Saturday 22 September 2018

Smoke and mirrors - Indemnities, restrictions and Ombudsman costs

The row over the unlawful indemnity clause, and the 'leak' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) meeting held at the end of July continues, with further coverage in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.
Cllr Rob James, Labour opposition leader who is pushing for the removal of the clause, claims that his group are now barred from all sensitive information related to decisions made by the Plaid/Indie coalition, scrutiny of spending will be limited. I have heard similar claims and, furthermore, council leader Emlyn Dole confirms it in a statement to the Herald saying that it was now questionable whether confidential information could be trusted to the Labour leader.

This restriction came about following my blog post here which revealed the fact that the libel indemnity clause had been discussed at the CRWG meeting. No graphic details were published, there were no personal or commercially sensitive material, nor did anyone imagine that the whole business was top secret.
CRWG, you may recall, was set up to improve governance and make the council more transparent, not, as it now appears, as a secret conduit for the chief executive to challenge the qualifications of the Auditor. Something he has tried before.

Clearly the auditor's findings are still keeping Mr James awake at night. Only last year, in his complaint to the Ombudsman against Sian Caiach he rambled on at length about his unlawful indemnity, not that it was unlawful of course. He attacked, yet again, the then Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett claiming, in so many words, that his findings were based on little more than shifting sands and a passing whim.
As we know, the WAO have not changed their view and their finding has never been overturned in court.

Cllr Dole's previous enthusiasm to fully accept the Auditors findings and remove the clause in 2014, and his 'pledge' to promote 'a new mindset as we seek to ensure full openness and transparency' in May 2015, all mysteriously evaporated when he was given the key to the Presidential Toilet. It must all be a bit embarrassing, poor man...
He probably hopes that the whole sordid business will find the long grass, or those lumpy carpets in Mark James' Presidential Suite, and as yet, no letter has been written to the WAO, as resolved at the CRWG meeting.

And as for the CRWG item on libel indemnities being 'confidential', it's completely ridiculous and entirely without basis - legal advice, information, reports, judgements and numerous press reports have all been in the public domain for five years. And as I have explained before, there is an inherent and significant public interest for transparency over this issue.
And who do you think is so annoyed with the 'leak' that councillors' access to information has been restricted?
The same control freak who restricted Sian Caiach access a few years back for 'asking too many questions' and who threatened councillors with court action, to give just two examples.
This secretive, controlling nonsense lies squarely at the door of Mark James and his personally appointed legal umbrella, Linda Rees Jones. Our Leader, Cllr Dole is just grateful for his £48k a year, and does exactly what he's told. Just like every other council leader since the chief executive arrived from Boston all those years ago.

* * *

Ombudsman investigation costs

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

A few weeks ago I made Freedom of Information requests to the council, and the Ombudsman's office, for the cost of the investigation. With Mark James CBE having wasted 18 months of everyone's time, I wondered what it had also cost the taxpayers' of Carmarthenshire and indeed Wales.

The council's response

Remarkably, for the 18 months investigation, the only thing that the council had actually written down was an hour and a half of officer time amounting to £92.40.

This response was bizarre on so many levels. They could, for all we know, have spent £100,000 but if they only 'recorded' one little bit, ie £92.40, then that's all they have to disclose under FOI.

Mr James' complaint ran to 32 pages, assisted by free use of the council legal department rather than instructing his own solicitor; there was 'evidence gathering' in the form of statements from several council officers, there were documents obtained from the police, letters from council solicitors; the trawling of several blogs and assorted tweets, computer and printing costs, and whatever else occurred during the 18 months.
£92.40 probably just about covered the cost of printing out, yet again, Mr James' favourite bedtime reading, Tugenhat's lengthy judgement.

Mr James has form of course in using public resources, including hard cash, to pursue his personal vendettas and has habitually treated publicly funded resources as a mean to his own ends, or a means to failure, particularly in respect of his complaints to the police about me or his complaint against Sian Caiach.

What this deliberate omission to log expenditure means is that not only are the press and taxpaying public kept in the dark, but, more importantly perhaps, so are the auditors, and without a paper trail Mr James could have, and indeed did, spend and utilise whatever wanted. The true cost of this little exercise is probably the equivalent of at least couple of years pay for a junior council worker.

The FOI request and response can be seen here.

The Ombudsman's response

The Ombudsman's office would 'neither confirm or deny' that they held the information. This kind of response enables a public body to refuse to confirm that an investigation took place to protect sensitive information from disclosure and is usually reserved for FOI requests concerning police investigations or matters of national security.

The refusal by the Ombudsman to 'confirm or deny' in this case was somewhat unexpected, with their response bringing up issues of 'confidential investigations' and 'data protection'. I asked for the costs of course, not any documents or personal information about anyone. As for the investigation being confidential, the outcome was reported in the press.

I have now asked for an internal review which, along with the response etc, can be seen here.


Teifion said...

Seems to me that we should have an ombudsman that we can report ombudsmen too if they don't have bottle to take on "sensitive" cases

Keanjo said...

The Welsh Government must be cosidering stepping in and taking over the running of this Council.

caebrwyn said...

Article about the illegal libel indemnity clause on Wales Eye here