Tuesday 30 January 2018

Councils at war

It seems that the former police commissioner is not the only one to view our council as Wales' answer to a Sicilian cartel - an element of Pembrokeshire County Council have also expressed the same view, publicly, at a meeting of Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee this morning (30th)

The issue relates to Carmarthensire's refusal, some time ago, to allow Pembrokeshire's elected members access to crucial documents relating to the controversial South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF).

These were speculative property grants covering Pembs and Carms but administered by Carms. Carmarthenshire bloggers raised their own concerns over these grants, known as 'Meryl's Millions' (see previous posts) a couple of years ago and the outgoing Director of Resources reported matters to the Wales Audit Office as a parting shot.

As you can imagine, no information was released other than a few lines buried in reports. The Wales Audit Office did the final audit of the SWWPDF and Carms refused to accept the findings, which clearly were not good. Carms then took it off the WAO and gave the task to Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) instead and, surprise surprise, nothing more was said.
In 2016 I asked the WAO for all information and reports relating to their audit but it was refused as it would "prejudice the audit functions of the Auditor General for Wales" Hmm.
As WEFO also administered EU grants, it was not in their interests to find anything particularly untoward in Carms.
So, in brief, it was the usual cover up and secretive nonsense. The WAO have, in their annual reports, raised serious concerns with the council's management of numerous grants over the past five years.

Pembrokeshire Councillors (including the two blogging councillors Jacob Williams and Mike Stoddart) have been carrying out their own investigations into some of the SWWPDF expenditure in their county and in an attempt to get crucial documents, met the brick wall of Carmarthen County Hall.

Carms wouldn't even send documents to Pembs but insisted that Pembs officers trek to Carmarthen to view them, presumably under armed supervision. A request to include Pembs Cllr Mike Stoddart in the deputation to Carmarthen was refused. Carms suggested they submit a FOI request. As I mentioned, Cllr Stoddart happens to be the author of the Old Grumpy blog.

The issue at stake is whether, in a joint venture between partner councils, elected members can see contracts, audits and all documents held by the administering council.

As taxpayers money from Pembs is involved, of course they should and, in fact, their own legal department agrees that they should.

And if it is suspected, as it is here, that all is not as it should be then all the more reason that they should be available.

However, this is the Carmarthenshire cartel in action with the usual obfuscation, cover-up and chronically cavalier internal legal advice.

The murky waters of the SWWPDF were one thing, the multi-millions involved in the Swansea Bay City Deal are quite another. The four councils have still not agreed on a Governance Agreement; the previous draft was ripped up last October and apparently 'it is hoped' that the new draft will be 'presented to council' in March. That's over a year of disagreement as well as ongoing secrecy over private investment.
With Mr James as lead chief executive of the City Deal I understand that the other partners are finding his attitude a little arrogant to say the least. No surprises there then.

As for paying the interest on the millions which will be borrowed by the council, there is currently not a penny in the budget to cover it. Mind you, the £400k Respite care budget for profoundly disabled children is due to be slashed by half so perhaps that might contribute a few paltry quid towards Mr James' latest vanity project...

If Pembrokeshire councillors don't push now for free access to all documentation then they won't stand a hope in hell of seeing so much as a Post-It note from the Carmarthen catacombs.
If they do acquire documents, especially through the chief executive, it worth double checking their authenticity, just like you would for a second-hand car...just a precaution you understand.

Carmarthenshire councillors might also like to consider their own rights over access to information and stop taking 'no' for an answer...although I'm sure the majority have never asked for more than their monthly expenses claim form.

Anyway, kudos to Pembrokeshire for webcasting ALL their meetings, including their Audit Committee where the problem of Carmarthenshire's refusal to provide documents was discussed, in damning terms. After this, if they don't play ball Mr James may decide to build a wall between Pembs and Carms, and make Pembs pay for it...
As you can also see from the webcast, the matter has been referred to the Wales Audit Office.

I have been unable to find a way to embed the section of webcast into this post (can anyone help here?) so have provided a link to the relevant Item here. It's worth watching to the end of the item.

Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee

Friday 26 January 2018

News round up - City Deals, 'Teckals' and more...

I would hope that the collapse of Carillion has, if nothing else, put the brakes on the PFI-style arrangement known as the Swansea Bay City Deal, or Techniums Part 2 for those with longer memories..... Before the four councils, or even the health boards (currently considering hospital closures) commit to million of pounds of public debt in joint initiatives with private investors, due diligence should be reviewed and public accountability and transparency strengthened.

