Saturday 25 November 2017

News in Brief - Council budget and other news

Council budget

The council's budget for the next couple of years puts in an appearance on Monday's Executive Board agenda as the proposals are rubber stamped for consultation. The budget report shows that, for next year at least, the cuts to the schools budget are avoided by a cash injection (taken from other grants, not new money) from the Welsh Government, although in real terms there are no extra funds to cover inflation, pay awards etc so in effect there's a £2.3m cut. The following year there's a planned cut of £4m. Nor has the chopping and changing to assorted grants by the Welsh Government, such as the school uniform grant, been taken into account.

Reading the report there seems to be a real problem with clarity from the Welsh government over it's various funding pots but the council have had a better than anticipated deal which means that instead of around £36m of cuts ('efficiencies') required over the next three years the figure is around £31m. For 2018/19 it's £8.5m instead of £12.5m. Council tax is due to rise by 4.12%.

The proposals themselves can be found here (See? I'm assisting the council in it's consultation process) The managerial cuts seem a little optimistic and depend heavily on restructuring, reviewing and rejigging existing arrangements, particularly a £1m cut next year to domiciliary care and support for those with learning disabilities.

The actual service cuts ('Policy proposals') kick off with another rise in school meals, with Carmarthenshire the joint highest in Wales. The continuing price increases are showing a drop in uptake, which can't be good.

The main points which struck me were a couple of proposals which have reappeared after being dropped in earlier budgets. First is the plan to start charging for sixth form/college transport. The provision is non-statutory, and, indeed, some other authorities make charges but getting from A to B is hard enough as it is, from the cost of running a car to the very limited rural bus services and for most families in the outlying areas a charge could easily be the decider over whether a 16 year old continues their education or not.

The second proposal is a £400k cut to the respite centres for profoundly disabled children. Previous plans to close the two respite centres were permanently abandoned last year so I can't imagine closure is on the cards, well, I hope not. This is what the proposal says;
"Consultancy (IPC) engaged in full review of disability services. This suggests that families would
benefit from greater flexibility of service and more personal discretion would lead to a more
diverse range of respite provision thereby requiring less residential respite"

I would like to know how much the consultants are charging for all this and I also hope that the families are being fully consulted rather than being the subject of a desk-top exercise to arrive at the council's preferred outcome.

It will be interesting to see how the City Deal and 'Wellness Village' translates into figures, or should I say borrowing, in the capital budget. The cash set aside for the leisure centre and care home could well disappear into the black hole of this latest vanity project. The council debt is already £388m with a quiet £20m borrowed in August. The luxury spa Wellness thing and could well provide a lasting legacy of insurmountable debt whilst our roads crumble and day centres for the elderly are 'reviewed'...

It remains a disappointment that Carmarthenshire Council, and other Welsh council still refuse to publish their monthly spending details. This is a legal requirement in England and provides the public, and, of course, 'armchair auditors' with a greater financial insight and enables better scrutiny.

National Botanic Gardens

The next item on the executive board agenda is a plea from the Botanic Gardens to extend the time to start paying back an interest free £1.35m loan from March 2018 to March 2020. Despite years of mismanagement, nobody wants to see the Gardens fail and recent reports claim a slight improvement in it's financial fortunes. However, it has always required public money to keep going and probably always will; the council itself now gives the Garden around £50k a year, though let's face it £1.35m would certainly help with respite care, etc sooner rather than later. (Update 27th; Exec Board agreed to the extension)

Interestingly the report states that 'questions need to be asked' over the Garden's proposals to turn the farmhouses into holiday lets and student accommodation. The four farmhouses on the land are the security for the council's interest free loan and were supposed to be sold off to repay it, but never were.

Mind you, questions need to be asked about a lot of things, unrelated to the Botanic Gardens....

Council Owned Housing Company

Also doing the rounds of press releases and agenda items (and also mentioned briefly in my previous post, Nothing to declare!) is the plan to set up a council owned housing company. As Carmarthenshire Council is the latest in a long line of councils to do this then one would hope that lessons have been learned over the years and little could go wrong. Let's hope that is indeed the case, because as it will be trading as a company there will be 'commercial sensitivities' which preclude too much in the way of scrutiny. The set up costs will be at least £100,000.

