Monday 28 December 2020

Carmarthenshire Council and the Picton problem

After the death of George Floyd earlier this year, the BLM movement, and the subsequent controversy over statues, most notably the toppling of Colston into the murky depths of the Bristol dockside, Carms council pondered over what to do about the Picton Memorial, Carmarthen, and Picton's portrait hanging in the old courthouse.
The pondering only occurred because there was a petition to rename the monuments with over 14,000 signatures.

Sir Thomas Picton was a soldier who met his end at the battle of Waterloo.
Unfortunately he was also deeply involved in the lucrative slave trade and in 1797 became the brutal and corrupt Governor of Trinidad, if that wasn’t bad enough, he also approved the illegal torture of a 14 year old girl called Louisa Calderon, and was accused of executing at least dozen slaves. 
Further details of the horrors he meted out were uncovered by civil rights campaigner Khafra Kambon, and featured in this BBC article from 2007.

Detecting some, erm, heavily polarised online opinions over the issue, the council thought it safer to consult the public, who could then blame each other rather than our illustrious exec board. They could call it democracy.
The 14,000 name petition was ignored.

Cardiff Council, on the other hand, voted to remove his statue from Cardiff City Hall's 'Welsh heroes' gallery in July.

Public opinion was hotly divided, with the ‘where does it end?’ pro-Picton camp, led by such, er, luminaries as Neil Hamilton, winning the day against, well, those seeking eternal justice for victims of Picton, the ‘snowflakes’, apparently. So it seems that both the memorial and portrait are here to stay. After all the man was, apparently, a war hero, as well as a serial abuser and torturer of little girls.

The Plaid Cymru Exec Board decided after much pontification-via-zoom, and the useful passage of time since the initial furore, to just add QR codes and ‘information boards’ so that curious observers could find out the truth about Mr Picton for themselves, if they could be bothered, or could get online.
It’s a bit like keeping a memorial to Jimmy Savile because he was once a popular tv presenter and fundraiser, with the ghastly truth only available down the other end of a wobbly phone line or a faded sign.

And why Picton's portrait should still grace a building once dedicated to handing out ‘justice’, rather than being binned, is a mystery.

Anyway, I daresay the issue of cold hard cash played its part, an info board and QR codes will cost around £5000, demolishing the huge obelisk would have added at least a nought, probably two.

Rededicating could have posed even more dilemmas, the obvious choice, I would have thought, would be in memory of Louisa Calderon and the unfortunate souls of Trinidad. But no doubt Emlyn would prefer a more recent hero of his, Mr Mark James CBE, not quite a Sir, and maybe not a CBE for much longer, but close enough for Emlyn...The problem is that it would require an even bigger info board and QR thing to explain that Mr James is in fact, also a bully, also corrupt, and a liar and a crook to boot. And of course, Mr James is very much alive, and currently conning the unsuspecting folk of Century Wharf from the safety of his Carmarthen residence.

In all seriousness, removing or rededicating the memorial would not be 'changing or erasing history', it would be recognising the fact that Picton was a cruel bully and doesn't exactly deserve veneration. Politics has nothing to do with it.

Just as well he's not alive today, they'd probably make him Leader of the Council.
Anyway that’s the end of Carmarthen's Picton saga, for now, after all, historical accuracy and truth is not something Carms Council readily signs up for. 

So it’s a happy new year from me, I will ensure that 2021 brings justice, truth, and accountability.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Century Wharf - Mark James’ take-over bid

As a follow on post from 'Tangled webs', yet again we see that one of the police suspects, currently languishing under criminal investigation from the Wellness scandal, has lost no time in adding to his growing business portfolio with yet another company appearing on Companies House on Tuesday.

As we know, just before Mark James, former CEO of Carmarthenshire Council, and Private Eye’s Shit of the Year 2016, hurriedly ‘retired’ he set up his own lucrative consultancy company, which clearly needed no online presence, due, no doubt to all those useful contacts garnered at County Hall, and such a wealth of inside knowledge of City Deal plans, etc, from the corridors of power.

Not one to bother his then employers, the council, with such trifles as declaring business interests, he failed to register his directorship of the three Century Wharf Right To Manage Companies, his building services company, his property portfolio (including Caebrwyn's humble abode), or his dodgy venture into Kuwait with his equally disgraced mates, Marc Clement and co, so recently booted out of Swansea Uni.

One will never know how much in the way of public resources went into Mr James' private interests. After all, he unashamedly funnelled thousands of pounds of public money into his private vendettas.

His shady business dealings in Century Wharf may have gone undetected if it wasn’t for pesky residents complaining to the press back in 2017 about the unpleasant activities of Airbnb guests, and his management of the Right To Manage (RTM) company, which included claims to legal advice which were never disclosed, claims to ministerial 'contacts', and veiled legal threats to those who questioned his actions. 

More recently it emerged that Mr James had ensured his mates from far flung Llangennech enjoyed their share of the fruits of Century Wharf.

All of which should sound very familiar to his long-suffering former subjects of Carmarthenshire.

The latest addition to Mr James’ business portfolio, registered on December 8th, is CW Estates Management Company Ltd.

After the recent row over forged signatures on EWS1 forms. All blame for failed due diligence checks into the company commissioned to inspect the complex for combustible materials was placed squarely on Warwick Estates, who run Century Wharf on behalf of the RTM. As a result Warwick seem to have been given notice that their contract was being terminated.

Due diligence from the Chair of the RTM didn’t seem to have been an issue, funny that, especially given Mark James experience with forged documents.

Not one to miss an opportunity for personal gain, Mr James’ new venture, CW Estates Management, is the replacement vehicle for Warwick Estates. His co-directors, as you can see from Companies House, are Owein Mattey (still listed as Warwick Estates manager) and the Century Wharf RTM finance manager, Ryan Howells.  
Presumably James will have to relinquish his position on the RTM, at some point, as this would, of course, create a direct conflict of interest.

His dictatorship at County Hall appears to have moved seamlessly to Cardiff Bay. And will no doubt will create lucrative opportunities for his consultancy, his other business interests, including his building inspection company, and his friends.

Of course, as he is no longer employed by the council he can do as he likes, he even has £165 a month pocket money from me to help him along, which apparently he puts in the nearest gutter.

Unfortunately, from his lengthy reign at County Hall, he also has a track record any self-respecting mafia boss would aspire to. I may have mentioned this before, as a warning to unsuspecting residents and colleagues of Century Wharf in particular, but its a fact worth repeating. 

In fact, it was a former Police Commissioner who described County Hall as a Sicilian cartel; "it extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

Mr James doesn’t take kindly to criticism, he even set up his own illegal slush fund, with public money, to deal with awkward customers. Neither does he like people ‘going to the press’, he called Century Wharf residents who did just that and criticised his management of the RTM, ‘a cancer’. 

He doesn’t like the press, (or bloggers) or anyone who calls him out for what he is, an arrogant, vindictive and thoroughly dishonest individual. God help anyone in Century Wharf who opposes him now.

He made a career out of trying to silence the local press in Carmarthenshire, even resorting to blackmail. 
As for democracy, he spent his seventeen years at County Hall stamping it out. And his legacy continues.
The only role council leaders had was to polish Mr James' CBE.

So don’t expect a friendly ‘suggestion box’ to be installed in the Century Wharf concierge office.

