin Madge was ashamed over the recent introduction of Blue Badge charges considering his 2012 manifesto pledge to the contrary.
This was met with a lengthy, defensive Kev-style ramble revolving around the context of 'other authorities have done it so why can't we'.

Exec Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds then gave quite a straight answer to Cllr Lenny who asked what had become of the £250,000 loan to the Llanelly House project which was supposed to be repaid sometime last year. Apparently, due to underlying financial concerns with the project, the loan had never been released.  Another odd statement given the basis on which of some of the money is dished out from County Hall...

Cllr Colin Evans, Exec Board Member for Bins then gave a surly response to the question over bin bags, insisting that if little old ladies struggled with putting their bags out at 5am then they could 'phone the council'. It was something like that anyway.

I was so stunned by the constitutional maneuverings of Mark and Linda I had to go and make coffee to revive myself. You'll have to check the archive for accuracy.

Lastly was Cllr Price's enquiry as to the cost of Mr Tim Kerr QC over the pension and libel indemnity. Kev's answer was brief; "£26, 872.80p".
No follow-up allowed.

Let's hope the WLGA panel comes up with a suitable recommendation. You'll remember that Sir David Lewis, lay member of the Audit Committee described the council's internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The meeting drifted on we learned, during the debate over the 10-year social housing/council house repair plan that Kev's much talked about council bungalows have gone £100,000 over budget. It was "slippage", apparently.

Cllr Lemon wondered why, given that offices built at North Dock, Llanelli were still empty after four years, the plan was to build even more on a brownfield site next door. Why not build affordable housing, he enquired. Er, we'll have another look was the half hearted response.

Most of the remainder of the meeting was taken up with an 'anonymous' comment which appeared in the minutes of the last Executive Board meeting when Welsh language policy in education had been discussed.

The offending Minute read; 'Whilst recognising the importance of securing the future of the Welsh language, concern was expressed that it should not become a barrier to attracting overseas investors'.

Despite angry demands from the Plaid group for the Executive Board Member who said it to own up and back the statement up with some evidence, none of them did and, well, Meryl wasn't there.

Cllr Darren Price asked for an expression of opinion to be recorded that council did not agree with this sentence and its sentiment. However, after further constitutional contortions from Mark and Linda, they decided that 'expression of opinion' was definitely not allowed. What a farce.

An anonymous comment and an unfounded allegation in the Executive Board Minutes...? What is the world coming to.

For all the rest, and there was quite a bit more, you'll have to watch the archive. For anyone local to Caebrwyn who wanted to see what their local councillors Tom and Ivor had to say on their behalf, don't bother. Their only contribution was to fill in the expenses claim.

All eyes will be turning to Pembrokeshire's Emergency Council meeting on Friday for the votes of no confidence and the possible suspension of Bryn Parry Jones.
The Pembrokeshire Herald has the latest.

Monday 8 September 2014

Governance report - a confidential draft? - Updated

Update 9th September;
With reference to the WLGA response in yesterday's update, another term for 'interim observations and emerging proposals' is a 'draft report'. All 74 councillors should have had a copy, not a 'group of senior members and officers'. 

I understand the Plaid opposition group have at least been given the gist of the report by their leader, and the verdict so far is 'damning'. Which it should be.

Us mere mortals will obviously have to wait until next month to see just how damning it is....after the final draft is sent back to that very same group to pick over....

And don't forget, the monthly meetings of Carmarthenshire Council resume tomorrow at 10am and will be webcast here.

Update 20:36;
I emailed the WLGA with a couple of queries this morning and received the response, below, this evening. I appreciate the clarification although clearly the initial findings, and gist of the contents have already been discussed and are currently circulating.

In fact, although I welcome the appearance of councillors questions on Wednesday's agenda it strongly suggests that a minority are not just discussing the initial findings but implementing them as well in an attempt to avert a more damning final report;

"I can assure you that no draft report has been shared with the authority. Indeed, the peer team is yet to discuss a draft report as it has been collating further evidence, including public submissions, and the peer team completed its last interview last week.