The idea is to find 'new ways' to deliver affordable and/or market housing though the report is not entirely clear how this will be achieved (or it could be me who's not clear, I'm not exactly an expert). I'm presuming that, in part, it will be subsidising the private rented sector via loans and schemes and land transfers from the council. For a snapshot of another council's, erm, arrangements for housing those in need, this blog post about Barnet Homes is worth a read...

At the moment the company would continue to use existing council staff and resources but, as with any commercial entity, and "without significant intrusive Council controls", after a time it would look to save costs, maximise profits and branch out into the 'market' and source cheaper options from elsewhere.

The justification for the company is in part, based on the Welsh Government populations predictions for future demand for housing, which formed the Local Development Plan which were never going to be met. These predictions were, in fact, soon found to be way off the mark across the whole of Wales and have now been reassessed to much lower figures.

Anyway, it will be one to watch.

Councillors' salaries

On the agenda for next week's Democratic Services Committee is the annual Independent Remuneration Panel Wales' recommendations over councillors allowances. This year a £200 rise is recommended putting up the basic allowance from £13,400 to £13,600; the Leader, deputy, Chairs and Chair of council also get the extra £200 within their 'senior salaries'. All the details can be seen in the report here.
Meanwhile, the salaries of senior officers remain at eye-watering levels. Topping the chart is the chief executive at £170,000 plus assorted perks, and his Deputy on £134,000 plus £17,000 pension contributions.

I note that Mark James has resigned from his role as lead chief executive of the regional education board (ERW), I wonder if this is the start of a pattern? Rumours have also been circulating that Chez James, otherwise known as the Presidential Palace, is having a bit of a refurb and might soon be on the market....a golden handshake on its way? Golden handcuffs might be more appropriate.

Webcasting and 'CRWG'

To see whether you are getting value for money for your councillor (£48,000 for the leader etc etc) webcasting has been a useful guide. Though, as this is a subject I have taken a particular interest in, I must remind readers that in the control freakery world of County Hall recordings by the public are still banned, unless the meeting is already being webcast.
Unfortunately, Wales has yet to catch up with England in enshrining our democratic rights.

Last December discussions took place to start webcasting all the other meetings, including Scrutiny and Audit Committees in addition to full council, Planning and Executive Board meetings which are currently screened. As it would have meant an increase in hours from 100 to 230 the idea was shelved. Not helped I'm sure by having the now-retired Pam Palmer, who hated any sort of filming, sat on the Group. One concession was made however and that was to webcast special meetings, such as when Scrutiny Committees discuss the budget. As these meetings are coming up over the next couple of months let's hope the concession is honoured.

This information came from the 'Decision Notes' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) which I had requested from Ms Rees Jones. The Group meets a couple of times a year. I still find it highly ironic that this group, which grew from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the WLGA governance review and, essentially, the council's aim to be the most transparent in Wales, refuses to publish it's agendas and minutes online.

One of my somewhat repeated enquiries has been the request to remove the 'suspended' libel clause from the constitution. It's approaching it's fourth year of 'suspension' and Mr James and Ms Rees Jones are, given their dilemma, reluctant to let it go. It seems they would prefer to leave it there as a permanent memorial to their professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour... I recently wrote to Emlyn Dole, who 'Chairs' CRWG to ask for the matter of its complete removal to be placed on the agenda for discussion at a future meeting.

Sadly Mr Dole refused my request having changed his mind since his opposition days and now sings from the same distinctly un-Christian like hymn sheet as Mr James. As to who actually Chairs the CRWG meetings, well, it is notable that Mr James and Linda Rees Jones are both present to impart their wisdom. Which might just explain things...
Anyway, I'll keep trying. Before they un-suspend it, blow next years budget and sue someone.

In other news, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Response from the Police Commissioner, the harassment warning issued against me in August 2016 expired last month, but the chief constable has refused to remove the details concerning its issue from police systems. It's a bit like having some sort of 'criminal' record with no crime ever having been committed and having no means whatsoever to defend myself.
I have now made a complaint to the police that they are holding information about me that I do not agree to. I'll let you know what happens.  

Tuesday 21 November 2017

The Mark James Business Empire - Nothing to declare!

After a lengthy three month wrangle with the council, and some nudging from the Information Commissioner's office, I finally had the outcome of my request for Senior Officers' Declarations of Interests. The full details, up to the point where I asked for an internal review, can be seen here.