After creating numerous white elephants around the county, which inevitably became propped up by the taxpayer, he then tried to put his unpleasant, and fateful stamp on the Swansea Bay City Deal. 

The City Deal, however, was a bigger fish than Carmarthenshire Council and various ‘partners’ soon saw him for what he was, an arrogant, compulsive liar. And some said as much. In fact it was his management, erm, technique which nearly scuppered the whole billion pound deal. Carmarthenshire council were stripped of various roles and the investigators called in. 

The tender process for the Wellness village, manipulated and twisted by Mr James, to a pliant audience of dimwitted and fearful Councillors was the final nail in his coffin. 

And it was this, covered extensively on this blog, and the allegations that he and his friends from Swansea Uni were attempting to line their own pockets, that led to the police raiding his home and seizing his computers in July 2019, and so, not for the first time, did he become a criminal suspect. And, at the time of writing, he most definitely still is. 

I also hear that his arrogance got the better of him earlier this year, but more of that in due course.

Personally speaking I wouldn’t let him any where near a child’s piggy bank, let alone manage a multi million pound complex of luxury apartments. There’s only one pocket Mr James wants to line, and that’s his own.

Be warned!

Mark James, Century Wharf

Friday 4 December 2020

The leaked £191,000 costs report - redacted, five years on

I've been quietly battling, since February, to get the Executive Board report, now nearly five years old, which recommended that the council pursue me for £191,000 in legal defence costs from the libel case. 

The report also considered pursuing me for the unlawful indemnity counterclaim costs which they decided, at the time, to leave well alone. I wonder why... 

At a subsequent court hearing the council got a charge on my home for the full £191,000. The judge was surprised that they were pursuing it and said he applied it 'reluctantly'.

Mark James was already in the process of getting a legal charge, instalments, and a suspended order for sale for his damages and enforcement costs, totalling around £46,000. You may recall his comments about stuffing the money in the gutter. And the judge's shock that he'd lied to the council about handing over any damages.

My FOI request for this elderly report earlier this year followed a meeting with Plaid Cymru's Adam Price AS in January. Mr Price promised to write to Plaid leader Emlyn Dole asking him to consider removing the charge as the threat of it hanging over us was crippling, financially and emotionally. 

Cllr Dole flatly and belligerently refused and reminded Mr Price that they could come after me for the money 'at any time'. Charming. I asked Mr Price to write again to Mr Dole but heard no more. Perhaps he doesn't want to rock election boats...

They knew damn well at the time, in 2016, that I definitely had no means, nor assets to ever pay it. 
This was never about getting money back, it was purely vindictive, and all about punishment, and led by Mark James.

Anyway back to this report. 

I was eventually sent a copy. Confusingly it had been refused under FOI but disclosed under data protection. The problem was that as it had been considered in private, in 2016, (despite my calls at the time for it to be heard in public and for me to be able to make representations) it was heavily redacted. The whole thread of the FOI, and the redacted report can be seen on the What Do They Know site.

Unsurprisingly the only bits left, pretty much, was the damning nonsense said about me and a few choice quotes from Tugenhat's judgement. Even from the remnants left in, it was easy to tell this wasn't an 'objective' report. Not surprising given the influence of Mark James and his legal disciple, and report author Linda Rees Jones.

Under data protection they had not only removed Mark James' name (unnecessary, but understood), but the internal and legal advice which they'd included in the report. I didn't know they could use the legal privilege exemption under data protection but apparently they can.

I duly took the matter to the Information Commissioner (ICO). My argument for the redaction to be removed from all of it (apart from Mr James' precious name) was that the report was reaching its fifth birthday, the matter had already been decided by a County Court judgement and, more to the point, the full document had been leaked to the press after it was discussed in 2016.

The first I heard that they had decided to go after me for £191,000 was via a phone call from a reporter from the Carmarthen Journal who had a copy in front of him. It was a few days after the 2016 meeting. I was in shock. 

He read out a couple of bits but I didn't see the full document, nor, given the awful news, did I quite absorb all he was saying. I also found out that Emlyn Dole had already had a little chat with him and issued a statement, before I even knew what had happened. 
I had been told to wait until all 74 councillors had been informed and the minutes published. No councillors were informed, and the minutes not published until a few days later.

Emlyn Dole was the leaker, on orders from Mark James, who went on to win Private Eye's Shit of the Year award for 2016.

The Information Commissioner got back to me a few weeks ago. They had decided that the council had to 'revisit' the way they handled the request. Not exactly pushing the boat out.

Yesterday I had a response from the council (my emphasis).
"I write with regard to your complaint to the Information Commissioner in respect of this matter which was received from the ICO on the 10th November.

In light of your complaint the content of the report you have requested has been compared to information published by the Council  to ascertain if, as you suggest it’s contents are already in the public domain.  We are satisfied that the content of the report has not been published by the
Council in another document or another form.

Your complaint however states that the Council ‘leaked’ the report at the time it was considered. We can find no evidence that this was the case. Please can you confirm when precisely it was ‘leaked’ and to whom. If the report (or its contents) have already appeared in the public domain, then
please confirm where and when.

The decision to redact some of the report in response to your request will then be revisited in light of the information that you provide."

Of course this is all game playing. Interesting that they could find 'no evidence' of a leak. After the Journal reported on the decision, with the document to hand, so did the BBC, and the Carmarthenshire Herald, it even made the front page. The Herald article examined the leak in detail. 

I also wrote about it on my blog. Given that Mark James was, at the time, using taxpayers' resources to rummage through my blog for his failed complaint to the police, it's surprising he missed it...

Carmarthenshire Herald April 2016

Of course, as the council already know, no one actually published the full report, only the Journal published figures which can only have come from the document. I will point this out to the council, as this ridiculous game, and play on words, continues. 

Interestingly their latest response makes no mention of the rationale behind withholding an old report on a matter which has already been decided in court, which was also part of my complaint to the ICO. It was in fact, Robert Edgecombe, the council's solicitor who applied all the redactions, and who represented the council in court. 
You might conclude that not only are they taking the p***, but they also have something to hide.

One thing is certain, I'll not drop any of this. And with former CEO Mark James; liar, thief and all round crook still under police investigation, the fight will go, regardless.

Thursday 3 December 2020

The Burn family - Nia Griffith MP petitions parliament

Llanelli MP Nia Griffith (Lab) has petitioned parliament to call for an independent review into the way Dyfed Powys Police handled the case of the Burn family back in 2010. The family have been seeking justice ever since. For background, the case has been covered on this blog in the past, most recently in 2017 here and here. Former County Councillor Sian Caiach has also written extensively about the case. The Daily Express also published an article in 2017, here.

In 2010 Carina Burn, who was then nineteen, was taken from her parents, Robin and Julia after carers, contracted by the council, made allegations that Carina had conveyed to them that she was being abused by her parents. Carina is profoundly autistic, cannot speak and has very limited communication skills. Incidentally, shortly before the allegations were made, Julia had queried the disappearance of Carina's pocket money when her daughter was out with the carers.

The police found no evidence of abuse and eventually admitted that the allegations were fabricated. No action was taken against the carers. The allegations were further discredited by an expert witness who examined Carina's capacity, or lack of, to communicate.