The peer team did however provide interim observations and emerging proposals at the end of July to the same group of senior members and officers who met with the peer team at the initiation of the review. This is a normal part of all peer reviews. It was stressed however that this feedback was subject to further testing, further interviews and collation of evidence, not least that provided by the public.

The intention remains that the report will be presented at the meeting of full Council on the 8th October.

We will however share a final draft report with the council in advance in due course to check for factual accuracy, as is customary with external review reports, including those produced by the Wales Audit Office."


I understand that a draft report from the WLGA Governance Review panel has been issued to the leaders of the political groups of Carmarthenshire council. I assume it has also been issued to senior officials. The two non-aligned councillors have been excluded, one of them being Cllr Caiach.

The aim of the independent investigation, or 'review' was for the council to become the 'most open and transparent' in Wales. This is not a good start and to my mind misses whole point of this exercise, which was required after the two damning Wales Audit Office reports.

Myself and many others made lengthy submissions to the review panel, either in writing or by invitation and the report should have been published, in it's entirety, as soon as it was complete. If it was independent, it should not have gone to a select few, as a confidential document, for their appraisal and digestion first.

For references to the review, there are several posts on this blog, including here and here. The latter refers to the verdict from the lay member of the Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis in his letter to the panel, that Council governance was 'in disarray and not fit for purpose'


Pembrokeshire News

The latest from Pembrokeshire is that the Extraordinary council meeting has been brought forward to Friday (12th).
On the agenda is a Motion to commence formal disciplinary proceedings, including a two month suspension, against the chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones. One of the matters to be investigated will be the pensions scandal.
There will also be two votes of no confidence, one in the leader, Cllr Jamie Adams and one in the chief executive.
The Agenda is here.

Bryn Parry Jones

Update 9th September:
The Pembrokeshire Herald reports that Pembs chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones returned to work yesterday after what was supposed to be, according to the leader, Jamie Adams, a forced 'leave of absence'; it turned out that it happened to coincide with a pre-planned holiday in foreign parts.
Cllr Adams has claimed that he was 'powerless' to stop him returning. According to reports he is now working from home.

His brief departure was understood to have been related to further emerging allegations and another police investigation over the pension scandal.

His return is just in time for Friday's EGM, which will be webcast.

The BBC report is here and has focussed on the pension tax avoidance scandals in which both Mr Parry Jones and Carmarthenshire's Mark James took part.

Mr James also received an unlawful libel indemnity, as readers will be aware. So far, he appears to be getting away with both.

Mark James

Friday 5 September 2014

Meryl and the £2.6m grant - a turn for the worse

Update 8th September; I understand that the £2.6m grant awarded in June was not for Celtica Foods but a separate speculative development.

Update 7th September; Thanks to Redhead in the comments below for pointing out that there was earlier grant of £1.9m in April 2012 (link to minutes here). This was awarded by Meryl's independent colleague Cllr Scourfield who stood down in the 2012 election.
As has already been said, the company which received the grants, JBCH Ltd, was dormant until earlier this year.


Further to reports this week over her approval of a £2.6m grant to a company in Cross Hands things seem to be taking a turn for the worse this evening for former leader and Executive Board member Cllr Meryl Gravell.

You will recall that the grant was signed off by Meryl, in a fifteen minute secret meeting back in June, she was accompanied by just two officers.

BBC Radio Cymru have been investigating and have found out that Meryl awarded the grant after the director of resources, Roger Jones had reported it to the Wales Audit Office (after serious concerns were brought to his attention by an unnamed councillor) and before the recipients JBCH Ltd had signed a contract to build the food processing plant and before anyone had even decided to move to the site. A "speculative development" as the BBC reporter put it.

She must have been well aware of the involvement of the Wales Audit Office as she wielded her rubber stamp. She should go.

