Friday 30 January 2015

Wales Audit Office reports - a year old today

It's exactly a year ago today that the Wales Audit Office published the pension payment and libel indemnity public interest reports. The scandals were finally exposed.

Just to recap, short of having the Appointed Auditor quietly bumped-off, County Hall tried every trick in the book to stop the publication of the two reports. Weaselling reached new levels as the pension tax avoidance arrangement was rescinded without admitting unlawfulness and eventually the libel clause was suspended on the same basis.

Both the recipient of the payments, Mark James (totalling £57,000) and the idiots who rubber stamped it all were finally exposed, to put it in layman's terms, as scheming b*****ds. In other words, they had deliberately concealed the truth, and the unlawfulness, of their actions.

What is truly astonishing is that, a year on, they're all still there, unaccountable and as arrogant as ever  - one of them is trying his damnedest to milk another few hundred thousand out of the system to take with him, whilst overseeing the attempted repairs to council governance he was ultimately responsible for destroying in the first place.

What made the whole thing worse were the lengths, and expense, the council went to to defend themselves, and particularly to defend the chief executive. Had they accepted the auditors findings back in the summer of 2013, and with the usual application of council spin, likely as not the whole thing would have blown over in a fortnight.

A few hardy souls would have tried to get to the bottom of it all but the release of information would have been so 'controlled' it would have been nigh on impossible. All would have been kept nicely 'in-house', or 'in-presidential suite' if you prefer...

Instead we had the pantomime of the extraordinary meeting and the lengthy engagement of Tim Kerr QC, who's fruitless services, we were told, cost £26,000; a necessary expenditure, said the council leader. Another £51,000 went to the Wales Audit Office for their work to produce the two reports.

Council resources, including the press office, were used by senior officials as a private reputation management fund to defend the indefensible.

The true financial cost will never be known. Twelve years of democratic damage is also difficult to quantify as is the endless generosity for the favoured rugby team or even the local evangelicals..

It is also likely that since September when the chief executive announced his application for severance lawyers will have been engaged to iron out a plan. I could be wrong of course and maybe Linda Rees Jones (still acting after all these years) and the finance officer came up with the 'ten options' for his departure...oh and emailed it to Mark of course for his final approval and/or editing...

What will now happen to the severance application remains to be seen, given that he could be forced to resign, but one issue which arose regarding severance was that Mr James wanted his pot of gold in the next tax year but, inconveniently, the severance scheme ended on the 31st March.

Lo and behold, what's on the agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting? An extension of the severance scheme, All ready, no doubt, for that rubber stamp.

So it's Many Happy Returns to the WAO reports, or if you're the highest paid council chief exec in Wales, many happy tax returns.

31st January; 
Cneifiwr considers democracy, Carmarthenshire style, here. As illustrated by the minutes of the council's Governance Review group, set up following the WLGA report. 

Cneifiwr and I have been asking the Monitoring Officer, Ms Rees-Jones, for copies of minutes of this meeting since before Christmas, 
It is utterly outrageous that Cneifiwr had to resort to a Freedom of Information request to acquire them.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Hengoed by-election

Here's a list of the candidates for the County Council by-election for Hengoed ward to be held on the 19th February. It is a two-Member ward near Llanelli, the other seat being held by Cllr Sian Caiach (People First)

In alphabetical order;

Martin Davies (Plaid Cymru)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Penny Edwards (Labour)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Edward Skinner (Independent)

Here are the candidates for the spare seat on Llanelli Rural Council which is run by a Plaid/Independent coalition, the election will also be held on the 19th February;

Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Heidi Elizabeth Jenkins (Independent)

Susan Philips (Plaid Cymru)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Cneifiwr has a brief example of the calibre of the UKIP candidate here.

Monday 26 January 2015

Pothole news

With budget proposals to cut nearly £3.3m from highway maintenance over the next three years, the state of Carmarthenshire's roads is likely to get worse. As far as the Welsh Government are concerned, the cost to bring back our roads to perfect condition, the 'zero defects backlog value' as it is known, is £17.47m. The council, by comparison, has a probably more realistic figure of £54m.

A recent scrutiny committee looked at the figures presented in a report. Amongst the reasons for this huge difference is that the WG figures were collated in 2009 and used a different method of testing and sampling.

The WG review of backlog figures has been put on hold and the committee wondered whether in fact it "did not wish to acknowledge the true state of the Welsh highway network and its lack of financial support for local authorities sufficient funding". The committee agreed that the WG should be lobbied to restart their review and address the lack of funding for road repairs.

So concerned were the committee with regards to the authority's own budget plans in relation to road defects they decided they needed a seminar in corporate manslaughter. This was agreed and it was also decided that all members would benefit from such a seminar and not just in relation to road conditions....