However, despite no action being taken, Carina was not returned to her parents for six months. This was a traumatic experience for the family and left Carina profoundly distressed, tearful and frightened to leave her parents for a very long time.

Carina, aided by her legal team, won a civil claim against the various authorities for the contravention of her human rights, and her solicitor gave this damning comment at the time;

“This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

This has been a long uphill struggle for Carina's parents and, unsurprisingly, they feel that individuals within both the police and the council have attempted to brush the whole business under the carpet. The following petition put forward by MP Nia Griffith is now on the record and is the latest stage in their struggle for justice for Carina.

Hansard: December 2nd 2020

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) 
Independent Review of Dyfed-Powys Police

My constituents and their daughter Carina were put through months and years of anguish on the basis of evidence collected against National Policing Improvement Agency guidance for which the police have never apologised, so I rise to present to the House the petition of Julia and Robin Burn.

The petition states:

The petition of Julia and Robin Burn,

Declares that, in 2010, in conducting their investigations into allegations made against the petitioners, Dyfed-Powys Police did not proceed in accordance with the appropriate National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) guidance; further declares that these allegations were later found to be groundless and without merit; further that this resulted in the petitioners’ mute autistic daughter being taken into local authority care for six months; and further that, after no further action was taken, no attempt was made to return her.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to instigate an independent review of Dyfed-Powys Police’s handling of this case.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

They now wait for a response.

Carina at home with her parents, November 2017

Saturday 21 November 2020

News in brief - School closure scrutiny slashed, and an Ombudsman report - updated

Update below

With Scrutiny Committees slowly reappearing on the council calendar, Monday's meeting of the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee will, in fact, be discussing the reduction of scrutiny from proposed school closures. The council avoids the word 'closure' and uses less controversial terms such as reorganisation, merger, 'reviewing provision' and 'discontinue'.

Up to now, each stage of the democratic process to close schools has gone to the scrutiny committee, providing a useful mechanism to determine the best outcome for the area as well as an additional level of challenge. If the new move is implemented, the Scrutiny Committee will only be involved in the initial stage, the Exec Board and full council, will approve the process from thereon in.

The argument put forward is to save time as the pandemic has stalled plans to implement the council's Modernising Education Programme (MEP). However, as we have seen before, the outcome of the 'official' closure consultations is largely ignored by the council, particularly any comments which oppose the council's plans, it's all a done deal, so removing any scrutiny, however feeble, is not the best way forward. There's precious little in Carmarthenshire anyway. 

It will be interesting to see if a scrutiny committee actually votes to deprive itself from its ability to scrutinise. (Update 25th November....they did)

A couple of years ago the Welsh Government decided that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. My own experience was that the closure of Llanwrda School a few years ago didn't just remove a vibrant centre of excellent primary education but it ripped the heart out of the community. 

There is also the detrimental effect on the Welsh language to consider, when my children left Llanwrda school at 11 years of age they were fully bilingual, there is no better 'immersion' than a village school. I doubt very much if this would have happened to the same degree had they travelled further afield to a much larger school.
There are very few small village primary schools left in the county and Monday's agenda includes another two up for closure, Blaenau, near Ammanford, and Mynyddygarreg, near Kidwelly. As they are part of the MEP, closure has been on the cards for a number of years. This fact alone, as we saw with Llanwrda, means numbers inevitably decline as parents sent their kids elsewhere to avoid an unsettling break in their primary education.

Small schools (and big schools) are struggling financially and these two have budget deficits and are now well under capacity. They are now, to use the council's favourite word, 'unsustainable'. The argument for closure is therefore strong. But, as I said above, the benefits to the community, the kids, and the language are equally strong, and, in some ways, immeasurable.

In other news, a new finding against Carmarthenshire Council appears in the latest 'Casebook' (page 29) from the Ombudsman. The complaint goes back to 2016/17 and relates to Childrens Social Services. The Ombudsman, in a brief, anonymised summary issued in June 2020, found that the support offered to a foster carer, when the behaviour of a child placed in her care became increasingly challenging, was insufficient and, significantly, the council failed to fully follow child protection procedures.

The challenging behaviour culminated in an incident (unspecified) after the carer had clearly flagged the difficult behaviour with the council. However, the council failed to arrange for additional visits and the social worker failed to document all the sessions with the carer anyway. 
Alongside this was the fact that during all this the carer broke up with her partner, and the Ombudsman found that the council failed to either reassess the placement or consider whether further support was necessary.
The council were told to apologise to the foster carer and learn lessons. 
Let's hope they have.

* * * * *

Update  25th November

A few snippets...

The annual revenue budget makes a brief appearance on the Exec Board agenda for Monday 30th November. With many of last year's cuts yet to be implemented, and, due to Covid, the finances generally far worse, loss of income etc, there is at least another £16m to be cut, or 'saved' over the next three years. That's without the unknown madness of brexit.

Another expense for the revenue budget is the interest payments for the City Deal. The agreement with the Welsh Government to keep any future business rates from developments, such as the Wellness Shed, will not touch the sides of the interest payments which they will need to borrow. 
"there are likely to be additional funding requirements in respect of the City Deal projects. These include both interest costs (as it is forecast they will exceed the business rates retention deal agreed with WG) and additional staffing costs" 
The council is already paying £18m a year on their current debt.

It looks like the council will be flogging off as many of its 152 buildings it can if they are now not being used, whilst continuing to spend a fortune on it's crumbling non-eco friendly offices it bought at Parc Dewi Sant.

Meanwhile the council has submitted a planning application (listed building) to itself to 'remodel' bits of County Hall, Carmarthen. An open plan office, plus 'breakout' space will be created, a suite of Executive Offices will adorn the first floor, complete with redecoration and new carpets, and the whole building will be rewired.
The cost has not been disclosed, but at least it's an opportunity to see what's under those lumpy carpets...

Incidentally, and also worth a mention is a separate 'Covid Impact' report which states that the planning department is now under "immense strain" as "early indications would suggest that a great level of unlawful activity has occurred during the pandemic". 

All councils face a bleak time ahead, but only Carmarthenshire ensured they preserved their very own slush fund.

The Democratic Services Committee also meets on Monday when the annual recommendations of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales will doubtless be approved. This means a pay increase of £150 for each councillor, taking the allowance up to £14,368 plus expenses. 'Senior' councillors also have the same rise, taking useless Emlyn Dole's pay up to £49,975, deputy leader Mair Stephens to £35,320 and the other Exec Board members to £30,773.

On the upside, the virtual nature of all these meetings means that many more than usual are available for public viewing, should you be so inclined, and you can see even more of how officials still run the show with dutiful councillors nodding everything through.  
I guess it's a marginal improvement than being locked up for trying to film one on your mobile phone...

Friday 13 November 2020

Council to give £100,000 to the evangelical bowling alley - to build a church

Followers of this blog might recall a controversy several years ago when our council gifted £1.4m in land, lease and buildings, and a £270k loan to the Towy Community Church Ltd. The church opened a bowling alley, Xcel Bowl, and runs various community facilities, food bank etc from the site in Johnstown, Carmarthen. The next phase of the project includes a 600 seat auditorium to be used as a church.

The controversy initially kicked-off because the church also intended to open a branch of the Mercy Ministry, another evangelical outfit which saves 'fallen' women, and had troubling links to using exorcism to 'cure' eating disorders, homosexuality etc. Also, the proposed debt counselling service based its advice on inviting people, often very vulnerable people, to pray. 

