Saturday 4 April 2015

Monitoring Officers

Councillors over in Pembrokeshire have been expressing disquiet over the temporary appointment of a new Monitoring Officer to replace the retiring incumbent, Mr Harding who is leaving at the end of April.
As this is a Statutory post (ie the authority has to have one) Pembs councillors insisted that proper procedures should be followed and referred it back to the council's Senior Staff Committee.

Their worries, however, pale into insignificance compared to the situation in Carmarthenshire which saw Ms Linda Rees Jones gliding quietly into the post of Acting Head of Law and Monitoring Officer way back in September 2011 around three and a half years ago without a whisper to any committee of councillors, just in time for the introduction of the unlawful pension arrangement in November of that year.

According to the constitution, (the public version anyway, we've long suspected that Mark and Linda's must be a little different), 'Appointments Committee B' must appoint the Monitoring Officer.

There is no mention of the post ever having been advertised or ever having before the committee and curiously, the council website (updated on 20th February 2015) has dropped the 'Acting'. However, the word 'Acting' remains on the 'Welsh' version of the page last updated on the 9th January 2015 (and which is in English).

English version 20th February 2015..
...and the, er, 'Welsh' version 9th January 2015
Either it's a typo on the website, or Ms Rees Jones has mysteriously become the permanent Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal...maybe she's finally acquired enough Mark James Loyalty Points.

Internal legal advice, in general terms of course, has been described by the lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis, as cavalier and incompetent, I'd go a step further and say it was cosy and unhealthy. It all became very apparent over the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

For instance, for the Monitoring Officer to seek advice and approval from Mark James prior to completing the report recommending the unlawful indemnity, and then to deny that there was anything inappropriate, let alone illegal, for him to remain in the meeting during discussion and rubber stamp was staggering.

As for the official functions of the Monitoring Officer, Article 11 para 11.3(b) of the Constitution states that he, or she, is responsible for "Ensuring lawfulness and fairness of decision making", which was why those damn Wales Audit Office reports caused so much difficulty.

Ms Rees Jones is currently re-writing the Constitution, in close consultation with the chief executive of course, and, as it appears to be business as usual in County Hall, they might just as well delete para 11.3(b) altogether....


Redhead said...

Interesting that, in many parts of the UK (including mine) the Monitoring Officer has departed and been repaced by the Legal Officet taking on the post in addition to their current jobs. Almost as if it had been agreed quietly somewhere out of the public eye.

Leaving aside the question of why it used to need two people, surely there in an inherent conflict of interest. The Legal Officer's job is to safeguard the interests of the council, the Monitoring Officer's job is to enforce a Code of Conduct.

Say, theoretically, a councillor has caused, by his or her conduct, an extremely embarrassing situation for the council and could be shown to have broken the Code of Conduct. The Legal Officer's job is to cover it up (within the law of course!) and quietly sort out the mess with minimum further embarrassment to the Council, the Monitoring Officer's job is to expose it and bring the councillor and the council to public scrutiny whatever the outcome.

What does the dual officer then do?

caebrwyn said...

In Carmarthenshire the dilemma is solved by simply following instructions from 'above'; which involve a great deal of 'quietly sorting out the mess', and precious little of bringing anyone, or anything to public scrutiny and account.