Coincidentally the RAC published results today from Freedom of Information requests across England and Wales for figures relating to claims made against local authorities for damage to cars from poorly maintained roads. The total bill is around £3.2m. The figures for Wales show that in Carmarthenshire, out of 39 claims made in 2013/14 only one was successful, costing £89.

One reason for the low figure is not that our roads are perfect, far from it (despite the best efforts of the road repair crews, who's numbers will further diminish in the planned cuts), it's that very few drivers actually bother to make an insurance claim against the council for such damage.

The other reason for this low figure, revealed in the scrutiny minutes, is that the current internal code of practice ("vetted by a QC") makes it difficult for motorists to bring claims and the success rate for deflecting all claims so far is currently 75%.
However, Carmarthenshire is not alone with such an approach and across the UK only 23% of all claims were approved.

The RAC suggests that these figures are the tip of the iceberg and central government should think twice about funding projects such as the HS2 scheme whilst the UK road infrastructure crumbles away.
As for the Welsh Government, the plans and feasibility studies for the proposed M4 relief road had cost over £15m by 2009, goodness only knows what the costs have reached now, with still not an inch of tarmac laid.

In Carmarthenshire, with its £54m backlog and £3.3m cuts to highways, the council has just put in several planning applications for 'Gateway displays' on the various highway approaches to Llanelli. These involve ornate stone structures, floral displays and decorative signage. The total cost of the projects, and ongoing maintenance, is unknown but likely to be a considerable sum.

Still at least they'll look nice as we negotiate our way round the worsening potholes....

Wednesday 21 January 2015

A damning report from the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's report which I referred to the other day, and which is a public interest report, has now been published and can be found on the council's website here;

Ombudsman's Report

Public Interest reports are rare and are only issued when there are matters of significant public importance. The council has to publish it.

This one is no exception and involves a complete failure to follow child safeguarding procedures and describes the council's shortcomings in the handling of the complaint as "inexcusable and fundamental". In short, the council failed to investigate risks to a four year old girl.

The details of the case can be read in the report and it was clearly a sensitive case. The complaint was brought by the father of a four year old child who was concerned about the welfare of his daughter who was living with her mother and partner.
The family had moved several times and the previous local authority, Warwickshire, had contacted Carmarthenshire Council highlighting several concerns in an 'urgent' email. There were issues of drug taking and concerns about possible domestic violence in the home.

The Ombudsman concluded that there was an "abject failure to appreciate the significance of, or investigate properly, the referral from Warwickshire Children’s Services, requesting “an urgent welfare check.”

The report details the ensuing catalogue of failures by the council to properly respond to the child safeguarding issues that were present and which the father, quite rightly according to the Ombudsman, insisted should have been properly assessed. It was not until months later when the police carried out a drugs raid did the council decide to visit the child's home and even then failed to implement the proper safeguards.

At one point, in 2013 the council sent the father details of an investigation; According to the Ombudsman "There was no evidence of any investigation carried out".

The Ombudsman also highlighted "very poor complaint handling and found that Council staff were defensive and lacked objectivity" in dealing with the father's complaints. 

"The overall impression is that staff were either blocking [the father's] complaint or did not understand the objectives and requirements of the process"

The Council failed to deal with the complaint under the Children’s Complaints procedures which it should have done, and missed an opportunity to investigate the service failings in respect of the four year old child. A complaint that a social worker had made inappropriate remarks was also upheld.

The Ombudsman was clearly concerned with the council's responses to his own investigations and also concluded that;
"the Council has failed to acknowledge what should have been obvious shortcomings. Complaint handling is a process through which its service users can express their concerns and feel they have been listened to and taken seriously.... this case the Council’s poor service performance was compounded by inadequate and
ineffective complaint handling and the Council missed an opportunity to put things right." 

He has made several recommendations to the council including a full independent audit of referrals to its Children's Services Teams and a review of it's complaint handling procedures. They have also been told to apologise to the father.

This is a very critical report and aside from the grave child safeguarding issues, will undoubtedly strike a chord with many who have embarked on Carmarthenshire Council's complaint procedures; and neither is it the first time those procedures have been slammed by the Ombudsman.

Monday 19 January 2015

Returning Officers and elections on the way

If nothing else, our local prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Calum Higgins (Lab) seems to have realised his best election tactic is to distance himself from the Labour leadership in County Hall.

A couple of weeks ago he announced that the Labour group would be blocking a big pay-out for the chief executive; with Calum quoted in the papers, Kev was left in vague agreement and grumbling because someone had leaked the details he'd been sitting on for five weeks.

Another point which appears to have been the subject of recent 'doorstep chats' is the matter of Returning Officer fees. Calum is back in the South Wales Guardian tonight calling for a Wales wide review.