Despite the community work, some questioned whether an organisation which, on its old website, included a 'Statement of Faith' which refers to “the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ”, was an appropriate recipient of so much public money. And a bit tough on the 'Little Skittles' toddler section...

The curious generosity shown to the church was, let's be honest, explained by the fact that former chief executive, and all round crook, Mark James, was also of the same evangelical Christian persuasion, and devout believer of the literal truth of the bible, albeit as a member of another evangelical church in the bible-belt of Carmarthen. James even invited his mate, the then pastor to address full council when they approved the loan.

In fact the council didn't even bother to do its own Equalities Risk Assessment, then again, we already knew that Mark James broke out in hives at the mention of the Rainbow Flag.
The church even formed part of the council's 'Team around the family' initiative for vulnerable children.

A freedom of information request to the council for correspondence between County Hall and the church was refused. I appealed to the ICO but the council came back with copious quantities of fire and brimstone about the terrible Mrs Thompson and the correspondence was never released. I can't imagine why it was such a secret...

In 2015 the whole Exec Board, plus Mr James, visited the site and blessed the church with £20,000 for a new boiler, and kindly arranged for some niggling planning breaches to be rubber stamped, thus avoiding an irritating visit from planning enforcement. 

Exec Board Member for social care Jane Tremlett waxed lyrical about the whole thing. It was particularly poignant as two weeks previously she'd voted to slash £18,000 funding from a school for autistic children. Carmarthenshire Herald's columnist Cadno also wrote a good piece at the time.

Back in 2012 when the funding, etc was first  approved a 'council spokesman' said “Religious organisations are eligible to apply for council funding to carry out work in the community, but funding cannot be used for the promotion of religious activity.”

Of course the church does work in the community, and I'm not knocking them for that, but they also promote religious activity, 'evangelise', throughout everything they do, including the community work, and often with very vulnerable people, with the aim, of course, to bring as many into the fold as possible. They're also building a church.
After all, as the church quotes on its website, "People cannot make up for their sin through self-improvement and being good - only by trusting in Jesus and God's offer of forgiveness". 
As for the jobs which were 'created' as part of the original funding criteria, the wider congregation appear to have filled most, if not all of the posts. 

As with most businesses and charities, the Towy Church has taken a hit with Covid, it's running late submitting accounts to the Charity Commission, and has gone to the council again for help. And with the threat that one of Mr James' visions, God's own bowling alley, might close permanently, and the Phase 2 Church might be in doubt, the council, led by the Reverend Dole, appear to be coming up trumps. The item, which is publicly available, is on the agenda for Monday's (16th Nov) Executive Board meeting.

The council are offering not just a £50,000 grant but an additional £50,000 to be added to the original loan. This is not an award from the general Covid pot, which applies to everyone else, this is coming from council reserves. The church have already had Covid grants.
Praise the Lord!

I suppose, with those fervent prayers for forgiveness at the start of every full council meeting, our councillors might well be afraid of eternal conscious damnation.

My issue is not with religion, or the many Gods people worship, it's the bankrolling of any church sects and faith groups with Carmarthenshire's public money. There are numerous groups and charities which do excellent community work, and who do not have an agenda, and do not benefit from such local government largesse. But this is the crazy world of Carmarthenshire council, and as many believe, Church and State should be kept well apart.

There are too many previous blogposts to link to here, please use the searchbox for more background, and also have a search through the many posts on Cneifiwr's blog.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Tangled webs

As we wait for news from the police and CPS over the council's Wellness scandal, we'll take a look at how some of the key players, some of whom were sacked or suspended for gross misconduct from Swansea Uni, are faring. And former CEO Mark James while we're at it.

As we know Mark James' new company, Ffynnon Consultancy, turned quite a modest profit this year, quite remarkable given its infancy and total lack of online presence. Currently embroiled in the forged signature scandal at Century Wharf, it looks like Warwick Estates, who manage the complex on behalf of the Right To Manage (RTM) company, have been given the push. 

Who will replace Warwick estates? Well the Chair of the RTM, Mr James, already has a vehicle in place, Building Estate Solutions Today Ltd (BEST Ltd) of which he is a co-director with Steve Corner. It is understood that BEST Ltd is already touting for business across various sites down the Bay. (Update - see later post Century Wharf - Mark James' take-over bid - Mark James formed yet another company in December 2020, CW Estates Management which has, as of March 1st 2021, taken over from Warwick. He is still a director of the RTM, and it is the RTM who just happen to have appointed CW Estates Management, his own company. Fancy that!)
Marc Clement, sacked along with Swansea Uni vice-chancellor Richard Davies, is never more than a stone's throw from Mr James and it is rumoured that a director of a firm of surveyors, believed to have moved on site also happens to be a director of another company, Ellamel Holdings Ltd, along with none other than Marc Clement.

We also know that Mark James' friends in Llangennech, ERS Ltd, happen to be contracted by the RTM to provide telephone services to Century Wharf. An associated company of ERS Ltd is Hydro Industries Ltd. Robert Lovering, David Pickering (of rugby fame) and Wayne Preece are, or were (like the rest of them, they change directorships more often than their socks), the directors at Hydro and were 'introduced' to the 'bounties' of the City Deal by Marc Clement and Mark James before the wellness s**t hit the fan.

Another former employee of Swansea Uni, and council project manager for the Wellness Village, Bjorn Rodde, who resigned after suspension, managed very quickly to get gainful employment with the very same Hydro Ltd and is now Chief Operating Officer at St Joseph's private hospital in Newport. It is understood that both Marc Clement and Franz Dickmann (remember him?) have been involved with the hospital, which, incidentally only avoided collapse earlier this year through an anonymous donation and being 'repackaged' by the Administrators.

Steven Poole, meanwhile, also sacked for gross misconduct, is now a Director of newly formed Sirius Genesis Ltd, and various sister companies, alongside assorted academics and, at Sirius Genesis Beta Ltd, which deals in the leasing of intellectual property, our old friend Marc Clement. Mr Poole is also involved in companies with Ruth Clement, including Llwyn Country House Ltd, currently in liquidation.

Marc Clement, along with Llanelli businessman Kevin Smith (not associated with Swansea Uni), formed a 'financial intermediary' company, Alpha Life Science Advisory Ltd earlier this year, with a base in Guernsey.  Clement resigned from the appointment a couple of weeks later. The company has now changed its name to Alpha Advisory Board Ltd, and Mr Smith, and Guernsey based company JTC are the remaining directors.

Kevin Smith, who was a former director of Sterling Health, Dickmann's company, runs another company, Cambrian Ventures Ltd. The only other company of this name appears to be trading in Singapore, whether its the same one I don't know. However, Cambrian Ventures Ltd is also a shareholder in another newly formed company called Skin Logistics Ltd, specialising in the world of Botox. 
One of the directors of Skin Logistics is...Marc Clement.

Kevin Smith was, along with Marc Clement, a director of Respiratory Innovation Wales. The intention was to set up shop at the Wellness Village until Swansea Uni raised serious concerns and a Welsh Government grant was pulled. It is understood that Ifan Evans, the Welsh Government City Deal official had more than a passing acquaintance with some of the key players. 

