Thursday 30 January 2014

The Rotten Borough - Carmarthenshire's Smoking Gun

It's appropriate that Carmarthenshire Council's HQ is on the site of a former jail, because
the Wales Audit Office has just led senior councillors and officers to the proverbial gallows.
(Pic :
It's quite fitting that Romania can now play a full part in the EU, as today has a.....pre-Christmas 1989, Bucharest feel about it.

It's already been covered comprehensively by Y Cneifiwr, Carmarthenshire Planning, Wales Eye and Inside Out; as well as BBC Wales, South Wales Evening Post and Western Mail.

It's only right – because of the wider impact this pathetic county's actions have had on political criticism in Wales – that I add my own voice to the chorus of condemnation.

As covered back in September/October, the Wales Audit Office believed two decisions taken by Carmarthenshire Council (CCC) were unlawful.
Those two decision were; pension arrangements for senior officers (also implicating Pembrokeshire – more from Cllr. Jacob Williams), and the granting of indemnity funding to Chief Executive, Mark James, to undertake a counter libel action against Carmarthenshire Planning's Jacqui Thompson.

As you can understand, the thought that such upstanding public servants would engage in something....."unlawful"..... (synomyms and related words : illegal, criminal, actionable, corrupt, nefarious, prohibited, outlawed, illegitimate, illicit)....came as a terrible shock.

Today, the Wales Audit Office's Anthony Barrett published two separate public interest reports into the decisions. They make pretty damning reading for Carmarthenshire Council. So damning, it could be the beginning of the end for many.

The Pensions Arrangement (pdf)
  • The agreement to pay cash sums instead of pension payments to senior staff who opted-out of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) - to mitigate effects of changes to tax relief on pensions - was ultra vires (beyond their power).
  • The Executive Board of CCC, which made the decision and includes senior councillors, were wrongly informed that officers would have to leave the LGPS as a result of changes to the law.
  • Although CCC maintain that they have the power to enter into particular financial arrangements with their employees, the Auditor believes the powers can't be used to get around pensions legislation. In shorthand terms, this was a tax avoidance scheme.
  • The Executive Board failed to take into account all relevant considerations. They also failed to provide evidence that supported their claims that not approving the cash payments would prevent the recruitment of high-calibre senior staff.
  • They also failed to take equalities duties into account, and the decision "constituted indirect discrimination" on age and sex grounds because senior staff – mostly older men – would benefit disproportionately from the cash payments compared younger staff and women. As nobody complained within the legal timescale, it was "indirect" discrimination rather than outright.
  • The item approving the payments didn't appear on the Executive Board agenda, therefore couldn't be scrutinised by the public. This breached regulations and "had no reasonable basis". CCC defend leaving the item off as one of their assistant chief executives – who believed it had to be addressed before the next meeting - was very busy at the time, so it didn't need to be treated as a formal urgent item. The Auditor disagrees.
  • The report itself was drafted and presented by a senior officer who had a disqualifying personal interest as they would've benefited from the cash payments – rendering it an unlawful decision just by their mere presence.
  • £28,750 was paid to Mark James in lieu of pension contributions across 2012-13 and 2013-14, though it's unclear if it's been paid back. The equivalent sum for Pembrokeshire is over £50,000.
  • CCC has since rescinded the cash payments, so the Auditor recommends CCC address procedural weaknesses.

The Libel Indemnity (pdf)
  • The decision to award indemnity was contrary to the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2006, as indemnities can only be used to defend a defamation claim not bring a counter claim. CCC can't fall back on previous laws dating from 1972 either.
  • The Welsh Government's legal advice - when the regulations were issued - clearly warns local authorities "to use common sense" and generally avoid funding defamation proceedings from the public purse.
  • Mark James participated in the decision to award the indemnity and didn't declare an interest, which even by his very presence makes the decision unlawful.
  • CCC apparently held an off the record "pre-meeting" - which Mark James didn't attend - to go over the details before the formal Executive Board meeting, and therefore CCC believe Mark James didn't participate in the decision-making process and board members were fully-informed of the issues. The auditor doesn't buy it, saying this raises concerns about openness and transparency of decision-making processes.
  • The Executive Board failed to take advice from the Wales Audit Office into account, failed to consider the likelihood of the law suit's success and failed to consider a (presumably) "no win, no fee" funding arrangement for the libel action.
  • The Executive Board only saw what's been described elsewhere as a "sexed-up dossier" of legal advice on the indemnity funding, not the full advice which was significantly more cautious.
  • Treating the matter as an "urgent item" was questionable, and again CCC use the excuse that a decision was needed before the next meeting, which contravened regulations and prevented public scrutiny. There was, however, enough time for the item to be introduced the standard way – at least three days before the meeting.
  • A total of £26,426 has been spent on external legal advice since 2012-13, but it's unclear how much this will eventually cost CCC.
  • The Auditor recommends the libel indemnity funding be withdrawn immediately.

The Reaction

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP (both Plaid, Carms E. & Dinefwr) have called for senior resignations, the former believing the authority should also be placed in special measures. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy), said it highlights the need to rein in senior executive pay.

