Sunday 29 July 2018

Mark James' complaints against Sian Caiach - the Ombudsman's conclusion

After eighteen long months, the Ombudsman, Nick Bennett, has concluded his investigation into a series of complaints made by chief executive Mark James against former county councillor Sian Caiach. In short, the Ombudsman has decided that no further action is required and the file is now closed.

Nick Bennett, Public Service Ombudsman for Wales
Mr James' complaints against Cllr Caiach run to sixty-one rambling paragraphs, with numerous repetetive sub-paragraphs and a file of evidence weighing the equivalent of a large turkey. He complained that Cllr Caiach breached various parts of the council's Code of Conduct through blog posts, emails, the 'pound of flesh' protest and a letter published by the Western Mail.

In essence, it all related to the support Cllr Caiach has shown to me over the past couple of years, particularly when Mr James was trying to force sale of my home. You may recall a similar reaction to others who tried to intervene and of course his complaints to the police.

The Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Caiach was entitled to do, and say, what she did, it was political comment from an opposition councillor concerning the actions of the council and its chief executive. There was no breach found, and none of it was considered by the Ombudsman to be serious. There was one minor issue that the Ombudsman thought Cllr Caiach should reflect on, but, again, no further action was required.

The Ombudsman applied Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the Calver judgement in respect of the extra protection afforded to political expression and concluded that in Cllr Caiach's case freedom of expression included the right of political expression through public protest, she was also perfectly entitled to criticise council policy and show support for a cause or individual.

He added that he expected a chief executive to have a 'thicker-skin' when under general criticism.

Cllr Sian Caiach, currently Chair of Llanelli Rural Council

My personal view

There are a few points arising from this investigation which are worth making.

Mark James became personally embittered and outraged when Cllr Caiach acted as a witness for me, against him and the council, at the libel trial in 2013. It later transpired that he had tracked her emails.

Cllr Caiach, as followers of this blog will know, continued to question the legality of the libel indemnity and to criticise the council's pursuit of costs and Mr James' pursuit of damages.
However, she did not challenge the legal outcome of the trial, just the moral compass of Carmarthenshire Council.

Whether or not Mr James has a personal vendetta against Cllr Caiach is not known, but, as with me, the volume of 'evidence' and the detailed complaints also give rise to another concern. It appears that Mr James has either spent an awful lot of time (when not controlling his property empire in Cardiff) tracking quotes and comments from blogs, including this blog, and Cneifiwr's, scrutinizing emails, memorising chunks from Tugenhat's judgement, and god knows what else, or he instructed other council staff to do this laborious and repeated task.
Not once did he discuss his complaints with Cllr Caiach before going to the Ombudsman.

Incidentally, my police custody record from the 2011 #daftarrest incident was included in the 'evidence', I can't think of any reason why this was sent to the Ombudsman, its inclusion was completely irrelevant.

It seems to me that, yet again, Mr James' personal mission has not only cost the council an arm and a leg in staff time and resources but clearly an eighteen month Ombudsman investigation, including the taking of statements, interviewing witnesses, etc doesn't come cheap. This money would have better spent addressing concerns of dissatisfied hospital patients rather than the inflated ego of Mr James.

Mr James is the Head of Paid Service and his remit does not include assembling dossiers, by whatever means, on backbench councillors. Or bloggers or members of the public for that matter. It begs the question as to whether he has a similar obsessive compulsion with the musings, and the data, of any other councillors....

Interestingly, this is not the first Ombudsman to suggest that Mr James grows a thicker skin. He has previous. Back in 2012 he made another set of complaints against Cllr Caiach to the former Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, and he, Mr Tyndall, threw them all out.
Maybe Mr James should be registered somewhere as a vexatious complainant.

Come to think of it, Mr James hasn't had much success elsewhere either, his complaints to the police against me were thrown out by the CPS, and the judge who has dealt with the various civil enforcement proceedings was, shall we say, surprised at some of Mr James' actions, he was also as fair to me as he could be under the constraints of the circumstances.

As for the Code of Conduct, there's another one for Officers. As I have mentioned before, Mr James has taken payments and a pay rise which were deemed unlawful, he has used council resources and staff for his own purposes and breached an undertaking to his employers to pay the damages to the council. And more.