The review response is quite extraordinary. I did not ask specifically about the chief executive but it seems that without naming names it was his sensitivities that Ms Rees Jones was focusing on. It was unusual that it was her, the ever faithful head of legal ironing, who carried out this particular review...

Incidentally, the letter was dated 16th November but clearly needed approval, and quite possibly a contribution from the, erm, chief executive so I didn't receive it until today, the 21st, via email...and also incidentally, and unlike previous requests, I was not sent the register of interests, redacted or otherwise.

So, back to the response, and despite the fact that the chief executive runs a property management company and is a director of four companies; and aside from the fact that he owns leaseholds on several flats and is also a registered landlord, he has not declared anything.

I am told, in so many words, that this is because it's all based in Cardiff, not under the 'jurisdiction' of Carmarthenshire. An interesting, if flawed concept to say the least.

As an aside, Mr James claimed in the Western Mail that he'd had 'consent' from the authority for his extra-curricular activities down in the Bay. Seems that this consent must have been the usual nod and a wink variety from a dutiful disciple, rather than anything 'official', or something which might have surfaced on an auditor's radar. Here we have the same old problem; Mr James making all the decisions, even about his own role in the council.

The issue is whether there are any potential conflicts of interest and this can be looked at in two ways.

Whilst he is not tending to business in Cardiff or pursuing his hobby of legal posturing, Mr James manages, somehow, to squeeze in a bit of chief executive stuff, for which he's paid handsomely. According to my own sources, and Cneifiwr's recent post, Mr James devotes quite a bit of time to his business dealings and he's rather more hands-on than he's led everyone to believe. If any of this time impinges on his day job then there's a conflict.

Then there's the council's own business, which is overseen and often led by Mr James. For instance, the council are currently planning to establish a separate Housing Company which will involve contracts and business dealings outside of the county, and the authority are also part of the RentSmart register of landlords, a government scheme led by Cardiff Council.
Is there a potential for decisions taken in Carmarthenshire that set precedent to have influence beyond the county's borders?

What if the council takes a position on anti-social behaviour from short term holiday lets - Is it not relevant that the CEO operates in this industry? What guarantees do we have that he will not conduct business within Carmarthenshire? His business partner operates letting and property investment companies which operate across the UK, including Swansea.

The council are also privy to private discussions with national housing and property developers on a regular basis. Mr James is also the lead chief executive of the Swansea City Deal which involves top level discussions with government officials, developers and property management companies.

Of course, we won't even contemplate whether he uses any council facilities, staff or resources to run his Cardiff empire, that would be highly improper...

Then we can look at it from the Cardiff Bay perspective. I was told by a reliable source that Mr James claimed, to them, to be advising Welsh Government ministers on the development of landlord and housing policy. Whether he does or not we don't know, maybe Mr James was just using his position as council chief executive to impress his business associates...

We also know that Mr James business interests have made it into the press with reports of residents' complaints over raucous stag parties, overnight lets and vomit left in the corridors. This delightful scenario directly involves the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council as Chairman of the Right to Manage company - you might think he was in danger of bringing the authority into disrepute...though he has already done quite enough of that over the years, notwithstanding the vomit.

One thing is unarguable, Mr James has a lot of contacts, in both walks of life, and surely common sense, let alone transparency would dictate that there is the potential here for conflicting interests.

Public perception is everything, so how do the public - who pay Mr James around £700 a day - know he's not using council time, council contacts, inside information on future policy, or anything else, to further his private interests? In short, we don't. And neither do the council. Do we take his word for it? Most definitely not.

The idea that interests 'out of county' are not declared seems total nonsense to me and continues the game of smoke and mirrors which shroud and protect the chief executive. The declaration of officers' interests should be a requirement as it is for councillors, not left to some sort of flimsy voluntary arrangement, wide open to abuse to those who believe they're a law unto themselves...

Furthermore, ICO guidance on the matter doesn't specify whether declared interests are out of county or not, what is of utmost importance is avoiding conflicts of interest, wherever they are, let alone the importance of public trust in our local authorities. Sadly though, neither of these fundamental concepts of the principles of public life appear to trouble Mr James. Ever.

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 

A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 

If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities." (Extract from ICO guidance)

Pic source; WalesOnline

Monday 13 November 2017

Misuse of council computers - One rule for one...