Both Smith and Clement resigned from the company. RIW has now re-established itself and with its base at the Beacon Centre (the City Deal HQ) Llanelli, appears to be involved in the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as its now known. 

Marc Clement was a director of Kent Neurosciences Ltd, (KNS), Dickmann's company, resigning in 2015. In 2016 Mark James brought KNS Ltd in, exclusively (no tender), to develop the Wellness Village. This was despite the fact that Dickmann, and his son James Dickmann, had recently been involved with the development of a private hospital in Kent, and had just resigned from the Board leaving the hospital requiring an urgent £20m bailout.

That little agreement quietly fizzled out and KNS dissolved. It re-emerged as Sterling (along with several variant sister companies) and in 2018 was trumpeted by Mark James as the new developers of the £200m Wellness Village, as if no one would notice it was the same company

There were, as you can imagine, no other bidders to spoil Mark and Marc's plan...Sterling, at this point, were £137k in debt.. The whole Dickmann family was lined up to profit from the Village, even the planned creche.

This, as I understand it, is the tender that the police have been investigating.

                     Signing of the Wellness Deal 2018, L to R: Mrs Dickmann, Mark James, 
                     VC Richard Davies, Emlyn Dole, Franz Dickmann, Marc Clement 

Marc Clement meanwhile had formed another company, Vardiola Ltd with another Swansea academic Georgios Dimitropoulos and, by branching out into the hotel business, had his sights firmly set on running the Wellness Hotel. Ruth Clement, mentioned above, whose registered address was the same as Marc Clement's is a director of companies related to hotels and leisure. Two directors of one of those companies, Robert James Holland and Nigel Jenkins of Birturk Enterprises, are also directors of Ellamel Holdings Ltd, as also mentioned above, with Marc Clement.

Dimitropoulos was also a director of 4The Region which became the de facto PR company for the City Deal, without any formal tendering process.

Somewhere along the timeline, planned private medical schools in Swansea and Kuwait emerged, tied to both Swansea Uni and, through the city deal, to Carmarthenshire Council. Neither body were aware of the details which involved Marc Clement, the sacked vice chancellor Richard Davies and Mark James, as a trustee, and, of course, Franz Dickmann and Sterling Health. 

The allegations were again related to promises of personal gain. James made no mention of this role to the Council. Nor any other role for that matter. Emlyn Dole was either a complete fool or knew exactly what was going on.

As the whole mess went into meltdown, these companies, and along with the plans, all dissolved, nearly torpedoing the whole City Deal. 
If it wasn't for the diligence and persistence of Swansea University exposing what had happened and reporting matters to the authorities, it would have all drifted merrily along. And, dare I say, the persistence of a blogger or two played its part. 

Marc Clement is no stranger to controversy, see here, and here, and neither is Mark James. 

Mark James, as logged throughout this blog, was not averse to pocketing public funds, helping out his 'friends', tax avoidance, conflicts of interest, destroying his critics with his own slush fund, outright dishonesty; all driven by personal gain. From Boston to Carmarthenshire.
With supreme arrogance, he brought his own personal solicitors, Acuity Law, into the council in a miserable attempt to clear his tracks over the Wellness tender. 

He is now, as we know, a suspect.
However, we know that not only was Mr James' home raided by the police in July 2019, and that of former leader Meryl Gravell, but so was County Hall. The police were retrieving deleted data from the server room. 
The organised crime squad, Tarian, issued this statement earlier this year; "Eight people have been interviewed as suspects, all of whom remain under investigation. Further enquiries as part of this complex investigation are ongoing. Extensive examination of a significant number of seized documents and electronic equipment also continues."

A trip down the endless rabbit hole of Companies House shows there are many more connections, but the point is that this is a very small group of people in a very tangled web, with some currently under police investigation for bribery and fraud offences, the allegations of corruption have been tracked through this blog.
There is, of course, nothing illegal about setting up a company, and, alongside those suspected of fraud etc are perfectly legitimate businesses, business people and academics. 

The police, we were told, are investigating the tender for the Wellness Village and that it is a very complex investigation. There are many ways to hide evidence, and many ways to game it, and it is also likely to take a long time.

Given the snapshot above, you can see why.

Update 19th May 2021
After less than a year, Clement resigned his directorship of Sirius Generis Beta Ltd on March 19th 2021. Still playing fast and loose on Companies House, he formed yet another company on the 31st March, Cambrian Technologies Ltd of which he is the sole director.

One of Mark James' companies, CW Estates Ltd, took over from Warwick Estates to manage Century Wharf at the beginning of April. As he is still Chair of the Right To Manage Company, he has a direct conflict of interest. He is also a crook. They have been warned.

Update 23rd June 2021
Clement's latest company, Cambrian Technologies Ltd now has another director, none other than  Steven Poole (see also main post), also sacked from Swansea Uni for gross misconduct. (As of 30th June 2021 Poole resigned as director of Sirius Genesis...)

Clement is now also a director of Blue360, part of a group dealing in laser cosmetics. His old mate Llanelli-based Kevin Smith, formerly a director of Dickmann's Sterling Health and now, as Cambrian Ventures Ltd, joins the list of directors at Blue360....

Stop press...there's another one, Blue360 International Ltd incorporated on the 23rd June with 'Professor' Marc Clement listed as a director. There's no stopping the man, he can, at a price, iron out your wrinkles, remove unwanted hair and even zap airborne Covid.....allegedly.

In Mark James news,  the RTM and CW Estates Management, both of which are controlled by Mark James have contracted Ringley Group Ltd to provide the estate's operating systems, on a franchise basis.  I had heard some time ago that Ringley were being selected personally by James, with no say from anyone else, and with his track record, I wonder why....

Sunday 25 October 2020

The libel indemnity clause has gone, (oh, no it hasn't)...and Thursday's meeting - updated

Update: The clause has been removed from the delegated power section of the Constitution but remarkably, its been explicitly added to the powers of the Executive Board. I'm speechless. It was the Executive Board who bankrolled Mark James in 2012 - deemed unlawful by the Wales Audit Office.
The slush fund hasn't been deleted, it's just been moved.

* * * *

Well, the libel indemnity clause, the slush fund, has gone, sort of. The item finally came up at Thursday's full council meeting and passed without murmur or comment from anyone. The Constitution will be updated in due course, one hopes...

Emlyn Dole, a big fan of such slush funds, managed to whizz through the brief report, completely avoiding the word 'defamation'. Obviously this was deliberate, the intention being to create as little fuss as possible. It reminded me of when Mark James slipped his slush fund into the Constitution several years ago, hidden amongst a raft of other measures, and without 74 councillors noticing what had happened. 
They certainly noticed a couple of years later. 

Anyway, on the deliberately misleading advice of Ms Rees Jones, head of legal, this was what they approved on Thursday;

"To recall...the 'libel indemnity'...and to reserve the right to exercise that power to the Executive Board under its existing personnel function"

"that power" being the right to use taxpayers' money to sue on behalf of senior officers. 

Are we back to square one? 

This is the 'fudge' which I referred to in detail in my previous post and which is unlawful and ridiculous, and merely serves to protect the idiots who acted illegally in 2012. However, I very much doubt that the Executive Board would have the nerve to use your money again to bankroll a senior officer, but given that Emlyn Dole is as much a princess as Mark James, who knows. 