I think that this time, the Ombudsman got it pretty much right, although personally I wonder if he's been investigating entirely the wrong person.

Mr James doorstepped by reporters during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, 2014

Friday 27 July 2018

Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate the unlawful libel clauses...really?!

Please also see later posts, including The unlawful libel indemnity clause - part two.

Please read this earlier post for background; Those unlawful libel clauses - a call to arms

I understand that a meeting of the council's Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) was held earlier today. On the agenda was an Item on those infamous and unlawful libel indemnity clauses in the council's constitution.

The matter had been raised, I understand, by the leader of the Labour group Rob James who was pushing for some sort of decision as to what the administration intended to do, it was his express intention for them to be removed completely, rather than remain as 'suspended' for yet another four years.

It seems that the Plaid and Independent majority on the group, including Emlyn Dole, out-manoeuvred the three Labour members and resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office to ask if they could, legally, reinstate the clauses, on the basis that they consider them to be lawful.

If this is indeed the case, and I have asked Plaid politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to confirm Plaid's stance, then it is astonishing.

In 2014 the same Plaid councillors voted to accept the Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report which declared that it was unlawful for officers to be publicly funded to bring defamation claims, and, in fact, legislation expressly prohibited it anyway. At that time it was the Labour and Independents who voted just to 'note' the report and suspend the clauses.
All to save the skin of Mark James and Legal Linda who have refused to accept the findings.
They have claimed that the provision is lawful under case law and the vague powers under the Local Government Act of 1972.
Neither the case law, which in fact does not support such action, nor the LGA 1972 override the express prohibition in section 6(3) of the Indemnities Order 2006.

The about-turn of Plaid 'in-power', particularly Emlyn Dole is shocking and prior to today he has informed me that he now considers the clauses to be lawful. Anyone would think he owed his position to the, erm, generosity of Mark James...

I have written many times about these clauses and the sinister, chilling effect that the provision has on critics and the press alike. I will not repeat it all again here. A senior officer can still sue of course, like anyone else, but must use their own money, apart from in Carmarthenshire.

I find it remarkable that Plaid Cymru are apparently considering such an illiberal, unlawful and anti-democratic step. Let alone the potential cost risk to the taxpayers which can be (and was) hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If they are seriously going to try and do this then of course there is a lengthy process to follow. The response from the Wales Audit Office will eventually turn up on the agenda of a CRWG meeting, a recommendation will then be made which will, in turn, go to full council. It will run and run.

CRWG could have voted today to remove them completely and recommended this to the next meeting of full council.
It seems they did the exact opposite.

Carmarthenshire Council remains the only council in the UK to have this notorious provision in its constitution, it should be an embarrassment to them all. The failure to remove the clauses, and now, apparently, to seek reinstatement, shows the length they will go to protect the illegal actions of the chief executive and Monitoring Officer.

Sunday 22 July 2018

'Cadno and the Nightmare on Emlyn's Street' - from the Carmarthenshire Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald features another observant and entertaining opinion piece from columnist 'Cadno', it's self-explanatory, particularly to followers of this blog, so here it is;