Meryl spoke to the BBC Radio reporter this evening and naturally claimed that everything was rosy, a "Good news story" in fact. Oh dear. As for the usual cry of job creation, the position as I understand it, is that the meat processing jobs will actually be relocated from Carmarthen and "it is hoped" that around new 30 jobs will be created at the new site over the next five years.

The council statement to the Western Mail last week, attributed to regeneration director Dave Gilbert, reeked of council spin and glossed over the issue. Everything was fine and the WAO had merely recommended they tidy things up a bit.

Tonight's revelations bring the honesty of that council statement, and the integrity of Cllr Gravell, into question.

The Wales Audit Office are still investigating.

The Pembrokeshire Herald reports today that the scandal surrounding certain EU grants awarded by Pembrokeshire Council appears to be escalating.

It would appear from this evenings's revelations that Carmarthenshire can always be relied on to go one better...

Concern over the issue of grant awards was brought up at a recent scrutiny meeting (Aug 1st), the minutes tell us little of course but the cryptic response to whatever was asked was 'The level of governance requirements however caused problems with delivering grants to the private sector'. That word 'governance' again...in disarray and not fit for purpose.

(See also Wednesday's post Roger's parting shot which links to the Western Mail)

Carmarthenshire Council - Questions on the agenda!

Further to this morning's post, Shuffling the deck, there appears to be some last minute excitement over next week's agenda for full council. It's been amended twice, so far. Firstly, details of the interim arrangements for the replacement of the director of resources were added yesterday. 

The second change and appearing for the first time ever, is a short, tentative list of questions from councillors to the Chair, the leader Kevin Madge or to an Executive Board Member. This was one of the suggestions made by myself and I'm sure many others to the WLGA governance review panel. Along with encouraging public questions...

I know this is quite normal elsewhere but it's such a novelty for us in Carmarthenshire that I just have to copy them here;

WLGA Governance Review
In light of the fact that it is the Constitutional duty of the Chair of Council to promote and support good governance of the Council as well as open and transparent governance, could he inform us as to what steps he has taken in order to ensure that the final report from the WLGA regarding the review of Carms Governance comes back straight to full Council? 
Introducing car parking charges for the 16,500 disabled Blue Badge holders in Carmarthenshire.
Isn't this council’s Leader ashamed that his Labour/Independent administration has reneged on the Labour Party 2012 manifesto promise not to introduce car parking charges for the 16,500 disabled Blue Badge holders in Carmarthenshire – a measure which will cause hardship to a number of disabled people, who are often amongst the poorest in society? 
Repayment of the £250,000 loan to Llanelly House.
In January, 2013 Carmarthenshire County Council resolved to provide an interest-free cash-flow loan to Llanelly House. While rejoicing in the completion of this project and its economic benefit, could he tell us if the emergency loan has now been repaid – and if not, why not? 
Times of Waste Collection
Whilst accepting that we should prevent people putting their rubbish out too early isn't 6pm on the previous night far too late, because by then from the beginning of November onwards it will be dark. Isn’t asking older people to venture out in the dark in winter carrying rubbish bags not only unreasonable but also irresponsible considering that they might trip over unseen obstacles, slip in icy conditions or even become victims of an assault? 
Payments to Timothy Kerr and the WAO
Can the Leader announce how much money was paid to Timothy Kerr QC with regard to his advice to the Councy Council on the matter of the pension payment and the indemnity to the Chief Executive including any other costs incurred in light of the Leader’s promise to disclose that when Mr Kerr’s and the WAO’s work was concluded?
Although we probably already know some of the answers this will be an interesting exercise, especially if we read between the lines....I presume each councillor will be allowed a supplementary question which will open some sort of debate.

I will be interested in the response about the loan to Llanelli House (let me guess - it's been repaid, that's why it been allowed on the agenda?) as I've been wondering what happened to that.

Clearly the first and the last question are of great interest. The WLGA review panel have, so I understand from earlier minutes, already given an initial report of their findings to party leaders. If that is so then it would have been far more transparent to have published that report to everyone.