Linda Rees Jones would certainly support such an illegal move, she confirmed this at meeting of CRWG in August. Soothing Emlyn's worries that they'd be unable to use public money to sue, she said that "if it was deleted, a report could be taken to the Executive Board to consider granting an indemnity in the future, as the Board had the necessary authority to do so". They don't.

She also insisted that if the clause was deleted, it had to be presented, in public, as "tidying up" rather than because it was, in fact, illegal.

She is as barking mad as Mark James and should have been sacked, along with him, in 2014. 

So, unless Emlyn and Co do decide to bankroll someone else, and face immediate legal challenge, I guess this is as good as it gets, so far. 
Who knew that Plaid Cymru, so opposed to the slush fund when in opposition, would now become so keen to sue members of the public...a new policy for their 2021 election manifesto no doubt...
On a personal note, this is a victory, but as for my case, I will continue to ensure that justice is served, by whatever means possible. That's a promise.

A few words about the rest of the meeting.
Apart from the difficulties many councillors seem to have in clicking the right button, or wandering off mid-vote, there's a disturbing reaction to any scrutiny. Any attempt to question senior councillors or management, or even make helpful suggestions, however mildly put, is met with a barrage of accusations that criticism is being directed at frontline workers or staff carrying out their duties. 
This is absolutely not the case, everyone is hugely grateful
This has always been the modus operandi at Carmarthenshire Council under Mark James, deflecting criticism of himself towards a junior member of staff and accusing the critic of attacking said member of staff. Emlyn Dole has, of course, seamlessly taken over the role. 
He excelled himself on Thursday and, later, in the meeting appeared to have lost the plot, bombarding everyone, repeatedly, with figures and statistics to prove some sort of point, which no one was making anyway. 
At one point the Leader's batteries were so overloaded that even Wendy Walters tried to shut him up, finally succeeding on the third attempt.
It's obviously all too much for him, or maybe he's upset about lost bookings for his hot tub. He really needs to go.

The cut-off switch had to be deployed again when veteran Plaid councillor Ken Howells, during a discussion about the controversial One Planet Development policy, started criticising the applicants for one such development which the planning committee, on which he sits, had approved two days previously. He was left mouthing into the ether as the Chair moved swiftly on. 
As usual, the whole meeting is available online.

As I said no one is criticising anyone at the moment, over the pandemic anyway, but it must have escaped Emlyn's attention that both the Welsh and UK governments are in fact, open to question and at least some level of scrutiny from the opposition, the press and everyone else, its par for the course. It's called democracy, and applies at local as well as national level.
There have been no Scrutiny Committee meetings since the March lockdown, other meetings have resumed but most are little more than bland PR exercises for the Plaid administration. 

The pandemic is not the only thing the council are making decisions on, and challenge and scrutiny must be allowed, or all sorts of nonsense will slip under the Covid radar. The final item on Thursday was the business case for the City Deal Wellness Thing, or Pentre Awel (cost of name change - £25k) as it's now known.

Given the secrecy (webcast switched off) one must assume that no 'partners' have yet been found, from academia or the private sector, and the criminal investigation into bribery and corruption continues.
We don't know how much will be borrowed by the council for this fiasco and with the current level of debt at £432m, and a £8m black hole in this year's accounts, they should not be pouring any more into the Wellness swamp. The consultants, lawyers, PR companies and assorted hangers-on have already had millions.

Swamp being the operative word. New flood maps were published by NRW last week which show that much of Llanelli and its surrounds are now at very high risk of flooding. Delta Lake itself, the site for Pentre Awel is at very high risk from river, tidal and surface water flooding, and that's without taking climate change predictions into account. 
All that's separating it from the big blue sea is a broken sluice gate.
Oh dear.

Saturday 10 October 2020

The slush fund to go...sort of

Actually, it hasn't gone at all, just been moved.

As I said in my previous post above, full council will discuss the future of the slush fund, (or unlawful libel indemnity clause to give it it's 'official' name) on Wednesday 14th October..

The agenda has been published and whilst it looks like pressure has been brought to bear and the unlawful libel indemnity provision will be removed (or 'recalled', sounds better I guess) from the council's constitution, there's a fudge.
The wording of the recommendation (a single paragraph, there are no accompanying documents or legal advice) suggests that the provision will actually still be there, albeit under the cover of the general 'Personnel' function of the Executive Board:

"and to reserve the right to exercise that power [to sue] to the Executive Board under its existing personnel function"
(my emphasis)

So, instead of the chief executive suing you, Emlyn Dole or whoever is in the hot seat will have the honour instead, acting on behalf of senior officers. As most Carmarthenshire councillor 'functions' can be delegated to senior officers, one wonders if anything's changed. 

Anyway, clearly the outrageous, illegal and chilling clause had to go, and, after so many years of  campaigning and writing about it, it's something of a victory. 
By the way, I was spot on when I called it Mark James' slush fund, Mr Justice Tugendhat.

I have to say also that Labour leader Cllr Rob James has been pushing for removal since July 2018, and the Auditor General also rejected the begging letters from Ms Rees Jones and, of course Mark James, before he hastily retired.

Naturally, neither Linda Rees Jones nor Emlyn Dole think there was anything wrong with it. I've lost count of the number of times I've said it was illegal (or, to use the local government jargon 'unlawful') and how Ms Rees Jones and former CEO Mark James lied to councillors and the courts in defence of their own illegal actions. 
Emlyn Dole should hang his head in shame, along with the whole Plaid Cymru group, for demanding reinstatement, particularly as he was so opposed to it all when in opposition, 

Ms Rees Jones should be sacked.

They cannot, of course, admit defeat. Ms Rees Jones' job has been on the line for seven years and god forbid they'd have to send the bailiffs to Mark James' door for the illegal cash he pocketed...

So, here's the fudge.

It is, according to Ms Rees Jones, perfectly legal to fund officers to bring libel cases under 'duty of care'. She has based this argument on the Bedford Council case from 2002.

I will explain.

Three senior officers were publicly funded to bring an action for defamation against a local newspaper and the whole shebang, which they pretty much lost, cost the Bedford taxpayers £500,000 in legal costs. They defended their expenditure (obviously decided behind closed doors, sound familiar?) under 'duty of care'.

The Auditor challenged it in court but the judge decided he was too late, and that it would be 'too onerous' for the officers to repay the money, so he turned down the challenge.

He added that this was a 'one off' and gave dire warnings to any other council considering such a move.

It is this, erm, ringing endorsement of libel indemnities that Ms Rees Jones relies, and has decided that the Council, as the 'employer' has the right to sue in the same circumstances.

This was not the end of the story at Bedford though. .

Not only were the taxpayers outraged that their precious cash had been squandered but so was the MP. The matter was then discussed in Parliament and led, directly, to the eventual ban on the bringing of libel actions with public money in 2004, the same legislation being adopted by the Welsh government in 2006.

It is well worth reading what was said by the MP about the case in 2002, and the 'duty of care' argument and it was these parliamentary discussions which led to the eventual ban.

Hansard, April 2002;

Bedford borough council has agreed to use public money to maintain private libel actions. It has also committed staff time and resources in support for many months. It has justified that under its duty of care to employees.

