Monday 24 October 2016

Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council applies to force sale of my home

(Update 3rd Feb 2017; Court date)

On Friday I received a court claim from Mr James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council for an Order for Sale of our home for his libel damages. These damages, now £35,392 with interest, arose from a counterclaim which was funded, unlawfully. with taxpayers money. I have 14 days to respond. 

Running in parallel to Mr James' application to force sale is the enforcement action brought by the council for £190,390 in court costs. A court hearing in December will decide whether an interim charge on my home will be made final. Following that, they will also be able to attempt to force sale, if Mr James hasn't already succeeded. The unlawful counterclaim costs are not currently being enforced, which doesn't surprise me.

For the first time in these whole proceedings I have asked my Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards and Assembly Member, Adam Price to intervene in this grave miscarriage of justice, and offer support morally and practically, on my my behalf. (Oct 31st....they have written to Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole in my support...November 26th; still haven't heard if there's been any response)

As ever, I am not seeking any financial help but if anyone feels strongly enough about this to write to their MP, AM or councillor, I would be very grateful for moral support.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to fight this, day by day, especially against someone who is never held accountable, but fight it I will, to the bitter end. 

31st October; See also Cneifiwr's blog here

Later post 7th November; Further thoughts...and this week's Cadno

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Green waste charge

The decision made at Monday's Executive Board meeting to charge for green waste collection passed in the blink of an eye. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago when it was before the relevant scrutiny committee. According to the officer's report, the new bin lorries lack the facility to take the current green waste binbags so a separate service will have to be arranged.

Anyway, as I think I've also mentioned before, Exec Board meetings, or rather the half-hour bit under the public spotlight, are little more than a PR exercise with everything decided before the meeting. With Meryl regaling the group with here recent exploits with the ARCH project and the Wellness Thing, this little sting from Plaid Cymru and the Indies went almost unnoticed.

From April next year it will cost you £48 a year, with payments spread over six months. If you can afford it as a one off payment, there's a 15% reduction, thereby penalising the less affluent. A nice little addition to your council tax. You will be supplied with a new shiny bin, with two sizes to choose from, although the cost will be the same.
There are no concessions for pensioners, or anyone else. Nor has there been any consultation or engagement with the elderly or disabled who will now have to manoeuvre a big plastic bin.

The hope is that more people will compost the waste or take it to their local recycling centre, the latter not exactly reducing the carbon footprint. Caebrwyn's gardening is more, er, rural, allowing a few sheep in when I can no longer see the bottom of the garden but this is not the case in our towns. I predict a little more fly-tipping and a lot more bonfires. Get your washing in.

At £48, it is also the highest charge in Wales.


Update, 9th November, below

Since I became aware that the chief executive had made complaints to the police earlier this year I have been struggling to understand his motive. As I have reported there was insufficient evidence to bring either of his complaints, harassment nor perverting the course of justice, anywhere near a criminal court. It backfired. The Police Information Notice, or harassment warning, was nonsense and I am attempting to challenge it through the system.

However, it was the allegation that I perverted the course of justice which I found most puzzling. The police eventually confirmed that this related, entirely, to the findings of the judge in the libel case. I need not repeat here what I thought of the judgement.
The decision to drop the criminal investigation raises two questions, why did Mr James make the complaint, three years after the judgement (and what did he hope to achieve), and how could a judge find me guilty of an offence in a civil court, which didn't stand up to the criminal standard of proof? The consequence of the libel judgement and this finding in particular, which was astonishing, and so wrong, was that my legal insurance was revoked and I'm facing a charge on my home for £190,000.

Back in 2011, five years ago, Mr James wrongly accused me of this offence in his letter to the Madaxeman blog and it was this grave accusation which prompted the legal case. In his letter he said that the council chose not put the complaint to the police as 'the officer concerned, like many others, did not want to make a fuss and the Council respects that'
Further to that, following the judgement in March 2013, three years ago, there was no criminal complaint made to the police, a fact confirmed by the police themselves in response to media queries.

Which brings us to 2016. When I learned of the allegation, which appears to have been made sometime after the complaint of harassment, I was shocked but not unduly concerned. I had told the truth all along and my conscience was clear. As it was, the police could find no evidence anyway so that was some vindication at least.

The council didn't make the complaint to the police, it was the chief executive, personally. He was also quite prepared now to involve all those concerned, who apparently, and according to him, hadn't wanted to 'make a fuss', to pursue a personal criminal allegation.
I can find no explanation for his action other than simple malice.

Update 9th November - The following extract from my police complaint report suggests that the police were also wondering about Mr James' motives;

"It was also considered that Mr James could be looking ‘at having two bites of the cherry’ in making a criminal allegation as the civil case was finalised some three years ago and the timing of the allegation when Carmarthenshire County Council and Mr James are actively pursuing Mrs Thompson for the outstanding monies from the civil action must be questioned."