Cadno and the nightmare on Emlyn's Street

Mark James CeeBeeBies ™ is a man on a mission. Having blown public money at the Princess Royal Stadium and Parc Y Scarlets, he has now decided that his next wheeze will involve mugs from the private sector soaking up the pain of failure at Delta Lakes. 
Although, and let's face it, given Marky-Mark's way with investing gargantuan sums of public dosh in pale pachyderms it would take a small miracle for the public not to end up paying out if the great swamp proves a money pit. 
But let's all try to be positive. 
Maryl Gravell has returned like a boomerang kebab on a Friday night in Llanelli town centre to lend the imprimatur of her own spotless reputation on doling out public money to the Llanelli Wellness Thingummy. 
With Meryl the Peril back on board we cannot help but wait for the excitement to start. There will be exciting announcements of exciting news and exciting sums of money being spent on exciting things, some of which could turn out to be excitingly real, for a change. 
You can imagine, readers, there was Emlyn, fast asleep one morning at Capel Ifan's own Rancho Grande when the phone rings. A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and wanders to the kitchen - stops to pour himself a cup of ambition - and answers the ringing phone. 
It's Mark James. 
Quickly Emlyn stands to attention and salutes, dinging himself with the receiver in the process. 
"It's good news Leader"
For the sake of clarity, Cadno points out Mark James is the speaker of the last sentence. 
A visibly relieved Emlyn genuflects. 
"It's Meryl Gravell." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasssion. 
"No Emlyn, Meryl's back. And this time it's Wellness." 
An ashen Cllr Dole stares unbelievingly at the handset mouthing like a stranded trout. He feels one of his headaches starting; one of the ones that end with him sitting in the corner of the kitchen with a cup of cocoa, armed with a sand wedge to repel boarders and keep the voices at bay. 
"Meryl!?" He eventually croaks into the handset. Through the earpiece, he can hear Mark James whistling 'Happy Talk' from South Pacific. 
"Yes, Emlyn. Meryl. Please try to keep up. She's a director of the company we're entering into a partnership with to build the Wellness Centre, Life Sciences Centre, Wellness Village, Wellness Resort Hotel, Wellness Golf Course, and Wellness Sheltered Housing complex for discrete and well-off gentlefolk who don't want to end up living in a cardboard box on Station Road in their declining years." 
Attempting vainly to recover his equilibrium, the Council Leader murmurs the words 'Leisure Centre'. 
The narked voice at the other end of the line snaps back, "Well if we must, Emlyn. But we're talking about big money here. Hundreds of millions pumped into Delta Lakes. I'm sure we can manage to squeeze in a ping pong table and paddling pool to keep the locals on side. After all, they'll need something to do in their lunchbreaks after a hard morning on minimum wage with a dustpan and brush or serving coffees in the Wellness Coffee Shop attached to the Wellness Conference Centre." 
"But Meryl?!" A faint plaintive note enters Cllr Dole's voice. 
"Look she was at a loose end having had the Shitty Deal gig go south when Cardiff Bay decided that she and the other mugs who fronted the deal were disposable. But look on the bright side, with Meryl on board everyone will be excited. I'm excited, Meryl's excited, it'll stop you having to bear the burden of the blame if it all goes tits up, too" 
Emlyn cannot help himself; "Blame? Tits?" 
"Listen Emlyn, this is my last big chance to enter the annals of public finance and local government as the man who delivered three whopping disasters without getting sacked. 
I've been dreaming of completing the hat-trick in order to cement my position as the man to whom the Welsh Government will be able to turn to head the Assembly Commission when the time is right. I can't risk a success. It'll go against the best traditions of local government in Wales and could ruin my legacy. It's notoriety that counts, not competence. A word in the right ear was all it took and Fanny's your aunt, Meryl is back." 
"I don't understand. Are we planning to fail?" A desperate Emlyn clutches to the prospect of disaster like it was a life preserver. 
"This is Carmarthenshire, Emlyn!" 
The exasperated tone with which the Council Leader is familiar is in CeeBeeBies' voice; "For goodness' sake, if we succeed every other county council will think it can succeed. We can't let down Cardiff Bay by allowing that. Remember what the City Deal is for; it's to ensure that when ill-costed, poorly thought out projects fail, the Welsh Government can pass the buck. They pass the buck to us, we pass the buck to Meryl. It's a win for us no matter what happens." 
"Winning?" A faint note of hope enters Emlyn dole's voice and he sits down on a kitchen stool by the breakfast bar to steady himself. 
"Yes, winning Emlyn. Everyone's a winner. Well, apart from Llanelli of course. They'll be left with a rotting building site around a leisure centre slowly sinking into the water." 
Emlyn brightens up; "You mean Llanelli loses?" 
A hollow chuckle comes down the other end of the line; "Oh yes Emlyn. That'll teach the ungrateful bastards." 
There's a click and a whirr, the audience is over. Emlyn's world begins to spin with the possibilities. He begins to feel dizzy. Everything goes black. 
He wakes up to the sound of ringing. I's the phone in the kitchen.
A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and answers it. 
It's Mark James. 
"It's Meryl Gravell, Leader." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasion. 
"No, Emlyn. Meryl's back. Back again." 
Emlyn swallows and feels rising dread.
It all seems so there no end to this nightmare?
He looks around for his sand wedge. The voices are coming again....


