Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The budget, libel indemnities and pantomimes

Budget - with updates and the school closure consultation row

Update 3rd March - Budget meeting - Another Plaid U-turn with the council tax rise capped at 3.45%. The Labour alternative budget proposed that £500k be taken from the £1.5m contingency fund, savings made on employee travel expenses and £100k cut from consultancy costs. This was to prevent some damaging cuts to social care, more spend on roads and to cap the council tax rise to 2.9%. After the usual squabbling, the predictable outcome (in that it happens every year) was that the alternative budget was rejected by Plaid and the Independent group.

Update 1st March - After facing the potential for legal challenge (not because they 'listened' to anyone's concerns), Plaid have u-turned and extended the school consultations (see below) until the end of the summer term.

Update 18th Feb - as predicted, by deferring and dodging, the council bean counters have managed to find nearly a million quid down the back of the corporate sofa for Exec Board members to play with at next Monday's meeting...
Useful no doubt for Plaid given that Exec Board member Cefin Campbell just happens to be standing for the Senedd in the May elections. 
The public consultation only ran for two and a half weeks as opposed to the usual six and attracted a paltry 75 responses, including such remarks as "A complete joke", and "Way too complicated to understand. Maybe that's what you want!".
Anyway, we'll see what happens on Monday....

.....and the result was...Update 22nd Feburary...a reduction in the council tax rise from 4.5% to 3.95%, some cash to clean gulleys and roads (in view of recent flooding), some cash for education, and £75k for trading standards. 

Bear in mind though that the council have had nearly ALL their covid expenditure/losses reimbursed by Welsh Government AND a very healthy increase in the money they receive from government every year.
It's also worth noting that Emlyn Dole, CEO Wendy Walters, Director of Finance Chris Moore, head of legal Linda Rees Jones are still happy risk millions of pounds of your money should a member of the public speak out of turn and, erm, need to be preserving the Mark James Slush Fund in the Council's Constitution. (see main post below)

The final budget figures will be decided by full council on the 3rd March and includes pressing ahead, at enormous expense, with the sauna-in-the-swamp, the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as it's now known, currently the subject of a complex police investigation.

It is also worth noting that the council intends to borrow another £100m by 2023/24, this will take the current level of debt from a staggering £433m to an eye-watering £533m, over half a billion quid, and an equally unaffordable increase in the level of interest payments, currently around £19m per year.

The Exec Board also decided to extend the school consultations referred to below until at least next week, claiming it was down to a change in Welsh Government guidance. It was, no doubt, actually down to the public backlash and the potential for legal challenge regarding the holding of a consultation during a pandemic.

Update 13th February;
As you can see from the updates below, Labour’s attempt at the council meeting on Wednesday to pause the Mynyddygarreg and Blaenau school closure consultations were defeated by the Plaid/Independent ruling majority.

Plaid councillors ignored impassioned pleas from parents to halt the process during the pandemic. The messages were relayed by Labour members who argued that families had enough to deal with at the moment without having to fight to try and keep their village schools, often the heart of a local community.

The Plaid amendment, as I said below, was designed to give the impression that they were following orders and official policy from Welsh Government.

It now seems that this wasn’t entirely true.

This blog has seen an email from Welsh Government which confirms that local authorities have the power to pause/suspend/extend public consultations for months, if they wish, and if circumstances dictate to maximise the ability to respond. 
A global pandemic is a very strong circumstance.

Elsewhere in the UK similar calls to halt consultations during the pandemic are being reported, from LDPs to budgets.

Councils could face legal challenge if they fail to take into account how the restrictions caused by the pandemic have impacted the publics' ability to have their say. Particularly on a clearly emotive and controversial subject such as this.

It looks to me that Plaid are certainly following in the footsteps of the notorious Meryl Gravell and are refusing to listen to their communities, for fear of appearing 'weak'. Helped along, as ever, by some highly questionable, and deliberately misleading, internal legal advice.

Update 10th Feb;
Rather predictably Plaid Cymru put an amendment forward which pretty much negated Rob James' motion to halt the consultations. 
This isn't allowed...but it went forward anyway, and the amendment was, basically, passing the buck and insisting they were merely following orders from Welsh Government. 
After much discussion, including powerful and emotional messages from parents and those affected by closures, the Plaid/Independent coalition ignored the pleas and approved the amendment to carry on with the consultation, regardless of the pandemic. 43 voted for, 14 against, and 6 abstentions.
Cllr Lenny's question, later in the agenda was withdrawn.

On another note, during a discussion about reducing excessive noise levels, and random use of fireworks, which cause anxiety and distress to animals and people, veteran Plaid Cymru councillor Colin Evans spoke in support of the motion. At one point he wandered around his living room revealing a large shotgun hanging on his wall. Boom.