The public, he said, felt that chief executives should receive no extra payment for the role. It was part of the job and in fact, in Carmarthenshire appears in the official job description.
It is a curious fact that Cllr Higgins has only just formed this view.

A Welsh Government report has recently been published about the regulation and monitoring of public sector senior pay and includes reference to Returning Officers. It recommends that any fees are clearly stated in the council accounts.

It is no coincidence that this is something of a hot topic in Carmarthenshire.

Back in July 2012 I noticed in the councils accounts that the chief executive appeared to have a £20,000 pay rise. Initial enquiries established it as Returning Officer fees. Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas followed it up and it took until January 2013 for the full details to come out.

Incidentally I was accused by Mr James of "even asking about my election expenses".

The fees, it transpired, were for the local elections in May 2012 and were paid several weeks before the election and before the number of contested seats were known. A freedom of information request established that the council didn't even know exactly what date the money was paid.

The Plaid MP and AM said at the time;

“I’m sure the residents of Carmarthenshire will be asking serious questions as to how funds were available to pay the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive a cash advance of £20,000 at a time when services were facing, and continue to face unprecedented cuts.

“...the role of Returning Officer should be incorporated into the existing duties of a Chief Executive and constitute part of their job description to put an end to these hefty elections fees which are paid almost every year."

They then reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.

In March last year they called into question Mr James' role as Returning Officer whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the pension and libel scandals.

I don't remember Cllr Higgins standing up in the Chamber and calling for any Wales wide reviews then...or the year before.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly taking political sides, but the point needs to be made that the Labour leadership, supposedly the champions of the working man, have, along with Meryl's Independents, been championing only one of them, their highest paid employee.

The Returning Officer 'advance' was actually 'advanced' in the previous financial year; the unlawful pension payments were a way of avoiding tax; how other benefits-in-kind such as legal costs are calculated remains unknown.

According to Cneifiwr's blog, rumours that the chief executive had requested his severance to start in the next financial year, after the scheme had finished, appear to be confirmed.

Whether the Labour leadership will remain true to its word and block a severance deal remains to be seen but one thing is sure, there's definitely an election on the way and although by then we may have a new Returning Officer, it's not hard to guess the main topic of conversation.


The Dylan Thomas wind turbine

Judgement has been reserved in a one-day Judicial Review held in Cardiff today. It concerned a planning application for a wind turbine across the water from Dylan Thomas' boathouse.

The planning officer recommended refusal but the committee approved it following the curious intervention of Cllr Daff Davies, who you recall from the webcasts is also Chair of the Council. Campaigners against the turbine brought the case. Whatever the outcome, it will be an interesting ruling. The Western Mail has the story.


Once again I'd like to thank everyone for all their messages of support and good wishes.

Friday 16 January 2015

Ombudsman - A public interest report

An official notice has been published on Carmarthenshire council's website announcing that the Ombudsman has made findings of maladministration/service failure following a complaint.

The report, which I understand is a public interest report, must be published on the council website for three weeks starting from the 22nd January.

No further details are currently known other than "The complaint related to opportunities that were missed to follow up reports regarding the welfare of a child and to subsequently assess the child’s needs."

Thursday 15 January 2015

January meeting

The new year kicked off with almost full attendance at yesterday's monthly council meeting with only a handful of absentees. As usual everyone was upstanding for the entry of the Chair, Vice Chair and chief executive. A word here to any possible new chief exec; standing for the Chair and Vice Chair is archaic and bad enough, but standing for the CEO, any CEO, is met with ridicule and disbelief across the nation.

The meeting passed without major incident and the chief exec seemed particularly subdued. Perhaps, after last week's revelations from Cllr Higgins, he's realised there are more traitors in the chamber than he first thought....

I'm only going mention a couple of points, as the whole event is now available on archive.

The newly appointed Director of Environmental Services was welcomed along with the astonishing news that she is a woman, the 'first female Director' the council had ever had apparently. You would think the authority would be a little embarrassed to admit to such a 'first', but not at all, even mentioning it in the titkle of their press release. Welcome to 2015. Incredible.

Next on the agenda was a presentation from the ladies of the CSSIW, the social care inspectorate, with their annual report. Seasoned observers will note that the annual round of jargon-bingo can be played at this point as they triangulated and evaluated for twenty minutes or so.

Joking apart this is an important document but, surely it wasn't necessary for the CSSIW to take over twenty minutes to explain their role and the contents of the report, which has been floating around since October. It should already have been read and the time devoted a to a brief summary and a lot of questions.