You never know, it might prompt a debate over Sir David Lewis' letter...

Let's hope, as the question asks, the final report will soon arrive...I've heard whispers that there's a draft version beginning to circulate....

As for the last question, I think quite a few of us have already done the maths but the figures, if they match up, will be informative and I'm quite sure Cllr Price has a searching supplementary question at the ready.

It remains to be seen whether Kevin Madge will admit to feeling shame over the Blue Badge charges. Given that he will have had several days to ask someone to write his response for him I should think not.

Anyway, if it's amended again, or I hear anything else, I'll let you know, but don't forget to tune in next Wednesday, 10am.

Shuffling the deck

I'm sure next Wednesday you will be tuning in, in your thousands, to the first full Carmarthenshire Council meeting of the autumn term.

Unlike Pembrokeshire, where discontent abounds and extraordinary meetings have been convened, Carmarthenshire will attempt to pretend all is rosy, apart from the gaping hole in the finances of course.

It's up to the councillors of course, but one hopes that by now all will be aware of the opinion of the respected lay member of the audit committee. I'll be watching the webcast with interest.

One item of interest on the 'official' agenda concerns amendments to the constitution required by excitingly titled Local Authorities (Standing Orders)(Wales)(Amendment) Regulations 2014, Welsh Government legislation which came in to being on the 1st July.

From now on the level of pay, benefits in kind, pension top-ups etc to chief officers, or changes to those levels, will have to be approved by full council and any post with a salary of over £100,000 per year must be publicly advertised.

An internal interim appointment can still be made, but must last no longer than twelve months. For example, the informal 'arrangement' by which the current head of law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones has been 'acting' since the summer of 2011 without Member involvement or approval will no longer be allowed.

The position should now be advertised and a suitable candidate appointed.

The current director of education was brought in from the ominous sounding 'special projects' department a couple of years ago without reference to anyone.

In another change, the almost insurmountable procedure for disciplinary action or dismissal of chief officers over alleged misconduct will now be extended to cover the post of head of democratic services.

The process involves the setting up of an investigative committee (cross-party, but Carmarthenshire's constitution allows it to be selected by the chief executive..), the committee chews over any allegations, writes reports and recommendations, then has to appoint an independent person to chew it over some more. The independent person then makes more recommendations and drafts reports. And that's just the start.

The reason given for the additional protection given to chief officers is that they "might be required to challenge the leadership of their Authority in the course of fulfilling their duties". It's not something I've noticed happening very often in Carmarthenshire, but the complicated procedure also means, of course, that they are extremely hard to get rid of, should the need ever arise.

Also slotted in to the amendments is the withdrawal from the chief executive (aka head of paid service) the power to appoint, discipline or dismiss either the Monitoring Officer or the head of democratic services. This is, according to the Welsh Government, to give the two postholders additional protection; presumably from any particularly over-powerful chief executives....or something like that.

Wednesday looks like quite a busy day in County Hall with a great deal of interim appointments and acting -up (in the employment sense at least) arrangements, all which will have to now be done under the new requirements and not within the exclusive confines of the presidential suite.

On the agenda is the appointment of the interim replacement for retiring director of resources, Roger Jones. The council has to have, by law, a chief finance officer (s151 officer), one statutory duty of that officer being "the duty to report any unlawful financial activity involving the authority (past, present or proposed)" so the current head of financial services, Mr Chris Moore will take on that busy, and clearly necessary role.

Mr Dave Gilbert, director of regeneration and deputy chief executive and all round man of action will take on some of the other duties of the director of resources.

As Mr Moore will have a 15% pay increase, under the new rules the pay rise will have to be approved by full council.

Two Appointment Committees meet in the afternoon. There's no sign of the fate of Ms Rees Jones but it looks like one of the two Assistant Chief Executive posts may be on the way out, and I should think so to.