(From The Carmarthenshire Herald, 21st July 2018, reproduced with permission as currently in print ony)

Please search this blog for background, including here, here, and previous post here.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Wellness Village 'private partners'...something oddly familiar?

...and a post on the 13th December; Full Council - Wellness Village, the emperor's new clothes and 'Cadno' visits the bog 

Even later post, 6th December, The Wellness Village - The end?

Later post, 26th November, 'A Wellness hiccup?', here

Later post, 31st August, here.

A minor flurry of press releases yesterday announced the identity of private sector partner who will be developing the 'Wellness Village' at the Delta Lake swamp, Llanelli, with the council and Swansea University, all part of the PFI-style Swansea Bay City Deal.

The 'Sterling' photoshoot
The company is called Sterling Health, trading as Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd. The company was set up in 2015 and has sister companies called Sterling Health Security Property Ltd, Sterling Health Security Operating Ltd and Sterling Health Security International Ltd, set up last year.

There is something oddly familiar with all this.

In 2016, in secret session, the council's Executive Board entered a twelve month 'exclusivity agreement' with Kent Neurosciences Ltd to 'develop' the Village.
By May last year the 12 month agreement had not been renewed and had been quietly dropped. The company subsequently dissolved itself in May 2018 with the last set of accounts showing a deficit of £128k. Professor Marc Clement (who is the Swansea University part of the deal, pictured above on the right) was a director until 2015. Other key directors included Mr Franz Dickmann, James Dickmann and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann, clinicians and business people.

Carmarthenshire blog, West Wales News Review took a good look at Kent Neurosciences in 2016 and there were some interesting connections, not least of all to a loss making private hospital in Kent and offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The hospital opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.

The 'official' reason why the 12 month Wellness Village deal with Kent Neurosciences Ltd was not renewed was that the project was SO BIG that a wider net had to be cast to incorporate a more diverse developer.
They also had to be able to come up with £127.5m to chip in to the project...

It was somewhat surprising therefore to see that Sterling Health appears to be Kent Neurosciences by another name and includes the same directors, ie the Dickmann clan. The 'Sterling' group of companies have yet to submit any detailed or useful accounts. However, as the council press release states, it "leads a prestigious consortium of global companies", whoever they may be, and searching Companies House certainly takes you down an endless rabbit warren of linked companies and directors, and the Kent connections.

A very recent addition to the list of Directors of both Sterling Holdings, and Sterling Operating is none other than our old friend, former council leader and loyal rubber stamper of the chief executive's unlawful behaviour, Meryl Gravell. Meryl has been loitering in the background ever since as Chair of the 'Arch' health board collaboration thing.

How the same company re-emerged under a different name within a myriad of companies, and the consequential lack of clarity over business track records, will probably remain a mystery, under the helpful shroud of 'commercial confidentiality' and all that. As will the secretive procurement process and the details of the financial deal which has been struck with the council.
Clearly, as has been said before, the emphasis is on private health care, and a luxury health spa, in which the council, under the lead of Mr James, will be investing heavily.
All quite remarkable.

West Wales News Review ends its 2016 piece with another important point; "..could the Wellness Centre be a conduit for public money to flow through networks of companies into far-away entities registered in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens?"

I would imagine that is entirely possible.

This blog is not suggesting, not for one moment, that there is anything wrong with the arrangement, merely suggesting that it might benefit from some democratic scrutiny... Unsurprisingly there has been none at all so far, and, as ever, Carmarthenshire's taxpayers deserve better.

For previous posts on the Wellness Village and Swansea Bay City Deal please use the search box on the right hand side of this blog

Monday 9 July 2018

Audit reports, and more

A couple of reports, worthy of a mention, are on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee. First up is an internal audit report identifying 'fundamental weaknesses' in the council's management of its leased property. As usual the report lacks detail, it is not even clear if the reference is to residential or commercial property, or both.