Although there was room for improvement, apparently the council were moving in a sustainable strategic collaborative direction, you get the drift. The first question came from Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who reminded everyone that there was a human element to all this and wondered when an autistic gentleman in his ward would get the help he needed. Obviously this threw the ladies off their performance indicators and the chief exec stepped in to remind everyone to avoid individual issues.
In social care the human element is what its all about not projected outcomes or national thematic reviews.

The meeting eventually moved on to the first of two notices on motion. The first, put forward by Cllr Sharen Davies (Lab) was for all councillors to undergo DRB background checks. For reasons which remain unknown, Cllr Davies had withdrawn this motion and referred it to the executive board instead..

The second motion was from the Plaid group leader Cllr Emlyn Dole for the authority to become a 'paperless council', or at least make the effort. I mentioned this here. He pointed out that it had cost the council around £300 to send out the papers for that meeting alone, roughly the cost of an iPad, and the total cost for last year was £44,000.

The motion was pretty much supported with Kev saying it was a 'journey' and wouldn't happen overnight. They might still need paper said another. Ah, true. Cllr Sharen Davies, giggling, said she hoped councillors wouldn't use iPads to record or film meetings. God forbid.

I can imagine a similar conversation when they moved from quills to ink pens a couple of years ago. By the way, Executive Board members have all now been supplied with iPads.

The Council''s Modernising Education Programme came up later in the meeting with opposition councillors questioning, in so many words, whether the mass closure of rural schools and the creation of several shiny new buildings was having the desired result of an improvement in educational standards. No one ever seems to know.

One proposed new build school in Llanelli required approval for a consultation exercise and the local member voiced residents' concerns that the access route which the plans showed, was not the best option. The Director of Education said that the matter was out of his hands as the Welsh Government would not now fund any works outside the boundary line of any proposed new school.

Cllr Caiach supported the local member and made the point that the newly-opened-with-a-fanfare Furnace School in Llanelli varied considerably from the plans which originally went out to consultation - resulting in a daily traffic nightmare.

This was all getting too much for some and the Chair, as if controlled by an unseen hand from his left, came out with the 'it's not on the agenda' silencing tactic.

Another opposition councillor wondered why £150,000 was being dug out of the apparently precious reserves to part fund a private developer to construct a public car park in Laugharne, the territory of Executive Board Member Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind). Why, he wondered, wasn't this part of a S106 agreement? I mentioned this last month (at the end of this post) and was equally curious,

Unfortunately there was no straight answer forthcoming from anyone and "there's nowhere in Carmarthenshire that needs another car park as much as Laugharne does" was as good as it got.

It was also revealed that the council paid £35,000 for a plot of land near Jackson's Lane in Carmarthen. According to the chief executive the original asking price was £100,000 so this was a "snip". It's a little worrying to Caebrwyn that he considers thirty-odd grand a 'snip'...

It was also confirmed that 'Public Questions' will now be a permanent feature on full council agendas. They have to relate to a matter for which the council has responsibility or affects the county.

The current arrangements are that your question  must be delivered "in writing or by electronic mail to the Chief Executive no later than midday 7 working days before the day of the meeting. Each question must give the name and address of the questioner and must name the member of the Council to whom it is to be put."
The contact details can be found on the council website - get asking!

Tuesday 13 January 2015

The long and winding road

Way back in May 2013, following a Wales-wide survey which found that residents in Carmarthenshire felt least able to influence decisions made in County Hall, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee set up a cross-party group  to look at how 'public engagement' could be improved.

It was not just the survey of course, there was the unhealthy relationship between the County Hall and the local press, the question of email snooping and the fact that it was not just the public who felt 'disengaged' but the majority of councillors as well; all of which, and more, was raising awareness that governance of the council was officer-led and not fit for purpose.
Some of us had been saying that for some time.

In Janaury 2014 the shocking Wales Audit Office reports were published over the pension and libel indemnity scandals. This added to the remit and urgency of the committee's work. The WAO report concerning the libel indemnity joined the list of background papers for consideration.

The committee issued a draft report in July 2014 (see blog post 'Getting Engaged') which included the interesting graphic from an unnamed councillor;

Although several recommendations were made including improving executive board minutes, reviewing the restrictive call-in procedure and training Members to use social media, the report didn't go nearly far enough nor sufficiently make the link between public engagement and good governance - nor that a change of culture and therefore a change of executive, was necessary.

July 2014 also saw the WLGA governance review and when their damning report was published in November, the toxic culture was finally recognised and council governance found 'not fit for purpose'.

As you will recall, yet another cross party group was set-up, this time to consider the 38 recommendations in the WLGA report and the 'change of culture' required. Meetings have been held but astonishingly they've been held behind closed doors and no minutes nor agendas have been published... 

This long and protracted process, kick-started, in my view, by events of June 2011, has taken place against a background of open hostility from the chief officer with the ruling executive veering to and fro from denial to reluctant acceptance.