I am deeply disturbed by the situation, which has serious and wide-ranging implications. The obligations and responsibilities associated with the duty of care do not include maintaining private libel actions initiated by employees. Duty of care, as I understand it, covers matters such as safeguarding health and safety, dealing promptly with grievances, taking reasonable care, and acting in good faith.

I do not believe that any case law suggests that duty of care extends to funding private libel action. I do not believe that an employment tribunal in the land would consider any failure to sponsor such action to be a fundamental breach of the contract of employment. Councils can and do fund prosecutions when employees have been assaulted in the course of their duties, but there appears to be no duty of care to fund libel actions... 

I turn now to the maintenance by a local authority of libel actions. I strongly oppose that, because the use of public money to suppress public criticism would fundamentally undermine freedom of expression and, therefore, democracy itself. If a Government or a local council disagree with comments made, they have suitable avenues open to them to obtain a remedy without recourse to litigation. The normal and healthy response is to investigate the complaint, debate the issues openly and issue a rebuttal in the media.

Public criticism of an officer or councillor may sometimes be harsh and unfair, but that is an occupational hazard. The more senior the individual in an organisation, the better one would expect that to be understood. If a council considers a particular instance worthy of an investigation and a reasonable response, it has the means to pursue such a course of action; supporting and maintaining a defamation action is clearly beyond reasonable....

Not maintaining an action for damages surely means not doing so either directly on the local authority's own account, or indirectly, or by proxy by funding its employees to do so. Naturally, individuals enjoy the right to sue for damages, and that includes individual councillors and officers. It is the maintenance of such actions through public funds that is wrong. Bedford borough council has done just that. I believe it is wrong, and many of my constituents believe it to be wrong. They know that there are dozens of better ways of spending their money than through the irresponsible commitment of hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal costs. They know that this whole business represents a diversion of time and energy from the real tasks that should concern the council—those of promoting the borough and running effective services. I could not agree with them more, and I think that the people of the borough are owed an apology by the council....

...local authorities should not maintain and support libel actions directly or indirectly. I hope that he {the minister] will also agree that such actions cannot be in the public interest, that they would undermine freedom of speech in our country, that they form no part of duty of care, and that they must therefore be stopped once and for all.

          Patrick Hall MP Hansard 2002

As I said above, it was stopped, once and for all, in 2006

Except for Carmarthenshire County Council.

In my case Mark James knew he was acting unlawfully so ensured that the Exec Board, at the time, gave it the rubber stamp. He even co-wrote the recommendation to bankroll himself and stayed in the meeting to ensure they complied. Fraud, in other words.

We will have to see what it said on Wednesday and whilst the removal of the offending clause is to be welcomed, and, to be honest, I can't see the council treading this path again, it must be recognised that they were unlawful in funding the chief executive's counterclaim, and there is NO power to use public money to sue for defamation, either in a claim, or counterclaim.
This is an illegal and deeply disturbing legacy from a deeply disturbed Mark James, and needs to go.

This, from the same Hansard speech, is from earlier case law in South Africa, and sums up the moral of the story;

"I have no doubt that it would involve a serious interference with the free expression of opinion hitherto enjoyed in this country if the wealth of the state, derived from the state's subjects, could be used to launch against those subjects actions for defamation because they have, falsely and unfairly it may be, criticised or condemned the management of the country."

We will see what is said on Wednesday.

* * *

PS. I must also mention that the City Deal business case for the Wellness Thing, the Sauna-on-the-swamp, is on Wednesday's agenda. The fact it's now had to be rebranded (due to the well documented scandal and ongoing police investigation) as 'Pentre Awel', says all you need to know. 
Despite involving £mms of public money, it's being discussed behind virtual closed doors, public and press excluded...

Monday 5 October 2020

Century Wharf - a forged signature, and the cladding scandal

Since the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, cladding inspections have been required for all high rise residential buildings in the UK. The UK government provided cash to replace the flammable cladding in England, although this has now run out, but the Welsh Government only provided money for publicly owned buildings, not those in private ownership.

In Wales, many of these flats are in leasehold ownership and residents have found that without the proper certification that the cladding is ok (an EWS1 form), they are impossible to either sell, or to obtain a mortgage to buy one. It's left swathes of modern developments pretty much worthless whilst the developers, management companies and residents argue over cost and responsibility.
In most cases it seems that the leaseholders' are being expected to pick up the cost. Plenty of detailed background information can be found online, the hashtag #endourcladdingscandal is particularly informative.

Some unscrupulous individuals have found ways to cash in on the scandal, and at Century Wharf, Cardiff, a forged signature on a EWS1 form has been discovered. There appeared to be more than one. We know, of course that former CEO Mark James just happens to control the Right To Manage (RTM) company at Century Wharf.

As the Western Mail reports, a concerned resident and retired police officer Gareth Griffiths grew suspicious and contacted the surveyor who had 'signed' the form only to be told that she knew nothing about it whatsoever, she had not signed the form, inspected the building, nor had any contact with the company contracted to carry out the fire safety survey. 
His actions saved the residents over £100k in fees for fraudulent certification, though still left the uncertainty over the cladding. Mr Griffiths was also instrumental back in 2017 highlighting the problems caused by poor management and Airbnb guests. 
At the time, Mr James, who, by the way, had not declared any of his business interests to his employers, called those who raised concerns, like Mr Griffiths, a 'cancer'.

The company which manages the flats, Warwick Estates Ltd had contracted Specialist Facade Inspections Ltd (SFI Ltd) to carry out the certification. SFI Ltd have claimed that the third party surveyors they used to sign off the forms are to blame, although they don't identify who that was exactly. They are, however, adamant that they're not at fault.

An investigation is ongoing, and presumably the police are now involved.

Warwick Estates have yet to provide a statement on the issue and neither, it seems, has the RTM company Chaired by Mr James, who also owns property at Century Wharf.

It is, of course, early days but one wonders whether Mr James, or Warwick Estates are being particularly co-operative with the investigations, or not. It was surely the role of the RTM to provide oversight and represent the leaseholders' interests, yet, if it wasn't for Mr Griffiths they'd have flushed £100k down the toilet.

As I said in my previous post on Century Wharf, which dealt with Mr James' use of his business friends to supply telephony services, he got rid of AGMs for the RTM company and, according to sources, runs it with the same charm and hubris that he did at the Council for seventeen years.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that Mr James is somehow involved with forged documents...despite his history at Boston council, let alone his history at Carmarthenshire Council, nor that any of his business acquaintances are involved, nor even his own building inspection company or consultancy firm.... 

What I would say is that, the latest scandal aside, the RTM company would be well shot of Mr James. He spent seventeen years plundering the council, bullying, lying and manipulating his way to favour his friends and silence his critics. He used public resources to further his own interests and private vendettas, and has been investigated by the police more than once, with one investigation, relating to fraud and bribery, currently ongoing. 
He's a crook. 

What is pretty clear, so far, is that in this case, the management fell very short of acting with a duty of care and due diligence, and with SFI Ltd claiming so strongly that they are in fact the victims, it seems there's still some way to go with this. 

(Later post, December 2020; Century Wharf - Mark James' take-over bid)

Monday 28 September 2020

The slush fund - will it stay or will it go? - Updated

Update October 2nd;

Well, it seems a decision was made at the CRWG meeting over the future of the slush fund and will be on the agenda at the full council meeting on October 14th.
Of course we can't possibly be told what the outcome was until then, it's obviously deeply classified information, maybe even an issue of international security.
How bloody ridiculous.
To recap (see my post below), there were three options  - take note of the Auditor General's clear rejection and remove the unlawful libel clause completely, they could reinstate it, or leave it 'suspended' for eternity, based on the continued and deliberately misleading advice from Ms Rees Jones. 

