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.


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to "the most transparent and democratic Council in the country"? That pronouncement never saw the light of day!Next May's elections can not come soon enough. The leader of this council should have been replaced long ago. His track record should be a matter of public scrutiny. Any council matters that are likely to involve public funding should NEVER be discussed behind closed doors.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see what each councillor votes.
Fat chance though.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 13:08
I quite agree, and this issue being discussed in secret doesn't just involve public funding, it involves illegal public funding to boot.

We'll have to wait until 2022 for the next local elections, it's the Senedd and Police Commissioner elections next year.

Anon 15:06
If there is a vote to reinstate or remove, which was the purpose behind the original CRWG meeting in July 2018, when Emlyn and co voted outrageously to reinstate, I will endeavour to find out who voted for what.

He got away with it last time because they sent the issue into two and half years of long grass. I suspect the same may happen this time and an attempt will be made to send it back into the overgrown shrubbery.

To vote for reinstatement, particularly after the rejections from the AG, let alone the moral and financial aspects, would surely be political suicide. And utterly disgraceful.
We'll wait and see.

Sian Caiach said...

I'm sure the new Pentre Awel Business Case will be very interesting. Recently the English Environment Agency declared that 1 on 100 probability coastal flooding events are expected to become annual events within the next 50 years, with quite severe effects on Coastal Plain developments which are generally supposed to last at least a century,and be placed away from flood risk.

In fact, as the sea levels rise, should we building on the coast in any case other than essential infrastructure?

The last major tidal flood in Llanelli which affected most of the low lying town dwellings and the town centre was in 1896. A member of the planning committee assures me that as it is more than 100 years since the last Atlantic Hurricane made a direct hit on Llanelli, the town is safe as the risk was one in a hundred years, and that has gone, time served.
I suspect that any councillors with any grasp of probability are excluded from service on the planning committee.

Building on land once claimed from the sea in times of rapid sea level rise is a fool's game. The Wellness project was planned on the banks of a tidal lake, filled twice daily directly from the sea. If there are still plans to use " city deal" money to , develop Llanelli it surely needs to be on a site higher than the steps of the Thomas Arms where the last big tidal surge reached its highest point?.