Update 8th Feb;
The question over school closures will feature in Wednesday's (10th) full council meeting. Labour leader Cllr Rob James is calling for a halt to the consultations, until the start of the September term, whilst we are in the midst of the pandemic. He is also calling for clarity over the future plans for school closures. There will be a vote on this Motion.

Not to be outdone, Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny is asking Plaid Exec Member for schools, Glynog Davies whether or not he believes there is a future for small rural schools in the county, and, the clincher, how many were closed between 2004 and 2015, when the new Plaid administration took over.

There are a couple of points worth noting in this loaded question. I'm sure Cllr Davies will believe there is certainly a future, but, he will say, it needs to be rationalised, right-sized and reviewed, blah blah. Secondly, many small schools were closed between 2004 and 2015, I can't remember how many and with pre-2015 agendas and minutes now removed from the council website it's difficult to know. 

However, despite Labour being in and out of coalition in this period, it was the independents, under Meryl Gravell who pushed the closures forward, at one point admonishing councillors as 'weak' for daring to listen to campaigners, parents and the like. 
It was all part of an unhealthy regime no one wants to return to, apart from Plaid Cymru perhaps...

* * *

The council’s latest budget consultation is currently circulating in cyberspace with the response deadline for next Tuesday. This time it’s all been a bit rushed, the fault of the Welsh Labour government, or the UK government, or pandemics and brexit, anything other than Carmarthenshire Council of course. 

They did have time, however, to put a couple of patronising videos together, including one explaining the difference between the revenue and the capital budget, though not one to explain why they were in £432m in debt, costing £20m a year in interest, due to rise exponentially as Emlyn Dole ploughs on relentlessly with the Wellness Fantasy.

Filling in the survey requires extensive deciphering of the proposals, sifting through the mystifying assortment of rationalisations, remodelling, right-sizing and reviewing, collectively known as 'cuts'. Then you are asked to give your view, on all of it....or none of it, because you’ve probably given up by now.

Budgets are always an opportunity to score a few points, from both sides of the divide. Previously, keen observers and bloggers could spot the few, obviously unpopular red herrings popped into the ‘proposals’ which would be miraculously, and loudly dropped by the Exec Board in a press release a week before the Council approved the budget. 

Pretending they were going to close the respite centres for profoundly disabled children came up a few years running, a particularly cruel game. They could then claim to have ‘listened’, despite the obvious fact that it was all staged.

This year’s syrupy nonsense was the 'massive' reduction in the council tax rise of slightly less than half a percent, from 4.9 to 4.48. This magnanimous proposal was stage managed for Emlyn who then proceeded to say, in the inevitable press release,  "The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked personal and financial havoc on our county, and the good people of Carmarthenshire have paid a huge price...I propose reducing the proposed Council Tax increase to 4.48 per cent to give the people of Carmarthenshire the support that they so rightly deserve"
Big help Emlyn. 

In Rhondda Cynon Taf the increase is 2.65%, Bridgend 3.9% and Neath Port Talbot 3.75%.
As for Covid related costs, the Welsh Government has reimbursed this council £18m, around 96%, so far.
Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire's council/social housing rents will increase by 1.5%.

Of course Emlyn 'two barns' Dole has experienced less in the way of financial havoc, boosting his monthly £4120.83 with penny pinching claims for fuel, and hosting punters from across a Covid riddled UK to bathe in his luxury hot tub. Ewww.
Emlyn’s involvement in the Mark James Wellness scandal has yet to be determined. And the roles of James' seconds in command, Wendy Walters and Linda Rees Jones come to that.
Such a tangled web.

Incidentally, calls from the Llanelli Chamber of Commerce for local firms to be given the chance to operate the site, rather than one big company have been deflected by Dole who said the tender process is about to start (he means 'start again' given that the last tender process is still being investigated by the organised crime squad) and commercial confidentiality must be observed. In other words, sod off. 

Despite £12.5m of proposed cuts on the horizon for the next couple of years, over a million quid is being spent sprucing up County Hall, including new carpets, (they did get very lumpy during the James regime) and a new ‘head of regeneration’ is being appointed at £96k per annum. This unnecessary example of a non-job for the boys/girls is just about covered by slashing a proposed £100k from the children and educational psychology service.

The Labour opposition are busy needling Emlyn and co over the million quid to be ‘saved’, vaguely, from schools. Many of which are struggling with finances. As I mentioned back in November, two are up for closure, including Mynyddygarreg near Kidwelly, a proposal which is drawing considerable opposition, and calls to extend the consultation period. It's seen as little unfair to consult when people are somewhat distracted by a global pandemic. More cash is set to be ‘saved’, and jobs lost, by, for instance, centralising school kitchens.