I very much hope they've gone for the first option though I suspect they may have gone with the third, being completely unable to admit that they knew very well that the libel provision was illegal.
They better not have gone with the second option....

I had asked Ms Rees Jones the following questions this morning; 

Did the CRWG meeting go ahead? Were unlawful libel indemnities discussed?
What was the outcome?
Please forward copies of paperwork relating to the Item

She replied this afternoon;

Dear Mrs. Thompson,

No CRWG did not discuss anything about an “unlawful” libel indemnity. It did, however, discuss “libel indemnities”.

As you know, we only release the action notes of CRWG meetings after they have been released to members. However, it is our intention to report the outcome of the discussions on the libel indemnity to County Council’s October meeting as part of a wider report on the review of our Constitution, so it may well be the case that the Agenda for County Council will have been published before the action notes of CRWG are circulated to members, so you will be able to see the outcome there.


Just a brief mention that the thorny issue of unlawful libel indemnities is due to crop up again on Thursday, October 1st, or so I'm told by head of legal Linda Rees Jones. Ms Jones continues to carry the torch, and the can, for this disturbing, toxic, and unique legacy of Mark James' dictatorship, a legacy also warmly embraced by Plaid Cymru council leader Emlyn Dole. So much so that he even requested that this chilling provision was extended to cover himself.

Two years and four months have passed since the Plaid and Independent majority on the cross party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) outrageously decided to reinstate the suspended clauses which enables senior officials to sue for libel with taxpayers' money.                     
Given that the Wales Audit Office has been less than impressed when Mark James availed himself of this personal slush fund in 2012, CRWG, and Ms Rees Jones, thought they'd better put it past the Auditor General first, as the minutes below show. Mark James was, of course, still in post. 


Anyway, time passed, a letter was written, but the AG was having none of it and warned about potential judicial reviews if they tried it again. 

Undeterred, Ms Rees Jones (and co-signatory to the clause, director of money and'responsible' S151 officer Chris Moore), without reference to elected members, made a further plea to the AG. Again this was rejected.

CRWG will finally be considering the matter, and the AG's responses, behind virtual closed doors, next Thursday.

The provision of public money for senior officers to bring actions for libel was outlawed in 2006; 

(3) No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by a member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer.. 

As the law stands, in some cases public funds can be used in the defence of an alleged libel but not to bring a claim, or a counterclaim. A public body itself cannot sue, nor can it get round the ban by funding an individual as a proxy. It's as simple as that.
An individual can sue, of course, but not with taxpayers' money.

The council, namely the dynamic duo Mark James and Linda Rees Jones, having used the provision, spent the following years defending their position. Ms Rees Jones's argument is that case law overrides the 2006 Legislative Order. The case law she relies on pre-dates the Order and, in fact, warns against commencing libel action in this way.

The Order was made in 2006 specifically to clarify the position and ensure public funds would not be used to sue the public, stifle debate and chill investigative journalism.

The clause was suspended in 2014 after the Public Interest Report but not removed. I have called for it to be removed completely. I asked Wendy Walters for her view sometime last year, she climbed on the theoretical fence and replied that it was a 'political decision'. 

In fact it's never mattered who held 'political power', from the previous Labour/Independent administration to the present Plaid/Independent crowd; with the assistance of the loaded, dishonest reports penned by the ever dutiful Ms Rees Jones, opposing Mark James was never an option for fainthearted, pliable councillors.
However, although his protege, Ms Walters, remains, the chief puppeteer has gone, he's taken his shady dealings elsewhere, so there is a real option to remove this particular legacy once and for all.

Another significant argument for it's removal, if one is really needed, is the potential cost risk associated with unpredictable libel litigation, it can be a very expensive business, as I know. 

Exposing the taxpayer to this risk is foolhardy and irresponsible, I am surprised that Chris Moore, the S151 officer is happy to support it - particularly as, at the moment, there are more pressing things to spend public money on, such as a global pandemic and a £8m black hole. 
As for Ms Rees Jones, she's still protecting her own back, and Mark James' slush fund, and their unlawful, dishonest actions in 2012. They should have both been sacked for gross misconduct.

It appeared that Mark James came dangerously close to dipping into his slush fund shortly before he retired following comments from the former Chair of ABMU health board. The comments, incidentally, were entirely accurate.

It is clear to me that throughout my (long running) correspondence with Ms Rees Jones (who was also a personal witness for Mr James during the trial) that her confidence in her own argument is non-existent, otherwise the clause would have been back in by now. I expect this will be further borne out at the CRWG meeting and I predict the 'recommendation' will be to leave the clause in permanent suspension.

I've asked for copies of the paperwork in relation to this item ahead of next week's meeting. I doubt if they will be forthcoming. Unfortunately Plaid, and legal Linda, have resisted calls for CRWG to be made a fully constituted committee which would, in principle at least, mean it was held in public and papers published beforehand.

Given the council's predisposition to secrecy over this whole business it's taken numerous FOIs, reviews, appeals, and even the ICO etc to extract the various minutes, reports and letters from the clutches of County Hall.

The secretive CRWG was set up after the unlawful payments scandal, firmly under the control of Mark James, who was the guilty party in pocketing the illegal payments in the first place.

The council's own Audit Committee could have taken on the job but this would have meant unwelcome public scrutiny, and the unpredictability of lay members. The lay member at the time was former eminent lawyer Sir David Lewis who described the internal legal advice surrounding the whole scandal as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'. Sadly it's still the same.
So you can understand why Mr James and legal Linda didn't want the Audit Committee involved...

Anyway, presuming the meeting does go ahead, and it's already been postponed once from April, I'll report on the outcome as soon as I hear anything.


The mysterious exempt item on the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as it's now known, at last Monday's Executive Board meeting was to seek approval for the Business Case. You might have thought that given the scandals, and the extortionate amount of public money involved it might have been discussed in public.

The minutes show that as the 'academic partners' have yet to sign the 'Memorandum of Understanding' (nonsense jargon for 'not legally binding'...) they couldn't possible reveal the business case to the public.
We know that Swansea University were involved in the Wellness Village but pulled out when the scandal broke, so whether they are now happy with revised plans and are signing up again remains to be seen, or maybe another University has been collared into it.

Whatever the case, and there's no sign of any private partners stumping up the £120m yet. 
The business case will eventually appear at a City Deal Joint Committee meeting, possibly early next month.

As far as I know, and I've heard nothing to the contrary, the bribery investigation relating to the Welness Village is still ongoing. In case you need reminding, search warrants were executed by the regional organised crime squad at several addresses in July 2019, including the homes of Mark James, former Leader Meryl Gravell, and County Hall, Carmarthen.


PS. Buried deep within the Council's Annual Report, on the agenda for the next Executive Board meeting, is the national survey results. It turns out that only 9% of people agree that they have 'an opportunity to participate in making decisions about the running of local authority services'. The previous tally was already a disappointing 11%, but the new, abysmal figure puts Carmarthenshire Council 21st, out of 22 local authorities.