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. Mind you, there are many, many people already doing all this on an entirely voluntary basis. 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

Redhead said...

Per ission has been granted in England for virtual council meetings to now take place, starting 4 April:
The only mention of Wales is poluce and crime meetings.

caebrwyn said...

Thanks @Redhead. As far as I can see the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013 already allows Welsh councils to hold meetings remotely although it appear to require 30% actual attendance to be quorate. This could be waived, I'm sure, temporarily.
It would still only be necessary for urgent decisions, although I see that whilst no new planning applications are being processed yet, existing ones are all being decided by officers. Usually the more controversial/large etc applications go to the planning committee. Presumably some, at least, will be put to on hold.
Anyway, I also wonder how many councillors would be equipped, or even capable, of attending remotely.
If you remember, the whole webcasting thing was a very lengthy struggle!
It would be nice to know exactly how decisions are being made. As I said above, all councils have emergency decision-making provisions which will involve the council leader, I assume this is how Carmarthenshire is operating though it's not clear how ordinary councillors can have a say, should they so wish.

Bernard Garland said...

Hope you are keeping well Jacqie. I'm sure many people are missing your writeups. Come back soon.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you Bernard, yes I'm keeping well, and not gone far, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible and the issues on this blog addressed again. I'm still keeping an eye on what's going on but, unavoidably, it's a little difficult at the moment with no committee meetings, no scrutiny nor, of course, any 'ordinary' business to speak of, and no FOI responses either. This is pretty much the situation, understandably at the moment, across the UK.

Some councils are attempting to start the wheels of democracy turning by using Zoom for remote attendance, in Bristol for instance, although public participation is likely to be limited after the unfortunate experiences of South Somerset Council..
We'll have to see if Carmarthenshire takes the plunge.

Anonymous said...

17 March 2020 at 08:27

A bit overdue I know but our MP and AM are currently in isolation it seems.
But to be fair Adam Price is making every effort possible to blame someone else.
It's high time that the political parties get together in our present situation (Coronavirus) to assist in finding a solution.
Agreed that our current government appear to have made errors, but who wold not in a situation such as this.
Adam Price claims to be looking globally for protective clothing - but where, and where are the facts that this is being done ?
This country (UK) has over the last decade made a name for itself as having public bodies that cannot be trusted, the all claim they are perfect by passing blame onto others.

caebrwyn said...

In some non-virus news, WalesOnline reports that the former Vice Chancellor of Swansea University Richard Davies has had his appeal against dismissal for gross misconduct rejected. Professor Marc Clement's appeal was rejected earlier this year. Employment tribunals have been stayed until after the police investigation.

Regular readers will know that all this relates to the City Deal Wellness Village scandal in Llanelli, and the private hospital scandal in Kuwait.
And all involve the former chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council.
There is extensive background on this blog, going back a number of years, and my most recent significant post on the subject was in February, here.

The criminal investigation, by the regional organised crime squad is ongoing and, following the search warrants executed last July, seems set to continue for some time yet.

caebrwyn said...

I recently asked the council if they were going to hold any remote council meetings using digital technology.
Each councillor has an IT allowance and the council has the capability of managing meetings in this way.
I also asked when and where key policy/decision papers relating to the crisis, or anything else over the past six weeks, would be published.
The First Minister stated last week that it was essential, for transparency and scrutiny, that local government kick start the democratic process.

Here, for your information, is the council's response;

"Thank you for your enquiry. The rules around remote attendance at meetings were temporarily relaxed by Welsh Ministers last week and like all Welsh Authorities we are now actively working towards resuming our democratic meetings as quickly as possible using remote attendance technology. Quite apart from the rules applying to local authority meetings we are also subject to a Welsh language standard which requires us to ensure simultaneous translation for any meetings which are open to the public, and that is proving to be a bit of a challenge at the moment in light of the products currently available on the market but it is something that we are trying our best to resolve. I am aware of a few Cabinet meetings which have taken place elsewhere in Wales during the past couple of days, but as far as I can see none of them gave the public access to their meetings using another relaxation in last week’s Regulations to be able to suspend the public’s right of access to meetings they normally would have been able to access; instead, recordings of their respective meetings were subsequently posted online, which is possibly why simultaneous translation was not an issue for them.

Decisions made during the suspension of democratic meetings will be reported to our Executive Board and / or Council as and when meetings resume and will therefore be made open to the public at that time."

Blodwen said...

The last sentence of the council's response to you brings the phrase "closing the stable door after the horse has bolted" to mind. It will be a bit late telling us about decisions that have been made "as and when meetings resume" .....

And, without wishing to seem ageist (being, at 72, pretty aged myself), I can't quite see some of those old duffers masquerading as councillors getting to grips with video conferencing. Some of them can barely stay awake when in meetings, let alone be sufficiently alert to master the intricacies of the internet.

caebrwyn said...

You are quite right, there is no reason why documents relating to decisions taken over the past two months, whether they were taken by the 'Gold Command' of senior officers etc or anyone else, couldn't have been published on the council website as and when they took place.

Indeed, if they ever get round to remote meetings, it'll be a sight to behold. In 2018, after two years of trying to go 'paperless', ie, use an iPad, only two out of seventy-four councillors had managed it. Most had given the device to their grandchildren to play games.

By the way, Powys Council are currently petitioning Microsoft Teams to ensure simultaneous translation can be provided for remote meetings.

Anonymous said... From 2018 worth a read.

Martin Milan said...

It wouldn't surprise me if there is already software to do it... Teams is very good and supports adding- and that's an obvious one.

caebrwyn said...

In contrast to Carmarthenshire's unwillingness to publish any decisions taken during the lockdown period, be they delegated or otherwise, I see from their website that neighbouring Pembrokeshire Council have managed to publish them all as they went along. Pembs are also holding a remote cabinet meeting on the 18th May which includes, amongst other items, a clear summary of their approach, strategy and practical steps taken with regards to the Covid-19 crisis.

Transparency is always important, whether national or local level, and is especially important at a time like this. Carmarthenshire have pencilled-in an Exec Board meeting for the 1st June and a council meeting for the 10th and I hope they go ahead. However, for lessons in how to remain democratically accountable, even in a limited form, and during a very difficult time, they should take a look at Pembs.