One problem is the language of smoke and mirrors adopted so seamlessly by Plaid, and officers alike. It was sad and pathetic to see Plaid Executive Member Dai Jenkins tell Labour Leader Rob James, unconvincingly, that no they weren’t closing schools, they were, erm, ‘rationalising’ them. What nonsense.
The Director of Education, Gareth Morgans, took the award for ridiculous corporate crapspeak though by admitting they were looking at the ‘primary school footprint’ and ‘investing in a system that’s probably more sustainable in the future’. Cuts and closures are fine as long as you can shoe horn in the word ‘sustainable’. And ‘footprint’. At £130,000 a year, he should be an expert at that.

Anyway the annual budget saga will run its course over the next few weeks.

Unlawful libel indemnities

One huge potential price for the good people of Carmarthenshire which bothers neither Emlyn nor the Director of Corporate Services, Chris Moore is preserving the ability to sue the public if they say something out of turn. As I mentioned here, last October the unlawful clause was merely shifted from one part of the constitution to another.

As I have also mentioned Mark James (currently under police investigation), Legal Linda, and Emlyn Dole have insisted that this power was not only lawful but quite necessary. Desperate to defend the indefensible. Ms Rees Jones had told me this repeatedly and pleaded with the Auditor General to give his blessing to reinstatement. Emlyn even wanted the provision to be extended to cover himself. The Auditor General was having none of it. Neither was I.

The Executive now has the power to use public money, unlawfully, to sue on behalf of a senior officer. Interestingly the ‘new clause’ mentions the libel indemnity provision without specifying if it is for making a claim or defending one. The latter is allowed under certain circumstances, the former is not. Anyone can sue, of course, but with their own money, not the taxpayers'.
The 2014 Audit Wales Public Interest Report which found the indemnity for Mark James' counterclaim unlawful can be found here.

I wrote to the Audit Office back in November about this shifting, sinister clause, and had a reply earlier this week, reproduced in full below (with my emphasis). 
Despite the very careful wording it is clear that the AG has not changed his view. Far from it. If the council interpret the clause as a green light to sue (which is the intention), there will be trouble.

Whether any of them would be daft enough to sue, Mark James style, again, is doubtful and it’s remarkable that head of legal Linda Rees Jones, who has been spouting deliberately misleading and illegal ‘advice’, to councillors and courts for years, is still in post. Mark James left her to it, of course, and ran off with the loot.

Dear Mrs Thompson,

The Auditor General, Adrian Crompton, has asked me to thank you for your email of 10 November 2020 concerning Carmarthenshire Council’s inclusion of provision in its constitution in respect of indemnities for libel actions. We appreciate you drawing this to our attention.

We have given this situation careful consideration and note that the new provision in 3.1 of the constitution does not explicitly concern indemnities for officers making claims or counterclaims for libel. While, in isolation, the provision could be read as enabling the indemnification of an officer making such a claim or counterclaim (as opposed to indemnification for defence of libel claims), such an interpretation would, in our view, not be correct. We consider that the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 still renders providing indemnity for making a claim or counterclaim for libel unlawful.

Please note that it is not within our functions to provide you with legal advice. The views above do not constitute legal advice, and you should not seek to rely on them as such advice.

The Auditor General has already written to the Council requesting that it informs him of any intention to indemnify an officer making a claim or counterclaim for libel. He has reminded the Council of his power to apply for judicial review in respect of a decision which could reasonably be believed to have an effect on the accounts of the Council. I and other members of the audit team are also keeping the situation under review.

Yours sincerely,

Ann-Marie Harkin

Cyfarwyddwr || Director

          Audit Wales 



I was amused to see that the council are asking for views over a name change for The Miners Theatre in Ammanford. With little else, clearly, to occupy their minds they want it to be one word, like the other two theatres, the Lyric, or Ffwrnes so are suggesting 'Glowyr', which means miners.

My amusement was not with that, but because it reminded me of a public vote some years back to pick a name (out of a shortlist) for Ffwrnes. It emerged, after the new name was announced, that it was not the actual vote winner but, in fact, the one preferred by county hall.

As a diligent blogger I recounted this silly farce, suggesting that the Council top brass should put on a pantomime at the said theatre. I politely suggested that Meryl Gravell would make an ideal Widow Twanky, and Mark James would be perfect as Pinocchio, and hoped, as Returning Officer he would take the results of a vote a little more seriously.

Moving forward a year or so and Mark James was suddenly offended, and dear old Pinocchio appeared in his libel counterclaim.

His lawyers claimed that my remark had the innuendo meaning that he was untrustworthy in his role as election Retuning Officer and couldn’t be trusted to give out the correct result.

