Sunday 2 March 2014

Bandits control the Wild West

Carmarthenshire folk don't take kindly to varmint auditors.
(Pic : via angelfire)

We've already seen Pembrokeshire Council's (PCC) Indians protect their chiefs - another round of that next week - but Carmarthenshire's cowboys and cowgirls (CCC) had an opportunity to restore natural order to their territory earlier this week.

The council instead hanged the sheriff by choosing to "note" effectively reject - the Wales Audit Office (WAO) report into unlawful indemnity funding, whilst accepting they made mistakes on that and the pension payments – with nobody taking responsibility, naturally.

The broad message coming out of the meeting was identical to that of Pembrokeshire - "We haven't done anything wrong, but we won't do it again."

Y Byd ar Bedwar

Ahead of the meeting, S4C's Y Byd ar Bedwar provided a decent summing up of the issues in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire (available here with English subtitles), with contributions from Carmarthen Planning's Jacqui Thompson and Y Cneifiwr. Both Mark James and Bryn Parry-Jones had an opportunity to put their side of the story across but turned it down.

Former Chair of CCC, Cllr. Sian Thomas (Plaid, Penygroes), said she "could see the erosion of democracy within the county council". Although it was her job to ensure councillors could have their say, she feared she would be corrected or overruled by the executive.

To put that in context, imagine if the head of the Welsh Government civil service attended meetings of the National Assembly, was looking over the shoulder of the Presiding Officer, telling her who should and shouldn't speak, for how long and on what basis.

Although it's standard practice for senior officers to attend council meetings, that's how bad things have been in Carmarthenshire for many years. But don't worry, because they're the best local authority in Wales.

"At the end-a the day...."

Outfits from Debenhams....
(Pic :
This was my first experience of Carmarthenshire Council live. You can watch it for yourself here.

After a failed attempt by Cllr. Emlyn Dole (Plaid, Llannon) to – under CCC's constitution – remove Tim Kerr QC from proceedings, it moved on to statements on behalf of the WAO and Tim Kerr himself.

The auditor, Anthony Barrett, said "the law is very clear" that no funding can be provided for a counterclaim, there were failures in governance and procedure, and he called on CCC to withdraw the indemnity.

Tim Kerr QC – not as cheery as he was in Pembrokeshire, this was Serious Tim – repeated the assertions in his November 2013 legal advice (covered here).

That being :

  • the WAO doesn't have an authoritative voice in law.
  • the Welsh Governments 2006 Order didn't remove powers to indemnify officers under Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
  • CCC wasn't "a litigious council" because they were sued.
  • there were no procedural flaws.

Cllr. Darren Price (Plaid, Gorslas) said officers failed to be cautious, adding that the public would expect someone earning £200k to fund legal proceedings themselves. He said guidance clearly prevents individuals undertaking legal proceedings,and that by ignoring it, CCC were questioning the legitimacy of Welsh Government. He posed the question - "Was it really worth it?"

Cllr. Sian Caiach (People First, Hengoed) argued that officers had been used as a proxy to undertake a libel case on behalf of the council through a legal loophole. This action undermined both free speech and the authority of the Welsh Government.

Council Leader, Kevin Madge (Lab, Garnant), tried to make a statement, but proceedings were interrupted as CCC invited Sunn O))) to perform an impromptu concert.


After some bowel-loosening drone metal, he continued, saying he wanted to set up cross-party group to overview governance, led by the WLGA (aka. "Form a committee" - Welsh solution to everything).

Kevin was "appalled and disgusted by some of the things said about Mark James", and it was right - as an employer - to support him as part of their duty of care. The court judgement backed that decision, and only the courts can determine the interpretation of law with regard the legality of the indemnity.

Then the leader of the "Independents" - Cllr. Meryl Gravell (Ind, Trimsaran) – admonished the "disgraceful content on blogs", saying five defamatory blogs constituted "exceptional circumstances" (when it was later confirmed that "exceptional circumstances" has no clear cut definition and evolved from case law). She wagged fingers at people around the chamber, saying that it was all those who committed the grievous crime of speaking to the media who brought the council into disrepute.