One of the key City Deal developers, so far, is national construction company Kier Group. The firm set up an outpost in Swansea in 2016 and have already joined with the University of Wales Trinity St David, and the council, to develop the Yr Egin/S4C cultural 'hub' in Carmarthen and various Uni 'hubs' on the Swansea Riviera. Whether they'll be involved in the exciting Wellness private healthcare vanity project on the Delta Lake swamp remains to be seen...

Yr Egin, Carmarthen
Kier is not Carillion of course but an interesting article caught my attention in this week's Private Eye and it would seem that there are some troubling parallels:

Private Eye No.1462

Oh, and for an enlightened take on one of the Pembrokeshire 'City Deal' projects, have a read of Pembs councillor Mike Stoddart's 'Old Grumpy' blog here.
And for more on the City Deal/Wellness Shed, please search this blog.

* * *

Up in North Wales, Wrexham to be exact, councillors have been ordered by officers not to share extracts of council webcasts. It would seem that they've been taking lessons in control freakery from our own County Hall, though I doubt they'll actually be arrested...

Claiming copyright of such material as a means to prevent dissemination, for whatever purpose, is a profoundly backwards step and clearly the real issue is a fear that someone might edit a titbit and make someone look silly. In Carmarthenshire they do that all by themselves, no need for editing.
As Wrexham Council have the 'Master copy' they've no need to fret. Same in Carms, who have also taken the extra step of banning public filming of anything which isn't webcast...

* * *

On the subject of transparency, or lack thereof, the council have been busy recently setting up various arms length companies for housing, waste services and the Careline social care 24 hour helpline, and no doubt there are more in the pipeline. The latter two will apparently be 'Teckal' compliant which means, in a nutshell, that they will be controlled by the council (to start with anyway) and will be able to trade privately for around 20% of their income. It also removes the necessity to openly tender for these services.

Whether this is the thin end of the wedge towards back door privatisation remains to be seen. The emphasis will shift to profit and over-ambitious predicted 'savings' may never materialise. The new Careline company, which has yet to be politically approved, has already been named (Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd) and appears to have been registered on company house on the 15th January by the Wolverhampton based consultants brought in to advise the council a couple of years ago; their costs, by 2016 were £62,400, and, presumably, are still rising.

The waste service, discussed in private at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, is currently run by Cwm Environmental, also wholly owned by the council but whose contract has come to an end.

The council have been poring over the problem of renewing the contract for around three years and have brought in Geldards lawyers, Eunomia Consultancy and KPMG to advise. The cost of all this advice is unknown but unlikely to be cheap. KPMG have recently been in the news for signing off Carillion's accounts as all fine and dandy a few short months ago...

* * *

I notice that Carmarthenshire council is in a shortlist of ten for a Chartered Institute of Housing award for tackling homelessness. I don't want to take any credit away from hardworking staff but is the esteemed Institute aware that the chief executive of this council spent a small fortune (of his own money, we are led to believe), used council facilities and employed three barristers to try and render myself and my family homeless last year? He's clearly not a team player...

Interestingly, and according to the CIH website, it costs around £2000 to book a table for the glittering London awards ceremony in May. That's without train fares and hotel bookings. Let's hope none of the attendees trip over the homeless people sheltering under the canopies of the Park Plaza.

* * *

Finally, news that Labour MP for Wansbeck, Ian Lavery is in hot water for using House of Commons notepaper and postage to issue legal threats to local constituents on Facebook also caught my attention (well, it would wouldn't it). According to the MPs' Code of Conduct such facilities, ie taxpayer funded facilities, are not to be used for financial gain.

How different things are in the Wild West of Wales where our chief executive used considerably more than the cost of a publicly funded postage stamp for his own financial gain, and illegally to boot. Lesser mortals might have been had up for fraud.

County Hall is not the House of Commons though, it has its own rules, devised or flouted according to the personal requirements of Mr James CBE...such a trustworthy individual.

Monday 15 January 2018

The Boston Diaries....leopards and spots

Chief Executive, Mr James, in his witness statement to the police last year, accused me of saying that he had been 'tampering with documents before a tribunal'. In fact, what I had said, here, was that this had been an allegation made several years ago when he was employed by Boston Borough Council. The reason why I made the comment is set out below.

From time to time this blog has mentioned a few of the legacies left at Boston Borough Council following the departure of its chief executive, Mr Mark James in 2001 to Carmarthenshire. One of the main, and well publicised legacies, was a stadium which, as Mr James said at its inception, wouldn't cost the taxpayers a penny. He was quite right, it didn't cost them a penny, it cost them millions. 

Aside from stadiums, the text of an Affidavit copied and partially anonymised below, dated 1997, makes some very serious allegations about Mr James, who was, at the time of the events described, the head of legal. As you can see it is a sworn statement, an affidavit, and the full copy has been in my possession for some time. 

