Sunday 4 August 2019

Libel indemnities? Auditor General says NO!

Meanwhile, whilst I continue to make my own enquiries and we await more news on Mr James, the police and the unfolding Wellness scandal, another long running scandal has taken an interesting turn.

Regular readers will know what I mean by the unlawful libel indemnity clause. Without going into years of detail, it was Mark James' little plan to to sue people into silence and chill the press, not with his own money though, but with your hard earned cash.

The Wales Audit Office ruled the clause, and the public funding of his counterclaim against me, unlawful in the 2014 Public Interest Report and the clause was 'suspended' but, as you may imagine, the council, namely Mark James and Linda Rees Jones have disagreed with this ever since. Mark James never repaid the money.

The unlawfulness of the clause, and it's use in 2012, has grave implications for Mr James and Ms Rees Jones so they have blindly defended their actions ever since. To have imparted misleading advice, and to gain financially and personally from it, is, arguably, fraud.

You will recall that most of Mr James' counterclaim involved my description of this clause (several months before he sued) as a slush fund. That was before the WAO's ruling.
You may also recall that his written undertaking to pay damages over to the council turned out to be a lie. He ignored political calls to 'do the honourable thing'.

The ban on funding libel claims is enshrined in The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006.

Emlyn Dole, once a vociferous opponent of the clause when in opposition, had a miraculous change of heart when Mr James made him Leader in 2015....

As I said above, the clause was 'suspended' in 2014 but at a meeting of the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) held on 27th July 2018 an attempt was made by the leader of the Labour group to remove it completely.

At the meeting, quite the reverse happened and the majority Plaid Cymru group, led by Emlyn Dole, with Mr James right behind him, tried to reinstate the offending clause into the constitution.

It was resolved, however, to write to the WAO for their opinion and hope for the rubber stamp.

Incidentally, when the substance of this secretive CRWG meeting was made public (though not the documents), Mark James Emlyn Dole punished the opposition by denying them access to 'sensitive' documents. Including documents relating to the Wellness scandal...

Seven months later (no idea why there was such a delay), on the 28th March 2019, a six page begging letter was sent to the Auditor General from Linda Rees Jones and Chris Moore (Director of Resources) trying to persuade the WAO to change their minds, allow them to reinstate the clause and sue people whenever they wished.
There were no 'new' arguments in the letter.
Mark James of course had a direct interest so left it to trusty Linda to sign his letter...

As you may imagine, I've been trying to get all this information, the Officer's Report to CRWG, Minutes and letters, through FOI, for twelve long months.

The considered response from the Auditor General to the council's letter, which was disclosed to me last week by the WAO, was dated the 10th May and is short and sweet.

He basically tells them to sod off, and goes one step further, warning them that if they attempt to try it again, he has the power to launch a Judicial Review..

This must have been a bit of a blow to Mr James, who had yet to retire, and Legal Linda, let alone poor Emlyn who was even hoping to extend the 'libel on the rates' wheeze to himself and fellow councillors.

It has to be said that Plaid politicians Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards MP have expressed a different view to that of their litigious colleagues in County Hall. Let's hope they now have a word with them?

The AG's letter also must have dashed Mark James' hopes of dipping into the meagre council coffers and sue not only the Chair of the health board but the Herald as well. We hope so anyway.

So, what will they do now?

At another CRWG meeting on the 8th May, just before the AG responded, an opposition councillor suggested (again) that the clause be removed completely, and that they should not even bother to wait for the AG's reply as it was felt that the Authority, even on moral grounds "should not support legal action by officers against members of the public at the expense of the taxpayer".

Emlyn and co again opposed this move and insisted they wait for the Auditor General, hoping he'd pave the way for reinstatement.

Legal Linda jumped in and told them, again that it was all perfectly lawful and that the council could still fund an officer even with the clause suspended...This was a remarkable statement, she is some piece of work and should have been sacked long ago, along with Mr James. This is governance, Carmarthenshire style.

With the clear rejection from the Auditor General, again, let's hope Wendy Walters, the new CEO, expresses support for it's removal forthwith. If she doesn't, she's as bad as her predecessor.

See also this week's Carmarthenshire Herald for an excellent article on the WAO's response. "...In a letter dated May 10, the Auditor General for Wales, Adrian Crompton, effectively tells the Council to go do one."

Wider significance

County Councils currently have the power, under certain conditions, to fund an officer's defence against an action for libel, but not to bring an action. An individual officer can of course sue who he or she likes with their own money.

Councils cannot, under the Derbyshire Rule, sue as a body.

The ban on indemnities arose due to concerns that a governing body could get around this rule by funding an individual to take a case forward. However, the main concern was that this power would stifle legitimate, robust, democratic debate and have a chilling effect on investigative journalism.

Neither is it considered to be a sensible and prudent use of scarce council resources.

Hence there is wider public interest, and the significance of Carmarthenshire's actions had, and still have, implications for councils across the UK.

Later post December 2019; Libel indemnities - Auditor general say NO! again 


Anonymous said...

Let's hope Ms Jones will be interviewed by the police at some point, she should be, along with Emlyn Dole. They've both been complicit in a lot of the dirty cover-ups of some very dodgy goings on under Mark James. She's not competent to be a solicitor let alone a Monitoring Officer of a local authority. It could also be the time now for Plaid members to insist MJ repays the taxpayers money he unlawfully took!

Elderly Neil. said...

MJ ED and LRJ must be suffering from sleeplessness. Now maybe prison might become curative
for their insomnia.

Anonymous said...

Emlyn Dole asked a member of the Opposition 'What part of the answer, "No", that he had just given to a question, did he not understand? Perhaps he should now ask himself this question on the WAO reply to the reinstatement of the libel indemnity.

Blodwen said...

Anon @ 12.30 - I agree wholeheartedly with your comment. We can only hope that there will finally be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for all Carmarthenshire but especially for Jacqui.

Anonymous said...

One often hears of the term "Gardening Leave". In the case of James ,Dole and L.Rhys Jones it might well come to pass as they seem to possess a joint interest in the cultification of fungi.When it comes to dealing with the Carmarthen public it has often been a case of "treat them like mushrooms,keep them in the dark and feed them plenty of s--t"!

Redhead said...

What a great test of your new CEO this will be - she will be forced to take a side .... hmmmm! And I still say Jacquie should be given compensation for all the problems (and financial worries) she has had bringing the "illness village" scandal into the open. Oh, and the payments she has been forced to make to the ex-CEO should be cancelled forthwith.