Last month, following my complaint to the Wales Audit Office in July, I was given the outcome of their lengthy 'investigation' concerning the chief executive's extensive misuse of council computers for private use. Specifically this related to detailed and prolonged searches of this blog to provide 'evidence' to the police for his private complaint of harassment and for evidence to pursue his 'personal damages'.

To my astonishment, the Wales Audit Office decided that there was no case to answer and said;  "I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day"
Something didn't ring right.

The WAO response prompted a third party to ask the following Freedom of Information request;
Dear Carmarthenshire Council, 
I would like to know, for each year from 2010 to present, how many occasions council employees have found themselves subject to disciplinary procedures concerning the use of council IT facilities for personal use, and what the eventual measures taken against the employee were. 
I am interested in any cases which had an outcome ranging from a note being made on the employee's HR record through to dismissal for gross misconduct. I am perfectly happy for this data to be anonymised. 
Please contact me if you have any queries.
Yours faithfully,
Martin Milan.

This was the surprising response;

Dear Mr Milan,

In response, we are only able to provide information from the financial year 2012/13;

To date there has been 8 allegations that have been dealt with formally;
1 employee resigned prior to a formal investigation commencing
1 employee resigned during the investigation
1 didn't go to a hearing as the employee had already been dismissed as a
result of a separate disciplinary allegation
3 written warnings
1 verbal warning
1 disciplinary transfer to another post.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman
Swyddog Gwybodaeth a Diogelu Data
Adran y Prif Weithredwr
Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin
Information & Data Protection Officer 
In case there had been any confusion, the requester then asked for confirmation that the data provided above did relate solely to the misuse of Council IT facilities for personal matters, and the reply came back as 'yes'.

I think this speaks for itself. There is clearly one rule for the chief executive and one for everyone else. Yet again. I suggest that the Wales Audit Office take another look, and maybe the Monitoring Officer might care to instigate disciplinary proceedings against Mr Mark James CBE? What a joke.

To use council staff and resources to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune is bordering on criminal, particularly as the council themselves have repeatedly told everyone that this was an 'entirely private matter' between Mr James and a resident.

After everything that has happened, what more do our councillors need, apart from a backbone, to bring a vote of no confidence against this tin-pot dictator? As for the police and the WAO, why are they still protecting him?

The full thread of the FOI request can be seen here

See also this post from July; 'Evidence' accessed from council computers - the Carmarthenshire Herald. The Herald noted it would be "wholly inappropriate for any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so"

Thursday 9 November 2017

Chief Executive threatens pensioner with legal action

The long running case concerning the dispute between pensioner Patricia Breckman and the council has been well documented. In a nutshell, the council chose to either turn a blind eye to her neighbour's developments at Blaenpant Farm or approved planning applications with no agricultural justification. The developments, which include massive sheds, the quarrying of rock, the formation of hardstand, and the running of an unauthorised haulage business have destroyed Mrs Breckman's life, her retirement and the peaceful enjoyment of the cottage which she shares with her partner Eddie Roberts.

Mrs Breckman has, over the past fifteen years or so, provided the council with evidence, which, on occasion, they themselves had asked for, that not only were the developments unjustified in planning terms but that some of their officers were simply ignoring what was going on. This was all backed up by a now-retired planning inspector on ITV's Week in Week Out who accused officers of turning a blind eye. Ombudsman findings have been mixed and the latest findings, which found in favour of the council, are downright bizarre and recognised as such by senior politicians who are challenging the report. The independence of our one and only public service watchdog in Wales is also being brought into question.

As the police had become involved and subjected Mrs Breckman to arrest, despite the fact that her neighbours were the aggravating party, the former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon issued Mrs Breckman with a full and unreserved apology on behalf of the police in 2015.

Last year Mrs Breckman sought a similar apology from the council chief executive Mark James for the actions of the council, and particularly the planning department. An audience was finally arranged with that master of manipulation, Mr James, who led Mrs Breckman to believe he was not only sympathetic but would also support a claim for compensation.

Mrs Breckman duly put in a claim only to receive a letter, some months later, from the insurer's solicitor that there would be no pay out, she had no claim and if she tried to go to court they would immediately apply to strike out her claim. The basis for this abrupt decision was that council officers' were protected as their decisions were discretionary and could override statutory duties. Or some such b******s.
In other words, far from being sympathetic, the chief executive had made sure there'd be no claim, and no apology.