Enquiries with Boston Council confirmed that documents relating to all these matters had long since been destroyed so, whatever the case, it seems that the matters will remain a mystery. However, additional enquiries with some of those named confirm the integrity of the writer and none cast aspersions on the genuine nature of the document. 

As for Mr James, in court he 'couldn't remember' relatively recent events so I'm sure that whatever transpired in Boston are long erased from memory...

You can make your own mind up, but given my experience, and the experiences of others, including Carmarthenshire staff and whistleblowers, over the past few years, I know what I think.

I, Ms A, of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Lincolnshire MAKE OATH and say as follows; 
1. I was employed by Boston Borough Council from 1985 until May 1997 when I was retired on the grounds of ill-health. During my period of employment I was engaged in various posts, but from 1992 until my retirement I was employed in the Personnel Section. 
2. During the period August/September 1993 various members of staff were interviewed regarding the restructuring of certain departments. Included in these interviews was Officer A who was employed as Assistant Solicitor to the Council. I was present throughout his interview with Mark James (Director of Administration and Legal Services) and Officer B (Director of Finance). It was clear from the discussion which took place after the interview that Mark James did not want Officer A to continue to be employed by the Council in any capacity. 
3. Officer A was made redundant by the Council sometime between September 1993 and May 1994. Officer A subsequently took his case to an Industrial Tribunal, the hearing of which commenced on the 16th May 1994. One of the arguments put forward by Officer A was that the Council had never written to him offering a particular post and with details of the job specification. 
4. The day before the hearing of the Industrial Tribunal, Officer C the then Personnel Manager (and my immediate superior officer) told me that Mark James had given instructions that I was to type a letter addressed to Officer A offering him a particular post with the Council, and enclosing with it a job description. I was told that the instructions from Mark James were that the letter was to be back-dated to a date in September 1993. I told Officer C that what I was being asked to do was wrong and I was not prepared to comply with Mr James' instructions. I was informed that if I did not comply with such instructions it was very likely that I would be dismissed. As I was in fear of losing my job I carried out the instruction, but to safeguard myself I typed on the disc containing the letter words to the effect that "this letter was actually typed on the .....". I was told to file a copy of the letter on the appropriate file in date order but that the original was to be destroyed. 
5. I am informed that at Officer A's Industrial Tribunal, Mr James gave evidence on oath that the letter in question had been typed and sent to Officer A in September 1993. This was not possible as Mr James knew full well that I did not type the letter until May 1994. 
6. I have to say that when passing on the instructions from Mr James, Officer C was also very concerned that what I had been told to do was not correct, and as a result of him refusing to carry out tasks of a similar nature thereafter Officer C was squeezed out of his post on payment of compensation. 
7. In view of the above information, Mr James appears to have; 
a) Instructed a member of staff to carry out an act which he knew as unlawful in its intent.
b) Destroyed the original of a letter, or gave specific instructions for its destruction, knowing that it was vital evidence in a case against the Council and
c) Deliberately lied under oath at an Industrial Tribunal by saying that a letter had been sent to Officer A in September 1993 knowing that such a letter had not been typed until May 1994. 
8. In November 1994 a Personnel Assistant (Officer D) was appointed. From the very beginning she harassed me in various ways, and on many occasions this harassment was of a sexual nature. This harassment seriously affected my health, and by October 1996 I had had enough. I accordingly saw Mark James and reported to him some six or seven complaints of a serious nature against both Officer D and my departmental head, Officer E. Mr James did not want to know, and merely told me to repeat my allegations to Officer E (one of the perpetrators) for him to deal with. I could not believe that as the Director of the Council fully responsible for staff matters and the Monitoring Officer, and in view of the seriousness of the allegations, he did not commence an immediate investigation. 
9. Two days after my interview with Mark James I had to see my doctor because of the stressful affect the actions described were having on my health. My doctor issued a certificate, and I did not return to work after that date. 
10. There are both current and former members of staff who can verify that the facts I have stated above are correct. Officer C has confirmed to me that he is prepared to attend any inquiry to confirm the facts regarding the typing of the backdated letter. If I am given access to the discs in the Personnel Department I can easily identify the one containing the letter and my note thereon. This is providing the disc has not been destroyed. 
Sworn before a Commissioner for Oaths, and signed by both.
December 1997

Monday 8 January 2018

'Blindingly obvious' - and those missing declarations of interest...

As I mentioned in my end of year post (scroll down) I emailed the head of legal/monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones before Christmas raising a few concerns. One of these concerns was the revelation that the chief executive had not declared his 'Cardiff' interests which, in my opinion, he should have done; namely that he runs a property management company, he's a director of four private companies, owns leaseholds on several flats and is a registered landlord.