Later, Cllr. Giles Morgan (Ind, Swiss Valley) – Martin Bell minus ethics – described the Thompson case as a "crusade against council officers", saying people who talk about the council as if they're down the pub are "reprehensible" (unless they're actually down the pub, I presume - or is that where CCCs lawyers are heading next?).

Though Giles did accept that Mark James should've left the meeting. Which....would render the process unlawful on its own. Which means having to accept the WAO report.

An impassioned speech from Cllr. Glynog Davies (Plaid, Quarter Bach) said the "plain English" guidance cautioned against awarding the indemnity and bans using funds to undertake a claim. The Executive Board say they didn't get independent legal advice because of their "knowledge of the blogger", and he asked whether the decision was morally correct?  Cllr. Linda Evans (Plaid, Llanfihangel-ar-Arth) asked if advice from the barrister representing Mark James – Adam Speker – counted as "independent advice"?

The answer to both questions was, of course, "yes".

CCC moved to "note" the report, suspend part of constitution relating to indemnity funding, and called for Welsh Government to clarify the law. As a result, there's an outside chance the WAO could take the council to the High Court.

The pensions and no-confidence debates were staid. However, it was broadly accepted CCC got things wrong - even by Meryl Gravell.

Cllr. Anthony Jones (Lab, Llandybie) said senior executive pay was "out of kilter" and immoral, calling for the Welsh Government to intervene and issue clear guidance. It's worth pointing out that the National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee are undertaking an inquiry into senior management pay.

Kevin Madge's broad defence was, "I was doing it all in good faith."

The no-confidence debate had something to do with bungalows and Debenhams. Also, it included one of the most bizarre statements I've ever heard - that Carmarthenshire was "unscathed by the recession". This report from the Wales Rural Obervatory (pdf) – sorry, Jac – indicates otherwise, with Carmarthenshire suffering relatively badly compared to other rural authorities.

Although the mother hens of the Independents looked as though they were "Waiting until Great Birham Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him", Kevin Madge et. al - as expected - saw off the no-confidence vote comfortably.

Plaid left with their tail tucked between their legs having "stood up for taxpayers", Labour-"Independents" rallied behind themselves, but ultimately CCC remains led by someone who can't command gravitas however decent, if misguided, a bloke he comes across as.

"Where seldom is heard a discouraging word"....

Mark James wasn't there in person, but he was in spirit.
(Pic : via photobucket)
Considering the finer points of law and statute, it's clear neither CCC or PCC did anything that was explicitly prohibited. Neither did Caerphilly Council either.

When you weigh up the sums of money involved, the lack of any reimbursement, disregard for normal procedure, the bloody mindedness of both authorities in the face of public criticism and most importantly of all - basic morality - they're guilty as sin. That often counts for more.

The reason Carmarthenshire has gone so far down this road is because small mistakes haven't been acknowledged properly or corrected, officers and senior councillors come to think they're always in the right, then the mistakes get bigger and bigger and bigger - what Pat Dodd Racher described on West Wales News Review as "a bubble of self-congratulation".

CCC had a golden opportunity to start its healing process by taking full accountability for what they did, but they fluffed the test.

If those at the top had done the decent thing and resigned, still co-operating with any cross-party investigation into procedures at the council, that would've been praiseworthy and honourable.

Instead, far from drawing a line under the matter, I suspect they've just made things worse.

If Gloucestershire Police and CPS decide there's a criminal case to go forward, CCC have just done something monumentally stupid. I'd also be surprised if Carmarthenshire survives local government reorganisation now, because they've publicly undermined the Welsh Government's authority.

We're talking about one of the largest local authorities in Wales effectively slipping into administrative anarchy by forming their own interpretation of Welsh Government guidance and orders, even when it's been made crystal clear that what CCC has done was contrary to them.

They've made AMs and MPs from all parties look like chumps. They blatantly disrespected Anthony Barrett and the Wales Audit Office. They've spat in Lesley Griffiths' coffee, farted in Carl Sargeant's face and kicked Carwyn Jones in the balls. They've made the National Assembly look like muscleless wonders and left a flaming bag of dog poo on the steps of Cathays Park.

The Welsh Government can either restore good order themselves by sending in more sheriffs, or they can let it go, giving other local authorities in Wales a green light to try the same thing in future.


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