The point of this post is that the final report (the original 2013 'public engagement' one I mean) is on the Executive Board agenda on Monday. A summary of the recommendations can be found here and will then be considered, (once approved by the Executive Board on Monday), by the group considering the WLGA report. (Sorry if I've lost you, I'm lost myself).

There is one late, but important additional recommendation to the 2013 report which I trust the Executive Board and the WLGA group will endorse;

“To increase public engagement in the Council’s decision making process, the Executive Board be requested to consider providing a 15 minute slot at the start of all Executive Board and Executive Board Member decision meetings to afford members of the public and Councillors an opportunity to raise questions / make comments on any agenda item before decisions are made.”

Amongst the 38 WLGA recommendations were calls for an urgent review over 'exempt' reports (when press public and even backbench councillors are booted out); not only whether it was actually necessary for some reports to be exempt but also the need to allow non-executive councillors to remain as observers and be given as much documentation as possible.

This includes Executive Board Member meetings which are all, bizarrely, 'exempt' as a matter of course; a couple of specific examples which show the clear need for urgent change include the signing -off of millions of pounds in grants by Meryl in fifteen minutes, and earlier, Cllr Pam Palmer, along with the press manager Debbie Williams deciding between themselves that there were no issues with the 'freedom of the local press' in Carmarthenshire whatsoever... 

A review is long overdue as Monday's Exec Board meeting itself has two reports recommended for exemption and which may or may not be connected...'Item 13. Danyrallt Estate, Llangadog and Item 14. 'Fishing rights'.

They could be about anything, there not even a hint on the agenda as to why they're there or why they will be exempt so we can only speculate....maybe Mr James is set to become Lord of the Manor as part of his severance deal...(I'm joking of course)

What with everything; the WAO reports, the WLGA review, press, media and email reviews; assorted cross-party groups and enough recommendations and findings to sink a battleship, from where I'm sitting, very little has changed yet, and nothing will until the old culture is removed once and for all.

We are stuck with the elected leadership as it is for now but as I mentioned here, the editor of the South Wales Guardian summed up the core of the problem in this week's paper;

"...The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

Hopefully that hurdle will soon be gone.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Agenda - January meeting

The agenda for next Wednesday''s full council meeting has been published and there is no mention of Mr James' severance or departure, early days perhaps although if you ask me, it is looking less and less likely that the issue will go to full council at all.

With at least two thirds of the chamber apparently rejecting a generous severance package and insisting he simply resigns, it looks like the strong possibility of defeat might persuade Mr James to go quietly, relatively cheaply...and quickly. Wishful thinking perhaps, but to many observers, this whole saga looks remarkably like a mass vote of no confidence (it is not, of course), and is hardly the grand exit he envisioned for himself.

This is all speculation of course and we will have to see what actually transpires, and whether Mr James and his lawyers will put up a fight.

What is on the agenda next week, and it can be read in full here, is a slot for public questions. There are no actual questions, but it is there. This is a commonplace agenda item for most councils but for Carmarthenshire, it's a minor breakthrough.

This is all part of the 'WAO/WLGA effect' which saw the appearance of councillor questions a few months ago. The proof of the pudding will be when someone tries to ask one, the current procedure involves sending your question in writing to the chief executive for vetting, seven days in advance of the meeting.

The last time a member of the public asked a question was in 2005. I gave details of the procedure here, should anyone wish to have a go.

Also on the agenda is an interesting notice on motion from Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) putting forward the concept of a 'paperless system of communication' with all councillors. This is seen by many councils as very much the way forward and, if it runs smoothly, a way of saving a few quid.

In fact, one of the current budget proposals is for councillors' laptops to be be replaced, eventually, with iPads (or similar) and these could be used at all meetings instead of printing and posting swathes of documents.

It would surely help bring the council into the modern world and, essentially, would keep Members up to date with all the latest news...

iPads would allow councillors to keep up to date with council news

It would all take some ironing out and may not be cost effective, but I notice a few already use their own tablets at full council meetings.
Unfortunately, for some Members, a tablet is still just something from the doctor to regulate their bowels or send them to sleep.

Cneifiwr reports that the council by-election for Hengoed ward in Llanelli will be held on the 19th February although no announcement has been made by the council yet. Should be an interesting exercise given the recent result in Trelech and proximity of the general election.

Also, with Labour and Meryl's Independents currently level pegging on 21 seats each, a win for the Indies, should they field a candidate, would give them a one-seat majority over their Labour coalition partners in the chamber... 

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Happy New Year, Mrs Thompson

As I said on this blog back in September, Carmarthenshire council chief executive Mark James was granted a Charging Order on my home for his libel damages arising from the unlawfully funded counterclaim. The charge is for £30k+.

