Monday 3 November 2014

Sheriff Don't Like It

Sheriff Anthony Barrett of the Wales Audit Office was sent to bring the rule of law to the Wild West of Wales, but the cowboys and cowgirls running these local authorities decided to interpret the law for their own selves.

Busy tapping away at the telegraph machines are non-affiliated independents Cllrs. Jacob Williams and Mike Stoddart in Pembrokeshire; and Y Cneifiwr, Carmarthenshire Planning and West Wales News in the Democratic People's Republic of Carmarthenshire.

After years of upstanding service to the people of Pembrokeshire and DPRC respectively,
both chief executives  – Bryn Parry-Jones and Mark James – have sought to leave their posts, and stand in line to receive substantial pay-offs.

It's getting sacked without suffering the indignity of actually getting sacked – what in footballing terms is known as "terminating a contract by mutual consent". For once it appears Carmarthenshire are playing a game of "wait and see", so most of the focus has been on Pembrokeshire.

First a bit of background.

You'll all know about the Wales Audit Office verdict on unlawful pension payments (plus unlawful libel indemnity payments in Carmarthenshire). It looked like both chief executives had gotten away with it thanks to the loyal support of their ruling councillors ("Independents" in Pembrokeshire, Labour & "Independents" in Carmarthenshire).

But back in August, allegations were made that Bryn Parry-Jones had intimidated councillors - including two who had voted in favour of him paying back the unlawful pension payments. This led to a successful vote of no confidence back in September, making Parry-Jones' position untenable.

Disciplinary proceedings had started and a special committee was established to investigate further. But before any of this could get underway, Pembrokeshire Council (presumably the ruling IPPG group) put a severance package on the table for Parry-Jones amounting to around £332,000. That works out at about £5.73 for every dwelling eligible to pay council tax in Pembrokeshire.

Severance packages (aka. golden handshakes) are usually based on salary and length of service. Considering Parry-Jones is/was amongst the highest-paid local authority chief executives in Wales (~£195,000 per year), the figures involved aren't surprising.

What was surprising are the precise details of his severance package, which was approved by 29 votes to 23 in an extraordinary council meeting last month. It included "compensation" for breach of contract in relation to the unlawful pension payments, worth around £52,000.

The decision to approve the package was, apparently, based on legal advice from the WLGA and Eversheds. Although not a direct analogy, it's a lot like a fraudster getting compensation for lost earnings after being sent to prison.

Anthony Barrett wasn't impressed, and last week published an order to stop pay out of the severance package to prevent "possible unlawful spending".

Pembrokeshire's Council Leader, Jamie Adams (Ind, Camrose), said the dispute between the council and Wales Audit Office was merely over wording, meaning there was little to no controversy. Both sides entered talks to resolve the problem, and Pembrokeshire Council "announced" that the severance deal would still go ahead as planned.
Parry-Jones even officially left his job last Friday (31st October).

Cllr. Paul Miller (Lab, Neyland West) – leader of the largest opposition group – and Cllr. Jacob Williams (Non-affiliated Ind, East Williamston) both had their own correspondence with Anthony Barrett, and it contradicted what Adams said, with the Wales Audit Office saying there had been no change in the their stance.

Ultimately, all this has resulted in a rare victory for the Sheriff in the Wild West. The council blinked, and removed the pensions compo from the severance deal, reducing it to around £280,000 (~£4.83 per council tax dwelling).

Pembrokeshire Council are/were due to hold an extraordinary meeting sometime this week to discuss the revised deal, while Cllr. Miller took out a legal injunction to stop the payment until after councillors have had a chance to approve it, but it failed at the last minute.

All this probably means any prospective exit deal for Mark James will have to be revised too, and brings the libel indemnity payments into question yet again. Most of you already know, but there's a petition (available here) calling for a halt to the voluntary severance agreement.

Local government is a devolved matter, so it's the Welsh Government's responsibility. Before the revised deal was announced, the Welsh Government were seeking their own legal advice.

Notwithstanding the difference in opinions between the two Labour groups in each local authority (more from National Left), the Welsh Government haven't said anything else on this to date. Also, as the Assembly was on half-term recess last week, there were no questions from local AMs.

However – and in another bit of bad news for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire - back in September, responsibility for local government passed from the mild-mannered administrator, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), to Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), who has a reputation for knocking heads together and having a low tolerance of fools. I guess this was the first big test of that.

This post isn't just an attempt to sum-up what's happened either. It's a warning of things to come for the rest of us.

With the Welsh Government moving closer to adopting the Williams Commission proposals, it'll mean fewer councils and, subsequently, redundant chief executives. These golden handshakes won't be confined to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, and what we're seeing there is setting a costly precedent for the rest of Wales.


Post a Comment