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.


Anonymous said...

It is "blindingly obvious" that Carmarthen County Council under the TOTAL control of it's CEO operates under it's own set of rules.Answerable to no one.Any criticisms are met with threats of litigation no doubt to be partially funded by the residents of Carmarthenshire!
This is the same Council that proclaimed that it intended to be the most transparent and accountable Council in Wales. I am still waiting for the scales to clear from my eyes.

Teifion said...

So James can decide if any laws,rules or regs apply to him?

that's wonderful

IF I'm ever stopped by the Police at least in Dyfed Powys ;-) for drunk driving,speeding or ANY Law i'll just tell them I decide if the rules apply to me

Sian Caiach said...

To be fair I think it was Councillor Emlyn Dole who made the declaration that he intended Carmarthenshire County Council to be the most open and transparent. He may not have had much support in that enterprise from senior council officers since then.

It was a bold statement and grand gesture which reinforced the corporate pledge to do better and not repeat the failings identified by the Wales Audit Office report and Welsh Local Government Association investigation. At the time he said it Emlyn may even have believed it possible to change the Council and the WAO and WLGA took the undertakings to improve as genuine and no action was taken to punish anyone for the Council's failings in giving away money to the chief executive, in both an unlawful secret pay rise and an unlawful payment of his legal expenses in a libel case.

Things, unfortunately seem to have drifted back to the same old practices. Emlyn's noble ambition has apparently disappeared. Secrecy and evasion are back in fashion.
If these sorts of actions and consequences were discovered in Government Departments in Westminster or even Cardiff Bay, there would be uproar and scandal and opposition parties and even members of the sitting government would likely condemn these mistakes and demand the heads of those responsible.

Why then does Carmarthenshire CC get away with it? Are they ignored because they are too insignificant in the grand scheme of Welsh Local Government? Does the fact that the 2 major political parties involved, Plaid Cymru and Labour, are now equally stuck in the quagmire, both involved in cover ups and questionable actions and therefore don't see any mudslinging on the subject as a good political strategy?

I am sure there are many decent elected councillors and council officers embarrassed by these shenanigans and some have tried to make amends and support the victims in cases of clear injustice and tried to expose the hidden agendas and problems swept under the carpets. There has been little success in this. They face a toxic corporate culture of silencing any dissent likely to embarrass or inconvenience the few elite individuals who actually control the Authority. In the case of Councillors,their own parties may well seek to stop them rocking the boat.

Generally, elected councillors simply want to represent their voters interests and perhaps advance themselves their political parties.Council employees would like to to do their jobs in public service and perhaps get a promotion. They don't sign up to be rebels or secret agents trying to find out the truth of what's going on. They don't wish to be victimised, compromise their careers or lose their incomes entirely by not.
towing the line. They are not blind to how others who cause such "trouble" are treated.

The political party organisations in County Hall encourage team playing where the team captains prioritise easy political victories and the empty "power" of leading the County as the goal.

As long as slavish conformity and excepting domination, bullying and dictatorship are the standards of this supposed local representative democracy. little will change. So far the compliant, uncomplaining councillors have been rewarded with praise, flattery and the lucky ones, the most trusted, have had extra pennies for being chairs, exec board members etc. None have suffered personally from any failing projects, massive overspending, unlawful payments to the chief executive. under performing enterprises, poor service delivery, bizarre planning recommendations etc and it seems to them that if they follow orders they will always be safe.

Now maybe no prominent individual at CCC will ever be held to account. But if allegiance to the culture fails to protect in the future, and public criticism and blame falls on those responsible for failure, change will surely and finally come.

Martin Milan said...

Oh Mark, do one, please...

The City Deal Joint Working Agreement is a proposal for how our public bodies will spend public money and resource - resources provided by the public. The public have every right to scrutinise it. Perhaps such scrutiny might even improve it?

The idea that a proposal is subject just because legal advice was sought in it's constructions is utter bollocks, and it's utter bollocks that the ICO will have no truck with whatsoever.

If this goes to the ICO, the council are going to lose, and lose badly. They are risking being called out for active concealment when they themselves have accepted there is a strong argument for disclosure... I hope they get fined to oblivion as an example to others.

Keanjo said...

Just read the Authority's 5 year programme and if you rear away the padding ,there's not much left .Makes you wonder why they need all the staff headed by our supersonic CEO.