The Order, as below, was sealed by the court at the end of November and Mr James' solicitors sent a copy to me today.

The letter accompanying the Order states "We invite your proposals for discharging the debt and wait to hear from you by no later than close of business on Friday 16th January 2015" 

The next stage of enforcement would be for Mr James to apply to the court to force sale.
He has already said, and I quote, he will "vigorously pursue the payment of damages due to me, by all legal means"

You know there's an election on the way...updated (again)

..when the Labour group on the council, with its prospective parliamentary candidate for Carms East and Dinefwr, Cllr Calum Higgins in mind, decide to 'veto' an over generous pay-off for Mr James.


Update 22.33 - The South Wales Guardian has provided a little more detail this evening. Out of ten possible options to get shot of Mr James (ten??), only three have been deemed viable by officers; all three involve a lot of cash.

The paper reports that the Labour group have rejected all three and have the backing of Plaid leader Cllr Emlyn Dole to only accept the 'status quo' option

'Such an option would see Mr James’ request for severance rejected, forcing him to remain in post or resign.
The advice to councillors states that Mr James could attempt to sue the council for constructive dismissal should he decide to resign, but – even if successful – any payout would be limited in law to £72,400. The average payment in constructive dismissal cases is around £7,000'

Also, as the scheme ends on the 31st March and Mr James wants his severance on the 1st April, he has until the 10th January to alter his demands and bring it in line with the authority's scheme.

It would seem that the Labour group have been told by party bosses to distance themselves from Mr James; he is a liability and he also appears to be finally losing control...

However, it would be interesting to know just how much the council has spent on employment lawyers to date...

Update 16.30 - Council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) has now put his tuppence worth in. He hasn't backed up Cllr Higgins but taken a cheap and irrelevant swipe at the Plaid group, accusing them of 'leaking' the figures and severance options to the media. An odd statement given that the only councillor to publicly discuss this so far is Cllr Higgins...

Cllr Madge said; "We have been transparent and presented the figures and options to the opposition. Figures that we had for five weeks and that Plaid had for 24 hours before leaking them to the media. I am angry and disappointed."

FIVE weeks?? Transparent? Good grief, we're they ever going to tell anyone?)


Today's South Wales Guardian, with lengthy quotes from Cllr Higgins, confirms rumours that after several years of happily pandering to Mark James' every outrageous and unlawful whim, the Labour group will now block any attempt to pay him his desired 'golden goodbye'.

Gearing up for the election on May 7th, they have finally realised that this issue is in the forefront of the minds of the Carmarthenshire electorate.
Whatever their logic, the stance is of course welcome.

Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM have both called the prospective £446k pay off a disgrace in a statement on Mr Edwards' website. They have often been at loggerheads with Mr James and have been consistent with their remarks made last year that his departure shouldn't cost the taxpayers a penny, let alone £446,000. The BBC and Carmarthen Journal both report on the issue.

The editor of the SW Guardian sums up the situation in his opinion piece;

"...his reign will ultimately be remembered for libel actions, pension deals, Wales Audit Office condemnation and one of the most unpleasant, unproductive atmospheres ever witnessed at County Hall.
The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

The devil is going to be in the detail and some of those details emerged yesterday. Whatever happens, Mr James needs to go....and preferably in the back of a police car.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Mark James' severance deal could be worth £446,000, the Western Mail reports

The Western Mail (WalesOnline) reports this evening on the possible options for the council to consider when deciding the size and nature of Mr James' severance deal.
The deal is due to be discussed by full council but whether this will be at next week's meeting is not yet known.
I'm sure there will be more developments and comment on this subject in the coming weeks although "resigning without a payoff" seems to me to be the only option worth considering.
You never know, the ruling Labour group on the council may have finally realised that agreeing to any further demands from Mr James will not be a popular move in the run up to the general election....

Here's the full piece with links as they appear in the article;