Pembrey Country Park - another twist in the tale - updated

Update 28th October - The case was heard in court today. Mr Dickinson resigned from the council on Monday and changed his plea to guilty. He was ordered to pay costs and fines of just under £1000.
Llanelli Herald report here.

* * *

The Audit Committee met at the end of last month and considered an report updating progress to improve matters at Pembrey Country Park. As you may recall a damning, but brief, internal audit report earlier this year had flagged up profound irregularities over a number of years. I'll not repeat them here but one of the issues concerned the tender to supply catering services, invitations to tender were to be addressed to the Council's Countryside and Coast manager, Mr Rory Dickinson.

The local catering supplier SFS Events, was run by Ms Stephanie Thomas, had operated the cafe and kiosks for a number of years but was unsuccessful in renewing the contract. The contract went to a company from Yorkshire after, according to Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, "a rigorous application process designed to get the best value and service for the County Council and users of Pembrey Country Park"

The tender was challenged, and recorded conversations between council officers which emerged, as reported in the Herald, make it clear that the tender process was gravely compromised.
'Rigorous', it certainly wasn't.

The whole tender process was eventually abandoned at the beginning of July with the council stating "it is possible that a member of staff involved in the process may have had a personal interest which might be perceived to compromise the impartiality and independence of the process".

There is now an 'acting' Countryside and Coast manager, suggesting that the previous manager is no longer in post, temporarily or otherwise.

The audit committee heard that progress with the new catering tender was being delayed by 'difficult legal issues we could not have forseen', there was no further elaboration. However, a couple of brief reports in last week's press suggest what some of those legal issues might be....

Llanelli Star/South Wales Evening Post

Llanelli Herald

Saturday 8 October 2016

Still no fly zone at County Hall - The Carmarthenshire Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald reports again on the mysterious business of the Council's flag flying habits. Of particular interest over the past year or two has been the reluctance to fly the Rainbow flag, the universal symbol of support for diversity and inclusion for LGBT rights and which flutters from most civic buildings during Pride celebrations.

Rainbow Flag at Llanelli Police Station

Despite the council appearing in the rankings of Stonewall as a LGBT employer, back in February 2015, requests to fly the flag by the council's own diversity group were refused. The final say resting with the chief executive. The council chose to fly the Duke of York's flag instead, in honour of his birthday (the Duke of York's, not the chief executive's...I think).

Moving forward to August this year and after the flag failed to appear again, the Herald made some enquiries and discovered that there were 'procedures' about flag flying. Indeed, Herald columnist Cadno also made some interesting observations, covered on this blog here.

The article prompted a freedom of information request to enquire about the council's policy on flags and when such a policy was adopted by council. The response stated that a policy had been adopted on July 10th 2015.

Having studied, in detail, all published agendas and minutes around that time neither the Herald, nor I for that matter, could spot any reference to a 'flag policy' being referred to councillors for approval, or even endorsement.

One of the earlier reasons given for refusing to fly the rainbow flag was that County Hall was besieged with 'so many' flag flying requests from groups, it chose not to fly any.

On that basis the FOI request also asked for some numbers. How many requests were made before the policy? How many were made after?

The answer to the first was 'We do not hold the information', so presumably they, if there were any, went straight into the Presidential Pedal Bin. And after? There had been two, both rejected. One was from CEMTA, (Community Engagement, Media, Technology and Arts) and the other from Seafarers UK.

With the lack of recorded requests, and only two since last July, it's difficult to justify a policy, even one dreamed up over a cup of Earl Grey in the confines of the Presidential Suite, with no publicity whatsoever.

As CEMTA are involved in LGBT and Pride projects, the Herald asked them why their request was rejected. It turns out that they have made two requests to fly the Rainbow Flag. Their 2015 request appears, coincidentally, to have been made just before, or at the same time, as this 'flag policy' was adopted. It seems it was refused under the premise that there was some sort of lengthy procedure and they were out of time.

Incidentally, the Rainbow Flag made a brief appearance over Jail Hill, once, just after the Orlando nightclub massacre, in response to a request on Twitter, and without any procedures at all. Aside, perhaps, for a damage limitation exercise with regards to the potential for negative publicity on social media...

As nobody knew about the 'policy', CEMTA asked again this year, in plenty of time for the Pride celebrations in Llanelli. The chief executive gave a personal response, and although he was happy to support community ventures, due to the 'many' requests 'we have taken a view that this does not extend to flag flying at civic centres'. 

Was this the usual 'Royal We'? Or did leader of the council Emlyn Dole (Plaid) know about it, and agree? If so, then it's disappointing.
One might even conclude that 'flag flying' was not a matter for the chief executive, an employee, at all, and to introduce a policy, even if it was conjured up in the executive broom cupboard, without any record of necessity, is highly questionable, even irrational.

