Monday, 16 March 2020

Homelessness grant failure, and CRWG to discuss the unlawful libel clause

As this blog has reported over the years the council's management of grants has often left a lot to be desired. Back in 2015, internal audit exposed a catalogue of failure in delivering the Supporting People grant and despite lessons apparently having been learnt, it seems that things have hardly improved.

An internal audit report for next Friday's Audit committee shows a similar catalogues of failure in administering and delivering the Homelessness Prevention Grant. The grant for 2018/19 was for £170,000.

Out of the samples tested (which suggest the true picture could well be worse) documentation was incomplete or missing, there were no document 'checklists' and signed claim forms were non-existent and, furthermore, the accounts didn't add up properly.
The ordering of goods was sometimes deemed inappropriate and non-compliant with the council's Financial Procedure Rules

A 'fundamental weakness' was identified (again this was only through sampling of two invoices ) where a total of £18,000 had been spent on carpets and furniture through the 'Home Ready Furniture Scheme'.
The clients name, the description of items, the details of actual goods delivered were all missing from the invoices and no one had any idea what had been delivered to what address.
No one could even verify whether the purchases were within the eligibility period.

Additionally, there was a failure to comply with the council's Contract Procurement Rules as there was no evidence that suppliers had been through the proper evaluation and award process (value for money).

A 'fundamental weakness' in general audit terms indicates a 'high risk of fraud and negligence', so we can only hope that the right people ended up with £18,000 worth of new furniture and carpets...

Naturally, the Audit Committee are being told that everything is now fine, urgent action was taken, and lessons have been learned....until the next time anyway.


In the long running saga of unlawful libel indemnity clauses, the head of legal/Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones informs me that the next meeting of CRWG (Constitutional Review Working Group) will be on the 23rd April, (virus permitting).

I have been enquiring as to when she was going to allow elected members to discuss the Auditor General's rejection of the attempts by Mark James, Emlyn Dole and herself, to reinstate the offending clause almost two years ago. 
As regular readers will know, the illegal clause has been 'suspended' for the past six years but, dangerously, not removed completely.
I am presuming that the 23rd April will be the date of discussion.

As CRWG is not a constituted committee its meetings are, conveniently, held behind closed doors and the agendas and reports are not published. It makes 'recommendations' to the Executive Board. 

I have asked Ms Rees Jones (a big fan of libel indemnities and an even bigger fan of disgraced former CEO Mark James) for copies of the papers in advance of the meeting. I somehow doubt that such transparency will be forthcoming.

Either they will finally see sense and remove the provision to sue completely, or leave it in its ridiculous state of suspension, or reinstate. 
The latter would require a decision of full council so unless they have the stomach for illegally diverting funds from public services to silence critics again, I doubt that would happen. Though you never know...Ms Rees Jones seems to think a slush fund is great idea, as of course did Mr James...

This saga follows on from the illegal libel indemnity pocketed by Mr James in 2012. The more recent developments (aside from Emlyn Dole's refusal to ask James to repay the money, and the tax avoidance cash before he retired) follow on from the CRWG meeting held in July 2018;

August 2018 Unlawful libel indemnity clause - part two
February 2019 CRWG minutes - let's sue everyone
August 2019 Libel indemnities - Auditor General says NO
December 2019 Libel indemnities - Auditor General says NO again

PS. The organised crime squad investigation into alleged bribery surrounding the Wellness scandal continues and the police are still examining the documents and equipment seized on the 31st July. Given that the homes of Mark James, Meryl Gravell and County Hall were included in the search warrants I will update this blog as soon as I hear more. And provide comment, whatever the outcome.

Update 18th March; All council meetings have been suspended for the foreseeable future apart from the Executive Board.
As there will be no scrutiny meetings and therefore no scrutiny of executive/officer decisions, we'll have to trust that nothing untoward slips under the democratic radar.
There was precious little scrutiny to start with.

All schools will close on Friday 20th March.


Anonymous said...

It's about time that our public bodies were scrutinised more closely. Councils need younger members with "guts" to take part in proceedings. To do this then Council meetings need to be evening sessions so that employed people can participate.
Carmarthenshire County Council appear to be conducting many of their procedures behind closed doors, this needs to stop.

Councillors should also be compelled to hold open meetings with their constituents, that way more people could be made aware of the things going on.

Anonymous said...

Anon 20.07 In the real world, far removed from Carmarthen Council this would be the obvious way matters would be dealt with. What we have is a council that is secretive, dishonest, where rules and regulations simply don't exist, where members and officers can lie with impunity and no-one gives a damn. It is a disgrace, but all those that have had the misfortune to have experienced their egregious conduct, know this all too well.