Carmarthenshire council could pay chief executive Mark James a severance deal worth £446,000, it emerges 
By Martin Shipton 
A council chief executive who was deemed by the Wales Audit Office to have received unlawful payments may be in line for a severance package which could cost the authority £446,000. 
It emerged in September that Mark James has applied for a package that would see him leave Carmarthenshire County Council more than a year after Anthony Barrett, the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, ruled that payments made to him directly instead of to a local authority pension fund were unlawful. 
Mr Barrett also ruled in a public interest report that the council had acted unlawfully by funding a libel claim Mr James won against blogger Jacqui Thompson. Together the two sums amount to more than £50,000. 
Wales Online understands there are 10 possible options the council has been presented with in relation to its employment of Mr James. 
It is understood he has asked for severance to take effect from April 1 2015, the first day of a new tax year. But the council’s severance scheme ends on March 31. 
It has been calculated that Mr James would be entitled to a payoff of £130,000. But pension payments would take the total cost to the council up to £446,000. 
(Related article; Petition to block Carmarthenshire council chief's severance pay gains momentum
Another possibility would involve discretionary compensation outside the severance scheme to Mr James. This could involve a discount to his pension and cost the council £230,000. 
End of employment on ill health grounds is not seen as a viable option. 
If there were a bona fide restructuring exercise undertaken and the post of chief executive was deemed redundant, Mr James would be entitled to redundancy pay and a pension. 
This is a statutory obligation with no negotiation. The chief executive would get £130,000 redundancy. The “actuarial strain” would be £315,000, also leading to a total cost to the council of £446,000. 
A negotiated settlement agreement on different terms is another possibility. 
Other options include Mr James remaining in post or resigning without a pay-off. 
The council’s assistant chief executive Paul Thomas said: “We are currently in the process of considering the severance applications, with a view to releasing eligible applicants at the end of March 2015. This is in accordance with our agreed severance scheme and timetable.”

Monday 5 January 2015

Sound familiar?

Further details are emerging relating to the charges faced by the former chief executive of Caerphilly Borough Council, Anthony O'Sullivan, as he, his deputy and the council legal officer made a brief court appearance today. The case has been adjourned and no pleas have yet been entered.
The Western Mail has a report here.

There is a single charge of misconduct in public office. The police investigation (by Avon and Somerset), followed a public interest report in 2012 issued by the Wales Audit Office which found that a pay award for the council's top earners had been unlawful.

The charge includes the following allegations that the defendants;

“wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the said council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves”.

“deliberately failed to publish agenda and reports for a meeting of the said Council’s Senior Remuneration Committee in advance of said meeting”.

“deliberately introduced gratuitous material into one of the reports that was to be considered at said meeting so as to provide an apparent justification for exempting that report from public consideration”.

“deliberately applying a public interest test notice to the reports that were to be considered at said meeting when none was merited, thereby exempting the reports from public consideration”.

All sounding remarkably similar to events in Carmarthenshire?

Failing to leave a meeting, or even declaring an interest when directly gaining financially from a decision? Discussing the report with the 'author' prior to the meeting?

Wording the minutes of a meeting to deliberately mask the true nature of a 'pension arrangement'?

Omitting the libel indemnity from the published agenda on the erroneous grounds it was 'urgent' and thereby removing any possibility that it could be questioned?

Misleading the executive board by misrepresenting advice given in a previous legal opinion and so knowingly exposing the authority to the risk of legal challenge and censure?

Misleading the entire council that both the tax avoidance pension scam and libel indemnity were legal when, in principle and and in practice, they were most definitely not?

The only conclusion I can reach is that Avon and Somerset Police were a damn site more thorough than their colleagues at Gloucestershire Constabulary....

Cllr Sian Caiach stands for Parliament

Carmarthenshire Councillor Sian Caiach has thrown her hat in the ring and declared that she is standing as an independent candidate for Llanelli in the General Election on May 7th;

"I feel it is important that there is an alternative non-party candidate pledged to representing the local people on each issue with consultation throughout the parliament, not just interested in winning the vote and then playing a team game far away without even asking the opinion of the local people who officially one represents.
"People First/Gwerin Gytaf is a  radical concept, as we don't accept the party systems and focus only on the quality of representation in democracy.
"Voters often find their representatives do not exercise their powers in the best interests of those who put their trust in them. An example locally is the County Council Labour/ Independent Groups giving the Chief Executive, Mark James, a secret pay rise to compensate him for tax changes to his pension contributions." Sian Caiach

The Llanelli seat is currently held by Labour MP Nia Griffith, and so far, other contenders include Vaughan Williams (Plaid), Seline Saxby (Con) and Scott Jones (TUSC).

As readers will be aware Cllr Caiach has represented her council ward as an unaffiliated independent and has always spoken out in the council chamber in the interests of her constituents. Despite continuous attempts to silence her voice, she has consistently seen right through, and continued to challenge, the toxic culture and spin from County Hall.

The Western Mail has a report here.

Sian's election leaflet is below, (please click to enlarge), and her website can be read here.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Tales from the County Hall crypt - Freedom of Information ten years old

The Freedom of Information Act came into force ten years ago this month. In 2005 the public gained a new and crucial right to information which, nationally, has revealed a vast amount of data and specific information. To celebrate this milestone it's perhaps worth looking at a very small selection of the highs and lows of the use of the act here in good old Carmarthenshire.

The number of requests made to the council has roughly doubled from 449 in 2005 to 1028 in 2013 (we know this thanks to a FOI request).