A sample test of leased properties was taken and the report "identified concerns in the management and administration of the Authority’s assets" and found that "agreements were not always up to date", neither were they reviewed or renewed on time" and furthermore "evidence was not always available to demonstrate that best value had been obtained for the authority"

The report concluded that the procedures and controls were not "sufficiently robust" to "demonstrate adequate clarity and accountability over the lease of the Authority’s properties...Adequate monitoring of properties with agreements / leases is not always undertaken. In particular, the finance element of leased properties is not being managed appropriately".
Income isn't being collected promptly (if at all perhaps?) and records are not being properly maintained.

It is remarkable that that the council, with it's apparently shrinking budget; raising council tax, cutting services and shedding jobs, has failed to collect or properly manage and record the valuable income it gets from leased properties. Let's hope the Audit Committee will be given some honest detail for once, and can determine whether there have been and fraudulent or unlawful transactions and/or financial losses to the taxpayer.

As I have mentioned, Carmarthenshire Council and it's chief executive are currently the 'Accountable Body' for the City Deal, administering and managing the finances...they may want to get their own house in order first. Then again, deals enabling corporate entities and business associates to suck the lifeblood out of the taxpayer for years to come are right up Mr James' street...

Obtaining 'best value for the authority' does remind me of a certain deal with Scarlets' Regional Ltd where the chief executive, Mr James, certainly secured 'best value', unfortunately this was for Scarlets' Regional, not the authority...

The second report is from the Wales Audit Office which is also difficult to decipher. It appears to stem from two cases where "failings in people management had led to employee dismissals; losses in revenue or assets; and negative publicity for the Council.". One of the cases might well refer to the fiasco and cover-up at Pembrey Country Park (please search this blog for background, including here) though this is not stated in the report.

To 'review' what had happened, the council raided the Dictionary of Council Jargon and put several random words together, creating a "Corporate People Performance Management Review Working Group". The WAO have helpfully called it the 'review group'. The group met and discussed 'lessons learned' (of course) and, presumably, the management of people performance, whatever that might be.

As an aside it is worth remembering that there are a plethora of working groups, review groups, 'task and finish' groups, strategy and policy boards and other similarly titled bodies within the council who, by their nature, are not required to publish any agendas, minutes or decision notes, the most notorious being CRWG, set up to make the council 'more transparent'. This trend is growing and is a convenient way to subvert transparency and public engagement.

Anyway the WAO seemed pleased with the process of the 'CPPMRWG' review which made no less than ten recommendations. One of the recommendation was to review and update the guidance on declarations of interest, which is something we can all agree on...

However, despite the recommendations being formally proposed seven months ago, none of them had been implemented. The WAO concluded that this delay meant that the failings identified in the two review cases could be repeated.
Oh dear.

You can read the report here

* * *

The latest version of the council's Social Media policy was up for approval at last Monday's Executive Board meeting. The policy is nothing out of the ordinary and is an updated version of those which have been in place for the last ten years or so.

The policy, which is specifically for employees, restates a certain clause which prohibits the use of the internet for personal use during working hours. No one will mind, presumably, if you pop in to check twitter for five minutes in your lunch break, but hours of trawling blogs to acquire 'evidence' for your own private grudge, for instance, is not allowed and could lead to serious disciplinary action.

This is exactly what happened in 2016 when the chief executive trawled, or, more likely, instructed staff to trawl, through this blog for hours to cobble together his failed complaint to the police. I happened to save the hit logs from a couple of these unusually lengthy visits.

There have been many more instances where clearly Mr James has saved himself the tiresome expense of instructing a solicitor to do this lengthy exercise and used council staff and computers instead, but as I had happened to have saved this particular evidence, I raised it with the Wales Audit Office. After while they replied and said that what he had done was acceptable, staff were allowed to do this.

You may think this was unusual, being able to pursue your private interests using publicly funded resources, bloody astonishing really, but more was to come. Further enquiries, via freedom of information revealed that this generous money-saving perk didn't actually extend to any one else other than Mr James.

In fact, in the past few years, no less than eight members of staff had been disciplined for using council computers to pursue their private interests.


Anyway, from unlawfully pocketing tens of thousands of public money, to breaching an undertaking to his employers, we know that Mr James prefers to spend other people's money, he said so himself....

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