Unfortunately that blogpost had to be consigned to legally enforced oblivion.

Although I can’t comment, legally, on his integrity as returning officer, I can vouch for the fact he’s a dishonest crook and a born liar.


Anonymous said...

The school closure vote result was, as usual, simply another of the normal political moves simply to defeat any opposition. It was in no way the result of what councillors thought to be the correct action. It also gives one the impression that the Councillors just do what the CEO tells them , the easy way out maybe.

Far too much of this nonsense is taking place in Carmarthenshire and it is time the so called Councillors started voting with the little brain they have left.

Politics should have no place in local government.

Anonymous said...

When is the next local election? Whatever you do, do NOT vote for a councillor seeking re-election! That may be the only way to cleanse the mess and rubbish that pervades the present council.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 18:49
Spot on. This was a perfect example of how this council is still officer-led, the result of the idiocy of allowing Mark James' protege, Wendy Walters to take over the reins.
It is also the result of allowing the head of legal, Linda Rees Jones to impart her deliberately misleading advice as usual, designed to push whatever course of action has already been decided upon, regardless of public opinion, the law, and without a shred of moral values.

It's happened time and time again in Carmarthenshire, the toxic legacy began when Mark James landed from Boston, leaving behind another sordid saga. Emlyn Dole didn't become leader by accident, he was placed there by James. Dole is a dim and pliant individual who, in return for a massive u-turn from his previous outcry to Mark James' financial indiscretions, was allowed to get away with his own, equally criminal, planning indiscretions.
And that's how it works.

Linda Rees Jones was given the permanent post of Monitoring Officer, directly by Mark James, by-passing the inconvenience of the proper democratic process, as a reward for continuing to defend his slush fund. She should have been booted out years ago, and Mark James should be behind bars.

Anonymous said...

Dole along with them. Everyone was hoping when James left, the culture he created would change. All the while these three, Wendy Walters, Legal Linda and Rev Dole remain, ensuring this toxic culture carries on as they all benefit from it, nothing will change. Dole is a shameful individual and is hugely damaging to Plaid Cymru and Carmarthen Council's reputation.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:13
Indeed, Cllr Dole embraced the toxic culture like his career depended on it, which of course it did.

I recently wrote to Ms Rees Jones, Cllr Dole and Ms Walters and enquired about their role in the Wellness scandal, amongst other things, and wondered whether they too have been helping the police with their enquiries...

I also reminded Ms Rees Jones that her support for the criminal behaviour of Mark James was quite astonishing and it wasn't just limited to enabling and collaborating with him over his slush fund. Although I will hold him ultimately to account, it was she who also enabled his unlawful monitoring of Councillors emails, failed to insist that he register his business interests, allowed him free rein with council resources to pursue his personal vendettas, etc etc.

The fact that his home, the home of former leader Meryl Gravell, and County Hall itself were raided by the police shortly after his hurried departure should have been a wake up call, but clearly it wasn't. I wonder why...

Anonymous said...

An external review has been launched following comments made by Neath Port Talbot Council leader as he "steps back" from his duties.

In the video councillor Rob Jones is heard speaking at a Labour meeting in 2019 about the closure of local schools to make way for a "superschool" which would educate children aged three to 16 years old. He discusses how he would fund the project and what his favoured outcome would be.

In the video he said: "I wouldn’t do it overtly but clandestinely – if two Plaid councillors came to me and actually said 'we want to find money for this, we want to find money for that' and there was a contradictory project that potential Labour councillors wanted: which one am I going to (inaudible) money into?

I thought this was standard procedure in making decisions.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 18:47

Yes I saw this, and also thought it was standard procedure in most councils!!
The only difference being he was caught on film.

Cllr Rob Jones is also a voting Member of the Swansea Bay City Deal, or at least he was.

Anonymous said...

Interesting o say the least.[0]=AZXH6cmuBwsNdCYVvwmGeHts0gCqZ1zlKAlWrz4Ay9Vy59a0F2vrMLbnjOQY8tl-W_0vZTjBuC6CPmsOnvyld7bYRL4hqe334nLqyNRwTVW_N5gsKFHAaDb83bflvyW71bzn4WpM2ptM2Iv0zTxSdAUJ&__tn__=-UC%2CP-R

Anonymous said...

Interesting ... Easier link than the previous one.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:35
Here's a direct link to the Unison Carms post about Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid)

Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid) is the pompous and overpaid Executive Board Member for Education. Despite Cllr Davies being someone who thoroughly enjoys the sound of his own voice, he's gone remarkably quiet over calls to apologise to staff at Model School, Carmarthen over the botched language consultation.