To give just one example amongst the numerous questionable issues was the hardstand created by the neighbour which became the subject of an enforcement notice. This eventually went to court. Mrs Breckman later discovered that the proceedings had been dropped by the then head of planning as the hardstand had now been removed. It hadn't, and this misinformation had been conveyed to the court.

Mrs Breckman has continued to push for the truth and believes that County Hall continue to cover-up serious breaches of conduct, and at the very least expects the chief executive and head of legal to recognise that the actions of planning officers, including the former head of planning, Eifion Bowen, fell short of what was expected of them.

The Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones has a Statutory duty to prepare a report where evidence of malpractice, negligence or misconduct in public office is apparent. In this case - and I have had sight of all of the evidence, and the correspondence between Mrs Breckman and the Monitoring Officer - it's as plain as the nose on your face, and even in terms of local government games of smoke and mirrors it warrants independent investigation. Something definitely wasn't right, to put it mildly.

The latest twist to the whole affair comes in the form of a legal threat to Mrs Breckman from Mr James. "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action". The 'continuation' being Mrs Breckman's pursuit of straight answers through correspondence which has always been factual,  dignified and well argued, and one of which relates to the supposed independence of the Monitoring Officer.

The role of the Monitoring Officer is supposed to be impartial and not to cosset, and blindly take instructions from, the chief executive. In Carmarthenshire this is something of a long running joke, the libel indemnity being a case in point and even Ms Rees Jones permanent appointment as Monitoring Officer was a decision made by the chief executive alone - that should never have happened, and she depends on him for her job. We are stuck with a chief officer who, by fear or favour, exerts insidious and overwhelming control, even to the point where he controls the Monitoring Officer.

In Mrs Breckman's case the council have rendered her home unsaleable and destroyed her life, at best through negligence and incompetance and at worst through misconduct, and she continues to search for some honesty, integrity and accountability from those who are attempting to silence her - from my own experience let alone Mrs Breckman's, those three qualities are not part of Mr James' personality, let alone his vocabulary.
Legal threats are, as we know however, his speciality and quite what this one will consist of is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, he's out of control.

11th November;
Good to see this story on the front page of Friday's Carmarthenshire Herald, and an excellent article (print only) which concludes "The resort to law in a bid to silence critics and criticism is, however, nothing new in Carmarthenshire"

12th November;
For further comment and detail on this case see Y Cneifiwr's excellent post published today - Natural Justice 

The Burn family and Natural (In)justice

I am publishing below a brief statement from Mr Robin Burn, in his own words, in relation to recent calls for 'natural justice'. This blog has reported several times, (most recently here) on the failure of the authorities, including the council which led to the desperate situation which Mr and Mrs Burn found themselves in, and the profound effects these failures had on their severely autistic daughter, Carina.
Last year, Carina's solicitor issued the following statement; “This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

As you can see below, the fight for a full investigation, and natural justice, continues to this day.

Natural (In)Justice 
The recent departure, allegedly by his own hand , of Carl Sargeant, has led to an outpouring of national displeasure into the handling of this affair by the leader of the Welsh Government. The cries of anger in the lack of natural justice, and calls for investigations are extremely loud. 
The lack of clarity into what were the allegations of his misdemeanours, apparently led to his own actions. 
What a difference to the situation faced by the Burn Family when on October 15th 2010, allegations were laid against the parents of Carina Burn for sexual assault against their disabled autistic. daughter. 
We were denied any explanation by Carmarthenshire County Council and Dyfed Powys Police until the end of October after we had been arrested for the alleged assault. 
There was no national outcry and we here parents who knew we had committed no such offence, were never given any support by anyone save for two brave County Councillors. 
There were no cries of natural justice not being applied, and still to this day both the Authority and the Police have denied the Burn Family a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into the conduct of the authority and the police. 
Natural Justice has never been applied in our case, unlike the vociferous requests for a government minister. 
This is the real injustice.    
Perhaps now is the time to reflect and improve attitudes and procedures as a result of these unfortunate incidences? 
Mr Robin Burn

Sian Caiach has supported the Burn family throughout and provides a detailed account of their ordeal at the hands of the authorities on her blog in three parts; here and here and most recently here. She names all those who should be held accountable for their actions.

Carina at home with her parents, November 2017