We will have to make do with one Assistant CEO, and Deputy Gilbert of course. Mr Burns, one of the Assistants is off to run Caerphilly Council on an interim basis, so it is recommended that Ms Wendy Walters, head of economic development will 'act-up' to fill his shoes until such time as the post is possibly axed, or the twelve month limit is up.

As Mr Burns was also given the role of head of democratic services when the last postholder retired earlier in the year, I presume Ms Walters will acquire that hat as well. Quite what her qualifications are in matters of democratic services are unknown.

Also in the interim (who knew this blogpost would use the word interim so often, the only 'interim' I've been thinking about is the interim charging order Mr James has on my home...link now corrected, ed), is the appointment of a temp director of social services. There is a gap of one month between the retirement of the current holder of the post, which is statutory, and the arrival back from Pembrokeshire of Mr Jake Morgan to take up the post permanently. The council's current head of children's services will 'act up' in the meantime.

What is quite refreshing is that prior to the new requirements, these arrangements, interim, acting or otherwise, would, as I said above, have been made quietly over a cup of Earl Grey in the presidential suite, without any reference to councillors at all, who, it should be remembered, are the employers.

As I said in the title though, it's an exercise in shuffling the deck and you can be quite certain that the dealer, the author of all these recommended arrangements, still holds all the aces....

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Roger's parting shot?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Meryl's Meetings and one in particular in which Cllr Meryl Gravell (Ind) rubber stamped a grant for £2.6m. The meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes, the public and press were excluded and just two officers were present.

A little more digging has been done and the Western Mail confirms that the Council's Director of Resources, Roger Jones, has reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.
He retired last week.

The grant, from the South West Wales Property Development Fund went to a construction firm, JBCH Ltd in Cross Hands for a meat processing plant. According to the Western Mail, JBCH Ltd has been dormant until January this year.

The Wales Audit Office said, "We are looking into this matter and are completing our enquiries at the moment".

A carefully crafted statement has been obtained from council deputy chief executive and head of regeneration Dave Gilbert, who points out that Meryl's rubber stamp is the end result of a lengthy process and that they themselves asked the WAO to 'review the project' as part of a 'health check' of their grant management system - already the subject of repeated concern to the WAO.
He goes on to say that the WAO are happy that proper procedures were followed, just that the process should be 'strengthened'...whatever that is supposed to mean; all a bit odd if you ask me given that the WAO themselves have said they hadn't completed their work.

This statement is Carmarthenshire council spin at its finest. Why did Roger Jones, who presumably had sight of all the documentation, report it to the WAO? This step is almost unheard of in county hall circles, was it a parting shot just before he left? It seems to me he detected something wasn't quite right.

You may also remember the car park deal between the council and the Scarlets and those 'allowable expenses' which is still with the WAO. They have informed me that they will complete their work on that matter sometime this month. You may also recall it was Roger Jones, along with the head of corporate property who had tried hard to secure the best deal for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, only to have, as it appeared from the FOI response, the rug pulled from under their feet at the last minute by someone who had best deal for the Scarlets Regional Ltd as his priority.

Also in the context of securing the best deal for the taxpayer, I remain sceptical that Roger Jones, one of the authors of the report recommending the libel indemnity, was as convinced as Mark and loyal Linda that it was all such a great idea....and as for a tax avoidance pension 'arrangement', surely not.

Probably the most significant event in the past week or two is the explosive letter from the lay member of the audit committee to the WLGA governance review panel. Whatever the outcome of this latest twist, this council is currently run, "in disarray and not fit for purpose"; so should Meryl, a loyal disciple of this officer-led regime, be left in charge of millions of pounds worth of grants, in private meetings and without any reference to the executive board or council?

Update 19:10
Cneifiwr has been watching the archived council meeting from July (aren't they useful?) and has observed that Meryl sat silent throughout the long list of Members' tributes paid to Roger Jones on his forthcoming retirement. As Cneifiwr mentions, given her often stated undying support for her officers, and the fact that she has worked with Mr Jones for the past fifteen years, it was a telling silence....