Our MPs and AMs know this behaviour has become 'normal' but do nothing. That begs a question. When was the last time any one of them spoke up about this council's shameless conduct? Taxpayers deserve a council which is honest and above reproach. CCC is the antithesis of that! We have a Leader who is a member of Plaid who is as dishonest as the day is long and the Plaid party continue to support him. What world do these people inhabit?

Anonymous said...

Just saw a word in todays Daily Mail that would suit Mr.Dole and quite a few others to a t.
The word is "myrmidon" - Google it for enlightenment.

caebrwyn said...

I note that the council are now using the coronavirus as a reason for further delaying FOI responses. With resources now stretched and diverted this is understandable and no doubt unavoidable, though this particular FOI request was for a single report from an Executive Board meeting, and the request was made way back on the 7th February.
Anyway, I also note that a couple of days ago the ICO issued guidance that it would not be penalising public authorities for delayed responses throughout the duration.
I can, of course, wait for the eventual response, there are more important things to worry about but, alongside the lack of meetings and scrutiny of decision-making we are in unchartered waters with regards to democracy and transparency, across the UK. Fingers crossed it will all return back to normal in due course, or as normal as it ever gets in Carmarthenshire.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering what business is still being conducted now by this council. Have they all gone home now to self isolate?

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 10:36

I would imagine that all available resources are being diverted to essential services and all that can possibly work from home will do so, although many, such as care workers, refuse collectors etc cannot.
It is not, understandably, business as usual at the moment.

What is of concern is that most residents will have had their council tax bills by now and may have great difficulty making their usual payments. I hope all local authorities will bear this in mind over the coming weeks and months and avoid additional cost and stress to residents through enforcement measures.
Maybe this is something the Welsh Government should lead on.

caebrwyn said...

I note that Pembrokeshire Council have suspended all court action in relation to council tax arrears and now include the coronavirus pandemic as a criteria for applying for reduced payments. Presumably Carmarthenshire will follow suit.
Pressure is also on the Welsh Government to fund council tax holidays for residents.
I'm sure further official announcements, from all authorities will be made in due course, as they are already concerning the financial impact of this crisis.

caebrwyn said...

A few people have asked me about council decision-making in the current crisis.
Most local authorities/public bodies have provisions in their constitutions to delegate extraordinary, emergency powers to chief officers (usually in consultation with the relevant Exec Board Member) during a national crisis such as this, including Carmarthenshire. So, understandably for now, there will be little in the way of democracy or transparency.

Also relevant is this article from lawyer Richard Barlow. The only inaccuracy is that there is no blanket provision for remote attendance for Welsh councillors;
Public decision-taking during coronavirus restrictions

This is an example (there are further provisions) from Carmarthenshire's Constitution for emergency actions by chief officers;

"To take action on behalf of the Council in consultation with the relevant Executive Board Member in any urgent matter which does not allow for prior authorisation to be obtained where:
1. There is a serious risk of significant cost to the Council of loss of income resulting from lack of immediate action;
2. The Council’s property or staff or persons in its care or for whom it has a responsibility would otherwise be placed at serious risk of suffering
3. An emergency or disaster involving destruction or danger to life or property occurs or is imminent or there is reasonable ground for apprehending such an emergency or disaster and such action in calculated to avert, alleviate or eradicate the effects or potential effects of the event."

Most decisions (including risk assessments) relating to the pandemic will be from guidance/directions/orders issued by Welsh and UK Government, and now regulated under the specific public health lockdown legislation.

Non-essential 'normal' business will be on hold for the foreseeable future.

Given this unprecedented situation, the time for transparency, analysis, debate, and indeed hindsight, over how our councils (and governments) handled the crisis, including the financial impact all round, will be after this is all over.

Stay home and stay safe everyone.

Anonymous said...

During this suspension of normal council business and that councilors will no longer be attending meetings in County Hall, should not payment of all expenses and allowances to councilors be suspended until such times that "normal service" (or what passes for normal service in this council) is resumed? At least, that would possibly save us long suffering council tax payers some financial relief during this unfortunate period.
But, can you see the greed of certain councilors acceding to this? Upon their actions, shall you judge them!

Anonymous said...

Carmarthenshire under the previous CEO and the present / current incumbent prided themselves on grant management especially thru the now defunct West wales European Centre and there were specific roles for grant management control etc.

The same function in a wide sense that was involved in the management of the City Deal which also was roundly criticised

Sounds nothing changes in spite of report after report !

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:27
Well, expenses back and forth County Hall will not be collected but I expect the argument over allowances will be that the county councillors are, or should be, actively doing their bit for their wards, or at least co-ordinating help or signposting residents to the relevant information they need. The political analysis and fallout will soon become apparent when County Hall returns to what passes for normal...

All the contact details for your county councillor can be found here