Of course the perception that anyone in County Hall has a particular aversion to the colourful Rainbow flag, and all it represents, would surely be wrong...though a 'policy' to refuse 'all', captures the repeated requests to fly this one...

As The Herald concludes;

"As it stands, on the face of Mr James’s words, the policy is redundant. Mr James will never give permission to fly any flag. On the basis that nobody will get permission, of course, the policy cannot be said to be discriminatory in any way.
Which, of course, it isn’t."

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Legal Charge £190,390 - Court hearing

Update 25th November; The hearing will now be on Friday 2nd December

Update 20th October; The hearing has been brought forward to 1st December 2016

Update 8th October; The hearing is listed for Thursday 8th December 2016 at 10am in Carmarthen.

* * *

I have been informed by Carmarthen District Registry of the High Court that there will be a brief hearing (approx 30 mins) to decide whether to make the Interim Charging Order on my home, for legal costs of £190,390, final.
I had requested a hearing within my written objection to the Charge and I will be asking, at the hearing, for the Charge to be thrown out.
A date has not been given yet but I'm told it will be in a few week's time.

This enforcement action was brought, ostensibly, by the current Plaid Cymru/Independent Executive Board but I notice that Mark James is still a party to the proceedings. He already has a charge for his damages, sent in the bailiffs and summoned me to court to answer questions. Although he seems to be living up to his promise to use 'all legal means possible' to get his hands on the damages, there has been no enforcement, as yet, concerning his illegal counterclaim costs.

I'll not elaborate further, I've already made my views, and promises, and my financial circumstances very clear on all this.
However, I would like to repeat that the 'criminal' findings of Justice Tugendhat which led to my insurance being revoked and left me liable for these costs have now completely failed the evidential test after a five month police investigation.

As for the Police Information Notice, or 'harassment warning',  I have now made it clear to Dyfed Powys Police that I require it to be revoked. If this is not forthcoming, then the only option available to me is to apply for a Judicial Review.

See previous posts; Police complaints logged,  
Challenging the police harassment warning 
and The police visit Caebrwyn 

Targets, themes and the long grass

Quarterly target monitoring reports are not necessarily a gripping read but are supposed to inform scrutiny committees how well the council is reaching its 'key priorities', as either on, or off target. These involve various themes and promises, ie 'We will do this, we will do that, blah blah. Of course, how the goal posts are set, or how often they're moved is an entirely different matter.

Anyhow, in 'sub theme'; 'Openness, honesty integrity', and with the usual air of self-satisfaction, there is only one 'off target' measure. In the last quarter year, there were delayed responses to no less that 22 freedom of information requests. This was due, the report says, to delays in receiving information from departments, incomplete information being supplied by those departments, administrative errors (whatever they might be) and the "time taken to obtain approval from senior managers to release information".

This shows that despite the efforts of the FOI officer, the general obligations under the freedom of information act are still not taken seriously. A freedom of information request made a couple of years back showed that there were only two full time members of staff dealing with FOI and Data Protection issues. At the time, and by comparison, the council Press Office could boast a 'team of twenty'.

Interestingly the remaining specific measures under the same 'sub theme' are 'on target'. These include a delay in publishing a Register of Officers' Delegated Decisions, a delayed survey to see whether councillors are given sufficient information about their wards, a delay in producing a 'Made Simple' guide to the constitution and a delay in the Constitution Review Working Group (CRWG) meeting at all, and in particular to 'review any opportunity to improve the openness and transparency of the Council'.
Not exactly 'on target', not by my interpretation anyway.

You may recall that the CRWG was set up to chew over the 39 recommendations made by the WLGA back in November 2014. It does not appear to have met since just before the Extraordinary meeting in June 2015, over a year ago. There is still no sign of the dedicated petition page, as promised, nor the final removal of the libel cost clause from the constitution, This was 'suspended' over two and a half years ago 'until the legal position is clarified'. The legal position was of course clarified as unlawful, illegal, immoral, etc two and a half years ago but, well, that's another story, and one which leaves those culpable, though still unaccountable, for the scandal in something of a dilemma.

On a slightly different note, although perhaps hovering under 'sub theme openness', or even the long grass, is the proposal to charge for green waste collection. Much has been made of the changes to bin collections, 'rationalised routes', and all that, but no mention yet, other than a scrutiny report, of the proposed £48 annual fee to collect grass cuttings, starting from April next year.

Whether the Executive Board will rubber stamp this charge remains to be seen but significantly it will be the most expensive in Wales. There will be no concessions, but if you can afford to pay it in one lump there'll be a 15% discount, if you can't, and have to spread the payments, then it'll cost you the whole £48.