The local Plaid Cymru group leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths (quoted via Y Cneifiwr), has called for a rainbow coalition to "take control of the situation".

No political capital can be made out of this as it's much a fault of councillors as officers. A power-sharing agreement between an old, venal regime and upstart rebels wouldn't change things. There needs to be a clear-out, and those involved don't deserve the dignity of quietly walking away into retirement.

Not only does this highlight at least two substantial failings of governance and procedure that opened the door to possible misconduct in public office, it also underlines that the governance structure at CCC is neither working, transparent or 100% kosher.

The positions of senior officers and councillors at Carmarthenshire are now untenable. As Jacqui herself said, there are clear parallels with the fraud investigation in Caerphilly, and this should, ideally, be investigated by a police force from outside Wales. Just to underline the seriousness, if this falls under the definition of fraud or misconduct in public office - totalling over £50,000 - we're talking prison sentences.

I concur with Rhodri Glyn Thomas that there's a strong case for placing Carmarthenshire into special measures and run directly by commissioners as soon as practically possible.
That requires Welsh Government involvement, so we shouldn't get our hopes up.

There's also a need for a full inquiry – possibly involving Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly too - which could serve as further evidence when considering reforms to how local government works in Wales, something broadly ignored by the Williams Commission. The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee could do that, and it looks like the Chair, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), is ready to go.

People start making mistakes when they think they're invincible and beyond reproach.

Far from a "sustained campaign of harassment", words Jacqui Thompson has used to describe some actions of Carmarthenshire – which apparently damaged Mark James' feelings and reputation to to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, possibly resulting in Jacqui's future homelessness – were embellishments of a cold, dark truth. I think we all knew that, but if the law's often an ass, defamation laws are a haemorrhoid.

As she heads towards some semblance of vindication, Jacqui Thompson's not only owed a full apology from Carmarthenshire Council, she's owed justice.

What we're NOT allowed to say about Carmarthenshire Council

It's time to play the music!
It's time to light the lights!
I'm a sucker for authoritative-sounding bollocks.

So, it's worth noting the warning recently issued by Carmarthenshire's (outside chance of soon being ex-) Council Leader, Kevin Madge (Labour).

All of us should realise that we're here to listen and nod along to anything anyone in elected (or unelected) office says or does. As they cock their legs on their plush leather seats, we should bend over in tribute, gratefully receiving their rose-scented farts - of both brain and bowel.

Heeding Kevin's advice, it's best - for public information purposes - that I outline the sort of things we're not allowed to say about this illustrious local authority.

We can't say, for example, that Carmarthenshire Council is a festering tumour on democracy in Wales, and perhaps the biggest single threat to it since the Battle of Britain.

It would be wrong to insinuate that some Carmarthenshire councillors are walking, breathing proof of evolution from lesser forms of primate - senior councillors and officers acting as silverbacks at the head of a pack of Homo Moridunum.

It would be totally wrong to suggest they're also proof that age doesn't make you wiser, or more competent, and that – unless you've proven you can handle public responsibilities - sometimes retirement or your student days are best spent in a garden or library, not a council chamber or committee room.

It's incorrect to say that many councillors are about as much use at their desks as a gonk, or that I've dissected cadavers with more self-awareness of both where they are and what responsibilities they have to the public.

I shouldn't give the impression to any readers that many councillors are people elevated above their station. Or, that many are paper candidates who walk their way though elections because of first past the post, but who aren't trusted to take control of matters of any real importance.
This is highlighted by CCC making the fastest attempt by authorities to offload management of public toilets since rumours of an e-coli outbreak circulated at the British Vindaloo Festival

Then, one day, because the number of competent elected members are few, or because the wrong party's in power at the wrong time, Forrest Gump becomes your Council Leader. Meetings are reduced to a night at the world's dullest cinema, and councillors are appointed to senior positions lacking the faculties or bravery to question officer's decisions properly.

It would be wrong to point out that the Independent "group" – vipers in grandparent's clothing - con us into believing that all non-affiliated members would share exactly the same ideals at exactly the same time. That doesn't sound like a political party to me at all; subjecting themselves, and everyone else, to political manoeuvring and clandestine backstabbing that would make New York's Five Families blush, bending quicker than a rubber tree in a hurricane.

It would be wrong to say Carmarthenshire residents are seen as mushrooms by their local council because – after all - mushrooms need to be fed bullshit and kept in the dark.

It would be libellous to suggest that CCC is corrupt. They're not corrupt. They're not clever or competent enough to be corrupt, as it takes skill to be bent and get away with it.

It would verge on harassment to say there's anything dodgy about Parc-y-Scarlets and other developments, or that Carmarthenshire residents should ask the people of Boston in Lincolnshire how that will pan out.

I can't say that senior officers are bullies. Because one characteristic of bullies is that they get others to fight their battles for them – up to and including the resources of an entire council. This hasn't happened in Carmarthenshire. Nope.

I pour scorn - as the legal system continues to do so - on anyone who would dare criticise the best local authority in Wales. Shame on you.


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