There are criticisms of the Act in that it is costly to implement and is open to abuse from commercial 'fishing' to those 'wacky' requests about Zombie invasions. The former is par for the course and the latter is a very small minority, swiftly and inexpensively dealt with. Both are easily recognisable.
The cost is capped and a request can be refused if it entails an excessive amount of rummaging about.

It's a bit like the NHS; far from perfect for either the users of the service, or the practitioners but we can't imagine a world without it. It has undoubtedly helped to open up public services to greater scrutiny and accountability, it should now be extended to all providers of public services whether privately or publicly owned. And, whilst I'm mentioning it, to the royal family which currently has it's own royal veto exemption...

In ten years the internet has advanced to such a degree that the concept that disclosure under FOI is 'disclosure to the world', is exactly that. Sites such as What Do They Know have made requesting easier and puts the whole thread in the public domain.
Many councils catalogue all requests and responses on their websites in a 'disclosure log', even Pembrokeshire. Not Carmarthenshire yet though.

Here's a few examples of the world of FOI in Carms, some requests were made by me, some by others. One thing I've discovered is that it's not always the disclosure which is interesting but what is withheld and the reasons given for doing so.

A FOI request in April 2011 revealed that after the council held a public vote to name the new theatre in Llanelli, the one which was selected actually came second in the poll with 51 votes. The winner, with 88 was quietly ignored. There was a post on this blog about it...

A request for the register of councillors' interests, (which most authorities routinely publish online) was met with a flat refusal and entailed a visit to view the register under a very unwelcoming escort. One of the 38 recommendations of the WLGA report is that this should be published online.
I thank you.

There was another tortuous request for details of fees paid to the Returning Officer for the 2012 local election. Although the figure was supplied, £20,000 the council 'couldn't remember' when it was paid to Mr James. This was a little odd and it took further digging to reveal it had been paid well before the election, in a previous financial year and before the number of contested seats became known.

Requests I made for credit card spending details were disclosed, as were, eventually and reluctantly the register of senior officers' interests and hospitality. Requests for payments made to Scarlets Regional Ltd showed the council providing back door subsidies to the tune of £1000 per week.

In 2013 it was disclosed that the council had just two officers to deal with FOI requests and data protection issues. The same request revealed that the press office had at least seven employees, job descriptions included an ability to 'improve' the council's image.

Without FOI we wouldn't have known that almost 3000 employees in this Labour run council were, as of January 2014, paid below the Living Wage.

Another request, in 2012, revealed that the council paid Odeon Cinemas Ltd, worth about £2bn, a £20,000 contribution to a sound system for the new cinema in the council led Easgate development, Apparently it was given on the grounds that it would 'safeguard jobs'. It was at one of those 'Meryl's meetings' of course....

However, when it came to an 'exempt' report concerning 'the transfer of public toilets from county to town councils', mysteriously, they wouldn't budge and never have. Top secret.

Another curious matter was County Hall's bloody minded determination not to disclose correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church over the £1.4m bowling alley project. It seemed to touch a nerve. Even I was surprised with the degree of venom towards me in their response to the Information Commissioner.

Oddly, a very similar request for correspondence leading to the deal between the council and the Scarlets to sell off land to Marston's was disclosed. I'm sure it was entirely co-incidental that at that time, the chief executive was on his gardening leave.

Another request queried the position of an employee, who, according to the council's Statement of Accounts was on a salary of over £150,000. Legislation requires that details of any posts over that salary band are published in the Accounts.

The response was that there had been an "error in the notes to the Statement of Accounts...We are therefore grateful that you have brought this to our attention via your request as this has enabled us to identify this error, which will be raised with our external auditors".
What would they do without Mrs Thompson eh?

More recently, Gloucestershire Police were not giving anything away about their investigation into Carmarthenshire Council, just in case there was more civil litigation....I've covered that here.

I would have to say that my own experience in Carmarthenshire is mixed. As a blogger, FOI requests are simply a way of obtaining further information for research, the same principle applies to journalists and not a day goes by without a news story in Wales based on FOI request. County Hall has a bit of a 'thing' about bloggers though...and inquisitive reporters as well for that matter.

It's part of life and demanding that reporters withdraw requests, or being defensive and preoccupied with 'image' is not the way forward and therein lies the way of duck houses...

The way forward is to routinely publish as much information as possible and to change the default setting to open, it will not necessarily reduce requests, but it will complement the system. Exemptions and public interest tests should be used consistently and fairly - for example, reasons for refusal shouldn't be changed at a different stage of a request.

Finally, responding to requests should not be seen as a burden on public bodies but part of their new found drive for transparency and public engagement. With the 'change in culture' apparently imminent in Carmarthenshire, fully embracing the spirit of FOI after ten long years can only help it reach its stated aim of being the 'most open council in Wales"