Ms Rees Jones (the email could have been written by Mr James of course) attempts to remove herself from the equation by saying that it is up to him to consider whether or not there is anything within these extra-curricular affairs which may be in conflict with the authority's interests. In my view, the problem with such a voluntary arrangement, for Carmarthenshire anyway, is that this is dependent upon the honesty and integrity of the senior officer concerned...
Ms Rees Jones also notes that there has been much 'blogging' about it all. Quite.

Whilst I have set out my reasons why I think this failure to declare could lead a potential for conflicting interests, and even costly judicial reviews, let alone the significance of the bad press which emerged over the summer, I also made a comparison with the failure, by the chief executive, to declare an interest when being bankrolled for his legal costs by the Executive Board in 2012.

That 2012 failure to declare was one of the reasons why the decision was declared illegal (or 'unlawful', if you like), this was in addition to the fact that such an indemnity was unlawful, full stop. It also led to an independent review of the entire way the council was governed and the conclusion from former lawyer and lay member of the Audit Committee that the council's internal legal advice was 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'.

Ms Rees Jones is of course, unwavering in her defence of Mr James, as if her job depended on it... and continues to argue that the Wales Audit Office were entirely wrong. Quoting various 'counsel's opinions', namely Mr Tim Kerr QC (who was brought in to defend Mr James and the Labour/Independent Exec Board at the time), one of the bizarre excuses was that as it was "blindingly obvious" to the Members that Mr James had a direct interest, a formal declaration was not required. The leap of logic continues with the unverified claim that it was she who gave the advice and not him.

I have pointed out that it is also "blindingly obvious" to Members that officers have a direct interest when pay policy or pensions are being discussed at full council, but those officers duly, and correctly file out of the chamber when such items arise.
In the real world anyone with a shred of integrity would have made a formal declaration and left the meeting. As for the 'advice', I have suggested that his presence alone was sufficient to influence the decision and, furthermore, she discussed the report with Mr James, and sought his advice and approval three days before the meeting, this was highly inappropriate to say the least. It didn't matter whether he spoke at the meeting or not, he'd already influenced the decision.
Oddly, when questioned about his presence at the 2012 meeting at the libel trial he had a sudden memory lapse and 'couldn't remember' if he'd been there or not. Yeah really. Far be it for me to suggest of course that he was not being entirely truthful when in the witness box.

As for the current state of affairs, and undeclared interests, it appears to me that governance is still dire and legal advice remains both cavalier and incompetent. In fact, it's blindingly obvious.


In an unrelated issue, the legal department are, it seems to me, currently taking it upon themselves to extend the Freedom of Information Act exemptions to prevent the release of the now scrapped City Deal Joint Working Agreement.

The 70 page document, covering the governance arrangements between the partner local authorities, led by Carmarthenshire, was scrapped in the Autumn and a new one commissioned. In refusing my request for the original draft the council acknowledged there were "public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a high profile project involving the expenditure of significant public funds", but used legal professional privilege to prevent its release.

Legal professional privilege (in this case relating to legal advice rather than impending litigation) is, in theory a reasonable and well tested means to protect lawyer/client correspondence and advice, but this is not a bundle of legal letters in the true sense of the law but a complete draft document not only of significant public interest but one that has also been made available to councillors elsewhere.

What this means is that the council can refuse to release documents which may, or may not have been wafted past a lawyer at some point. We wouldn't know. This could even be applied to documents and agreements which have been adopted such as the council's own constitution. Clearly that would be an extreme example, but the council are attempting to set a dangerous precedent regarding the legal exemption and as this is an important principle, I will be taking the matter up with the Information Commissioner in due course. (10th Jan; complaint has now been sent to the ICO)
The full thread of the request and the responses can be read here.

Whilst I'm on the subject of the City Deal it seems that despite the questions hanging over governance arrangements (the new agreement has not yet been approved), the level of public funding, etc, council staff are being redeployed to work for the City Deal, and as recent advertisements for media and office managers show, this is on the council payroll. It seems that not only are 'cash-strapped' councils required to borrow (and pay interest on) unknown millions but will be funding the staff themselves.

Or perhaps it's just Carmarthenshire, whose chief executive happens to be the lead chief executive for the Deal and who is perhaps busy creating a personalised offshoot of the Kingdom of County Hall, leading us all up the garden path to, er, Wellness...or oblivion.
Councillors may wish to check for themselves that staff and resources are not being diverted away from frontline services to an organisation, a quango of sorts, which has yet to show its hand, let alone democratic accountability.